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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Monday, 4 June 2012

In Weardale

After the excitements of the Jubilee in Durham, we have escaped for a couple of days to the North Pennines where we have a little house. Rookhope is a village in a remote side valley in Upper Weardale. Up here at about 1200 feet, the fells are wide, lonely and silent. It is the highest settlement in the valley: beyond, the land is bleak and treeless, broken only by abandoned farm buildings and homesteads and the sandstone walls that run up the fell sides. We look out over the village and up the valley; at the top 5 miles away a high ridge closes off the view. This is the watershed between tributaries of the Wear and the Tyne.  Beyond lies Northumberland.

You get a lot of 'weather' here. Clouds mass above the high fells to the west heralding the fierce rainstorms that power down the valley. The sky is often leaden and lowering for days on end. The snow can be relentless and lie in sheltered pockets until May: Upper Weardale is said to be the snowiest place in England. All roads descend into Rookhope and we have known times when it has been impossible to get in or out. Life has always been hard in the Pennine dales.

The valley sits in the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.  And there is great beauty in this environment, though you have to like your landscapes tough and gritty rather than intimate and charming.  Guests etherealise over the marvellous view from the living room.  'To look out on all this, just as nature intended!' they sometimes say. But this is not altogether how nature intended the dale.  The big industry in the North Pennines up to the early 20th century was lead mining. Its fossils are everywhere in our valley for Rookhope was once a thriving centre of mining. Our house is in a row of former miners' dwellings, true Victorian back-to-backs that were knocked through in the 1960s. The view up the valley takes in the arch that used to carry the flue bearing poisonous gases from the smelters to the fell-tops.  The unmistakable outlines of spoil-heaps, long grassed-over, are everywhere. Below the house is the trackbed of an inclined railway up which wagons were hauled by a fixed steam engine: the ruined engine house is still there on the flank of Bolt's Law. It was the highest standard-gauge railway in England.  You can walk the track-bed for miles across the fells. 

W.H. Auden loved this exposed, inhospitable lead-mining country. A midlander, he felt the pull of 'north' and as a young man loved nothing better than exploring the wreckage of this once flourishing industry. He found his poetic voice at Rookhope. He had a defining moment when he idly threw a pebble down a disused mineshaft and imagined it disappearing into the dark and distant void as its echoes died away into silence. In 1940 he wrote in 'New Year Letter':

                                         In Rookhope I was first aware
                                         Of self and not-self, Death and Dread....
                                         There I dropped pebbles, listened, heard
                                         The reservoir of darkness stirred.

Today Rookhope is visited by walkers and cyclists doing the cross-country Coast to Coast route. The village pub is busy in summer: their b&b trade probably keeps it going. There is a school, a small shop and a church where Anglicans and Methodists worship together. The villagers are warm and friendly and are glad that off-comers like us enjoy being here. When it comes to practical jobs, you seem to be able to get anything done here or close by: building work, joinery, plumbing, electrics.... Help is always at hand: when we had to dig the car out of the snow, or get a table into the house round impossibly tight corners, folk were cheerfully willing. And although Durham Dales people don't wear their heart on their sleeve, Rookhopers (is that what they are called?) are kind, warm-hearted neighbours. We love coming here.

Yet life is hard for many in the upper Dale. The abandoned farms tell their own story of drift away from the countryside.  With local government reorganisation, people feel further away than ever from where decisions are made.  Public transport and local services are patchy.  The cement works, once a major employer in the Dale, has gone.  Tourism is important and growing, but it is not flourishing on the scale you find in Teesdale let alone the Yorkshire Dales. Yet there are many attractions here.  The Dale has some of the best walking country in England.  Killhope open air museum is a great evocation of lead-mining.  The Weardale steam railway (whose opening I blessed) has one of the longest heritage lines in the country and deserves to succeed. 

It will take time for this forgotten valley to be rediscovered.  But to all who love wide open spaces, Weardale, and our side-valley, are Pennine jewels.  In summer you can walk the fells all day with only the grouse and curlews for company. June days seem almost endless: it is late when the day's last embers flicker out behind the high ridge that marks the watershed. In winter after briefer forays against the cold or rain, you head homewards where smoke from a score of hearths hangs over the village's homes huddling together for shelter, and you look forward to an evening in front of the stove with books or music or conversation. There is no mobile phone signal in Rookhope, and in our house, no TV or Internet*. Life is simpler here. It seems to cleanse the mind.  Perhaps there is more room for God in these remote places.

*So I have travelled down to Stanhope, capital of Upper Weardale, to post this.


  1. Perfect description of Weardale. I live 315m above sea level, not sure the sea level above Rookhope but probably very similar. Hope the Church manages to stay open.

  2. Wonderful, evocative post. Your sojurn clearly has clearly sparked creative energy expressed in words.