Date: 11th July 2020.
Weather conditions: It could have been worse. It was, at least, dry. It could also have been a whole lot better, particularly as it is mid-July. Cloudy, grey, rather chilly.
County Top bagged: Burnhope Seat, which is 746m/2,447 feet above sea level (grid reference NY788375) and is the highest point in the historic county of Durham.
Durham was once straightforwardly defined as that area of the north-east of England between the rivers of the Tees and Tyne. Like many other counties, it was then messed with in 1974, when chunks of its urbanised sections were hived off to form modern authorities that include parts of Sunderland, Hartlepool, Stockton-on-Tees and Darlington — these all now have their own modern tops.
Conversely, Durham then also acquired a chunk of land south of the Tees that was once in the North Riding of Yorkshire, territory which includes Mickle Fell and its summit of 2,585 feet. Thus, this took over as the highest point in Durham, and Burnhope Seat becomes the first Top I have visited that is not a modern Top.
By altitude, Burnhope Seat ranks:
- 29th of the 91 historic tops;
- 34th of the full list of 196.
The walk described below, most of which actually takes place in Cumbria, also takes in the summit of Dead Stones at 709m/2,326 feet a.s.l.
[ << Allestree Park, Derby (12) | (14/15) Billinge Hill, St Helens and Crank Road, Wigan >> ]
Start and end point of walk: I started and finished on the B6277 road, right at the point where it crosses from Durham to Cumbria, marked by county signs and a cattle grid at NY781358. There is enough parking here for a couple of cars. (The nearby spot height of 1,959ft/597m above sea level makes this the second highest road summit in the whole of England — only beaten by the A689 a few miles to the east.) The walk took me a few minutes under five hours.
Pub at end: There is nothing at the terminus nor ever will be. My OS map suggests there is a pub a couple of miles north, in Garrigill, but Google Maps isn’t supporting this observation at the present time. In any case this would be the wrong way for those returning south, down Teesdale. In that direction, the nearest licensed establishment reached is the Langdon Beck Hotel.
Distance walked: 9.5 miles/15.3km approximately.
Feet of ascent: 410m/1,350 feet approximately.
This figure may seem low but even though Burnhope Seat is fairly elevated (the second-highest County Top I have done so far), the whole walk is high altitude. As already noted, the starting point is high up, and my route never gets lower than about 375m/1,230 feet a.s.l.
Difficulty: ★★★★. This is a walk of two halves. The second half, from Ashgill Woods on, is a little overgrown and/or soggy in parts but basically it is straightforward. The first four-and-a-half miles, however, lie across pathless, peaty moorland (as pictured above). Make no mistake, this will be tough going even in fine weather. Come prepared, and don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Ease of access: ★★. This is the first walk so far where I was obliged to come in the car. Places like Alston and Wearhead can be reached on public transport but are still many miles from the summit, and long and tricky journeys impossible to do on a day trip from anywhere other than close by. So though I find it more pleasing to get about the country on trains and buses than in a car, I’m afraid there’s no choice with this one. It’s a nice drive up Teesdale, though.
Scenic qualities: ★★★. The walk along the pleasant South Tyne valley redeems the bleakness of the peat moors. Views from high up are dominated by the three highest Pennines; Great Dun Fell (identifiable by its radar station: see the picture), Little Dun Fell and Cross Fell. These loom over the scene like a trio of whales. There is a vastness and emptiness to the landscape that makes it look like Iceland, almost. But nearer at hand, your liking for the scenes of endless peat hags will inevitably be tempered by the fact that you are having to trudge through them.
The area: County Durham’s historical prosperity was based on two factors. Firstly the city of Durham itself, with its cathedral, castle and ancient university. If you’ve never been, it’s a spectacular place and well worth a visit (there is no better view of any city in Britain from its train station, in my opinion). The second factor was mining, whether coal, lead or other minerals. When these industries collapsed (or, were ravaged by Thatcherism) in the 1980s, the county became one of the most deprived areas in Britain, and much of it still has a kind of backwater feel. But I lived nearby for a time in the 1990s and have generally good memories of the place.
Map: Navigation is not actually a problem on this route, as on the moors one is following a fence, and down in the valley, signposting is decent. But it’d still be a good idea to equip yourself with a version of Outdoor Leisure map OL31: North Pennines.
On the summary map shown here, the starting and finishing point is at the southernmost tip of the route, and it proceeds anticlockwise.
Route: A few words of advice first. While this would be a safe walk in mist, I would not do it in wet weather, or after recent heavy rain, as it would then be utter purgatory. Learn and apply the golden rule for negotiating boggy ground, which is, the paler the grass, the firmer and drier will be the footing. Lush carpets of dark green moss should be avoided. If the peat looks dry (that is, like earth rather than mud), it will safely take a boot. Beyond that, the best of luck.
Burnhope Seat sits at the convergence point of the basins of the north-east’s three major rivers, the Tees, Wear and Tyne. The walk proceeds through each of them, starting with the Tees. Crook Burn is heading that way, and is the stream that goes under the road by the cattle grid. The route begins by requiring you to proceed up the fence that runs alongside it. Learn to love this fence, which you will become very familiar with over the next few miles. Don’t expect to find paths up here: there aren’t any. The fence is your only guide.
The county border between what is now Cumbria (and was Cumberland) and Durham wanders from side to side of this straight fence — maybe the surveyors were just trying to avoid the bogs. Occasional grey standing stones mark the boundary. The one pictured here stands where the fence reaches a junction; turn left. You leave the basin of the Tees here. Now, on your right, streams are heading for the Wear, and eventually the sea at Sunderland; on the left, the Tyne, and Newcastle.
The summit of Burnhope Seat, marked by its trig, is reached by struggling through the peat a little more (the picture of the hags from further up the page was taken from this section). At least the summit is dry, and a place to rest for a while. Incidentally, there does seem to be slightly higher ground over the fence to the west, but even if there is, this is all in Cumbria. The trig is definitively the highest point in (historic) Durham.
Continue along the fence to the north. The bogs don’’t get any better now you’re on the top; the opposite is true, if anything. Wooden boards offer respite at points, but many are cracked and rotting. Soldier on though, as the summit of Dead Stones is just about worth it thanks to its impressive cairn and shelter, although I wouldn’t sit inside the latter, as the stone roof looks as if it will come down the next time someone does a really loud cough. Stick to the ‘porch’.
Doubtless you have experienced enough peat by now to have put you off gardening for life, so descend beside the fence that you crossed just before the summit. This leads down onto an old mine road that is the first made track of any description that you have reached in 4½ miles. After this everything is much easier. Turn right at the track then, when it reaches a narrow tarmac lane, left through the semi-felled plantation of Ashgill Woods. When this lane comes out onto the B6277, turn right along the road for a short distance. Be very wary of traffic here — keep your ears open.
Escape left at the first opportunity, beside the white-painted farm, dropping down through fields to the signposted ‘South Tyne Trail’ at the bottom, where turn left (this is the lowest altitude point reached on the walk). This path leads back south, accompanying the infant river Tyne. Actually this is the South Tyne; its sibling, the North Tyne, starts miles away, on the Scottish border. Anyone familiar with the city of Newcastle will marvel at how sweet and innocent the Tyne seems here. Not that you see that much of it until the path comes out at the open area (pictured) with its many sheep grazing on the banks.
Keep going along the valley bottom until reaching a signpost near the extremely remote farm of Tynehead. There turn left, heading past the farm and climbing up out of the valley. This final climb does outstay its welcome a little, though distraction is offered by the sight of the old mine workings down in Clargill Beck below. Once up on the road again, turn right, and as long as no one has made off with your car, you will return to it about half a mile later.
Entirely optional commentary: Despite the travails of the peat, I had a good day today. This was the first walk I’ve done, in either my Wainwright or County Tops rounds, that felt ‘normal’ (as opposed to ‘new [ab]normal’) since some time in February. Pubs have reopened, which helps enormously. I drove to this walk via as quick a route as I could find (2½ hours from home in West Yorkshire, via the A1, A66 then up Teesdale), but coming home I took the scenic route through the Yorkshire Dales, and most of the places I passed were seeing healthy amounts of business if the occupancy of outside tables was anything to go by. Everywhere seemed to be operating sensibly and — except for wondering why we didn’t do this weeks ago — I can see this as only a good thing.
Mind you, I am glad I did not fulfil my original plan, to (more or less) follow the walk route described on this blog. My experience today suggests that this would have involved more than ten miles of ploughing through crud. Once I’d established I was coming by car, starting where I did (more than 1,900 feet up) seemed the sensible option and reduced considerably my need to get intimate with peat.
I know it’s a valuable natural resource, and how much biodiversity a good, well-maintained peat upland sustains. This was a good walk for wildlife in fact, with many birds of prey and lapwings spotted and more hares than I have seen anywhere in a long time. But peat is hard work and all the way round the first half of the walk I felt I was only one misstep away from sliding over and ending up caked in filth.
The walk as a whole did bring a sense of enjoyment and self-satisfaction, though. The pleasure of having explored, and attaining a hard-to-reach point by the sweat of one’s own brow. And that’s the point of this, isn’t it?
Walking has sustained my sanity through lockdown and even if the pubs are now open, not much else is that I enjoy (football grounds, cinemas and clubs remain denied to us all). In a few days, I’m off work for a while, and as long as the weather holds out, I might as well carry on peak-bagging. So there may be another one of these done before the end of the month. Less bog would be welcome — but let us see what the landscape brings.
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