For many years High Cup Nick called to me. I have studied it on the map and driven by its vast open mouth, looking up into the rolling clouds that cap its top. I have planned expeditions that have never happened, over night wild camps on the slopes above the trough, long walks down the steep gills that fall into the vale of Eden and then steeper climbs back to the summits but all in vain. But I had never set aside the time to visit the place. The call of this wild and remote place seemed as far away and faint as the moon but like all things it is there for the taking, and if we stop thinking about it and start doing it we get a little closer.
On a grey and ordinary March morning I set off to finally see this place. A long drive to the trail head on the banks of Cow Green reservoir, a few minutes to boot up and check equipment and I was off, striding along the rough tarmac road that leads down to the dam wall that holds back the might of Condatis’ Tees, across the dam and onto the Pennine Way heading west. I have sometimes pondered what it would be like to do one of these long distance walks and today I realised that this is definitely, positively not for me. I have no problem walking long distances, no problem wild camping or doing the day after day after day slog that comes with the challenges – what I dislike, maybe even despise, is the pedestrian nature of these walks.
Other than physical stamina and mental dullness I can see little else that is needed to complete these trails. The Pennine Way is as wide and well marked as a suburban street. At every mile there seems to be a sign post showing the way, a helpful information board provided by some do-gooding organisation and in places where the ground may be a little muddy for gentlefolk they have even provided duck-boards, huge stone slabs and footbridges to get those who lack the initiative across the becks and gills. What is the point of venturing into “Englands Last Wilderness” if it is impossible to lose ones way? I appreciate the arguments about erosion and the impact of thousands of boots on delicate ecosystems but I really do not want to be herded along sanitised corridors in the landscape like so many day-trippers on a bus to Blackpool.
Not only is the walk to High Cup Nick insultingly well marked it is also insultingly boring. Mile after mile of dull heathery hills rising with that rounded convex slope of the North Pennines, a shifting mirage that places the summit always beyond the next ridge. Here you find yourself among some of the highest hills in England – Mickle Fell, Meldon Hill, Dun Fell, Cross Fell but the path winds sheepishly around their lower flanks, across miles of soggy featureless upland plain on which the only point of interest is the soft chuckle of startled grouse and calling lapwings and curlews.
I reached High Cup Nick in a poor humour. The walk had been tiresome and dull, the weather was neither warm and sunny or cold and cloudy – both of which I would have welcomed for their own reasons – but just the sullen dull grey of very early spring. Too early for the flowers of the famous Teesdale Assemblage, too late for the snows that linger long in this sub-arctic microclimate. Even so, when one stands at the head of the vast glacial trough of High Cup Gill and beholds the majesty of the place all the bullshit and interference that has clung to you like the scum of the modern world blows away, leaving you cleansed and quiet. I sat for a long time, a lone tiny figure in this enormous landscape, looking out into the sky. Sat like a falcon on a crag, ready to launch into the shifting clouds, suspended in a world of sky and rock, of greys and black, lost in the soft fall of water and cold whine of wind. But I knew when I had stayed too long. The chill bit and worried any area of exposed skin, hands began to tingle then scream in the coldness, tuning to the pink of boiled lobsters. Taking photographs was difficult, fingers began to stiffen and lose their dexterity, the pain increased until ones whole consciousness was reduced to the need to put on gloves. If there is a Genius Loci of this wild and viscous place it is not to be taken lightly.