The Pennine Way: A Walk Through Upper Teesdale to High Cup Nick

Creation at its best: rare plants, world famous geology

views that take your breath away


This time last year I was preparing to walk the Pennine Way, a 270 mile route from Edale in Derbyshire to Kirk Yetholm in the Scottish Borders. I’d always wanted to complete it and finally, last year, I did! With spring in the air and the main season of walking about to start I’ve been thinking back to this journey a lot.

Day ten, 136 miles in, halfway through the guidebook and well into map book 2. “Err… didn’t you start at Edale?” I hear you ask. Yep, but why start blogging from there? That’s boring! I’d been particularly looking forward to the section from Middleton-in-Teesdale to Dufton  so thought I’d start there! I hope it inspires you to get those sluggish winter muscles going again.


The River Tees in Full Bloom

It was a sunny May day when I set off from the pleasant market town of Middleton-in-Teesdale. After overnighting at the Brunswick House B&B - fabulous breakfast, hospitality and comfort here - I set off along the bank of the River Tees. This mighty river, draining an area of 710 square miles, has its source high in the Pennines just below Cross Fell and winds its way to Tees Bay on the North Sea coast. I would be following this waterway for the first half of the day.

The first few miles saw me ambling in the sunshine through lush pastures to the sound of gentle mooing. Oops, gone the wrong way! Why does the scenery always distract me from route-finding? The banks of the river were draped with bluebells and many other interesting flowers and plants.

What a relaxing way to start the day. Time for picnic number one. And where better to stop than by the first geological feature of the day – Low Force Waterfall. Just look at all that lovely rock!



The Great Whin Sill: A World-Famous Geological Feature

At Low Force the landscape changes, and when the landscape changes you know it’s almost certainly due to the geology. Here the River Tees becomes more energetic as it dives over several steps of hard 'whinstone' rocks – this is the local name for a hard, igneous intrusive rock (i.e. one formed when magma cooled slowly beneath the Earth’s surface) called dolerite.

This whinstone forms part of the Great Whin Sill – one of northern England’s most famous geological features. It was formed around 295 million years ago in the Carboniferous Period when movement of the Earth’s tectonic plates caused crustal extension and thinning. Molten magma from deep within the Earth pushed through the layers of existing rock in northern England more or less horizontally, and on cooling it solidified into the Great Whin Sill.

The Great Whin Sill lies partly in the North Pennines AONB and partly in Northumberland National Park, stretching from Teesdale northwards to Berwick; its maximum thickness is about 70m in the North Pennines. Because whinstone is so hard, the rock resists erosion and gives rise to a series of striking features; several can be seen along the Pennine Way route – Low Force, High Force, Couldron Snout and High Cup Nick.

High Force Waterfall spectacularly exposes the Great Whin Sill a couple of miles further upriver from Low Force. The gorge here has been sculpted by water over 1000's of years and the hard, dark whinstone of the sill forms a resistant lip over which the river plunges. Beneath is a layer of softer sandstones and limestones which is being eroded away much faster that the whinstone resulting in progressive undercutting of the sill. Blocks of the sill then fall, and the whole waterfall gradually moves upriver. For more information see


The Upper Tees: A Haven for Nature

Upriver from High Force the Tees flows alongside Force Garth Quarry; the whinstone is still used for road stone and the occasional building. I meandered with the river to picnic spot number two where oystercatchers and curlew played in the shallows, snipes swooped overhead and the sounds of lapwing echoed across the valley – ‘pee-wit, pee-wit’. And then, what’s that? Some lesser spotted ramblers! It was nice to stop and chat, and importantly get the heads up on the bull in the field. Marvellous!

My favourite sign!!

While the ramblers poured over the style I had the perfect chance to survey the landscape. Here it is mainly open boggy meadows. Upper Teesdale is one of the most important botanical sites in Britain due partly to the rare ‘sugar limestone’ beneath the soil; the flora is exceptionally rich in species that are nationally rare. The mix of dry heathland and blanket mire support relics of arctic-alpine flora left over from the last glacial period including the spring gentian, birdseye primrose, mountain avens and Teesdale violet. Unfortunately Mr Bull didn’t let me hang around long to admire the plants so I have no pictures of my own!


Water Power: Couldron Snout Waterfall and Cow Green Reservoir

The valley then closed in a little and I soon found myself trying not to get an unplanned bath while navigating the boulders strewn on the river bank. It's always good to add some excitement to a walk I suppose! Then, round the bend, I heard a gushing of water. I must be approaching Cauldron Snout, another whinstone outcrop and allegedly England’s longest waterfall at 180m. Time for picnic number three! Mmm… homemade ginger cake… 

Above Couldron Snout lies Cow Green reservoir. Constructed to supply the industries of Teesside between 1967 and 1971, this is where the Pennine Way leaves the River Tees. The landscape changed again, and yes, you guessed it so did the rocks! I was now crossing a large area of open moorland with Carboniferous Limestone below. It was a somewhat dull section in comparison to the valley before, but definitely made more entertaining by pretending I was dancing along the Yellow Brick Road towards the Emerald City! No munchkins to be seen though…


High Cup Nick – a Classic Glacial Valley

As I continued across the moor, I was eagerly anticipating the highlight of the day. Would it live up to expectations? Please, please, please don’t let the cloud come down now. First, a sneaky glimpse of a gap in the hills, and then, ta da! Suddenly it was there; High Cup Nick, a magnificent wonder of creation stretching out before me. Sculpted by ice over 10 000 years ago this is the classic glacial valley. Its smooth u-shaped sides formed as a huge glacier flowed down from the high places, gouging, yanking and ripping out the rock - albeit very slowly. Today there are sweeping views towards the Eden valley and the majestic peaks of the Lake District beyond. I’ll let these photos speak for themselves:

And I hope you noticed the Great Whin Sill in my pictures! Columnar jointing, a common feature of sills, can be seen here at High Cup Nick. These intersecting closely spaced fractures formed when the molten whinstone cooled, resulting in a regular array of columns, though now somewhat weathered in appearance.  The Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland is a famous well exposed example.


Destination Dufton

How was I going to come down from such a high? As usual it was my stomach that brought me back to Earth – rumble rumble. A quick Famous Five-esque snack of hard-boiled eggs (where’s my ginger beer?) powered me on to Dufton – a most enjoyable ramble in the evening sun.

And the pub that night – The Stag Innwhat an amazing feed; the best fish and chips I’ve ever eaten! I almost had a second helping but thought I’d settle for the lemon meringue pie and lemon curd ice cream instead. Never had lemon curd flavour before – I highly recommend it.

Overcoming the I’ve-just-had-a-great-days-walk-and-now-my-belly’s-full torpor, I hauled myself across the road to the YHA and bed – admiring the hostel’s rock shelf on the way – ha! A great way to end a geological day!


Get Those Boots On and Get Outside!

So what are you waiting for? Get your boots on and get outside! The Tees Valley and High Cup Nick have so much to offer: rare plants, world famous geological sites and stonking views! It really is creation at its best.

And you don't have to do the Pennine Way route. There are many, many walks in the area. For more information see:  

General Information on the area:


I'd love to hear about your adventures in this area. Please do comment below.

Happy exploring xx