The North Pennines
The North Pennines is truly one of England’s last wildernesses and is a defining landscape of the dales of west Durham. To be immersed in its purple majesty on a warm day in September with only the cries of lapwings and grouse for company is to understand why in 1988 it was awarded the title of Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and later its status of UNESCO Geopark (granted in 2003). On our increasingly crowded island, Durham’s North Pennines is one of the few places where you can experience a real sense of remoteness; 10,000 years ago this was an area that sported its very own ice-cap, supplementing those that slid down from Scotland to shape and scour the county in which we live and play today. Despite the lack of a kilometre of ice above them anyone who is sufficiently well-prepared and hardy enough to visit in winter will certainly find it easier to imagine how things might have been back then.
The North Pennines is looked after by the AONB Partnership which includes representatives from many organisations concerned with environment including Durham County Council.
North Pennines – Special Habitats
Hay Meadows: This quintessential summertime landscape is now almost exclusively restricted to upland valleys of the North Pennines and North Yorkshire. Only 900 hectares of this species-rich habitat is thought to remain and the North Pennines is home to 40% of it.
Peatlands: Higher up the slopes on the moorland ridges of the North Pennines can be found 27% of England’s blanket-bog habitat with much of it in County Durham. Peatlands provide a habitat for wildlife, they improve water quality and assist flood management, they act as a store of carbon and provide important evidence for conditions in the last ice-age as well as providing jobs in the locality.
North Pennines Wildlife
The diverse landscapes of the North Pennines provide a haven for a huge range of wildlife species including most of England’s birds of prey (notably the much persecuted hen harrier, merlin and short-eared owl), red grouse (pictured) and black grouse, curlew, golden plover, dunlin and twite. Mammals include otters, badgers, deer, foxes, voles and red squirrels. Adders, grass-snakes, slow worms and common lizards can all be found along with some spectacular locations for breeding frogs and toads. Check out the North Pennines website’s interactive wildlife map to see where and when species have been recorded as part of their ‘WildWatch’ program.
North Pennines – A Watershed for the North’s Major Rivers
Three of the North East’s major rivers rise within a few square kilometres of each other on the North Pennines watershed. The blanket bogs constantly feed the becks and burns that run into the valleys of Derwentdale, Weardale and Teesdale. In some cases the water runs direct to the Rivers Derwent, Wear and Tees or it is collected in one of the many reservoirs in the North Pennines before being reintroduced. Teesdale is home to two of England’s most spectacular waterfalls: Cauldron Snout and High Force.
North Pennines – Lead Mines and Quarries
Forcegarth Quarry in Teesdale in the North Pennines of County Durham © Metaforz Photography 2013The North Pennines in Durham sit squarely on top of what geologists refer to as the ‘Alston Block’, an area easily identifiable on the map, bounded by the Stublick fault to the north (along the line of the A69) and the Stainmore trough to the south (generally indicated by the route of the A66) joined together by the high Pennine escarpment in the west.
The entire area was raised up by the same huge body of granite that provided the heat responsible to crystallise the briny waters that flowed through the sedimentary rocks in the area. Historically, the most sought after of the minerals created – which run in veins underground where the water once flowed, occasionally outcropping on the surface – has been ‘galena’ or lead sulphide from which lead is smelted and which was so important as an early constructional material. As an added bonus, with further smelting galena could also produce substantial quantities of silver. Until cheaper sources became available ironstone was also extensively mined in the the North Pennines.
It was the search for this mineral bounty that has been responsible for the many fading industrial relics now dotted around the North Pennines (though never in such quantities as to suggest how industrialised the dales once were) which undoubtedly lend romantic character to the landscape, and which inspired W. H. Auden in his 1940 poem ‘New Year Letter’.
The rocks surrounding the minerals were themselves of value, the demand for them outlasting that for lead. Indeed they continue to sustain the economy of North Pennines communities today – but much less so than they once did. In this part of the world the sedimentary rocks laid down in the Carboniferous period around 300 million years ago are specifically referred to as the ‘yoredale sequences’ consisting of limestone, sandstone, shales and mudstone: the versatile limestone was used in agriculture and in iron and steel making to name but two, sandstone was used for building and the manufacture of millstones and ganister was used for furnace linings. The hard volcanic dolerite of the Whin Sill which was injected later, between the sedimentary rocks, is used for road building and is still being extracted today at Forcegarth Quarry in Teesdale (pictured above), the last remaining site in County Durham.