This past week- just as the weather took a considerable turn for the better- we made sure that we had a much needed day off and knew that we wanted to get out and enjoy a hike in the beautiful surroundings of the North East. But where? We really fancied playing a bit of a curve ball for the destination and had the asset of Lucy’s Dad along for the day as our driver.
Paul literally had one of those hit your head flashes of inspiration moments and exclaimed “Stanhope!”
Stanhope is located in the beautiful Durham Dales and has a very personal connection to Paul and his family as it is where Paul’s parents had a caravan for over forty years and provided so many happy memories. With a heavy heart, Paul’s parents gave up caravanning in 2004 as the traditional caravan was gradually replaced by far more grandiose affairs which took the charm away for your long term caravaner. For Paul it’s been ten years since an actual visit to Stanhope so we were all keen for Paul to take us back to his childhood (& into adulthood) holiday and weekend retreat.
One of the many joys of our region is that you don’t have to travel far to enjoy our coast, cities and country, they are all on our doorstep. Stanhope is just forty five minutes from Newcastle and you couldn’t be further away from city life. Lucy’s Dad had prepared the picnic lunch and off we went. It’s a beautiful drive through the likes of Rowlands Gill, Ebchester and Shotley Bridge.
This journey for Paul usually involved him sat in the back of his Dad’s orange SAAB squashed up against bedding and bags of essential caravan supplies at his feet. For this trip Paul was allowed the glory of the front passenger seat despite his epic fail as navigator for our February trip to find snowdrops. No worries of a wrong turn as this journey is lodged in Paul’s brain. Just out of Shotley Bridge is the wonderfully named hamlet of “Snods Edge” and every Sunday in the church hall they would have cream teas which always sounded so tempting. Across the A68 and through the beautiful village of Edmundbyers this is where the magic really starts. This only increases as you enter County Durham and cross the moors into Stanhope and Weardale. These moors will look very familiar to some as it is where our favourite TV detective Vera is often found investigating a case in her trusty Land Rover Defender.
The moors are part of the C2C cycle ride and Crawleyside bank which rises out of Stanhope is felt in many a cyclists thighs. As we turned the corner into Stanhope past the Grey Bull pub you could see on Paul’s face he was so excited to be back and explore. We parked in the Durham Dales Centre which offers an array of beautiful small independent shops selling the work of artists and craftspeople of Weardale, something very close to our hearts. The Dales Centre has a beautiful enclosed garden that was named after one of the Durham Dales most famous residents, Hannah Hauxwell and its lovely to see it is kept in such immaculate condition in respect of that inspirational daughter of the Dales. We could not resist the tea rooms and enjoyed a good brew and slice of excellent sponge cake to see us on our way. The sun was shining, our walking boots on, time to begin our hike.
We headed out of the village and down towards the river Wear where Paul and his brothers before him would spend hours with their little fishing nets and try to meet the benchmark set by their Dad with his stone skimming prowess. Across the bridge and through the fields that was the walk from the caravan site and into the village. It was certainly lamb season and just like the ultimate Easter picture postcard. Up through the wood with rabbits dashing past in front of us we reached the place that was a holiday home for many years, Heather View Caravan Park, now “Leisure Park”. You can certainly see now why the word caravan is no longer used. What you stay in now are more like second homes offering every conceivable luxury you can imagine.
For Paul and his family it was getting away from all that that made caravanning so special. These were the days of lighting mantles to provide illumination via the gas bottle outside, keeping butter and milk in a sunken sink under the caravan to keep cool, running the black and white television off the car battery, the ritual of filling the water bottle and using the communal WC and shower block...OK it was a luxury to enjoy when caravans moved to having their own loos and running water but “real” caravanning had that community spirit where you had conversation at the water tap and Paul was always fascinated in the shower block of the gentleman and their shaving rituals which seemed such a world away from a seven year old. Now you have everything you need you can literally just stay in your holiday home. In many ways it explains why breaks to shepherds huts are on the rise because they hark back to that golden age of caravanning and literally getting away from it all.
Paul pointed out the fields and exact spots where the caravans he stayed in would have been. Fields that now have ample parking spaces and drive ways into them. Back in the day you would take your chance in the field whether your car would be stuck in the mud after a heavy downpour and confined to barracks until the field dried out. Anyway, enough of this rose-tintedness, all this was a bygone era which Paul feels so lucky to have part of but the world has moved on and it as all now about the luxury aspect.
Walking out of the site we headed along the country lane that leads to the village of Frosterley. We were taking a detour off the lane and following the route of the Weardale Way. Heading up through gorgeous fields and meadows to the ridge above which offers magnificent views of Weardale. On such a beautifully sunny day had we been in Northumberland we would have past dozens of fellow walkers but the magic of Weardale as a hidden treasure still remains. Here we were walking in the most scenic of surroundings and not a sole was to be seen, just ourselves, sheep, lambs and the odd rabbit or three.
We passed through farmsteads which have been magnificently restored and now look very happy family homes where people can commute to nearby towns. Our tummies told us it was time for lunch and some very conveniently placed logs offered the perfect stopping point. We enjoyed our sandwiches courtesy of Lucy’s Dad who provided the perfect fillings of corned beef and onion for the meat eaters and cheese and pickle for Lucy. It was just lovely sitting in the tranquility of the Wear valley having lunch and taking in the surroundings. Lucy and her Dad could clearly see why this was such a special place to Paul.
Revived by our sandwiches we carried on but here it was where we lost track of the Weardale Way signage and at the risk of ending up getting lost on the moors doubled back along the ridge overlooking Stanhope. There is a certain irony to come about losing our way on the moors...
One of the three pubs in Stanhope Village is the Bonny Moor Hen and right up here you could see how appropriate a name it was as we saw them aplenty and we all gave the odd shriek as they flapped off from behind dry stone walls and heather clumps. We thought we were now set on a straightforward path back down into Stanhope but a locked gate and the disappearance of any public footpath signage saw us slightly at a disadvantage. Having to go back on ourselves up a steep hill we literally found ourselves lost on the moors! Google maps couldn’t even save us as no obvious path was visible. Paul knew that there was a road leading down from the moors and back into the village so heading in a straight line we must come to it.
Heading in a straight line across moorland littered with bogs is not the easiest of tasks and our sedate hike in the Weardale countryside took on a different feel. Paul you many have gathered is someone who always likes to look his best, even a top of moorland and pledging through bogs is not his idea of a lovely afternoon stroll out. However, needs must and Lucy’s Dad acted as our Indiana Jones plotting the firmest of ground to leap over the bogs, The road seemed a lost treasure but in the distance Lucy caught sight of the sun reflecting off a moving vehicle. We all darted on through more bogs and we discovered that joining a road with many zig zags is as easy as walking in a straight straight line across moorland. Eventually we came to the road and found our way into Stanhope.
We were so relieved to be back in the village and headed straight to the Pack Horse to order our customary post hike refreshment of pot of tea for Lucy’s Dad, lemonade for Lucy and lager and lime for Paul. We could only laugh at our moorland detour and it certainly made for an eventful day. For Paul it had been wonderful to make a return visit to Stanhope and the magic of Weardale still remains.
If you have never visited Weardale make this year the one to do it. Just make sure you don’t lose the footpath signs!!