The statistics are compelling, I ruminate, while scarfing a Yorkie on Wester Tor’s exposed 518m summit.
When purchasing this Yorkie – OK, fine, that multipack of Yorkies – in a London supermarket last week, I passed about 300 other shoppers in ten minutes.
Here, however, in northern Northumberland’s Cheviot Hills, I’ve encountered just three groups during six hours of walking. Praise be.
I do like people, promise. It’s just that us city-dwellers sometimes tire of one another. And that hankering for space has increased of late, so common has been the antsy sense of being trapped.
My default response is an escapist holiday. This year, with foreign travel having been so tricky, that meant a staycation. That’s been the case for most of us, however, meaning that classic destinations like the Lakes, Brighton or Cornwall were crowded.
Not Northumberland, though. England’s least densely populated country – last calculated at 65 people per square kilometre, versus more than 16,000 in parts of London – also ranks among its lesser-visited, despite a bonanza of beautiful beaches, waterfalls and castles, plus Hadrian’s Wall and Lindisfarne.
So I opt to head there. Specifically to the particularly quiet Northumberland National Park, where those Cheviots gnarl the land. Cottage specialist Crabtree & Crabtree suggests a self-catering base right on their rural fringes.
Called the Barn at Reedsford and part of a small complex of converted farm buildings, this base affords valley views, a great kitchen, garden and country-chic furnishings.
My first morning is spent with outdoor guide Patrick Norris (half-days from £17.50, footstepsnorthumberland.co.uk).
This is for two reasons: to get the lie of the land, and to hopefully spy some of the 150 feral Cheviot goats – super-shaggy, long-horned beasts that have roamed these hills for millennia .
Striding up the flanks of Yeavering Bell hill, below its Iron Age fort walls, Patrick describes these elusive animals’ nomadic lifestyle and troubling lack of legal protection.
We only end up spying them as specks through binoculars but no matter. The wide vistas of heathery peaks prove spirit-lifting and there truly isn’t a soul about. Is this normal?
‘Northumberland’s coast is busier these days,’ Patrick says, ‘and hikers are common on The Cheviot itself because it’s the highest hill. But up here there’s no one, even in summer.’
I follow the long-distance St Cuthbert’s Way footpath into Scotland. Its gentle ascents allow me to relish burns, buzzards and the almost eerie silence.
English and Scottish armies once locked pikes around here, yet these days the simple border sign is tranquil.
Calmness reigns too along the remote College Valley, a winsome river dale. Amid long-grassed woodland I suddenly see five wild goats mere metres away.
After a staring contest, they gnaw berries off trees, enabling photos. ‘Put them on WhatsApp,’ urges a reflex in my head but there’s no reception and no need.
Having climbed steeply to College Valley’s hilltops, I really do feel alone. Up here, the panorama involves green- and brown-smudged slopes, crags and snow deposits but virtually no evidence of humans.
Clumps of bright yellow gorse emit a strong vanilla scent. Even the wind, flitting about, seems happy and free.
Later, although my legs ache, my mind is rejuvenated by this scenic dose of isolation.
But gradually, I realise too that I wish to speak to someone, that I crave connection.
I’m ready for London again. Also, I’ve run out of Yorkies.
Three nights at the Barn at Reedsford from £405, self-catering, crabtreeandcrabtree.com
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