This is choose your own superlatives country: the highest fell, highest waterfall, best watershed, deepest depression. But not the blue sort of depression: High Cup, one of England’s great natural wonders, a surety to lift the spirits.
Remarkably, this is the only one of my four PW divisions not to feature a National Park. Teesdale is though designated an area of outstanding natural beauty, and to my mind it has the best landscape on the entire Way.
On these pages come together four separate walks of which I have some written record. ‘My first fellwalk’, somewehere around April 1971, included Middleton to Alston; the 1973 trip with Dave Travers and Mike Chant, Middleton to Keld; my 1976 heatwave special, the whole section; and in 1994 Dave and I covered Middleton to Alston. I’ve been back at other times too, to pick up some of the minor fells away from the PW, and I forged a different route through on my cross-England walk in 2015.
Monday 1971, 10 April 1973, 25 August 1994: Middleton to Langdon Beck, 8 miles
15 August 1976: Bowes to High Force, 16 miles.
Or in summary, introduction to Teesdale. The preamble from Bowes includes, in Wainwright’s view, ‘the ugliest mile on the Pennine Way’, a road walk past an abandoned air base used for poison gas testing; almost worth a return to see if anything has improved. The next valley, Baldersdale, is the half-way point for those walking the whole Way, and above Middleton is a spooky little hillock with a spooky name, Kirkcarrion. We deliberately missed this section in ’73 as there had been heavy snow, hitching to Barnard Castle for the Bowes Museum and the hostel overnight, and taking the bus to Middleton the next day.
In ’71, I was bravely backpacking, walking in from Barnard Castle but blagging a lift from Cotherstone to Middleton from ‘a nice female vet’ as I could not find the riverside paths shown on the map (and, to be fair, they may have been barely traceable even by the knowledgable in those days). In ’94, Dave and I travelled up from the south and bussed direct from Darlington to Middleton.
Which brings me nicely to a portmanteau of recollections of the stroll into Teesdale, a wonderful little riverside walk. The first mile, down a lane, gives little hint of what is to come, but soon after the Way hogs the riverbank past three footbridges and on with increasing drama to the rapids of Low Force. In ’76 I left the Way at the next bridge, Holwick Head, to stay at the High Force Hotel (B&B then £4; 2009: from £35) ‘just for a change’ from the youth hostel further up the valley. But at the bridge, the Way swings surprisingly up a little slope, through juniper bushes, before levelling out to bring you a direct view of England’s highest waterfall, High Force. Now at 70 feet it’s no Niagara, but it’s tremendously exciting nevertheless, not least because you can clamber (carefully) along rocks to get as close as you dare. Just along from here is the one blemish, a quarry; just downstream of here, I had found in ’73 some stepping stones to bring me back to the southern bank. It’s beyond here that you suddenly recognise that a treeline has been crossed, after surmounting a little shoulder.
In the wide view hereabouts, moreover, you will notice that almost every dwelling is painted white – to ensure, the story goes, that the local estate can tell which are its tenants in a storm. On the first walk, I knocked at the door of Cronkley Farm to ask for milk, and it was given. Carefree, simple days! This area, named for Tees tributary Langdon Beck, has the last accommodation for many miles, so is a natural stopover for wayfarers. On the first three of these walks, I/we stayed at the Langdon Beck Youth Hostel, but in ’94 we were looking for more comfort, so chose the Langdon Beck Hotel. Both are a short distance off the Way. In ’73, the walk ended here for Mike (heel trouble) and Dave (strained tendon); they hitched to Knock via Alston, nearly three times further than the PW.
Tuesday 1971, 26 August 1994: Langdon Beck to Dufton, 13 miles; 11 April 1973: Langdon Beck to Knock, 15 miles
16 August 1976: High Force to Dufton, 16 miles.
I’ve been back to this place more often that any other, all because of that spring Tuesday in ’71. Then, I was not enjoying carrying that weight – the heavy Vango tent was to be dumped at Dufton – but all regular hillwalkers know there are times when physical discomfort drops away in the presence of natural beauty. This walk is highlight after highlight, and goes to show that summits are not needed for memorable hill days. Beyond Widdybank Farm, the Tees enters something of a strath, with the steep banks of first Raven Scar, and then Falcon Clints – what splendid, wild names! – hemming the river in on alternate sides. This is one of few places in England that you believe will never be touched, and a good last resting place could be somewhere beneath the Clints.
At the confluence of the Tees with Maize Beck, there’s a brief scramble beside the waterfall of Caldron Snout, before an anticlimax, the white concrete walls of Cow Green Dam. Turn quickly away; it intrudes on the scene only briefly, thankfully. The Way follows Maize Beck instead of the dammed Tees, though rising past the old mines of Moss Shop initially. Mickle Fell is prominent to the south, the highest hill in Yorkshire when I walked past it in ’71, and the highest in Durham two years later. It is safely accessible only on days when the Warcop firing range is dormant.
Regaining Maize Beck, there were then two choices: continue to the bridge at Maizebeck Scar; or ford the beck at an iron post. If you could ford, you did. [There is now a bridge just above the ford, making the choice no choice at all to my mind.] The Way then puts you on a direct line for the head of High Cup, but before that highlight, on attaining the watershed, there across the Eden … that demi-paradise which is the Lake District appears in front of you. In ’71, I had no idea. A stand and gape moment. And that is before you reach High Cup. This great cleft in the Pennines seems utterly un-English, out of scale with our modest little landscape. If I were damned to repeat one mile for all eternity, it would be Maize Beck to High Cup, for I do not believe one could ever tire.
Wednesday 1971, 27 August 1994: Dufton to Garrigill, 16 miles; 17 August 1976: Dufton to Alston, 20 miles
Thursday 1972, 28 August 1994: Garrigill to Alston, 4 miles (1994, on to Slaggyford, total 10 miles)
The 1973 walk ended at Knock, or strictly the A66 at Kirby Thore, from where we hitched southwards. The other routes continued northwards. In ’71 however my inexperience badly showed. I bizarrely felt that Swindale Beck would be a surer way to the top of Knock Fell than the fellside itself, but unsurprisingly suffered mishaps including the wetting of the map in the stream, before no doubt wisely extricating myself and contouring round to the Great Dun Fell Road, which serves the met station atop the hill. Near the top, in cloud, a touch of ‘walker’s magic’, as I met a warden who took one look at me and advised me not to cross the tops but instead to take the path down to the Tees and then pick up the Tyne Head track direct to the pretty village of Garrigill. I can still remember how much my heel blisters hurt over the last couple of miles.
Five years later, and the walk was a breeze, up without difficulty and with time to continue past the village beside the South Tyne into Alston, England’s highest market town. Conditions were a little tougher for Dave and me in ’94 – I remember a squally hail shower on Little Dun Fell – but in reality this stage, though long, is not technically difficult. Height demands respect of course and at 2930 feet Cross Fell is very nearly an English Munro, and the topography makes the range the generator of England’s most ferocious (and only named) wind, the Helm Wind. Otherwise the principal challenge is to take the correct way off Cross Fell through screes. Below the summit, an old corpse road makes a clear and fast descent to Garrigill. In ’71 I waited for the George and Dragon to open, and they had a room – I wouldn’t try that now (indeed, they no longer provide accommodation, though there is a bunkhouse in the village); wonderful it was too, and indeed we couldn’t get in in ’94 but found a very welcoming farm instead.
The 1971 walk re-crossed the Pennines to Culgaith before heading into the Lakes and a return by bus to Dufton to retrieve the tent. Quite a clever route; might write it up sometime.