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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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