The unique drama of the North Pennines is largely due to carboniferous limestone laid down more than 300 million years ago as the corals of a tropical sea.
Around 295 million years ago, molten volcanic magma forced its way between these sediments to form a layer of dolerite up to 90m (295ft) thick, which became known as the Great Whin Sill. This spectacular geological feature is exposed at various places throughout north-east England, most famously on Lindisfarne and along the route of Hadrian’s Wall. It dominates
the character of the Upper Teesdale, where it resists erosion by the River Tees and forms a series of immense waterfalls.
Fed by autumn rainfall and edged with deciduous trees, High Force comes into its own at this time of year.
To reach the first waterfall, stroll across the field south of Bowlees Visitor Centre. The falls are largely hidden from view until you emerge from the trees on to the riverbank and, although they are not particularly high, the cascades offer a tempting suggestion of what lies further upstream.
The bouncy Wynch Bridge was built in 1840 to replace an earlier span that, when it was built 100 years earlier, was the first suspension bridge in England.
The walk follows the southern bank westward, along part of the Pennine Way and into the Moorhouse-Upper Teesdale National Nature Reserve. The slopes to the south are patched with dark green expanses of juniper, while the autumnal yellows and oranges of the deciduous northern bank provide a vivid, ever-changing backdrop to the grey dolerite rocks and peat-brown frothy pools. Keep a sharp eye on the riverbank for dippers and grey wagtails, which feed on insects around the fast-flowing water, and on the open slopes for red grouse, lapwing, curlew and golden plover.
You’ll hear the roar of High Force long before you see the falls.
The first sighting, from a juniper thicket on the lip of the gorge, is rendered even more impressive by its abruptness.
People often mistakenly name High Force, which is 21.5m (70ft) tall, the highest waterfall in England. But it’s Cautley Spout in the Yorkshire Dales, which boasts a single 76m (249ft) drop, that truly deserves the title. High Force is, however, England’s largest waterfall by volume – something that you can’t fail to notice as you watch the thunderous deluge from your vantage point.
The upper whinstone layers of High Force contrast sharply with the lower, sandstone, shale and limestone. The water erodes these softer rocks more quickly, to the extent that periodically, they can no longer support the harder dolerite, which collapses into the river. The waterfall has so far retreated 700m (2,297ft) into its gorge.
Onward to Holwick Scar
Continue along the riverbank for another mile before parting from the Pennine Way and moving on to a parallel track a short distance to the south. Follow this eastwards and join a broad rubble-surfaced roadway, which leads to the gorge of Holwick Scar and an entrance stile guarded by two stone-sculptured sheep.
The crags at Holwick Scar are composed of tall dolerite pillars, split by narrow, vertical cracks that formed during the estimated 50 years it took for the magma to cool. It’s this same cooling and contracting process that created the characteristic columns found at Giant’s Causeway and Fingal’s Cave on the Scottish island of Staffa. After a short descent to the edge of Holwick village, take a left and follow a track northward, back to Wynch Bridge and Bowlees.
HOW TO GET THERE
A free car park lies in woods that surround the Durham Wildlife Trust Bowlees Visitor Centre, off the B6277, three miles north-west of Middleton-in-Teesdale. Buses run daily from Barnard Castle to Middleton, and from there to Langdon Beck.
The Conduit Tea Rooms
2 Bridge Street, Middleton-in-Teesdale DL12 0QZ
Relaxing atmosphere and attractive surroundings. Muddy boots, cyclists, children and dogs (on a lead) are welcome.
High Force Hotel
Forest-in-Teesdale, Co. Durham DL12 0XH
All rooms are en-suite, while the
real ales served here are brewed to the hotel’s own recipes.
Langdon Beck Youth hostel
Forest-in-Teesdale DL12 0XN
This eco-friendly hostel offers many green features, including wind and solar power. It is reasonably priced and
beautifully situated near the
head of Teesdale.