Pennine Way Stage 12: Middleton-in-Teesdale to Dufton

Published 4 November 2015

Petting some sheep statues, near Middleton in Teesdale

Whatever way you cut up the Pennine Way, chances are you’re going to end up with a monster of a day of walking at some point. Indeed, the very first day on the trail – heading out of Edale – is a compulsory 16 mile hike, whereas the last section from Byrness to Kirk Yetholm comes in at 25 miles, unless you can cadge a lift or are prepared to take an epic detour in order to reach some overnight accommodation.

For us, the walk to Dufton would be one of those walks. Twenty miles to do, and with a time limit. We simply had to get there before the last vestiges of sunlight disappeared at 6pm. Such is the joy of walking in October.

It need not have been thus. It’s perfectly possible to split the section up by taking a break at the village of Langdon Beck, which boasts a youth hostel and pub, and is just a short way off the trail. But almost inevitably we were up against the clock. We needed to race back to London the following day, and that meant we needed to finish reasonably close to a railway station. True, Dufton wasn’t exactly close to one, but a taxi would be able to take us to Penrith in roughly twenty minutes. So a long walk it was then and after an early breakfast from our obliging B&B landlady, we hit the road.

The River Tees, seen near Middleton-in-Teesdale

Most of the day would be spent with a watery accompaniment, as the Pennine Way followed the River Tees upstream towards its source. The river, which flows for eighty-five miles to the North Sea near Middlesborough, starts its journey on the slopes of Cross Fell.

For the first two miles or so out of Middleton-in-Teesdale, the path stayed a respectful distance away from the river, heading across fields instead, before finally joining a riverside path near a stretch of woodland. We wandered along happily, enjoying the opportunity to sample some non-moorland scenery. Large trees grew on both sides, giving the river a tranquil feel, despite its best efforts to crash noisily over rocks. The Tees seemed to be a river in a hurry; there was no time for it to relax. It just had to get to the sea, and clearly as fast as possible.

There were few places where this was more apparent than Low Force waterfall where the water plunges down a five and a half metre drop. There was even a chance to get a cracking view of the water courtesy of Wynch Bridge, a narrow suspension bridge which was first opened in 1830. A sign warned that only one person should try crossing the bridge at any time, and woe betide any large groups that tried to all go on at the same time as the county council certainly wouldn’t be held responsible for whatever madness then ensured. The bridge certainly swayed badly enough with just one of us on it, and I dreaded to think how it might be if more tried to cross at the same time.

Low Force waterfall on the River Tees

Low Force was but a mere warm up to what was further upstream. High Force is a far bigger waterfall, with the water plunging down 21m. And whilst its height may be less than that of Hardraw Force which we’d seen a few days earlier, High Force certainly packs its punch with sheer impact. The water crashes and thunders down, spraying enthusiastically as it reaches the bottom, and can get on its way.

High Force certainly knew how to put on a show, and we sat down at a convenient vantage point with a biscuit in hand, and watched it do what it did best. On the other side of the river it’s possible to drive up, park your car – for a fee – and wander to a viewing area to see the waterfall and as we sat a couple did just that. But their reward for doing so was merely to see the waterfall from the bottom, looking up. From where we were, I had no doubt that the best view was on our side of the river. With no road access, those on foot had, without doubt, been rewarded for their efforts.

High Force waterfall on the River Tees

High Force always puts on a good show.


Beyond High Force, the Pennine Way headed away from the river; as if it felt that the waterfall simply couldn’t be beat, and that walkers had better be taken away from it as quickly as possible so that they could look at something else, and so not be disappointed.

That something else were the whitewashed buildings, which were dotted around the valley below; each house and building being required to be painted that way as part of the lease agreement with the Raby Estate, which owns much of the area.

The whitewashed houses of Forest-in-Teesdale

The story goes that one day, one of the many Lord Barnards from history was out hunting and became stranded in a storm. He headed to a farmhouse, believing it to be one of his own properties, but he was mistaken and despite the bitter weather, was refused shelter. Determined that he would never make the same mistake again, he insisted that from thenceforth any building on his estate must be painted white. A rather extreme reaction perhaps, but then just what is the point in being a rich landowner if you can’t set an absurd rule or two?

Our separation from the Tees was short lived, and we were rejoined with it once more, initially through fields and meadows, but soon hoping between rocky boulders in a narrow passage between the river and the side of a hill. And then it was time to head uphill slightly, on a rocky path that spent a lot of time being unnervingly close to the gushing waterfall of Cauldron Snout.

Climbing up alongside Cauldron Snout

True, it wasn’t a case of climbing up a waterfall. Thankfully. But there’s just something about rocky paths going uphill next to copious amounts of water that makes me insanely nervous. Something to do with me being a rather large and slightly clumsy chap with big feet and a tendency to lose my balance at the touch of a hat probably. This is then compounded by carrying a large rucksack, which distorts the body’s centre of mass, and when I do feel I’m liable to fall over, I’m not even entirely sure which direction I should be leaning in order to save the day. Add water into the mix, and suddenly visions of mountain rescue and air ambulances start filling my mind. The same thing happens every time I see a fell runner. How do they do it, I wonder, as they leap nimbly from rock to rock as they descend some insanely steep, scree-filled slope? If I tried that, I’d end up at the bottom very quickly that’s for sure, and it probably wouldn’t be all in one piece.

Reading this, you may begin to think that this was some epic, dangerous climb; that life and limb were being threatened as we attempted to get to the top of the waterfall. It would make a good tale, no doubt. Unfortunately for lovers of excitement and drama – or indeed, people who are reading this desperately hoping that mountain rescue and the North East Air Ambulance will feature – it didn’t happen. The climb wasn’t that big as Cauldron Snout comes in at a mere 60m in height, although the gradient of the waterfall is so shallow that its actual length comes in at 180m long. And for that effort, what’s the reward? Well a view of a dam; specifically the dam at the head of Cow Green Reservoir, which holds back a whopping 40,000 million litres of water. It’s big all right.

Cauldron Snout and Cow Green Reservoir

We crossed the Tees on a bridge in the shadow of the dam, and said our final farewells to the river. It was also time for a change in the Pennine Way. The sheep began to disappear, to be replaced by the remains of an old mine, and then by red flags.

For here the Pennine Way passes over moorland that is part of the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the North Pennine Moors Special Protection Area, and Moorhouse and Upper Teesdale Special Area of Conservation. And it’s also regularly used by the military to blast the living bejeebers out of everything. The army have been using Warcop Training Area to practice driving tanks since 1942, and show no sign of leaving. There are public rights of way across some of it, although they’re not much use to anyone unless you want to use them after 1pm on a Sunday. The army apparently use the training area most of the week, although do sometimes have an occasional day off; one of which seemed to coincide with our visit.

Accessing the Pennine Way is, of course, never a problem. It passes along the north of the range and the only sign that this is not “normal” country is the row of red flags and warning signs that dot the landscape. Oh and the huge scars on the hillside caused by the tanks that regularly roam the area.

The moorland, viewed from Moss Shop on the Pennine Way

It’s a rather grim sight; disheartening and dispiriting. Was this really the best place for them to practise driving tanks? It was a relief to finally traverse the couple of miles along the training area border, and come alongside the flowing water of Maize Beck. It gave us something to look at that wasn’t long straight rows of churned mud.

On the other hand, with little to see and enjoy, we could simply get our heads down and push on. There were many miles still to do. And anyway, there was something special coming our way. Something very special.

And that was High Cup Nick.

There are many stunning sights on the Pennine Way; natural and man made. Ribblehead Viaduct, the limestone pavement at Malham Cove, the Tan Hill Inn looming out of the cloud, and of course the splendour of Kinder Scout. Yet arguably High Cup is on another level.

Approaching High Cup Nick

There’s an element of expectation for some time as you get closer and closer. You can see something is about to happen; little hints that there’s something ahead although you’re not really sure what. Further on you walk, getting closer and closer to main view point, until suddenly all is revealed. In front of you is a massive U shaped valley, looking for all intents and purposes like a giant had scooped out a massive chunk of the hillside, leaving a huge crater behind. It’s awesome, it’s splendid and it’s utterly stunning. There was no denying it, this was something amazing. Even the fact that in order to see it, I’d tripped up and fallen in a stream I was trying to ford, couldn’t stifle my enthusiasm for the place.

We stood there just looking, in silence and in awe. Constantly looking. Behind us a herd of wild horses frolicked and played, but who cared. This was the money shot; the highlight of the whole day. And, besides the horses, we had the place to ourselves. For High Cup is off the beaten track; three miles away from the nearest road which means that anyone who comes to see it has to do so under their own steam. Were there a car park nearby, High Cup would no doubt be full of people. Probably even a café and a small gift shop; and no doubt some visitors wandering up with moaning comments such as “is that it?” before whipping out their smartphone to complain about it on TripAdvisor.

Standing at High Cup Nick

High Cup Nick.

But for those on foot, High Cup is a fantastic reward for the effort. I could have spent hours there, just staring. And would have done, had it not been for one tiny issue.

“It’s quarter to five,” I said, looking at my watch.

“Oh,” Catherine replied sadly.

We had another three or so miles to do, and seventy five minutes in which to do them in before the light faded. We hadn’t spent anywhere near enough time at High Cup, but we really couldn’t spend much more.

Walking round the side of High Cup Nick

At least the Pennine Way heads along the north side of High Cup, meaning we could eke it out a little longer, but eventually we just had to bid it farewell and push on to Dufton.

As we headed downhill to the Eden Valley, the sky began to change. The weather had been pretty gloomy all day, however now the sky was preparing itself for a show, and it looked like it was going to be special. The sun shone brightly under the cloud, casting a bright glow over all the area, providing a sense of drama when coupled with the black clouds.

Then as it got lower and lower, the whole area began to be bathed in pink, then gold, and we prepared ourselves for one of the finest sunsets we’d ever seen. Two special treats in one day? The Pennine Way was spoiling us.

A hill called ‘Gregory’ bathed in a sunset, near the village of Dufton

It was all over by the time we arrived on the road that would take us the quarter of a mile into Dufton, and as we arrived outside the village’s youth hostel, the light had pretty much gone. We were completely exhausted. My back was aching, and Catherine’s knee was playing up, and both of us were completely footsore after our twenty mile walk.

After collapsing on our beds, we finally managed to raise enough energy to head to pub; staggering across the dark village green like zombies to the warm, welcoming embrace of the Stag Inn in order to sup a few pints, purely for medicinal reasons naturally. Sitting in the cosy bar area in front of the pub’s warm and welcoming fire, we quietly eavesdropped onto the conversations of some locals who were conversing about the latest news about the local Women’s Institute branch, which had decided to disband and reform in a different form. We never did get to the bottom of why that happened, but we were too tired to really care.

Later I headed to the pub’s toilets. In the gents I spied an old, faded photograph of a group of people from decades gone by, sat down at the head of High Cup. I stared at it, nodded to myself, and headed back to the bar. There was a long train journey home the next day, but there was time for one last pint, I was sure.

View all 87 of my photos from the day walking the Pennine Way between Middleton-in-Teesdale and Dufton.

The sun setting near Dufton

See You In Kirk Yetholm

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