Summer proper is over and it’s September before Gill and I get a chance to do some more of the Weardale Way but we have been out both two weeks ago and last week, so finally feel we are making real progress. The week before last we covered the short stretch between Frosterley and Wolsingham and last week the longer one from Wolsingham to Witton Park.
Two weeks ago week we dropped my bike at Wolsingham and joined the path again at Harehope Quarry, climbing the track above the spoil heaps and quarry pond.
The day’s route didn’t spend much time alongside the Wear but described a big loop, high up above the river and road, along Sunnyside Edge beyond the Elephant trees.
We were just too late for the heather to be in bloom but the grouse and larks were in full voice – we surprised a large brood of grouse enjoying the puddles on the path.
The views down into the valley were superb and the only fly in the ointment was our difficultly finding the path round the wonderfully-named Towdy Potts farm, especially as the bull on the farm sign was clearly in residence in the farmyard!
From here it was downhill all the way to Wolsingham to enjoy lunch at No. 10 in the market place before I headed back on the bike to pick up the car – a very short ride.
Last week’s walk and bike ride proved a little more arduous, not least because the distance given on the route map for the Wolsingham to Harperley section is clearly wrong – it’s much closer to five miles than the three indicated! We might have made a different decision about pressing on past Witton-le-Wear to Witton Park had we known this, especially as the bridge across the Wear at Witton Park turned out to be closed for repairs; we needed to drive three sides of a square to drop off my bike and I had to do the same in reverse cycling back to retrieve the car at the end.
Despite this we had a lovely day’s walking in glorious early-autumn sunshine, starting with a quick coffee at No. 10 with Heather, who joined us for the first part of the walk along the river and up through the recently-cleared plantations on Knitsley Fell.
Once Heather left us, we walked through more mature plantation full of interesting-looking fungi before dropping down to the river and crossing on the quarrymen’s footbridge near Harperley.
Low Harperley farm is a beautiful, Elizabethan building with fields beyond full of stately specimen trees.
It was more or less lunchtime by the time we reached the farm but every field we walked through seemed to have more livestock in it – cows and calves and often a bull – so we pressed on. At Wadley there were geese, sheep and a cage full of cockatiels too!
Above the farm, Harperley Hall has a commanding view over the valley. Built in the late 18th/early 19th Century, the hall was once home to George Wilkinson, chairman of the Wear Valley Railway, for whom a private station was built at Harperley. The site currently houses the region’s Police training school.
During the second world war, up to 1400 low risk Italian prisoners of war built and then lived in the nearby Harperley PoW Camp 93, many working on local farms or forestry projects during the day. After D-day they were joined by German PoWs and, when these were repatriated after the war, the camp housed people displaced from Eastern Europe after Soviet occupation, until the 1950s.
In 1999 the site was bought by James and Lisa McLeod, with the intention of restoring the huts and opening it as a tourist attraction. After a lot of money was spent on restoration it ran for a few years as a museum but, as is often the way, it was not financially sustainable; some of the huts are now being used as homes and one as an artisan cheese factory!
The same funding problems have beset the Weardale railway, which a group of enthusiasts have struggled to run commercially since it reopened for passengers in 2010. They currently run three daily return services between Stanhope and Witton-le-Wear, two of which now continue to Bishop Auckland West station – it was lovely to see and hear these passing us.
Beyond Wadley the path descends again in a gentle arc to the river, through another field of frisky cattle. Witton-le-Wear itself is on a hill above the river next to the A68 Roman road and I wasn’t particularly pleased, as we crossed the road into the village, to be reminded how steep the climb on my bike to retrieve the car was going to be! The path crosses the Wear at Witton then carries on through the grounds of Witton castle along the river, delightful in the afternoon sunshine.
On the map the path appears to hug the river much of the way to Whitton Park but, in reality, it climbs to some height directly above the river. The path through the fields at the top of the hill (with yet more bullocks) wends its way along a track covered with flowering mayweed at this time of year, before rejoining the road. As elsewhere on our walk, the hawthorns are laden with fruit. The long spell of hot, dry weather in early summer, followed by warm but wetter weather in July and August has ensured a bumper crop of many fruits – a true mast year.