Teesdale Gentians - otherwise known as Spring Gentians - are the jewel in the crown of an area teeming with great natural heritage, and if you haven't yet made time to go and see them and you're looking for a day out as the weather improves, then make this the year you get acquainted with the little blue beauty.
With all the amazing man-made heritage dotted around County Durham and the North East of England more generally, it's easy to forget what a wealth of incredible natural beauty we have in our region. Our corner of the country hasn't always been described in the most flattering terms, and yet it's entirely unfair; far from being desolate, we have beautiful beaches, cared-for farmland, and wide open national parks. And, arguably, one of the best parts is the untamed ruggedness of Teesdale.
The horizonless moorlands belie what a wealth of nationally important natural habitats sit among the fells and lakes. And yet this is one of only two locations in the world where you can find the eponymous Teesdale Gentian (the other is in Ireland).
There are garden gentians, of course; go down to your local garden centre and you can find a selection of generic gentians. But they are only a rough approximation of the Teesdale Gentian. The other famous wild gentian is the Alpine Gentian, from which distillers make the bitter liquer Gentiane.
The Teesdale Gentian, first recorded in 1796, is part of the Teesdale Assemblage - a collection of internationally important plants that represent the kind of plantlife that would have lived in the area 10,000-12,000 years ago.
Until fairly recently, the locations of the Teesdale Gentians was never publicised, for fear of guerrilla gardeners digging them up and taking them home. These days, besides sitting inside exclosures to keep knawing sheep at bay (the rabbits, however, don't seem to obey the rules and generally dig under the wire, Great Escape-style), the locations are shared, and so everyone can enjoy spotting Teesdale Gentians.
When to find Teesdale Gentians
There's a relatively short window in which to see the Teesdale Gentians, starting in April and petering out towards the middle of May. We once saw three lonely-looking Teesdale Gentians towards the end of May, but we'd clearly missed the best time.
The other thing to keep in mind is that Teesdale Gentians will close up when the sun goes in and become almost impossible to see among the grass, so your best bet is a sunny day.
Where to find Teesdale Gentians
There are two locations in particular that are worth exploring. They are close to each other and yet offer quite different walks; one is a more challenging walk but with fantastic views, while the other has flatter gravelled paths and ample parking.
Location One: Cronkley Fell
Cronkley Fell looms behind the whitewashed farms as you drive along the B6277 through Teesdale's beauty. Coming from Durham, your best route is via Brancepeth and Wolsingham. Taking the A690 from Neville's Cross, you can stay on the road through Willington and Crook. Here, the A690 turns into the A689; follow it through Frosterley (of Frosterley Marble fame) and Stanhope to St John's Chapel, where you turn left on to Harthope Road. This take you over the top of the fells on perhaps the wildest and most impressive part of the journey.
Once you reach the B6277, turn left towards High Force. However, once you pass YHA Langdon Beck, the second left is a circular lay-by - Hanging Shaw car park - which is the perfect place to start the walk.
To do the walk you'll need map OL31, which is the OS Explorer map for North Pennines Teesdale and Weardale. You'll find Hanging Shaw in square 8629. To start the walk, cross the road and turn right, where you'll very shortly come across a wooden sign for a footpath on the left, next to the metalled pathway to Birk Rigg Farm.
From here, you're making your way down on to the Pennine Way via Cronkley Bridge, before turning off the Pennine Way to follow the paths up Cronkley Fell.
Once you're up at the top, the exclosures are easy enough to spot; the Teesdale Gentians, however, are a different prospect. Expect to spend a significant amount of time on your knees staring into the grass. While you're at it, don't forget to stand up and take a look around; the landscape is simply fantastic, with views across to White Force waterfall. Keep clear of the MoD land and stick to the paths.
Location Two: Cow Green Reservoir
This is the easier of the two walks. Follow the same route from Durham as before, but as you pass through Langdon Beck on the B6277, you'll see a road signposted off to the right marked Cow Green Reservoir, just past the Langdon Beck Hotel.
There are two car parks. Drive to the one closest to Cow Green Reservoir and then, with the reservoir on your right, follow the tarmac track, past a weather station, down towards Cauldron Snout waterfall.
For this walk, you're largely reliant on fellow walkers giving you the heads up about where to spot the Teesdale Gentians. Look out for the groups stood on the verges, or ask people heading back to the car park if they've seen any. It'll save you loads of time truffling about in the grass for a flash of blue petal.