Middleton-in-Teesdale to Westgate
Updated: Jan 19, 2020
Pennine Journey - Day 6 - 15.5 miles
Breakfast at The Teesdale Hotel – I am first down – is a fascinating affair, because the waitress is Mrs Jackie Meeson, something of a celebrity in these parts.
It’s down to being the daughter of Mary and Brian Bainbridge of Birkdale Farm, the isolated farmstead that lies (now) just southwest of Cow Green Reservoir, on the Pennine Way as it crosses into Cumbria. The farm is widely acknowledged to be the most remote in England.
The Bainbridges were featured in the ITV film ‘It’s Too Long a Winter’, which turned off-grid farmer Hannah Hauxwell, from down the road in Baldersdale, into a household name. And the line which gave the show its title is credited to Brian, uttered in the freezing winter of 1973.
While serving me veggie sausages Jackie recalled that winter, in which the snows came at the start of the Christmas school holidays and didn’t shift until April.
For five months the family – and their livestock – were holed up (literally) in the snowbound farmhouse, digging tunnels down to the Tees to fetch water. Access to Langdon Beck was possible as the snow was so compacted, but in blizzard conditions such visits outside were rare. Instead the family survived on rations they’d stockpiled, supplemented by a single military helicopter drop. The post-lady, Jackie noted, continued to do her rounds.
Jackie also had tales of supplementary income added to the farm's coffers, first from the new dam at Cow Green – controversially built between 1967–1971 to supply the industries of Teesside – where dad worked for a short time, and where quarry blasting would cease each day at shortly after three o'clock to allow Jackie to make the journey home from school; and of the 'job of a lifetime' that mum started when the MOD moved onto Cronkley Fell. On firing days Mary would climb the slopes opposite and raise the red firing flag, for which a handsome wage was paid (and a Forces pension too).
The walk, to paraphrase the Sunderland vs Derby County football match that opened the 1894–95 season, was a game of three halves, each getting steadily worse – not helped by the coldest bank holiday temperatures since records began.
By the time I arrived in distant Westgate, which felt, today, like the back of the back of beyond, I was soaked through, and my phone – which I was relying on not only for navigation, but also for finding the night's B&B – had stopped working. It was a fitting end to discover Westgate's sole pub didn't open on Mondays, so I couldn't even commiserate over a pint.
Teetotal end to the day aside, it was definitely not all bad.
In fact the first seven miles to Langdon Beck were some of the best on the Pennine Journey so far. I'd been looking forward to them as I rate the walk from Middleton-in-Teesdale to the Beck – along a choice section of the Pennine Way – one of the finest walks in the country.
It’s as if a committee had surveyed 1,000 ramblers asking what each wanted from the perfect walk and then combined the collected answers into a single route. An ever-engaging river to follow? Check. Wildflowers in abundance? Check. Verdant waterside trees? Check. Labyrinthine juniper glades? Check. One of the finest waterfalls in the north of England? Check.
Upper Teesdale is a perennially engaging delight, with each stretch of the walk serving up new landscapes. One minute you’re strolling through upland hay meadows, the next you’re winding through woodland glades. And just when your attention starts to wander, you turn a corner and it changes all over again – a coppiced birch lane, a forded stream, the ever-increasing sense of scale as the Whin Sill crags give way to cloud-cloaked moorland.
Nor does it matter that I'm a month-or-so early for the wildflowers in these ecologically-priceless meadows; late spring offers its own rewards: carpets of bluebells dotted with wood anemone and cowslip. All of this and the enduring company of swallows, swifts and burbling lapwings.
(I mention the birdlife to the ladies in The Tees Pot cafe in Middleton-in-Teesdale where I pick up sandwiches for the day. “Curlew and lapwing are endangered,” she says, “Not that you’d know it round here.”)
So it is that three hours slip amiably by as I track the Tees into the end-of-the-line upland basin of Upper Teesdale. As the river arcs west below Widdy Bank, hills slope mistwards on all sides. Last time I was here, walking the Pennine Way, I followed the Tees to its terminus, in the concrete shadow of Cow Green Dam. But today's route heads east into pastures new, over the brooding moor.
The weather hasn't been generous to me on my Pennine Journey so far; in five days of walking I’ve felt the sun on my arms for approximately six-and-a-half minutes.
Nor has it been dreadful. Rain has generally held off, temperatures have been amiable enough, and the wind – often cruel on the Pennine spine – has never been an issue.
That was to change shortly after midday when, sat beneath a hawthorn bush alongside Forest-in-Teesdale to eat lunch, the first raindrops began to fall.
40 minutes later, in the second half of my three-half walk, I was cursing the rain (hardening to sleet); I was cursing the cold (2 degrees and falling... in May); most of all I was cursing the goddamn route!
Before continuing I should be clear that David and Heather Pitt have issued addendum instructions online that help clarify the ascent of Langdon Fell, and due to typically sloppy organisation on my behalf I'd failed to print them out. So any faults with route-finding from this point on were almost entirely my own.
Because caveat noted, there is no question that the path out of Forest-in-Teesdale to High Beck Head and the open access land beyond is a right ol’ faff.
And while brave attempts have been made to waymark the route – a few bhouys planted in this endless ocean of tussocky pasture – one is invariably at the mercy of the landowner and/or farmer over whose land you’re walking, and it is more than evident by the removed wall stiles, electric fencing at neck height and smashed-up waymarks that walkers aren't flavour of the month here.
You're not faced with such obvious intolerance in the uplands often, but occasionally you are. Not only does it leave a bad taste in the mouth (the walker ends up eyeing faraway farms with suspicion), obstruction of rights of way is almost always counter-productive. If the landowner doesn't like walkers wandering his (invariably his) land, then confusing them by smashing up signage and stiles only serves to keep them on that land for longer. Witness the detours and U-turns I made as, without signage to help navigate the myriad field boundaries, I wandered increasingly aimlessly over the disputed lands when a clear path would have led me swiftly on – and out of the farmer's hair – in a matter of minutes.
Either way, such blatant (and illegal) obstructions were the last thing I needed as the weather closed in and temperature plumetted. It was also frustrating – if understandable – how little-used the many paths crossing the rising flanks of Langdon Fell were; they’re everywhere on the OS map and nowhere on the ground. It's ironic that the only woodland on the naked hillside is named ‘Walker Hill Plantation’.
Nor is the scenery up to much. This is neglected and marginal pasture – no wildflower meadows up here – maintained by increasingly isolated farms that reach ever higher onto the moor. I find myself staggered once more at how so many tolerate such isolation. I love the quiet life. And I happily spend weeks alone. But with heavy clouds draping the slopes of Langdon Common there is a tangible sense of loneliness in the sleet-chilled air.
It is even lonelier – and colder – on the forsaken banks of Ettersgill Common, where, bar two early waymarking posts, the route becomes pure guesswork, clod-hopping to avoid the worst of the wet and picking ways around the gullies that in these parts are called Sikes.
Thank God I’d remembered the one key instruction from the Pitts that the wild rover needs while attempting this crossing: head for the double pylon on the horizon.
Because while there's not much up here beyond the couch grass, a tumbledown shooting hut, the clods and the soggy sikes, there are – I note in a blessed moment when the racing rainclouds part – two distant pylons. And those pylons mark the end of the moorland crossing and the start of the long descent to civilisation.
In its own way – and very much in hindsight – the mile-and-a-bit tramp o’er the pathless moor had something intangibly fun about it; a reminder, I imagine, of what the Pennine Way was like long before flagstones paved over paradise (Crowden Moor anyway). But that fun only became evident when I was finally dry and thawed out many hours later.
From Swinhope Head – where AW was treated to a fine sunset, and I am not – it’s tarmac all the way to Westgate.
It's not often that the long-distance walker thinks: "It's nice to have a good road underfoot."
But this is one of those occasions.
Partly because this is the historic route Wainwright took, and it's nice to follow the great man's footsteps once in a while on the walk he inspired; partly because I'm done with marsh and moor, farmers and fields; partly because my phone – my main navigational aid – has surrendered to the elements; and partly because there's nothing intrinsically evil about roads to the walker, it's the traffic on them. And it turns out this is very much not a problem on the Newbiggin–Westgate road. Over the best part of two hours I am passed by just two cars. One car an hour: surely a contender for the most heavily subsidised byway in England?
Without risk of being run over, I steadily slog on down the rain-spattered road, murky surroundings changing at a snail's pace. Names like Black Hill, Black Scar, Windyside Moss, Windy Hill and Snowhope Moor tell you all you need to know: this is wild country a world away from the glories of Teesdale just five miles distant. The scenic high point among the bleak ridges and wind-bent copses is a lone building set far above the road that takes isolation to new heights: a dwelling perched so high that it seems not just to be off-grid, but off-road too.
Turns out it's the HQ of Weardale Ski Club – the longest lift-served ski run in England, featuring a range of runs and between 5 and 45 days of skiing a year. Which proves, I suppose, that even in the darkest days of Midwinter, in this loneliest of valleys there’s life and smiles to be found on the slopes above.
Though it's hard to imagine today.
It's a long and winding road to Westgate.
I'm cold. I'm wet. Other than that ski club in the clouds there's nothing to engage the eyes. And without my phone I'm deprived of podcasts; the rare treat I save for moments like this.
So on I squelch in sodden boots downhill, then up a bit, then down, down, down into Weardale, which, right now, feels like it should be renamed Wearydale.
Journey's end reflects the mood of the past hours: unable to find my accommodation I'm forced to knock on doors and stand dripping in porches enquiring the way to my B&B (fortunately I'm not far off, and the locals are happy to help this bedraggled wayfarer); then last but not least I am told the pub is closed on Mondays.
So it is that I finish the day munching on an extra sandwich I picked up in MIddleton-in-Teesdale and B&B biscuits for pudding.
But it's not all bad.
There’s plenty of hot water in my B&B. And the bed is fabulously comfy.
Which right now is all I need.