From the car park, a faint rumbling could be heard in the valley on the other side of the road. From a gap in the wall, a gravelled path, a third of a mile long, entices the curious to descend the north side of the valley. As you proceed down the path, the faint rumbling that could be heard in the car park is steadily increasing in loudness, indicating that you are getting closer to its source.
The creation of the path has exposed the layers of rock and reveals the layer of soil to be as thin as a shoddy blanket. The older, deciduous trees sit on the top of the rock and send out their uncovered roots – more like tentacles than roots – over the surface of the bare rock, probing cracks for water and supplementary nutrients. Finding a weakness, the roots expand and large chunks of rock are split off or teeter precariously on the brink of falling. In other places, smaller, slower-growing trees, but ones with the form and the shape of mature, if undernourished, specimens, sit on plateaux of rock and look, incongruously, like supersized bonsai trees.
All the time, the noise level is rising, funnelled down the gorge. Then, as you descend some steps, the senses of sight and sound combine to create a full appreciation of the experience. Over seventy feet above you is the High Force Falls. As well as seeing them and hearing them, you can, from this close to the falls, also feel them. Not only is there the spray drifting across the pool at the base of the falls to wet and to cool your face, you can also feel the reverberation of the sound of the water falling into the plunge pool hit your body. The volume of sound is such that you can barely hear a jet aircraft as it flies overhead seeming to pass through the rainbows created by the collaboration of light and water.
The River Tees begins its life in Cross Fell in the North Pennines. The rain we’ve had in June and July has resulted in the volume of water flowing down the Tees to be greater than it usually is at this time of the year. Peaty soil is carried by the river and the water is the colour of strong tea. But as it plunges over the precipice, it effervesces and the observer is prompted to conjure up the image of an enormous can of Coca Cola that has been shaken being opened and poured over the sill. It is the geology of the area that creates this marvel.
There are layers of three different kinds of rock: on the top is a layer of what is locally called whinstone, a form of dolerite, a hard igneous rock; the bottom layer is softer limestone; and between these two layers, a thinner layer of sandstone. The water wears away the softer rock until the weight of the overhanging whinstone becomes unsupportable and blocks of it break off. As a consequence, the waterfall is slowly retreating towards the source of the river, with the gorge currently over 700 metres long.
A sense of the timescale involved in this process is given by the condition of the boulders that have broken off: the boulders on the edge of the pool have sharp edges and angles, while those farther downstream have edges that have been rounded, corners that have been blunted and surfaces that have been polished. When visitors come out of the trance in which they find themselves, having been mesmerized by the sublimity of the natural spectacle, the first conscious thought that seems to occur to each and every one of them is to record an image of the scene. Camera-phones are fished out of pockets and purses, cameras on tripods are positioned in various locations, the photographers looking for that perfect shot - settings are checked and shutters are opened and closed; on a rock platform to the right of the falls, a modern practitioner follows in the renowned footsteps of the artist Turner, who sketched the scene in August of 1816.
Although the flow of water over the falls was unseasonably greater than usual, downstream of them the Tees presents a more placid countenance, taking the time to regain some tranquillity after the tumultuous outburst of exuberance as the river drives down the dale with a youthful vigour. The river maintains this more sober aspect, more or less, for the next mile and a half.The prepared footpath, part of a long-distance route, is level, easy walking, which allows your attention to alternate between the river on the one hand and the rough moorland on the other; on the opposite bank, the ground rises – at first steeply then more gradually - to yet more moorland dotted with the white-painted farm buildings of the Raby estate. Within half an hour of setting off from High Force Falls, your ears detect a sound reminiscent of a sound that had already assaulted them not long before, but one that does not suggest the same degree of force, of power. Low Force Falls have been reached.
The Low Force Falls, as the name suggests, is not on the same spectacular scale as its taller brother upstream. At the lower falls, the Tees drops five or six metres in three steps over a distance of a hundred metres or so. The High and the Low complement each other beautifully. Three more artists had been inspired by the scene to commit a rendering of it to paper. Two of them had chosen watercolours, while the third had used pencils in their attempts to capture the movement of the water and the elusive genius loci.
As he crossed the suspension bridge below the falls, the last scene to be captured in the memory of the observer was that of two wild swimmers sedately circulating a cauldron overflowing with cold tea – or was it Coca Cola?