Lockdown v2 is giving me an excellent excuse to explore my local hills a bit more. I’m ashamed to say that although I know the Lakes like the back of my hand, I rarely visit the remote hills in Teesdale and the North Pennines. There is a good reason for this – long walks over pathless terrain, jumping from peat hag to peat hag and falling over tussocky grass, but in exchange you can walk all day without seeing anybody, practice your navigation skills and enjoy far reaching views over northern England. The hills are higher than expected too with a handful above 700m and Cross Fell at 848m being the highest in England outside the Lakes.
We started from Forest In Teesdale, parking near to the small remote school that now only has 2 or 3 pupils. The farms are isolated up here and it is a long way to anywhere in winter, but the families that farm here have done so for generations and they are happy with their way of life.
We headed up a farm track, past the caves and up to Church Bowers quarry. The caves are the Moking Hurth caves, also known as the Teesdale caves, and they are the only location in County Durham and Northumberland where remains of lynx, brown bear and wolf have been found, thousands of years old. There is nothing much to see on the outside, but there seems to be a substantial cave system inside judging from the maps available.
I can find absolutely nothing about the history of Church Bowers quarry which is a shame as it was obviously once a fairly substantial quarry and there are still the remains of one or two buildings. We left the track here and headed north west over rough moorland to Harthope Bank, another quarry, and onto the minor road from Langdon Beck in Teesdale to St John’s Chapel in Weardale.
This road is the highest in England with the top at Harthope Head being 634m high, very slightly higher than the Killhope to Nenthead Road at the top end of Weardale. I always think of the Lakes having the highest passes in England but these roads in the remote North Pennines outdo them by far. The quarries at Harthope Head face north and freeze well, and years ago I used to come ice climbing here, belaying from a rotten fence post.
From Harthope Head we headed east over the peat hags to Chapel Fell Top. It was very slow going, trying to find the best way around the bigger bogs and jumping over the smaller ones. It reminded me of route finding on a crevassed glacier, retracing our steps when we found no obvious path forward. Eventually we reached the nondescript summit and turned south to follow the fence to Fendrith Hill, again through bogs and over peat hags. There was at least a trig point on the summit, and a great view over Upper Teesdale to Cronkley Fell, Cow Green Reservoir, Great Dun Fell and Cross Fell.
I’d only been up Fendrith Hill once before in my life, on another November day 27 years ago whilst on a Cambridge University Hillwalking Club trip to Langdon Beck youth hostel. It had snowed most of the weekend and I remember us sitting in Langdon Beck Hotel on the Saturday night, drinking them dry and wondering when we’d get back south again.
After Fendrith Hill we turned east, over Dora’s Seat and past the ski tows of the Weardale Ski Club. No snow for any skiing today though and we continued over easier terrain to the road at Swinhope Head, connecting Newbiggin in Teesdale with Westgate in Weardale. At 607m this is the fourth highest road in England, after Harthope Head, Killhope Cross and then Black Hill near Nenthead, all in the North Pennines. Here we turned south west, again over rough pathless terrain and followed a compass bearing along where the right of way was shown on the map.
After what seemed like a long way over tussocky grass we came to an old shooting hut, completely collapsed, with only the old iron range and chimney still intact. Then came the hardest navigation of the day, finding our way back to the car park via a maze of small paths across fields, mostly not signposted, some blocked by herds of cows.
The walk had taken almost 6 hours, despite it being 10 miles and only 350m of ascent and it had been the most tiring walk I had done since my Mamores trip. These Teesdale hills deserve a bit of respect. I’ll be back though, it’s good to have less familiar hills to explore and I love the sense of isolation and wide open spaces, and after all, it is my home.