river and hills on a sunny day blue skies

Exploring Teesdale and the North Pennines

The river Tees flows through the industrial town of Middlesbrough, up on the northeast coast of England. Historically, the river has been the industrial life blood of the area, making trade possible between towns throughout the northeast as well as to places further afield, like the Netherlands. The river has seen industries rise and then disappear: shipbuilding, brick-making, the flax trade, iron works. Now, it’s easy to forget that a river runs through this part of the country—situated north of the town centre, there’s little reason to head towards this part of Middlesbrough, and while the river meanders through some pretty market towns further upstream, places like Yarm no longer rely on the trade coming from the Tees.

I had decided that since I had grown up in an industrial town with quite a historically significant river, I should explore some of it. The downstream parts of the Tees I already knew quite well, so I set my sights higher, to the upper reaches of the Teesdale valley and the limestone hills where the river bubbles up from the earth. The valley is only an hour outside of Middlesbrough, and yet for some peculiar reason I’d never been, confined myself to the marshy land and industrial towns on the coast. The goal I had in mind was to head up to Cow Green Reservoir in the North Pennines, near the actual source of the Tees on Cross Fell, the highest peak in the Pennines.

Setting out from Middlesbrough, the drive is uninteresting until you start to reach the more rural parts of County Durham, where you’ll start to see signs for towns and villages with charming names like Summerhouse and Winston. The drive up to Teesdale also takes you through Piercebridge, the point at which the Roman road of Dere Street crossed the River Tees. Here, you can still see the remains of the bridge, a bit of an underwhelming view once you’ve taken the time to walk down the river from a rudimentary tourist car park; the remains are all crumbled rock and timber, the bridge having been washed away by floods in 1771.

ruins of roman bridge on sunny day with trees in distance

After Piercebridge, and aside from the larger market town of Barnard Castle, the towns quickly become smaller, mere gatherings of houses on the banks of the Tees, which has, by now, also shrunk to a fast-flowing stream. Every now and then, through the trees which line the country road, you catch a glimpse of the river, water reflecting the sun in a gleam of white light. Between Eggleston and Middleton-in-Teesdale, a great vista opens up from the road and you can see completely across the valley: the Tees meandering through the villages and farms, the larger hills of the North Pennines looking ominous in the distance.

river and hills on a sunny day blue skies
iron sculpture of a feather with river tees in the distance surrounded by hills
A sculpture at the viewpoint over the River Tees
view of a river running through a green valley with trees on a sunny day
Looking towards south Teesdale

At some point along the road, the scenery changed; a dramatic shift from the luscious greens of the lower parts of the valley, woodland obscuring the fields, to pure, open horizons, where the hills of the Pennines are the only thing visible for miles around. They demand your attention—huge hunks of limestone crafted by glaciers in the aftermath of the Ice Age. At one curve in the road, a church comes into view, standing lonesome of the peak of a hill, surrounded by a few trees. I wondered how and why it came to be there in such a remote place, serving only a few farmers and the sheep.

Right on cue, as we neared the final section up to Cow Green Reservoir, the weather changed. Clouds replaced the blue skies that had followed us all the way from Middlesbrough, making the desolate landscape look even more bleak. I couldn’t as yet see the reservoir, hidden as it was in a dip between the hills. Seen on Google Maps, Cow Green is a great dark blob amongst the browns and greens of the surrounding Pennine hills and valleys. It looks big, but nothing prepared for me for just how big it would be.

“There’s nothing but sky up at Cow Green reservoir,” my dad had told me, and he was right. The turbulent water of the reservoir, with the wind whipping over it, reflected only the grey sky and the dark masses of the Pennine hills, a huge expanse of grey shifting with the wind. Through gaps in the cloud cover, sunlight was still intent on getting through, producing beams of light that lit up the dark water.

view of reservoir with clouds
Looking out over Cow Green Reservoir
reservoir surrounded by hills with clouds and sunlight beams
A view over Cow Green Reservoir towards Dutton Fell

In this part of Teesdale, deep in the North Pennines, the climate is classed as ‘Sub-Arctic’. I was woefully unprepared for this climate. The wind cut through every crack in my coat, chilling me to the bone. My fingers became painfully numb (making taking pictures fairly difficult), but I wanted to walk as much as possible around the reservoir while it was still light. I was grateful that I was here on a relatively mild day—I couldn’t imagine what this area might be like the peak of winter.

In the end, I was defeated by the cold, returning to the warmth of the car. I had made it to the upper reaches of the river Tees—or, at least, to the most easily accessible start of the Tees, at Cow Green Reservoir. From the reservoir, looking north, it was just possible to see Cross Fell, the actual point where the river originates. Its peak looked dark and brooding, a shadow on the horizon, seemingly inaccessible. I also hadn’t quite made it to Cauldron Snout, a place that sounds like it’s straight out of a fantasy novel but in actuality is just a small waterfall behind the reservoir dam. I had been totally surprised by the sheer wildness of this area—and, just to reiterate, this is only a couple of hours away from the industrial ports of the river Tees. I vowed to come back, to explore more of this area—and next time, I would bring gloves.

view of large reservoir with dam in the distance on a sunny day with clouds in the sky
Looking towards the dam of Cow Green Reservoir

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