When the Helm Wind blows – a North Pennine backpack

by backpackingbongos

Screen Shot 2016-06-19 at 16.59.52

52 Kilometres with 1370 metres of ascent over three days.

Dufton is one of my favourite English villages, well it is on a quiet Friday when the place appeared to be deserted. Two days later on a Sunday afternoon it had been transformed into a large leafy car park, albeit more salubrious than Nottingham’s park and ride.

It had been a pleasant late spring morning whilst crossing the A66, however it was very windy in Dufton considering its sheltered position. The trees all in full leaf were making quite a racket as I shouldered my pack and walked along the road to the signpost for the Pennine Way. A local asked where I was heading and I said Cross Fell. He replied saying that the Helm Wind was blowing with the summit of Cross Fell being covered in a large cap of cloud. The helm wind is the only named wind in the UK, which happens when a strong north-easterly blows down the south-west slope of the Cross Fell Escarpment. He said that it was likely to continue for the rest of the day.


I soon turned off the Pennine Way to pick up a track that contoured round the shoulder of Dufton Pike, a conical mini mountain. There I left the security of the track to descend to Great Rundale Beck before the long and steep climb to the summit of Brownber Hill. Next to the beck I found a small wire cage / trap containing a dead crow. It was like a very small Larson trap but I could not figure how it was meant to work. I left it alone and wheezed my way up the hill. When I was half way up a quad bike approached the trap, removed the crow then placed the trap on the back of the quad bike before driving off. I have to admit that I am a suspicious kind of guy when it comes to this sort of activity.

I squelched across the summit of Brownber Hill before taking a diagonal ascent across pathless moor to intersect the Pennine Way near Knock Hush.


Despite it being mid May I was absolutely freezing by the time I reached the large cairn of Knock Old Man. I was glad to shelter behind its solid walls for a while. The wind was so cold that my face was frozen into a grimace. I even had to don gloves for the first time in months (I very rarely feel the need to wear gloves).


The walk across the close cropped grass summits of Knock Fell, Great Dun Fell and then Little Dun Fell was less than pleasant in the very cold and blustery conditions. The cloud would temporarily lift from the summits giving views across the high and wild expanse of moors to the east.


I found shelter on Little Dun Fell and hunkered down for another snack, working out whether I could be bothered to climb Cross Fell. The cloud had finally lifted but I was shivering, the coldest that I have been whilst on the hills for a long time. Therefore I descended to Crowdundle Head and took the bridleway that contoured high above the infant River Tees.


From the map I thought that the bridleway would be easy to follow, however it quickly disappeared and I found myself contouring too far and too high. By then I was feeling really cold and was keen to dress in down clothing and get into my sleeping bag. I descended a bit and found a flat spot close to water on which to pitch the Hilleberg Enan. The sun was beginning to set as I crawled shivering inside. Once in my sleeping bag and after a cup of coffee and some soup I felt much better. It turned out to be a very enjoyable camp in just about the remotest spot in the Pennines.


There was a big freeze during the night, my water bladders turning to lumps of ice. I was glad to wake up to blue skies, the rays of the sun soon warming my tent and melting the ice.

The walk down the upper River Tees was a delight, reminiscent of the Monadhliath in Scotland. This Part of the North Pennines is big open country, high moors intersected by a long, lonely and empty valleys. It felt like I followed the river for miles before I finally came upon the track that leads to the South River Tyne.




With the Colorado Trail trip coming up later in the summer I was back in trail shoes after a year wearing leather boots. It can take a while getting used to the freedom you get, along with the need to be more careful with foot placement. The new pair of Inov-8 Race Ultra’s right out of the box proved to be very comfortable, it was like walking in slippers.


After a short period of dry weather I was surprised at just how low some of the stream and rivers were. It’s something that I remember from previous summer trips to the North Pennines. It’s worth remembering if you are wild camping and relying on a particular water source. Many of the side streams had simply dried up.



The track above the north-eastern side of Cow Green reservoir gave swift walking after the long meandering amble alongside the River Tees. After only seeing a couple of people in twenty-four hours the car park at Cow Green came as a bit of a shock. It was pretty busy with people setting off along the tarmac track towards the Cow Green Dam. This is the Widdybank Fell Nature Reserve. The patches of grass amongst the heather was covered in vivid blue flowers which after some Googling happen to be Spring Gentians. The native population of this tiny little flower is confined to the Teesdale area. There were numerous people on their hands and knees taking photos.


Once past the dam I left everyone behind and started the climb up the track to the remote farm at Birkdale. The Pennine Countryside does not get much better than this area. Falcon Clints provided a great backdrop under a blue sky with fluffy clouds lining up to the horizon.


Unfortunately the beauty is spoilt after the farm where a new vehicle track has been built. This obliterates the old Pennine Way trail, the walking now reduced to a trudge along sharp stones that are uncomfortable underfoot. Built in the name of the ‘sport’ of grouse shooting.


It was a relief to leave the track behind when the Pennine Way finally descended west to the banks of Maize Beck. It was good to be back on a ‘soft’ path which took me to the bridge across the greatly diminished river. A little further on I found a flat grassy spot, prefect for a night of solitude.


I awoke to another frosty dawn and I packed up again under blue skies. If you arrived without a map and compass and had not been to this area before you would be totally unaware of the spectacle that was about to come. Crossing almost flat and featureless moorland there is just a slight dip on the horizon to the west.


Then all of a sudden the spectacle of High Cup Nick is upon you.




It really is one of the most jaw dropping places in the Pennines, out of character with the surrounding landscape. I sat for a while at the head of the great chasm listening to a trickle of water making its way to the valley below.

Not many people appear to walk the south-eastern rim, instead using the Pennine way on the far side. I followed a narrow path, stopping frequently to glance back at the way I had come.


I left the path after a while and contoured on a band of grassy limestone before dropping steeply down to Trundale Gill and a welcome spring of cold and clear water. A steep climb out of the Gill led me on a course to the shapely summit of Murton Pike.




With a cold northerly breeze the views were exceptionally clear, the Lakeland fells standing proud above the patchwork of greens in the Eden Valley.


A good track leads steeply down to Murton village from where I took a series of footpaths across fields back to Dufton. It was much longer than walking along the road but worth it for the views back to the high fells and a profusion of fragrant spring flowers.




31 Comments to “When the Helm Wind blows – a North Pennine backpack”

  1. I have to say, despite the freezing Helm Wind, that looks like a mighty fine backpack. I love it round there.

    Pity about that new track from the res area over towards Maize Beck, though. It certainly wasn’t like that when Dixie and I did the Pennine Way. 😦

    • It is a great place to set off for a backpack Chrissie, a real sense of freedom on those northern moors. I think that Dixie would have disapproved of that new track.

  2. Cracking round James, you really packed the high lights of the area!

  3. Good write up, thank you for sharing it with us all. I’ll be interested to hear how the Race Ultras turn out…I rate them but have concerns about their durability.

    • Thanks Geoff. Unfortunately that pair of Race Ultra’s had to be returned as the liner was not stitched properly, then the replacements had to be returned too for exactly the same reason!

  4. A fine round and wild camps looked great spots for a night. Crack on with the training for the big summer walk James.

  5. Looked a really good trip, only been MTBing round there, not walked, the camp spots looked good, nice and remote, certainly an area worth a visit, away from the madding or is it maddening crowds!
    IanB , somerset

  6. Beautifully written James, as always.

  7. Nice one James lovely report. It is a wonderful area. I camped high up Teesdale last April and found the Tees above Cow Green has the feel of real wild country, must go back loads of bird life. Pity about the ‘sportsmen’ Great camping spots in your report I envy you. Best wishes for you USA trip will look forward to seeing your reports. In relation to USA check out a blog by an amazing chap called Sean ‘Shug’ Emery a fully qualified clown and keen hammock camper and backpacker he is an incredible guy, worth a look.

    • Hi Graham, I will check out that chap’s blog. This area of the North Pennines does feel nice and wild but at the same time is nice and accessible. One of my go to areas when I fancy a wild fix. Always good to camp high.

      • https://www.youtube.com/user/shugemery/videos
        Cheers James here is a link which may work. He is very amusing but knows his stuff his vids on spirit stoves are great. Just bring me back a Fancee Feast stove from USA cant get them here would love one. If you like watching water boil you will enjoy his channel.

      • Not heard of that stove Mick. I ended up importing this from the States. http://www.flatcatgear.com/bobcat-cooking-system/ It has been great.

      • Yes I read your blogs on it and saw you had tried it out( envy envy). I love cooking on my little Triad xe titatium stove I got from Bob at Backpacking Lite it is a multifuel . They are all so light but as you said ( I think) the old Jetboil is quicker and probably safer in the porch of a tent. I have ended up taking both types now using the spirit stove when in camp, its better than watching the telly! and the Jetboil when on the move. Check out the ‘Fancee Feest’ if you get chance. It looks a terrific little stove needs no pot stand. Made from a cat food can! Seriously if you can get hold of one in the states I would pay you over the odds for one though I imagine you will have enough to do without shopping! I know you are off dehydrated camp meals but have a look at ‘Pakit Gourmet’ they look great and again sadly you cannot get them here. Shug Emery had some great videos on camp food. Thought about buying some from US but expensive to ship and may not get through customs, grr!
        All the best!

  8. A grand wee bit of backpacking James. Wonderful photos, and a fine write up. Shame about that track, it is a hideous eyesore. Did you pop in to the cafe in Dufton?

    • Hi Dawn. Yes that track is a bit of an eyesore. It will bed in but the feeling of entering wild country has now diminished. The cafe in Dufton provided me with a large hunk of chocolate cake 🙂

  9. Ref the crow bit at the top of the story. Crows can attack and kill newborn lambs, so the farmers trap them.

  10. Splendid stuff that reminded me for all the hundreds of days I’ve spent in the Mountains I’ve never been to High Cup Nick!

  11. This is such a great post and some of my favourite places, I’ve only ever followed the PW over Cross Fell, what a great idea to follow the Tees instead, fantastic gentians, a lucky spot. The new track up to High Cup is outrageous!
    Last month I camped on Cross Fell summit, it was a bit blowy 😉
    I have a new blog which so far is just my summer Pennine Way of this year, hope you might like to have a look, Cross Fell is day 13.
    What resolution do you upload your photos at? They look betterbthan mine, but then I’m only taking mine on a phone.
    bw, Andrew

    • Hi Andrew, thanks for stopping bye, sorry about taking so long to reply to your comment. I’ll certainly have a look at your new blog, always good to have some new outdoor ones! I upload my photos at 780 pixels across, shrinking them post process.

      • Thanks, that’s super-useful! I’ve been shrinking all mine to 640 which was the specified width for the theme but they look a bit coarse I think. Will work out how to do a blogroll and certainly stick you on it when I do. cheers Andrew

      • Thanks Andrew. Mine were shrunk to the specified width of the theme, which must be a bit wider than yours.

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