Pennine Way Stage 11: Tan Hill Inn to Middleton-in-Teesdale

Published 28 October 2015

A rainbow is visible over the track on Sleightholme Moor.
A rainbow shines over Sleightholme Moor.

In all my life I can’t think of a pub I’ve loved quite as much as the Red Lion in Ealing, West London. A relatively small pub, it served great beers, wonderful food and its walls were decorated with film memorabilia relating to Ealing Studios which were across the road.

It also had a fantastic walled beer garden, where every year birds would nest. In late spring, young chicks would be seen hopping around between tables. Yes, the Red Lion was special all right. I loved visiting it, and it was the first pub where I was considered to be a “regular”; a badge I wore with pride.

After four years we moved out of Ealing; forced to move by property prices. We were looking to buy a house, and Ealing was just too expensive. A two bedroom flat would have cost us at least three times the amount we eventually spent on our new home in south west London; money we simply didn’t have.

A few days before we moved, we paid one final visit to the Red Lion. Saying goodbye was a real wrench. I didn’t want to go. Catherine almost had to drag me out of the building.

No pub has ever been so difficult to leave, although frankly, the Tan Hill Inn was certainly giving it a run for its money. One night there and I was smitten. If I lived nearby, I would have been hooked for life. Although as there were no houses nearby, I’m not entirely sure where I would be living for that to ever happen.

Catherine standing in the gloomy cloud on the Pennine Way near the Tan Hill Inn
I leave a corker of a pub for this?

The weather was also doing its best to persuade us to stay. I’d been woken up at 6am by the sound of heavy rain, and whilst it had stopped by the time we’d finished breakfast and paid our bill, the cloud was low and visibility poor.

Being able to see where you’re going is actually quite important when leaving the Tan Hill Inn. The Pennine Way follows a path along Sleightholme Moor, however in bad weather, it can be a dangerous place and therefore an alternative route exists by following the road. The decision on which to take needs to be taken pretty much at the pub door.

“Which way are you going then?” asked a fellow walker, who we’d been chatting to over breakfast.

“Probably the main route,” replied Catherine who had taken charge of navigation for the day.

Catherine walks in the mist on Sleightholme Moor.
In the mist on Sleightholme Moor.

Eyebrows were raised; glances at the weather made. A long pause followed.

“I think we’re going down the road. We’re doing a half day to Bowes. Need to get some laundry done. Have a good walk!” And with that she wandered off along the deserted tarmac with her husband. She might even have been shaking her head.

I looked at Catherine, and Catherine looked back, and we both stared at the weather.

“We can always turn back if it’s bad,” I said.

A winding stream on Sleightholme Moor
Crossing streams on Sleightholme Moor.

“Yeah,” she replied, with a tone that suggested that there was no way that was going to happen.

As it turned out, Tan Hill’s bark was worse than its bite. The cloud loosened up a bit as we lost a little height, and the path was just visible enough to ensure we wouldn’t lose it. By 10am, the sun had even come out for a short while, and we were treated to some lovely sights as the bright light hit the mossy ground. In fact the biggest challenge was fording the many streams that filled the moor, and the word “ford” appears frequently as the Pennine Way traverses it. There was so many that the Ordnance Survey might as well just have written “FORD” in big letters over the whole area and saved themselves a lot of hassle.

A Pennine Way fingerpost at Trough Heads.
Pointing the way.

At Trough Heads farm, the Pennine Way walker needs to make a decision. Or, realistically, needs to act upon a decision made some months earlier whilst drawing up an itinerary and booking accommodation. Whatever. It’s still a decision that needs to be made. And it’s one that goes like this: do I go to Bowes or not?

After leaving the Tan Hill Inn, the Pennine Way doesn’t pass any towns or villages for sixteen miles until it arrives in Middleton-in-Teesdale. In contrast, Bowes is a mere nine miles from the Tan Hill Inn.

There’s a snag. To get to Bowes requires a two and a half mile detour off the Pennine Way. Which is why the Bowes Loop was created. It’s an alternative route that heads east from the farm to the village, and then meanders north in order to re-meet the main route near Blackton Reservoir. It’s a little longer, but means walkers don’t have to double back on themselves.

For those that set off from Keld and who don’t fancy a twenty mile day to Middleton, the Bowes Loop is an appealing option – as it is if you urgently need to clean some clothes. For us though, it was a bit pointless, and we’d decided to go the whole hog and press on. Besides, it meant we could pass over “God’s Bridge” and a dismantled railway. And let’s be honest, who wouldn’t choose that option over the romantic ruins of Bowes castle and an early afternoon pint?

God's Bridge, near Bowes on the Pennine Way
God’s Bridge, near Bowes.

God’s Bridge turned out to be a large slab of limestone, which forms a natural crossing over the River Greta. And the dismantled railway, well that was like most dismantled railways; in this case part of the line that once ran between Kirkby Stephen and Bishop Auckland that was inevitably closed down by that arch-villain of Britain’s railway network, Doctor Richard Beeching.

Whilst the fact that the railway went through a sparsely populated area with little traffic did contribute to its demise, the rise of the motor vehicle helped hammer the nail into the coffin. Roads stole much of the railway’s traffic as the local population obtained cars, and freight moved to lorries. Today the railway has been replaced by the A66 dual carriageway, under which the Pennine Way travels in a specially constructed subway.

Subway under the A66 through which the Pennine Way goes through.
The glamorous subway under the A66.

Footpaths under roads are rarely nice things to go under; usually dark and dank with deep puddles of water waiting to surprise anyone daring to set foot in the tunnel. The designers of this subway had thought about this carefully and had come up with a solution. They’d installed light switches at each end of the tunnel. Unfortunately though, the switches did nothing. No matter how much we pressed them, there was no illumination at all. Thankfully there wasn’t a dead sheep waiting for us to trip over. Just some muddy puddles instead.

Out in the air again, the green (and slightly muddy) fields were replaced by moorland; a wide track leading us along past clumps of heather and wild grasses. It was nearly lunchtime and we were eagerly watching out for somewhere to stop for some food, however what few places there were, would do little bar provide us with soggy bottoms. And then, after a few miles of walking, we struck gold next to a stream, which the Pennine Way crossed on a bridge. There were walls to shelter from the wind behind, and there were large boulders to sit on. An ideal picnic spot. We looked at each other, sat down and got out our sandwiches.

Ten seconds later, it began to rain.

Catherine sits huddled under a bridge next to a stream, eating some food.
If you want shelter in which to eat lunch, simply find a handy, convenient bridge.

Faced with eating our food in the rain, or keep on waking in the no doubt vain hope that there would be a nice, sheltered alternative in the next hour or so, we did the only thing you could do in such circumstances. We put on our waterproofs and huddled under the bridge.

As Catherine noted dryly, “You haven’t done the Pennine Way properly if you haven’t had to eat lunch huddled under a bridge.”

Blackton Reservoir roughly marks the half-way point for the Pennine Way. Which meant there was only a mere 130 miles to Kirk Yetholm then. There was no official marker for this moment, although some thoughtful person had scrawled “half way, losers!” on a stile.

The reservoir was mostly surrounded by fields grazed by sheep, but one contained a wildlife reserve named Hannah’s Meadow. The land was once owned by Hannah Hauxwell, who came to prominence in the 1972 Yorkshire Television programme, ‘Too Long a Winter’. The documentary chronicled the difficult conditions endured by the farmers of the north Pennines, with some focus on Hannah who lived by herself in a dilapidated farmhouse with no electricity or running water. Her few cattle brought her in a meagre income of £250 a year at a time when the average salary cane in at £2,000.

Blackton Reservoir on the Pennine Way
Blackton Reservoir.

It’s perhaps a cliché to say it, but Hannah’s story touched a nation. For days after broadcast, viewers bombarded Yorkshire Television’s phone lines in an attempt to find out how they could help and enough money was raised to help improve conditions by connecting the farm to the National Grid.

The programme may have put Hannah in the public eye, and improved her life a little, but she continued at the farm for another 16 years until she decided to retire. The farm itself was purchased by the Durham Wildlife Trust who were attracted to its potential as a nature reserve thanks to the fact that in her fifty years there, Hannah had only ever used traditional farming practices, and had never used artificial fertilisers. In short, it was something special.

Today, the Trust maintains that style of farming, with the result that the land retains a rich and diverse range of wildlife that has been lost from more intensively farmed land in the area. Visit in the summer and you’ll find a range of traditional wild-meadow flowers. Come in October like we did, and you probably just find a rather plain field. Such is the way, sometimes.

The lush greenery around the reservoir was short-lived, and it wasn’t long before we had returned to moorland. Even the sky seemed to reflect the change. When we’d been passing Blackton it looked like the sun might try and burst through, but a mile later the clouds had gone dark and brooding. Could the weather really be watching what we were up to, and changing accordingly? Unlikely perhaps, but it was one hell of a coincidence.

We were heading towards another set of reservoirs at Grassholme, and I did wonder if the weather would suddenly change again when we got there. And indeed it did, with a little patch of blue appearing. Not much, but enough to cheer our hearts a little. The sheep at How Farm were another matter entirely.

A flock of sheep running down a gentle slope towards the camera.
Watch out for the sheep!

A large group had been collected into a smallish field near some farm buildings; a field that naturally the Pennine Way had to cross directly. No sooner had we entered it and the sheep started stampeding towards us, anxious to say hello. We walked through as quickly as possible, desperate to shake them off and by the time we had reached the end of the field, they’d almost caught up with us, and we were pretty much running; rushing to scramble over the stile and into the next field. Safe, secure and exhausted, we climbed over on the other side, and headed – without any sheep – to the edge of Grassholme Reservoir where there was a conveniently sited bench to sit on for a while whilst we caught our breath. And boy did we need to.

Our path continued to snake its way along more fields; the sheep now kept firmly at bay by drystone walls. We were now just a few miles away from Middleton-in-Teesdale, the buildings of which slowly came into view as we made away over the moorland. Soon we were wandering round the town’s streets, attempting to find our B&B which proved to be completely impossible despite it having a large sign and a highly prominent location on the high street.

The village of Middleton-in-Teesdale in the distance.
Approaching Middleton-in-Teesdale

Despite being completely covered in mud, we were warmly welcomed by the B&B’s owner and promptly shown to our room, and plied with hot tea and homemade biscuits. Belvedere House swiftly found itself filed under the “luxury” accommodation category, which always made us feel extra guilty about filling our room up with soggy waterproofs, and mud-strewn trousers. Everything in the place looked extremely well presented; simple, comfortable elegance, and for good measure it proved to be one of the cheaper places we stayed on the entire trip. When we came to write our “top places on the Pennine Way” guide, this place was going to get a raving review.

Having dutifully sprayed the room’s recently painted walls with muck and murk, and covered the floor with our belongings, it was time to go out and see what Middleton-in-Teesdale had to offer. The streets were lined with a number of small, independent businesses, but seemed rather short on anywhere to get an evening meal. There was a pub next to our B&B but it seemed to be in darkness; whether permanently or temporarily, we couldn’t tell. Another on the entrance to Middleton had a sign saying “No food” so that was out. This just left a chippy, and the rather large hotel, which dominated the high street.

The hotel’s small bar was heaving; full of people sitting on the 1970s style lounge furniture, all upholstered in pink velour. Although in some respects it felt more like a doctor’s waiting room than somewhere to relax and unwind. Almost everyone there was waiting for a meal, and every time a member of staff entered, twenty-odd heads turned to see if it was their time to adjourn to the dining area.

We perched at the bar – all the pink armchairs being taken – and began to feel we really should be wearing something smarter than our walking trousers and fleeces, and perhaps drinking something more sophisticated than a pint of real ale. A cocktail perhaps?

The Teesdale Hotel in Middleton-in-Teesdale
The Teesdale Hotel in Middleton-in-Teesdale.

Finally, our names were called, and the young waitress led us down a short corridor to the dining room, and our table. Within minutes a full canteen worth of cutlery had been deposited in front of us, with silver salt and pepper pots added for good measure; the staff obviously having the expectation that we were about to partake in five courses of fine dining. Although this didn’t particularly seem to go with the menu for the evening.

Like most of the places we ate at on the Pennine Way, the hotel seemed to offer a pretty standard Pennine Way “pub grub” menu. Occasionally we’d find ourselves in a place where the menu was a bit more creative, but nine times out of ten it would be a variation on a familiar theme. Garlic mushrooms, prawn cocktail and pate and toast would invariably feature on the starters section, whilst the main courses would always include gammon and pineapple, steak, a lamb shank and scampi and chips. Vegetarians would, without fail, have a choice of vegetable lasagne or mushroom stroganoff, and pretty much everything would come with a choice of potatoes and boiled vegetables.

Generally the menus gave the impression they hadn’t changed for decades. “Modern” cuisine such as burgers were rarely featured, and even if a curry had somehow managed to sneak onto the menu, there’d be a high probability that it would be “beef”, and be served with chips and salad.

All this is not to say that the food was bad. Generally the food we ate on the Pennine Way was perfectly fine. Sometimes it was fantastic. But the one thing it wasn’t was varied. In the context of a bustling rural pub though, it all seemed to work. But when surrounded by a table groaning under the weight of silverware in an enormous yet silent hotel dining room, it just seemed bizarre, and it was almost a relief to get out of the place and head on our way.

Now that it was empty of diners, the hotel’s bar felt more like a place to relax than wait, however we were in little mood for a late night. We’d had a long day, and the next would be even longer. We had twenty miles to do in order to reach Dufton and we’d need to get an early start if we were to reach there before the sun set. It was definitely time for bed.


Steve Garrill

8 August 2020 at 7:36 pm

Very interesting, thank you so much. I’m currently in the Tan Hill carrying out a beer evaluation, Timothy Taylor’s Landlord is currently winning. This is my stage for tomorrow where I’m booked into the Teesdale Hotel 😃

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