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Weardale Railway Circular

Distance: 15 km (9.4 miles) | Profile: Two long climbs punctuated by a sheltered valley mid-way. Long descent to finish | Going: Generally good on footpaths, tracks and road but more difficult around Parson Byers Quarry | Start/Finish: Stanhope Railway Station/Wolsingham Railway Station | Comments: Outward leg is via Weardale Railway service from Wolsingham

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In all the years that I’ve lived in Durham and the many visits I’ve made to Weardale, I’ve never actually ridden on the railway that runs up and down the valley from Bishop Auckland to Stanhope: today I was going to put that right. Since the last goods train left the cement works at Eastgate in 1993, there have been several attempts to establish a regular service but today the Weardale Railway functions only as a heritage line. Sadly the Class 0-6-0 steam engine has been out of commission since 2012 and looks likely to remain so until funds can be raised to re-certify its boiler so for the 2014 season its place has been taken by what they refer to as a Class 122 ‘Bubble Car’ that looks to me like it’s come straight off the pages of Thomas the Tank Engine.

My wife Diane and I arrived at Wolsingham station around 10.45 on the 23rd August, which turned out to be a pleasantly changeable and reasonably warm Saturday morning after the previously glorious summer weather had taken a turn for the worse. The plan was to ride the railway to Stanhope then run back to Wolsingham (hopefully together) via what, for the most part, is the Weardale Way – a distance of about 9.5 hilly miles. The second half uses the same route as a walk I published earlier called ‘WW6 & Elephant Trees‘.

The train ride didn’t disappoint: it was on time, with plenty blowing of whistles and a nice relaxed atmosphere on board. Despite being sandwiched between two roads after Frosterley the line provides a unique perspective on a little-viewed part of the dale, particularly through Rogerley Park which comes shortly after leaving Frosterley station. This was where our friendly carriage guide directed our attention towards a group of five herons standing amidst a flock of grazing sheep on the edge of the park close to the railway. Now I’ve seen a few herons in my time, many along River Wear but I’ve never seen FIVE all standing together! How usual is that?

The other feature that particularly interested me (other than the lovely views of the fell tops newly crowned in purple) was the perceptible and notoriously steep gradient that the train was clearly struggling to conquer as it approached Railway Terrace (an isolated row of terraced houses that we would revisit shortly afterwards on the run back). The relief was tangible when it reached the crest of the hill and the brakes had to be applied as it began to pick up speed on the downward slope to the station in Stanhope.

To me Stanhope station has a bit of a pre-war feel about it and with the hustle and bustle of people disembarking onto a narrow platform it was a shame that we had to make do without the smoke from a hissing engine drifting along the platform – it would have made a nice picture. After the obligatory toilet stop we headed out of the station and around the corner to take the footbridge over the line to the showground opposite where we’d start the run back on a nice flat field alongside the line.

So, directions then: from the footbridge continue to the gate at the end of the field and cross the track. Turn right and continue on the trail (we opted to take the path that led onto the riverbank and from there onto the road). Turn right and cross the river via Shittlehope Bridge then continue past the entrance to the holiday park and on to the aforementioned Railway Terrace. Near the beginning of the terrace cross the stile high in the wall opposite and begin the first of the climbs on a straight grassy trail that follows the line of pylons through the field to Parson Byers Farm. Stay on the tracks through the edge of the farm, shortly afterwards crossing a long straight road that doesn’t seem quite right as a farm track (its constant gradient heading down towards the railway line provides a clue to its original use as a railway incline that once took limestone from the quarry at Parson Byers down to the main line below).

Through the gate ahead continue along the track for a few metres then bear right diagonally up the hill and over the crest to a stile near the corner of the wall (the track is not well signed or particularly obvious on the ground). At the stile, in good visibility, the route can be seen crossing the Cow Burn in the gully then heading diagonally upwards across the field – just left of the small copse of coniferous trees below the quarry – to a stile near the gate. It then continues to climb diagonally to another stile (quite difficult to see) to cross the fence into the lower outskirts of the quarry. Over the fence, turn left and follow the track (actually an old waggonway) for a hundred metres or so before bearing right and onto an intersecting road near the ruined remains of the farm at Woodcroft.

Cross the stile near the gate in front of the ruins and continue downhill on the track to the next stile. Cross that, then turn sharp right to descend to the corner of the field where the next stile can be found set back under the trees. Over the stile, turn left uphill and ascend the eastern edge of the old quarry (it is quite steep, narrow and overgrown with nettles during the late spring and summer months). At the top of the quarry (which affords an impressive view through a section of the most productive band of limestone in the dale; known simply as the ‘Great Limestone’), go through the gate then turn right and continue steeply uphill to another stile at the corner of the wall that runs along the top of the quarry. Over the stile, the waymarking is poor so pick out the left-most pair of electricity pylons in the field and take a line that passes between the left-hand pole and its wire stay, then continue uphill on this line to the corner of the wall that will become visible in front of you. As you approach the wall corner, bear left slightly and cross the field heading towards the gate in the wall opposite.

Through the gate, turn left and follow the wall for a few metres to the track (yet another old waggonway) on Catterick Moss. Turn left again and continue on what is a very exposed ridge for about half a mile (ignore the first obvious track to the right) before dropping down towards a collection of outbuildings. Continue between the buildings and past Hilltop House to the road. At this point you’re confronted with what, on a nice day, is a fantastic view of Bollihope with more long-abandoned quarries in the valley below.

Cross the road and continue steeply downhill on the side road through the holiday park at Bishopley, all the way down to the Bollihope Burn at the bottom of the hill (this was once the site of a 17th century lead smelting mill). Follow the track as it falls towards the burn, winding left, right then left again alongside the burn and continue past the house before entering the wood 100 metres further on. Continue for about a mile on another old waggonway (which once crossed the burn about halfway between the house and the wood to service the quarries, lead mines and lime kilns further up Bollihope) through the wood and into yet another limestone quarry, Fine Burn, via an impressive man-made cut in the limestone rock.

Continue through the quarry, crossing the burn via the footbridge, and keep going until you reach the road beyond the gate. Turn right on the road and continue over the bridge at White Kirkley. The Weardale Way, which we’ve been following up to this point, turns left through the gate and into the field opposite White Kirkley Farm but we continue uphill on the road which undulates – steeply at times – for about 1.5 miles with the steepest bit on a rough track just before the top on Sunnyside Edge.

At the top, go through the gate, turn left on the track and continue for 1.8 miles past Weardale’s best known landmark, a wooded copse on the edge of the plateau that can be seen for miles around and somewhat ambiguously known as the ‘Elephant Trees’ (personally I think they look more like a badger from across the valley). Eventually, at a distinct crossing of tracks just after a gate, turn left, go through another gate and continue downhill on a good track for almost two miles, passing through Towdy Potts Farm where the owner has two lovely dogs whose barks are very much worse than their bites (they’re really friendly), to the main road into Wolsingham on Wear Bank.

To avoid as much of this, at times busy, road as possible, cross it and turn left downhill through the roadside woodland (take the track closest to the wall). Emerging back onto the road, turn right and continue downhill over the Weardale Railway. Although you can continue down the main drive to the station car park, turn right opposite the end of the bridge and follow the path onto the station platform and finish past what was the Stationmaster’s house.

This is a stunning route on a clear, sunny day and is particularly glorious in late August/early September when the heather is at its best. It works equally well as a walk or run. It has two long climbs with the first being perhaps the more difficult in that it is rougher and less well defined around Parson Byers Quarry; the second is on a good, metalled surface with the exception of the last quarter of a mile which is a reasonably well consolidated track. Both ridges are very exposed although there is good shelter in the valleys. There are no facilities en-route although both Stanhope and Wolsingham offer shops, banks, pubs and cafes. The landscape itself is a real contradiction: the quarries that allow us to feel our way around it geologically and the old waggonways that aid our passage are the legacy of the noisy, dirty, heavy industry that once characterised the dale particularly around the end of the 19th century. Today it couldn’t be more different. But the main feature that sets this route apart is of course, the Weardale Railway itself, creating, as it does, such a fun, novel and historic day out.