First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
If an alien walker enquired the season and place to catch upland Britain at its very best, I’d direct him to spring in the Durham Dales, here in Upper Teesdale with the Tees blustering down the valley, its waterfalls seething, nesting lapwing and curlew giving their haunting cries in the meadows, and the wild flowers in full glory all along the dale.
The setting of the valley is superb, too, sinuating with the broad river between tall dark crags of volcanic dolerite that give way to green pastures and miles of bleak moorland. Farmhouses and barns are dotted around the hills, but there is something notably wild about Upper Teesdale, lending a sense of freedom and exhilaration to any walk here.
On a cool grey afternoon we gazed from the Swingy Bridge (officially Wynch Bridge, a bouncy span) upriver to where the Tees poured in creamy cascades over its jagged bed and down the rocky steps of Low Force. The grassy banks were spattered thickly with wild flowers, all blooming together in a rush to take advantage of the short spring season – primroses and cowslips, spherical yellow globeflowers, bluebells and wood sorrel, violets and early purple orchids.
As we followed the Pennine Way upriver a muted roar and rumble heralded High Force, a tossing wall of peaty brown water crashing seventy feet down three huge steps of the Whim Sill, the dolerite intrusion that shapes the dale. We stood at the brink, watching the fat lip of water curl downward into space and thunder off its walls into the rocky basin at the foot.
Along the path juniper bushes yielded a savour of gin when pinched. Once past the quarry at Dine Holm Scar the view lifted into an altogether wilder prospect, with long ridges of moorland ahead. On the way up the knobbled knoll of Bracken Rigg the path ran beside a fence excluding the sheep, and there on the other side, safe from the nibbling teeth, was a little clump of bird’s-eye primroses, tiny and deep pink with egg-yolk yellow ‘eyes’ – remnant flora of the post-glacial tundra still thriving up here.
We descended to Cronkley Farm and recrossed the Tees where sandpipers were pattering on the pebbles. The homeward way lay just above the dale road, a path through pastures where brown hares scampered off, lapwings tilted earthward with creaking cries, and young blackfaced lambs ran to the admonitory bleating of ewes in ragged fleeces still stained with winter.
How hard is it? 8 miles; moderate; some rough places underfoot.
Start: Bowlees Visitor Centre, near Middleton-in-Teesdale DL12 9XE (OS ref NY 907282)
Getting there: Bowlees Visitor Centre is signed on B6277 (Middleton-in-Teesdale to Alston)
Walk (OS Explorer OL31): From Visitor Centre cross B6277; path to cross Wynch Bridge (904279). Right on Pennine Way for 4 miles to cross Cronkley Bridge (862294). Pennine Way turns left, but follow track ahead. In 50m ahead up flagstone path. At top, right through gate (864294); through next gate; left past barn. Through wicket gate; past house, follow drive to road (866299). Right; in 100m left through car park; left; in 100m, right (868299) past school and cottages. Wall stile to field path; lane from Dale Cottage (872296); field path from Middle Moor Riggs (877293). Pass ruined East Moor Riggs (880292); in next field, half left to bottom right corner. Gate by corner of house; drive to road (884294)’ right. In ½ mile on right bend, ahead (890289); follow walled lane for 1½ miles to Bowlees.
Lunch/Accommodation: Langdon Beck Hotel, Forest-in-Teesdale DL12 0XP (01833-622267, langdonbeckhotel.com)