The roof of England

I’m a lucky man, most of the time: I work in the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and I see every face of this magical countryside as the seasons turn. This is ‘true north’, where Cumbria, Northumberland and County Durham meet. It’s a place of wild heather moors and blanket bogs, of hay meadows and hanging woodlands, of tumbling rivers and green dales criss-crossed by drystone walls. In spring and summer the fells and dales are alive with the sounds of breeding wading birds, whilst rare arctic-alpine flowers are a memory of the landscape found here after the last glaciers retreated. And it’s a place for walking.

Walkers in WeardaleThere are few landscapes left in England where you can walk all day without crossing a road, or encountering another human soul, where your only company is the wild cry of the buzzard, the burble of the curlew and the hypnotic call of the lapwing. Wainwright called part of the North Pennines ‘England’s Last Wilderness’; it’s not a wilderness of course, and it has been shaped by people for over 7000 years, but by the standards of the rest of modern-day England, it is a wild and wonderful place.

That’s not to say that all of the North Pennines is wild and remote countryside. If lower level walking through meadows and woods is your thing, the North Pennines has that too. Forty percent of the UK’s species rich upland hay meadows are found here and a visit in June and early July will allow you to see them at their best. The woodlands of the Gelt and South Tyne Valleys are alive with spring and summer birdlife and as summer turns to autumn they bring new colours to the landscape.

In the 18th and 19th centuries this was a globally important location for lead mining, but people have mined for lead and silver as far back as Roman times. The legacy of the mining industry can be seen in hushes, brick chimney stacks and bell-pits across the landscape, and at Killhope, the North of England Lead Mining Museum, you can find out more about the hard lives of those who won the fruits of the earth.

Black grouseOne of the legacies of mining is an extensive network of footpaths and bridleways, as miners walked to and from work and the chapel and pack ponies carried lead to the smelt mills and beyond. But as well as a fantastic rights of way network, the North Pennines has more open country (access land) than any other Protected Landscape in the country and these vast expanses of moorland provide endless opportunities for the intrepid walker to plan their own routes – you may be the first person ever to set foot on the ground you choose to cross!

The North Pennines AONB Partnership has produced many self-guided trails across the landscape, including some ideas for routes across open country. This year we launched a new visitor website, www.explorenorthpennines.org.uk, which includes walking routes on different themes including geology, birds, industrial heritage, hay meadows and more. There are also downloadable audio-visual trails for parts of Teesdale, Weardale and the upper Derwent around Blanchland.

We’ve recently opened a visitor centre, at Bowlees in upper Teesdale, close to the waterfalls of Low Force and High Force. As well as being a source of local walking and countryside information, there’s an outstanding café – it’s not just an army that marches on its stomach! And we’re dog-friendly too!

High Cup Ghyll on the Pennine WayThis autumn we’re holding the first North Pennines Walking Festival, in partnership with the Friends of the North Pennines and several other organisations. It’s in part a celebration of 75 years since Wainwright’s Pennine Journey, when, with the shadow of war spreading across Europe, he walked from Settle to the Roman Wall through the North Pennines, chronicling his encounters with local folk and the weather whilst listening to nightly reports of the gathering storm on crackling guesthouse radios.

The festival starts on 28th September and runs for two weeks and you can book your place on any of the walks through the AONB Partnership’s website www.northpennines.org.uk. Spring and summer walking here is filled with birdsong and flowers, but autumn walks bring heather-clad moors and glowing woods, and a winter walk gives a totally different perspective on the landscape; it is at this time of year when the wildness of the place really comes home to you.

If you’ve haven’t been here before, the land north of Yorkshire and south of the Roman Wall, then it’s a must-visit area for a walking trip. Rich in wildlife and cultural history, with welcoming communities and outstanding landscapes, you’ll find no better walking in England than the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. We’d love to see you.

Chris Woodley-Stewart is the Director of the North Pennines AONB Partnership. You can follow him on twitter @NorthPennChief and find North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty on facebook.

(image credits: Simon Wilson, Brian Irving, Steve Westwod/Natural England)