Weekend walks: Rambling in Deerness Valley mist

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I STRODE downhill from Durham Railway Station to the roundabout on the A690, turned right and followed the road past Windy Hill and North End.

Cold and crisp didn’t quite do the day justice. Ice flashed and frost glittered. It was extremely cold!

I could feel it seeping through my thick gloves and coat. There was quite a climb past Durham County Hall to the A167, but at the top of the steep bank were the first great views of the day.

Before me lay the Deerness Valley, which was soaked in a mist. Under the pearly layer could be glimpsed streams, dells and woodland.

In the distance to the west, however, there was no trace of mist, and the hills around Tow Law struck an imposing presence. Raw, red sunlight bathed forestation and tawny moors.

At Aden Cottage I took the footpath to Witton Gilbert, striding across a landscape white with frost and steeped in the mist – and history.

That dates back to Norman and Saxon times and can be glimpsed in the place names of towns and villages.

The footpath winds its way along the valley bottom, on the left fields rising steeply to a grand old house on the skyline; Ushaw College, established in 1808.

The mist didn’t move and there wasn’t the faintest whisper of a breeze. At times I could barely see my hand in front of my face.

I stopped at Sniperley Farm and enjoyed the view; a pleasing palette of colours that were undulating fields and sprawling forests. And the morning was so quiet!

As soon as I stopped walking, the cold seemed to pounce. Within just a few minutes, it had soaked through my layers of clothing and my hands were tingling with it. So, I quickly got moving again!

The track continues to Sleights House and from there I followed the pavement along the A691 for a short distance before taking the footpath to Witton Gilbert, situated under the brooding presence of hills and forests.

The ancient town is one of numerous in County Durham to have Anglo-Saxon origins. Its name breaks down as Widu, meaning woodland, and ton, this referring to farms.

Perhaps the day the first settlers came over the hills had been like this, icy and mist-soaked, with Saxon warriors and their families nearing the end of a long trek.

This would have taken them through the great forests of the North where there would have been wolves and wild boar to contend with. At some point, a powerful Norman lord called Gilbert de la Ley came to Witton and built a home here. That is how the town acquired the second part of its name.

Having wandered into Witton Gilbert, I enjoyed my pint at the Glendenning Arms and after lunch headed out of the town and took the footpath to Fyndoune.

Then there was a short walk downhill on to Potterhouse Lane, and after a mile or so I was able to follow a track to Folly Plantation.

This forms a great wooded crevice and I decided to explore it, heading down through long bracken and mossy trees. Late afternoon was turning slowly into evening, shadows lengthening. It was even more becalmed down in the gully, with not even a breeze. A boulder provided somewhere to sit and a chance to enjoy a cup of piping hot soup from my flask.

That meant having to remove my gloves, and I gripped the cup and was pleased for the heat on my hands!

Mist breathed over the giant old roots of trees and low hanging branches. Sunlight shone on masses of red-brown ferns.

“What an atmospheric place!’ I thought, sipping my soup and wondering it this had been part of the ancient forests that those Saxons settlers would have known.

I am pleased to say that I did not encounter any wolves!

Break over, I packed the flask away in the rucksack and quickly pulled my gloves on! Then I followed a footpath up the ravine.

The final stretch of the walk took me to Pity Me, another place name indicating a fascinating history.

It does not suggest, as sometimes thought, a cry of “Woe is me!” Instead, Pity Me may be based on the name for a small lake, this being Petit Mere or Peaty Mere. It suddenly occurred to me …. I paused before making for Durham Railway Station and looked back at the Deerness Valley.

Ringed by hills, it was suffused with a most dazzling red sunset.

Two of the places I had travelled through on today’s journey gave a hint as to what this ancient land looked like a thousand years ago and more.

It had been a place of vast forests and there had been lakes. It was a beautiful but wild landscape where the wolf prowled and wild boar roamed.

Those early settlers must, I thought, have been a hardy, brave group of people!