In between our two recent bouts of snow, we walked up from the village of Dufton to reach the edge of the Pennine plateau and Great Rundale Tarn. There were still some patches of snow and it was bitterly cold.
What’s interesting about this walk, is that the track up to the edge of the fells and the tarn probably didn’t exist a couple of centuries ago. The path is a relic of the lead-mining which took place here from the nineteenth-century until the early years of the twentieth.
This is still a walk with some industrial dereliction, though nature has healed the wounds considerably. Now the lead mines are deserted, though you can still see the shafts, adits, associate buildings and pathways. A strange, haunted landscape – once a place of noise and bustle, but now the only noise is the breeze, the warning shouts of the grouse and the witterings of moorland birds.
It’s as wild a location as you might find anywhere in England.
Dufton’s an attractive moorland village – the poet W.H. Auden adored it. But it owed much of its prosperity to the activities of the London Lead Company, who worked several mines out on Dufton Fell, notably at Threlkeld Side where we were headed.
Compared to the nearby Lake District, these fells are particularly quiet – even at weekends you see few walkers.
The track made by the miners makes this approach to the North Pennines very easy – a simple ramble out and back. We climbed gradually up to the snowline, round to the east of Dufton Pike and then up the now quiet Thelkeld Side, above the Great Rundale Beck.
Geologically, the valley’s very similar to the more famous High Cup Nick, though not quite as dramatic. And as we climbed higher, its purpose became clear. Here are the hushes where miners would dam back hilltop water, releasing it to remove the ground level, exposing the seam beneath. Here too are the huge spoil heaps the miners left behind and the tunnels – now very unsafe – burrowing into the hillside.
It must have been a harsh life, perhaps not so bad underground where the temperatures are constant, but freezing out on the open fellside. There were great patches of snow and a wide vista of the distant white Lakeland hills. In the distance we were seeing the same landscapes that the miners saw. Only the ground immediately around would have been different.
Look at the Ordnance Survey map and see how mining has left its marks on the hills. So many shafts forced into these wet and boggy fells. Early miners worked hard, long and dangerous hours. Only the bosses got rich, not the men who did the work. The lifespan of a Victorian miner was notoriously short. Some of my own coal-mining ancestors in the Black Country barely got past forty.
Then, above the mines, the valley narrows and becomes shallower, but the track goes on a few hundred yards. We emerged from the great chasm, deep in shadow and caught the winter sun for the first time since Dufton – the industry left behind and the broken peat hags of the high Pennines in front of us. Miles of wild countryside and trackless hard going across the plateau, all the way to lonely Meldon Hill – one of the most isolated summits in England – and then Cow Green and Teesdale.
You can see why it was considered worth the bother taking this old way beyond the mines. At the track’s end is a shooting box, and lots of grouse and blackcock. The shooters must have been grateful to the miners for giving them easy access to their blasting grounds.
The black peat and the heather were frozen stiff and there were greater patches of snow. There are several tarns on this level-lying high ground. Great Rundale Tarn a long white patch of ice covered in snow. Hard even to see it as water, though it must be a joy for the moorland birds in other seasons of the year. The pre-war Pennine explorer and writer Donald Boyd in his classic book Walking in the Pennines, writes of it having a sandy shore – but there was no sign of that on this frozen day.
We walked back the same way, back through the old mines and then down into warmer air as we breasted the slopes of Dufton Pike, the stone-walled enclosures already feeling like a different world from the frost-blasted grounds of Threlkeld Side.
Then, from this track lost in time, back out to Dufton, with not even a Pennine Way walker in sight. A place those Victorian miners would have recognised, even in a twenty-first century that seems so different to their hard existence.
Strange the landscapes the Old Ways take you to.
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