Looking for ice flowers: adventures in Teesdale

It's behind you! It was hardly raining but this beautiful rainbow lasted several minutes

Teesdale in County Durham is famous among botanists for it’s unique collection of cold-loving arctic and alpine flowers with sun-seeking Southern flowers. Known by botanists as the “Teesdale assemblage”, but by locals as “ice flowers”, Upper Teesdale is still home to the first plants to colonise Britain after the last ice age. As the planet warmed, these species spread out and settled down in their preferred habitats, but in Teesdale they remain happy in each other’s company.

Of all the ice flowers, the spring gentian gets the biggest tick for plant hunters. It is only found on a few sites in Upper Teesdale, and in the Burren in Ireland. Last year I tried and failed to find the spring gentian. This year I was determined to succeed.

As a car-less person, getting to Teesdale is difficult at the best of times, but with no Sunday bus service I had to take the trip in the week, and leave my Taller Half behind. Never mind, I’ve camped on my own before, and last time I had a hedgehog for company. I’ve been actively plotting this trip for a few weeks now – waiting for that magic combination of a quiet work week and sunny weather forecast. As usual, I stayed at the Strathmore Arms in Holwick, only an eight mile hike to the gentians at Cow Green…

I love visiting Teesdale in late spring. While the bluebells and ramsons are finishing at home, they are only just getting started in the Pennines. I followed the Pennine Way along the river from Middleton-in-Teesdale to Holwick and arrived at the pub to find the workmen in – they’d experienced a burst pipe at Christmas and the insurance money had only just come through. They’ve got a new pub sign too. I had the whole field to myself, with only lapwings and the sheep next door for company: bliss.

That evening I took a walk up Holwick Fell – that is until I hit Blea Beck, with only some widely spaced stepping stones as a means of crossing it (yes, I am a wuss). Not to worry: the beck was full of beautifully peaty water, and I had ring ouzels for company. A nice place to stop and enjoy the scenery.

Blea beck, Holwick, Teesdale

Burnt sienna colours of Blea beck

The fells are full of breeding waders at this time of year. The lapwings are particularly vocal and energetic, and I was wondering whether they were displaying to each other or to me. I peered over a gate to see one lapwing make a feeble attempt to convince me it had a broken wing. I tried to spy her chicks, but they are nearly invisible in the moorland vegetation.

Later I cooked dinner, adding some ramsons and sorrel I found in the field, and watched the lambs playing before falling asleep to the sound of cuckoos and lapwings.

The big day

I woke to clear skies, as the weather forecast had predicted. The best spot to see spring gentians is Cow Green reservoir, about eight miles along the Pennine Way, so a sixteen mile round trip. I’d hardly got down the road to Low Force before the first surprise of the day: lambs crossing a cattle grid. Yes, they were crossing and recrossing a cattle grid! Obviously, my camera was firmly packed in my rucksack, and I didn’t want to spook them in case they came a cropper in the grid. (On the way back I had a peek to see how deep the grid was – it was only about six inches deep so they were able to step between the grills, but still!)

The riverbank in this part of Teesdale is incredibly rich in wildflowers. I saw globeflowers, bluebells, marsh marigold, water avens, lady’s mantle, orchids, and one of the Teesdale Assemblage – alpine bistort. There was also tea-leaved willow and the yet-to-flower Pennine specialist shrubby cinquefoil.

Alpine bistort: one of the "Teesdale Assemblage"

Globe flower: the goldilocks of the flower world

Further towards High Force, the flora changes with mountain pansies, Teesdale violets (one of the Assemblage), and fragrant juniper bushes. Unusually, I had the place all to myself. The stretch along Forest-in-Teesdale had bird’s-eye primrose (another Assemblage member) and the carnivorous but beautiful common butterwort.

The delicate Teesdale violet, another member of the Teesdale Assemblage

The carnivorous but beautiful common butterwort

From Forest-in-Teesdale the route becomes ever more remote, with Cronkley Scar to the left and Falcon Clints and Widdybank Fell to the right. At times it felt like walking towards a scenic sanctuary, while at others the landscape felt oppressive and intimidating. Then the path ended, with a mile-long boulder field to negotiate. I thought I was only a few minutes away from reaching Cauldron snout, when in reality I was an hour’s worth of ankle-breaking rocks away.

It’s worth the effort (and in my case, twisted ankle) to reach Cauldron Snout from below. While Low Force is sweet, and High Force dramatic, Cauldron Snout is both magnificent and daunting. The “path” climbs alongside the falls. However, my vertigo had other ideas so I climbed away from the edge and made my way back to the path once Cauldron Snout was safely diverted.

The frothing waters of Cauldron Snout

At last, I had reached Cow Green reservoir, home of the famous spring gentian. Of course, by now the sun had gone in. Gentians only like to show themselves when it’s sunny. Oh well…

Eyes peeled to the ground, I had nearly cleared a fenced off area of grass when it occurred to me there might be a reason for the fence. At last: a spring gentian! Tiny tiny bright blue flower. But a gentian. I found one brave little flower that was still on display.

At last! The famous spring gentian!

I had the entire place to myself, as the reservoir car park was shut. Today it was bleak and desolate. At about 500 metres or so, it is not the highest point in the North Pennines, but boy does it feel high.

Two more surprises

The walk back was largely uneventful (if a bit painful). But a pair of lapwings very thoughtfully answered my earlier musings about who they were displaying at. Climbing past Cronkley farm, where I’d earlier walked without a hitch, they felt so menaced by my presence that they had to dive bomb my head. I held my walking pole above my head to divert their attention – they look cute from a distance but I wouldn’t want to be hit in the face by one!

The final surprise of the day: as I opened a gate at the back of Holwick Lodge, a barn owl flew out of the trees, passing inches from me to disappear back into the wood. I don’t know who was the most shocked, me or the owl!

Happily knackered, I had deep dreams of owls and gentians that night, before limping back to Middleton to catch the bus in the morning.

I’ve not finished with the ice flowers yet: there’s plenty more still to find…

See more photos on flickr

Some credits

The Teesdale Assemblage of Rare Flowering Plants – a leaflet by Margaret Bradshaw (50p at Middleton’s shoe shop)

North Pennine Gallery’s blog – for sharing the local term “ice flower”

Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland, by Blamey, Fitter and Fitter – for being an excellent flower ID book

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About Yasmine

After working with horses for many years I came to my senses and got a 'proper job'. I now live in Weardale with My Taller Half, a mad border collie and 5 chickens. Still wishing I could spend all my time in the great outdoors
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10 Responses to Looking for ice flowers: adventures in Teesdale

  1. Joanna says:

    What a beautiful post. I really enjoyed reading about your expedition. That’s a surprising amount of water in Cauldron Snout – here on the edge of the Peak District, things are mostly just a trickle.

  2. Alice says:

    I really enjoyed reading this. I live closer to Teesdale than you so have this pleasure much more easily, but I found your observation and evident delight a real joy to read. Should you be going again next year, you can find a wonderful bank of gentians closer to Holwick (not that I want to deprive you of the glories of Cauldron Snout et al) – along the Pennine Way where it runs right by the river with a steep bank on the other side, around Haugh Hill (pretty much due south of the Langdon Beck hostel). Later, there are bird’s-eye primroses there as well, among much else.

    By the way, (@Joanna) the reason Cauldron Snout looks so full is – that it is. It’s just below the dam at Cow Green, and they keep a constant amount of water going out. So Cauldron Snout always looks good…. which is great but somehow, because it’s not quite real, just a little sad.

  3. Yasmine says:

    Thanks Joanna and Alice. I’m glad you both like the post.

    Joanna: if you follow the flickr link I’ve posted a couple of photos of the pipe from the reservoir that releases the water back into the river. It’s a lot of water! As Alice says, it’s a bit of a cheat, but you are always guaranteed a good show.

    Alice: thanks for the tip about the spring gentians. I didn’t see any when I walked that way last week, but it was a great spot for butterwort and bird’s-eye primrose. I’ll look harder there next time!

  4. Alice says:

    I suspect that the gentians might be a bit earlier there, because when I saw them at that spot a few weeks back, the Cow Green gentians weren’t yet out.

  5. Lovely post Yasmine, I was with you every step of the way. (Hope your ankle is okay). Your photos and narrative are both well executed. It’s a shame about the Sunday bus service. I noticed at Cow Green they’ve built a lovely new bus sign to say, ‘No Bus’. Blea Beck becomes a lovely waterfall if you follow it down. It’s difficult to cross, I remember having to walk much further up the beck to help a lady cross safely. Hope you can attend some of our Natural England events. Taxi service still available, for you and the Tall chap. Best Keith

  6. Yasmine says:

    Thanks Alice. I think you may be right about the different flowering times – last year we visited too early (end of March) and too late (early June). In June we were told, after hunting around locally, that the only place where gentian were still flowering was Cow Green. This Easter would have been perfect with the amazing weather, but our elderly cat kept us at home.

    Keith: I didn’t spot the No Bus sign – by the time I got there I was focused on the eight miles ahead of me. It’s the same in Weardale: I’m not sure if buses run up to Cowshill at all any more, but at least you can get a train from Stanhope on Sunday.

    I found Bleaforce. It’s very impressive and I reckon a nice picnic spot when the waders aren’t breeding (but trying to blank out the quarry is a pain). There’s a photo of it on my flickr page. I’ll keep an eye on the Natural England events. This week we’re plotting a trip to Berwick though…

    Thanks for commenting!

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  9. john smith says:

    the violet is marsh violet, not teesdale violet

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