Gill and I decided it was time to take the bull by the horns and get back to the Weardale Way last week. For some reason neither of us can quite work out, we only managed to tackle one stretch last year but this was one we’d both been looking forward to – ten miles or so alongside the meandering, lowland river from Hunwick back to Shincliffe. The lockdown rules have lifted sufficiently now to allow us to get a lift to our starting point, albeit with masks on and car windows open!
The weather was distinctly wet as we set off down through the woods from the old station towards the river but not enough to dampen our spirits. The path hugs the river nearly all the way back to Durham with plenty of wildflowers benefitting from this year’s more relaxed mowing regime.
I’m on a bit of a bid to collect some wildflower seeds for the garden and had hoped to find some Wood cranesbill seeds too, but they had all been shed in the cranesbills’ own unique way, propelled by drying out and curling up of sections of the ‘bill’!
Marsh Woundwort gets its name from the fact that it was (along with its crimson-flowered relative, Hedge woundwort) traditionally used to make a poultice for the treatment of wounds. The 17th century herbalist John Gerard saw Kentish farm workers use it to treat a scythe wound and was so impressed by its efficacy that he adopted the remedy in his London practice. It has been reported to stop bleeding and to have antiseptic properties, as well as having healing effects when made into an ointment but I can’t find out much about the purported active ingredients. Like many of the dead nettle family (think mint, sage, rosemary etc), woundwort leaves contain essential oils such as Caryophyllene oxide and Thymol, as well as polyphenols (Vundac, 2019) but there seems little work on which of these substances might have medicinal properties.
Beyond Page Bank, the fields of rapidly-ripening wheat to the north of the river either have large margins set aside for wild plants or the crops have failed near the river, maybe after the spring floods. Whatever the reason, there is now a glorious sea of mayweed and poppies.
Soon we are opposite the stetch of riverbank near Spennymoor where I walked on a hot day earlier in the summer with another friend. After a picnic lunch, it’s not far from here to Sunderland Bridge, where we pass beneath Croxdale viaduct, carrying the main east coast railway line south of Durham, before crossing the river itself and following the path into the grounds of Croxdale Hall, along an avenue of mature sycamore trees and across Croxdale Beck.
There are several small lakes, some of them oxbows, along the meandering stretch of the river we have walked today and we decide on a short detour to visit some of these, taking the footpath skirting the North Park of Croxdale Hall to Low Butterby. Here a small piece of land known as The Island has been almost cut off between two long, narrow ponds and the river. The ponds are home to yellow water lilies and a deep margin of rushes and Flag iris, though the herd of cows sharing the field doesn’t encourage lingering!
The farm at Low Butterby is well off the footpath but I was intrigued to see from the map it is marked as a having both a moat and gatehouse. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised – it’s obviously a fantastic defensive site as you approach Durham from the south, all but completely surrounded by the loop in the river. With its own additional moat, the medieval manor house of Butterby (a corruption of the original Beautrove) must have been more or less impregnable.
According to Historic England, the manor house was originally the home of Roger d’Audre, who built a chapel at Beautrove in the 12th century, around the same time as the tiny, St Bartholomew’s chapel was built near the present Croxdale Hall. Around 1240 AD the manor house passed by marriage to the Lumleys of Lumley Castle whose family name, apparently, comes from the ‘Lums’ or deep pools which used to be a feature of the River Wear a little further downstream. We’ll pass Lumley Castle on the next stage of our walk.
Our detour meant we bypassed Croxdale Hall and St Bartholomew’s church, originally built as a ‘Chapel of Ease’ so time-pressed farmers and farm labourers could attend church without a five or six mile round trip to the Parish church of St Oswald’s in Durham. We still had to climb up through Croxdale Woods to High Butterby farm, though, before descending to Shincliffe on a very familiar path beside the river. Definitely home turf! Hopefully it won’t be long before we can lace up the walking boots again and head off for day 8, along even more familiar paths through Durham and on towards Chester-le-Street.
Vundac V.B. (2019) Taxonomical and Phytochemical Characterisation of 10 Stachys Taxa Recorded in the Balkan Peninsula Flora: A Review. Plants, 8, 32-46