There was a curious feeling in the air, a slightly gleeful sense of playing truant from the proper order of things. When, we wondered, would normal service be resumed? When would we have to be glum again?
Richard Mabey Nature Cure
On Monday I was definitely playing truant form the proper order of things. Doctor Sun was still in attendance, Angela had dropped me off at Sunderland bridge on her way to meet an old friend and her new baby and the kids were terrorising my in-laws. Ahead of me several miles of the Weardale Way and several hours of selfish solitary pleasure.
Initially I backtracked slightly, heading upstream, the ‘wrong way’, to take in Croxdale Hall. The hall was coyly cloaked by trees and difficult to see properly, but this is the little chapel beside it.
From the Hall an avenue of magnificent trees led me down to the river Wear. There are three bridges here.
…and Croxdale Viaduct.
This first section of the walk was wonderfully tranquil and relaxing. Aside from the sounds of the river, my only company were the pugilistic robins and the two-note great tits. Two species whose songs a half-arsed bird-watcher like myself can identify because they have the good manners to show themselves whilst singing.
There must have been a mist or a fog down in the valley in the night, because everything was covered in hoar-frost.
The fields were frozen too, but in the strong sunlight the thaw was such that I could hear the water dripping from the riverside ash, and the frosting turned to silvery droplets, like the ones on these past-their-sell-by-date burdocks:
I passed Spring Wood on the far bank…
and crossed the road at Page Bank Bridge. “Opened by the Right Honourable Tony Blair 1996” said the small plaque.
The right of way on the map implausibly passes through one of the outbuildings at Lowfield Farm. Ignoring it, I stuck to the river bank and was rewarded with a duck that I couldn’t place. It was under the far, shaded bank of the river but from what I could see, was mostly white, with a black back, a very dark head and bright orange or even red feet. It didn’t seem to appreciate the attention and flew upstream and away from my prying.
After Furness Mill I took a path that climbed beside Hunwick Gill.
I decided to leave the Weardale Way at least for a while, and to follow the old railway line into Bishop Auckland. I thought that the slight gain in height might give better views, and that a straight level trail might get me to Bishop and some lunch that bit faster. For the most part the path was enclosed either by embankments or by scrubby hedges, but I did get some views and after crossing Newton Cap viaduct (now carrying the main road) into Bishop, a filling meal at a greasy spoon.
The next section to Escomb would be my last opportunity to walk by the river bank today.
I saw another of my U.S.D.s (Unidentified Flying Ducks), but this time he had a female companion. or…two, no…three. They were mostly grey, with a crested chestnut head. Goosanders! So why the earlier confusion? Because I have always seen them in pairs. Later the male would fly past at tree level, wings whistling, orange feet tucked neatly, aerodynamically beneath his tail. Later still I would see another (or the same?) lone male fly back downstream.
After Escomb the path follows the valley, but strays from the river. A series of old gravel pits have been flooded and many of them were teeming with birds.
Between Willington and Bishop Auckland the path had been a bit busier, but now I had it to myself again. This time the slight elevation did give great views across the valley. Even away from the river, the trees were often willow and alder:
Where the path followed the edge of Holme wood, and a small stream, which must at some time have been straightened, there was a fabulous display of snowdrops.
In the fields between the wood and a fishery a huge flock of greylag geese had gathered. Spooked by my proximity they noisily took to the sky. Since there were probably between one and two hundred of them this was a very spectacular sight and sound.
I had a tantalising view of Witton Castle’s battlements, and then crossed the river for the last time at Whitton bridge.
A heron flapped lazily overhead.
The path now clinging to the hillside, the view of the sun dropping into the hills behind MCNeil Bottoms Quarry, which was another man-made lake, was excellent.
The copse above McNeil farm, and its neighbour Sandy Bank Wood were full of the ghostly trunks of silver birch. Above them the moon was high and almost full, its surface marked by dark continents or seas. I dropped down to Wadley Beck and with the sun sinking low had to pull on my hat and gloves as the air began to chill.
I left the Weardale way and followed Wadley Beck along the edge of Hollin Hall Wood, again mainly birches. This rotting trunk hosts razor strop fungus.
I spiraled in on Crook and my in-laws home, crossing the last few fields in the dark.
I had been walking for seven and half hours and I think that I must have covered about twenty miles. It was mostly pretty level, and where there was climbing to be done I found myself puffing and blowing like a cart horse in harness, but I’ve felt no ill-effects and I’m looking forward to my next bout of self-indulgence.