Is Cash Force Northern England’s most underrated waterfall?

If I’d read it anywhere other than in Russell Bulman’s Introduction to the Geology of Alston Moor I’d have assumed that Cash Force was a dodgy pay-day loans company and not the remote but spectacular waterfall it actually is. Russell goes on to say that, while flowing off the northern slopes of Cross Fell (the highest peak in the Pennines), the Cash Burn cascades down a 20-30 m outcrop of the Whin Sill into a valley not far off the busy Pennine Way but which, because it’s not signed and there’s no footpath, remains relatively unvisited. Well, that was all I needed because I’ll do ‘owt for a bit of volcanic rock me.

I checked the weather for the earliest possible opportunity and began to make plans. It all sounds a bit lame, only going out on nice days, but to photograph stuff comfortably in good light, plus trying to improve one’s infantile video skills, it makes sense to get as much help from Nature as possible. I’ve learnt to my cost how the shortest of walks can take ages when you’re trying to document them so I thought that, for a circuit of around eight to nine miles, I’d better give it most of the day especially as the drive from Durham to the little village of Garrigill, near Alston in Cumbria, is quite a long one. While the forecast for Durham was generally sunny, Garrigill’s was much less agreeable and I would have known this had I bothered to check. So I’d be short on sunshine but there would be plenty of wind – somewhere around 20 mph and gusting – but at least it looked like the rain might hold off.

Rocking up in Garrigill around noon – later than I would have liked – an elderly gentleman asked me if I was off to visit the waterfall. I was fairly sure there was nothing about me that gave the game away, but turned out he was referring to nearby Ashgill Force, the one he and his wife had come to visit. While he was keen to see exactly where I was heading on the map it conflicted with his newly acquired sense of social distancing (which is still inflicting itself on our basic emotional need for contact as I write). It was uncomfortable; a bit like trying to push identical poles of two magnets together. Finally, he felt he could see sufficient detail on a 1:25 000 OS map from about 5 feet away so I took him at his word and bid him and his wife good day.

I set off at a good pace and was soon well above Garrigill. When the light’s flat there’s much less incentive to stop and take pictures. I wasn’t sure where I was going to begin videoing but I thought I’d use my GoPro Hero 7 to film some walking shots. Reaching behind me into the net pocket of my camera bag, I found it was empty. A sun-baked bridge over a deep gorge in Southern France came flashing into my mind, the one on which I’d placed an expensive Canon G7x before mindlessly cycling away on a tandem, on a hot afternoon, to God knows where. The missus has yet to forgive me. For now though, as far as I could recall, there were only two places where I could have mislaid it and one of those was the car. I’d have to put it out of my mind and trust that, as long as I didn’t lose my other two cameras, the day may yet end well.

The greater part of the route is relatively easy, climbing steeply on a well surfaced section of the Pennine Way. To cut the corner, I switched to a lesser trail part way up the climb which, although shorter, isn’t particularly distinct and there’s the possibility of losing it in poor visibility plus it’s much harder going. The middle section of the route – between the out and back legs – lies over an open moor, eventually dropping into a deep gully through which flows the Cash Burn and at the end of which lies the waterfall. There’s no trail over the hags, tussocks and bogs and you may well get wet feet unless you’re prepared to dance around them (I prefer to wear shorts and fell shoes because I’d rather plodge through). It’s really quite simple but if visibility is poor then you’ll want to be confident with map and compass or maybe have a GPS device.

That being said, it’s a lovely route and I was full of the joys: it’s always nice to hear the noise of a rushing burn – amplified as it tumbles over a series of attractive cascades within the gully. I dropped down for a closer look, thinking I’d make my way along the burn to stay out of the wind but it’s so steep that there’s no room for a path, so I had to clamber back out. Shortly before reaching the falls the burn breaks out of the gully itself and onto a compact area of flat terrain where I rejoined it. Its pace decreases and you might be forgiven for imagining that you’re further down the dale than you are. A short while later the noise picks up again and you realise the quest is nearly over.

Ultimately you find yourself looking into space on the edge of a hanging valley, where erosion has come to a shuddering halt against the hard, black volcanic rock of the Whin Sill. Cash Force is roughly the height of High Force in neighbouring Teesdale – possibly around 20 metres or so? It’s not on the same scale of course, being more of an elegant cascade, but a steep one. How it’s taken me so long to learn about it I have no idea. It’s a very special spot which, as the sun began to put in an appearance, was improving every second. At the bottom of the falls the burn runs out into a relatively wide glacial valley, meandering between Ousby and Rotherhope Fells.

The route down the east side of the falls is fairly easy but needs a bit of care. Trying to video my progress didn’t help; there were a couple of slips but no harm done. At the bottom I took some time to appreciate the place: it’s so impressive, so tranquil and so remote – relatively speaking anyway; I don’t think there can be many places like it in England and for me the fact that it’s another formidable exposure of the Whin Sill adds to its appeal – putting it right up there with High Force and Cauldron Snout. 

The next bit was a 15 minute cardio session up and down the falls to video myself making the descent – as much to get a sense of scale than to massage my ego (honestly). Then, after taking a last look around, it was time to record my departure and make my way back over Rotherhope Fell by a slightly different route along the Great Sulphur Vein which you can follow by using the rocks, heavily mineralised with quartz, which outcrop at intervals up the fell. It’s tough going though: uphill through more bog, hags and deep heather but this time with the wind in my favour, pushing me on. The sun continued to make brief appearances and the clouds gave way intermittently to expose the unmistakable plateau of Cross Fell high above and the radar station on Great Dun Fell, a couple of peaks further away.

The slog back to the trail at the top of the fell punctuated by a couple of cairns and the distinctive knoll of Meg Moffat’s Hill followed by an area of shakeholes where I filmed what I consider to be a perfect example. When our kids were young, shakeholes were invariably referred to as ‘Sarlacc pits’ (the Sarlacc being a monstrous worm-like creature in Star Wars). Once back on the track, progress is much quicker, particularly as it’s all downhill from then on. But, taking the same shortcut I’d used earlier, I managed to lose my line and although I could hardly go wrong now, I was mildly annoyed that I had, perhaps because I realised that I was approaching the first of the two points which would ultimately define the quality of my day.

I won’t say exactly why I’d stopped earlier, but on the edge of some bushes, by a wall, by a gate, was the spot where I’d lain my camera bag. A fairly intensive search over a couple of square metres revealed nothing and my heart sank just a little, but it had been 50:50 and there was still the car. Despite my concern, I enjoyed strolling through Garrigill, a  typical c19th lead-mining village with earlier origins: there’s a Methodist chapel (as there is in virtually every mining village in North East England), an early-c18th church dedicated to St John the Evangelist where the Lord hath definitely taken away the gardener, a post-office trapped in a time warp and a village pub that has opened and closed more often than a netty door (unfortunately it is now very firmly closed).

Approaching the car I still had hope, but in a few seconds that could be crushed and I might have to admit that once again I had failed to maintain possession of an expensive package of electronics. Through the window I could see that the front seats were bare but I was fairly sure that the bag had never made it that far forward. How about the back seat? Anything? Nope. How about the far seat? No joy there either. Crushed, I walked past, opened the tailgate and dumped my gear. Coming back around, I gloomily opened the rear door and the first thing that caught my eye was a small black cube, on a black mat in a dark corner, behind the far passenger seat. Oh, joy! What relief! Huzzah!

The drive home was a weird one: I’d spent so long imagining that I might have lost the camera that I still felt like I had, then I’d remember that I hadn’t, then I’d feel great, then I’d forget and think that I had, and so the cycle would continue. Getting back to the falls though, if you don’t mind getting wet and yomping across never ending tussocks and heather then the spectacle and isolation of what might well be my favourite waterfall makes for a great day out. Do yourself a favour and go on a nice day – you’ll be able to enjoy the location a lot more, which is the whole point of the exercise. You could even tie it in with a visit to Ashgill Force in the same journey. So, what do you think? Is Cash Force the most unsung, underrated waterfall in England?

2 thoughts on “Is Cash Force Northern England’s most underrated waterfall?”

  1. Great write up and really enjoyed the video.
    Lindsay Williams who owned and ran the outdoor activity centre at High Loaning Head told us about a fall on the Black Burn which had never been kayaked. We never bothered to look as we didn’t fancy lugging the boats over that terrain. I wonder if he meant this one as both the Cash Burn and the Black Burn feed into the Shield Water. I should really go have a look.

    1. I’m no kayaker but I love watching the wild stuff, though how you’d pull it off I struggle to imagine. The drop is a long one but the big problem as far as I can see is that there doesn’t seem to be a deep enough pool at the bottom (well, not to me anyway). HOWEVER, that might well change when the burn is in spate (It was flowing fairly sedately when I was there). It would definitely be worth videoing though.

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