In the 1980s, Hannah Hauxwell became an unlikely celebrity following a series of television programmes that told of her struggles to live on the lonely Low Birk Hat Farm in Baldersdale, a remote valley in the North Pennines, without electricity or running water.
For decades, she had worked her farm alone, using only traditional methods, eschewing the use of artificial fertilisers or pesticides. After animals grazed the fields during springtime, the hay was allowed to grow undisturbed throughout the summer. It was then harvested and cattle brought in to graze and trample seeds into the ground, so helping their germination. The resulting fields became prime examples of species-rich, upland hay meadows.
On her retirement, Hannah’s meadows were acquired by Durham Wildlife Trust, which preserves them as a nature reserve and Site of Special Scientific Interest.
Follow the Pennine Way footpath downhill past High Birk Hat Farm, with a detour along a boardwalk to the small visitor centre in Hannah’s Barn. Return to the footpath and continue through Hannah’s Meadow. In spring and summer, this is a riot of colour, composed of pink ragged robin, yellow globe flower, buttercup and marsh marigold, purple cranesbill, white ox-eye daisy and the delicate blends of the tiny eyebright. Key species include clover, which has root nodules containing nitrogen-fixing bacteria, and yellow rattle, which parasitises the roots of grasses, restricting their growth so flowers can flourish.
Listen to the calls of nesting curlews, lapwings and oystercatchers and marvel at the skylarks, how they can continue to rise to a great height in full-throated song without becoming breathless.
Over the bridge
On reaching Low Birk Hat Farm, turn right and continue to the western end of Blackton Reservoir. Cross the stone bridge and follow the left fork in the track to the south shore footpath. Follow this through a wooded patch and across a series of small bridges to reach the dam.
...and back again
Cross the dam, then turn left on to the north shore footpath. Follow this back toward Low Birk Hat Farm, passing through Blackton Nature Reserve, where you can spend some time in the bird hide overlooking the reservoir.
Continue past the farm and enjoy the abundant flowers and birdsong of the meadow as you return to the road.
Anthony Toole is a prize-winning member of the Outdoor Writers Guild.
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