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  • Dave

Bowes to Middleton-in-Teesdale

Updated: Jan 19, 2020

Pennine Journey – Day 5 – 12.5 miles

That fact resonated throughout today's short walk to the County Durham town of Middleton-in-Teesdale.

For though there are many more people in the reservoir-dominated moorland folds of Baldersdale than in the Yorkshire Dales I've been travelling through, there is also an inescapable sense of loneliness on these heights.

Part of it is the nature of the settlements; left behind are the cosy Dales villages clustered around a church and pub, replaced instead by scattered, non-nucleated farmsteads isolated by miles.

These scattered farms are set in a landscape that shows few signs of love; no fine layered hedges here, or community woodlands; or restored bank barns.

The stone outbuildings – handsome enough in a previous life – are gone to ruin; walls collapsing, doors swinging free. In one farmyard there’s the usual collection of rusting machinery in a tractor graveyard and then, alongside it, two dead cows. Chained dogs bark in littered yards. Spoiled hay bales rot in swamped field corners.

A landscape unloved because what is there to love? Here are no tumbling waterfall cascades; no majestic limestone bluffs, no terraced copses. Instead wind-blasted thorns, stream-carved sykes and flooded valleys in stepped reservoirs. Above, on the western watershed, the military no-man's-land of Warcop Fell is surrounded by a metalised perimeter wall of KEEP OUT signs.

Big moors, forgotten valleys and tumbledown farms. That's the flavour of this Pennine Way leg.

The isolated gritstone outcrop of Goldsborough rises from Cotherstone Moor.
The school in Bowes.
Sundial. Not much use today.
In the neverending fight against dog poo littering this approach - a local schoolkids' posters - seemed likely to be as effective as anything.

The road to Deepdale.

Big moors, forgotten valleys, tumbledown farms.

The bleakness is exacerbated by the weather. Thick clouds bloom in the prairie skies, ochre moor meeting shades of ever-darkening grey on the featureless horizon.

Stand still and the silence is complete but for the occasional unseen curlew's lament. Gone are the Dales skylarks and the lapwing's babble; even the lambs are hushed. Above Wythes Hill a farmer climbs the ridge on a quad bike, engine snarl a lone voice of industry in the fastness, clinging to old ways on ever-diminishing margins.

These are not the Lake District dales, or the Yorkshire Dales, or the Westmorland Dales. They are dales unknown by tourists. The valleys – Bardersdale, Deepdale, Lunedale – appear in no Cumbrian holiday brochures. It is telling that the only accommodation for Pennine Wayers in Baldersdale, the lonely Youth Hostel that once stood at Blackton Grange, closed more than a decade ago; victim first of falling Pennine Way numbers, then the opening of the Bowes Alternative, then – the nail in the coffin – 2001's foot and mouth outbreak that closed the valley to walkers. The hostel limped on for a few more years before being sold.

What an amazing restoration project this was. They were replacing the roofing slate with heather – a (very) traditional vernacular material.
Crossing Cotherstone Moor.
The view over Blackton Reservoir.
Blackton Reservoir.

The Pennine Journey makes use of the Pennine Way all day.

The first miles complete the Bowes Loop on the long, lonely traverse of Cotherstone Moor, as bleak as any Pennine crossing and, bar the surprising outcrop of Goldsborough that breaks from the moor in a gritstone upthrust as high as townhouses, just as featureless. From Goldsborough's airy top the Pennine Way drops then rises twice to circumnavigate the Balderhead and Selset chains of reservoirs, which supply water to Teesdale.

The best walking of the day comes in the final miles, when the Pennine Way swings east on Crossthwaite Common, leaving the neglected moors behind for a wide-tracked descent into handsome Middleton-in-Teesdale.

There's a feeling, as height drops away, of returning to civilisation, buoyed by enticing glimpses into Upper Teesdale, left, with its Whin Sill cliffs, its patchwork meadows and its hanging woodlands, mile-wide patches of distant sunlight shifting over the onward loveliness.

Lamb creche.
Crossing Hunderthwaite Moor.
Fisherfolk on Grassholme Reservoir.
Grassholme Reservoir.
The arched bridge over Grassholme Reservoir.

What’s interesting for the Wainwright enthusiast is that today’s leg of the Pennine Journey doesn’t follow in AW's footsteps at all.

After reaching Bowes Wainwright didn't head northwest for Baldersdale but instead struck due north to the Teeside village of Cotherstone ("and pronounced it good") before continuing on what is now the B6277 to Romaldkirk ("a friendly place"), where he stayed the night.

Of course the Pennine Way wasn't an option for AW. It would be 27 years before Tom Stephenson’s 'long green trail’ was officially opened at a get-together on Malham Moor. And when he did finally walk it, and write about it, AW's views on Britain's first National Trail were, to put it mildly, mixed.

So the Pennine Journey misses out on AW's miles, and his stopping point for the night,.

I ask David Pitt why he didn’t choose to head east – there are options to pick up either the Teesdale Way or the Tees Railway Path from Romaldkirk. He replied: “When Heather and I looked into how AW's 1938 route, basically on roads apart from his walk along Hadrian's Wall, could be translated into a modern walk we opted for sections on routes with which AW was associated. So, rather than wander about rural footpaths to get to Romaldkirk we just used the Pennine Way.”

Can't argue with the reasoning. Even so, for my money – and with total respect to Heather and David – if I was walking this section of the PJ again I’d head northeast on footpaths to Deepdale Wood, then follow Deepdale Beck downstream to join the Teesdale Way at Barnard Castle. It's a few more miles, but with woods, rivers and a chance to visit both Cotherstone and Romaldkirk, it feels not only a more interesting walk, but more true to AW's original 'campaign'.

And it would cut out a few of those big moors, forgotten valleys and tumbledown farms.

The climb out of Lunedale.
Lovely metalwork.
The infamous – and very welcome – Pennine Way 'tuck shop' at Wythes Hill Farm.
So many of the old barns are falling down.
The scenic highlight of today's walk: Kirkcarrion – a grove of pine trees atop a Bronze Age tumulus on the hillside above Middleton-in-Teesdale.

Big moors, forgotten valleys, tumbledown farms.

But there’s satisfaction in the miles, and freedom in the solitude.

Day five of my Pennine Journey and the everyday is left a long way back. The moors have a soporific effect, their quiet working slowly. It’s a strange tonic; routine reshaping under the wide Pennine skies until all that matters is the age-old shift from right leg to left, right leg to left.

Here’s my mental health magic bullet: forget the self-help manuals; forget Goop and wellness gurus; forget mindfulness and digital fasts. Instead stride out into the Pennine moors. In the bleakness there is something intangibly and restoringly calming – tonic in the wastes.

The enticing view northwest into Upper Teesdale: the route of tomorrow's walk.

Big moors, forgotten valleys, tumbledown farms.

But at the end of it, noise, laughter and infectious Geordie craic. It’s Bank Holiday Sunday and in Middleton-in-Teesdale the locals holed up in the Teesdale Hotel are midway through a committed session on the beers.

I settle down with a pint as a small, if, steady, string of Pennine Way walkers enter the bar at their day's end. The first is an Irish chap clocking up the miles in just 10 days ("If I leave for longer no-one does the washing up.") Next up are two girls I’ve been leapfrogging for the past two days. Then finally a lad walking from John o’Groats to Land's End. Tom Davies is nearly half way through a trip he’s undertaken partly to fulfil a lifelong ambition and partly to raise money for charity. Over a few more beers we compare notes about the walk of a lifetime. It's hard not to feel ever-so-slightly jealous.

As night falls and the empties pile up, the volume of bar chat notches up a few levels. It's an unusual mix of Teesdale locals and long-distance walkers, but not an awkward one. If the locals think the haphazard grouping of knackered folk in walking boots have a screw or two loose they're kind enough not to say so.

Maybe some of them even welcome us into their forgotten valleys.

The tourists haven’t quite abandoned these parts yet…

The charming streets of Middleton-in-Teesdale.

The bathrooms in the Teesdale Hotel. Straight outta' the 70s.

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