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Circuit of Upper Hudeshope

Distance: 18.5 km (11.5 miles) | Profile: Undulating then very hilly | Going: Generally difficult over bog, heather and tussocks. Some roads and tracks | Start/Finish: Parking area on the B6278 between Weardale & Teesdale (NY 991318) | Date: 06-09-14 | Comments: 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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First of all, I wasn’t even going to publish this as a walk (or, as I did it, a run) as it’s a bit extreme as walks in County Durham go. Visible paths are few and far between and the first 8 kilometres or so are fairly hard going as well as being pretty wet. In fact they may actually be the hardest part of the route – and the back half’s not easy with knee-high heather often masking what little trail there is. That said it does afford the opportunity to get off the beaten track in a genuinely remote area of the dales and experience some peace, disturbed only by the occasional cackling grouse. As I said, I ran the route and if I make it sound overly strenuous I apologise; it can be walked with much less drama but it isn’t easy going and you’ll need to ensure that your boots are fully water-proofed!

My reason for being there stems from the time – quite recently – that I read a tale of a Teesdale lead miner from around about the middle of the 19th century who would routinely walk from Holwick ‘near’ Middleton-in-Teesdale, crossing the River Tees over what is now Wynch Bridge (but which then was a much more lethal, makeshift affair) and passing through Newbiggin, to what I believe may have been the mine at Little Eggleshope. He did this journey every day unless forced to stay in the mine shop when the weather was bad. The site of the mine isn’t actually that far from the road where I parked but I wanted to do a circuit to take in some of the wilder landscape and to incorporate the back half of his likely route (the whole of which would make a great run/walk in itself).

I decided to start from an often frequented car-parking spot just off the lonely B6278, at the very top of the Weardale/Teesdale watershed on a cool, overcast September day. It affords great views into Bollihope and Weardale but is VERY exposed. Today however, the wind was light but the cloud was low and there was a heavy mist shrouding the tops of the low chain of hills along the ridge with light rain falling intermittently. The plan was to run this route, carrying my venerable Kimmsac (a bit like the OMM Adventure Lite 20) loaded with waterbottles and polystyrene chips to a competition weight of around 5.0 kg (for a bit of additional training) but stopping to take photographs en-route – so it wasn’t going to be too eyeballs-out. Map and compass were essential because although the first seven or so kilometres hug the fence line it’s easy to overshoot in heavy mist and the route off James’s Hill is invisible for the first two kilometres.

In general the route can only be described as indistinct as are the following directions I’m afraid: I left the car very much alone in its spot and set out running west, following the fence on the northern side. The conditions underfoot almost immediately degraded to what would be the norm for the next 9-10 kilometres; very boggy with tussocky grass and peat hags plus the occasional rocky patches that contributed the only sections of relatively level ground.

I was wearing my inov-8 X-Talon 212 fell shoes which are hard-wearing, super-comfortable and provide brilliant grip, desperately needed as my quads soon began to ache from hauling myself up and down the hags in my struggle to maintain some forward momentum. Visibility was appalling and the low hills of Three Laws, Harnisha (with the trig-point on Raven Seat) and Outberry Plain can only be described as ‘looming’ in the lowest and most indistinct sense of the word. In truth, if it hadn’t been for the accuracy of the mapped fenceline – which I left from time to time in order to cut corners – I would never have been sure of exactly where I was (but then that’s navigation for you).

As is so often the case, just as I began to feel certain that I’d overshot my final objective for that leg, it miraculously appeared out of the clag – in this case, the trig-point on James’s Hill. I could see that it was on the other side of the fence so crossed onto a makeshift roadway alongside which I’d been running and which I’d completely failed to notice. It was clearly constructed to provide vehicular access but its rotting timbers were rapidly disassembling themselves and what remained intact looked very slippery as wet, mossy, wood invariably does to the runner or walker.

I continued right up to the trig-point from which I took a bearing into the silvery whiteness that was cloaking everything beyond 50 metres. With that momentary sense of trepidation that I always get when leaving the security of a known point I continued on into the mist, up and down the hags, trying to maintain what could possibly be mistaken for a runner’s stride and stopping only to confirm a sighting point every 50 metres or so. After what seemed like ages I suddenly (and it’s always sudden) realized that I could see for miles! It was with some satisfaction that I noted I was almost exactly where I needed to be, looking down a long spur with Hudeshope on the left and Flushiemere on the right.

At the same time the terrain changed from hags to tussocky grass with the promise – suggested by a few startled sheep, wrenched from their grazing and now staring intently at me – that it would change to something much more manageable quite soon. Indeed it did, and before long I was running quickly and confidently towards the fences and dry stone walls that marked the intakes off the fells.

Only at the fence line did I actually pick up any semblance of the trail that was promised on the map (and which I was now able to use for no more than casual reference). The compass went into the pocket of my pack and I got stuck in to making progress steeply downhill towards Coldberry Lead Mine, one of the reservoirs of which I could see below me (it’s amazing what a difference the presence of any distinct reference makes to your morale after miles of nothingness).

Approaching the reservoir along the wall, I located the stile indicating the footpath on which I intended to turn east down Coldberry Fell (I could have taken a faster, diagonal line but I was mesmerized by the reservoir I think). Unfortunately this footpath quickly faded to nothing but I ran on knowing that the ground was going to drop away steeply soon and I’d probably be able to see any paths that were available. When it did drop away I was quite shocked to discover that it was into a steep-sided re-entrant (gully) that I’d completely overlooked on the map. Not that it mattered for now, but mistakes like these can have consequences at other times (to be fair to myself I suppose that I HAD put the map away a bit since).

I chose a line to the left and ran down a steep spur with Hudeshope spread out below me and the lead mine perched halfway up the hillside to my right. Hudeshope (‘hope’ is Old English for a smaller or ‘side’ valley) was one of the most intensively mined areas in Teesdale and its landscape is like a severe case of acne on the spottiest of teenagers. Long redundant spoil heaps and hushes scar the valley and it’s impossible to grasp the extent of the industrial activity required to produce these mini-mountains and gorges particularly on a day where the only animate presence in the valley seemed to be mine.

I was heading for the bridge over the Hudeshope Beck in the valley bottom (notice that streams are ‘becks’ here but if you head directly north into Weardale they’re ‘burns’ until you get to Wolsingham), dispensing with the official track to take my own line. When I finally joined the road – albeit for a short distance – I was in for a rude shock: it immediately began to climb – steeply – and my legs, which had just undergone a battering from the long descent, began to turn to jelly. It was strange to think that this was the first significant climb of the day after something like 13 kilometres – but it was due to get a lot worse, and after that, not much better!

The road pitches up to a sharp turn at a bridge after which it heads down to Middleton-in-Teesdale. I however, needed to turn left – straight up the side of a massive spoil heap! Although nowhere near as long, the gradient is similar to those you might find in the Lake District and it continues to pull, eventually joining a vehicle track that leads through a gate and over the saddle between Monk’s Moor and Middleton Common. Here the climb stops and it’s a welcome relief to realize that there’s only one more after that (if you discount the relatively gentle pull back to the car-park).

If you haven’t done so already, take the time to look back across the valley. The big notch in the skyline is Coldberry Gutter: known as a ‘hush’, it is the largest example in the ore-field of this early form of open-cast mining and is visible for miles around the dale – even from the top of the Teesdale Way going into Cumbria.

Back on the trail I was now descending the reverse side of the slope, heading into a pretty little valley shown on the map as Great Eggleshope. Unfortunately the track soon petered out and I have to confess that even with the map and good visibility I was unable to find a reasonable path, so ended up descending to the wall (after I’d come face to face with a sheer drop over what looked like a small limestone quarry). I followed the wall down steeply into the gully and carefully crossed the wooden fence that hangs over the beck before continuing to its confluence with the main Great Eggleshope Beck a hundred metres or so further on.

Great Eggleshope is a little gem of a valley, not deep but very much off the beaten track (as I hope I’ve been able to imply) where only a few ‘soles’ venture and a great place to rest up and have a brew. The climb out is short but steep through the heather which in September is in its purple glory. Yet again the trail quickly peters out and it’s out with map and compass once more to follow an uphill, heather-bestrewn, line over the south-western shoulder of Harnisha Hill, past the shooting house to the top of Wire Gill.

From here, a much more discernible track leads benignly over the moor, right past the reservoir (visible from the car park) that was built to serve Little Eggleshope Lead Mine down in the gully into which the track leads. If this wasn’t the mine to which my miner walked it was one very near here. There are still a number of features extant but not on our route which took me directly out of Little Eggleshope on a good track that old maps tell me was once the bed of a railway track serving the mine and very shortly ended at the road where I turned left to finish at the car-park about 200 metres away.

In summary I hope I’ve been able to communicate in this description that this is a route for confident navigators over terrain that has little in the way of usable trail (particularly the first half). The going is resolutely uncompromising with much of it being wet and boggy. However, when conditions are good (and they often are) the views are awesome and there is a real sense of isolation, which of course means that if you do have a problem you’re unlikely to be able to get much help. You’ll need to go fully stocked with food and drink but if you’re looking for somewhere to consume it you could do worse than to make your way up to Coldberry Lead Mine at around about the half-way point as it has some excellent features well worth viewing.