I did not have the heart to return by the same route. I had not walked so far just to turn around and go through the same dullness so I consulted my map and looked for an alternative. I had considered walking up the southern slope of Meldon Hill to its rounded summit, 767 metres above sea level and on the walk in the perfectly flat surface of Cow Green reservoir had reflected the hill like a mirror, making it seem nearer and attainable but now I wanted something more interesting than an endless climb to the top of an unremarkable hill. The clouds were starting to roll in like massive white curtains pulled across a stage. On the walk to High Cup Nick I had crossed Maize Beck, a small upland stream flowing roughly north-east to join the Tees and decided that this was where my route lay. I would reject the paths, do away with the duckboards and follow this small mountain river where it lead me.
Maize Beck rises in the huge blanket bogs of Dufton Fell. Water falling in this catchment gathers in the thick peaty soil, thatched with sphagnum moss and tussocks of grass before making its slow way into ditch and sike, runnel and gill. Even it its upper reaches the beck is wide and rocky, alternating between stony rapids and deep dark pools where the water moves slowly, swirling in dark depths that call for wild swimming on warm days. Today is not that day, the wind is rattling the dry heather, the sky is threatening rain and this high in the hills small becks can flash flood, sweeping down turfs and stone in their force. I decide to keep my clothes firmly on my back.
The geology of these hills is varied. There is shiny black limestone, washed smooth and dimpled by millennia of water, vast igneous intrusions of whin sill form cliffs and pinnacles while sedimentary layers lie in slabby formations. The beck cuts down through this landscape, a cold serpent of water, a living presence in a place that can evoke a sense of emptiness and stillness. There is a modern footbridge across the beck and this is where I begin my journey. The map shows a footpath running along the southern edge of the beck – in reality this is a faint and elusive trail that winds between the heather and the stones, sometimes lost from view. This is the kind of place I love, a place where it is not certain where the path lies and where ones skill and strength are tested. Leave the Pennine Way to the ramblers and their Skye Terriers, this is where I want to be.