Weekend walks: Into the Derwent Valley

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THE Derwentcote Steel Works near Blackhall Mill was built in 1720 and its working life spanned something like 171 years.

During that time the Derwent Valley was no industrial backwater. In the 18th century especially it enjoyed pride of place at the heart of British steel-making.

Restored by English Heritage in 1990, the Derwentcote Steel Works is one of only a few surviving furnaces of its kind.

Set back from the track that climbs to Derwentcote Farm, its most interesting feature is the conical-shaped chimney. This housed the furnace, and when in use, temperatures could reach 1,100°C.

I propped my rucksack against a fence and admired the lovely setting, with a wooded slope descending to the River Derwent. Blackhall Mill, the starting point of my walk, was a couple of miles to the west.

I had been greeted by a beautiful morning on setting off with skylarks singing and forests glowing russet-red in the light.

Having crossed the bridge and taken the riverside trail, I noticed that the ground was strewn with cobbles, which indicated that this had once been a road. It was no surprise; there must have been a constant flow of traffic to and from the Derwentcote Steel Works. Having had a good look at the historic building, I followed the footpath to the A694. On the other side of this, the track led past a picnic area and then the real hill climbing of the day started!

This was because my route took me through Byerside Wood, and I was pleased for the shade offered by the trees, especially as the ascent was rather steep and warmed me up nicely!

It wasn’t long before I’d paused to take breath and a sip from my water bottle. The break also gave me a chance to take in my surroundings.

This looked like very old woodland, judging by the lichen and moss-covered trees and huge roots that bulged through the earth.

“The forest was probably here when the steel works was in use,” I thought to myself and studied the footpath for cobbles, but couldn’t see any.

I thought that maybe a road had linked the steel works with Medomsley Colliery.

Refreshed by my impromptu break, I put the water bottle back into the rucksack, affixed a sun hat firmly to my head – and got cracking again!

The higher the path climbed, the more splendid became the scenery. A mixture of evergreens and non-coniferous trees rippled like a wave across the northern slopes of the Derwent Valley. It was as if the forests were on the march!

Then I realised it was the tree tops swaying. The sound of so many trees moving in the wind filled the valley like waves on a distant shore. To the west, meanwhile, were the rugged heights of Muggleswick Common. This formed a striking contrast with the heavily-wooded valley with open moors stretching away into a sunny distance.

It occurred to me that the view may not have been so scenic when the Derwentcote Steel Works was in operation. Smoke and flame must have obscured part of the valley.

There would have been quite a din too, especially with horse-drawn wagons trundling back and forth along the cobbled road.

I followed the footpath to the Derwent Walk, crossed this and climbed south up a windswept hill. The summit is bathed in woodland and a sunlit clearing proved a good spot for a lunch-break with a fallen tree trunk making for a comfy seat!

Stretching out my legs, I munched a sandwich and gazed across hills and fields and mighty, sunlight-bronzed moors.

This was a beautiful place, with the forest floor covered in long grass and wild flowers that heralded the first flush if spring. It was so pleasant, in fact, that I was reluctant to leave, but I finally shouldered my rucksack, straightened the hat on my head and returned to the trail.

I trooped into Medomsley Village a short time later and enjoyed a pint in the Miners’ Arms. This is appropriately named because Medomsley is an old pit village.

The nearby colliery opened in 1839 and was in operation until 1972. At the height of its production in 1930 the mine employed more than 800 people.

Mining was a dangerous business, however, and tragedy came to Medomsley on February 24, 1923, when a cage fell down a mine shaft, killing eight men.

My afternoon route took me out of the village and onto the High Westwood road. I didn’t make very good progress because the views were so good they stopped me in my tracks!

The Derwent Valley lay before me, a great graceful pool of shadowed fields and forests. Away to my left, an orchestra of light could be enjoyed as the sun moved majestically over the moors. The play of light created a dynamic visual effect, the landscape a constantly changing mosaic of red and yellow, gold and brown.

I left the High Westwood road to follow Shaw Lane. There was just me and the meandering, tranquil country lane, boots clumping on tarmac and the wind on my face and the sun warming my body.

There was no traffic, there wasn’t another soul. Skylarks glided overhead and the wind whispered through the grass and wild flowers.

To the west, the massive, mottled slopes of Ruffside Moor overlooked the Derwent Reservoir.

Shaw Lane heads down to Ebchester, but I didn’t follow it that far, instead taking to the Derwent Walk and following this east.

Striding along the broad tree-lined avenue I could well imagine how different it looked when this was a railway between 1867 and 1962. Now the route offers great walking and cycling through beautiful countryside.

A footpath took me downhill to Hamsterley and from there it was only a short trek back to Blackhall Mill. So ended my day’s journey, which was about 7.5 miles.

I dallied a while on the bridge that spans the River Derwent and gazed thoughtfully into sparkling water. The river was so bright it was like a thread of fire flowing through the valley, as bright as the flames that once came from the Derwentcote Steelworks.

There had been some beautiful scenery to enjoy today and the first colourful appearance of flowers promised that spring was on its way.

Equally memorable had been the glimpses of an industrial past, with long disused cobbled roads and a steel furnace that had helped usher in the industrial age.