Between popular Teesdale and Swaledale is the valley of the River Greta, only some 10 miles long from where it emerges from Stainmore down to its confluence with the Tees at Rokeby. Only three minor roads cross it but it is followed by little used rights of way on both banks.
Distance: 8 miles
Time: 4 hours
Conditions: well signed field and woodland paths, 2 short climbs
Refreshments: three farm shops between Scotch Corner and Bowes, Morritt Arms at Greta Bridge
OS Explorer Map OL31
Originally published: 28 February 2014
Our 8 mile walk follows the river's middle section from Bowes down to Brignall Mill. Most of the route is on easy field paths but from Rutherford down to the mill we descend briefly into the spectacular gorge which extends for another 3 miles to Greta Bridge.
We start from the Ancient Unicorn on Bowes' long village street (GR 995134). The inn was once a stage for coaches on the road from Scotch Corner over Stainmore to Penrith and was also used by drovers taking their cattle to southern markets.
Walk up the street and turn left down Back Lane. On the right is the Norman castle of 1171-4, still rising to an impressive 50ft. It is set in the precincts of a Roman fort for it was they who first built the highway which is still in use as the A 66. Only much eroded banks remain of the fort but some Roman finds are preserved in the church.
After turning sharp left by the castle entrance continue down Back Lane and in 50 yards go right on a path down across two fields to the river. bear left along through trees to the 18th century Gilmonby Bridge. Follow the lane on the far side for some 200 yards to Greta Farm on the left. Beyond the buildings take the path signed left through a farm gate and climb up across three fields on a short cut which returns you to the lane from Gilmonby. Turn left.
We follow the lane for half a mile with good views down into the Greta valley and over to the busy Roman road. When the lane goes sharp left continue ahead on a green track between walls. Where the lane ends at a gate the right of way enters The Rigg, part of Scargill Low Moor.
The OS map shows two routes crossing the moor. It's easier to take the one which bears left as a distinctive tractor track heading towards the right hand corner of a small wood. It then leaves the farm of West Ling 100 yards away to the left and follows the edge of the moor to an exit gate. The hard core track beyond drops past High Barn down to the farm at Rutherford and a tarred lane.
At this point you could shorten the walk by some 3 miles by turning left down the lane, rejoining the main route 250 yards beyond Rutherford bridge at a footpath signed Bowes (mapped).
The main walk goes right, along the lane. In about 300 yards turn left (signed Scargill) and almost immediately left again down the drive to Lodge Farm. Pass through a gate to the right of the farm and follow a most attractive path down the wooded valley of Thwaite Beck. There are views ahead of the limestone crags on the north bank of the Greta. In 400 yards the beck joins the river, now secluded in its deep ravine as it starts its noisy run down to Greta Bridge. Cross the beck close to the confluence. Erosion has destroyed the riverside path to Brignall Mill so we immediately start a climb of some 60 steps back to the meadow above.
At the top turn left along the edge of the trees, ignoring a couple of tempting stiles on the left which lead into a pheasant feeding area. A little further you join a tractor track which drops steeply, left, back to the riverside and continues upstream to a sturdy footbridge raised high enough over the Greta to be impervious to all but the most catastrophic of floods. On the far side is the 18th century Brignall Mill, an idyllic spot where the only sound is that of rushing water.
The walk continues up the steep access drive to the top of the crags with views downstream to Brignall Banks, described in Scott's poem Rokeby "O Brignall banks are wild and fair / And Greta woods are green / And you may gather garlands there / Would grace a summer queen".
We turn left after the cattle grid at the top and follow a path along the edge of the gorge which becomes shallower as you progress upstream. In half a mile you'll see the graceful, narrow Rutherford Bridge below, carrying the road from Barnard Castle into Arkengarthdale.
The path rejoins the shorter walk which has climbed the slope from the bridge. Go straight ahead on the 3 mile walk on field paths back to Bowes. The going is easy, a succession of farms acting as markers for the gates and stiles (including one ladder stile) which punctuate the route. There are views ahead towards Stainmore and, closer at hand, to Kilmond Scars on the right.
After Thackholme Farm the river is a constant companion on the left, running quietly through pastureland. Ridge and furrow strips in many of the fields and some of the farm names indicate that we are crossing the former Low Field of Bowes' medieval three-field arable system. Close to Mid Low Field Farm the ridges stretch right down to the river bank. At the next farm, West Low Fields, follow the access track, right, up to the former main road and turn left.
Built by the Romans some 1800 years ago this historic highway has been in constant use ever since. Look out for an early whitewashed milestone on the right as you approach the village. It was probably in place when Charles Dickens came this way in 1838, taking two days from London on the Glasgow Mail to reach Greta Bridge. In Nicholas Nickleby he exposed the grim boarding schools of the area, home to sad little boys, unwanted by their parents. One of these was at Bowes Hall, the 17th century stone house at the entrance to the village. The supposed site of Dotheboys Hall of then novel still stands at the far western edge of the village.