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Bike Ride – Weardale, Allendale & Rookhope

Distance: 68 miles (110 km) | Profile: Undulating/very hilly | Going: Road & cycle paths (with some very rough sections) | Bike: Cyclo-cross + mudguards; 32C tyres | Date: 31-08-14

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Today summer returned and my thoughts immediately turned to the bike but where to go? I hadn’t been able to do much cycling over the past week and so fancied something a bit more challenging but which might afford me a few decent photographic opportunities. Weardale beckoned (as it often does) but what would I do when I got there? How about heading over to Allenheads and having a cafe stop at The Hemmel? I thought to myself. Then I could head straight out of the village up to Rookhope Head via one of my favourite climbs – almost alpine-like but not nearly as long. Over the top is Grove Rake lead mine which I’ve never managed to get decent pictures of (it’s always been a bit claggy when I’ve been up there with a camera), followed by a long, fast descent to Rookhope past Lintzgarth Arch, then, rather than head down the dale to Stanhope and potentially a climb up Crawleyside, I’d turn off at Bolt’s Burn and go off-road up the incline on Bolts Law. From there it would be a relatively easy ride almost all the way home.

With light winds and wanting to get out into the wilds as quickly as possible, I headed straight down the A691 to Lanchester then took the little used Newbiggin Lane out of the village. It is a really nice route that drops you out onto the dead-straight Longedge Lane close to its junction with the A68. Over the other side of the A68 I carried on and was approaching the first of the farmhouses at Whitehall (the one on the corner) a bit distractedly, when I heard a raucous honking and, looking up from my handlebars, I was shocked to see a big, grey, goose flapping its wings madly and running down the road straight towards me! At the last minute it veered off but kept on with the honking, seemingly livid at me for threatening its chicken buddies that were contentedly going about their business all across the road.

I looked over my shoulder as I rode on and there he was, beak pointing skywards and chest puffed out thinking he was the cock of the walk! Anyway, not long afterwards I turned left off the road to pick up what first started life as the Stanhope and Tyne Railway, became part of the Stockton and Darlington Railway and is now the C2C cycle path. On a warm summer’s day like today the path was busy, with most cyclists as usual heading in the opposite direction to me (the most common direction for C2C cyclists is west to east). This didn’t stop me from sneaking across into the track on the right-hand side of the path where the surface is much cleaner due to its greater use.

The benefit of a ‘cross bike with wider tyres is that the many cycle paths in County Durham can be better utilised and more options are available to stop boredom becoming a problem. One of the biggest advantages of using the C2C at this point is that you’re spared the nasty climb past the Moorcock on Muggleswick Common. I carried on past the old station at Waskerley and over the long open stretch to Park Head (which can be tough when the wind is blowing hard – particularly if it’s a cold one). Testament to winter conditions up here is the snow wall built from stone sleeper blocks and wooden sleepers taken from the railway that eerily line the north side of the cycle path. Also to be seen are the occasional stone markers engraved ‘S&DR’ (a cipher that also appears on the gate near the cafe).

The cafe at Park Head stands on the site of a railway junction that once lead to two long incline planes (similar to the Bowes incline that was the feature of an earlier ride). These were railways that were used to haul trucks up and down steep hills using static engines – in this case, one at Weatherhill and the other at Bolt’s Law – and both of which I’d traverse during the ride. The first at Weatherhill comes almost immediately after setting off from Park Head, with the old track bed just over to the left on the fast descent off Stanhope Common. Close to the present cattle grid and just before the road dives down Crawleyside bank was the site of yet another engine house that hauled trucks on the final leg to the quarries and mines below.

At the bottom of Crawleyside (a hard climb by any standards for aspiring C2Cers) I turned right onto the B689 then shortly afterwards turned off to take the road that crosses the River Wear over the 15th century Stanhope Bridge. Turning right immediately afterwards put me on what is a much quieter back road that eventually rejoins the A692 at Daddry Shield passing en-route the stately facade of 17th century Horsley Hall and under what remains of the staging that once supported the conveyor that took limestone down to the cement works at Eastgate before its closure in 2003. Although eventually reduced to an area between Eastgate and Westgate the entire dale west of Stanhope was once part of the Bishop of Durham’s great hunting park.

After a much more pleasant but slightly lumpier ride than I might have had on the main road I re-joined it, together with passing squadrons of motorbikes, at Daddry Shield. Next up was St John’s Chapel where they were still packing away tents from the agricultural show the day before. This show used to promote a fell race in which I once came third only to find that prizes went all the way down to second! I still hold it against them! Making a mental note of the cafe and tea room on the left, I passed the war memorial in the market place that also includes an inscription dedicated to the WWII aircrew that lost their lives on nearby Greenlaws Hill.

Between St John’s and Ireshopeburn (meaning ‘the stream in the valley of the Irishmen’ – thought to be a reference to Norwegian Vikings that may have settled there) is the small but perfectly formed Weardale Museum, the adjacent High House Methodist Chapel (built in 1760) and the outdoor pulpit at which the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, preached. All are pleasant distractions as the road leads higher up the dale (although the gradient is very slight at this point). Shortly after passing the site of what was Wearhead Station and crossing the River Wear for the last time the road gets noticeably steeper through Wearhead itself.

At Cowshill, by the hotel, it then kicks up severely and it was bottom gear for me so that I could continue to spin my legs reasonably freely (it still seemed hard though). Once over the short initial click (not much more than 0.5 km) the gradient lessens and is relatively comfortable. What can be tough up here though, is the wind. It is very exposed and there have been times when I’ve struggled to stay on the bike. But today there was only a mild breeze blowing which started to assist as the road, still climbing, turned onto a more northerly heading.

Passing the milepost indicating ‘Allenheads 2.5 miles’, I could see beyond it, a small lime kiln of the type known as a ‘field kiln’ which was on the edge of a limestone quarry. At around 500m elevation this is one of the highest points in the dale where the ‘Great Limestone’ was quarried and helps illustrate how the most productive band of commercial limestone inclines steeply down the dale (it disappears below ground at Frosterley – at a height of around 200 metres – never to be seen again).

My legs were turning well now that I had a bit of wind assistance and I was feeling pretty good as the road turned back into the wind for the short haul to the top of Allendale Common. Passing from Weardale, County Durham into Allendale, Northumberland it is a lightning fast descent into the village of Allenheads on a good road with no nasty surprises and it’s always a bit disappointing when the village appears so soon. Consequently I was braking hard as I positioned myself to take the tight left-hander downhill to the Hemmel Cafe tucked away as it is, in a cul-de-sac at the bottom of the hill not far from the Allendale Inn.

A pot of tea and a generous slice of carrot-cake taken in the warm, afternoon sunshine quickly re-energised the system and it wasn’t long before I was taking my bike from the racks provided by this cyclist-friendly cafe (a C2C stamping point) to hit the road once more. I was way-laid however by several heritage bits and bobs: first, the ‘Iron Well’ the colour of which nicely illustrates the ironstone which is abundant throughout the dale and is the principal reason for the area’s iron smelting heritage. Next I photographed a nice example of a mill stone which, to be fair, was lying on the grass as a heritage artefact. Then on my way out of the village on the climb to Rookhope Head, the ‘interpretation board radar’ picked up a strong signal from the roadside where a small board divulged the secrets of the ‘Horse Tunnel’ that I would undoubtedly otherwise have overlooked. Although I’ve been to Allenheads several times over the years it’s usually been to the pub so I made a mental note to do some research and come back soon to do both the village and the dale as it shares a great deal of heritage with neighbouring Weardale, particularly lead mining.

Anyway, onwards and upwards: the climb to Rookhope Head can either be hard or not-so-hard depending on your condition. If you’re tired, it feels like it goes on forever but if you’re feeling fresh (like you’ve just come out of a cafe or something) it feels great! In truth it’s not particularly long or particularly hard – it’s all down to how you’re feeling beforehand. I just put it in the bottom gear and pedalled nice and smoothly to the top where I took a picture of some C2Cers having a break near the big cairn.

After exchanging a few pleasantries I continued over the top and on down the valley. Although the descent was seducing me (it’s so damn long and fast) the plan had always been to take some photographs of Grove Rake Lead Mine, one of the last productive mines in the dale. Every time I’d been up this way with a camera the weather had been grim and all I had of Grove Rake were some rather gloomy pics of rain-lashed ironwork in the fog. Today however, the sun was out with plenty of fast moving clouds – couldn’t be better. I ended up taking about half an hour to get my pics along with some of Frazer’s Hushes above the mine but then the call of the descent became too strong and I had to leave.

Whenever I ride down this valley I’m always glancing to my left trying to imagine the ominous band of heavily armed horsemen that descended Dry Rigg one cold day in December 1569, intent on taking their Weardale neighbours’ sheep and cattle (and their lives if necessary). The events of that day are part of Weardale folklore and are set out in the ballad of the ‘Rookhope Ryde’.

With no reivers to be seen I turned my attention to the road and whizzed past the ‘Lintzgarth Arch’ (almost all that now remains of the lead smelter that once stood on the banks of the Rookhope Burn) and continued into the village of Rookhope itself. It’s hard to imagine that this pretty village and neighbouring Bolts Burn (I’m not sure where the boundary lies) were once crucibles of industry in the 19th-20th centuries but there is still much to be seen if you know where to look. The post-industrial valley was a favourite place of the poet W.H. Auden when he was a young man. Just after the Rookhope Inn (another C2C stamping point) I decided to take the C2C off-road option to Bolts Law, not wanting to descend further to Stanhope then have to assault the massive Crawleyside Bank.

Bolts Law is no easy option though. It’s not really suitable for road bikes and the surface is rough and loose (muddy in the wet and dusty in the dry). There are various drainage devices to deal with, gates to be opened and cycling lines to be navigated but once on the incline itself, it’s straight, long (about 1 km) and rugged and it ‘does what is says on the tin’. The incline finishes abruptly at Bolts Law Engine House from where the trucks containing lead and ironstone were raised from and lowered to the village on what was known as a balance plane. Thereafter it’s a long, flat but rough ride on the track bed to Wilkinson’s Cut where it crosses the main road before arriving back at Park Head.

Personally I don’t particularly care for this section of the ride (it’s just unnecessarily fiddly and uncomfortable once the novelty has worn off) so I left the track at the exit to Dead Friars and rejoined the road where progress could really be made along Meadows Edge then homeward bound via Muggleswick Common and a very fast descent from what used to be the Moorcock pub.

I then retraced my tracks on the outward leg passing the site of the goose ‘incident’ at Whitehall (no sign of my aggressor) en-route to Lanchester where two incidents of note occurred: I had to swerve sharply to avoid a rat that almost ran under my front wheel (being a bit of a pet rat ‘fancier’ I can’t bring myself to harm wild ones and have to leave that to others) then almost immediately afterwards, I was charging down the narrow lanes into the village itself when, on a blind corner, I came face to face with the biggest tractor and trailer I’ve ever seen around this neck of the woods! It’s amazing how 18 inches can look like 18 feet when the adrenaline’s flowing (it was probably much bigger but that’s what panic does).

That’s almost all that there was to it but before signing off, I’d like to give a mention to All Saints Church in Lanchester which dates back to the 12th century and is possibly the site of both Roman and Anglo-Saxon places of worship. It stands rather majestically on the side of the A691 near the centre of the village and is well worth visiting.

In summary then, I got my pictures, improved my cyclist’s tan and got some miles in – 68 in all, taking me around 6 hours; not fast but I slept well! Again this is a route for off-road bikes limited by the incline on Bolts Law and the subsequent ridge around Stanhope Common which is a bit too rough to be comfortable on high-pressure tyres (however there is always the Stanhope/Crawleyside option as detailed on the C2C maps). It is hilly – very hilly even – and in wet and windy conditions could only be described as gruelling. Otherwise it is a fantastic route with lots to look at and plenty of cafe opportunities.