Middleton-in-Teesdale carries reminders of harsh history
PUBLISHED: 10:10 22 January 2010 | UPDATED: 16:37 20 February 2013
Often dubbed one of England's last true wildernesses, Upper Teesdale more than rewards visitors prepared to make the effort to get there, even in the bleak mid-winter - as Gareth Dant discovered
Its hard to imagine just how tough life was for the farmers and lead miners - many families fulfilled both roles - which populated Upper Teasdale in the 19th century.
But visiting the area just as 2009 was preparing to turn into 2010, the bleak weather did its best to heighten my powers of empathy.
Middleton-in-Teesdale is the main centre of population for some distance.
Its a charming place in all weathers and a key stopping off point for walkers on the Pennine Way or Teesdale Way, as well as day-trippers to High Force, a spectacular waterfall upriver, and more rugged outdoors types heading further up into the hills.
It grew rapidly in the early 19th century when the London Lead Company set up its northern HQ here. Its solid Victorian architecture, including numerous imposing chapels, reflects the importance of this influence on what was very much a "company town".
Today, from the traditional, dependable Winters and Raines stores - for outdoor clothing and hardware respectively - to a friendly little bookshop, Middleton retains a range of independent outlets that should provide most things you need, while a decent fish and chip shop, a couple of cafes and a range of pubs and hotels will fill any gaps in your belly.
But what I kept being reminded of was the same hardy self-reliance among the areas inhabitants that has sustained their very existence for centuries.
Theres the Bridge Inn, taken over by a community trust set up by some of its punters. And epitomising the rugged Dales spirit of independent resourcefulness is UTASS - Upper Teesdale Agricultural Support Service.
Almost impossible to pigeonhole and pretty much unique in the country, UTASS is a community development organisation with an office in Middleton.
It was set up in 2000 after health authority researchers, investigating a worrying spike in the areas suicide rate during the 1990s, pin-pointed the unbearable toll increased paperwork was taking on hardworking farmers.
The backbone of UTASS work was, and remains, supporting the farming community as it follows the frequently tortuous paths of animal registration, funding and subsidy paperchases.
Its roles have expanded to include regular drop-in sessions for local teenagers and a status as a community hub for visiting information services providing advice on everything from sexual health to legal affairs and consumer advice.
Its a unique organisation that has kept a vibrant farming community going during very adverse conditions, explains Richard Betton, UTASS farm liaison worker, citing two foot and mouth outbreaks, blue tongue, cattle TB, political interference and climate change as some of the travails the farming community has faced.
Add to that three successive wet summers that have tested tourism providers to their limits and you start to get an idea of why such a valuable service is required.
Deeply sceptical of the both the Government and Whitehalls attitude to farmers and the countryside, Mr Betton - a first-generation hill farmer further up the dale, and also a senior National Farmers Union representative - is in no doubt about the critical relationship between farming, tourism and virtually every minute detail of the countryside.
The tourism industry up here relies on what farmers do. Its why Teesdale is such a lovely place to visit still, he asserts, citing carefully maintained stone walls, footpaths and flower-rich meadows among the attractions.
Middleton Plus, another community organisation, succeeded in establishing a tourist information centre for the town in 2000.
Much of the countryside in the vicinity of Middleton forms part of the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty - the second biggest AONB in the country.
The combination of a topography shaped by ice age glaciers, altitude and sheer isolation (almost everyone you speak to about Upper Teasdale uses the word unspoilt at some point in the conversation) makes for some very rare flora, such as gentians and Teesdale violets, as well as wonderful wildlife.
Some of the regions loveliest villages are also nearby, including Eggleston, Cotherstone and Romaldkirk.
Carrying off the Crown
Chris and Alison Davy have spent 20 years amassing a huge number of accolades, awards and top-flight reviews for The Rose & Crown, their 18th century coaching inn in Romaldkirk. Mr Davy has shared his expertise during five years as chairman of County Durham Tourism Partnership - a role he has just relinquished. Next year he will take up the chairmanship of the British Hospitality Association, where he will continue to act as a vocal ambassador for his adopted Teesdale.
I think its a very unspoilt part of Britain, he said. The people are very friendly, it has some very beautiful countryside and it is relatively undiscovered. If you like genuine English countryside, if you like flowers, or birdwatching or outdoor pursuits in general, then theres no better place to live, work or relax.
Also worth a look...
Middletons Tourist Information Centre in the market place is open from 10am-1pm each day; contact 01833 641001.
Bowlees Visitor Centre, housed in a former Methodist chapel, is a base for Durham Wildlife Trust complete with a caf, located a few miles up the B6277 Alston road from Middleton. Call 01833 622292 for details or see www.durhamwt.co.uk.
Eggleston Hall Gardens has four lovely acres of walled gardens and more. Call 01833 650115 or visit www.egglestonhallgardens.co.uk.
Moor House is one of the countrys largest national nature reserves, taking in the spectacular upper reaches of the Tees, including Cauldron Snout and Cow Green Reservoir. Call 01833 622374 or visit www.naturalengland.co.uk.