Into the Hen Hole: Botany in the Cheviots

A quick account of a fantastic botanical outing to the famed Hen Hole, one of the Cheviot’s hidden gems.

Last Sunday I finally ticked off an ambition I’ve held since I first became involved with botanical recording in Northumberland – a visit to the fabled Hen Hole gorge, located at the foot of the Cheviot. Now, as well as being perhaps one of the most remote and beautiful areas of the county, this site is fabled locally as a botanical hotspot. A ‘must-see site’ in a local context.

Visited by successive generations of botanists from Baker & Tate to George Swan, Hen Hole is renowned as one of the few sites locally at which to observe a range of rare arctic-alpine plants, from Alpine Saw-wort (Saussurea alpina) to Roseroot (Rhodiola rosea). Unique quirks outstanding, with its dramatic landscape and tantalizing plants, it reminded me a lot of Upper Teesdale.

Spoiler: we saw neither the saw-wort nor Roseroot – our legs had all but given in by the time we reached the fabled spot. A full account of the history and botanical notability of Hen Hole can, however, be found here courtesy of Chris Metherell.

While we didn’t catch up with the famed rarities on our first visit, there was still lots to see and no end of incredible scenery to enjoy. Some of this is summarised below…

Beginning our hike at Mounthooly, the walk to the gorge was an enjoyable one. We passed first through an area of stunted woodland where it was exciting to note Red-berried Elder (Sambucus racemosa) and later, through a large expanse of grassland rich in sedges, great drifts of Silver Hair-grass (Aira caryophyllea) and large expanses of both Hare’s-tail (Eriophorum vaginatum) and Common Cottongrass (Eriophorum angustifolium).

It wasn’t until we reached the rocky, moss-laden banks of the College Burn that things began to get really interesting. Here, in the splash zone, rocks were adorned by New Zealand Willowherb (Epilobium brunnescens), an invader, and plenty of Starry Saxifrage (Micranthes stellaris), a most pretty native. More interesting still, we also encountered a few examples of Alpine Willowherb (Epilobium anagallidifolium), one of the area’s specialties, and Matt was drawn to a creeping mass of forget-me-nots which lo and behold, turned out to be Pale Forget-me-not (Myosotis stolonifera). Another one off the bucket list.

Inspecting the banks further, areas of scree and exposed stone on the site of previous collapses proved interesting, most notably for their ferns. Here, the dominant species seemed to be Narrow Male-fern (Dryopteris cambrensis), a new one for me. There were also a few examples of the common Male-fern (Dryopertis filix-mas) in there too and, much more exciting, several examples of Parsley Fern (Cryptogramma crispa) which we diligently mapped. I do like this one and if my memory serves, this is only the second site at which I’ve seen it up here.

Beyond these, other sightings included Wood Crane’s-bill (Geranium sylvaticum), Water Horsetail (Equisetum fluviatile) and some likely Mountain Male-ferns (Dryopteris oreades) grouped together on the steep slopes opposite. I left these to scramble to next time but the sight of multiple ‘shuttlecock’ growths clustered together looked promising.

Beginning our ascent into the gorge, things became more interesting still. Not least the scenery with multiple waterfalls, including the well-known Three Sisters, coupled with slopes, scree, and some hulking outcrops. Were I a geologist, I’d surely have been elated.

Here too, insects became more prominent with plenty of Small Heath (Coenonympha pamphilus) butterflies darting about and astronomical quantities of bees. The most notable of these being Bilberry Bumblebee (Bombus monticola) found on almost every patch of Wild Thyme (Thymus drucei) we encountered. We also spotted Heath Bumblebee (Bomus jonellus) and Forest Cuckoo Bee (Bombus sylvestris).

Dalience with bees concluded, our attention turned back to the plants, and here with enjoyed more of the same, albeit in greater quantity. New additions came from Butterwort (Pinguicula vulgaris), a carnivorous plant, and Chickweed Willowherb (Epilobium alsinifolium), another of the area’s specialties. Annoyingly, in my excitement, I forgot to photograph this!

Upon hauling ourselves up the final waterfall, we were greeted by the pleasant sight of many Heath Spotted Orchids (Dactylorhiza maculata) in full bloom, alongside less striking plants in Deergrass (Trichophorum germanicum) and Carnation Sedge (Carex panicea).

Feeling the strain in our legs and realising that we had spent almost five hours exploring already, we concluded our trip here. Had I gone a little further, and up a few more hills, we likely would have encountered several of the more specialised plants mentioned in Chris’ report above. That said, there’s always next time and I plan to return in July alongside a few friends to explore further. Throughout the walk, I did manage 150+ records which gets me off to a good start at least!

Since becoming a botanical co-recorder for North Northumberland (VC68) I’ve been gradually getting acquainted with some of the area’s notable botanical sites. Hen Hole was right there at the top of the list and as far as first impressions go, it was wonderful. I’ll be back soon…

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