Walking the weardale way - killhope to westgate


Living with a chronic condition isn’t easy and inevitably the never-ending cycle of ups and downs (both mental and physical) take their toll. For some reason 2022 seems to have had more downs than ups. I started the year with a bad chest infection which wouldn’t go away and it was only after a course of strong medication of the sort which induced out of body experiences that I finally managed to break free somewhere near the end of March.

Any euphoria I felt at finally being able to get back on my feet was short lived however as a month later I caught covid, ironically the day after being vaccinated for the fourth time. Needless to say Covid and Sarcoid don’t mix and it has been a slow recovery with many a false dawn. As ever the danger of depression setting in is never far away and once it does is hard to shake. Recognizing this is an important step, or at least it is for me, as getting off one’s backside and keeping motivated is easier said than done. Hence my decision to walk the 79-mile long Weardale way.

 If I’m being honest, I’ve had it in the back of my mind to walk either the Weardale or Teesdale Way ever since I started walking again in November 2020. The reasoning as to why I chose the Weardale is simple. I live close to the route and as it is, often walk on the sections between Bishop Auckland and Durham City. In addition, I have a pet hate of out and back routes involving the same paths and after a little research it appears I can utilize the local bus and train services to avoid this on the Weardale Way.

 So what is the Weardale way? In essence the Weardale way is a 79-mile-long footpath which follows the course of the river Wear as it meanders it’s way across County Durham. If, as I am, you are walking from West to east it starts at Killhope lead mining museum and finishes on Roker beach in Sunderland. I should maybe point out this isn’t intended as a route guide, and is more an account of my travels, although I will point out anything which I think might be relevant to other walkers along the way. If you are looking for a comprehensive route guide I suggest you visit the excellent Durham Cow (yes really) website where you will find everything you need. https://durhamcow.com/weardale-way/

 Section 1 Killhope to Westgate.

 As mentioned above one of the appeals of the Weardale way is the availability of either bus or train services which can be utilized to avoid walking say a five-mile section then turning around and walking back to wherever I’ve parked my car. In the case of this section it was a matter of parking in a small public car park in Westgate and catching the bus to Killhope. The service is run by Weardale travel and runs from Stanhope to Cowshill, the extra two or three miles to Killhope being by request. When I called Weardale I was told it only ran to Killhope on the 11.45 service from Stanhope on a Friday. What I would advise is anyone choosing to take the bus calls Weardale travel on 01388 528325 and check with them whether they are running to Killhope on the intended day of travel. 

The middle of the day isn’t necessarily the best time to start, but beggars can’t be choosers as they say. It wasn’t the end of the world though as it’s only eight miles from Killhope to Westgate and even at my leisurely pace would only take around four hours. Fortunately, being summertime (or what passes for summer in the UK) daylight wasn’t an issue.

 Prior to setting off I made a highlighted copy of my intended route, along with an eta and location of the car park in Westgate which I left with senior management lest anything went awry. This might seem like overkill, but as I found out some years ago shit happens. In my case it was when a cartilage rather unsportingly slid out from under my knee cap and thereafter every step was one of mortal agony. I was on the top of Ben Ime in Scotland at the time and the 6 hours it took me to walk back to civilization will live with me forever. The point is it doesn’t matter how well you prepare,or how fit you are, the unexpected happens so always tell somebody your intended route and time of arrival.

 The small, free (always a bonus) car park in West Gate is located off East Hastwicks which, if you are traveling East to West up the dale, involves turning left immediately prior to the Hare and Hounds (in Westgate) onto a narrow road which after some fifty yards crosses the river before making a sharp left. The car park is another fifty yards further down, on the left.

 It was a scorcher of the day when Scout (our Patterdale/Lakeland cross) and I caught the 11.58 bus from Westgate to Killhope. The journey only took something like fifteen to twenty minutes and was a first for number one dog as she’s never traveled on a bus before. 

 The Weardale Way starts at Killhope Lead Mining Museum which is well worth a visit although due to the relatively late start we didn’t have time on the day. There was however, a shallow ford in which Scout was able to cool her already hot paws. I don’t know what I was expecting to find at the start of a major long distance foot path, certainly an information board or sign of some sort to give one some idea of what lay ahead. Maybe there was, only I never saw it. All I saw was a small yellow marker on a gate post which was a bit of a let-down, but as I was about to find out signs and way markers are something of an eccentricity as far as the Weardale way is concerned.

 It was at this point when a young couple in matching attire appeared by my side. Picture the scene if you will, two fit, bronzed twenty somethings in their color coordinated, state of the art hiking gear which included carbon fibre walking sticks. With their blonde hair and blue eyes, they looked like a pair of Aryan God’s. Then there’s me with my Cragg Hopper cargo pants and faded tea shirt which is that old it features in some holiday snaps taken on Tenerife in 1992. All complimented with my very own home made “Gandalf” stick. As for any God like similarities think of Buddha wearing an ex British Army bush hat and you won’t go far wrong.

 Needles to say after exchanging the usual pleasantries Scout and I were left trailing in their wake. Not that I minded, or cared, the days when I used to march at pace have long gone. Coping with a chronic condition invariably means coming to terms with it and making compromises, consequently these days it’s a case of don’t go fast go long, as in walk slower and take more time. 

The in auspicious start to the Weardale Way at Killhope. See that small yellow arrow on the righthand side of the gate? Yep, that’s all there is. 

From the lead mining museum the Weardale Way heads in a westerly direction climbing steadily up the side of Cowhorse hill. After about half a mile or so the path make a left turn and runs alongside a small pond which is called Kidd’s dam. Scout and I continued on our way and not long after came across a weather-beaten public footpath sign pointing across some rough moorland at a position of between one and two o’clock from the stone track we were currently walking on. On closer inspection it was pointing out the path to Cowshill which is the path the Weardale Way follows. I knew this for the simple reason I can read a map and wasn’t blindly following route markers. Even so I still checked the map to make sure. I have to ask the question though, how hard would it have been to tack a yellow way marker to the wooden sign? 

Like I said I can read a map, so it wasn’t an issue for me, unlike the couple who had torn off into the distance and I could now see in the valley below, which was nowhere near the path. Scout and I watched them go oblivious to the fact they were going the wrong way before heading onto the moor. This section of the Weardale Way doesn’t appear to be as popular with every day walkers and as a result the path is quite indistinct, especially when walking in the summer when the flora and fauna are at their height. There are also one or two traps for the unwary in the form of wooden duck boards which due to the nature of the long grass appear to be around a foot high which isn’t necessarily the case. All I will say is take extra care when stepping off

 Not long after the duck boards a fence was reached where a proper way marker indicated a right turn and one could have been forgiven for thinking the earlier lack of way markers was an anomaly. Yeah, give your head a shake Peter. How long have you been walking in County Durham? 

          Above - Duck boards on the side of Cowhorse hill. (Looking back toward Killhope).                              Below -  An extremely hot Scout April. 

Not long after the right turn we paused for lunch using a wooden stile as an improvised seat before heading off once more. I did say this wasn’t going to be a route guide, but I feel I must point out some of the vagrancies of this next section as unbeknownst to me the couple who had already taken the wrong route were currently walking around in circles a little further down the hill below me. 

 Once Scout and I set off again it was a case of navigating the section near Cuthbert’s level onto the good aggregate tracks which run via Carrick’s Hagg down to Killhope burn. I was studying the map  somewhere near Carrick’s Hagg when the young couple appeared from behind me. Not sure how they got there from where I last saw them but they did. Perhaps the way the young guy waved his hand-held navigational device aloft and spewed forth a tirade of both Anglo Saxon and Teutonic oaths ending in the word scheise offered a clue. 

“After today I too will have a map,” he said trying to work out why the Weardale Way marker was pointing across the moor toward Wellhope Farm and not in the direction shown on his device. He wasn’t alone, so was I, in the end we all decided to follow the good old OS Map, which, by the way, is exactly what to do. From what I could gather the footpath had at some time been redirected away from the farm, only for reasons unknown the way markers hadn’t been changed. Once again I can only reiterate on the section from Killhope to Cowshill follow the route on the map.

My new found companions told me they were Uni students (I think from Newcastle) and were training for an upcoming trekking holiday in the French Alps. Needless to say it didn’t take long before they left me for dead and were last seen marching purposefully in a north easterly direction.

  For our part Scout and I meandered along at a much more leisurely pace until we came to Wellhope Burn which was an excellent place for small dogs to cool off. Scout certainly thought so judging by the way she lay down in the cold, crystal clear waters. Unfortunately, my camera was playing up, something I didn’t know at the time, and I don’t have any pictures of this idyllic spot.

 The path is a lot more distinct and easier to follow from the point where it crosses Wellhope burn next to what looks like a small pumping station. Whatever you do however, ignore the Weardale Way marker which seems to indicate the way to go is through the gate adjacent to the pumping station, it isn’t, stick to the main track and continue via Blakeley Field and High Rush to Heathery bridge.

 I was actually starting to enjoy the walk now, possibly because I wasn’t feeling the heat so much having soaked my bush hat in Wellhope Burn. We soon reached the very pretty Heathery bridge where the path makes a sharp right immediately before the river, it then follows it’s bank for something like 50 yards then climbs diagonally through a field on the right. Once again being summer the river bank was overgrown and the path was not immediately apparent, all I can say is if you cross Heathery bridge you’ve gone too far. I did wonder whether the two German students had seen the overgrown path as to me the grass neither looked bent nor bruised, there again who am I kidding? It's not as if I'm Davy Crockett when it comes to tracking. Anyway guy's, should you read this, I hope you found your way and had a good walk.

              Above -  Scout searching for the path near Heathery Bridge
              Below - The path climbing up the field from Heathery Bridge. 

            The route from Heathery Bridge to Cowshill.

 Once Low Allers is reached the path is in much better shape and is easy to follow. I guess the reason for this is riverside walks are far more popular with both walkers and locals alike. Scout and I actually made a deviation from the route at Low Allers and followed the main track up Cornriggs to the A689. Once on the main Road we turned right. The reason for this deviation was I wanted to visit the Copthill War Memorial which is situated on the side of the A689 close to it’s junction with the B6295. Unfortunately, the photo I took of the memorial was one which didn’t record so for the time being I will have to make do with a screen shot taken from Google street view. 

Once we’d paid our respects Scout and I set forth once more taking in the glorious views across the valley. I often think it’s a shame the Durham Dales are often over looked for their Yorkshire counterparts. Both Weardale and Teesdale are beautiful valleys full of character and have much to offer the visitor.

After pausing for a quick snack on a conveniently placed bench we descended  through Cowshill where  having crossed the river we made a left turn and re-joined the Weardale Way The path is easy to follow as it passes through a series of pleasant meadows and after the slow start we were finally making good time. For me the repetitive crunch, crunch, crunch of my dainty size twelves is nothing short of cathartic, reminding me as it does as to how far I’ve come since those dark days when it was all I could do to walk up a flight of stairs. At my lowest ebb I never thought I would be back out in the countryside drinking in the fresh air I once used to take for granted. 

The next village down the line is Wear Head after which the path follows the southern banks of the Wear before crossing back on to the Northern Bank at West Blackdene. The walk along this section is most picturesque and I found myself stopping all to frequently to take a photograph, mostly in vain as it turns out, but hey ho. A few years ago I researched our family tree an found some of my ancestors lived in the dale (the usual mix of farmers, miners and horse thieves) and I found myself wondering if they too walked these paths. Ones things for sure, if they did, very little has changed in the intervening 150 years.

 The former Wearhead Institute complete with war memorial. I always find it quite poignant each name is a representation of a life lost. Often in these remote communities whole families were decimated in  WW1 when fathers, brothers & sons all answered the call.

From Cowshill to Westgate the route passes through riverside meadows and woodland. Unlike the start of the route these sections are easy to follow.

 An excellent spot to chill, cool ones feet and luxuriate in the peaceful surroundings. Scout April certainly thought so.

All in all we covered just a little under ten miles which included the deviation to the Copthill memorial. I have to say despite the route and at times wayward route markers I thoroughly enjoyed the walk. From a physical point of view it's not overly taxing, certainly not when walked from West to East which is predominantly down hill and anyone capable of walking ten miles shouldn't have any great difficulties. From a dog walkers perspective the route more or less follows the river so water isn't an issue. In addition there are no major obstacles in the form of gates or stiles where one is forced to lift ones recalcitrant pooch over . All I can say now is roll on the next section which is Westgate to Stanhope, hopefully this time I will have a fully functioning camera.