MARGARET BRADSHAW is a force of nature. At 97, when she’s not striding upper Teesdale either on her own two feet or on horseback searching out rare plants, she’s bounding about her cottage, up and down from her chair, in and out from the room, seeking out information from the piles of papers and books that lean against the walls and cover the tables.

“We used to say to my mother ‘can you please keep still’,” she says, acknowledging her behaviour, as she peers into a pile hidden somewhere behind her computer.

The Northern Echo: Dr Margaret Bradshaw Picture: SARAH CALDECOTT

Dr Margaret Bradshaw with her new book. Picture: Sarah Caldecott

She has collected all of her wisdom, learned from botanists across the centuries and gleaned from her own 75 years of walking the fell, into her new book about the places, plants and people that make Teesdale’s flora so special.

The book is quite literally her life’s work, although she says she didn’t enjoy writing it as she found herself penned in, tied down to the computer when she’d rather have been out in the wonderful wilds. Her kitchen window looks across to Cross Fell, the highest point in the Pennines, and, even when the gale is tearing down the dale, blowing the raindrops into a silvery shimmer that blocks out the view, it is still calling to her.

The Northern Echo: Dr. Margaret Bradshaw completes her sponsored trek on 'Sigma' in the village of Eggleston. Photograph: Stuart Boulton.

Dr Margaret Bradshaw on Sigma in Eggleston. Photograph: Stuart Boulton

“I ride a friend’s horse, Sigma, but she’s 30 and we are giving her a bit of a rest this winter,” she says. “Older horses, like older people, need a bit of care so I’m riding another one that’s kept over near Hamsterley.”

She was born near Driffield on the Yorkshire Wolds, but as a girl there was no expectation of her to follow in her family's farming footsteps so she was able to study botany and zoology at Leeds University. There, she heard talk of the Teesdale assemblage, a collection of 96 rare and special plants that for reasons of geology and altitude cluster amid the haymeadows, the juniper forests, the blanket bogs and the waterfalls which tumble over the ridge of hard, igneous rock known as the Whin Sill.

“When the Whin Sill was molten,” she says, her hands erupting vigorously so they act out the explosive force of a volcano, “it metamorphosed all the rocks it came in contact with, it baked everything, and created the sugar limestone which, when exposed, crumbles. It only has a shallow soil that is alkaline, and our rare plants like this soil.”

Teesdale is one of the top five botanical hotspots in the country, and as well as the unusual geology, its plants like to be exposed to the elements. They aren’t shrinking violets that want to be hidden beneath a canopy of trees; they like to be out in the sun, snow, wind and rain that falls from Teesdale’s wide open skies.

It was as if those skies, and those plants, were beckoning to Dr Bradshaw, drawing her closer, as after graduating from Leeds, she got a job as a teacher at Bishop Auckland High School. The assemblage was now on her doorstep – and in her classroom.

The Northern Echo: Spring Gentians

Spring Gentians at Langdon Beck in upper Teesdale


“There was a custom of people living in the dales to put moss in a baking tin and spike the Gentian flowers in,” she says, referring to the extravagantly blue flowers that are the icon of Teesdale. “A lot of people would have had them on their windowsills, and they looked terrific, and one of the children who lived at Harwood brought one in.

“I gradually persuaded them that it wasn’t a good idea to gather the flowers.”

The next year, her teacher colleagues took her out to see the Gentians in the field. “We went up to Wearhead on the train and we started walking over to Teesdale – botanists at the beginning of the 19th Century would think nothing of walking 30 miles a day,” she says, a powerful flick of her arm dismissing any suggestion that a trek across the moors to the upper dale was a bit of a hike.

That first visit is the stuff of legends for on it she discovered something that no botanist in 300 years of study had found.

“I didn’t know it was new,” she says. “I was just learning my Lady’s Mantles – there are nine of them in Teesdale. They are very difficult plants (to identify), so most botanists ignore them. There are three common ones, and if you can separate the other six, you are very wise.”

Lady’s Mantles get their name because their leaves look like a cloak – specifically the cloak the Virgin Mary wore when she rode into Bethlehem.

The Northern Echo: Lady’s Mantle flowers ( Alchemilla mollis) with morning dews on leaves

Picture: Getty

Common Lady s Mantle flowers ( Alchemilla mollis) with morning dews on leaves

“I collected some from this field near Newbiggin, and sent them up to Cambridge to Max Walters (a botanist friend) and he looked at them, consulted other botanists and then wrote back to me that it was new to this country because it grows in the Alps.

This was the first “large toothed” Lady’s Mantle, and she then spent years delving deeper into the wardrobe of mantles which clothes the dale – the starry, the velvet, the clustered, the shining – and her study resulted in her PhD from Durham.

In the 1960s, she joined David Bellamy in leading the opposition to Cow Green Reservoir.

The Northern Echo: Work progressing in June 1969 on the quarter-of-a-mile long dam at Cow Green, which holds back 40,000m litres of water

Building Cow Green Reservoir in June 1969

“It destroyed about 21 acres and a large number of rare plants growing in that area,” she says. “It was terrifically rich.” It covered a tenth of the habitat of the Teesdale Violet, which had been growing unhindered in the dale since the end of the last Ice Age, but on the positive side, botanists were given money to research exactly what was growing before the inundation of 1967.

“We literally crawled over Widdybank Fell and over five years mapped the distribution of two dozen of the rarer species,” she says. “We were allowed to use the dining room at the Langdon Beck Hotel to lay out our stuff on the table to record it, as long as we reset the table for breakfast.”

In 1983, she married and moved to Devon to keep sheep and study plants – she found her second new species, now known as “Margaret’s whitebeam” – but the wilds of Teesdale beckoned her back again. After 15 years away, she used a metal detector on Widdybank Fell to search out her old marker posts, and now a new phase of work began, comparing what had been there with what was now there.

The Northern Echo: Botanists Margaret Bradshaw and John O\'Reilly

Botanists Margaret Bradshaw and John O'Reilly at Cow Green Reservoir

The comparisons are shocking. In the last 50 years, most of the rare plants have become 50 per cent rarer. The mountain-loving Hoary Whitlowgrass has declined by 100 per cent to just one recorded plant; the purple Dwarf Milkwort is down 98 per cent and the Teesdale Violet is down 58 per cent.

“I get very upset about it,” she says, and suddenly looks visibly deflated in her chair. “I have been working for years on conservation in Durham county as a whole and now more localised in Teesdale and I have failed to manage to influence people to do more to save the rare plants.”

The causes are many, starting with the climate, which means even upper Teesdale no longer gets the bitterly cold winters which the plants need and which kill off the rabbits that are now overgrazing the fell.

“Since 2010 the climate has been haywire,” she says. “I really admire the Met Office for producing anything reasonable as a forecast because they don’t have the previous patterns to go on. A mild winter like this year’s is new, but May can be bitterly cold - I now say we have winter to come once we have got through January and February.”

Then she says: “We can’t control the weather but we can attempt to control the way the land is managed.” Because modern farm management – making silage wrapped in swathes of black plastic where once there was hay from colour-studded meadows – and a cocktail of chemical additives, from artificial fertilisers to road salt that burns the verges, are also taking their toll.

The Northern Echo: Dr Margaret Bradshaw Picture: SARAH CALDECOTT

Now Dr Bradshaw’s angry, upright in her chair, back straight, arms waving, passion flowing… She’s on her high horse – well, Sigma at least.

She was awarded the MBE in 1977 for her conservation work, and in 2017 founded the Teesdale Special Flora Research and Conservation Trust for which in 2021 she trekked 55 miles across the dale on Sigma to raise money.

“It’s to try and get people to value it, treasure it, to look after and conserve it,” she says. “They don’t need to be botanists. They just need to like the idea and support it.

“I don’t want to upset local people because there are improvements happening, but these plants were part of the moor vegetation shortly after the Ice Age – on Cronkley Fell, I tell people ‘just imagine, these plants are the direct descendants of what was here 12,000 years ago’. They are a lot older than Stonehenge or Durham cathedral. They are part of our heritage.

“If Durham cathedral was falling to pieces, there would be an uproar! Imagine it!”

In a rallying cry that rolls around the dale, this force of nature says on behalf of the nature she has spent a lifetime studying: “When on earth are the government and the people of this country going to realise we have a real catastrophe on its way?”

  • Teesdale's Special Flora: Places, plants and people by Dr Margaret Bradshaw (Princeton University Press, £14.99)

The Northern Echo: Copy photo of Dr Margaret Bradshaw Picture: SARAH CALDECOTT

Dr Bradshaw searching for plants in the upper dale on Sigma

Five of Dr Bradshaw’s favourite flowers for everyone to seek out

Spring Gentian

The county flower of Durham and the icon of Teesdale, its intensely blue flower is a joy to behold. It is common in the mountain ranges of mainland Europe – the trans-Alpine express train Blauer Enzian is named after it – but in the UK, it only grows in Teesdale, where it was first recorded in 1796. Its numbers have dropped by 54 per cent since the 1970s

Bird’s Eye Primrose

The Northern Echo: Birds eye primrose 2 Bastow Wood May 2015 pic Ian Court YDNPA.

One of the most common of the plants – it is also found in the Yorkshire Dales – its scientific name primula farinosa comes from the Latin “farina” for “flour” as it stems seem to have a coating on them. “Its loose heads of small, pink, occasionally white, flowers are simply unmistakable and one of the visual delights of early summer,” says Dr Bradshaw.


The Northern Echo:

Widespread in northern upland areas, the bright yellow balls of the Globeflower in unmown and ungrazed meadows are one of the sights of summer from June to August.

Wood Crane’s bill

A beautiful pinky-mauve flower that is common in the north. “It is not rare in Teesdale, found from Piercebridge westwards to upper Hardwood Dale in meadows, woodland, riversides and road verges, although it is less frequent than it was in the 1950s,” says Dr Bradshaw.

Hoary Rock Rose

The only place in the world that it is found is on Cronkley Fell where it loves the sugar limestone soil and the freezing winters. Its small, bright yellow flowers were first recorded in 1789 when it probably clothed the fellside, but now its thin soil is being eroded and it is much harder to find.