An Introduction to the North Pennines in the County of Cumbria
The North Pennines is one of England’s most special places – a landscape of open heather moors and peatlands, attractive dales and hay meadows, tumbling upland rivers, wonderful woods, welcoming communities, intriguing remains of a mining and industrial past, distinctive birds, animals and plants and much more.
The North Pennines was designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) in 1988 for its moorland scenery, the product of centuries of farming and leadmining.
At almost 2,000 square kilometres (770 square miles) it is the second largest of the 49 AONBs in the United Kingdom.
The North Pennines extends from near Brampton, Melmerby, Gamblesby and Dufton (in Cumbria) to the west, Brough and Kirkby Stephen (in Cumbria) to the south, to Bowes, Castleside, Wolsingham and Middleton-in-Teesdale (in County Durham) to the east, and Allendale (just south of Hexham and Haydon Bridge in Northumberland) to the north.
Cow Green is a two mile long reservoir built between 1967 and 1971 to supply the industries of Teesside. Environmentally speaking this part of Upper Teesdale is of National importance, and the plan to construct this reservoir had been strongly opposed by local conservationists. Their main concern was the protection of the rich flora and fauna of the district and especially rare alpine plants like the unique Teesdale violet.
Moor House-Upper Teesdale National Nature Reserve extends from the upper edge of enclosed land in the Eden Valley, over Great Dun fell (848 m), Little Dun Fell and Knock Fell to the upper end of the reservoir. It extends southwards to the summit of Mickle Fell (788 m) and eastward, down the Tees, to High Force waterfall.
It is particularly well known for the plants that originally colonised the high Pennines after the ice age. You can also see rare rock formations such as outcropping sugar limestone and the Great Whin Sill. The reserve encompasses an almost complete range of upland habitats from lower lying hay meadows, rough grazing and juniper wood to limestone grassland, blanket bogs and summit heaths of the high fells. Nowhere else in Britain is there such a diversity of rare habitats in one location.
Alston claims to be the highest market settlement in England, being about 1000 feet above sea level. It is also remote, about 20 miles from the nearest town. From every direction Alston is approached over a broad, heather-cladded Pennine landscape.
Alston has a steep cobbled main street with a distinctive market cross, and many stone buildings dating from the 17th Century.
Alston is the starting point for the South Tynedale Railway, England’s highest narrow guage railway. The route runs from Alston in Cumbria to Kirkhaugh in Northumberland via the South Tyne Viaduct, the Gilderdale Viaduct and the Whitley Viaduct.
The small village of Nenthead in the North Pennines is England’s highest village at 1500 feet. Nenthead was a major centre for lead and silver mining, and in its time had the most productive lead mine in the country.
The London Lead Company was formed by Quakers in 1704, and the directors, in common with other Quaker industrialists, recognised a moral responsibility to their workforce. They built the first purpose-built industrial village in England and laid the foundations for today’s social welfare system. Complete with free lending libary and compulsory schooling for all children, the village of Nenthead was born.
The Nenthead Mines site has a small museum and interpretation display. Here you can explore the geology and history in the museum, and explore the site through self-guided trails..
For a lot of mine explorers, Nenthead is a mecca, as hundreds of miles of accessible mines still exist. It features some of the most stunning mines in the country, with several horse whims, and an 80 metre engine shaft in Rampghill.
Brough is a small town located on the A66 to the east of Cumbria. It lies in the Eden Valley, at the foot of the Cumbrian Pennines, a few miles north of Kirkby Stephen.
A round trip drive can be from Penrith to Brough, then up to Middleton-in-Teasdale, visiting High Force and Cow Green Reservoir. Then on to Alston, perhaps visiting Nenthead as well, and back to Penrith along the A 686 road – described by the AA as one of their ‘Ten Great Drives’.
High Force Waterfall – reputed to be the highest unbroken fall of water in England, (21 metres), is on the route from Brough to Alston, at Middleton-in-Teasdale, County Durham, where the River Tees plunges over a precipice in two stages.
Another of the North Pennines’ oddities is that it is home to England’s only named wind, the Helm Wind. It has caught out many walkers traversing the plateaux around Cross Fell, the Eden Valley fellside, and the valleys in between Alston and Dufton.
The great English poet W. H. Auden spent much time in this area and some forty poems and two plays are set here. He referred to the region as his “Mutterland”, his “great good place”, and equated it with his idea of Eden. Scores of Pennine place-names are found in his work, including Cauldron Snout and Rookhope
A large section of the Pennine Way falls in the AONB, including one of the most celebrated stretches through Teesdale, a lush valley with dramatic river scenery including the twin attractions of High Force and Cauldron Snout.
In East Cumbria the Pennine Way goes through Alston, Garrigill, over Cross Fell (which at 2930 feet is the highest point on the Pennine Way), Great Dun Fell, towards Dufton, then on to High Cup Nick and Cow Green Reservoir, on the border between Cumbria and County Durham.
The Sea to Sea Cycle Route is a long distance cycle route, through the Northern Lake District and the North Pennines, beginning on the Cumbria coast at Whitehaven or Workington on the Irish Sea, and finishing in Sunderland or Tynemouth on the North Sea.
The route enters the North Pennines area at Garrigill with a long climb over Hartside Pass and on to Nenthead. Here it leaves Cumbria and continues through Allenheads, Stanhope and leaves the area at Castleside, near Consett.
Nearly all of the 24,00 acres of the Warcop Fell Army Training Area lies within the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, including within part of the Moor House-Upper Teesdale Candidate Special Area of Conservation.
Warcop was established in 1942, as a tank gunnery range, urgently needed to prepare for the coming invasion of mainland Europe.
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