In the past 20 years considerable environment improvements have been made to the shoreline of County Durham, formerly blighted by coal mining. Today a well signed coastal path helps walkers to appreciate what has been achieved.
Distance: 11 miles
Time: 6 hours
Conditions: well signed paths and bridleways, two short climbs, few stiles. Castle Eden Dene may be closed in bad weather
Refreshments: Oaklands, Durham Way
OS Landranger Map OL308 and OL306
Originally published: 26 June 2013
This 11 mile circular walk takes in some 4 miles of this path and, in complete contrast, the 3 mile path which threads the National Nature Reserve of Castle Eden Dene, another unsung gem of this corner of the county.
We start from English Nature's office at Oakerside Lodge on Stanhope Chase off Durham Way on the edge of Peterlee (GR 428394).To reach it from the A 19 take the Peterlee exit and follow the brown signs.
From the lodge's car park go around the locked entrance gate, taking the main path which drops deeply into the dene. Ignoring branch paths we reach Castle Bridge in about 5 minutes. Whilst saving the longer path up the dene for the return part of the walk this brief glimpse gives you some idea of why this is a special place, described in the official leaflet as the largest area of natural woodland in the north east and a survivor of the wildwood which once covered most of the country.
From the far side of the bridge the track climbs steeply up a side valley. At a fork you could go left to arrive at the houses of Castle Eden village and St. James's church in a few minutes. More interesting is the path to the right which in about 250 yards reaches a gate at the edge of the dene and the access lane to the Castle with its battlements and Gothic windows.
It was made in the 1780s for Rowland Burdon who built the first iron bridge at Sunderland, and was improved probably by Sir John Soane in the 1820s. It was the Burdons who owned the dene, creating a romantic garden complete with caves, grottoes and picturesque viewpoints.
From the castle our walk continues down the lane past the church which has memorials to the family and through the tiny village. At the B 1281 turn right and almost immediately left. The path brings you over two fields to the Haswell to Hart Walkway which is also part of the National Cycle Network. Turn left.
Once the railway line from the collieries of Haswell to the coast line at Hart, it was closed in 1980. Today it makes for easy, leisurely walking through the pleasantly rolling landscape of east Durham. We follow it for about 3 miles. After a mile it is embanked giving views across to the Cleveland Hills. After passing the 18th century Hesleden Hall it takes to a series of well wooded cuttings and a section where it appears to run on a ridge between Crimdon Dene and Nesbitt Dene (nb there's no access down Crimdon Dene from the railway). It ends where the old line joined the present coastal line which we cross by an iron footbridge, all that remains of Hart station.
Thousands of holidaymakers arriving by train once used the bridge on their way to the glorious sandy beaches of Crimdon less than half a mile away. We follow in their steps over the fields to a bridge over Crimdon Beck before continuing on the coastal footpath along the low cliffs.
The way is easy to follow at first as a tarred path through a large caravan site which dates from the 1920s when the popularity of the area was at its height. Beyond the caravans the route reverts to a grassy cliff top path flanked by an extensive greensward which for most of the way is covered with a spectacular display of cowslips in season.
Ahead the coast curves gently towards Seaham. It is punctuated by a series of denes created by glacial meltwaters. Between the two longest, Crimdon Dene and Castle Eden Dene, two or three shorter valleys or gills interrupt progress and you will have to walk inland to pass around their heads. The first is Lime Kiln Gill where the path runs parallel to the railway line for a short distance before using steps to descend into and climb out of a minor valley. At the top of the ascent turn left and in a few paces go right, back to the cliff top.
For the next half mile the cliffs, caves and stacks of Blackhall Rocks are in sight. Close to the rocks a tarred lane comes across the common land to the cliff edge. Continue beyond it before having to make a further diversion around Blue House Gill. After returning to the cliff edge the path continues for another mile without interruption to Dene Mouth.
We now leave the seaside and turn inland up Castle Eden Dene. The deep valley gorge was created by meltwater dissolving the soft magnesian limestone. Quite frequently, and especially after a dry spell there may be no water flowing in the dene because the stream has also created an underground channel.
Cross the bridge over the stream bed and walk up the valley. Apart from the dense cover of ancient woodland where yews predominate there are other features to look out for. Impossible to miss is the 800ft long brick railway viaduct of 1905. A little further and the track climbs to the A 1086. Cross straight over and continue upstream.
In 400 yards a short diversion across the stream has been created to avoid an eroded section but the path soon returns to the north bank. In another 400 yards you cross the Garden of Eden Bridge and the path enters a narrower section where overhanging limestone cliffs crowd in and 2 huge boulders known as the 'Kissing Frogs' followed shortly by the 'Devil's Lapstone' are evidence of past landslips.
Ignore the next narrow footbridge on the right and instead continue on the main track across Dungy Bridge. In another 500 yards go right at a fork to climb back to the starting point.