If you enjoy woodland walking, then the Forestry Commission's Hamsterley Forest is for you. The estate was purchased from the Surtees family in 1927 and extends some five miles westwards from Bedburn along the valleys of the Bedburn and Ayhope becks.
Distance: 8 miles
Time: 4-5 hours
Conditions: field, moor and forest paths
Refreshments: visitor centre
OS Explorer Map OL31 & 305
Originally published: 5 January 2007
The commission has organised access points, car parks and, more importantly, an extensive network of paths and tracks of various lengths which can be walked and cycled. An excellent visitor centre provides information on the ecology of the forest and there is a cafe too.
However, a walk based entirely among conifers can become somewhat dispiriting so this eight-mile route is devised to included the rich grazing land downstream and a short stretch of the moorland to the north of the forest as well as a two-mile "taster" among the trees.
We start from the main car park (GR 094313), approached from the Hamsterley to Wolsingham road. From the visitor centre, go to the gate leading to the wood craft centre and follow a path which soon crosses the mill race which once fed Bedburn Mill. The path continues along Bedburn Beck before skirting Field House to the Hamsterley to Wolsingham road. On the left is the mill pond: the mill itself lies over the road.
Turn right and cross the beck which here has gouged out a mini-gorge for itself in the well polished limestone. Almost immediately turn left into the drive of Bedburn Old Hall and, via a stile, go along a path across fields to Newhall Farm and its caravan site. Beyond the farm follow the main track through the site to Howlea Bridge, where you go right.
In a few yards, go left into the drive of Burn Brae and follow a path across two fields to a track which leads to Snape Gate, an isolated farm by the side of the beck. Our route goes to the left of the farm buildings and then through a gate in front of the farmhouse. In about 20 paces you will come to a green lane. Go left along it to its end in about 100 yards. Turn right through a gate and then bear left in a field for some 20 yards to find a stile which gives access to an attractive deciduous wood marked The Forest on the OS map. The path is now easy to follow to a footbridge over the beck.
From the bridge, we start a gentle climb over green, south-facing pastures. After one field you pass between the 18th century buildings of Carrwood Hill. On the other side follow the access track until it turns sharp left. From here, continue uphill in a straight line on a bridleway. Every step reveals extensive views over the valley of middle Weardale. Look out especially for Harperley Hall on the far side of the river, away to the right- a classic 18th century mansion set in rich parkland.
After three fields, the bridleway enters a lane which leads to High Shipley. Follow the access track beyond the farm until it turns left at a cattle grid. Go right here along a wall side to a gate and follow the wall around two sides of a large field to a tarred lane. This is a good vantage point to appreciate the vastness of Hamsterley Forest which merges south westwards with the horizon.
Turn right along the road and then first left down the drive to West Shipley. The path goes to the left of the farm through a gate and over a ladder stile. Follow the right- hand edge of the field in front of you down to a beck some 300 yards away. This is easy walking so take time to look away to the left to the tree crowned impressive remains of the huge stone-walled earthwork known as the Castles.
It dates from the immediate post Roman times, and now lies behind a more recent wall. Though it is on private land, it is readily visible from the path. It measures some 65 yards by 90 yards and is surrounded a deep ditch. Some archaeologists feel it could have been used as a defence against Anglo-Saxon invaders of our eastern shores in the 5th and 6th centuries.
Beyond the shallow ford over the beck, the path bends round to the right along a fence. After two fields go through a blue gate. Then, in 200 yards, turn right through the next gate across the field to Hoppyland Farm which has a medieval look about it although it dates from 1793 when, after a fire, it was rebuilt in the style of Witton Castle.
Turn right here along the drive to the lane from Bedburn to Wolsingham. The walk can be reduced here by four miles by turning left down the road to Bedburn Bridge. Our main walk, however, goes right and then left at the first footpath sign on to Stanhope Lane, an ancient route which once led across the slopes of Pikeston Fell into Weardale.
It was also used as access to the many 19th century quarries on Cabin Hill. It is half a mile of pleasant uphill walking through woodland before the open moor is reached at a gate. Tum half left here on a distinct track across open access land, keeping a series of dominant quarry mounds on your right and Hamsterley Forest on your left.
After a quarter of a mile, the track skirts the edge of the trees before taking off again across the open moor. In another quarter of a mile; it begins to descend towards the trees and joins another ancient way from Hamsterley Forest to Doctor's Gate. Go left down to a gate into the forest.
Of course, to appreciate the forest fully as you traverse it for the next two miles, you ought to have the excellent guide from the visitor centre.
Roe deer and red squirrels may be spotted as well as some of the 40 different species of birds which have been logged here. Even if you see none of these you cannot fail to be moved by the forest's all-enveloping tranquillity.
To return to the car park, go through the gate and down across one main track to a picnic spot by the side of Ayhope Beck. Tum left and follow a well-made path to a tarred lane at Low Redford. Tum right, cross the beck and then turn left almost immediately to join the popular path which follows Bedburn Beck downstream to our starting point.