There aren’t many proper old upland hay meadows left in England, but the one at Low Birk Hat farm in Baldersdale is an absolute beauty.
First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
That’s thanks to Hannah Hauxwell, the lone woman who farmed these fields in an entirely traditional way until her retirement in 1988, and also to Durham Wildlife Trust who took them on, renamed them ‘Hannah’s Meadow’, and continued the good work.
We stopped in to the sparse little exhibition in Hannah’s Barn below High Birk Hat farmhouse, and then followed the Pennine Way beside the meadow – not yet cut, its sweet vernal grass and sedges full of old hay meadow flowers such as yellow rattle, knapweed, moon daisies and blue powder puffs of devil’s-bit scabious. Miss Hauxwell became a TV start in the 1970s when a series of programmes followed her unadorned, narrow life through the seasons. A reluctant star, she never could quite understand what all the fuss was about. But what a wonderful treasure her decades of hard work left us in this Durham dale.
From Low Birk Hat the squashy, puddled track of the Pennine Way led us up and out onto Cotherstone Moor. A half gale from the west shoved us around like a ruffian, then got behind us when we left the National Trail and struck out east across the moor. Curlews and golden plover piped plaintively, a great crowd of starlings went swooping all together, and a red grouse planed away on stubby scimitar wings. Swaledale ewes among the sedges stared incredulously in our direction, then averted their gaze like a pew full of spinsters at the sight of something unspeakably shocking – a vicar in cycling shorts, perhaps.
On a wild open upland, unfenced for miles under a gigantic sky, we found an alternative loop of the Pennine Way and followed it back north. Above the path the flat-topped granite outcrop of Goldsborough stood proud of the moor – a miniature table mountain, whose sheer southern crags are only seen by sheep and walkers.
We lingered under the rocks, admiring their weather-cut striations and the brilliant purple heather lining their ledges, and then dropped back down over many stone stiles into sunlit Baldersdale and the homeward path. Lapwings creaked in the sedgy fields, oystercatchers zipped down the wind, and every blade of grass squeaked and sparkled underfoot.
Start: Balderhead Reservoir car park, near Romaldkirk, Co Durham, DL12 9UX approx. (OS ref NY 929187)
Getting there: On outskirts of Romaldkirk, right off B6277 Cotherstone road (‘Reservoirs’). In 4½ miles pass ‘High Birk Hat, Hannah’s Meadow’ sign on gate on left (933190) in another 250m, left through gateway to Balderhead Reservoir car park.
Walk (8 miles, moderate, OS Explorer OL31): Walk back to ‘Hannah’s Meadow’ gate; go through, and down lane (‘Pennine Way’/PW). At gate (933190), right to Hannah’s Barn exhibition. Return to PW; follow it past Low Birk Hat (936184), across Blackton Bridge (932182). Fork left (no waymark) across beck. At triple PW fingerpost (934181), right up stony track to road beyond Clove Lodge Farm (935177). Ahead; in 200m, right (PW) across Cotherstone Moor. In 1 mile, at Race Yate, cross stile in fence (942161, PW). In 100m, left off PW through gate (blue arrow/BA); follow grassy track (sometimes faintly marked on ground) east for 1⅔ miles. At gate where wall and fence meet, left (969164, BA) along Bowes Loop of PW. In ½ mile, at cross-wall by ruin (965171), go through left of two gates. In 20m fork left, aiming for crags of Goldsborough. Cross Yawd Sike (stream) by railed footbridge (960174); carry on below left slope of Goldsborough. At crest beyond (952178), fork left aiming for West Friar House Farm.
At road (948179, PW), left for 100m; right down drive to East Friar House. Down left side of byre (acorn, yellow arrow/YA); left over stile (946182, YA); follow PW/YAs west through fields and stone stiles to Low Birk Hat and car park.
Accommodation: Rose & Crown, Romaldkirk, Barnard Castle, Co. Durham DL12 9EB (01833-650213; rose-and-crown.co.uk) – really comfortable, efficient and helpful