CYCLING IN THE DURHAM DALES
Across the gorge, in which sit city centre shops and where the River Wear twists itself tightly around the base of a steeply-rising spur, stand Durham castle and cathedral, the latter displaying its west front as a statement of power and strength. Be in no doubt, you are in the land of the Prince Bishops. That’s the view from the train as it pulls into the station from the south.
Steve Dyster had seen it many times, but on this trip, he had his bike with him, too. Yorkshire’s Dales are the subject of guidebook and guidebook. Durham’s are less well-known - so let's help to put that right.
Careless packing required new maps. Easily found in the Market Place. A bite to eat to the skirl of the pipes, and away on NCR14, in the direction of Lanchester and Consett. Pretty much the wrong way for my night’s accommodation, but, hey-ho, why bee-line when the prospect of “new country” beckons?
The route out of the city centre was simplicity, but a very Devil to ride. A significant slope past the magnificent Redhills – The Pitman’s Parlaiment, still HQ of the Durham Miners Association - twisted to the left to reveal a shockingly steep ascent for cold muscles. Still, soon accomplished, and the Lanchester Valley Way was reached through a farmyard.
It won’t be news to anyone that rail paths have mixed surfaces. Like many this one showed all the signs of popularity. Looking across the valley, a steady stream of traffic seemed made the alternative look unappealing. In any case, most of the surface was fine.
To take advantage of the shops and cafés in Lanchester, diverts a short way off the main track. Well-worth following the signs it was, too. The Durham Dales have a number of towns like this; small, main industries largely departed, but full of character and interest. I’d already passed Langley Park, where former England Football manager, Bobby Robson, had his first job, in the colliery.
Many small settlements hereabouts owed their existence to iron and coal. Lanchester had grown on agriculture and survived the decline of the extractive industries. Interestingly, to me, at least, it was home, in the nineteenth century to the Greenwell family. One did very well in the coffee business; another was a poetess, whilst a third is remembered for inventing a “fishing fly.”
Beyond Lanchester the line continued steadily upwards, with some annoying sections taking the rider away from the track. Having said that, the scenery prevented grumpiness setting in.
Eventually, the former steel town of Consett appeared on the horizon and the railway path reached a junction with one of the official C2C routes.
I chatted with an MTBer, telling him I was going to Hamsterley. “You’ve few miles to go yet. Which road are you taking?” He approved of my choicee, which detoured to avoid the A68. “Much bonnier way.”
A mixture of speedy descent and plodding climb characterised my ‘progress’ towards Tow Law. Once home to a star-gazing vicar, the views around the former colliery town are tremendous. The astronomer clergyman may well have thought he was in Heaven. The way to Wolsingham repeated the pattern of hell for leather or granny gear grinding.
Though Wolsingham is an ancient town, it became the site of a major ironworks, now gone, and was served by the Weardale Railway. The railway has made a comeback as a Community Interest Company, but generally has limited services.
The station lies at the foot of “the good climb” noted by my MTBing advisor. Goodness is a relative concept, but we all know what he meant. At the top a short promenade along a balcony road allowed me to bid goodnight to Weardale. By the time I climbed the last hill into Hamsterley village, my legs echoed the “good few miles” I had been promised.
Sitting down to write my journal after a pint or two and a hearty meal at an inn as welcoming as the Cross Keys, in Hamsterley, having been dazzled by fabulous scenery, poses the problem of what to leave out. This is, I find, an important part of any good ride. Reflecting on the day; images perhaps that, though not to be seen again, will appear in the mind’s-eye forever.
All the B&B guests were early to a hearty breakfast. Away we went; MTBers to their mud and trails, me to my tarmac.
A short rolling ride took me to the River Wear near Witton-le-Wear. A fabulous arrangement of narrow road bridge across the river, overarched by a massive railway viaduct required the first pause of the day.
The brilliant sunshine lit up everything; farmhouses on the steep slopes and villages set around greens. A couple of miles of the A68, little traffic and a broad road, took me past Fir Tree to the junction with the Weardale road to Wolsingham, Stanhope, and beyond.
I passed through Wolsingham on the main road. The Weardale Railway occupies the old railway line – no rail path! The traffic was not too off-putting, though I was happy to take to a side road at Frosterley, keeping to the south side of the river. Frosterley is famous for its marble. Take a look in the church if you get a chance.
The little road to the south of the Wear was a delight. It had a counterpart beyond Stanhope. The views ahead were magnificent; high moorland above rough pasture dotted with quarries and mine-workings, some still operational.
Stanhope is a bustling little town with a castle right in the centre, several public houses, cafes, and supply shops. The Durham Dales Centre consists mainly of craft shops and a café, and has local information and books about quarrying and mining.
Armed with a little new knowledge, assembled unsystematically, over coffee and cake, I returned to the road – pausing to photograph the montage of crosses, fossilised tree stump and parish church that made such a pleasing accompaniment to the castle and the Bonny Moor Hen pub opposite.
Within a few hundred yards my new-found knowledge came into play and the wealth of interest in the valley began to take shape in my mind. The Harperley and Tow Law areas have coal bearing rocks; further west were sandstone and limestone; hence the quarries and kilns and the marble and
Here the hard rock forces the river into a ramrod-straight gorge. Next to the river men hewed that hardest of rocks, whinstone.
I eventually reached Eastgate and Westgate, so named as two of the entrances to the Bishop of Durham’s hunting park. Lead-mining was a prominent industry from here westward. Had I time, I would have headed to Killhope, Rookhope and over the hills to Allendale or Alston. Lead-mining will wait.
Shimmering pastures and patches of snow hiding in dips and gullies gave the impression that the land had been freshly laundered. Strange to think of the deadly substances that had for several generations been the staple of life. Many miners also farmed small-holdings, which, presumably, is the reason why houses are dotted over the hillsides. They were also vigorous in enforcing their “right” to take grouse – the bonny moor hen – from the moors. In 1818 they even set upon and routed law-officers sent to arrest some of the most notorious poachers.
There’s a B road from Stanhope over the moor to Eggleston. However, higher up the valley lie two minor roads making the crossing to Teesdale. I opted for the first. This rises steeply, dips into a bowl, and then climbed up to the moor top. This is Swinhope and its odd contours are the result of damming of the valley by glacial deposits. Parts of this ancient natural dam are still visible.I eventually reached Eastgate and Westgate, so named as two of the entrances to the Bishop of Durham’s hunting park. Lead-mining was a prominent industry from here westward. Had I time, I would have headed to Killhope, Rookhope and over the hills to Allendale or Alston. Lead-mining will wait.
Pleasantries regarding the weather were exchanged with two ladies working in the garden of a cottage B&B. They warned me of ice on the road and sheep grazing loose. There was no ice – though banks of snow lined the road near the summit – and there were only signs of loose sheep. These had to be photographed, even if only for the breather doing so allowed.
Over the top and carefully down to Newbiggin, the scars of mining have conjoined with the landscape.
Having been to Middleton-in-Teesdale several times and tried a couple of cafes before, it was time to try a different one. Having had lemon drizzle cake in Stanhope, it was time for orange drizzle cake in Middleton. Overall, Weardale won on lightness and icing, but Teesdale took the decoration; Weardale 2, Tessdale 1 in the Cake Cup.
Several B roads, none of which are likely to be especially busy, link Middleton to Barnard Castle. Souht of the river took my fancy. This one runs through Romaldkirk and Cotherstone and other attractive villages, where one has to resist lazing about on the green.
Near Startforth, hurtling on a descent, I spotted an NCR sign pointing down an unpromising alleyway. Screeching to a near halt, I followed it to a ‘carry’ up some steps to a bridge. Worth the effort? Indeed, it was; a fine view of the eponymous castle lording over the Tees.
Barnard Castle is a busy historic market town, with the castle and the Bowes Museum being its main tourist attractions.
I expected the ride back to Hamsterley to be something of an epilogue. Far from it; some challenging climbs, continued sunshine and beautiful moorland were the least of it.
The rule of maintaining height should have prevailed, but having made good time I followed the NCN. This involved a steep drop into Hamsterley Forest; two cyclists were coming up, one on an MTB the other on a shopper – with basket. The sun was lost to the forest and the valley-sides.
The stream-side track along the valley was of mixed quality, but easily passable on a tourer. With surface-quality improving, asphalt was reached and rolling along between the wooded banks became highly enjoyable. This was, after all, the only real bit of woodland that had been encountered all day.
Just before reaching the road to Hamsterley village, I passed the Forest Centre. The café was closed, but the car park still contained a number of MTBers loading bikes into vans and car boots or washing down their bikes and themselves.
Back in Hamsterley village, the sun set behind me with perfect timing. The doors of the Cross Keys were wide open and the fire was burning bright.
Plenty of memories for a short ride to Durham and along train journey home, the next day.