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Milburn Forest & Tees Head Circuit

Distance: 31 km (19 miles) | Profile: Very hilly | Going: Good on roads, vehicle tracks and upland pavements. Rough over rough pasture, tussocks, bog and rocks | Start/Finish: Garrigill nr. Alston, Cumbria (NY 744415) | Date: 05-04-15 | Comments: Although starting from a sheltered village with amenities this route is isolated, wet, strenuous and very exposed. Conditions change quickly and confident navigational skills using map and compass could be required (OS Map: Explorer Series OL31)

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Last week – Easter Sunday – my wife Diane and I decided to combine a long run with a visit to the source of the River Tees. I decided on a well known route centred on the area of the North Pennines known as Milburn Forest that takes in the 3 major peaks of Cross Fell, Little Dun Fell and Great Dun Fell (complete with its radar station) and the Moor House Nature Reserve. The circuit, starting and finishing in Garrigill, is about 31 km (19 miles) long and incorporates about 10 km of ascent to the top of Cross Fell (the highest point in the Pennines).

Unusually for a bank holiday, Easter Sunday itself turned out to be warm, bordering on hot, with a flawless blue sky and hardly a breath of wind all day. Perversely most of the fell tops retained considerable collars of snow, particularly on their northern flanks, which was put to use cooling sweaty brows as the day wore on.

We arrived quite late in the quiet little village of Garrigill, that once housed the workforce for the local lead mines, and it was one o’clock by the time we started upwards on the track that carries the Pennine Way towards the summit of Cross Fell, our first objective.

Apart from the warmth, the stand-out feature during the ascent was the huge number of frogs that we came across in the many pools and puddles. It was clearly mating season and it was almost embarrassing to be stepping over the rolling, knotted, polygamous clumps of the little croakers as we tentatively jogged our way up the fell!

Although it’s a fairly long ascent, the start and the finish are the hardest bits; in between it undulates, gradually rising past the remains of long abandoned mine workings until it reaches Greg’s Hut where the vehicle track morphs into a foot trail and kicks up more steeply heading over the shoulder of Cross Fell and down into the Eden Valley towards Kirkland.

The trail onto the summit of Cross Fell makes a sharp left turn and heads steeply upwards over much boggier ground with at least one section of grassy’mattress’ into which your feet can sink alarmingly although they never actually get wet (which can’t be said for the rest of the section unfortunately).

On the subject of wet feet and comfort in general, I much prefer wearing running or ‘fell’ shoes (and appropriate running gear in general). The fact that my feet are soaked early on is liberating and it’s no biggie to plodge into some marsh or stream to get a closer look at something or to take a better picture. As long as you can keep moving or get out of the wind when you stop, the job’s a good ‘un.

The weird thing about being on top of Cross Fell that day was the visibility. I’ve been up there many times, almost always in thick cloud. Notwithstanding its stretches of shattered sandstone it’s such a flat and featureless place that when the clag’s down it’s almost impossible to navigate across accurately without a compass (although there are several tall cairns, and a well constructed open shelter, to help).

Today however, there was no problem and with the golf ball dome on Great Dun Fell screaming for our attention it seemed rude to ignore it and we set off down the reverse slope slipping and sliding across a large expanse of blindingly white snow that was mocking the sun’s best attempts to melt it. For the record, we also found in it a nice, new, aluminium water bottle full of orange juice (at least I think it was orange juice!) so if it’s yours, drop me a line.

At the foot of the slope we turned left to make a short detour to the source of the Tees at a place known appropriately enough as ‘Tees Head’. Never having had a reason to go there before, I wasn’t expecting anything spectacular, maybe just a peaty bog or something, much like the ones we had to cross to get there (having ignored the earlier trail). What we found was an enigmatic, mysteriously inscribed sandstone pillar above a small, crystal-clear pool that was being fed vigorously from a source beneath the stone.

The contents of the pool spilled steadily down the fell towards the Tees, meandering in the valley far below. Before looking into the water I briefly wondered how I’d feel if instead of my own reflection I was confronted with that of Peg Powler, the hideous, evil, water spirit that is supposed to drag unwary travellers to their deaths in the River Tees – surely the old hag’s power would be at its height at the river’s source?

But with Peg failing to put in an appearance and with photographs taken we turned back to ascend Little Dun Fell, where we were able to look back at Cross Fell for the first time. Its western flank falls sharply away into the Eden Valley, stepped as a result of the weathering of the different layers of rock that evidence its almost unfathomable passage through time.

Back to the route, it’s possible to view much of it from the summit of Little Dun Fell: together with Cross Fell and Tees Head from whence we had come there is Great Dun Fell radar station; Great Dun Hush peeking out around the side; Moor House; the River Tees and the peaks of Tyne Head and Round Fell between which the route heads back to Garrigill.

With the afternoon sun beating even hotter now we followed the pavement constructed of large slabs of hewn stone down the side of the hill, across the saddle then upwards onto the slopes of Great Dun Fell. About half-way up, the trail returns to its natural state and passes just below the radar station where I couldn’t resist climbing the final few meters to get a better (but no more informative) look. I’m sure the chap who was also inspecting the dome on the other side of the fence must have been fairly used to folk like me stopping and gawking because his gaze never flickered when I popped my head up.

Much more interesting for me however is Dun Fell Hush a few hundred meters further down the other side of the hill. This is one of the largest lead mining features of its kind in Teesdale and is an impressive although entirely unnatural scar on the landscape. Like so many similar sites (including quarries) in the area it is a sobering testament to the scale of man’s ambition and his ability to extract wealth in an age before mechanisation.

Leaving the hush behind, the route is almost all either downhill or flat from thereon but beware – many is the time that I’ve been moaned at by running partners who complain that I’ve failed to point out the TINY little section of 1 in 4 or similar or even just the odd gentle rise that can matter so much when legs are tiring.

On the descent along Trout Beck what little trail there is becomes more of a spoor as it criss-crosses the beck. On the floodplain the going is soft, wet and at times very boggy. At one point my right leg plunged in above my knee and it took Diane a minute or so to pull me out: the suction was so great that I had to try – with some difficulty – to create space around my foot by wiggling it. It was a bit of a relief when I was finally freed!

We seemed to be in that gully for an age as the sun continued to burn. Hydration was never a problem though as the becks were still being fed from what remained of the snow and the water was clear and perfectly drinkable (to us at least). Eventually the floodplain widens as the field studies centre at Moor House is reached and here you start to notice bits of scientific paraphernalia along and around the beck. The beck’s confluence with the Tees is not far away but before that it passes through an impressive layer of limestone – Jew/Tyne Bottom/Scar for anyone who can shed a light on limestone strata perhaps?

The Trout Beck eventually meets the River Tees – which was as blue as the Spring Gentian flowers for which this part of Teesdale is well known – just downstream from the final crossing point. From here the Tees flows a few kilometres further, into Cow Green Reservoir in an area which, before the reservoir was built between 1969-71, was known as ‘The Weel’. This was prone to flooding during which time the waterfalls at Cauldron Snout and High Force would become raging torrents.

Although the trail now becomes a bit predictable on a consolidated vehicle track, one final treat remains: a couple of kilometres after crossing the Tees – at Tyne Head no less – is a large stone sculpture that announces itself as indicating the source of the River South Tyne. Personally I prefer the much less pretentious one at Tees Head but this’ll do. I often find myself feeling quite sentimental about the journey that two drops of rain falling within metres of each other might make in their respective rivers on their way to their respective oceans – it’s quite existential.

The track eventually turns into a road after it parts company with the South Tyne and continues to fall (in an undulating sort of way) back to Garrigill where we would have been lucky enough to find the newly opened George and Dragon pub serving what would have been a fine selection of ales – if it hadn’t just run out! However I made do with an equally fine lager and took a couple of bottles (a porter and a pale ale – both excellent) back home to have with me tea.

It was at this point that the scale of the day’s effort began to take its toll on Diane and despite it still being very warm outside on what was a glorious evening in a beautiful village, she insisted in sitting right next to the fire which would have been lovely in winter but which I could have done without right then. However, given that she’d been such a trouper and such a good companion over what turned out to be a tough 19 mile route I felt that I couldn’t really complain.

The route itself is a fairly well known one but is exposed and can present some significant navigational challenges in anything less than good conditions. The seemingly simple act of traversing Cross Fell can be challenging in poor visibility and the route along the Trout Beck, where the going is heavy, is not well marked. The danger of exposure is prevalent all of the way round and it shouldn’t be underestimated (although sunburn and heat exhaustion were more likely to have been a problem for us). In poor conditions you might do this for the challenge (providing you’re properly equipped and sufficiently experienced) but in good conditions with good visibility there are few routes to better it anywhere in the area.