The church of St. John in Escomb is, according to Pevsner, "one of the most important and most moving survivals of the architecture of the time of Bede". The 1300 year old church was built mainly of large blocks of stone from the nearby Roman fort of Vinovia at Binchester. One stone, embedded in the exterior of the north wall still reads LEGVI, a mark of the Sixth Legion. Its simple interior is worth a visit if only for its lofty proportions and sense of antiquity. The key can be obtained at a nearby house.
Distance: 8 miles
Time: 5 hours
Conditions: well signed field paths; over 1 mile of quiet road walking
Refreshments: Escomb, Hunwick, Bishop Auckland
OS Explorer Map 305
Originally published: 14 November 2008
It makes a fitting start for our 8 mile walk in the middle Wear valley, (Grid Ref. 188302). From the medieval wall which surrounds the church head past the Saxon Inn on the lane which leads to the village allotments. From here a path climbs gently across fields with a good view of the riverside lakes and ponds created from gravel workings.
In just over a mile you reach the entrance to Paradise Woodland Park and, under a low bridge, to the village of Witton Park. Turn right on to the main street which crosses a spacious green. Go right at the foot of High Queen Street and continue along the pavement of New Road past a very exact old fingerpost pointing back to Bishop Auckland, 1 and three eighths of a mile distant.
In another quarter of a mile the road passes under the Wear Valley Railway and over the river, where, by the old ford a heron was waiting patiently for its meal when I passed by. In half a mile turn right at a T junction and climb to the A 689 where go right.
In a few yards we leave the spell of road walking through a stile on the left. The path climbs across fields and passes to the right of the large house called Small Leazes. Turn right after a gate above the house to reach a road where go right again.
There are excellent views from here back down into the Wear valley and across to the wooded slopes of Hamsterley Forest. After 100 yards turn left up the track to Blakeley Hill, continuing in front of the farmhouse on to a path which follows a hedgeline via the charmingly named Jane's Gate. After the next, very narrow wire mesh, gate, turn right into Hunwick, emerging opposite the green and close to the Joiners Arms. The village has Saxon origins and the Hall Farm behind the Gin Mill dates from the 17th century.
Turn left down the village street and then right, by the church, along Station Road. In 400 yards, where the road bends to the left, go ahead on a bridleway. It continues as a tree shaded track beyond a large equestrian centre before turning sharp left through a gate and down across a field. After another gate it takes up the line of Dere Street, the Roman road which, in about 80 AD, was built to bring supplies to the northern forts of the empire and, later, of course, to Hadrian's Wall.
We walk along the easily recognisable agger or broad bank of the road surface, although in places it has been eroded by the wear and tear of centuries. We are following it south and heading directly for the fort at Binchester, only half a mile away but on the other side of the river which must have been crossed by a ford or bridge. In the opposite direction the road can be traced northwards to the next forts at Lanchester and Ebchester.
In 200 yards go straight over the former Bishop Auckland to Durham railway line, now converted to a cycle and walking path. Continue to the river and then head upstream along the north bank to pass, in about half a mile, a golf driving range and (as of 2021) the site of Kynren, the spectacular historical summer pageants held below Auckland Castle. From here a rough track continues ahead for some 300 yards with the houses of Bishop Auckland in sight before it turns to pass under the lofty Newton Cap Viaduct. Built in 1857 it once carried the railway line to Durham but a few years ago was converted to take the A 689 traffic.
On the far side we reach the old main road and turn left to cross Newton Cap Bridge which was in existence as early as 1314 and once had a gateway at the southern end to protect the entrance to the bishops' town and castle. The river is still peaty brown here despite being some 30 miles from its Pennine sources.
On the far side turn right in a few yards to follow the Weardale Way along a lane which in about half a mile skirts the local rugby ground. The lane ends close to the river. A path leads on from here up across one field and into the woodland which covers Broken Bank where the going could be sticky after rain.
Our path then emerges from the trees via a gate and soon after there's a choice of routes. The Weardale Way crosses a tributary stream before continuing along the river bank back to Escomb. If, however, the footbridge is still closed because of river erosion, (as it was when I walked the route), then continue ahead from the bridge across fields to our starting point.