It’s not often that a whole day passes and I don’t write one word. Such a day occurred ten years ago, on 2 May 2007 when I enjoyed an epic walk across the Pennines. Although I normally write my diary every day, on this occasion I did not do so until I was on the train home on 4 May.
My friend Jo Bird who lives in Stainton, near Barnard Castle in County Durham, had been suggesting this walk for some time. She knew that I was anxious to see the black grouse lekking (flamboyant mating), which meant it must be in April or May. And so our plans were laid. We would set out early on the morning of 2 May, enjoy the lek, have breakfast (pre-arranged by Jo) at Langdon Beck youth hostel, leave her car there and walk the 13 miles over the watershed to Dufton in Cumbria. We would stay at the youth hostel and return the next day.
We were up at 4.45am and left Jo’s house at 5.30. We drove up Teesdale in mist and mirk. We planned to drive past Langdon Beck and take the old Alston Road to Herdwick Farm, where Jo’s friend lived and where the lekking was known to be good. As we passed Langdon Beck the sun began to come out, and the grouse were practically lekking on the road, their white tails up.
Jo turned off the road but unfortunately our track became steep and rough and then we encountered a locked barrier. It was evident we had taken the wrong turning. It was very difficult for Jo to turn the car around and it began to belch steam, polluting the keen morning air. It looked as though our wonderful plan was foiled and we would have ring for the rescue people and abandon our walk. Fortunately there was no signal so Jo had one last try and managed to get the car back on the road. But we had to be careful as it was in a rather sick state.
We drove back down the valley and turned left for St John’s Chapel, where Jo had seen a lek in the past. We managed to hear the activity but we were back in the mist, so we saw nothing until the mist lifted slightly to reveal 14 male black grouse in the distance vying with each other.
We returned to Langdon Beck where we had a warm welcome and a fine breakfast from Heather and Alan, the temporary wardens.
We set off at 10am in bright sunlight to the calls of lapwing, snipe and redshank in the meadows. There were dippers and a sandpiper when we crossed Langdon Beck at Saur Hill Bridge.
Here we joined the Pennine Way and followed it to the River Tees, across a meadow of pansies and down a bank with gentians and bird’s eye primrose.
It was already hot. I had followed Jo’s advice of bringing many layers of clothes and my rucksack was soon bulging with unwanted garments.
We followed the north bank of the Tees. At Falcon Clints I heard, then saw, a ring ouzel.
Just above the junction of the Maize Beck is the impressive Cauldron Snout waterfall.
We climbed up beside it and followed the Pennine Way parallel to and above the Maize Beck. The landscape felt different now: wild, remote and featureless. We passed through Birkdale Farm, said to be the most isolated in England, and crossed close to the Warcop range which is used for military training (and is currently the subject of controversy as the Ministry of Defence wants to deregister the common land).
The path converged with the river and here we stopped for lunch and saw sandpiper, grey wagtails and dipper.
We left our lunch spot at 3pm and continued on the south side of the beck to the top of High Cup Nick. This is breathtaking, as the steep-sided valley of Whinstone rock suddenly falls away to the tiny silver sliver of High Cup Gill in the bottom.
We followed the Pennine Way along the north side of the valley and joined the drove road down to Dufton, with the Lake District fells ahead and the Howgills to the left, bathed in evening sunlight.
We checked in at the hostel and sat outside watching tree sparrows until it was time to go to the Stag Inn for dinner. We dined in the garden, looking up at the conical Dufton Pike.
The next morning I was glad to be woken at 5am by noisy birds. I looked out of the window at the village green with the fells beyond and had to get out there.
I took the Pennine Way around the west side of Dufton Pike and then a footpath along Great Rundale Beck. Once I reached the access land I cut up through wortleberries to the top. There was a frost (and I was in shorts). I reached the summit at 6.20am with the sun coming up behind the fell. As I looked west over the Eden valley I saw the shadow of the pike above the mist.
I returned to the hostel for breakfast and saw red squirrels, my first swift of the year, and house martins nesting in the hostel’s eaves.
Jo and I set off at 9.50am in immense heat. It was nice to feel no pressure. We sat on the limestone slope on the way up and enjoyed the view over the Eden valley to the Lake District.
We stopped again by High Cup Nick. This time we took the path to the north of the beck through former limestone pavements. Before the bridge over the Maize Beck was built, walkers had to ford the beck. Sometimes this was impossible, so the northern route was provided as the alternative Pennine Way.
We had our lunch at the same spot as the day before. When we reached Cauldron Snout we went to the east side of Cow Green reservoir. I remember the controversy when the reservoir was built as it was when I was getting interested in campaigning for wild country. Then we joined the lane down to Langdon Beck, with the white houses of the Raby estate spattered over the landscape.
On the last stretch, as we crossed the fields, we saw two baby lapwings while overhead the snipe kept drumming. Jo reminds me that we rescued a lamb that had separated from its mother and gone though a gate.
When I went to bed that night my head was full of the lovely landscapes and calls of birds. It was a wonderful experience. Thank you Jo!