Two more chunks of the Weardale way done in fairly close succession and we’ve finished by the end of September! Just a fortnight after our last stretch of the walk we headed off again, this time with two cars, taking one to our end point near James Steel Park in Washington and returning in the other to our starting point at the top of Cocken Wood. The route follows a minor road at first, up to Great Lumley. Climbing the hill cuts out a couple of loops in the river and you get a great view from the John Duck memorial bench across to Chester-le-Street and the grounds of Lumley Castle.
This was the first I’d heard of Sir John Duck, who was apparently a butcher’s boy made good. There is a legend, recounted in the Dictionary of National Biography that his good fortune started when, ‘as he was straying in melancholy idleness by the water side, a raven appeared hovering in the air, and from chance or fright dropped from his bill a gold Jacobus at the foot of the happy butcher boy.’ In 1680 he served as mayor of Durham, and in 1686 he built Lumley Hospital here – almshouses for 12 people over the age of 60, which I guess was old in the late 17th century!
From Great Lumley the path drops gradually down to the banks of the river again. Himalayan balsam (Impatiens glandulifera) is in flower all along this stretch. I know how far the plant is capable of shooting its seeds when the pods pop open but I’d not noticed the adventitious roots forming at nodes on the stem before. Pulling up the plants before they set seed is not enough to arrest its spread – stems left on the ground will be able to root themselves again. A truly well-adapted invader!
However, even the Himalayan balsam over-shadowed by the biggest stand of Giant hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum) I’ve ever seen. The fact it is all in seed now doesn’t bode well for next year – a result of reduced council work this summer, I suspect.
The statuesque seeds heads might well indicate why Giant hogweed was introduced to Britain from the Caucasus mountains as an ornamental plant in the 19th century but, whilst Himalayan balsam causes problems for native riverbank plants, Giant hogweed is seriously dangerous to human health too. Furanocoumarin derivatives in the plant’s sap and in its bristly hairs, which help the plant defend itself against herbivores and fungal attack, make the sap phototoxic. When the sap comes into contact with skin, furanocoumarins enter the nucleus of epidermal cells and react with the DNA, causing crosslinks to form between nucleotide bases, when exposed to UV light. The skin becomes hypersensitive to sunlight, causing it to blister and scar, sometimes as badly as a chemical burn – this is known as phytophotodermatitis. Giant hogweed is not the only plant to use furanocoumarins for defence – phytophotodermatitis can also be caused by the leaves of other plants in the Apiaceae such as carrots, parsley and celery and by various fig species, as well as by citrus peel and citrus-based essential oils.
The path hugs the east bank of the Wear for a short distance opposite around Lumley Castle, before heading into the woods across the intriguingly-named Hag Bridge and along Lumley Park Burn. Though pretty enough decidous woodland, it is spoiled by the constant smell from the burn, which seems to bear out September’s revelations that only 14 % of English rivers are of good ecological standard and none of good chemical standard. The burn and the path pass beneath the A1M near Castle Dene – an interesting new perspective on an area we both drive through regularly. For a while, the Weardale Way shares the route with the Great North Forest Trail before we head north through the woods along the edge of the huge Lambton estate, ancestral seat of the Earls of Durham. Unfortunately, the permissive paths though the park proper are only open on Sundays in the summer but we get a taste of the beautiful mature trees in Biddick Wood. Nothing remains to be seen of the lion park which opened here in 1972!
After Lambton the path rejoins the Wear. We cross near Fatfield and from there it’s just a short walk to the car at James Steel Park. The river here is muddy and sluggish and, when we notice it is apparently flowing upstream, we realise we have reached the tidal section so not far to go now!
Our final day’s walk starts from here, after a few issues with parking when it turns out the road at the roundabout where we need to turn off Pattinson Road is being resurfaced! We’ve decided to follow the north bank of the river all the way to Sunderland, which is technically the River Wear Trail, because this looks more scenic than the Weardale way itself on the other bank. This turns out to be a good choice – the first couple of miles are through very pleasant woodland, skirting round Washington wildflower centre and under the A19. It’s not long till get our first sight of the striking Queen Alexandra bridge from North Hylton, and I’m pleasantly surprised to find we are walking over salt marsh which still has some Sea thrift and Sea asters in flower.
As we get closer to Sunderland the path continues to hug the river, steering clear of the most industrialised part of Sunderland, till well beyond the bridge.
As we approach Monkwearmouth and the Stadium of Light, the route celebrates the region’s industrial heritage with a series of bronze interpretation panels on the limekilns lining the bend in the river and in the pavement, marking the site of the Wear Lime Works and Wearmouth colliery entrance and workings. The lime kilns were built into the sandstone cliff between 1821 and 1872, to process limestone brought by waggon from the quarry at Fullwell, a short distance to the north.
Sunderland lies firmly in the Durham coalfield and coal has been quarried and then mined here since at least the 16th century. By the 19th century mining was a major industry. The first colliery at Monkwearmouth opened in 1835, followed over the next seventy years by Ryhope, Silksworth and Hylton Collieries. Many of the workings extended from here out under the sea and miners often had to walk several miles before getting to the seam they were working on, the point at which they started getting paid. Wearmouth Colliery was the last in the area to close, in 1988, after the bitterly-fought miners’ strike of 1984-5.
Walking along the pleasant river path now, past the remains of old jetties, it’s hard to imagine what this area was like in its industrial heyday, full of noise and bustle with no doubt some pretty unpleasant smells from both the river and kilns.
Once under the railway bridge a sculpture trail leads along the distinctly-gentrified north bank of the river towards the National Glass Centre. Sunderland has a long history of glass making, with the first stained glass in Britain made here in the late seventh century by French craftsmen brought in from Gaul. They made the windows for St Peter’s Church, the only part of the Wearmouth monastery still standing today. By 1860, more than 1000 workers were involved in the glass industry in Sunderland, working for some 20 different companies, and the beaches around here are good places to look for sea glass in novel colours – waste from the kilns as well as the usual fragments of bottles and jars. We are delighted to find the café at the Glass Centre is open for a restorative coffee before the final stretch along through the marina and out to the sea at Roker. The pleasure of walking on the beach and the brisk sea air makes us think we should be looking for a coastal walk to tackle next!