The old industrial railways of County Durham are now being used by cyclists and ramblers.
Last autumn I was walking a section of Not-Quite-The-Pennine- Way from Swaledale to Teesdale when failing light, foul weather and my disinclination to go bog-trotting in the dark forced me on to the road and down into Romaldkirk. It was thus that I found the old railway to Middleton.

Not so very long ago, when Durham was coal and the name of Consett was synonymous with steel, the county was crisscrossed by railway lines that linked every little town, quarry, and pit. Now there is no winding-gear to be seen, and all that remains of the works at Consett is a flat area of dust awaiting redevelopment. But many of the railways have survived, not in their original form, but as a remarkable network of paths for walkers and cyclists. Using these paths it is possible, for example, to cover the 30-odd miles from Bishop Auckland to within a mile of Newcastle city centre, without once having to travel along a road. For the walker used to making his or her own way cross-country with map, compass, and emergency rations, using these paths is decidedly different. You can forget the compass and just go where the railway goes.

I returned to County Durham earlier this year, wanting to explore some more of these railway paths. I began my walk at Broompark. For Walkers and cyclists this is the obvious place to start: three of the paths meet here just a few yards from the main East Coast line; there is a convenient car park; and Durham station is only a mile-and-a-half away. My intention, for day one of my trip, was to follow the Lanchester Valley path to Lydgetts Junction near Consett (the other hub of the network), and then take the Waskerley Way up on to the moors and down into Weardale, at Stanhope.

From Broompark the Lanchester Valley route takes you past Bearpark Colliery, or rather the landscaped slopes that are all that is left of it. The area here seems haunted by retired miners out walking their dogs, but the path is also well used by riders: stables and paddocks line whole sections of the path. And so to Langley Park, beside the allotments and pigeon lofts that remain part of a culture that has somehow survived the death of King Coal. Then again through rolling countryside to Lanchester where you find yourself in an almost surreal urban parkland with mown lawns and modern houses landscaped around the course of the old track. On to Hurbeck Farm, where you leave the course of the railway for a few hundred yards and follow a track which shadows the road for a while before rejoining the line proper at the old Knitsley Station. What is remarkable about the Lanchester Valley Way, is that along most of its length, there seems to be a presumption that those who travel along it have the right of way. Where it crosses farm tracks, gates are open in its favour, which makes life easier for cyclists in particular.

When I arrived at the end of the Lanchester Valley Way, I was conscious that I had, in a way, wasted it. I may have drunk in the scenery, but I had walked straight past the Centurion public house for example, a mere 10 yards from the old Witton Gilbert Station. Indeed, I must have passed within a mile of 100 pubs, cafes, and restaurants. And I was rarely more than a mile from the main A691 Consett to Durham road with its villages and towns served by frequent buses. I gather that what sensible people in the area do is walk along the line for a bit, find somewhere nice for lunch, and then take the bus home. But I had a mind to get to Stanhope, and I needed to press on.

When I arrived at Lydgetts Junction, just south of Consett, I had a sense that I was getting a glimpse of the future. Three levels of viaducts and bridges intersect here. It is the spaghetti junction of the leg-powered world: there are cycling and walking routes to Durham, Weardale, Newcastle, and Sunderland - and what beyond? I was going West. I had walked a short section of the Waskerley Way with friends a few days after my first encounter with the Tees Rail Way in November. According to the county council's guide to these paths, Hownsgill Viaduct is "magnificent", but it is also quite frightening. I gritted my teeth and walked forward while concentrating my gaze on my boots. I found the technique worked well, especially when I shut one eye.

After Hownsgill Viaduct, the Waskerley Way was a piece of cake. It was from Rowley Station that I first saw the moorland in the distance, and it wasn't long before I arrived at Waskerley itself. To be honest there isn't a lot you can say about Waskerley: there are two farms, two picnic tables, and sheep. And so to Hawkburn Head car park, where the official line is that this is the end of the line, and all the way-markers point towards Consett. In practice however, you just keep going. A couple of miles further on, some old quarry sheds have been declared unsafe to walk past: for obvious reasons, I offer no advice on what route to take here as the road, a few yards to the west, also has its dangers.

These old sheds mark the highest point on the Waskerley Line. For 20 miles or so I had been climbing, sometimes imperceptibly, sometimes quite steeply considering I was on railway track-beds. As I had climbed, so the landscape had changed, along with the wildlife: near Durham and in the valley of the River Browney songbirds had fussed and bothered over airspace around the shrubs and trees coming into leaf; later as the Waskerley Way took me up on to the moors, the view of mixed woodland and grassy fields had given way to bracken, and the bracken to heather; now, as I descended towards Stanhope and the pub, the same process in reverse, but more suddenly as the moorland track nosedived down the Weatherhill and Crawley inclines into the lushness of Weardale.

At the bottom of the Crawley Incline, the railway has been built over in places, and one must choose to follow either the road or the poorly marked footpaths through the spoil-heaps above Stanhope. In failing light, I decided against the paths and completed the last mile into town by road.

Thirty-six hours later, and after a day's change of scene taking my compass on to the moors, I was ready to get back on the old railways: I wanted to have another look at the Tees Rail Way - the one I had stumbled upon the previous year at Romaldkirk. Like the Lanchester Valley Way, this line takes you near plenty of little villages and watering holes. However, only cyclists and walkers are allowed, not horses. This is a shame as the many locked gates, especially between Middleton and Romaldkirk, would make for excellent steeplechasing. On this northern half of the Tees Rail Way the kissing-gate stiles are awkward for anyone with even the smallest of rucksacks. Having seen the Lanchester Valley I am more critical of the Tees Rail Way than when I first came upon it last year; but I still think it a lovely walk. I followed the line, and its one or two diversions, as far as Cotherstone.

The old railways of Co Durham have become a haven. They have a beauty that is sometimes gentle, sometimes bleak. The irony is that these post- industrial green lanes were born of hardship. Alfred Wainwright passed through the area in 1938, and was less than impressed by what he saw: "Between Romaldkirk and Middleton the scenery rapidly deteriorates ... industry has, in fact, made a mess of this part of Teesdale; quarries and mines and railways have carved fantastic shapes in the hillsides and added nothing to the beauty of the Dale." Times have certainly changed.

FACT FILE

Getting around

Railway Paths in County Durham, a set of seven route cards, (price pounds 2.25p plus 50p p&p) is published by the Environment and Technical Services department, Durham county council, Durham, DHI 5UQ (tel: 0191 383 117).

A catalogue of cycle route maps, including the C2C (Sea-to-Sea) via Consett, is available from Sustrans, 35 King Street, Bristol, BSI 4DZ (tel: 0117 926 8893).

Accommodation

The County Durham Holiday Guide, free from Durham county council.

Tourist Information Centres at:-

Barnard Castle: 01833 690909

Beamish: 0191 3702533

Bishop Auckland: 01388 604922

Durham: 0191 3843720

Stanhope: 01388 527650

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