Searching for the source: the River Tees

The Tees is as much a part of the North East as the Angel of the North, Durham Cathedral, and the locals’ famous imperviousness to cold, except that’s not the whole story, for this rambling river has a surprise in store.

Dixe Wills

Posted on 27/09/2019

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Formed as a result of glaciation around 18,000 years ago and cutting a swathe across County Durham and North Yorkshire then gushing out to sea at Middlesbrough, the River Tees has played an important role in the economy and culture of the region since time immemorial (its name is probably derived from the ancient Brittonic language and means ‘warm’ or ‘lively’). However, the river made its most enduring contribution to the development of the north-east during the Industrial Revolution when it served as a means of transporting fuel, raw materials and manufactured goods, and brought prosperity to the area.

Much more recently – in 1995 – the Tees Barrage was built at Stockton-on-Tees. This not only helps prevent flooding but has also made the river a mecca for water-sports enthusiasts who come from around the world to pit themselves against the Tees Barrage International White Water Course. Today, Canal & River Trust looks after not only the barrage but 22 miles of the Tees up to Worsall, which was the river’s highest tidal point before the barrage was created.

But if you wish to trace the source of all this abundant water, it’s no good going to North Yorkshire or even County Durham. Rather you’ll need to take a ride on the Settle to Carlisle railway and hop out at Langwathby in Cumbria. It’s a brief cycle along countryside roads from there to the hamlet of Kirkland, where our search for the source of the Tees begins in earnest.

Starting off from the little church that gives the hamlet its name, a friend and I stared up at the mountain we were to climb. Cross Fell, at 893m, is the highest peak in England outside the Lake District. A vast cloud obscured the summit, which did not bode well. But at least we were in good company. The main path upwards from Kirkland forms part of the curiously named long distance footpath A Pennine Journey. This is loosely based on a 250-mile hike that the renowned Lake District walker Alfred Wainwright embarked on back in 1938 before writing a book of the same name.

Wainwright was a hardy fellow, so would have made light of the dense rain clouds into which we climbed and the marshy ground underfoot. Damp but undaunted, we pressed on upwards, at last reaching the Pennine Way – Britain’s first ever long-distance footpath (of the modern era, at least). This took us over rocky scree and onto the lunar-like summit of Cross Fell.

The Helm Wind that blows in these parts produces a shrieking noise that is apparently often mistaken for a human scream. We were treated to a more prosaic gale which, rather than shrieking, was content to whip rain into our faces as we blundered onwards, peering like woebegone brothers into the ever thickening brume. We were thus heartily grateful to the stout fellows who built the shelter on Cross Fell summit, behind which we were able to sit and enjoy a picnic lunch. There we also had the pleasure of swapping tales of the day’s wild walking conditions with other ramblers who emerged bedraggled in ones and twos out of the mantle of white.

Tees Head, where the nascent river bursts from the earth, is located in the saddle between Cross Fell and its neighbouring peak, Little Dun Fell. Warmed by hot drinks and camaraderie, we pressed on along the Pennine Way, dropping down onto the saddle to reach a junction where the trail crosses a bridleway.

I have seen a very fine photograph taken from this point that clearly shows where the Tees begins its 85-mile journey eastwards to the sea. Our friend the cloud was having none of it though. My companion and I had to make do with the knowledge that it was there beneath us, just below the bridleway, plunging swiftly down the jagged join where the two mountains meet.

We headed back down Cross Fell along the bridleway until at last we dropped out of the cloud. The eastern peaks of the Lake District and the verdant valley below were restored to our sight once more. It really is a cracking view. But who would have thought that the Tees, that true North-Easterner, was actually born in a country such as this?

How to search for the source

The paths on the western side of the summit of Cross Fell are faint and can be difficult to follow in poor visibility, when cairns cannot be seen. Therefore, unlike our author, it’s best to check the weather forecast before setting out and only attempt a walk if fine weather is forecast. You’ll also need the OS map Teesdale & Weardale OL31.

  1. Facing the little church in the hamlet of Kirkland, go right along the road and almost immediately left at a junction, signed to Ranbeck.
  2. Continue ahead, following a sign to Garrigill. Go through a gate and set off on a wide bridleway that forms part of A Pennine Journey.
  3. Head steadily uphill as the bridleway passes behind High Cap.
  4. At a fork just after some quarry workings, keep left. The path becomes fainter as it heads further up and onto marshy ground. As the ascent at last begins to level off, look for a grassy path off to the right. This is the Pennine Way.
  5. Follow this often faint path up onto the summit of Cross Fell, aiming for the large and welcome shelter.
  6. From the trig point beside the shelter, take the clear path heading roughly eastwards. This becomes a paved path (or ‘trod’). Where a bridleway crosses the path – as indicated by an engraved paving stone showing a circle and the two trails crossing – turn left. After about 400m, and just before a fence, you pass just above Tees Head on your right hand side.
  7. To return to Kirkland, simply turn around and follow the bridleway all the way south-west down the hill, ignoring a right turn near the bottom that crosses a stream. Turn right at a house called Wythwaite and go across the ancient agricultural terraces fancifully known as the Hanging Walls of Mark Anthony. Pass through three gates in quick succession and take the tarmac track to the left of the farm buildings at Baron’s Hill. Turn left at the end to reach the church at Kirkland.

Plan your day out along the River Tees with our online guide

James Albon