HOW FAR must you drive to escape central London? An hour- and-a-half's concentration, going as fast possible, brought me from Ladbroke Grove, west London, to the foot of the M1, eight miles away. After another three hours' steady driving, the road seemed to open, somewhere near Doncaster. Through Yorkshire, on the A1, there was hardly any traffic by 10 o'clock at night. By 10.30 we had reached the slow, narrow roads north of Barnard Castle, and by 11 had found seclusion in the High Force hotel at Forest in Teesdale.

It was built as a shooting lodge: a large, boxy, white-walled building with a pleasantly worn charm inside. Nothing there is ugly; nothing is startlingly beautiful. None of the rooms has a bathroom or lavatory en suite. Unremarkable food is served promptly in enormous portions. The wine is pub standard, but there is a large selection of good whiskies. If it were closer to London, I would hesitate to tell people about it, because it is such a model of what a country pub should be.

There's no forest left in Forest in Teesdale, and hardly any trees except for some narrow and extremely steep stretches between the road and the river. Everything else is grey-green swelling hills, given over to sheep. It would not be wilderness even if it were not close to the end of the Pennine Way, which provides a seemingly endless stream of walkers along the banks of the Tees. But it is open, clean and invigorating.

My ideal landscape has wolves: not many, but enough to guarantee that man has little to do with the ecology except to stay out of it. There are no wild wolves in Britain. But at least in North Yorkshire, County Durham and Northumberland you can glimpse how the landscape was when wolves were there to be hunted by legionaries stationed on Hadrian's Wall.

Perhaps the next best thing to being a wilderness is to be overlooked. Few people come to Teesdale, unless they are passing through, and it is not really on the way to anywhere. I was told about it in a fishing shop in London, while grumbling to the proprietor about the corruption of southern English rivers, which are now full of silt, fertiliser and battery-bred rainbow trout.

The river lived up to its billing. There are few salmon or sea trout in the Tees, because they have to pass through the poisonous estuary to get there. Only occasionally does the river flood enough to make this possible. It has been largely tamed by a reservoir at Cauldron Snout, at its head, which regulates the flow. In the evenings it can rise a couple of feet with little warning, and the fishing licence warns against taking young children with you. But these are trivialities compared with the damage it used to do.

And the present regime suits the native brown trout of the river. An expert can catch 20 or 30 in a day. The expert we met had caught 400 the previous year, and returned all but five of them.

In the north of England and the Borders fly fishing is quite different from in the south. The faster, rough rivers have different insects in them. Their traditional flies are tied using scruffy native feathers and silk, rather than the glossy and expensive neck feathers of specially-bred American roosters you need to make a decent southern dry fly. In the north you use water hen, partridge or grouse feathers to give an impression of a drowning wisp of protein.

Actually, for all this expertise about fly types and special feathers from a water hen's armpit, there is practically nothing that swims that cannot be persuaded to take a concoction of hare's fur tied slim or shaggy, according to circumstance. In northern rivers they go better when scruffy.

Southern flies are built to glide motionless on steady currents to serenely waiting trout. Northern fish lurk beside boulders or in front of them - anywhere where there is a pocket in the turbulence - and feed more opportunistically on whatever half-drowned scraps come tumbling by. So the trick to catching them is quite different. You must stand in the river, rather than creeping along its banks, and cast a short line. Young people nowadays do all sorts of things in neoprene waders, but the most fun you can have in them is to stand, alone, in a river up to your waist.

Boulders on the bed of the Tees come in every shape and size except trustworthy. The river has worn them through millennia to the smoothness of slate. Some of them were slate to start with. All are tremendously slippery. Even in still water this would be a difficult bottom to wade. With a strong and variable current pulling and pushing at your knees like a wilful child, it is difficult to manage without a wading staff. Although the water is hardly more than 3 ft deep anywhere, it is safer to wear chest waders for those moments when you suddenly waver and sit down.

Once properly equipped and shod, and balanced securely in the current, I could enjoy the wonder of not catching trout: the river was full of them, glimpsed from the corner of my eye: black, wedged noses under the trees; leaf-coloured splashes by the fly; in a patch of smooth water the size and colour of a cast-iron saucepan by the side of rocks, a streak of melted butter would appear.

Then nothing. Nothing on the end of the line. My hands were too heavy; the rod was always reacting and never anticipating. The whole day was full of hesitations and chokings. The only time I knew in advance that I would hook a fish, there was a single quick tug exactly where I had expected it, and then the realisation that I had tied the knot wrong, and lost three flies as well as the fish. The expert caught 17 fish that day, and lent my wife his wading staff.

We ended our day where the path disappeared. Somewhere upstream was the waterfall at High Force (fors is the Norse word for rapids), the highest in the country. But our way was blocked by a ravine, with a large, slow salmony pool at the foot of a cliff, and an autumn tree beyond. I sat there for about half an hour, pretending to watch for trout, but actually just being far enough away from anywhere. When I climbed back up to the meadow above, the dull green was momentarily streaked with white and brown as 100 or more rabbits that had come down to graze fled to the shelter of a wood.

There must be other things to do in Teesdale than fish. I asked a friend who lives in Barnard Castle what the local attractions were. Walking, she said, and pony-trekking, and, er, that's it. There's a famous coven in Middleton in Teesdale, she added, but perhaps that's just for locals. Then she thought a bit longer. 'Car boot sales,' she said.

It is definitely far enough from central London.

The High Force hotel, Forest in Teesdale (0833 222222).

(Photograph omitted)