This was the second stage in my route but the first day I actually set foot on the Weardale Way. I very nearly didn’t bother.
The weather forecast suggested an improving day after a damp start but with cloud reluctant to leave the uplands. I therefore ignored the first section from Killhope and settled on starting a little lower down the valley at Westgate. There is free parking tucked down by the river and I squeezed my car into the last gap, the rest taken by a funeral party.
Despite the inviting footpath by the river, the map told me that the path headed through the village and up onto Westgate Heights. Getting out of any built-up area is invariably a walker’s headache; footpath signs, unless regularly inspected and maintained, tend to get hidden by summer undergrowth or someone’s newly acquired caravan. Rights of way can also cross property where the owner has accommodated it within a vegetable patch or as a route to their chicken shed. These are invariably guarded by a snappy Jack Russell and I then feel like an unwelcome trespasser. It therefore becomes a moment of having the courage of my navigating convictions to look for a waymarker amongst the green beans or be ready to retreat with an apology. Either way, it makes for slow and frustrating going, and I had a long walk ahead of me.
The path in Westgate disappeared in a farmyard and, as there was no-one to ask, I took the course of least resistance and followed the river footpath for a while before rejoining the Way itself outside the village. The route followed an easy to follow farm driveway up onto the heights and my mood improved once I finally felt I was making progress.
It didn’t last long. There was a point where signage, paths and stiles failed and the weather had that “will it, won’t it?” look about it. Behind me, the thick battleship grey clouds had refused to clear and I wondered if they were going to advance or retreat. Sunny blue skies lay before me, on the other side of the aptly named Weather Hill, which appeared to divide the heavens.
I had a choice; to turn back into the clouds or march forward into the unknown that lay in sunshine. Stubborn streak, map and compass in hand, I set off along faint sheep trods that had me hopping and skipping as a lamb to avoid the boggy bits. I must have looked quite a sight, grumpily flapping my way over a mile of streams, rushes, grasses, nettles and thistles that are optimistically called pastures. Grazing sheep raised their heads to consider my behaviour momentarily then resumed their search for something edible. I did not envy the farmer who managed this land.
The risk paid off and I found a sunny bridleway where the Pennine Journey joins forces with the Weardale Way. A spot at High Bishopseat offered a perfect location to refuel and absorb the view.
It is remarkable the difference that a good track and lunch can have. In newly buoyant mood, I paced on down into Rookhope where the trail crosses Rookhope Burn and then follows the lane down the other side of the valley.
I crossed my third bridge of the day into beautiful streamside glades and rambled along the burn, delighting in its chatter and splash. Rabbits randomly appeared and disappeared and by the time I reached the romantically named Ambling Gate Bank, my thoughts had wandered into another world of stories and settings; Watership Down, Wuthering Heights and Tales from the Riverbank amongst many. How many authors started with their environment and then crafted the tale or is it the other way around?
At Eastgate I had the option to await the 101 bus to return me to my car or add another 3 miles and catch the last bus back from Stanhope. It was a lovely afternoon so I continued. The Weardale Way rejoins the Wear here but the path was narrow and full of nettles and not pleasant for a walker in shorts. I climbed a gate and followed the disused but still intact railway line into Stanhope, feeling like an extra in the Railway Children. It was all quite magically silly.
Very ready for something to eat after my 11 mile hike, I splashed out on a can of Fanta and some crisps. There are some thoughtfully placed benches near the bus stop in the market place so I sat in the evening sunshine to munch and slurp and watch the world go by.
The Bank Holiday Friday evening pilgrimage to the co-op caught my attention. Various vehicles would pull up along the street near the benches and some, or all, of their occupants headed off expectantly to the Lakes and Dales shop. A few minutes later they would reappear with their goods; large bottles of precious pop nursed by children, a collection of lager cans swung nonchalantly by lads or a pile of pizzas held aloft as supper offerings by mums in slippers. A double or triple thunk of doors, the ignition cough and they were gone, to be replaced with the next cohort of tractor, van, motorcycle and car drivers, all preparing for their weekend.
My bus arrived and returned me to my car and the start of mine.
It had been a very interesting day.