John Martin Heritage Trail

Mothering Sunday, 19th March 2023

For those who may not know (and I recently counted myself as such) John Martin was a popular painter and polymath of the early c19th (1789-1854) who led an impressively productive life among contemporaries such as Turner, Constable and Ruskin. He lies buried in Douglas, on the Isle of Man, but lived the first fourteen years of his life in Haydon Bridge, in Northumberland’s beautiful Tyne Valley, before making his considerable reputation in London by way of Newcastle.

As a tribute to this worthy gentleman, a waymarked walking trail has been devised around his home town incorporating locations with which he would have been familiar – including his home and school – and places which may have inspired his work, all helpfully explained with interpretation boards. The trail is split neatly into two parts, north and south of the River South Tyne, mirroring the layout of the town. At around eleven miles, the southern part is by far the longest and most challenging. It involves some very steep trail sections, lots of mud plus a bit of road walking. There’s a good mix of farmland and woodland with the latter providing plenty of shelter. 

Stats at a Glance

Distance 18.7 km/11.6 miles | Height Gain 433 m/1420 ft | Maximum Elevation 246 m/807 ft (Harsondale Law) | Going Generally good on trail and road on a roughly equal mix of farmland and sheltered woodland. Rugged, steep and muddy/v. muddy in places. Fully waymarked with limited need for navigation | Supplies & Hospitality Haydon Bridge (Ho; BB; Ca; GS; RS); Langley (PH) | Other Trails: River Tyne Trail | Grade Challenge

The walk is waymarked specifically as the John Martin Heritage Trail, sharing the first few kilometres on the southern section with the River Tyne Trail. Features include the site of a ruined medieval pele tower overlooking the steep, wooded gorge of the River Allen (it’s possible that this location inspired ‘The Bard’ – one of his most famous paintings – which can be seen in Newcastle’s Laing Art Gallery), a peaceful tarn, another formerly ruined tower subsequently rebranded as Langley Castle (now a hotel) plus glorious panoramas up and down the Tyne Valley.

Being Mothers’ Day we were joined by our son Niall on the weekend before the clocks were to go forward. Spring was definitely in the air: the trees and hedgerows reverberated with bird-song, new-born lambs were staggering around after their mothers, there were frogs and spawn aplenty in ‘The Tarn’ in Morralee Wood and fresh-sprung daffodils decorated the verges around the route. While clouds eventually obscured the early sunshine but temperatures held up and I at least completed the second half of the walk jacket-less.

The footbridge over the Harsondale Burn is closed until summer ’23

An otherwise perfect day was diminished ever so slightly, simply and avoidably, by the way authorities had chosen to communicate the closure of a vital footbridge on the Harsondale Burn. We encountered the first notice after Plankey Mill, about a third of the way around, far enough into the walk to make the idea of turning back very unappealing. The closure itself was about half way at which point the implication was that you’d simply turn around and go back the way you came.

In fact, a cursory glance at the map shows that there’s an OBVIOUS alternative albeit one which includes a kilometre-and-a-half on the A696. However, it offers the advantage of a really nice pub at a perfect point in the walk where otherwise there would have been none. Not surprisingly, the decision to head for the pub was unanimous! Repairs to the bridge are projected to last until summer 2023 so if you’re not happy with walking on what is admittedly a fast road with no pavement I’d postpone the circuit until after the bridge has been repaired. We didn’t find it a problem; in fact we felt that the intriguingly named Cart’s Bog Inn made for a better route – though not to everyone’s taste admittedly. Our chief concern was that, being Mothers’ Day, it would be really busy which it was but the staff were very accommodating.

The Anchor Hotel on the River South Tyne, Haydon Bridge

There aren’t as many cafes or pubs in Haydon Bridge as I’d expected but those there are (Oddfellows Coffee, The Anchor Hotel and The Railway Hotel) are all close to the town’s historic bridge. Due to lingering at Cart’s Bog Inn we arrived at Haydon Bridge well after the cafe had closed so continued over the road to the Anchor Hotel, overlooking the river. Inside, on the walls of the hotel, there’s quite a bit of historical information – including photographs – about the hotel and the town, which kept me fully absorbed. Although there was still a bit of light left we decided to leave the northern circuit, which is only a couple of miles – for another day when we’ll have more time.

In short then, despite the unanticipated diversion, we agreed that it had been an enjoyable walk with a good level of interest and challenge. In fact the diversion might very well have made it more so and I’m not sure that I’d be inclined to miss out the pub if I do it again!

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