Martin Gibson takes a two-wheeled tour of some of the region’s loveliest reservoirs in a journey you can enjoy just as well by car
Sunday May 17, 2020, being the first Sunday after the easing of the spring lockdown restrictions, I decided to celebrate by doing my first decent cycle ride for a while.
A cycle tour of many of the reservoirs in north west County Durham and the most southerly one in Northumberland. I have sort of plagiarised the name from a cycle race (Tour of the Reservoir) which takes place around Derwent Reservoir each year.
Setting off from home in Houghton le Spring at just after 9am on a windy and cloudy but not too cold day, I headed into the lanes, bypassing the north of Durham, heading up through Sacriston and Witton Gilbert, then along the A691 to Lanchester before again heading into the back roads and climbing up to cross the A68 just south of Rowley (the railway station in Beamish Museum is Rowley Station). I passed Whitehall Moss on the left where there used to be a permanent ski lift but which is now long gone due to lack of regular snow at this level, global warming I guess.
I then headed up onto the moors into the by now strong headwind to pass the first reservoir of the day on my right. Smiddy Shaw Reservoir was completed in 1872, though I cannot find out who Smiddy Shaw was, if indeed it was named after a person.
I continued up the long drag, battling the gradient and wind to pass Hisehope Reservoir, also on the right hand side of the road which actually feeds into Smiddy Shaw reservoir.
Just after I set off again, a curlew flew alongside me for about a quarter of a mile as I pedalled along, flying at eye level about 6-8ft away from me while chirping away, maybe I had passed a little close to its nest, who knows?
I often think when I cycle up this stretch of road about the bike ride I did the day after my mother died in March 2003. I was riding along here when a group of motorcyclists passed me, the last one slowed down to my pace and told me that I was flying along (it must have been a strong tailwind), he said that he and his friends were stopping in the next layby overlooking Waskerley Reservoir for a cup of tea and as they had plenty of tea, some chocolate biscuits and spare cups I was welcome to join them.
This is not something I would normally do but feeling as I did, I thought I could do with a chat and cup of tea. So I stopped and had a cuppa and they shared their biscuits with me. We chatted about this and that, where we were heading on our respective rides, I mentioned about my mother who had been very ill for some time and they were very sympathetic. I thought afterwards and have thought many times since, isn’t it wonderful how a random act of kindness by total strangers can make a day feel so much better.
Back to today’s ride. The first two of the reservoirs I have mentioned were on the right-hand side of the road I was grovelling along, both of these feed into the river Derwent and eventually the Tyne. Waskerley Reservoir was on the left-hand side of the road and feeds into Tunstall Reservoir and eventually the River Wear in Wolsingham. I just think that’s interesting.
I eventually reached the B6278, turned left to head south for a mile or so before turning sharp right to head north west along the very smooth road towards Blanchland. I passed Horseshoe Hill on the right and the strangely named Dead Friars on the left. As far as I can find out, there is a pretty grim origin of the name Dead Friars. Apparently, in the 14th century, during the Anglo – Scottish wars, a group of Scottish raiders arrived in the area to ransack the abbey in Blanchland. Legend has it that due to bad weather conditions including a thick mist, they were unable to find Blanchland but came upon some monks tending sheep on the hilltops so slaughtered them instead and the abbey was spared, or so the story goes.
Many of these hilltop roads are unfenced, meaning you have sheep and lambs at the roadside and occasionally in the middle of the road. On this particular day, a sheep ran along the road in front of me for a while, while at each side of the road was mile after mile of grass covered hillside, why do they do that?
There are lots of disused lead mines with their associated buildings on the hillsides in this area, it was a huge industry in these hills for hundreds of years said to date as far back as Roman times.
Anyway, on my way down the hill towards Blanchland, I took a sharp left for Ramshaw and Hunstanworth. After passing through the tiny but beautiful hamlet of Ramshaw, I headed up the hill to Hunstanworth. This village was one of a handful of places in the UK awarded “Blessed Village” status after the First World War. It was given this award because all of the men who went off to serve in the war returned home safely afterwards. On the right, was an unexpected view of Derwent Reservoir from Hunstanworth.
I turned sharp left at Hunstanworth, engaging bottom gear immediately for the, initially steep, climb heading south up to Cuthbert’s Hill then dropping down the steep and winding descent to Lintzgarth in the Rookhope valley. This valley is another area with lots of disused mine workings including the famous Lintzgarth Arch which I did not take a picture of unfortunately. I turned west here, heading uphill again into the wind following the road alongside Rookhope Burn with the fabulously named Wolfcleugh Common on my left. Looking at a book I have at home I think this name may be old English, perhaps land owned by “Wulfsige’s people”. Wolsingham mentioned earlier and later in this article comes from “homestead of Wulfsige’s people”.
More abandoned lead and fluorspar mine workings on each side of the road including Groverake Mine also on my left which was a leading producer of commercial fluorspar until it’s closure in 1999. Just after Groverake Mine is Frazer’s Hush Mine on the opposite side of the road. The mine takes its name from a nearby hushing site which is said to date from medieval times.
I continued my slow progress up the long drag, battling the gradient and the headwind looking up the road at the never-ending line of snow poles and wondering exactly where the summit of the climb was and if I would actually reach it before nightfall. I saw a couple of cyclists on the horizon dropping down towards me, ah-ha, they must have just come over the summit I hoped. We gave each other a shout when we crossed.
Alas, when I reached the point where they were, I saw the line of snow poles continuing uphill seemingly for ever. Eventually, I spotted the Northumberland County border sign which I knew signified the summit and the beginning of the descent to Allenheads. passing Eastend Reservoir on my left.
Allenheads is an interesting little place. It is a former lead mining village which was categorised as a “Class D Village” I think in the 1960s or 70s and was going to be abandoned with all services withdrawn by the County Council. The locals took it upon themselves to re-invigorate the village and it has not looked back. Allendale town, 8 miles down the valley has some completely mad New Year’s Eve celebrations.
I headed south out of Allenheads on the B6295 uphill with a side headwind from the right, over Burtree Fell and back into County Durham. This is one of my favourite climbs and it took me to my highest point of the day, 1870ft or 570m above sea level, 10th highest public road in England and 5th highest in Co Durham.
At the summit, I had a brief glimpse of my next reservoir before the sweeping descent to Cowshill, taking extra care because of the strong sidewind and the fact that my wife is likely to read this article. From Cowshill, I crossed the hump backed bridge over Killhope Burn and up the rather steep (in places) and narrow but amazingly well surfaced road to Burnhope Reservoir dam. This reservoir was created in the 1930s and resulted in the drowning of the former village of Burnhope. On the dam wall there is a plaque dedicated to Peter Lee who was the chairman of the County Durham Water Board from 1920 to 1935, was one of the main instigators of the construction of the reservoir and responsible for the welfare of the construction workers of the dam. He is the Peter Lee after whom the town of Peterlee is named.
Less than a mile downstream from the dam, Burnhope Burn (the small river flowing from the reservoir) meets Killhope Burn to form the River Wear at Wearhead.
From the dam, I followed the gated road east up the steep hill and turned left onto the road leading downhill to Ireshopburn and the A689. With the following wind which would be with me most of the way home, I flew through St John’s Chapel, passing the turn off for Langdon Beck via the highest public road in England which I think from this side is the toughest road climb for a cyclist in Co Durham. The sun finally made a welcome appearance.
I turned right at Daddry Shield (where does that name come from?) onto the narrow back road which runs parallel to the A689 but on the south side of the valley. You need to be careful on this road though it is very quiet. For example, at the junction for Westgate, it is not clear who has priority and like a few other places along this road, there can be a sea of gravel here. Further along this road is the cute village of Brotherlee, wonder if it is related to Peterlee?
I followed this empty road to Stanhope, briefly joining the A689 through the village before back to the south side of the River Wear again to follow another traffic free road to Frosterley before rejoining the A689. Still wind assisted and gently downhill, I continued my good pace to Wolsingham passing the road to Tunstall Reservoir, 2 and a half miles uphill from Wolsingham, you are welcome to ride your bike up there if you want, but it is a dead -end road so I wasn’t going to struggle up there today.
In Wolsingham, I took the left fork in the marketplace and headed up the tough climb towards Tow Law following the B6296. This climb is one of those where you gain a lot of height quickly, but then promptly lose about a third of it before having to climb the final stretch, up what feels like a wall, to the top at Inkerman on the A68 just north of Tow Law. The name Inkerman is a relatively modern name for this small area, it commemorates the Battle of Inkerman in the Crimean War.
I crossed over the A68 to head past the wind turbines towards Cornsay Village, struggling up the short but steep climb past Stowe House Farm. There was a time when I could simply charge up little climbs like this, only needing to drop down a gear or two. Unfortunately, those days are long gone, and I tend to be grateful for my lower gear ratios. I often wonder how I ever managed to compete in cycle races when I struggle up hills these days.
Through Cornsay and onwards and downwards through Quebec (named after General Wolfe’s victory in the “Battle of Quebec” in 1757) and the fast wind assisted descent to Langley Park where I had to slow down for the 30mph speed limit signs. I trundled through the village and past Diggerland to join the A691 to Witton Gilbert and retrace my first few miles of the day back home. I was very grateful for the tailwind up the drag to Sacriston and bounced my way down the corrugated road through Nettlesworth to the A167. Nettlesworth is another old English name, “Nithbeald’s farmstead enclosure, nothing to do with nettles unfortunately.
I crossed over the roundabout on the A167 to Plawsworth Gate eventually descending to cross the River Wear one final time at Cocken Bridge for my last climb of the day, Cocken Bank, a real sting in the tail when almost home. I cycled slowly up there and enjoyed the last 4 and a half easy miles home and a nice cup of tea.
For those interested, the scores on the doors, or more accurately on my Garmin cycle computer, for this ride were: 84.5 miles with 2021 vertical metres climbed.