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
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 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.