Whilst the upper reaches of Teesdale can be explored at most times of the year, it's in late spring and summer that they are at their finest. Above all they are worth exploring on a bright day when the Tees sparkles in the sunshine as it ripples through the outstanding landscape of the Moor House National Nature Reserve. And of course it's at this time of the year that the area is a paradise for botanists and ornithologists.
Distance: 7 miles
Time: 4 hours
Grade: moderate, two short climbs, few stiles
Conditions: well signed paths, perfect walking on a clear day, but inadvisable in bad weather
Refreshments: none en route, but starting point is equidistant from Langdon Beck and High Force Hotels, both on the B 6277
OS Explorer Map OL31
Originally published: 15 July 2011
We start this 7 mile walk from the free car park at Hanging Shaw below Forest-in-Teesdale school on the B 6277 (GR 867298). Go right, up the road towards Alston, and in 100 yards turn left down the track to Birk Rigg. Bear to the right of the farm, (signed to the Pennine Way), and down the next field to a spring loaded little gate. Beyond a barn on the right go right, through a gate and then left after a second gate.
Upper Teesdale now lies before you in its fullest glory with the river flowing in a great arc across Cronkley Pasture before disappearing from view as it heads towards High Force. White painted farms dot the landscape, all part of Lord Barnard's Raby estate.
Drop down to cross the bridge which carries the Pennine Way on the track to Cronkley which shelters below High Crag half a mile ahead. Just before the farm go right down the side of a large barn. The Way then climbs High Crag where wild pansies proliferate in the crevices. There's a covering of juniper here too, the descendants of the first woods to colonise the country after the last ice age. A stretch of boggy moor is then crossed by a well paved section before the path rises gently on to Bracken Rigg.
Here in the 1970s excavations revealed a Bronze Age settlement of a large circular house inside an enclosure of about 2 acres, probably used for the holding of animals. The land around, scattered with cairns, had been cleared for ploughing.
Nearby are two modern stone markers, one for the Pennine Way which we leave here, the other, GT, for Green Trod. Follow the arrow for the latter and cross down one field. The Trod is joined just beyond a kissing gate. Bear right along it across open moorland before it winds up on to Cronkley Fell, leaving the waterfall of White Force away to the left.
It's worthwhile pausing on the summit to look back down into Teesdale. The old track is easy to spot as it heads south east to Holwick, its distinctive lighter green due to the effect of animal droppings from the thousands of cattle and sheep herded along here well into the 19th century. It was once part of the drove road which came out of Scotland, along the South Tyne valley and over into Teesdale. It crossed the Birkdale fords over the Maize beck, a tributary of the Tees, before continuing over Cronkley Fell to Holwick where it turned south across the moors to Bowes and on to Askrigg and other southern markets.
As we continue across the well cairned top look out for Thistle and White Well Greens which would have provided stances or pastureland for the cattle. Along here too are fenced enclosures of more recent date, providing protection for the abundant flora and for the outcrops of sugar limestone, a fragile crumbly stone created by volcanic action when molten lava reacted with the beds of limestone.
There is more evidence of this volcanic activity of some 300 million years ago when we reach the far edge of the fell. Below, the Tees flows down a narrow valley and, towering above it on the far side are the spectacular fluted columns of Falcon Clints, an outstanding example of the dolerite Whin Sill, formed as the lava cooled. Beyond, there's a glimpse of the pastures of Birkdale, surely one of the most isolated of Pennine farms and, to the right, a band of blue marking Cow Green Reservoir.
It's all downhill from here, steeply at first to the banks of the Tees. The way to the Maize Beck crossings is upstream, but there's still no bridge there. Instead we go right, downstream, passing an island where juniper flourishes, protected by the river from the depredations of sheep and rabbits.
On the far bank intrepid walkers on the Pennine Way wave as they follow a level passage upstream towards High Cup Nick and the Eden valley. Our way is at first rougher than theirs but there are boardwalks over boggier sections and in a mile the path emerges on to Cronkley Pasture, opposite Widdy Bank Farm.
A couple of hundred yards below the farm there's another juniper clad island. Access for sheep is impossible here too, but not obviously for stoats for as I passed by one was bounding through the undergrowth whilst being mobbed by half a dozen little birds whose eggs and fledglings were in mortal danger.
From there to the bridge it's about a mile, across rough pasture as far as the barn at High House all beneath the brooding whinstone crags of Cronkley Scar.
The last stretch is across a typical Teesdale meadow of brown and green grasses, enriched by a shimmering of yellow buttercups and, on closer inspection, bejewelled by the purples, blues and reds of orchids, violets, thyme and countless other plants. And of course you can't help but notice the birds, with lapwing, curlew, redshank and oystercatcher being the most vociferous.