DCSIMG

Weekend walks: Busty Bank and Bryan’s Leap

  • by CHRIS ROONEY
 

SOME of the earliest waggonways in the North East were laid from Burnopfield Colliery to coal staithes on the Tyne.

The mine was in use between 1742 and 1968, and in the age before the train, a way had to be found to get coal to waiting ships, hence the waggonways.

Presumably, I thought, the Pack Horse public house just outside Burnopfield is named after the hardy breed of animals that worked those pre-industrial railways.

Sitting outside the pub, I tipped my face to the sun and enjoyed the warmth and wondered if spring had finally arrived!

My walk had begun in Swalwell, Gateshead, with me taking a public bridleway west along the Derwent Valley.

There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and visibility was excellent, with ragged peaks and smooth tawny fells to be seen stretching away into the distance.

On my right, the valley sloped down to forestation around the Derwent Walk, which is very popular with ramblers and cyclists. The route offers access to a host of woodland trails and footpaths.

What a smashing day, I thought dreamily, wandering along the bridleway and swinging a blade of grass and enjoying the warmth on my body. There was no need for a winter coat and scarf!

Long lush grass swished against my legs as I waded through it and the aroma of flowers sweetened the air.

It suddenly occurred to me just what a variety of birdsong there is to enjoy. It filled the air with a multitude of pleasing tones, some high pitched and some a low murmuring.

There were also the more strident cries of birds-of-prey, which could occasionally be glimpsed riding the air currents.

The bridleway came to an end and there were a choice of footpaths from that point, down to Damhead Wood and south up to Woodhouses Lane.

I followed the latter, able to quicken my pace now on firmer ground.

The track travelled past meadows in which horses grazed and beyond that forestation bathed the valley in warm brown and yellow. The sight of distant hills rising golden into the sunshine was captivating.

Woodhouses Lane brought me to Fellside Road and I followed this past Whickham Golf Course before turning on to the public byway to Gibside Hillhead.

The quiet country lane lay bright under the sun and I was pleased for the breeze, this making the rim of my beloved old hat flutter.

One of the pleasures of walking is being able to take the watch off and enjoy a more natural rhythm: The sun moving slowly in the sky marks the passage of time and a rumbling tummy tells you when it is midday and lunch is due!

From Gibside Hillhead the morning route took me across a hillside with on the right the valley, a huge green cleft in the earth. To my left could be seen Burnopfield, and my trek took over the fields and towards the town.

Having rejoined Fellside Road, I wondered about the origins of the name Burnopfield. It may come from an old English term for open land by a valley stream.

Alternatively, the name could refer to the region’s violent past. During one of the medieval border wars, a Scottish army is said to have been turned back by the burning up of the fields, hence the name Burnopfield.

The second half of my walk took me from the Pack Horse Inn and along Burnopfield high street and then a footpath to Bryan’s Leap.

It was getting on for late afternoon and if anything the day had grown warmer, so much so I was able to remove my jumper and let the sun on my bare arms. The last time I had done that seemed a lifetime ago!

From the summit of Bryan’s Leap could be seen miles of forestation, forming a great wave of russet-red with smoky tendrils that were bare trees.

From my vantage point, the Gibside country estate could be glimpsed as well as Rowlands Gill nestling in the bottom of the Derwent Valley.

A track descends from Bryan’s Leap to a narrow ledge of earth that was most curious. It was flanked by a sharp, rising escarpment on the left and a steep decline to Busty Bank on the right.

The angular sides of both banks and the track itself, straight as an arrow, made me wonder if this had once been a waggonway or maybe a road.

I followed the path, my boots crunching on a thick covering of leaves.

The quality of the afternoon light was superb, bathing the landscape in shimmering gold so that descent from the heights of Burnopfield made for idyllic walking.

The track dropped steeper still and brought me to Busty Bank, which I followed past the Gibside estate. The road then dropped to Derwent Bridge where I leant on the stonework and enjoyed the summery ambience.

The valley bottom was a real suntrap, the side of the bridge hot to the touch. The River Derwent moved gracefully below, the water a smooth green and freckled with leaves turning lazily as they were carried along.

Dragonflies shimmered and flowers drifted from overhanging branches. It was very tranquil here.

With a sudden burst of movement, a bird took off from the river and glided over Scaife’s Wood.

The final part of the day’s journey took me through this forest, the path winding through pine, beech and Japanese larch.

On my right, Rowlands Gill Railway Viaduct, opened in 1867, towered into the sky and below it the forest seemed to slumber in the sunshine.

I made my way up on to the Derwent Walk and followed this over the viaduct and into Rowlands Gill, the finishing point of my walk of about eight miles. The country park was busy and there was a steady stream of traffic making its way to Gibside.

My arms had caught the sun and I am fortunate in that I go brown nicely. Brushing flower petals from my forearms, I thought, “Well this bodes well for the summer ... I hope!”

Then I thought about those 18th century waggonways and the pack horses that pulled wagons that were loaded with up to two tons of coal. They were, perhaps, the unsung heroes of an era before the steam locomotive.

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