An intricate network of paths radiates from Bishop Auckland, many of them developed to link Auckland Castle with the vast estates of the medieval bishops of Durham.
Distance: 7.5 miles
Time: 5 hours
Conditions: well signed paths, one and a half miles of quiet road walking
Refreshments: Bishop Auckland, Auckland Castle
OS Landranger Map OL305
Originally published: 24 April 2015
We start from the 18th century gatehouse to Auckland Castle on the edge of Bishop Auckland market place. With your back to the gateway turn right and follow the pavement around the edge of the large Market Place which surrounds the distinctive Town Hall of 1869. In about 200 yards go right down Wear Chare (signed Newfield). Where the road bends to the right at the bottom bear left on to the high river bank and follow it upstream under the towering Newton Cap Viaduct, built in 1857 to carry the railway from Bishop Auckland to Durham and now converted for the road traffic of the A 689.
Ahead are the two lofty arches of Newton Cap Bridge. 14th century records describe a gate on the south side protecting the approach to the town. From it ran access roads to the bishops' hunting grounds in middle Weardale.
Cross the bridge which roughly marks the half way point of the river's progress from the Pennine moors to Wearmouth. On the far side turn right on the Weardale Way which passes under the viaduct before bearing to the left. The river meanwhile continues ahead and flows in a huge loop below the castle. Here the Eleven Arches project has developed the huge, complex and ambitious set used in the annual staging of Kynren in the summer months. This dramatisation of the history of Durham and the north east, has proved immensely successful.
The Weardale Way is signed across the neck of the loop through the car parks and past the refreshment booths to regain the river bank in about 500 yards from Newton Cap Bridge.
Continue downstream and in about half a mile bear left on a bridleway. You are now walking on Dere Street, the Roman road built in about 80 AD to take supplies and troops from York and the south to the northern forts of the Roman Empire and, within another 40 years, to the newly constructed Hadrian's Wall.
At the point we joined it the road had just crossed the Wear (probably by ferry) from the fort at Binchester situated on a little hill on the far side. On the OS map the line can still be traced from here to the next forts at Lanchester and Ebchester.
After the first field the bridleway reaches the former railway from Bishop Auckland to Durham, now a popular walk and cycleway. Turn right along it for some 400 yards to the Station Master's House of the old Hunwick station.
Just ahead, at a former level crossing, go right and in a few paces turn left through a gate to rejoin the Weardale Way. The path crosses one field and follows the side of a wood before entering the trees and making a steep descent down steps to the river bank.
There follows another tranquil riverside section past Furness Mill Farm where there are scanty remains of the mill house and its leat. In another half mile the path comes to the footbridge which must once have linked the brickworks of Newfield with the workers' houses in Sunnybrow.
Cross the river and go immediately right along the opposite bank. After some 250 yards bear left on a track which in a similar distance reaches a tarred road. Turn left along the road which is used by infrequent large trucks bound to and from the ECL coal depot, visible over the bank on the right. Only one lorry passed me when I prospected the walk.
At a fork in the road bear right and continue up to join the road from Newfield to Bishop Auckland. Turn right past Binchester Crag Farm and then right again at the next junction where there are good views ahead along the valley. In another 400 yards and just before Vinovium Cottage (named after the Latin for Binchester), bear left down the side of the buildings into Belburn Wood.
In about 100 yards and just before a footbridge over Bell Burn go left on a delightful path which follows the burn upstream through ancient woodland, It may be muddy after rain and there are a couple of easy crossings of the stream to negotiate but the setting is peaceful and after the second ford there are some brightly coloured seats for rest and contemplation. Beyond them it's another 250 yards to the former railway line from Bishop Auckland to Spennymoor.
We access the track by a flight of steps and then turn right. After passing under two bridges and just before a third, climb left up more steps before going left again over the second bridge,
Our walk now heads straight across a large field towards a high stone wall visible where it runs along the edge of the next field. This is the boundary wall of Auckland Park, the bishops' medieval hunting domain. The park was originally surrounded by a deep ditch topped by a wooden fence or pale. In places the ditch is still visible. Much later the wall was built to replace the ditch and pale but the boundary was never entirely walled and it's where the wall ends that we are able to enter the 800 acre park over a stile.
Inside the park turn right on a broad green track (a permissive right of way) which was once the bishops' main approach to the castle. Away on the left is a stone pyramid, typical of the many similar follies with which 18th century landowners decorated their estates.
The track descends to cross first Coundon Beck and then the River Gaunless by a fine stone bridge built in 1760 by Bishop Trevor. Soon after, at a fork in the track, go left up to the remarkable Gothick Revival deer shelter of the same date, built to fatten up the park's 300 deer in the winter in preparation for the hunting season.
In another 200 yards the dominant perimeter wall of Auckland Castle appears. It's open every day (except Tuesday) and is well worth a visit.