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Walking festival will follow whisky trail and drovers' roads

Walkers in a national park festival will be able to follow in the footsteps of illegal whisky distillers and cross-border cattle drovers.

The Rothbury and Coquetdale Walking Festival will also provide an opening for anyone wanting to take up Nordic walking.

Last year’s festival in the Northumberland national park attracted more than 200 participants and organisers hope to beat that number at this year’s event, which runs over eight days in June and will be the third such festival.

The festival is based in the Northumberland town most recently made infamous by the Raoul Moat armed siege, but the area has been subject to violence for centuries, with raids by the feared Border Reivers a regular occurrence in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Visitors to the walking festival can follow a more peaceful path along a 13km (8-mile) route. Organisers said of the drover roads which the walk traces: “When droving was at its peak between the 16th to 18th centuries, great trains of cattle of traditional hardy hill breeds were driven from Scotland to the markets of England in Northumberland.

“These old green roads, many more ancient than a few hundred years, still wind through the hills and make firm walking through breathtaking countryside.”

Previous years have seen visitors come from as far away as the Isle of Wight, and the national park authority has teamed up with Shepherds Walks, set up by Jon Monks, a local Northumbrian hill shepherd, and based at Kirkharle, Northumberland.

The Whisky Stills of Coquetdale is a 14km (9-mile) walk visiting the sites of some of the illicit 18th century whisky stills, the remains of which can still be seen in the Coquet Valley.

“In the 18th-19th century, Coquetdale farmers secretly supplied barley to the illegal stills for the malting process to supplement their incomes,” festival organisers said. “Excise men would patrol the hills looking for contraband liquor. But the whisky in stoneware jars called grey hens, was hidden in sacks of grain or bran then carried by packhorse through the remote valleys of the Cheviots to be sold across the border in Scotland or at remote farms or whisky houses such as the notorious Slyme Foot Inn near Barrowburn.”

Walks will be led by guides from the national park and Shepherds Walks.

A full day’s training course for those wanting to try out this new way of walking is also on offer with poles provided.

The finale of the event is the Cragside Challenge Walk, a 21km (13-mile) self-guided challenge walk passing through the National Trust’s Cragside estate and the countryside that surrounds Rothbury.

The Rothbury and Coquetdale Walking Festival runs from the 18 to 25 June. More information can be seen on the festival website. Anyone interested can also call organisers on 01830 540453 for a free programme to be posted out.