Walk in depth: the Weardale Way
Once world-renowned for its lead mining, the North Pennines is now known for its fascinating industrial heritage and beautiful open countryside. Mark Rowe sets out to explore the Weardale Way…
Solid signs of autumn were all around as I struck out north from the village of Westgate. Weardale doesn’t have the mammoth flanks of dales further south along the Pennines, but its gently reclining slopes seemed to push the darkening clouds up and over the horizon, occasionally allowing the fells to drink in the low, late autumnal sun, turning the moorland heather russet. Around the edges of the fields, generally good for nothing but grazing sheep and cattle, withered berries clung to lonely rowans – historically popular trees in these parts for their supposed power to keep witches at bay.
Westgate is roughly a quarter of the way along the Weardale Way, which runs from just beyond the watershed of the River Wear in the North Pennines onwards to Durham and Sunderland. The stretch I had chosen deviates away from the river, following a loop up the fells to the isolated village of Rookhope before dropping down to Eastgate, a distance of 12km/7 miles. After a steep hike up the lane from Westgate, I eventually passed lonely Chester House. I pressed on, following the waymarked Weardale Way along the grassy banks of an old mineral train line. This once transported lead and limestone down to the valley floor; today it’s a delightful, restored branch train line that nudges visitors along the Wear valley. The views started to open up quickly: south across to Teesdale, punctuated by dramatic passes slicing between the fells; north towards the moorlands of Linztgarth and Redburn Commons and west towards the valley head, where Weardale finally yields ground to the Cumbrian mountains.
Others may argue that neighbouring Teesdale, threaded at intervals by the Pennine Way, has more grandeur. But Weardale is more ephemeral and fractured, and walking the Weardale Way is at times like a combined outdoor geology and geography lesson. The North Pennines are rooted in ancient slates and volcanic rocks and underlain by Weardale granite. Over time, this granite has pushed the exposed landscape upwards, giving rise to eroded and distinctive terraced hillsides of limestone and sandstone.
It’s a landscape that enthralled WH Auden, who declared during World War II that his patriotic allegiance was to the North Pennine Moors rather than to England. In New Year Letter, composed in 1940, he wrote: “Always my boy of wish returns/to those peat-stained deserted burns/that feed the Wear and Tyne and Tees… the derelict lead-smelting mill/flued to its chimney up the hill/ that smokes no answer any more.”
Despite Auden’s eulogy, the Weardale Way is not always lovable. There are too many stiles, plenty in need of repair, and hard-to-open farm gates. Some walkers may also feel discouraged by the prolonged stretches of barbed wire and fencing that separate you from disused quarries. But for me, such impediments weren’t a problem: they seemed in keeping with a gritty, rugged walk through lumpy and wild countryside. This is a land where drystone walls don’t form neat and tidy frames for chocolate box covers; rather, they simply peter out, as if the men who built them were exhausted by their labours. The peaty folds also yield other enigmas: an 18th-century coffin containing a body and a bullet has been exhumed, as have the 4,000-year-old horns of aurochs, which sound like a race of aliens but are in fact an extinct species of wild cattle. The many indentations on the fells include round cairns, built to cover burials dating to 1500BC and earlier.
Even the animals have attitude: ewes and rams refused to make way for us, and I was bitten by a horse in search of more than just sugar lumps. And then there are the truly wild creatures, who must be hardy to survive these upland moorlands. As part of the North Pennines AONB, Weardale is home to merlin, black grouse, golden plover, curlew and ring ouzel. The latter looks a bit like a cross between a blackbird and a starling, with a ring of white feathers that resemble a vicar’s collar, and a male of the species hopped and scuttled ahead of me as I passed the limestone works at Heights Quarry. Far below, the Wear and its tributaries, winding through small villages, hamlets and farm clusters, remain internationally important for salmon and the native white-clawed crayfish. Along their banks you have a good chance of spotting kingfishers and dippers.
Rich geology and history
This region also has a place in the heart of access campaigners. More than 66,000 hectares of local land was opened up under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (CRoW), more than in any other protected landscape. Large swathes of the North Pennines were designated as access land, including areas to the north of the River Wear, such as Stanhope Common; to the west, around Burnhope reservoir; and to the south, on Bollihope Common and Hamsterley Common. The walk between Westgate and Eastgate pushes up against such land, in the shape of Northgate Fell, where the trail sweeps superbly around and over Crow’s Cleugh – a wild boulder-strewn burn.
“CRoW proved pretty uncontroversial here,” says Shane Harris, of the North Pennines AONB. “There was a concern that a dramatic increase in use by people unfamiliar with remote moorland could have a detrimental effect, but by and large that hasn’t come to pass. The kind of walker who wants to walk these untracked moors is self-selecting.” This view was confirmed by Justin Cooke, the Ramblers’ senior campaigns officer, who says he is largely unconcerned by DEFRA’s decision – for budget reasons – to defer the mapping review of CRoW, which was due to start this year. “The decision to announce a delay of two years makes sense. It at least gives farmers, walkers and everyone else certainty that the maps will stay the same for that length of time,” he says. When the review does take place in the North Pennines, little is likely to change. As Justin points out: “the area is predominantly mountain and moorland, and they tend not to move much.”
From Rookhope, the Weardale Way swings south, following the lane downhill for a mile or so before skipping over a stile and crossing Rookhope Burn by a slippery footbridge. Like the wizened trees that overhang it, the bridge was mantled with lichens. A dipper flitted beneath the wooden slats and buzzards glided effortlessly above, biding their time as they surveyed the abundant rabbits that scattered in front of us.
Walking down the burn, it was clear how the Ice Age had scoured and smoothed the dales, leaving behind boulders and other debris. Further east, in the graveyard of St Thomas’s church at Stanhope, you’ll find a fossilised cast of a large tree trunk that died millions of years ago. More recently, the valley was also the medieval forest hunting ground of the all-powerful Prince Bishops of Durham, and, again, this legacy is evident in the exposed hill flanks and valleys, that are occasionally coloured green by small woodlands.
UK’s first Geopark
All these riches led to the North Pennines being designated as the UK’s first Geopark in 2003, a designation overseen by UNESCO, the cultural arm of the United Nations. This status reflects the global importance of the area’s geological heritage and provides not only funds but also an obligation to encourage conservation, interpretation trails and nature tourism. To learn more about the geology and the history of Weardale, I visited Killhope lead mine (pronounced ‘Killop’), the western starting point of the Weardale Way. A guided tour around the site takes you underground, wading through running water and bending double under dripping ceilings. The engineering feats are remarkable: a giant open-air 10m/34ft water wheel groans mournfully, while deep in the underground labyrinth we came across another, smaller water wheel that had been carried in, part by part, and then reassembled. I began to get a real sense of the toil and gritty lives of workers and their families during the late 19th-century mining heyday. A living wage could not be secured from either mining or farming, meaning most men did both. And lead-mining communities were usually Methodists, so you’ll see plenty of Wesleyan chapels throughout the valley.
The Weardale Way is something of an everyman’s walk. Here, in the upper parts of the dale, I found the fell walking as glorious as anything in the length and breadth of the Pennines. But keep going east and you’ll pass dizzying viaducts, Auckland Castle, one of England’s finest Saxon churches at Escomb, the graceful bends of the Wear around Durham, St Peter’s Church (home to the Venerable Bede) and finally Bede’s cross, looking out over the North Sea at Sunderland.
At the end of our walk at Eastgate, in the shadow of a humdrum bus shelter, I found a third-century altar (it’s a replica: the valuable original is on display at the Great North Museum in Newcastle) dedicated to Silvanus, god of the woods and wild places. The Romans may not have been too picky about access land – they had a habit of simply grabbing whatever they wanted – but they certainly took time to appreciate the grandeur of this outpost of their empire.
Photography: Steve Morgan
TIME/DISTANCE: Allow four hours to walk this 12km/7-mile route. The Weardale Way is 124km/77 miles and takes up to a week to walk. The website, www.weardaleway.com, suggests a six-day itinerary heading west: Roker/Bede’s Cross – Chester-le-Street – Durham – Bishop Auckland – Wolsingham – Rookhope – Killhope.
MAPS: OS Explorer OL31; Landranger 92.
TRAVEL TO: Nearest mainline train station is in Durham (✆ 08457 484950, www.nationalrail.co.uk). From there, take the 46 bus to Crook then the 101 to Stanhope. Trains also run from Bishop Auckland to Stanhope. For times call Traveline (✆ 0871 200 2233, www.traveline.org.uk).
GUIDEBOOK: Weardale Way: A Pictorial Walking Guide by Alistair Wallace (£5.99, Jema Publications, ISBN 9781871468632); a guide to the North Pennines AONB, taking in history, walks, and wildlife, can be downloaded at tinyurl.com/2314sn4.