Upper Teesdale is renowned for its beautiful scenery, and this circuit of Widdybank Fell endorses that opinion. The rich variety of flora and fauna should be sufficient to satisfy the most demanding of naturalists.
Before leaving the car park, take a little time to look around and absorb the magnificent panorama. Cow Green Reservoir stretches across the view, with the highest summits of the Pennine hills providing a stunning backdrop. To the left, beyond the dam, stands Mickle Fell which rises to 2488 feet (758m). Directly across the reservoir is Meldon Hill at 2517 feet (767m), panning to the right is Great Dun Fell at 2783 feet (848m) which is easy to recognise with the radar installation perched on its summit, next to this is Little Dun Fell which is a mere 20 feet (6m) lower. And then Cross Fell, which stands at 2930 feet (893m) and is the highest mountain on the Pennine ridge.
The Cow Green Reservoir was built between 1967 and 1971 after protests to prevent its creation had failed. The reservoir provides a constant supply of water to the thirsty industries of Teesside, more than 50 miles (80km) away. Moreover, when at full capacity, it holds 9000 million gallons (41,000 million litres). The dam is 1875 feet (571m) long and 82 feet (25m) high. Before the reservoir's construction, the course of the river Tees made a giant crescent, known as ‘The Weel’, where it gathered force before plummeting down the spectacular staircase of Cauldron Snout.
The route from Weelhead Sike provides sweeping views across the valley to Chapelfell Top and Fendrith Fell, helping to compensate for the somewhat hard surface underfoot. To the right is the wild heather moorland of Widdybank Fell. Furthermore, during the spring and early summer, you may see the golden plover, easy to identify by its golden-brown back with black speckles and a black belly. Other birds such as curlew, lapwing, meadow pipit and skylark are also common during the breeding season.
Leaving the road, we follow a clear track to Widdybank Farm, and the prominent outcrop of Cronkley Scar comes into view. In the mid-nineteenth century, an area of shale found in the rocks at Cronkley Scar proved to be suitable for making pencils. Subsequently, a pencil mill opened nearby which operated until 1899. The pencils, known locally as ‘widdies’, were made by grinding the shale into a powder and then compressing it into moulds.
After reaching the banks of the river Tees, a broad track leads upstream to the towering crags at Falcon Clints. Golden Eagles once soared above these rocky cliffs, and their eyries remain, waiting for them to return! Our path winds its way through the rocks at the foot of the cliffs where lichens and mosses are well-established; lady fern, wood anemone, wood horsetail and woolly hair moss shelter in the fallen rocks. The only sound disturbing the solitude is the rippling of the river.
Further upstream we reach a confluence where Maize Beck merges with the river Tees. Before 1974, this marked the boundaries of three counties; below the juncture, the Tees separated County Durham from the North Riding of Yorkshire; above the juncture, it separated County Durham from Westmorland, which is now part of Cumbria.
The path continues along the riverside, and the sound of crashing water grows louder with each step. Suddenly, the spectacular waterfall of Cauldron Snout confronts us, at one time described as ‘a cascade of torrential wildness’. Here the Tees plunges, in a series of cataracts, down a rocky staircase 600 feet (183m) in length. The vertical drop from the first cataract to the last is 200 feet (61m) – England’s largest cascade waterfall. Nowadays the Cow Green dam controls the river’s flow, releasing enough to make an impressive display most of the time. But when the reservoir is full, curtains of water spill over and quickly surge into a formidable force, reminiscent of its former magnificence.
According to local folklore, the ghost of the ‘Singing Lady’ haunts the area around the falls. A young Victorian farm girl fell in love with a local lead miner, but the affair ended when the miner returned home to his family. Consequently, the grief-stricken girl made her way to the edge of the falls where she threw herself into the raging torrent. Apparently, her spirit usually appears, on cold moonlit nights, sitting on a rock near the falls where she sadly laments the loss of her lover.
After an invigorating climb to the top of Cauldron Snout, the concrete wall of the Cow Green Dam appears. However, the scenery quickly improves, and the backdrop of the Pennine hills becomes visible once again during our return to the car park.