I HAVE a theory that the more uninspiring a walking route appears on a map, the more interesting it will turn out to be. This complements another theory of mine that the more eager you are to reach a certain goal, the greater your chance of being diverted by something unforeseen that will turn out to be more fascinating. These theories certainly prove accurate in the Durham Dales . . .
If the corporate types who renamed Teesside Airport “Durham-Tees-Valley Airport” in a doomed marketing ploy had been around when Cow Green reservoir became operational in 1971, it would now be known as Teesdale-Pennine-Durham Recreational and Natural Resource Facility or something as equally banal. As it happens, Cow Green it was and Cow Green it remains. That’s a great name and one that should be celebrated. Cow Green is a pleasant place to visit, even on a bad day. And it gets its fare share of bad days.
There is an effervescence of splendid names up here: Great Cocklake, Cauldron Snout, Widdybank Fell, Dodgen Pot, Metalband Hill, Bellbeaver Rigg and – my favourite – Howl of Harwood. With names like those the unwary walker could quite easily stray into a 19th Century novel and end up betrothed to an excitable young lady in bonnet, crinoline and inappropriate shoes. That would cause some trouble, I expect.
The sun’s shining brightly this morning – but by God there is a cold wind. So I set off at a brisk pace from Cow Green reservoir car park on a track that heads north-west towards the source of two of England’s greatest rivers – the Tees and the Tyne – both of which rise from the slopes of Cross Fell.
My plan is to follow the track several miles to where it joins the B6277 near the Cumbria-Durham border, double back down Spitley Tongue (there’s another great name) to Harwood, in Teesdale, then cross the fells to my starting point. It looks boring on the map. But I have a goal.
A couple of years ago I found references on a website to the old track down Spitley Tongue being the original main road from Teesdale to Cumbria, and that when the new road – now the B6277 – was engineered there were suggestions is should become the main arterial link between Scotland and England, forming part of a route that went right up the centre of both countries.
This was never to be, of course, because the main roads now run up both sides where all the people are, there being little in the middle except hills, bogs, sheep and reservoirs. But it’s an interesting piece of history. Alas, I have not been able to relocate the website so cannot go into any more detail.
But that fragment of information will make a straightforward walk a little more interesting, so off I plod.
I am immediately deflected by the appearance of a grouse-shooters’ hut among some ruined mine buildings. Like all such huts it is securely locked to prevent people like us wringing out our wet caps and mufflers on the floor.
But – credit where credit is due – one room remains unlocked to provide shelter for walkers. There’s a fireplace, table, chairs and a yard brush. What more does a benighted traveller need? A bottle of Beaujolais and a lump of sirloin with game chips would be nice, I suppose. But what the heck. When you’re used to hardship and boiled root vegetables you don’t need comfort.
Oh, what joy. It’s simple pleasures such as these that awaken our spirit of discovery and appreciation of the endeavours of our forefathers. Who would have expected a horizontal steam pumping engine to have been bolted to its concrete anchors is such a remote location as this and at an altitude of 1,900ft (580m)? Not me, evidently.
This once productive enterprise was known as Green Hurth Mine. A little research reveals the pumping shaft to have reached a depth of 231ft (70.5m). The mine was producing hundreds of tons of lead ore and a small quantity of zinc during the 1890s but had fallen idle by 1902. A rather tragic entry on the Durham Mining Museum website notes the death of one Mark Allison, aged 32, on October 26, 1882, killed “in a fall of ground from side of working place”.
I wander on across miles of empty moorland before joining the B6277 and the world of fast cars and motorbikes, then slip quietly down the cobbled track on Spitley Tongue. This was, apparently, the old main road to the market town of Alston. It remains very neatly and tightly cobbled in places, unlike the usual boggy or rocky moorland tracks. It’s a pleasure to plod down.
To some people, notably those who fail to appreciate the finer things in life, a cast-iron pipe sticking out of the ground might seem of little consequence – certainly not worthy of mention in a blog post. But this is no ordinary cast-iron pipe. This is what’s known as a rising main. This is the artery up which huge volumes of water were pumped every day from the workings of Lady’s Rake Mine.
Lady’s Rake is a scheduled monument. The shaft was 305ft (93m) deep and is now flooded to the collar. The rising main disappears into the depths and is probably still connected to the pumping apparatus way down beneath my boots in a world of absolute darkness.
The mine was operated during the boom years of the 19th Century by the London Lead Company, commencing in 1868 and producing lead and a small quantity of barytes. After 1910 it operated under new ownership for a number of years before closing during the First World War. It then reopened briefly in the late 1920s and was finally abandoned in 1930. It’s a fascinating place – if you like iron pipes and humps in the ground. I like both, but I’m a man who is easily pleased.
Crossing the river I stumble upon the ruins of the chapel of St Jude (the brother of St James the Less, who has a church further down the valley). This is a sad place. There’s a tiny schoolhouse attached to the chapel, and its two rooms were once divided by one of those big wood and glass partitions that used to fold away concertina style. The remains of the partition are lying in the dust and dirt. Only rabbits and pigeons attend class these days.
The schoolmaster said the prayers and read sermons. This was no uncommon arrangement in the counties of Cumberland and Westmorland, even to a very late period. The chapel was a very humble one, but not altogether unecclesiastical in its arrangement. Harwood chapel was never consecrated and is perhaps the most secluded in the diocese. George Carpendale, the only person in holy orders who ever served Harwood, was a peculiar character. Tiring of the solitudes, he left his wife and his family in Baldersdale and went to London, for being a seafaring man the city called him with its pleasures and excitements.*
Walking on, somewhat thoughtfully, I cross the rough pasture above High Stoney Comb, spotting lapwings’ and curlews’ nests – both with full clutches of eggs – and climb over West Common to my starting point at Cow Green reservoir.
It’s a fine afternoon and waves are sparkling in the sunshine. There is still a cold wind blowing from somewhere, but it’s pleasant to sit in the shelter of the car, supping hot tea and listening to the moorland birds piping in the distance.
What’s rewarding about today is that I went in search of one thing but found much, much more. I searched for an old road but discovered tragedy, history, and the wonders of nature. Perhaps that’s what life’s about. You search for one thing but the true riches are already scattered about you.
Actually, rereading that previous paragraph, I should be doing Thought For The Day on a regular basis, don’t you think? I might give John Humphrys a ring to see if there’s a job going.
- Most of the mining details in this post were gleaned from the Durham Mining Museum website, which is, dare I say it, a mine of information.
- Lady’s Rake Mine is a scheduled ancient monument. A detailed account of its history and description of its operation can be accessed on the English Heritage website HERE.
- * This account of St Jude’s Chapel is taken from the Teesdale Mercury archives, but because the source was a photocopied newspaper page from 1938, and some of the words were on the fold and therefore illegible, it might not be word for word accurate.