After an unsuccessful attempt last year in less pleasant weather, I set off on a sunny Easter Sunday in search once more of the elusive smuggler’s cave on Bewick Moor known as the Cateran Hole.
Distance: 7 ½ miles
Start and Finish: Eglingham (NU 10555 19550), approx. 7 ½ miles miles northwest of Alnwick.
Access: Bus 470 between Wooler and Alnwick stops in Eglingham.
Starting from the crossroads in the small Northumbrian hamlet of Eglingham, follow the narrow tree-lined road heading roughly north-east. You will soon pass an overgrown pillbox by the roadside, a relic of a bygone era. The surrounding moors were once used for military training during the Second World War, and the landscape is dotted with such abandoned structures.
Passing the pillbox, the road crosses a small burn formed by streams flowing off the moors, then starts to climb steadily uphill to reach a gate. Pass through to join a gravel track across Eglingham Moor. Follow this until you reach another gate; cross the cattle grid then turn left to leave the track and start your journey across the moorland.
The path here is fairly clear, but given the nature of the terrain is prone to becoming boggy in parts. After passing Hare Crag, the path splits – bear right and make for a small wooded area ahead. Continue past the trees and the path becomes more overgrown before arriving at another gate. Pass through this and follow the path through the heather, bearing right initially then more directly north, to arrive at a road.
Turn left after joining the road and follow it past the farm at Quarry House. Note the large mast nearby – this will be a useful orientation point later. When the road bends to the right, take a path on the left signed for Old Bewick. This path crosses Bewick Moor to the picturesque ruined farmstead at Blawearie, a fine walk on any day, but instead after about half a mile take a path to your left to head towards Cateran Hill.
The hill isn’t the most prominent around, but begin climbing gently uphill. Numerous paths lead into the heather here, and it’s difficult to explain which to take – instead, aim for a grassy clearing on a more level part of the hill, roughly in line with the large mast seen earlier. Here, in a small shallow crater, is the entrance to the Cateran Hole (NU 10230 23665).
Caves in Northumberland usually take the form of hollows under overhanging rocks. The Cateran Hole, however, is a true cave, and descends into a rift in the gritstone of the hill. Carved stone steps lead down to its mouth, indicating that the cave was undoubtedly used for a specific purpose — but for what?
Some say that the cave was a hideout for smugglers and brigands, either as a storage location for illicit goods or as a hideout from the law. Others maintain that the cave is part of a secret entrance to nearby Chillingham Castle, allowing the lord to pass unseen to the surrounding villages.
If I had to put my money on one story, I’d go with the former — and not just because the cave comes to an end long before it ever reaches the castle. The word cateran refers to raiders from north of the border, perhaps analogous to the term Reiver which is used to describe the families of plunderers and cattle rustlers that once operated on both sides of the border.
From the hole, return to the main path to climb to the small summit of Cateran Hill, passing several cairns. After passing through a gate, continue south until you draw level with the trees passed earlier in the day, after which point the path bends to the left to rejoin our outward route near Hare Crag. From here, retrace your steps south to the track at the cattle grid, and from there back to Eglingham.
I certainly couldn’t have picked a better day to do this walk — a far cry from the sleet and rain that prevented me from visiting the cave on my last visit. The cool air of the Cateran Hole provided a brief respite from the blazing sun, however, but I wouldn’t recommend entering it without a torch; the ground is uneven and slopes slightly downwards. It extends for roughly 40-50 metres, at which point a large rock bars passage. It did look as if it could be possible to continue further by crawling on your hands and knees, but I wouldn’t recommended it without the proper gear.