Described as 'the largest Ancient Monument site in North East England' Cockfield Fell is a huge island of common pasture completely surrounded by farming land. Earthworks testify to its settlement shortly before the Roman conquest but its heyday was in the 18th and 19th centuries when it was quarried and mined for its natural resources.
Distance: 8 miles
Time: 4 hours
Conditions: well marked paths, though rough ground across the fell
Refreshments: King's Head and Queen's Head in Cockfield, Diamond and
Royal Oak in Butterknowle
OS Explorer Map OL31 and 305
Originally published: 7 March 2008
We shall see evidence from this fascinating past in our 8 mile walk which crosses the fell before following a circular route through the rich pastureland of the Gaunless valley to the west.
We start from the excellent Visitor Centre at The Slack near Butterknowle, (GR 113253, open daily 11am to 3pm from Easter to the end of September and at weekends in the winter). It was set up with European, national and local funds in recognition of the Fell's historical importance.
With your back to the centre go left along the road and almost immediately left along a lane which runs next to the River Gaunless. In 200 yards go straight over at a road junction, signed to Toft Hill, (B 6282). Where the road turns sharp left in about 150 yards go ahead on a footpath to cross the river by a concrete bridge.
Continue for the next mile or so on the trackbed of the former Haggerleases line, a branch of the Stockton and Darlington Railway, built in 1830 for transporting coal from the local mines. In 300 yards you recross the Gaunless by the Skew Bridge of "James Wilson of Pontefract, Builder, 1830", as the plaque proudy proclaims. It is an early example of a bridge built askew without a keystone to accommodate the acute bend of the river.
The line now straightens out along the riverside, flanked by the fell on the right. The huge abutment towers of the Lands Viaduct soon come in sight, built by Thomas Bouch in 1862 to carry the line from Bishop Auckland to Barnard Castle and sadly destroyed when the line closed in the 1960s.
In another 200 yards we leave the track by going right over the Gaunless and on to Cockfield Fell. Bear left after the bridge on a path which climbs parallel to the remains of a tramway which once took coal from a nearby colliery to the Haggerleases line. Beyond Fell Houses follow the access track which almost immediately crosses a deep trench where hard volcanic whinstone, part of the Cleveland Dyke, was quarried for roadmaking.
Shortly afterwards turn right off the track across the rough pasture of the open fell, heading for the wall which encircles Cockfield cemetery. For the next half mile keep this wall and then a fence on your left, passing the houses of the village as you climb to the summit at some 800 feet. The fell is still used for pasturing horses and sheep and is scattered with pigeon crees especially close to the houses.
At the top follow the fence around a deep quarry to reach the road coming out of Cockfield. Turn right and then half left past Hollymoor Farm where there are excellent views into the Gaunless valley and across to the Pennines.
100 yards beyond the farm we cross a road to Burnt Houses and, leaving the fell, take a path across three fields to Scotland Lane. Turn right, following the lane along the edge of the Raby estate and then across Shotton Moor. The trackbed of the line to Barnard Castle
is crossed in about half a mile. Just beyond Gibbsneese farm the right of way bears right and heads for the prominent chimney of the Gaunless or Copley Lead Smelting Mill, visible an easy half mile walk away through woodland. The mill operated from 1790 to 1890, using ore which was brought from Lord Barnard's Teesdale mines along the packhorse track known as the Steele Road.
We recross the Gaunless by the site of the mill and turn left on the bridleway behind what was the house of the mill manager. In about 100 yards go right up a flight of steps and across three fields to Copley. Turn right on the village street and almost immediately left on a path to the hamlet of Howle.
Here the right of way bears to the left of West Gate Close to a junction of paths in front of the other two farms. Go to the right of the right hand farm, (Thompson's Howle), cross Howle Beck and follow it downstream into Lynesack where go left along the village street. (A
literary diversion could be made here, first left, to visit the grave of Edward Smith, the inspiration for Smike in Dickens' 'Nicholas Nickleby'. It is to be found by the hedge, a few yards west of the church. Return afterwards to the village street).
Our route continues for another 100 yards to The Hill, a house on the left, where a path leads across fields to Raines House. Go straight ahead here on a farm track to the 18th century farms of Potter's Cross, all of which must have witnessed and survived the intensive industrialisation of the area in the 19th century.
Take the access lane, right, leading from the hamlet and in about 150 yards look out for a stile in the wall on the left. From here a path leads over three fields to a large bungalow.
Now turn left along the road leading to the hamlet of South Side. Just beyond the terrace of houses called Moorside go right on a bridleway which descends to the confluence of three becks. Cross three footbridges in order to arrive on the left bank of Crow Howle Beck.
Here until a century ago was the thriving Butterknowle Colliery. All that remains are the spoil heap, a range of coke ovens in the undergrowth on the left and the path we are following downstream which was once the branch line serving the pit.
In less than half a mile the path reaches The Slack where turn left down the road to the Gaunless and the Visitor Centre.