Easter Monday, I took advantage of having crutches available and my sister, her husband and I revived an old family Easter tradition and headed up into Teesdale to Cow Green and Cauldron Snout, which is right up on the high moors, where the sheep roam free for most of the year and the only thing at the side of the roads are the 8 foot high snow poles. Fortunately, this year we didn’t have any snow, though it’s something that can change quickly up there. We did get caught out one year and had to stumble back to the car through snow that was coming in horizontally. (I once identified Cow Green on one of Claire Balding’s Radio 4 hiking programmes solely from her line in the trailer ‘I won’t say where I am just yet, but the rain is coming in horizontally’).
The dales were at their most glorious, with rolling green farmland spotted white with sheep and lambs, then slowly becoming steeper, with odd cliffs showing the face of the Whin Sill (a granite intrusion that runs through the local limestone from the Lake District to the North East coast), and then patches of moorland starting to appear at the top edges of the dale, and gradually working their way down into the valley until moor starts to predominate over field and eventually you drive out of the valley onto the high tops. We stopped off on the way for lunch in Middleton in Teesdale, which is your typical picturesque dales town, clustered down on the floor of the valley. Unfortunately, all the cafes and tearooms were full, it being Easter Bank Holiday Monday, so we ended up having fish and chips for lunch from the local chippie. Nice, but it took forever to cook as they were only frying to order. I waited outside, but my sister and her husband came out laughing because someone had asked the staff “Where do you get your fish, Scarborough or Whitby?” and they’d answered “Newton Aycliffe” (Scarborough and Whitby are the traditional North Yorkshire fishing ports, Whitby is especially renowned, while Newton Aycliffe is a thoroughly industrial new town, about 5 miles from Bishop Auckland, and not remotely coastal.)
It was lambing season, so most of the sheep were down in the fields in the dale and being trailed by lambs. Cows had calves, and we even saw baby rabbits on the verge, but the award for cuteness goes to the gorgeous chestnut pony foal we passed just as we ran over the cattle grid that marks the point where fields give over to open moorland. I suppose the herd of several hundred deer at Raby Castle could have given it a run for the title if there had been any fawns in sight, but either they hadn’t calved yet, or the does and fawns were elsewhere. Other wildlife spotted included a pheasant or two, a swallow or swift flitting by, and a resplendent peewit (lapwing) just by the turning to Cow Green. Not to forget the inevitable gulls.
Cow Green is a reservoir on the Tees, with the dam built in the 1960s, and we’ve been making the trip since the very early 70s at the latest. I’m not certain if it was in my dad’s patch as the local council civil engineer, which was mostly Weardale, but it’s certainly not far out if it wasn’t. Once you take the turning for Cow Green there’s a drive of several miles across Widdybank Fell along almost single track road to get to the car park at Weelhead Sike, with not a house in sight and the only turning the one down to the dam. The car park is set back a couple of hundred yards from the reservoir which is very picturesque as these things go, with only the dam at the eastern end to say it isn’t natural. It’s far enough from anywhere it isn’t used for watersports beyond a little trout fishing (reputedly the best in the country), so there weren’t even any dinghies to disturb the scene. It’s also one of the highest spots on the Pennines, and the information point at the car park said we were looking at the actual highest point, but wasn’t precise enough to let us pin it down to which one of two hills on the far side.
New since I was there last was a note that as one of the few (or the only?) spots of sub-arctic habitat in England it’s now a leading site for monitoring climate change. For the geologists amongst us, it’s doubly a Site of Special Scientific Interest for the incredibly delicate Sugar Limestone that underlies the heather, so named because it will crumble to sugar-like grains even under finger pressure – so there’s warnings everywhere to stay on the paths, which have been made up to protect the moorland from foot traffic (plus it’s an old, old lead mining area, with poorly documented old shafts lurking just below the surface).
The only drawback with the car park is it’s slightly further from the dam than is ideal – about a mile and a half away (there’s closer access to the lakeside, but we always head for the dam). I’d forgotten just how far it is, and it’s deceptive enough you can’t tell how far by looking as there’s nothing to scale it to. It’s as well I didn’t check that before starting as I’d probably have bailed there and then as that's an ambitious sort of distance for me nowadays (and that's on the flat). The hardest going was the first quarter-mile or so of ‘nature trail’ which is a narrow, uneven, gravelled trail through the heather, and by trail I mean two feet across in the better places. I think it follows an old, narrow-gauge line from the old lead-mine behind the car-park, judging by the odd sleeper or two, and including one delightfully soggy patch where the path had devolved into a 10 feet wide puddle and the way round was over moor that had turned into so sodden a sponge that it visibly bounced under you. The trail eventually touched back onto the road, with a (locked) gate opening onto the narrow, tarmacked road down to the dam itself and a pedestrian kissing gate to the side. If we’d had a bit more sense we could have followed the road from the car park, rather than the trail, it’s probably a few hundred metres further, two sides of a triangle vs one, but much easier going.
The going on the road to the dam was fine, and it’s the kind of road where having to make way for two cars probably counts as rush hour. Mostly we were being passed by other hikers (it's part of the Pennine Way), many with dogs, and most of those not following the instructions to keep dogs on leads – but with the sheep mostly down in the dale that wasn’t really a problem. The road was narrow enough two groups passing have to tuck in to give each other space. It’s in pretty good repair, but I was glad I was wearing my boots with the built-in ankle-splints. They aren’t technically a hiking boot, but they make a pretty good substitute. (Apart from one steep section I’d say it’s technically doable in a wheelchair, and even that if you have a willing team of pushers for coming back, or a powerchair that doesn’t balk at steep slopes, but the pedestrian kissing gate where the road to the dam splits off isn’t wheelchair accessible unless you’re the kind of wheelchair user who can get out and lob their chair over a fence – which I suppose technically I am, but it’s not my preferred access method. The ‘nature trail’, OTOH, you aren’t getting over in anything short of a cross-country chair – the kind with four serious mountain bike tyres that looks like the illegitimate offspring of an active user chair and a quad bike, and maybe not even then).
The trek to the dam was nice (well, nice bar my ankles and hips starting to protest). It was only about 8C, but with the intermittent sunshine and the exercise it didn’t feel cold. In fact, with the sun on you it was pleasantly warm. There were a few too many hikers to feel truly isolated, probably a group every couple of hundred yards, but it’s one of those rare places nowadays where the only sound you hear is occasional birdsong – the odd peep from a swift, or peewit from a lapwing. Then about 200m short of the dam you started to feel the noise, a deep, infrasonic rumble that you feel in your chest before you hear it in your ears, and rounding the dam we could see the outlets going at full bore, the entire flow of the Tees being pushed out through a couple of pipes at the base of the dam, with eighty-odd feet of head of pressure behind it.
Unfortunately, by that point I was reaching my limits and I didn’t feel up to making the descent down into the valley (or rather climbing back out again afterwards), so my brother-in-law still doesn’t know why we hiked all that way, which was to see Cauldron Snout, the cascade of falls at the base of the dam as the Tees crosses the Whin Sill, which is a beautiful spot of truly wild water, and reputedly the longest waterfall in England, but it was a pleasant walk in a place with pleasant memories, so far from disappointing.
And then we trekked all the way back again - about a 45 minute walk at my pace. At least this time it wasn’t snowing in our faces (yes, that blizzard I mentioned blew up when we were a mile and a half from the car). Heading home, we headed over the gorgeously bleak moors into Weardale, passing the spot at Bollyhopeburn where we used to picnic to watch the Beamish Vintage Car Rally come past (not sure if that still runs, my sister says she hasn’t seen it advertised in recent years), and down the 1 in 6 slalom into Stanhope, where we would sometimes watch the rally come across the ford – 75 year old vehicles and rushing water being an interesting combination….
But this time we stopped at the Durham Dales Centre for coffee and cake in their tearoom. I had a slice of coffee and walnut cake, the others had lemon meringue pie – pricey, but yummy. We had a quick browse in their shop, but nothing caught my eye; though the clock in my living room came from there a good few years ago now – a rough slab of Weardale limestone, bored through in the centre for the hands and with the hours picked out in lead pyrites.
We were back home in Bishop Auckland by 5PM, and I was asleep in bed 5 minutes later, emerging 90 minutes later feeling much better. Next morning was a slightly different matter, with my hips being distinctly unhappy, and my ankles kicking in later in the week. I'm fairly certain I was still feeling the effects three weeks later! I can do distances like that as a one-off, provided I’m in reasonable shape beforehand, but it definitely isn’t something I can do repeatedly, and I need to keep reminding myself that I abandoned my crutches for the chair because of the cumulative wear on my shoulders, not because I absolutely can’t use them. Occasional use is okay, but I shouldn’t let it become a default assumption. (My sister kept coming out with lines like, 'see, you can do more than you think', and 'use it or lose it', but she's only seeing the outside, not what I'm actually feeling, or what it does to fatigue levels).
My phone ran out of charge just as we got to Middleton in Teesdale, so I don't have any pics, but this site has a pretty good selection, taken in very similar conditions, though it comes at Cauldron Snout from downstream rather than up. And I've found a few on google that show what we wanted to see.