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What to do in Weardale, County Durham's scenic valley region

Long walks, cosy pub lunches and a rich industrial heritage await in this rural swathe of County Durham.

By Ella Buchan
Published 6 Aug 2021, 06:13 BST
Wildflowers along the banks of the River Wear, near Bishop Auckland.

Wildflowers along the banks of the River Wear, near Bishop Auckland.

Photograph by Getty Images

Some destinations display their heritage in museums and art galleries, but Weardale wears its past on the landscape. This part of County Durham, around 20 miles west of the city of Durham and surrounded by the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), was once a hunting ground for the county’s prince-bishops and, later, a hub for lead mining and stone quarrying. The now-abandoned quarries — slowly but surely being reclaimed by nature — slice through rolling green hills, surrounding honey-stoned villages with dramatic views. It’s currently only reachable via roads that weave and wiggle through moorland, though that could soon change. An ongoing campaign by charity The Auckland Project to fully restore the Weardale Railway, currently a seasonal heritage route, could link up villages with towns such as Stanhope and Bishop Auckland and entice more visitors to this bucolic corner of the North East.

What to do

Pack a pair of sturdy walking boots because this is a landscape best explored on foot. The Weardale Way is a 75-mile trail linking villages, heather moorland, historic railway stations, forest and — occasionally — fields grazed by alpacas. You can find maps at the Durham Dales Centre in Stanhope, which also has a tearoom for a post-walk pick-me-up.

In fact, Stanhope, Weardale’s biggest town, is a great jumping-off point for several scenic walks. Among the best are the riverside paths along the Wear and a circular route around Ashes Quarry where, from around 1870 to the 1940s, limestone was hammered, drilled and blasted from the land. Arty shops, cafes and pubs are dotted along Main Street and around the cobbled marketplace, opposite the 12th-century St Thomas the Apostle church. The latter’s yard is home to one of the area’s quirkiest attractions: a 250-million-year-old fossilised tree stump.

You can learn more about the area’s lead-mining history at Killhope, a mostly open-air museum with a working waterwheel that offers a tour of its underground mine. The mine was in operation between 1853 and the early 20th century and was once the richest in the country.

Where to eat

There are more than a dozen villages in Weardale, each with at least one pub. Many of them serve good-quality meals, from Sunday roasts with locally reared meats to sharing boards with crumbly Weardale cheeses. Head to Cross Keys, in Eastgate, for pub classics such as beer-battered fish and chips and homemade burgers. Alternatively, try Che Restaurant, housed in a honey-stone farm building in Stanhope, for a Spanish-inspired menu of tapas, grilled fish and paella.

Lunch in front of the fire at the Lord Crewe Arms.

Photograph by Lord Crewe Arms / Getty Images

Don’t miss

Running for almost 10 miles, the Waskerley Way is Weardale in microcosm. Pick up the trail at Parkhead Station, a B&B and tearoom tucked off the very steep Crawleyside Bank, and wend your way past sheep farms, moorland and woodland, with stunning views of reservoirs and villages along the way. The route is part of the epic Sea to Sea Cycle Route, so can also be tackled on two wheels — remember, though, that you’re likely to be sharing the path with the occasional horse rider, too. 

We like

When enough snow settles on the ground (a common event even in spring), the keenest winter sports enthusiasts dust off their skis and snowboards and trudge up to Weardale Ski Club, on Fendrith Hill near the village of Westgate. The slope, which claims to be England’s longest, has been run by volunteers here since the 1960s. You’ll need to buy a season pass and bring your own equipment; hire and lessons are available at Silksworth in Sunderland, around an hour away. 

Where to stay

A converted two-person shepherd’s hut and wood-fired hot tub make up Weardale Retreat — an idyllic place to bed down between hikes. From £125, room only, minimum two nights. For a grander address, opt for the Lord Crewe Arms, housed in a 12th-century priory near Blanchland. It’s the epitome of a cosy country manor house, with snug rooms, lavish afternoon teas and a medieval vaulted pub. Doubles from £169, B&B.

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Published in the September 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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