Yeavering Bell is one of the northern-most Cheviot Hills in Northumberland, and is the site of the largest hill fort in the area. It overlooks the flat and fertile Milfield Plain, cultivated since the early Neolithic period. Mass clearance of the Cheviot uplands began around 2500BC, the end of the Neolithic period, and numerous settlements, henges, stone circles and rock art panels appear from this time. Many of the prominent and brooding hills overlooking these sites are forts.
Yeavering Bell fort, reached by a punishing but relatively endurable climb – many of the Cheviots are brutal and harbour treacherous and sometimes deadly peat bogs – extends for 12 acres and is surrounded by a 950m stone wall, originally 3m thick and 2.5m high. It contained 130 roundhouses, suggesting a residential purpose. Little excavation has been done but pottery dating from the Iron Age and Romano-British periods has been found.
Like many Iron Age hill forts, it is focused on much older features. Some hill forts in the area enclose ancient rock art or tombs, and it’s been suggested that their function is at least partly ceremonial or ritual rather than defensive. The southern entrance to Yeavering Bell aligns on the distinctive Hedgehope Hill, suggesting a function in a larger landscape network. There is a sense of a vast, spiritual web linking these important sites.
The site was significant long after the Iron Age. In the valley beneath it, the remains of the capital of the Anglo-Saxon King Edwin can still be seen. This was built with respect to a Bronze Age cemetery, comprising a number of cairns and barrows by this time around 2000 years old.
‘Yeavering’ derives from the Celtic ‘Din Gefron’, which means ‘hill of the goat’. Today it is the home of the Cheviot goats, some of the only wild goats in Britain. They are descended from the livestock the Neolithic farmers brought with them from the Middle East. The hill is also linked to the goat-headed God Pan, who reflects the wilds of the natural world and is linked to the Celtic Cernunnos. Perhaps this site was once a centre for his reverence. It’s certainly appropriate.
Walking this area involves struggling through sodden heather and bracken, which disguises deep peaty holes and ankle-turning rocks, with wind gusting strong enough to knock a person over. And then the wind whips the clouds away to reveal a vast and beautiful landscape dazzling in the sunlight, before the rain closes in again. This is a land where nature tolerates its human intruders.
And when I was climbing down the steep hillside, I saw what I thought was a horned statue sitting by a stream. When it turned to look at me, I nearly fell off the mountain! I never did identify what I’d seen, but perhaps it was a manifestation of Pan or Cernunnos who has such a long connection with this place. When I wrote my novel The Story of Light, in which Yeavering Bell is a key place, I put that in the story for posterity.