Day 48: Canyon
Langdon Beck to Dufton. 12.9 miles. Mile to date: 700.8.
There’s only one navigational rule for those who travel from Land’s End to John o’Groats: head north and a little east. If you don’t abide by it you’re going nowhere fast.
Today I spent the day travelling west and a little south and am, as a consequence, further from my goal now, in the red-bricked village of Dufton, than I was at breakfast this morning.
It’s only the second day on the trail I’ve walked south. The first was when leaving Exmoor along the fine Quantocks shoulder that took me to Williton.
That had an important strategic reason: it put me in good stead to cross the miserable Somerset Levels.
Today’s escapade was just for fun.
The Pennine Way, after 160-ish miles wandering pretty much north, suddenly loses the navigational plot and veers west south-west for 13 miles.
And while the LeJoger could, I suppose, head off into the moors north of Langdon Beck, they’d be walking through miles of squelchy pathless nothingness. Plus they’d miss one of the geological wonders of the UK: High Cup.
Awesome High Cup.
It was, for the first time in days, a fine morning. The tops had cleared overnight and the sun was walking dapples across the fells. The air outside was sweet. Down the lane sheep were jamming cars.
The Way rejoined the River Tees, tracing its north bank between the narrow straits of Cronkly Scar on one side and Widdybank Fell the other. Hats off to whoever named these heights.
In these tumbling headwaters there’s a wilderness feel. It’s just rocks and cliffs and river, sparkling azure in the sun. On the fractured scree wall of Falcon Clints there’s more: a weathered silver birch or two clinging to the limestone, frustratingly out of reach to the few sheep who graze these lands. Heather too. A month from now the cliffs will burst with purple sprigs.
On the peaty heights opposite a raised red flag. This is MOD land. I look out for tanks or camouflaged squadrons. Could be fun. A little further along a sign reads “DANGER AREA”. But this time the red flag’s down. Mixed messages. Maybe if you strayed too far they’d only blow away half your body.
Then round the bend the Tees reaches its source at Cauldron Snout – a waterfall ladder rising a hundred feet or more. It’s a surprise. Not the falls – but how good they are. The guidebooks barely mention them. Maybe in this valley of a hundred falls they’re just another in line. Either way, they’re a fun diversion, the rocky scramble alongside even more so. It’s the first scramble on the Pennine Way and, I think, the last.
Rush hour in Upper Teesdale.
The Way follows the River Tees to its source at Cow Green Reservoir.
The path below Falcon Clints.
I’d been thinking more about the character of the Pennine Way.
I asked Barrie his views during dinner in lovely Landgon Beck.
What would he remember most about the Way in years to come?
“The elements,” he replied.
The Pennine Way, he continued, was not a technically difficult walk. What made it so – and what defined its character for him – was the weather you fight as you walk it. Because the Pennines are so exposed, walking them pits your walking wits against rain, wind, snow – even sun – from which there is no escape. No trees for shade. Few walls for shelter. No ridges to curb the gales. It’s just the lone walker on an often lonely track, against the Great British weather.
After leaving the Tees – which the Way has followed for 12 or so miles – the path continues rising over the flanks of broad Dufton Fell. High above Maize Beck the Way enters the farmyard of Birkdale, the highest hill farm in England – and one of its most remote. You can well believe it: there’s nothing here for miles. Just grassland prairie on which a few sheep wander.
As the valleysides flatten and the horizon widens, the Way drops down to follow the Beck, busy slipping over rocks and pebbles and little limestone weirs.
Here I meet Jay, my third JogLer in the past week.
Jay is a carpenter from Arizona. He fist heard of LeJog while tackling the Grand Canyon Way, when a Brit challenged him to walk from Land’s End to John o’Groats. He agreed, even though he’d heard of neither.
Now he’s six weeks into his long walk and is full of love for it.
But he’s not just walking. He’s also on a kind of mission to tell the world about vegan living. Not lecturing them, he says, but planting seeds.
He’s interesting to talk with. Partly because he’s got a load of hints for the trail north. But also because he has lots to say about upland farming.
Jay from Colorado.
The thing is, on a walk like this you spend an awful long time walking over upland commons and game reserves. And it’s impossible not to form views on how the land is being used.
You also get a rare chance to compare and contrast landscapes. One day you’re walking through the colourful wildflower meadows of the Upper Tees, which are teeming with life, the next you’re back onto the barren grazing pastures and grouse heath so typical of the Pennines. Where the land is actively managed for the benefit of wildlife, rather than sheep or grouse, you feel as though you’re walking through a different country – or a different century.
Then you start asking why. Why are so many of our uplands wildlife deserts?
The answer – probably obviously – is because that’s the way the wealthy like them. You can’t shoot grouse or deer if there are trees or shrubs in the way. So no trees are permitted to grow.
And because the landowners hold the levers of power, they’ve negotiated massive taxpayer handouts to keep their loss-making sheep herds munching away on the fells, gobbling up every new aspen, oak or ash shoot that tries to take root on the bare grassy heights.
This wouldn’t matter much if the impacts weren’t significant. But they are. Not only is pretty much every native specie of flower, tree, bird, butterfly, insect, reptile and mammal in terminal decline, but study after study shows that intensive upland farming is one of the key causal factors in the country’s increasingly regular, heavy and costly floods.
This makes the huge subsidies given to farmers (£28.3k per farm per year) even more insane. Lowland taxpayers are paying upland farmers to work the land in such a way that increases the chances of them being flooded from their homes. They pay twice for that privilege: first through those subsidies, second through higher buildings insurance.
It’s lunacy. And it is a lunacy few people know about because they don’t read about it. And they don’t read about it because more than a few press barons are recipients of... you guessed it... generous upland farming subsidies.
Finding solutions in this mess of a situation that is only working for the wealthy one per cent is becoming more difficult because of the polarisation now endemic in British politics. Environmentalists dig their heels in on one side of the debate while farmers and landowners do the same on the other. The discussions becomes more heated and bridges are burned.
But there are ways forward. When George Monbiot – environmentalist and leftwing provocateur who more than a few gamesman would like to see in their sights – argued that the Lake District was a wildlife desert and that sheep farming needed to be dramatically curtailed to make way for wolves, bears and lynx, he garnered the ire of Lakeland farming celebs from Herdwick Shepherd author James Rebanks to softly spoken Gardeners' Question Time host Eric Robson.
But no solution needs – yet – be so absolute.
By taking an extremist’s position Monbiot forgot he wasn’t just talking about nature. He was dealing with livelihoods, tradition, culture and family roots that go back generations. The National Trust fell into the same trap when it purchased farmland in Borrowdale in order, partly, to plant trees.
Changing the uplands for the benefits of all using evidence-based science rather than all-or-nothing idealism cannot start with an attack on those who care for them.
The solution, instead, must be a joined-up approach that sees that duty of care redefined. Instead of nurturing just sheep and cattle, the farmer’s role would be to care for the land itself – as well as the animals upon it. A new model of upland farming would see hill farming traditions retained and celebrated. It would ensure fair prices paid for high quality meat. But it would also gently extend the duty of care so that a percentage of land was returned to a more natural state that would help purify water, increase biodiversity, reduce flooding and offer reserves for everyone to experience and enjoy the natural world.
This is – of course –what some farming subsidies already do, notably the EU agri-environment schemes. While they have not been universally popular, plenty of farmers have embraced them.
Falcon Clints from the long terrace track over Dufton Fell.
A tough farming life: remote Birkdale.
So far, so boring.
How about a few headline-grabbers too? Some real ambition.
If just a fraction of the Pennine wilderness I’ve walked across for the past ten days was set aside, we could plant the biggest new broadleaf forest in Europe. A kind of New New Forest. A vast, thriving upland reserve to be enjoyed by all.
Not only would a new national forest retain water on the uplands, releasing it slowly to help keep the cities below dry, it would save the taxpayer money by reducing farm subsidies and insurance premiums. It would create many more jobs than the grouse reserves currently do, with a heady mix of tourism, sustainable commercial forestry, and – yes – farming. It would, most of all, be a profit-making gift to future generations that the nation could feel proud of at a time of division and instability.
Seeds sown for the future.
...Or maybe I’m just missing my trees.
The long track towards High Cup Plain.
After the big skies, open spaces and rolling prairies of Dufton Fell something amazing happens. The ground suddenly falls away into a huge canyon, escarpments widening out in an immense inverted V that protrudes for just shy of two miles.
Sheer cliffs give way to screes that fall at 45 degree angles to the valley floor far below. The scale is immense, like the ramparts of some forgotten giant’s city.
This is High Cup, the finest glaciated valley in northern England. It is part of the Great Whin Sill – the layer of igneous dolerite that protrudes in dramatic fashion not just here, but along Hadrian's Wall and at High Force and Cauldron Snout.
While High Cup is in Cumbria, just a short car drive from Ullswater and the Lakeland hordes, few tourists have heard of the chasm, or the cleft in the escarpment, High Cup Nic. Even fewer visit.
Despite living just down the road I'd never heard of this immense rock amphitheatre until a year back.
High Cup from the Nick. It was crazy blowy up here.
High Cup is more than good enough for a picnic stop, and after wiling away too many minutes in a knackered kind of wonder, I make my way down the stony track to Dufton, a quietly spoken village on the western fringe of the magical Eden valley, with its neat houses, wide streets, Quaker-gifted water pumps and village green over which rabbits wander unworried by traffic.
I’m heading north again tomorrow for the big one: mighty Cross Fell, a peak that’s higher than Pillar and calls for 19 miles of hard-graft walking.
It’s a day that holds quiet horrors for many Pennine Wayers.
Wish me luck!
The pastural Eden Valley, and the Lakeland fells behind (woohoo!)
Next: Day 49 – Dufton to Alston.
Previous: Day 47 – Middleton-In-Teesdale to Langdon Beck.