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Posts Tagged ‘nature’

I am already getting so behind in this tale. I set off weeks ago in all good faith half expecting to be at Barnard Castle by Easter. That hasn’t happened. While I’m more advanced in my journey than this blog would suggest – for those who follow me on social media will have seen I’m three bridges further on already – the annual awakening by people who want me to work with them has started and the day-to-day projects are almost at full capacity.

However, it’s a well-earned weekend off so I can pick up on where I was and start to clear the blog post backlog before I venture any further and make it worse.

In the previous post we’d got as far as Holwick Head footbridge. We’re now on very familiar turf. The next two stretches are very much my regular walking patch. It’s where I go most often when I need to get out to walk and think – or sometimes not think – frequently just as useful.

This is a well worn part of the Pennine Way and extremely popular with families at weekends. The while most set off from Bowlees to walk up past Low Force to High Force, a fair few will call it a day at Holwick Head, or head over the river to lunch at the High Force Hotel.

The river on this next stretch is always reasonably fast and it’s one of the steepest downhill stretches. Every hundred yards or so there is another little cataract or cascade helping it lose height. This stretch is also populated by a number of islands. When the river level is low, most of these are accessible from the south side. Some of the islands are barely separated from the bank, others are at points where the river splits and flows around them. The largest islands are separated by deep gullies which flow back up from the downstream end leading to a false sense of a very calm and flat river, when in reality on the far side of the island the river course is crashing down a series of violent falls with deep pools and jagged barricades of whinsill.

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On the day I walked to photograph it for this blog post the river was in full spate. A recent sharp thaw along with a day’s rain had really swollen the river and it was galloping along at a frightening pace. Leaping over every rock and boulder that still broke the raised water surface.

The largest of these cascades is Low Force. Here the river falls over a series of small drops before committing itself to the main 8m (24ft) fall.

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Low Force is actually two main fall paths – the main one to the left is bisected by a stubborn  outcrop at the top dividing an otherwise continuous drop to a deep pool beneath. Only when the river is in spate does this fall take on the full grace of a seamless curtain or river. To the right another gap in the whinsill allows another deeper but narrower column of water to escape. The volume of water through this narrower opening makes for a much more powerful spout that frequently carries rainbows in its spray in the late afternoon. Further across the river is another of the occasionally isolated islands. This one is accessible from the north bank for most of the summer months and gives a great view of the falls from the other side of the river. In the winter months this island is separated by a shallower stretch of river which in turns cascades into a an elongated still pool just downstream of the main falls.

Today the falls were in full flow and Low Force was mostly one giant wall of water charging over the sill. The waters below were deep and dark and constantly swirling with a menace of unseen currents.

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Downstream of the falls a particularly impressive outcrop of the now familiar dolerite columns act as a perfect picnicking spot with classic romantic views of the waterfalls through the trees in the woods beyond.

Low force is a popular spot for visitors and locals alike. The accessibility of the waterfalls and myriad of revealed views give a very real impression of the power of the river at this point. Weekends see often large number of people coming to look in awe and wonder. A beauty spot I guess some would consider it.

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Kayaking over Low Force on a sunnier day

Some get even more acquainted with the forces of nature. Most weekends in the spring and autumn when the water levels are up Low Force becomes a major attraction for kayakers, whitewater rafting or sometimes river rescue training. From Holwick Head footbridge to the sea at Redcar, the Tees is navigable all the way in a kayak. Only during extended periods of dry weather does the stretch down to Middleton in Teesdale become a problem when the rocky nature of the river bed and its dark water prove to be too difficult.

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Just below Low Force the river is crossed by the first of the genuinely interesting bridges – Winch Bridge. Originally built in the 18th century to allow lead miners in Holwick village to get to the newer workings above Newbiggin the first bridge is thought to have been the earliest example of a suspension bridge in Europe. The original bridge was made from hand wrought iron chain links with a single handrail across. In 1802, during a bad storm, three people were crossing the bridge when it gave way and all three were plunged into the raging water beneath. Two were rescued but the third was swept away to his death.

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The bridge was rebuilt in around 1830 and that is the form it takes today – two spans of cast iron chain with a timber walkway between. It has a handrail on each side suspended from cast iron towers on either side. Some additional strengthening was made in 1990, but it’s essentially the same 1830 suspension bridge and sways a fair bit when crossing.

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It’s a good place for a bridge. The rock faces either side make the river narrow so a short crossing. The density of the whinsill make it a very stable base to anchor a bridge. With the river running so fast on this stretch, bridging the river was a much safer option than fording it. A suspension bridge is a really good design solution for this site, but I wonder, given that this was probably the first suspension or chain bridge in Europe how the miners arrived at this solution in the first place. Even this 1830’s rebuild is an elegant solution and one that’s clearly stood the test of time. With its footings well above the waterline, this is the bridge that so far has lasted the longest in the upper reaches of the river.

The steep chasm below and the dark, swirling waters add to the sense of drama of this bridge. That combination of foreboding rocks, black water and the height above them being crossed with something as light and delicate and a few plank of wood suspended between thin pillars that makes this a memorable crossing.

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But there’s still another 50 miles or so to go before we reach the sea and there are many more ways that people have found to get across this river. From the centre of Winch Bridge you get a great perspective of the river turelessly working its way ever onward.

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The curlews are back.

As a phrase it’s simple and short. You can pack so much into short phrases. In Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’, the pivotal moment in the whole play is written as just ‘He died’. There’s no how or why or wherefore. No big announcement or speech. No high drama. Just two words.

The curlews are back.

it’s four words, granted, but in the upper reaches of the North Pennines it says so much. In any normal winter it would mark the end of it. A return to normal and the reassurance that everything will be OK again. With the numbers of curlew and lapwing and oystercatcher and redshank on the ever decline in the North of England, it marks something of a sigh of relief to hear those first whirring, bubbling, almost alien calls echoing around the fells.

Hearing those sounds also reminds me I’m in the Upper Dale, which is where I got to after leaving Cronkley Bridge. Heading ever onwards, downstream towards the distant sea.

Today the river level is up a bit and the water is running at a fair pace. Not quite in spate, but in a decided hurry nonetheless.

Following the Pennine Way, the path is well marked and maintained, but moves away from the course of the river as it swings right and left and right in big sweeping curves beneath Dime Holm Scar. Up on Bracken Rigg the path flatten out to a brief plateau and the gentle mounds of a bronze age settlement.

The path next meets the river just before the crushing plants of High Force Quarry loom up on the opposite bank. A still very active whinstone quarry, it’s a present reminder of the industrial activity that’s shaped all of the landscape around here. This now barren and wild landscape bears the marks everywhere of centuries of mining and quarrying and the wealth and poverty of those that came to make their fortune from what lies beneath the surface.

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But the landscape is vast too, and easily swallows up the industrial workings. A mere dot on the wider view.

 

And opposite, barely visited and overlooked by the rumble of machines and steel and rubber tyres, is one of the most spectacular waterfalls in this part of the Pennines.

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Bleabeck Force is the final leap where two becks from way up the fell meet and tumble down in a race to get to the river. From the Tees there is a small concrete beam bridge that gives you a view up the lower cascades and the top of the highest one. A short scramble over the boulders rewards you with a great view of the main fall and plunge pool below. The water levels on these fellside becks and gills are fickle and I’ve walked past this many times and never seen it look quite so spectacular. I’ll definitely make the journey up on a spate day.

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Back at the Tees, the river is still in a bit of a hurry. Skipping over the rocky bed which itself is becoming increasingly jarred and jagged with much larger outcrops appearing to grow up from the river bed. These angular intrusions breaking up the flow of the river and churning it white and chaotic.

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A quarter of a mile further on the river meets a wall of whinstone and is forced into a narrow channel down one side. The full width of the river – maybe 10 metres or more squeezed into a gap no more than a metre in places. here the water shows it’s true potential. You sense it’s speed and sheer will power.

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It’s sprinting now.

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Then with one last twist and pirouette it leaps.

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and over a 35m vertical drop. In one, two steps.

As it collides with the pool below, large quantities launch back up against the incessant downforce.

This is High Force. The ‘biggest’ waterfall in England. I’m not sure how they quantify these things. It’s not the highest or the widest, but when in full flow it certainly has the largest volume of water per metre drop. Or something like that. Well, it’s impressive and it’s the biggest tourist attraction in the upper dale.

There’s two ways to see this. From the carpark beside the High Force Hotel on the main dale road there’s a very attractive path that leads down the steep gorge to the base of the water falls for a few pounds entrance. Here you get to be as close as you’d want to get o experience the full power of the falls. When it’s in full flow the spray can be so much it’s difficult to see the falls. But the sight of that much water in full motion and the continuous roar is a real experience.

Alternatively, from the Pennine Way on the other side of the river, you can get scarily close to the very top of the falls and watch the water disappearing down to the river below. Further downstream, there’s a little path off the main route that takes you to a small, unmarked viewing clearing where you get to see the whole waterfall in it’s full glory. And this one is free.

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Breaking yourself away from watching the waterfall, the path continues through a very ancient juniper forest while the river runs through a steep wooded gorge below and largely unseen for about a mile. The path meets the river again at the next bridge.

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It’s bridges we’ve really come to see and this is a fine one. Holwick Head Footbridge links the main Teesdale road with Holwick Head House and the track down towards Holwick village and the Earl of Strathmore’s estates.

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Upper Teesdale is split into two major estates – to the north is the Raby estate of Raby Castle and the ownership of the Lord Barnard. It can be distinguished by its whitewashed buildings and dark blue paintwork. To the south of the river at this point is the estate of the Earl of Strathmore who has a country house at Holwick Lodge. Holwick Head Bridge marks a link between the two estates and was originally built by the then Duke of Cleveland in 1896 and was known at the time as the Duke’s Bridge.

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It was rebuilt as a single footbridge by Durham County Council in 1998, but still retains the rather grand cast iron gateposts of the original bridge made by Motley and Green of Leeds.

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It’s a simple steel girder construction over a central stone pillar with wooden decking. It’s a popular bridge with walkers making circular trips along the river, or just as a stopping place to stand and watch the river run below. But its still only a footbridge. The first proper road bridge across isn’t for another six or seven miles yet which makes you realise just how isolated the south side of the river is. These bridges may be few and far between, but they’re vital for getting around this landscape.

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From the top of the bridge the river is busy on its way and largely ignores the passing of people overhead. It may have lost some of its width since High Force, but it’s lost none of its sense of purpose. There’s no slowing down or pausing to catch a breath. It will need all its energy to get past the next bit.

 

 

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Bridge numbers. I like bridge numbers. Bridges that cross canals and railways (and motorways for that matter) all have numbers. Names are good, but numbers give you a sense of where you are. On canals they are an essential navigation aid. But bridges over rivers don’t need numbers. The difference between things you go over as opposed to things you go under I guess. Still, I’m counting these bridges over the Tees. Cow Green Dam Wall isn’t technically a bridge, so Birkdale Bridge is no.2. It’s a litle way to no.3.

We left the river below Birkdale Bridge as it plummeted down Cauldron Snout. This cascade is more a series of cataracts over a 180m length – making this the longest waterfall in England. There’s a good clamber down the entire south side over the dolerite pillars of winsill so plenty of places to admire the power of the water as it plummets down a total of 60m. Even on relatively dry days, as the water is regulated at the dam it’s always an impressive sight.

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There used to be a little wooden footbridge across the falls – about halfway down.  This would have given an incredible view of the torrents below. Before the reservoir was built, the river ran round a long sweeping crescent picking up speed so by the time it reached the top of Cauldron Snout it was already wild and raring to go. The wooden bridge disappears from the maps by the 1940s and a track bridge appears about where the dam wall is today. But never both together. The amazing moving bridge. There’s more of these to come further downstream..

At the base of the falls, the river meets with Maise Beck – one of its larger tributaries at this end and corners beneath the cliffs of Falcon Clints. This next section along the shadow of Cronkley Fell is wide and flat. The river here is very wide given how young it still is. It’s very shallow but very fast. From here to the top of the next waterfall, High Force – about 6 miles away – it’s got 100m to fall so it’s on a bit of a sprint while it can. The landscape here is classic glacial pasture. big wide and relatively flat land with steeply rising fells beyond. Thousands of years ago this valley was scoured out by the receding ice flows. Long before that, these carboniferous rocks stretched across to the much older Lake District and formed a border with the still separate Scotland. It’s a very old landscape indeed.

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As the land flattens out, so the farms start to appear. First up on the left is Widdybank Farm. As remote hill farms go, this is particularly remote.Yet along the banks of the river the pasture area is flat and fertile. Great for cattle, but still too exposed and high up to grow anything meaningful.

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There are no bridges for miles, but the river is wide and shallow and during the summer months certainly fordable at any number of points.

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Further along on the north bank are the remains of a pencil mill. Here the sedimentary rocks were ground down and  pressed into moulds to make pencils. The mill opened in the mid 19th Century and produced pencils – know locally as ‘widdies’ until 1890.

The river winds and widens until near the far end of Cronkley Fell we find Cronkley Bridge. Bridge no.3 in my book. This is a simple steel girder span over two intermediate stone pillars with a wooden deck. It’s flat and utilitarian and is probably 1950s. The main feature is its length – about 40m. We won’t see another longer bridge for over 30miles. You would normally build a bridge at its narrowest point. It’s certainly the cheapest way to build one. I imagine, as the river is shallow and with a flat rocky bed, this would be an ideal fording point, but a bridge has been marked here on maps certainly from the mid 1800s.

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I had planned on following the river towards High Force about a mile downstream, but a loose and very vocal dog at one of the farms clearly had other ideas, so that bit is another for a revisit. Cronkley Bridge is on the Pennine Way so it’ll be a bit busier later in the year. Also, from March the wading birds return to nest on these high moors. Today it’s almost silent, but by mid April the air here is filled with the strange whoops and warbles of Curlew and Lapwings, the buzz of snipe and the cackle of grouse – over 3/4 of England’s native Back Grouse live in these barren hills of the North Pennines.

But that’s bridge no.3 done. The next four are all walking distance from where I live so familiar territory for a bit…

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Maybe it’s that new year thing when you start out with good intentions – bold ideas, long-term plans, fresh start or whatever, but I guess every new thing has to start somewhere, at sometime. It seems that the winter months are when I look ahead to the coming year and finally get to start working on new projects. There’s still some gaps in the overall view of the year, but from what’s already there I’m getting a feel for the overarching themes. While last year was more about textures and moments, this year looks like being one of spaces and voids. Strange how things find their own threads.

Last year I really got to know some of the river where I live. I spent large chunks of time watching it, filming it, photographing it, editing the results and creating the major piece of the year – ‘Waterfall‘. I’ll probably do a more in-depth post about that at some point, but for those new to the game, ‘Waterfall’ saw three white-washed field barns wrapped in slow-motion film footage of the three main waterfalls of the River Tees. Each barn became a visual cube of slow moving water in the night sky. It was big and awesome and probably the best thing I’d done in a long long time.

Since that piece I’ve had an uncomfortable relationship with the river. I used to go down there almost every day, but the daily photographing and research has probably made me over familiar now and some of its magic is somehow lost. I kind of know how it does all its tricks now.

So I needed to find a way to re-engage with the river. There are new things I need to discover. I need to find another story in it.

Then last week I caught up with Andy Carters ‘270’ project on his Calling All Station YouTube channel. Over the next 52 weeks Andy  is aiming to visit all 270 stations on the London Underground. To make it more interesting he has to pass through the ticket barriers at least once at every station – either coming or going through them, not just passing through on a train. It’s this slowing down of the travel that makes you stop, look, think and examine the familiar. About 40 stations in (starting with the boring bits of the  Jubilee Line) and I’m already hooked. Each station is documented on his blog as he goes along too, creating a comprehensive gazetteer of architectural gems and subterranean secrets beneath the capital.

Inspired by his journey, I’ve decided on mine – to visit and cross* every crossing of the River Tees from source to sea.

Bridges are fascinating things. I’ve had my own experiences in constructing them. Essentially they are practical engineering – a way of traversing in this case water. Yet as purely man made structures in what is on this route, mostly open countryside, they have a very distinctive presence within the landscape to manage.

Today I made a start. The purist in me wanted to start at the source and work progressively downstream. However, it’s still very much winter and as the Tees starts just below the summit of Cross Fell – the highest peak on the Pennines – and very much buried under snow for the next few weeks I’ve decided to scrap that and not be precious about the order in which I visit the bridges.

My first crossing then wasn’t even a bridge. It was also one of the biggest structures on the river – the dam wall at Cow Green Reservoir.

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Between 1969 and 1971, a section of the Upper Tees was flooded to create the 2-mile long Cow Green Reservoir as a part of of a series of interventions to regulate the flow of water down the river for abstraction purposes. The 1/4 mile long concrete reinforced embankment holds back 40,000,000,000 litres of water (count those zeros!) while the entire river flow is regulated by sluices on the southern bank. So technically the River Tees flows beneath it, so the dam wall is a crossing.

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The reservoir sits in a natural basin of pasture land high in the North Pennines. The landscape here is a unique blend of very specific geology and rare botanical habitat. Widdybank Fell which sits along the Durham side of the water is home to the rare Blue Gentian  and the only place in the UK where alpine plants have survived since the last great ice age. The land here is fertile and remains of bronze age summer farms lie beneath the reservoir – themselves an indicator of how climate changes over time. Back then temperatures in these upper fells were around three degrees warmer. It might not sound much but the weather here is now too cold for most wading birds to breed on the reservoir. On a fairly bright day like today it felt relatively mild a few miles downstream, yet up here the shaded bays on the water are still iced over and pockets of snow lie in the heather.

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Today the reservoir sits in the Moorhouse National Nature Reserve – the largest nature reserve in the UK taking in the highest fells in the Pennine chain and the upper catchments of the River Tees.

The wall is an immense brutal slab of industrial infrastructure. Its scale and construction means it’s never going to blend in (whatever that means) and makes a bold statement within the landscape. Yet, the sparsity and relative bleakness of this part of the dale tolerates its monolithic brutality. The scale of the landscape seems to just swallow it up. As the river rushes quickly away from the wall thinly over bedrock, there is a greyness and roughness, that is almost alien in spirit and the concrete meets the bedrock as an ancient ancestor and the family resemblance is still there.

Within yards of the wall, the river passes beneath Birkdale Footbridge. This is the first of the bridges in County Durham and is still a border crossing between Durham and Cumbria. Built in 1966 – and just predating the dam wall – it’s made from a concrete span sitting on two reinforced stone pillars in the river. Like the dam, it’s a very utilitarian structure and supports a private access road and the Pennine way.

Downstream of the bridge the river disappears down a series of dramatic cataracts between basaltic columns of winsill. At a total of over 200ft, Cauldron Snout is one of the main waterfalls of the River Tees and shows how fast the water develops its wild character from the man-made sluices of the reservoir.

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So this is where my journey this year begins. I’ll back track when it’s warmer to find the source of the river and the only bridge beyond the reservoir, but I’m looking forward to discovering the journey of the water from the sluices as it cuts its way through the landscape towards the sea, and how people have built ways of traversing it.

It’s a long a winding story and I’m looking forward to discovering the stories and narratives of those crossing places. it’s a rich history and along the way I’m going to find Romans and Saxons, and JMW Turner and Lewis Carroll and railways and steel and plutonium. Lots of landscape and lots of engineering. And lots of walking.

 

*ok. so I won’t walk over the railway bridges,or motorway one and will probably give the pipe bridges a miss too

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