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.
I come from the south of England but love many different parts of the country; I’ve heard similar expressions about visiting the ‘north’ but those same people will travel abraod to places not nearly so beautiful. I’m tempted to say ‘there’s nout so strange as folks’; and I don’t intend any disrespect!
🙂 I know there are just as many northerners who have prejudices about the south so it does work both ways. I just get frustrated by the idea that it is grim up north. The walk we did on Saturday was up there with the best we’ve done.
a lovely part of the world
Anna B said:
Hey Wellywoman! How are you doing! I adore the mountain pansy!! How cute!! 🙂 I have a similar problem when I tell people I’m from the Lake District believe it or not. I get the following response “oh yes, Scotland” I’m like, er no, and they reply “oh sorry yes it’s Wales isn’t it” at which point I usually leave the conversation!!! There’s a lot of prejudice against the north and unfortunately in gardening the north is hardly ever covered and when it is, a big deal is made about it, like it’s some kind of miracle that plants can actually grow in the north of the country! I was having a bit of a chew over this subject at the weekend funnily enough. I’ve been to High Force, it’s spectacular! There’s parts of the north I feel the same about, do we really want to expose those secret places to the same people who think County Durham is in Ireland?! 😉 Very thought provoking and interesting post 🙂
Hi Anna. I’m good thanks. I see you’ve been on your hols. Hope you had a great time. 🙂 It’s crazy. I can’t believe some people don’t know where the Lakes are. Of all the places in the north that’s the one I would expect people to know about. The whole area around High Force is lovely. Barnard Castle is such a pretty town and the Bowes Museum has a really impressive art collection to rival many, it’s a pity more people don’t know about them. Thanks for the lovely comments about the post. 🙂
It’s strange how much you can find you don’t know about your local area. I’ve lived in Co. Durham or Tyneside for most of my life and haven’t visited most of this stuff. I went to High Force years ago, but that’s it! This must be rectified…
Go, go, go!!! 😉 It’s looking stunning at the moment with all of the wild flowers in bloom.
Once when in the south I said I came from Yorkshire I also had the comment – oh yes Scotland isn’t it? I was in South End at the time and felt like saying this is my first visit to France.
😉 Oh dear! I’ve been there so many times.
I love to hear about new (to me) places to explore in the UK. Decades went by before I discovered the Lake District (after reading Hunter Davies) and ever since I’ve been alert to personal recommendations. So the Pennine Way and Teesdale, vividly described by you,now loom large on my explore list. There is so much to discover and to value in the UK landscape.
The Lakes are a stunning part of the world and it’s a while since I’ve been there. I can also recommend the stunning southern stretches of the Pennines around Haworth in West Yorkshire. They look amazing in August and September when the heather is blooming. The smell is incredible and smells just like a huge tub of heather honey.
Although a southerner by birth WW I’ve spent all my adult life living in the north including four brilliant years as a student in Newcastle upon Tyne. More familiar with Northumberland than County Durham but I most certainly know where the latter
is 🙂 I’m so glad that Wellyman found a bull and cow free alternative route so that you could continue walking in what sounds like beautiful countryside. Off to explore your nursery post. Who knows where our camper van might take us next?
I was a student in Newcastle too. Northumberland is stunning, I love Bamburgh, Cragside and Alnwick.
I spent many a happy holiday in County Durham when a child as my grandparents all lived there, High Force was a much loved spot that we came to many a time. When we tell people down here in Devon that we moved from South[port, they say, yes, Stockport , Manchester. So many people have no idea of the beautiful countryside that they are missing ” up north”!
It has been so lovely discovering people have experienced and enjoyed High Force too. It does seem that a significant part of the population could do with geography lessons. 😉
Part of my childhood was lived in Yorkshire and my dad made sure that every holiday and weekend we were taken off to see local sights, one memorable holiday caravanning all the way up to John O’Groats! My sister now lives in the West Midlands which also has a terrible press but there are parts that are beyond beautiful (Derbyshire, Staffordshire) that get overshadowed by its Black Country image. I’m very fond of the north as I find the people are generally a lot more friendly than in the south (and I’m a southerner, born and bred). People should do as you do and take the trouble to get off the beaten track and get to know a place, they might find they like it!! As a result of the trouble that my dad took to ‘educate’ us, I have very fond memories of the Yorkshire dales and moors and the coastline up to Scotland; it’s a part of the UK that I’d happily revisit. 🙂
I’ve never made it to John O’Groats but it looks like a stunning part of the world. Quite an epic trip in a caravan. ;)We’ve spent some time in Derbyshire and it’s beautiful too. I love the walking in the Peak District and around Chatsworth. We have a friend who has been to every continent, including Antarctica but has never been to Cornwall. I’m sure there are plenty of northerners though whose grasp of southern geography leaves a lot to be desired too.
The North-east is stunning, and I always love going up to places such as Berwick, Holy Island, Alnwick etc. the difference in architecture is the main thing which strikes me, as there are far more spires than here and the horizon always far more interesting and stunning than ‘down south’. I’ve never stayed around Durham, but often pass through on the train when heading further north and it does look gorgeous.
I’ve never been to the North west though – Manchester is pretty much the furthest and then Glasgow, really much visit the lakes sometime.
Being from Sheffield though I’ve a good idea of the types of landscape around you and tbh, I don’t want southerners visiting and discovering our secrets 😉 (shhhh, don’t tell my boyfriend, he’s from London heehee).
Now, I must go put rollers in my hair, and wash my door step before heading off to bingo.
I love the area around Holy Island and Bamburgh. Northumberland is a stunning county. The architecture in Newcastle is incredible too. For me Durham Cathedral is one of the most buildings I’ve ever seen. Wellyman is from the north west so I know that area pretty well too. The Yorkshire Dales, the Pennines around Haworth and Hebden Bridge, the Howgills and the Lakes are all beautiful. P.s. don’t forget to walk the whippet. 😉
It looks incredibly beautiful, a lovely post Wellywoman. I was particularly interested in your comments about juniper. I’d love to visit that area one day.
Thank you CJ. Hope you get a chance to visit Teesdale some time.
Oh I love walking round High Force! Is the wee microbrewery still at the pub there? I spent a very entertaining weekend there (based in Cotherstone). Lots of walking and beer sampling 🙂
There appeared to be a beer festival on that weekend. Sounds like a great combination, beer and walking. 🙂
Perhaps we should not destroy the illusion of “dark satanic mills” and keep all this glorious wilderness to ourselves.
It’s a thought. 😉 It would be nice if such an area could benefit from the tourism though. I agree though part of its beauty is the wilderness and tranquility.
Woefull, isn’t it, when you realise that for so many people the country stops somewhere aroudn Watford Gap. TNG comes from Teeside, and I used to go walking and even occasionally climbing in the North Penines. I have fond memories of High Force from childhood holidays, though I haven’t been back there since I became interested in plants and wildlife. I envy you the sight of the juniper, I read about the disease issue recently, very worrying. A beautiful part of the country to visit, and the Teeside Tourist Board should pay you for writing so beautifully about it! As to the dilemma about publicising the secret beautiful places, I know exactly what you mean. Cemaes, where we now live, is one of those hidden gems on Angelsey, lots of people who live on the Island have no idea about it, as it is slightly off the beaten track. I love that it is so much quieter than Trearddur and Red Wharf Bay, but on the other hand the local economy could do with a tourism boost.
It is. I went to uni in Middlesbrough and have very fond memories of the place. It was a warm and friendly town. Everyone thinks Teesside is chemical factories and grime but it’s only 10 or 15 miles or so from Middlesbrough to Roseberry Topping and the North Yorkshire Moors, or 15 miles and you’re in Teesdale. I agree about the tourism dilemma. Some of the most beautiful places are actually hard places to make a living. Being a fell farmer in Teesdale is hard and it doesn’t always look as idyllic and sunny as it did at the weekend. I think they deserve some of the tourist spend too. I’ve only briefly been to Anglesey but OH spent many a childhood holiday there around Rhosneigr. We must make a trip up there again some time.
A most enjoyable, and informative, post about a really lovely part of the country.
It’s an area I’ve been to a few times and, regardless of the weather, always had a good time.
I also agree about the tourist dilemma that you and other commenters mention. xx
Thanks Flighty. I’m so pleased to hear you’ve enjoyed the time you’ve spent in that area. I think if tourism is managed well it can be so vital for rural communities.
Nearly missed this post – thanks for bringing the joys of the north east to a wider number of people! My ex-husband was from Co Durham and I have to admit that even in the early 70s and as an intelligent geography student the image I had (from geography books?) was of a landscape blighted by coal mines and other industry, so on my first visit I was astonished at how green and pleasant it actually was. I am older and wiser now, of course, but it’s easy to see how people can have blinkered ideas about places 😉