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St John's Chapel to Burtreeford, Cowshill & Wearhead

A walk in upper Weardale from St John's Chapel features a landscape of heather moorlands and grassy uplands, rich pastureland and tiny stone-built settlements. Upper Weardale is excellent walking county and less well frequented than the more popular dales to the south. I met only a couple of other walkers when I surveyed this seven-mile route on a Sunday in July.

Distance: 7 miles

Time: 4 hours

Grade: easy

Conditions: well marked field paths and moorland bridleways

Refreshments: St John's Chapel, Cowshill

OS Map: OL31

Originally published: 7 August 2015

We start from the market place cum green in St John's Chapel, graced by its Town Hall of 1868 and the 18th century parish church (GR 884379), worth a visit for documentary evidence of key stages to the town's development.

With the town hall on your left walk 150 yards down the lane leading from the main road to Burn Foot. Turn left over the Harthope Burn and, opposite the school, take a path to Ponderlane footbridge. On the other side of the Wear continue walk over the first field and up a flight of steps to a lane.

Cross over on to the access track to High Fairhills Farm. Where this bends to the right go ahead uphill on a sunken green path to another lane. Turn left.

Spectacular views are the reward for all this exercise, ahead into the upper reaches of the dale and the distant Pennines and of course to St John's Chapel, way below, dwarfed by Chapel Fell.

Follow the lane for about 100 yards before going right on a bridleway which climbs in a gentler fashion on to the flanks of Middlehope Moor.

The way is at first bordered by 19th century walls built to create huge new enclosures of agricultural land. This is followed by a stretch of possibly boggy moorland before a walled lane brings us to the lane from Ireshopeburn to Rookhope.

Turn right for some 250 yards keeping a plantation on the left. Where the road goes right, the earthworks in the field on the right are part of the extensive Middlehope lead mine. We turn left here on what was once the packhorse track between Cowshill and Rookhope. In the heyday of mining in the 19th century this would have been busy with packhorses taking crushed ore from the mines near Cowshill to the smelt mill at Rookhope. Miners, too, used it to walk to work in Rookhope before 'returning to their families in Cowshill for the weekend.

Today it makes an exhilarating moorland walk over the shoulder of Black Hill. In the summer the verges are carpeted in flowers especially tiny wild pansies After about a mile look out for the succession of mounds marking probes into the Sedling Vein one of the richest of Weardale's lead-bearing rocks.

The track runs close to the Vein which is especially prominent as we begin the descent into the valley of the Sedling Burn This was once dominated by Burtree Pasture lead-fluorspar mine.

Operations started in the 1660s but were most productive in the 19th century. Now little is left except a scarred landscape, one or two mine buildings and the manager's house. Our walk goes left down the valley and through all these sad remains to the tiny hamlet of Burtreeford. Cowshill, on the other side of Sedling Burn, is bigger, with a church of 1914 and an hotel. A fine cast iron milestone on the corner marks 11 miles to Allendale.

If you wish to reduce your walk by three miles it is also the terminus of the regular bus service down the dale.

Cross the main road bridge over the burn and take the path left, over a stile opposite the hotel. This drops to the former Burtree Mill and then as a track curves around to the right to Burtreeford Bridge over Killhope Burn. Cross the bridge and take the first path to the left (Weardale Way) which runs high above Burtreeford Falls before dropping down across a

succession of meadows to Wearhead school where you recross the stream to rejoin the A689.

Turn right down the main road through the village and across Wearhead Bridge. Just upstream from the bridge the Wear is born with the confluence ofKillihope and Burnhope burns.

There now follows two miles of one of the most delightful riverside walks through meadows yellow with buttercups, and in the middle section, a succession of pretty little waterfalls created by a series of well polished steps in the limestone. Cross the bridge and go left down the right bank and over pastureland to Waterside Farm. Then follow the access track to a tarred lane.

Away to the right is a prominent bridge which used to span the Wear Valley Extension Railway, built in 1895 to Wearhead for transporting the lead ore from the local mines.

It was closed in 1963.

Turn left along the lane across the river into West Blackdene, a hamlet of stone cottages once dependent on the local fluorspar mine. Go right along the river bank to the site of the mine and then under another bridge. In a similar distance the path reaches Coronation Bridge, built in 1838 in honour of the newly crowned Queen Victoria.

From the bridge and away to the left up the hillside is New House, one of the dale's finest, built in 1728 by Sir Walter Blackett for the agent of his mining activities. On the other side of the bridge in Ireshopeburn is High House Chapel, the oldest Methodist chapel (1760) still in continuous weekly use.

With its attached Weardale Museum, the chapel is well worth a visit. If it is closed, the interior can be seen through the windows on the main road side.

Nearby a plaque on an obelisk marks John Wesley's many visits to Weardale, the first in 1752. Our route now continues downstream from the bridge, past a concrete ford and a footbridge. It then crosses three fields to a tiny hamlet where you should ignore another track down to the river.

Turn right when you reach the outer route in about half a mile.


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