Wylam to Thornley on the Tyne & Wear Heritage Way

During the weeks of the coronavirus pandemic [never imagined that we’d still be embroiled in it 18 months later] I’ve been exploring the Tyne & Wear Heritage Trail, a 80-mile circular trail that passes north of my home near Durham city. The trail is split neatly into 9 sections of between 8 to 9.5 miles, straddling the Rivers Tyne and Wear, taking the industrial history of the region as its main theme – with particular respect to the coal trade of the 17th-20th centuries. Full details of the trail are available on their website, put together by The Ramblers Association.

Having already completed Sections 6 (Thornley Woodland Centre to Beamish), 7 (Beamish to Washington Village) & 8 (Washington Village to Roker Pier), my anticlockwise bias required a trip to Wylam on the River Tyne to tick off Section 5. One positive thing that can be said for the long weeks of lockdown is that we’ve had some lovely weather, making it that bit more bearable – this afternoon was no exception.

The Tyne Valley (pictured above) looks lovely from virtually any point these days as it’s pretty much denuded of industry now. The train would have been a great option, as I could have boarded at Durham and started to walk as soon as I got off the train. However, not wanting to confront the reality of a situation I have difficulty understanding, I decided to drive over to Wylam and parked in a street adjacent to the railway station, right at the southern end of Wylam Bridge.

Strictly speaking this section of the trail starts at the north end of the bridge, heading west to visit Hagg Bridge upstream before returning to the bridge. I decided to leave that for another day (probably at the end of Section 4) and set off from the railway station on the road to Ryton. However you choose to do it, you’re soon off the road, following the black and white badges with the coal wagon motif. The trail over the fields almost immediately guides you between the high wire fences of a recently established deer farm (if Google’s aerial photography is anything to go by).

The route at this point is a quirky rollercoaster and a prelude to the general profile of this section which is the hilliest of all of the sections, crossing from the Tyne Valley to the Derwent Valley via a rather lumpy ridge. The rollercoaster quickly gives way to a tough gradient offering glorious views north across the Tyne. The sun would intermittently take cover behind light clouds and the smell of coconut from the gorse (or ‘whinnies’) on the steeper slopes was powerful and gave me a good excuse to stop and ease my initially protesting calves.

Then it was onwards and upwards, over stiles and fields via quiet lanes, some surfaced and others not. A light breeze kept me from getting too hot as I crested the first ridge and came upon the undulations that characterise the next couple of miles. Waymarking is good and for the first time I noticed there were two Heritage Way badges to look out for: one black and white, the other yellow and white.

For navigation, I prefer to download a black and white copy of the map for the section (2 x sheets) and pop them, back-to-back, into a clear plastic A4 pocket. I fold and re-fold it as I progress, with my thumb always in contact with my current position, orienteering style. I don’t usually refer to the notes unless the detail on the map isn’t sufficient but they’re handy if you need them. I navigate at a gentle trot, preferring to run than walk, but slowing and stopping when there’s something interesting to see.

In terms of historical interest, this section’s more about the transportation associated with the waggonways which were constructed from the c17th onwards to haul coal over the hills from pits to the staithes on the river. I literally found myself running through history (as is the case for much of the entire trail, which makes for some great running/walking).

The section went fairly smoothly as the path is fairly obvious, even in the fields. However fast you like to move, the route is a rewarding one: quiet, green and lush at this time of the year. You have to shush the odd cow out of the way here and there but that’s to be expected in such a rural setting.

When you reach Barlow you’ve effectively cracked it. After a brief section of quiet lane, it’s downhill to the Garesfield waggonway where you’re granted a lovely view south across the Derwent Valley towards the Gibside Estate that once belonged to the Bowes family and which is marked by the 40 metre-high Column of British Liberty or just ‘Column to Liberty’ monument. At this point I made my most significant navigational error and spent 5 minutes floundering around in the corner of a field (it’s the little triangle of trails between F and H on the map).

To avoid this yourself, all you have to do is stay on the wide track downhill until you reach another track on the L, turn L and continue on this track for a couple of hundred metres, then turn R on another track and continue to the road – seems so simple. Note also that, at the time of writing, neither the map nor Google’s aerial photography show the stables on the opposite side of the road, through which you have to briefly go to access the waymarked trail on the other side.

My uncertainty about the stables played on my mind and although everything went well after that, the last 1.5 km to the finish of the section at Thornley Woodland Park seemed to take ages. In retrospect the instructions on the map seem fairly accurate but my attention was always directed towards the map. The sunken lane onto the A694 just before crossing to the woodland park is nice, that sort of stuff is definitely my favourite type of running although I’m quite smitten by the boardwalk through the wood on the other side of the road.

To close, this has been my favourite section to date but definitely the most challenging, whichever way you tackle it. Note that the boardwalk at the finish takes you past the car park at the Woodland Centre. If that’s your objective you need to turn L when you leave the boardwalk for the path. Anyway, that was me done for the day; all I needed to do now was call the wife for a lift back to the car…

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