Saturday, 27 April 2013

High Cup Nick

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Route: Dufton, Pennine Way, Narrow Gate, Nichol Chair, High Cup Nick, High Cup Gill, Harbour Flat, Keisley, Dufton

Date: 27/04/2013
From: Dufton

Parking: Public car park in Dufton
Start Point: Dufton
Region: Pennines

Route length: 9.4 miles (15.12 km)
Time taken: 03:48
Average speed: 2.5 mph
Ascent: 600m
Descent: 602m

Summits: None

Points of interest: High Cup Nick

High Cup Nick really is a hidden gem.

It's the kind of place that can only be found if you are intent on actually finding it, a result of nature carefully hiding it at the top of an enormous U-shaped valley, carved into the side of the Cumbrian Pennines and shielded from prying eyes by a series of sentry like hills. Indeed, the popular Pennine Way passes directly over the very edge of High Cup Nick yet, even on the warmest of summer days, you could find yourself alone in this spectacular setting. But more about that later.

We pencilled this walk in after a partly disappointing week in the Lake District, resulting in a very wet walk up Helm Crag and a disappointing abandonment of the Helvellyn ridge. As we were all heading southwards, the detour to our starting point in the village of Dufton was a welcome respite from the Bank Holiday traffic. Dufton is well served by a large car, an importantly free, car park which is the perfect place to start this circular route.
The road leading out of Dufton
The rolling Pennine foothills
Overall, a fair climb is required to reach High Cup Nick, around 600m in total. This though, is tackled over a number of miles along the Pennine Way as it steadily climbs along a stony track out from Dufton. The weather was perfect, a combination of floating white clouds and brilliant blues skies. After a mile or so, we reached a pass between Dod Hill and Harthwaite, two of the many smaller foothills of the Pennines.
Pennine way footpath sign
The track as it climbs towards Peeping Hill
Dufton Pike presents food for thought
It was obvious at this point, that the full spectacle of High Cup would not reveal itself until the last minute, one of my absolute favourite moments in any walk. While much of the land in the National Parks is special, there's nothing quite like the 'big reveal' and this was shaping up to be one of the best.The full panorama of the distant Lake District fells accompanies much of this walk as well, an added bonus given the highlight of High Cup.
The main track ends at a large sheepfold
Murton Pike and the entrance to High Cup
Passing Dod Hill, the track (climbing still and steepening slightly) runs beneath the slopes of Peeping Hill, an appropriately named grassy dome, perched on the slopes of Blackstone Edge and indeed, peeping out across the Eden Valley. A series of rock outcrops and the crest of subsequent contours continue to obscure the view of High Cup until the very last minute, not until reaching the path high above High Pots is it finally revealed.
One last climb before....
....all is revealed
High Cup is a classic U-shaped valley, formed by the steady erosion of a glacier in the last Ice Age. What sets it apart though is the abrupt cliff of rock that lines the rim at the head of the valley and to explain it requires a very brief lesson in Geology.

Around 295 million years ago, a thinning of the Earth's crust molten rock to be thrust towards the surface from deep within the Earth as a series of igneous intrusions. It didn't reach the surface but was injected between the layers of the existing bedrock. As the molten rock cooled and solidified, it formed a vast sheet of rock up to 80m thick, which lies beneath much of north-east England. This rock sheet is the Great Whin Sill. As it cooled, the sheet of rock contracted, creating numerous vertical cracks that form the distinctive rough columns seen today. The famous strongholds of Bamburgh Castle, Dunstanburgh Castle, Lindisfarne Castle and several stretches of Hadrian's Wall all take strategic advantage of high, rocky cliff lines formed by the sill. It is the Great Whin Sill that you can see lining the crest of High Cup.
High Cup Nick
The path continues towards the head of the valley, edging closer to the considerable fall into the valley bottom 300m below. The narrowest part, aptly called Narrow Gate, squeezes between the valley rim and Hannah's Well, a spring that forms the source of Strands Beck, one of the many feeders of High Cup Gill. Beyond this, the path widens considerably allowing you to walk as close to or as far from the edge as you wish.
The path narrows at Narrow Gate
A number of small stream crossings are required
Strands Beck as it heads to oblivion
Sara getting a move on
With the jaw-dropping scenery in front of us, we broke for lunch before continuing around to the actual High Cup Nick, the waterfall at the head of the valley and beginning of our scramble down to the valley bottom. This location gives a fine view of the entire valley, one that I made the most of using a bit of photo-stitchery. As you begin the descent the cracked and broken, looming presence of the Great Whin Sill is hard to ignore, it really is one of our geological wonders.
The  Great Whin Sill caps High Cup
Sara makes her way towards High Cup Nick
The Great Whin Sill
High Cup is all its glory
High Cup Gill
High Cup Gill
The route towards the valley floor
The Whin Sill aside, the scramble down the fallen rocks is a bit of an awkward one but not beyond the ability of most walkers. After dropping down into the valley, there was a noticeable increase in warmth thanks to the shelter provided by the high sides. Alternatively, instead of dropping into the valley, a right of way continues around the southern arm of the valley before dropping down Middle Tongue and joining the route we were on.
The towering columns of the Great Whin Sill
The rock layer stretches all the way along the valley
Taking a quick break amongst the boulders
The eroded remains of the Whin Sill
Following our clamber down the boulders, a long, slightly soggy walk alongside High Cup Gill. The right of way is marked on the map for all to see, but I'll use the term 'path' loosely. Ultimately, however, there is little doubt as to which way to go, considering the enclosure of the valley sides. After an unspecified amount of time that seemed like forever, we reached the farm of Harbour Flatt and the road that leads back to Dufton.
The valley of High Cup looking back towards High Cup Nick
High Cup
High Cup Gill
The increasingly boggy path leading out of the valley
An un-named hill guards the entrance to High Cup
The final stretch of the walk takes the road back to Dufton with the familiar sight of the Lake District accompanying much of the stroll. This part is probably the only bit of the walk that's a bit dull, though that may only be the case because it's being compared to High Cup.
The shapely Murton Pike
The lane leading back to Dufton
The Southern Lakeland fells
I don't really think there's much more to say, I'd urge you to make a visit to High Cup as soon as possible. In this case, pictures really do speak a thousand words and this walk around one of our country's natural wonders more than made up for a couple of missed opportunities the week before. There are a few additions you can make as well, like a route along the opposite rim or an ascent of Dufton Pike, they add up to a great adventure. If I were you, I'd get this one pencilled into the diary very soon.