In its middle reaches, between Darlington and Stockton, the River Tees meanders in a series of loops so exaggerated that they have created necks of land almost surrounded by water. The most striking of these is the Sockburn peninsula, a remote place yet only 7 miles from the centre of Darlington. It's well worth exploring for its peaceful valley scenery and its history.
Distance: 9 or 6 miles (with 1 mile extension)
Time: 5 or 4 hours (allow extra for Sockburn)
Conditions: well maintained field paths, firm bridleways
Refreshments: Middleton One Row, Neasham
OS Explorer Map 304
Originally published: 17 January 2014
I've mapped two overlapping walks, of 9 and 6 miles, with a possible one mile extension to Sockburn requiring special permission.
The longer route starts from the Devonport Hotel in Middleton One Row (GR 348123). The village, extending for half a mile along the high river bank, is named for its row of Victorian houses, built after a sulphur spring closer to the river had been developed as a spa.
From the hotel follow the Teesside Way sign down the bank to a riverside path which soon passes the site of the spa, close to The Lodge (Bath Cottage is 100 yards up a path to the right of the entrance). The well made path continues through Dinsdale Wood, a delightful one mile stroll following one of the river's many convolutions. At a junction bear left. Emerging form the trees in about 100 yards look out for Low Dinsdale manor house on the right. famed for being the original home of the Surtees family. There are still traces of its medieval past in the structure and in the double ditches of the moat which once surrounded it.
At a kissing gate we join the lane from Neasham to Girsby close to the red sandstone parish church. The church is usually locked but the walls of the porch are embedded with fragments of an Anglo-Saxon cross and a medieval grave slab carved with a sword and cross and an inscription to Goselynus Surteys.
The shorter walk starts from here (GR 346112). Walk northwards along the lane from the church and cross the early 20th century bridge linking County Durham and Yorkshire. The lane then curves to the east and is soon enhanced by a magnificent avenue of lime trees, planted in 1907 when the nearby Over Dinsdale Hall was built. As the lane straightens out you will be walking on a Roman road which once linked Brough on the Humber with Chester-le-Street, The road used to cut down sharp left to a long gone ford, ferry or bridge over the Tees close to The Lodge.
About 200 yards beyond the bridge we turn right along the lane to Riverbank Cottage. It bends left then enters the garden of the cottage where it peters out into a footpath. After passing another cottage on the left the path then heads half right across a field (muddy after rain) to a small wood in the distance. The path, a section of the Teesdale Way, is well marked as it crosses arable land to Hill House. There are glimpses, down right , of the river and Spa Wells, where another sulphur spring was discovered in 1789 and later developed as a spa.
White House farm comes next and another half mile will bring you to Girsby. Turn right along the village street to the church, perched on a bluff. From it the entire Sockburn peninsula can be traced away to the left by the trees which clothe the river bank. Beyond are glimpses of the distant Pennines.
From this striking vantage point take the bridleway down to the cast iron bridge which was built by Theophonia Blackett of Sockburn Hall as part of the Sockburn Ford settlement of 1869. An ancient road once ran south down the peninsula to cross the Tees by a ford at its southern tip. This used to be one of the two places on the county boundary (the other was Croft Bridge) where the incoming new bishop of Durham would be presented in mid stream with the falchion or broadsword used by Sir John Conyers to slay the mythical Sockburn Worm.
Despite the legend the Blacketts succeeded in closing the route but in compensation had to build the bridge we cross. Our track now climbs to join the ancient peninsula road at the Granary.
At this point there's the possibility of a diversion. Half a mile left down the track beyond the 'Private' notices is Sockburn Hall and the remains of the medieval church. It fell into ruins during the time of the Blacketts but still retains its roofed chancel sheltering a fascinating collection of Anglo-Saxon carved stones of fighting men and monsters, Viking hogbacks and the effigy of an early 14th century Sir John Conyers.
The Hall has been sold, renovated, and is now for sale . To visit the church contact the Parish Church Council Secretary, Girsby Church.
There's more local history as you approach the hall. Look out on the right for Home Farm, a large Georgian house where, in 1799, the poet Wordsworth first met his future wife Mary Hutchinson.
Back at the Granary our main walk continues north along the ancient track with good views of the Cleveland Hills away to the right. In half a mile, and just past the Victorian Liberty Lodge, turn right on a bridleway. In another 200 yards go right again over a stile on a path which skirts woodland and drops down to join the access track to The Ashes.
We now follow this for a mile back to Low Dinsdale, passing on the right Fishlocks House and then Spa Wells.
When you reach the Neasham-Low Dinsdale lane, turn right for the church if you are on the short walk. For Middleton One Row go left up the lane and take the first path on the right. Follow it for about 300 yards over a slight rise to the edge of Dinsdale Wood where an unsigned hard core path goes right, through a gap into the trees to rejoin our outward route in about 200 yards.