Where else in England can you at once experience the richness of the industrial, agricultural, religious and cultural past, in glorious surroundings, while witnessing the ongoing revival of a once-depressed area, thanks both to tourism and to industry? In Weardale, County Durham, of course!
Explore this stunning area either by car, on foot, on horseback or by bicycle or motorbike – there’s actually more miles of foot and cycle paths in the county than roads, so visitors feel far away from their busy lives. Weardale was once the hunting forest for the Prince Bishops of Durham, second only in size to the King’s New Forest.
By the 16th-century deer parks had gone out of fashion, and the Bishop was reaping huge rewards from Weardale’s lead-mining industry and later, in the 19th century from limestone quarrying in Weardale, which have both left a rich industrial heritage in the valley. The evidence of this goes back further than many think – archaeologists are uncovering new (old!) remains every year, not just from the relatively recent industrial past, but from the Romans and even from those who lived in the area before.
When you combine this heritage with the fabulous scenery of the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, you’ve really got something. And there’s a fantastic variety of cycle trails. Hamsterley Forest is one of the best trail and mountain bike venues in the country. It also offers plenty of walking opportunities and is an incredibly beautiful place to explore. All sorts of outdoor activities can be experienced courtesy of the Weardale Adventure Centre in Ireshopeburn. Low Barns Nature Reserve at Witton-le-Wear presents a great opportunity to examine wildlife at really close quarters in a more sedate and peaceful fashion.
The Weardale Railway is special. It’s a heritage line between Stanhope and Bishop Auckland, with a mix of diesel (and occasionally steam) period locomotives and rolling stock. The volunteers who run it are devoted and make any journey through such lovely scenery wonderful – the line mostly hugging the banks of the River Wear. There are often special runs, the Christmas Town train for children, tea-times for Mother’s Day and the Flying Scotsman has been seen in Stanhope during the past few years.
There’s a fantastic variety of cycle trails here. Hamsterley Forest is one of the best trail and mountain bike venues in the country. It also offers plenty of walking opportunities and is an incredibly beautiful place to explore
19th-century lead mine
Up at the head of Weardale, you will find Killhope Lead Mining Museum, a wonderful evocation of a 19th-century lead mine, with masses to do and an awesome display of minerals and fossils. Its fluorospar collection alone is worth the trip. In the same area, but a little further east, there is the Weardale Museum run entirely by volunteers, with an eclectic collection of memorabilia evoking the rich past of Weardale.
In Stanhope, the Dales Centre is a splendid place to learn all about the Dales over a refreshing cuppa, or shop for souvenirs of the area. In each of the three main villages and some of the smaller ones you will find an interesting mix of shops, cafes and pubs. ‘Nightlife’ is really taking off with the current interest in Stargazing – the North Pennines Observatory at Allenheads and the North Pennine Stargazing Festival run by the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty are both proving successful. The off the beaten track environment (ie little, or no light pollution) mean that when the weather is clear visitors can see for light years, especially with a telescope.
In the summer, experience the wonderful outdoor extravaganza that is Kynren, the history of Britain and its people, from ancient times to modern days. If you’ve visited before, you will be pleasantly surprised and impressed by the changes taking place in Bishop Auckland. Already it has the small, but perfectly formed, Mining Art Gallery and the stunning, modern Visitor Centre, with viewing tower.
The re-opening of Auckland Castle, the former home of the Bishops of Durham, is a cause for celebration. It has been magnificently restored and the Bishop Trevor Art Gallery, within, has already hosted some magnificent visiting works of art. The inauguration of the Spanish Art Gallery, which will showcase the rich seam of Spanish Art found in the North East, together with a visiting selection from art galleries around the world, is expected very soon.
For those who wish to travel further afield Weardale is an ideal centre from which to explore. Durham, Teesdale, Derwentside and Allendale, Newcastle and Darlington are all within easy reach. For more information visit the website discoverweardale.com, which covers all this and much more.
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