Home Features Upper Teesdale through the lens of the Leica X (Typ 113)

Upper Teesdale through the lens of the Leica X (Typ 113)

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The River Tees: 85 miles of meandering river that begins beneath Cross Fell in the picturesque North Pennines, in England, and flows into the estuary between Hartlepool and Redcar, not far from Middlesbrough.

The entire length of the river can be a picturesque dream with many creative image opportunities. But for this article, I am going to focus on my favourite stretch in Upper Teesdale, between Low Force and High Force waterfalls.

High Force, low-level shot with the Leica X tripod-mounted
High Force, low-level shot with the Leica X tripod-mounted

I used my Leica X, a camera which has perhaps not had the adoration of Macfilos readers to the extent of, say, the X1 or X2. But the X with its fixed, non-extending lens, deserves recognition as another classic from the Leica digital lineup.

It has the simplicity of the X1 but is a little chunkier, with better AF and similarly straightforward physical controls. No need to go menu diving here. If only it had a built-in viewfinder it would be the APS-C equivalent of the Leica Q. Yet it does accept the external VF-2 viewfinder common to the M240 and X Vario. I’ve become as attached to it as John Shingleton, in particular, cleaves to his ancient X1.

The River Tees, from its source in the North Pennines to the North Sea near Middlesborough

The opening section from Cross Fell, the highest point in the Pennines at 2930ft, includes Cow Green Reservoir, built between 1967 and 1971 to supply the industry of Teesside. Beyond the reservoir is a ten-mile stretch that includes three memorable waterfalls. The area was formed beneath a glacier some 27,000 years ago. Many of the hills and local geology clearly show this influence.

View across the fields behind Bowlees Visitor Centre
View across the fields behind Bowlees Visitor Centre

There is a local mythical character by the name of Peg Powler who, apparently, prowled this area of the river for many years. She was said to be a green-haired mermaid, who had an appetite for small children. Sadly or otherwise, her habitat disappeared beneath the reservoir and the sightings seem to have sunk with her.

View down the valley towards Middleton-in-Teesdale, taken from the footpath between Low Force and High Force
View down the valley towards Middleton-in-Teesdale, taken from the footpath between Low Force and High Force

The opening waterfall is only half a mile after the dam of Cow Green Reservoir and is called Cauldron Snout. I have personally never considered it to be one of my favourites. I have no images in this article, as it requires more planning to get a decent shot. On the other hand, both Low Force and High Force easily accessible by all members of the public with very little effort.

Low Force, normal exposure on a sunny day
Low Force, normal exposure on a sunny day

I have always enjoyed producing long exposure shots, whether at night, or in unusual daylight settings, using neutral density filters, and other tricks to pull off those stunning looking shots. My preferred combination for those anyone interested is to use a Hoya ProND10 filter mounted on a series of expanders to combine with my Leica X. I then use the smallest aperture the camera offers, in this case f/16. Some of my Nikon lenses go down to f/22 or onwards and are perfectly reasonable for a daylight long exposure. I used the Leica X for all images included with this article, and I shot them over two separate walks, one in 2018 and one in May 2019 (with the exception of the image of the X itself which was shot on an iPhone 7 Plus).

Wynch Bridge and Low Force

Wynch Bridge - Liz braves the shaky crossing
Wynch Bridge – Liz braves the shaky crossing

I usually walk the waterfalls in the reverse order from the river’s source on Cross Fell. This is probably the most common way for people experience them. The first waterfall for my visit is Low Force, as this gives you the option of having a longer walk. It also provides unique angle for getting at High Force along a decent riverside footpath. If you’re feeling extra fit you could continue on to Cauldron Snout. It is a fair hike there and back again, so be warned.

From the path leading towards Wynch Bridge
From the path leading towards Wynch Bridge

If you park in Bowlee’s carpark a few miles past the village of Middleton in Teesdale, and walk out past the visitor centre over several fields, you will find yourself close to Low Force. I usually cross over the old rickety iron bridge known as Wynch Bridge which was erected over the Tees in 1830. It can feel a little like walking the bouncy plank, and remember to go one at a time as the bridge is unstable at the best of times. Once across, there is a little fenced area where it is possible to shoot an image that covers the lowest drop of Low Force, with the other drops in the back ground. This shows the spread of the full waterfall.

Low Force, low-level tripod-mounted shot, long exposure using ND filer
Low Force, low-level tripod-mounted shot, long exposure using ND filer

Low Force is the smallest of the three waterfalls in this stretch of the river. In reality it is made up of a series of stepped falls spread out over several hundred metres. They are popular with canoeist seeking the thrill of paddling over multiple drops, not my idea of fun. But some people do get their kicks from weird things. For the average photographer wanting to practice long exposure shots there are ample angles and opportunities to try differing techniques and angles in search of that perfect shot. It is also possible to shoot Low Force from either side of the river.

Dinghy surf riders heading towards Low Force
Dinghy surf riders heading towards Low Force

If you are lucky enough to be in the area during autumn and early winter you will find your images full of mysterious black water and rusty yellows and oranges. And, with the right sky, you get some beautifully picturesque scenes that wouldn’t look out of the place in a Hollywood blockbuster. I have a batch of dramatic looking autumnal shots on my flickr page which were taken years ago with a very old Nikon D300s, another casualty of the digital fast-moving revolution.

The walk from here on towards High Force presents some of the most beautiful riverside scenery to both enjoy and shoot. On one side you have the river, and a wonderful pavement of stone, shingle and craggy notches to break up the twisting route. And on the other bank you have the rolling hills of the surrounding valley.

Valley view on the walk between Low Force and High Force
Valley view on the walk between Low Force and High Force

Valleys

The valley holds a wonderful vista in all seasons, and has something different to maintain your interest away from the riverside. If you follow the route between Low Force and High Force you find yourself on a high viewing platform near the top of High Force, from where you can create amazing top-down images of High Force. You don’t feel the same aura of the force as you do on the route closer to the bottom of the fall, but you still get an impressive view all the same.

View from the top of High Force - not for the faint of heart and definitely not recommended in heavy waters
View from the top of High Force – not for the faint of heart and definitely not recommended in heavy waters

A word of caution here. There is no safety barrier, and there is a hundred foot plus drop less than a few feet from where you stand. Its not unusual to find multiple tripod-wielding photographers here, so camera conversation is often a theme, and I have helped new photographers, or less experienced people to get decent shots from the viewing platform.

A monocrome shot of the aptly named Guinness Pool
A monocrome shot of the aptly named Guinness Pool

For those of you who want photographic impact, with limited input in terms of leg work and effort, park at High Force car park and do the short woodland walk to the waterfall, in fact it is possible for people with mobility restrictions to be able to see High Force from this route. Here you will find a photographic nirvana for the laziest of shooters, and suffer less hiking about with your kit. However this actually costs more for parking, and you have to pay to access the land from this point – just pay at the small shop on the edge of the car park. It’s not expensive, but those frugally minded photographers it is something to consider.

High Force

High Force from the high gantry on teh walk between Low Force and High Force
High Force from the high gantry on the walk between Low Force and High Force

The largest fall on the Tees is High Force. This is one of the most impressive sights you can find on the river. Its roar can be heard from up to mile away, and quite often you can hear it long before you see this visually unique fall. While water has been pouring over the 21-metre gorge for thousands of years, there is evidence that the underlying rock formation is over 300 million years old.

For those who appreciate interesting facts, contrary to popular believe High Force is not the highest waterfall in the UK. It has the largest volume of water falling over an unbroken drop when in full spate, and this gave rise to its Nordic name, “High Fosse”.

High Force from the edge of the cauldron at the bottom. Long exposure shows water trails
High Force from the edge of the cauldron at the bottom. Long exposure shows water trails

Pure Love

I have to admit to having a pure love of this waterfall, it has been in my life forever. I came here with my parents and grandparents and have returned repeatedly with my own children and regularly with my wife Liz. It is different in all seasons, and the visual experience depends largely on the prevailing water levels. The power of the water over the drop gives rise to a swirling foam in the bowl beneath the fall, and to a steady mist that wafts across the river.

My beloved Leica X on its tripod, wading in the river. With Hoya Pro ND10 filter attached. Shot on iPhone 7 Plus
My beloved Leica X on its tripod, wading in the river. With Hoya Pro ND10 filter attached. Shot on iPhone 7 Plus

The waterfall can be different depending on how the weather has been in the run-up to your visit. The main fall dominates, and occasionally you will see the second fall to the right of the main one. The shot to get is on a day when both the second fall and main fall are unified as a solid wall of water. To date, I have not successfully achieved this, but there are some successful images around the internet.

I have taken some extreme measures to capture a few of these images, even perching my Leica X on a tripod that was standing in the river. It’s not something I would advise for the faint hearted, or those wary of ruining expensive equipment. But the image clearly shows the ND filter in place and carefully positioned to get a low level image of High Force.

I hope this gives you a flavour of the area and inspires you to pick up your camera and get out there to find new opportunities to share with us.

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18 COMMENTS

  1. Lovely, lovely, lovely!!! What a gorgeous spot to revisit and make beautiful photos.i can only imagine the drama in the Fall with stormy background. Think of the fun you could have with a helmet camera traveling down river on a tube! Thank you and the X for sharing.

    • Hi John, It is one of those most wondrous of places, and so photogenic. The high up fall shot from the gantry was taken in a howling gale, with Liz wiping the lens and me trying to fathom out the calculation for taking it in manual mode. Typical me.

      I like the helmet cam idea – although not sure it would survive the drop over High Force, there is a swirling pool beneath the main fall, which is lethal. Although some guy did go over a few years back and survived. The cam job over low force would be decent though, as kayaks go over regularly.

      See what X adventures I can come up with next.

      Dave

  2. Hello Dave
    A great article and wonderful pictures with slow speed of both low and high force. We used to go there when our friends lived in Darlington. It’s a nice walk from the low force to the High force and if my memory’s still working I think there’s an excellent pub nearby. I also like the falls in Richmond just under the castle but it’s usually busy at weekends and Aysgarth falls. The good thing about them is that you can always drive to Hawes and have a taste of Wensleydale. Thanks for sharing
    Jean

    • Hi Jean,

      You are so cultured, Wensleydale cheese is one of my favourites, and the village of Hawes is only about half hour drive from my in-laws house in Cumbria. Oddly Teesdale is half hour drive in the opposite direction, so I do get the best of both worlds on that front when I visit. My xmas cheeseboard is never complete without a Wensleydale truckle.

      There is a pub at High Force, and an excellent picnic area. There used to be one near to Low Force, but I am not sure it is still there, as I think the nearest now is either Middleton, or back to High Force. But Low Force does have a decent cafe for visitors.

      Dave

  3. Superb pictures of a beautiful part of the country. Your story reminds me of days, sadly long gone, when I was much more fit and used to walk the foot paths in England. I used to carry an M4 with a 35mm Summicron, in some respects the film equivalent of your X. Thank you for reminding me of those times.

    • Cheers Richard. Glad I was able to evoke warm memories. I had never thought of my little X as such a past photographic master. Dave

  4. Thanks for this write up Dave. Some say that a mix of colour and B&W generally doesn’t work well. Not so in this case. Colours are rich, and the light and gradations from white through black are strong in your B&W shots.
    Certainly a botanically rich area judging by your images, and reinforced by the brown tannins in the cascading water.

  5. Thanks Wayne. It truly is a wonderful place, and glad you liked the mix of images, as I did ponder a bit over which ones to use.

    I hope I get out there for some rich autumnal shots which I will add to Flickr.

    Dave

  6. The first photo is one I would print and put on my wall; excellent. I’ll put this on my list of places to visit. We are toying with visiting the region on holiday so your article comes at an opportune time. Thank you for posting it Dave.

        • I hope you had good weather, and happy hunting with the camera Kevin.

          I hear that the weather was in your favour, as we are roasting down South in Kent.

  7. I really liked your photos, and you left me wondering whether I would dare take only my (under-used) X2 + EVF on my coming trip to Yorkshire or whether I would kick myself for leaving my a6000 with its 24-105 (equiv) zoom (Zeiss) behind. In the minimising size and weight stakes, there is the little RX100iii which also amazes me in its haptics and its output. Decisions, decisions….. (So privileged !)

  8. Thank you for your kind comments, I am glad that I could provide you with food for thought on which camera to take to Yorkshire. For me my X always works well in the nice Yorkshire coastal light, but suppose it depends whereabouts in Yorkshire you are heading too.

    It would be nice to see what you come back with.

    Dave

  9. Now in my Grandpa stage, travel is becoming more virtual than actual. Those soft, rain-washed landscapes of the north of England create the illusion that one can see to eternity.
    Thanks and Regards,
    Frederick Hepworth

    • Hi Frederick, Thank you for your kind words, and observations on my images. I am glad i was able to help transport you to this wonderful place. Dave

  10. Hi Dave, your photos are truly lovely with a nice quiet beauty instead of the over worked images that I see in general that are harsh in my view. The first black and white image is really captivating.Your article was also very interesting and quite the treat to start my day. Thanks, Brian

    • Hi Brian, I am glad that I gave you something to enjoy at the start of your day. I do try to only work my image enough to give them a fairly unique look, that I call my own. Dave

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