There is little better than being out early in the Durham Dales. Quiet roads, stunning landscapes, and the chance to rub shoulders with our wonderful wildlife. It’s my favourite time of day and there’s no better way to enjoy it than by bike.
Hamsterley Forest makes an excellent starting point for a ride. There’s plenty of parking and good facilities at the visitor centre. And to get you started the National Cycle Network’s route 70 follows Forest Drive for the better part of five miles’ traffic free riding tracking Bedburn Beck deep into the forest. The forest is full of quietness this morning. It’s just me, a few mountain bikers heading off on the forest trails, the odd dog walker and some squirrels scurrying away as my tyres crunch on the gravel. The challenge of following route 70 is the monumentally steep hill from the forest up to the Woodland road. There’s no shame in walking your bike up the steeper parts.
There are spectacular views as route 70 strikes out across the moorland towards Eggleston. On a previous ride I was joined here for a short stretch by a barn owl gliding over the hedgerows in search of breakfast. This morning I’m treated to lapwings peewitting their courtship in the air above me. The official Hamsterley to Barnard Castle cycle route turns to Kinninvie, but I head to the top of Langleydale and get a peak of the high Pennine fells from the gloriously named Folly Top that stands on the watershed between Weardale and Teesdale.
It’s hard for a cyclist to argue with five miles downhill cycling anywhere. Here, overlooking Teesdale, it would be impossible. I’m soon following cycle route signs through quiet residential streets to Barnard Castle’s bustling Horse Market.
The town has an impressive collection of traditional independent shops that still outnumber more recognisable chain stores. And its smattering of antique and collectable shops would get even the most reluctant of shoppers bargain hunting. But I’m here to see the sights and taste the delights, so I head for the sheltered bike parking offered by the Witham Arts Centre.
The Witham is the beating cultural heart of this rural market town. A fabulous not-for-profit enterprise, housing a gallery, gift shop, and versatile performance space that hosts famous comedians, folk music, live drama and other performances. Right in the middle of the Horsemarket, it’s great as a base for touring the town. And it has a busy cafe serving homemade food, good coffee and freshly baked cakes. What a fabulous place to stop.
Coffee and a sandwich in the Dispensary Cafe followed by a glorious slice of Victoria sandwich sets me up for the second half of the trip.
Barnard castle has a lot to offer and I can’t resist a little tour before setting off. Arriving in town from the east, you’d be forgiven for missing the castle at first. The entrance of the building that gives the town its name sits behind the Methodist Church at the bottom of Galgate. (Find the Post Office and look downhill). At the other end of the Market, the weather vane on the impressive Market Cross bears the scars of a local legend that says two men used it as the target in a contest to see which of them was the better shot. If the holes were made by the shots they fired, I’m not sure the matter was settled at all. And a mile and a half a loop out over the Tees to the eerie ruins of Egglestone Abbey.
Cycle route 165, takes me out of town past the the Bowes Museum, an unlikely French-style chateau purpose-built as a museum by John and Josephine Bowes in 1869, and on through Westwick, Whorlton, Little Newsham and South Cleatham.
Nine miles from Barnard Castle, Staindrop village oozes medieval heritage. It’s pubs, post office, shop and cafes offer the chance for a breather before the final leg of the trip.
Out past the impressive St Mary’s Church at the eastern end of the village, the Darlington road takes me to the back lanes around Wackerfield and up to cross the A688 at the Sun Inn.
Descending into the Gaunless valley at Esperly, the farming landscape starts to include echoes of the area’s industrial heritage. A steep climb through Low Lands to High Lands and there are two miles of descent to enjoy before a one last climb up into Hamsterley village. A mile-long valedictory roll down to Bedburn and I’m back at Hamsterley Forest visitor centre.
This route is an extremely enjoyable 33-mile day out with mostly moderate hills. It is suitable for riders of all abilities with touring, gravel and mountain bikes.