Bike & Hike the Weardale Way: Front suspension required!
The Weardale Way is a scenic but little known, long distance path from Cowshill in Upper Weardale to Wearmouth in Sunderland. I've been searching for more off-road riding near Durham and when I saw this bridleway on my OS map I plotted myself a GPS track to follow, using ridewithgps
. This would take me from Shincliffe Bridge to Newton Cap Bridge along the edge of the River Wear, and back to Durham along the Brandon / Bishop Auckland Cycle Path.
Links related to the Weardale Way:
The Weardale Way is a mix of bridleway and footpath, so following this route was inevitably going involve a combination of walking and cycling. I hadn't known how overgrown and almost abandoned sections of this route were going to feel. The challenge was increased where landowners had sought to discouraging walkers, using signs to deter people from continuing: "Private" and "Authorised Access Only". Thanks to having the route on my GPS device I knew I was going the right way though, and this gave me confidence to continue and helped me navigate sections where the path was invisible. Although the bike/hike was difficult, it was rewarding. The views along the banks of the river were lovely, with wildflowers and wildlife to see.
I cycled down from Framwellgate to the River Wear at Elvet Bridge in Durham and followed the cycle path out past Durham University Sports Fields to Shincliffe Bridge. Here I joined the Weardale Way on Hall Lane, the path was easy to cycle at first and level with the river.
As I started to climb into Shincliffe Wood, approaching 'The Sliddings' and the climb up to High Butterby Farm, the hard-packed mud path became slightly more difficult, with wooden bridges and steps up muddy embankments. I had to push my bicycle up this and got my first indications that the Weardale Way wasn't going to be a sanitised / easy-going route.
Around the top of the embankment over the River Wear, along the edge of Butterby Wood and Croxdale Wood, the Weardale Way follows a semi-hardpacked stone road. It then drops down past a beautiful mansion before passing over a cattle grid into grazing land. Ancient oak trees lined the road and cattle were freely grazing the land among them.
I followed the straight and well maintained driveway up to a closed set of gates. Thankfully the infrared sensor opened them for me, I'm not sure how this would have worked coming the other way but despite the sign next to the main gates, this is a public right of way for walkers, cyclists and horse-riders.
After crossing the road at Sunderland Bridge and passing underneath Croxdale Viaduct, the Weardale Way leaves the top of the embankment to hug the edge of the River Wear. This required me to negotiate the first of several 'kissing gates
'. I had to lift my bike over the fence, which wasn't so difficult here, but later on some of the gates were on sloping hillsides. Then I had to lift my bicycle above my head, so I'm pleased it doesn't weigh much.
I was now moving through a remote part of the Weardale Way, tucked in tightly to the bank of the River Wear, but following a path which seemed little used. It was getting increasingly painful to navigate thanks to the nettles and the thistles. I alternated cycling and walking, using my bicycle to protect me from the worst of the thistles, Inevitably though I was stung, scratched, knocked and bruised by the time I reached 'Page Bank Bridge'.
This might look like a nice photograph of a field, but it is actually the "path" I was trying to follow. I was wearing shorts and a short sleeved shirt... so by the far end of this section I was scratched and stung to all up my legs and arms. Even now at home, after a shower, hours later my skin is still itching from the stinging nettles.
Sticking this close to the River Wear I was able to see just how beautiful it is; shallow in parts, with pebble beaches. There were plenty of places along this public footpath for a picnic and a paddle in the river, if you can get there.
It was nice to see a lot of wildlife too; I saw a heron was fishing as I passed, and I glimpsed numerous scurrily-scurry-scurryling things dashing through the grass around my wheels.
Much of the river is marked as 'private fishing property' and I also noticed a 'no canoeing' sign. I must be getting old; as a teenager I couldn't care less about this sort of thing - but now as an adult I feel passionate that our rights of access must be maintained. I may have to join the Ramblers Association "path watch
" to protect our rights of way.
Close to the town of Willington, the path joined up with some fields that local people use for walking their dogs. Here I discovered a dismembered horse, with its fluffy entrails scattered all over the field and path.
Okay, okay... thankfully the dismembered horse were the remains of a large stuffed toy.
A little further on the path itself was blocked by a fallen pine tree, which I managed to scramble around to continue along the path towards Furness Mill Farm. I was now very close the the Brandon/Bishop Auckland Path
and was also drawing closer to Bishop Auckland where I would loop back to Durham. The path was not becoming any easier though, here the farmer's tractor had chewed up the path with deep rutted tyre tracks. This was okay in the dry, but I imagine in the rain that I would find this very difficult indeed.
Well, I thought the 'off-road' nature of this path had been difficult so far, but then I reached the woodland next to Furness Farm. At first the path was extremely narrow, with trees and branches forcing me to duck and squeeze along. This was walking territory, which gave me time to enjoy the scenic surroundings at this delightful bend in the river.
Although this landowner has taken a lot of care to keep the path navigable, this isn't the same as keeping it easy. Just after this wooden plank bridge the hill was so steep a ladder had been built into the path!
So I staged a photograph of myself 'heroically' ascending the bank.
This would have been a difficult walk to do without my bicycle, but by adding the bike I was able to complete the 50km loop in a few hours and enjoy the remoteness of the countryside around the River Wear. It was good that my bike was light enough to carry. The reward for doing this was to see sections of the riverbank that are not visible from anywhere on the road network. I was stung and scratched a lot, a bit bruised too, but it was worth it. Eventually I reached Newton Cap Viaduct in Bishop Auckland.
I cycled under the viaduct and up a steep path to reach Newton Cap Bridge. This is on the old road, single-track crossing of the Wear valley. From here there is a good view back to the viaduct, which carries a lot more traffic.
It had taken me two hours to walk/cycle/scramble/climb the Weardale Way from Durham to Bishop Auckland, but I still had Newton Cap Bank to climb and of course I chose the cobbled/stone-clad option instead of the smooth main-road.
Now I just had the 20km section of flat/smooth Brandon/Bishop Auckland Cycle Path
to follow home. I had been out a lot longer than expected so I blasted along this route home as fast as my knobbly knees (tyres) could manage! I really enjoyed this ride and would recommend it - although perhaps be aware that it is a challenge in parts.
Update: The following morning... I had a restless night sleep because the nettle stings and scratches on my legs disturbed me. This morning I notice the knuckles on my right hand are aching. Carol suggests that the word 'challenging' to describe this ride is an understatement.