I spent this weekend in my native north-east. I haven’t lived there for about 18 years now but I’m always interested by the responses I get when people ask where I’m from and I say County Durham. To be honest I gave up saying County Durham a long time ago, after too many blank expressions. I tend to say the more vague term, the north-east now. I did once have a very odd and confusing conversation with someone who, it turned out, thought County Durham was in Northern Ireland.
I’m often taken aback by the perceptions of the north-east in general. I was chatting with a builder once who thought there was no need to improve the road network in the north because why did anyone want to travel up there anyway. He had left southern England once in his 40 odd years of life for a trip to the Lake District and you could tell it had been a traumatic experience for him, one not to be repeated. I’m not sure where he classed as ‘north’ but I got the feeling it was a few miles outside High Wycombe. The idea I come across most is that the region is still blighted by its industrial past. Of course, there are places where this is true but there are also areas that are as stunningly beautiful as anywhere else I have ever visited.
The Durham Dales are a part of the North Pennines and are as idyllic as their Yorkshire counterparts but lacking in the hordes of tourists. One of my favourite spots is the area around Middleton in Teesdale, with the quintessential dry stone walls of the dales dividing the land and fields dotted with barns in various states of standing. This must be one of the few rural areas where these farm buildings haven’t been converted into smart homes, here they still provide homes for owls and bats, and provide the perfect focal point for photos. The river that rises high on the fells and cuts its way through the countryside is the Tees. In stretches it’s gentle and meandering but in the area around Middleton its path is interrupted by a series of impressive waterfalls, the most dramatic of which, the imaginatively named High Force, is England’s highest.
On Saturday we walked from Holwick Scar, a dramatic rock formation looming above us down to the river, and then along a stretch of the Pennine Way past Low Force up to the viewing point overlooking High Force. A short detour was required fairly early on when a couple with a dog walked through a field full of cows and calves. Predictably to us but seemingly not to the couple the cows became distressed at the sight of the dog. Very close to being pinned against the wall they emerged unscathed. Annoyingly for us though we were meant to walk through that field but walking past a herd of snorting and agitated cows which included an enormous bull didn’t appeal. Fortunately Wellyman had a back up plan and after retracing our steps we found an alternative, cow-free route down to the river.
One of my first memories of a school trip was to this area. It was a foul day with low cloud, rain and a wind howling across the fells. I remember the teachers trying to impress on a bunch of cold, bored 7 year olds the importance of the landscape. I must have been a bit of a strange child as I was the only one who seemed to enjoy that trip and the bleakness of the countryside. I’ve had a soft spot for this place ever since. On this visit though the sky was blue and the landscape shone in its full glory. For any lover of wild flowers it’s heaven. This quiet tucked away corner is one of the most important natural landscapes we have, with nowhere else in Britain having so many rare habitats in one place. The species rich upland hay meadows are some of the rarest habitats in the UK and some of the best examples can be found here in Teesdale. The meadows are breathtaking. Before the intensification of agriculture in the mid-twentieth century the sight of great burnet, eyebright, orchids and lady’s bed straw swaying in the breeze would have been typical. Now it is a rarity. The fluffy white flowers of meadowsweet filled the air with their heady fragrance and huge clumps of thistles could be smelt before you saw them. Needless to say there were bees and butterflies everywhere. I haven’t seen so many honey bees in one place since I did a beekeeping course last year. The fields teemed with devil’s bit scabious and its lilac pincushions and with delicate harebells, and tucked in amongst some stone steps were the small leaves and flowers of one of our rare native alchemillas.
Walking up towards the waterfalls we entered the Moor House Nature Reserve. This is a landscape created by the last Ice Age but the remarkable thing is that there is still a tangible link with this period. Rare alpine/arctic plants still survive here, long after the ice sheets have melted. The most charming is the spring gentian with the bluest of blue flowers. I have yet to see this in flower but it’s on my list of things to do next year. I did however see the mountain pansy. At first I spotted one by the side of the path and then as I started to look more carefully they were dotted about everywhere.
This part of Teesdale is also internationally important for its juniper population. One of Britain’s small number of native evergreen shrubs, juniper is under threat. Once used to flavour meat and gin, juniper berries are now imported for these uses as changes in land use and overgrazing have pushed our native plants close to extinction. And now a fungal disease, Phytophera austocedrae is attacking the plant too. Moor House Nature Reserve is home to the UK’s second largest area of juniper scrub. On the side of sheltered slopes juniper grows into shrubby bushes, some up to 6ft tall. In less sheltered spots it forms smaller, prostrate-growing plants, gnarled and stunted by the winds that whip through here. Covered in berries which were just starting to turn black it felt quite a privilege to see one of Britain’s rarest plants.
There’s always a dilemma when you know of a quiet, unspoilt place and whether to share the well-kept secret. I’m passionate about many things and one of them is the beauty of my home county. I hope I’ve shown with this post that the north-east isn’t just a landscape defined by heavy industry, it’s one of beauty too, and that there are some true botanical gems to be found there.
P.s. If you do plan a trip to the area there’s the added bonus that one of the best plant nurseries I know is close by in Eggleston. To find out more read my blog post.