The Pennine hills are known as the backbone of England; rising in Derbyshire in the very middle of England and meandering northwards to cross the border into Scotland north of Hadrians’ Wall. For those who are up for a challenge, there is a hiking trail along this chain of hills – the Pennine Way. Renowned as England’s toughest National Trail (no arguments from me on that score), British walkers are celebrating its fiftieth annivesary. In 274 miles of wild walking there will be emotional ups and downs to go with the topographical ones. This is a description of my favourite stretch. I’ve walked and hiked all over the world but very few of those walks come close to touching this.
This magnificent stretch is around the half way stage on the route and, for many, provides that lift to the spirits which silences those little voices suggesting that you might quit (many do on the Pennine Way).
Our walk starts at the very traditional Northern town of Middleton-in-Teesdale, a great place to refresh, have a beer and a meal, resupply and regain your sense of proportion. The next 25 miles are sublime. The Pennine Way follows the banks of the River Tees upstream through a limestone landscape filled with waterfalls, rapids and wild flowers.
This area was the last place in England to lose its glacier during the Ice Age and still boasts arctic flower species not to be found anywhere else in the Land. Given that it abounds with Alpine and Limestone species too, it’s hardly surprising that it’s a real hotspot for wildflower enthusiasts. The mechanisation in farming since World War Two has seen a decline in traditional hay meadows. The last few square miles are in Teesdale and are now heavily protected. A globally significant ecosystem teetering on the brink.
On reaching Langdon Beck (great little Youth Hostel here), the Pennine Way heads out of Teesdale, westward across to the Eden Valley and the pretty village of Dufton. We may be saying goodbye to gorgeous Teesdale with its thundering waterfall and carpet of wild flowers but the fun is far from over.
After walking across the limestone pavement at Falcon Clints the route takes you up the side of Cauldron Snout to cross the roaring water on a little metal bridge. A couple of miles of upland pasture and you reach the jaw dropping spectacle of the land dropping away below your feet at High Cup Nick.
You have crossed the Pennine watershed and the path takes you down to the pretty, almost picture postcard, village of Dufton in the valley of the river Eden.
There is a welcoming pub and a post office which serves teas at Dufton. Make the most of them. The next stretch is hard.
Towering above Dufton is Cross Fell, at a shade under three thousand feet the highest point in the Pennines. Cross Fell has another distinction too, the Helm.
A comparatively small island sat in the North Atlantic, let’s make no bones about it in Britain we get wind. We’re so ‘matter of fact’ about high winds that we don’t bother to name them; no Mistrals, Scirocco’s or Levanters here. The weather phenomenon unique to Cross Fell is the only wind we give a name to – the Helm. To simplify a very complicated thing; a cap of stable air sits above Cross Fell and when strong winds blow down from the East they are channeled through the gap between this and the top of the hill, the wind then accelerates down the hill and hits the villages in the valley. Whilst doing all this the moaning and wailing sound is extraordinary. I’ve been caught out twice and on one of those occasions had to crawl off the summit plateau. A truly wild place.