At a desolate spot high upon the backbone of England, where the modern-day counties of Cumbria, North Yorkshire and County Durham meet, can be found Tan Hill. Famous for it’s desperately isolated inn, it is also the point where the magnificent Pennine Way trail both enters and exits our region. Almost half of its 268-mile long route winds its way through Northumberland and County Durham, providing the fit and healthy among us with some of the most spectacular and historically interesting scenery in Europe.
Running north-south from Kirk Yetholm, a little over the Scottish Border, to Edale in Derbyshire, the trail was devised by keen walker Tom Stephenson, inspired, it is said, by the American Appalachian Trail. A journalist by profession, Stephenson first presented the concept in an article for the Daily Herald as long ago as 1935, and campaigned for an incredible 30 years before the very last section of the path was officially opened on 24th April 1965. Prior to its being thrown before the feet of the British public a comprehensive feasibility study was carried out - including, astonishingly, an on-the-ground hiking test by the British Army conducted by several separate patrols in a single day. In the 50-odd years since, the path has proved to be an outstanding success with around 12,000 long-distance and 250,000 day-users accessing the route per year.
Starting at the top, the UK’s most famous long-distance path begins at the Scottish border town of Kirk Yetholm, quickly angling SE to pick up the border itself and the Cheviot Hills. Clipping the top of the College valley, one is presented with an optional leg to the summit of the Cheviot, before swinging SW (with the border) over heights such as Windy Gyle, Mozie Law and the tasty-sounding hills of Beefstand and Lamb. Skirting the upper reaches of the Coquet basin, it drops down onto Chew Green Roman Camp, away from the line of the border, and thence southwards, eventually, into Redesdale, a little downstream from Catcleugh Reservoir. Easing around the western banks of the Rede, the path ascends Padon Hill, and then drops down directly into Bellingham - and over the River North Tyne.
A mixture of moor and coniferous woodland next, as the trail heads further south towards Hadrian’s Wall country - and almost too much history to bear! Crashing into the Roman Wall itself a little to the west of Housesteads, it staggers over the most dramatic section of the World Heritage Site in a westerly direction. Steel Rigg, Winshield Crags (the Wall’s highest point), Cawfield Crags, Great Chesters Fort - then it strikes across to Thirlwall Castle just north of Greenhead. Finally, the path turns south again, away from the Roman Wall, over Blenkinsopp Common, and into a landscape pockmarked with disused quarries and mining shafts - relics of a different, industrial, age.
Next the route arrows between the Cumbrian border to the west and the River South Tyne to the east, picking up the Maiden Way Roman road for a while, then chasing the River South Tyne valley through Slaggyford and Kirkhaugh - calling in at Whitley Castle Roman Fort, before disappearing into Cumbria.
In Cumbria it snakes through Alston and Garrigill - prime leadmining country - before heading to the top of Cross Fell, which, at 893m, is the highest point on the Pennine Way. After a loop around to Dufton, the walk heads sharply eastwards and back over the North-East border - this time into County Durham, at a point directly under the dam of Cow Green Reservoir.
It’s along the River Tees for a stretch now, as the spectacular Cauldron Snout and High Force waterfalls are taken in. Then, just before Middleton-in-Teesdale, the trail turns west and south, into lands once part of Yorkshire’s North Riding but now, since 1974, belonging to County Durham. Piercing Selset and Grassholme Reservoirs and ditto Balderhead and Blackton Reservoirs, we move thus into Baldersdale and then over Cotherstone Moor. Here the path splits, presenting one with options via Bowes (to the east) or God’s Bridge (to the west) - both of which cross the A66 - before we are directed southwestward up the Sleightholme Beck.
Climbing up and over the moors, Tan Hill finally beckons as the Pennine Way prepares to take us into the foreign land that is North Yorkshire. But there will always be time to drop in at the famous Tan Hill Inn, Britain’s highest pub at 528m.
But, whoa there! Just a minute. North Yorkshire? We’ve come a little too far.
And so ends the Great North-East History Tour, via 500-odd historical stop-offs…
… With occasional updates to (hopefully) follow.
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