DAVID SIMPSON reveals how a bit of innocent chatter, a failed download, three rejected coins and a bag of nuts resulted in a £103 charge to see England’s best waterfall.
A roaring awesome force of nature, High Force waterfall is one of the most beautiful and remarkable features of the North East landscape. People come from far and wide to enjoy this majestic ‘force’ pouring its foamy waters at roaring pace over the imposing slate-black rocks of the Great Whin Sill. I wonder, though, how many people know that if they’re not too careful, they may end up paying more than a hundred pounds for the privilege?
I hadn’t been to the waterfall for a while so with some delightful sunny weather to enjoy I headed off to Teesdale, stopping at bonny Barnard Castle and the pretty village of Romaldkirk along the way. A little nearer to my destination I then called in at lovely Middleton-in-Teesdale to draw out some cash on my driving route to ‘feel the force’. Now ‘Fors’ is a Viking word meaning ‘waterfall’ by the way and has nothing to do with a force of power or the enforcement of fines for that matter – at least not as far as we know.
I haven’t been to High Force for about three years now – to my great shame, High Force should be at least an annual visit for anyone in the North East. Having been diverted at so many wonderful stops along the way I didn’t get to the High Force car park until just before 5pm. I’d never been there that late in the evening – though it’s hardly what you’d call ‘night time’ at the height of summer. I then see a sign at the car park saying the fall closes at 5pm with the last admission at 4.30pm. Looks like I’m too late.
I was a bit confused, did this mean that the entire pathway to get to the fall was closed or do they enclose the waterfall in some kind of iron cage to keep people out? In fact, as it turns out, the path doesn’t close at all, you can still stroll along the riverside to within a literal stone’s throw of the fall. The only limitation is that after hours you will find a locked gate near the fall beyond which you can go no further. Don’t worry though you’re still more than close enough to get a decent view or a photo.
If only I’d known all of this a bit sooner as I’d have saved myself £100 pounds but you see I have a problem; I’m a bit of a chatterbox. No sooner had I parked the car then I got into a conversation with some friendly visitors and ramblers. Now when I say ramblers, I mean walkers. Their conversation, I should say, was far from rambling and was pleasantly engaging, though as it turned out disastrously engaging. “Can I still get to the fal” I innocently asked, “or is the path closed?” I wanted to be sure. No point in paying a £3 car parking fee for nothing.
Soon there was a suggestion to walk back downstream to Low Force and cross a footbridge to reach the High Force from the other side of the river (on what used to be the Yorkshire side – where unlike the Durham side they don’t charge you). There was also a suggestion from these helpful visitors that I take in Summerhill Force at Gibson’s Cave and see the Low Force as well. I should confess, that I hadn’t been to either for some time (again to my shame), at least not since I was a kid, so I wasn’t sure how long that walk would take.
As the conversation continued, I took little notice of the time. I can’t be sure but I suspect that by this time more than 10 minutes had already elapsed. Eventually another curious conversational visitor interjected and explained that I could in fact still get pretty close to the “big one” from the Durham side; certainly close enough for a photo and so I decided to commit to the parking, which was going to cost me a minimum of £3 which I could see from where I was standing and confirmed by the conversation.
£3 seemed reasonable enough, so I fished out my £10 note, fresh from the Middleton cash point, only to find that the machine wouldn’t take notes – unlike the nearby cameras which it seems take notes of your every move with a view to taking much more than a trusty tenner – but more on that in a moment. Also, there was no facility for accepting cards in the parking machine as you often find on remote car parks near Hadrian’s Wall.
I saw then that there was a parking ‘app’ that you can download to your phone. Great, I thought, I love a bit of simple technology – so I downloaded the application onto my phone, or at least I tried to. From what I remember it aborted on two or three goes, causing much frustration and taking much precious time before I eventually succeeded. Time was still ticking away.
Now I’m no technophobe, or at least I like to think that I’m not, but I couldn’t get this app to accept the input of letters from my number plate on my phone – something which, incidentally, the nearby cameras seem to have no problem reading. I decided the best course of action was to get some loose change, so I popped into the handy High Force Hotel right next to the car park and waited patiently for a thirsty couple in front of me, who were buying a not-to-quick round of early evening drinks for their numerous friends, to get served. Again, unbeknown to me, time was ticking away.
With the couple served, I decided to get myself a bag of nuts plus change from my tenner as it occurred to me that this hotel must get a constant stream of annoying people asking for change to feed into the coin-sucking parking machines nearby. At least, with the nuts, I had made a purchase that would benefit the hotel.
So you’d think I was sorted? Well, actually, no. For some reason the parking machine didn’t like my coins at first or at least didn’t like my level of concentration or understanding of the payment process in that evening heat. No, it just wouldn’t accept those coins, coughing them out on several occasions without hesitation until eventually a new set of three pound coins was happily accepted and the parking ticket was finally there in my hands.
So with my three pounds paid and the said ticket placed on the dashboard, as instructed, it was time to explore. What I didn’t know, however, was that time had already ticked its final tock and taken its £100 toll. What I didn’t know was that despite the payment of £3, the camera had clocked my time of arrival with its number plate recognition technology and decided that I was a dreadful offender. It was only when I’d paid that £3 fee that I was approached by one of the friendly visitors who I’d been talking to a few minutes earlier. Warily, if a little tardy in his thoughts, he asked rhetorically: “you have seen the ‘small print’ about the £100 fine after 10 minutes?”
Sadly, I had not, and for that matter nor had the talkative lady standing nearby. She confessed she hadn’t seen it either but was confident that she had paid for her ticket on time. At this point you might have heard me exclaim “*$!~**#!” or words to that effect. There it was: a little warning in amongst the usual T&Cs, about a £100 fine for anyone who fails to pay within ten minutes of arrival. Now rules are rules, but this seemed like a little case of extortion to me; a ridiculous sum for a silly error, perhaps even a case of bullying you might say.
I had that sudden horrible feeling I’d been there much more than ten minutes but couldn’t be certain but thought it was a reasonable and honest mistake and as I’d paid my parking fee I thought perhaps things would be okay. On the other hand, perhaps I am just hopefully naïve.
So off I went on my stroll. It’s always a great feeling of anticipation as you approach ‘the High Force’ on the thickly wooded pathway and can hear it, though not at first see it, getting closer and closer until eventually it reveals itself in all its glory in a gap amongst the trees. I waited for a group of teens larking around at the locked gate – one of whom had unsafely climbed over the neighbouring fence towards the fall. Having made her way back across the fence and onto the path, the group departed for home, leaving me to take a few photos and admire the view from the gate, quite contently.
It had been sunny for several days so the High Force in these dry conditions wasn’t in full spate but the powerful flow was still more than enough to impress. On the way back along the path leading to the fall I passed a couple of young blokes heading in the direction of the force clutching a veritable picnic of alcoholic drinks who were clearly intending to venture beyond the locked gate and have the after hours waterfall all to themselves for the rest of the evening. I hope they remembered to pay their parking fee.
Having paid £3 which covers a maximum of 3 hours I decided to get my money’s worth so acting on the advice of my recently found friendly band of car park advisers I tried out the walk heading downstream to take in Low Force on the Tees and the Summerhill Force at Gibson’s cave which is along the nearby Bowlees Beck. Within less than an hour I’d managed to fit in High Force and these other two falls (I’m a brisk walker) and I must say all the waterfalls are stupendous.
Low Force is every bit as good as the comparable Aysgarth Falls down in Wensleydale – if not better – and is found in two close-by groups of falls that can be enjoyed from the neighbouring fields or from the wonderfully wobbly single-file pedestrian suspension bridge that crosses the Tees here. Gibson’s Cave and the Summerhill Force are wonderful too – reached along the beautiful wooded dene of the Bowlees Beck from Bowlees and even on this relatively dry day the sight of that lovely waterfall trickling over the cave is a pretty and picturesque sight to behold.
Sadly, all these sights and sounds on this pleasant summer’s evening were more than a little overshadowed by the distinctly unpleasant and unexpected possibility of a £100 parking fine.
Nine days passed and I’d quite forgotten about my visit to the ‘forces’ when I received a midday Monday letter of shall I say ‘high enforcement’ from a Liverpool-based company with the rather intimidating name of Civil Enforcement Ltd. Their letter, issued on and presumably also posted on a Friday*, was received with the following demand: “Amount due within 28 days: £100″ and “Reduced amount due if paid within 14 days: £60″. In fact the 14 days was now 11 and a half days notice due to the delay in receiving the letter.
Now although £60 still seems to me like a proverbial ‘day light robbery’, in the circumstances it’s much less to pay and much more palatable than paying £100. It was very tempting to pay this, caving in to a bit of ‘tactical’ bullying you might say. However, I feel I have been unlucky and not properly warned of the fine rather than dishonest, so I decided to stick to my guns and hold out for what I think is right. Anyway, I’ve appealed, and if I fail in this appeal I will then have the option of using the independent ‘Parking on Private Land Appeals (POPLA)’ service. If your appeal with POPLA is still unsuccessful you must then pay the full £100, so it’s a risk – which of course the parking enforcers must presumably know only too well.
As a penance for my unwitting error I have offered to pay £7 (in addition to the £3 already paid) as I think that £10 is a reasonable sum for an honest mistake. It’s also a very decent sum for the car park considering the time I was there – whereas £60 is not. We’ll see what they say. Just don’t hold your breath.
I just think that this is all a bit of a sting that can make money out of the unwitting public for a lapse of ten minutes? That’s certainly not enough time to do anything useful or see any of the sites or reach the waterfall, but more than enough to catch one or two chatty or temporarily distracted people like me unawares.
All that it would take, in my view, to avoid this would be a prominent sign at the entrance to the car park saying that you must pay within ten minutes of entering or receive a fine – it’s the one thing that any visitor would certainly want to know above anything else. This could be done very easily to make absolutely sure that people are aware of the possible fine. The car park could also make it clearer about accessibility to the fall after 4.30pm as it was clarifying this ambiguity that cost me the time more than anything else. What makes me cross is it’s not like I didn’t pay at all or do anything dishonest, I just wanted to confirm that I was going to be able to see what I had come to see before I paid the car park money and committed to stay. It is after all ‘The High Force Car Park’.
I’ve asked Civil Enforcement Ltd, the company which collects car parking revenue on behalf of the landowners to consider my appeal. I’ve also asked if they would provide me with some details of how much they receive in revenue from fines at this particular car park. If they respond to this particular request of information, I’ll let you know what they say.
Don’t let this put you off visiting High Force and its nearby waterfalls though. There’s still parking at the Bowlees Visitor Centre – where there’s a suggested parking donation. The walk from Bowlees to Summerhill and all the other waterfalls including High Force is very pleasing. If you do decide to park at the High Force Car Park, however, which is certainly more convenient for that particular waterfall then just make sure you pay within ten minutes of arrival or you might just end up feeling the force of a very hefty fine.
High Force Visitor information:
High Force is situated on the lands of the Raby estate: Raby Castle
Visit the High Force website at: Highforcewaterfall.co.uk
Opening Times: High Force is open daily 10am-5pm (4pm winter).
Last admission: Half an hour before closing.
Car parking: £3 for 3 hours or £6 for 6 hours
Pay within 10 minutes of arriving
Admission to falls: Adults: 16+ £1.50, Children 5-15: 50p.
Parking at the site is managed by Civil Enforcement Limited
UPDATE: My appeal was rejected by Civil Enforcement Ltd, however they did give me a further 14 days to pay at the reduced rate of £60 and I decided to pay that, reluctantly.
Raby Estate had only introduced the new parking system in May (2018) though I was unaware of this at the time. According to a story in The Northern Echo in response to my experience and that of others, Raby Estate have now extended the period of grace for parking payment at the High Force Car Park. Unfortunately this didn’t make any difference to me, because – as I understand it – the period of grace had not come into force at that time.
I would strongly suggest that Raby Estate ask for an improvement in the signage at the car park to ensure that people are aware of the risk of payment delays as soon as they enter the car park. Even if there is a period of grace, discovering there’s a fine after a 10 minute period has elapsed could be stressful to elderly visitors or those on low income.
I’d also suggest they consider finding a new company to manage their parking when the opportunity arises as I think the company’s lack of leniency does not necessarily work in the best interests of their client, unless of course Raby Estate only consider its visitors a means of making money and nothing more. I know I am not the only one to have been caught by this charge and I would suggest that it could be potentially damaging to an important element of Teesdale’s tourism industry.
Finally, I’d like to add that despite my experience I should say that High Force, Raby Castle and Teesdale itself are absolute gems that all deserve to be better known. My intention in creating this website was to highlight the wonderful heritage of the North East region, its history, landscape and places to visit, but occasionally, reluctantly, you sometimes have to draw attention to negative things that could be much improved.