The Weardale Way – Killhope to Westgate

“Would you like a jelly baby?”

An elderly lady, wearing a remarkable pair of bright turquoise thick socks with her sandals, spoke to the young lad sitting in front of her across the aisle from my seat. His eyes moved rapidly from the small white crumpled bag that was being proffered at his shoulder to those of his mother who sat behind me. She must have nodded her assent as he promptly dug into the bag, bringing out his prize.

“Don’t forget your sister,” Mum reminded him as the bag stayed in place by his side. He found something suitable for his 2-year-old sibling and then remembered to say thank you. Sock Lady withdrew the bag and the children settled to chewing.

I had joined the 10.17 number 100 bus service at Westgate for the short journey up the valley to Killhope and its well-regarded mining museum. The locally run Weardale Travel minicoach makes the journey from Crook to Alston three times on a Sunday and it was clearly busy when I took my seat. Four lasses on the back seat were discussing a running route in the beautifully accented sing song dancing tones of the north east and a gentleman at the front chatted intermittently with the driver, usually as the next bus stop came into view with prospective passengers. All were commented on; either through recognition of a regular client or, as with Jellybaby family, the challenge of fitting four and a pushchair into a small vehicle. We all squashed in together, people adjusting bags and conversation to accommodate new members of our pop-up travelling community.

The driver turned off the A689 and took us across the ford into the car park of the Mining Museum. It was just after opening time, so I decided to start my walk with coffee and teacake in the café. It gave me a few minutes to go through the route on the map and I was intrigued by an unfamiliar label – what was a hush?

The Visitor Centre receptionist explained that it was where the lead had been mined. Water would be collected uphill in dams and then was released to run over an area where the force would remove the topsoil and unveil the lead beneath. It was effectively a method of pressure washing that allowed for a primitive method of open cast mining. As I reviewed the map, I could see the linked dams and hushes and made a mental note to look for them on my route.

Killhope Museum sits near the top of Weardale and it is a wild and exposed spot, with remote farms dotting the moorland and a huge sense of sky. It fills the view and the day. This morning I had a delightful cerulean blue backdrop with a sun already at Mediterranean temperatures and a very pleasant breeze. Suncream lashed on, hat and sunglasses in place, I set off up the forest track that starts the Weardale Way.

From above Killhope, the remains of Weardale Forest sit before Cowhorse Dam, the valley stretching into the distance

The route is designed to introduce walkers to the varying landscape and history of the Wear Valley from source to sea and it isn’t fully faithful to the river as a result; it rather prefers to tell the wider story of the region that the river serves. The paths near the birthplace of the Wear wander through its remoter parts but they are not far from the A689, the valley’s backbone. Its transport value and associated economic impact is important to the communities that line these upper reaches; indeed my bus cuts its regular daily groove along the tarmac. Therefore, stepping out into a wild moorland landscape where there is little more than sheep and grouse is not shrouded in silence. There is a background rumble and hum of traffic. It is a popular biker route and the spoiled child wail of sports bikes, deep throated throb of Harleys and middle toned tourers brought an operatic edge to the varying homogeneity of the car, van and truck chorus.

The traffic became a muffled distant white noise as my path led me up behind a large stance of conifers and I found the first of the old dams. The water level was high enough for the trailing branches of the damside trees to sit on the surface and the water mirrored each tree perfectly. The stillness and serenity offered unexpected balm after the busyness of journeying and I stopped to absorb and slow my mind and heart to the subtle pulse of a landscape that beats a different tempo.

I followed tracks around disused quarries and along a necklace of farmsteads decorating Killhope Burn. It was easy going where I could focus on the view rather than my feet. The valley began to show its character here as well as offer a glimpse of rural life.

Cuthbert’s level – a disused quarry

Various ducks, dogs and geese heralded my approach along the path like a Mexican wave and a steady high pitched whine alerted me to a overall-clad chap hidden in the shade behind a rowan in his garden. He had an electric sander and was busy removing some ancient paintwork from his kitchen door. He stopped sanding and removed his mask, turning to see me as I walked past. He smiled in greeting.

“What colour will you paint it? The same blue” I asked.

“No, red,” he replied, “Like the colour of my front door.”

I walked along the path so I could see the front of the house and then walked back to continue the conversation.

“Nice red,” I commented, “Like a pillar box”

“We’ll have to see how long it lasts. The weather is not always kind. I don’t get up here as often as I should so thought I’d make an effort while the sun is out. Bit of a rare event really”. He paused, studying my rucksack. “Maybe I’ll go for a walk later, while the paint dries”.

“Good idea,” I agreed, “Better than watching it.”

He grinned as I made my farewells.

Killhope Burn runs alongside spoil heaps

The path took me closer to the valley floor where I joined the Killhope Burn. This and its companion Burnhope Burn join at Wearhead where, as you’ll note from the name, the river is born from their union. Here, stream and river chatter filled the walking space with a rhythmical splash and whisper as the water rushed and tumbled over limestone ledges into pools. Whether in burn side meadows or wooded glades, the water’s song was an unceasing, soothing constant. And it is why I walk here. Whether I’m in it, beside it or bridging it, a river pulls me into its simple journey, washing away life’s complexities and detritus with its paradoxically gentle yet inordinately powerful focus and melody.

The river drops at Ireshopeburn

Many made the most of the warm sunshine to play in the water. Parents coaxed youngsters into canoes and swimsuited rose hued mothers filled the air with cries of “Be careful” as dogs yapped and children swam and paddled. It was lovely to see and hear on a day when the river was in generous mode. Pools were just deep enough to swim in but not to lose your footing. Mini waterfalls were perfectly sized to sit in and enjoy the massaging flow. Benign and benevolent today, the Wear was the welcoming playground that brought families and friends together; river and human chatter entwining in rich refrain.

I returned to my car at Westgate after 9 miles of a wonderful introduction to the valley that has left me wanting more.

Cowshill dam

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