No wonder Alfred Wainwright had a reputation – some say unfairly – for being such a curmudgeonly figure. Fresh air is meant to relax you, lift the soul and a million other things. But my first attempt to walk a stretch of his Pennine Journey is abandoned in the face of unfathomably torrential rainfall. I have a rucksack, but a kayak would be more handy, as I stand in a resigned, soggy mood a mile or so south of Alston in Cumbria. I had planned a 15-mile trek along the River South Tyne and the Pennine Way, but the rain is incessant.
Lacking Wainwright’s resolution I return to my car, now resembling a semi-submersible, and turn on the radio. Just a few miles down the road at Chester-le-Street, the weather, strangely, is good enough for England to be thrashing Australia in the Ashes. So I head south to walk another stretch of Wainwright’s journey, that will take in the waterfalls around Teesdale. I assume – correctly, as it turns out – that the falls will be putting on a monumental display in this weather.
We know and love Wainwright for his moving depictions and still reliable descriptions of the Lakeland Fells. Yet 75 years ago this month, he set off on another groundbreaking and stirring hike, a 247-mile loop of the north of England, from the Yorkshire Dales through County Durham and Northumberland, to Hadrian’s Wall and Cumbria and back into the Dales again, starting and finishing in Settle. He got into something of a groove, polishing off the entire route in 11 days and got his first full-length book out of it. Nowadays, the official trail guide suggests you do it in a more leisurely 18 days. And of course, as I choose to do, you can also jump about a bit if the weather proves uncooperative.
My revised walk is now a five-mile loop that takes in both High Force and its downstream companion Low Force in the heart of Teesdale. I begin at the car park behind the Bowlees visitor centre, just north of Middleton-in-Teesdale. There are wild raspberries to add to the packed lunch and, crossing a beck, my mood improves immediately. I walk across sheep-nibbled grass towards the River Tees, the suddenly flat farmland pinpointed by lonely whitewashed stone barns and broken up by egg-shaped glacial mounds. I squeeze through a stone gateway and drop down to the river. Crossing it via Wynch Bridge, I feel a little like Indiana Jones, rather than Wainwright. It’s not a steep drop, but the bridge is a Lilliputian affair, a cast-iron design classic of its kind. Just the other side, I pause to look at the torrents crashing over Low Force.
Then I swing right, a little uphill, the river on my right and follow the Pennine Way. There is some quirky public art to pass, such as two sheep carved from limestone and there are lovely fractured slabs of limestone that are ideal for pausing on, like jetties encroaching over the river, to watch the water rush by. An invisible force shield seems to be keeping the storms over Alston at bay. The clouds muster in the middle distance but come no further, leaving the surrounding upland hay meadows untouched. Mallards crash land on the effervescent water, while dragonflies, still hanging on in autumn, zip back and forwards. Like many rivers, the Tees will later exchange this powerful but bucolic spectacle with its contrasting ultimate end, pouring into the North Sea among the industry of the north-east.
I pass Holwick Head footbridge on my way to the main event, High Force. Before that I spot black grouse, much rarer than their red cousins. Locally, the falls of High Force are promoted as England’s highest uninterrupted drop of water. What that means of course is that there are bigger waterfalls elsewhere, but few have the violent drama of High Force as the water is squeezed through two sluice-like barriers of rock and tumbles 70ft to a plunge pool. The cliff edges here are a little exposed and you can happen upon them very suddenly. They are edged with juniper trees, gorse and heather, from which a firecrest and a robin eyeball me.
I head south again, briefly retracing my steps to the Holwick Head bridge and work my way up through a fetching stretch of woodland. I see a nuthatch, all cobalt coloured as if decorated by eye liner, and emerge by the High Force Hotel. I notice there’s a toll booth: the walk further north along the Tees here on its eastern bank requires payment to access it, and many do. However, I feel the view cannot match the spectacle I’ve just witnessed, so I keep my pennies in my pocket as I head back over open countryside to the visitor centre, recently opened in a converted Methodist church. I order a slice of cake and can almost feel the ghost of Wainwright sitting at a table, looking dismissively in my direction. Not only can’t I hack a bit of rain, I can hear him say ...
The nearest mainline railway stations are Darlington, on the East Coast Main Line from London Kings Cross to York and Edinburgh; and Appleby, on the Northern Rail Settle to Carlisle line (08457 484950; nationalrail.co.uk).
High Force Hotel, Barnard Castle, County Durham DL12 0XH (01833 622222; highforcehotel.com). Doubles start from £80, including breakfast.
Bowlees Visitor Centre: 01388 528801; northpennines.org.uk
The Pennine Journey: penninejourney.org.uk
Wainwright Society: wainwright.org.uk
Distance: 5 miles
OS Map: North Pennines, Teesdale and Weardale
Directions: From Bowlees Visitor Centre follow Pennine Way across Wynch bridge. Head upstream past Holwick Head footbridge, to High Force. Return and cross the footbridge and turn left. Head uphill through woodland to the High Force Hotel. Take the path behind the hotel to Dirt Pit and then head south-east back to the visitor centre.