Five reservoirs, quiet lanes, an old railway path and two attractive villages are the highlights of this peaceful ride in Co Durham.
England has another lake district. It’s not as spectacular as the one in Cumbria but is just as peaceful, better suited to cycling and all five lakes – or reservoirs, to be exact – can be visited in half a day on a bike. I’m talking about Baldersdale and Lunedale, north-west of Barnard Castle.
I began in Cotherstone. Remains of daffodils lined either side of the brook which wends its way down the long green underneath a tiny footbridge and then under a small, humped back bridge at the end. Soon I was away from the houses, out in the open and heading for the first reservoir. A flat outcrop of rock beckoned to my left. It’s called Goldsborough Rigg but ought really to have table top in its name. A footpath – the Pennine Way, no less ¬– leads the short distance from the road to the summit but, though tempted, it was too early in the ride to be perambulating so I pressed on. To the right I passed the deep gouge of a floodwater channel and then Hury Reservoir House before reaching the start of water world, Hury Reservoir itself, stretching out in front of me.
All around was still and quiet and stayed so for the whole ride. I only encountered a single walker on my outgoing route and barely any cars since the lane I followed is a dead end – but not for cyclists, thankfully. I pushed my bike through a farm to join a bridleway that led me up to a superb vantage point over Baldersdale. I saw a castle-like building perched on the reservoir dam and could so easily pick out my route ahead that I barely needed a map for the next stretch. I passed over two bridges to the shore of Blackton Reservoir where I had sandwiches followed by a quick peep inside the bird hide overlooking a nature reserve. So much for wigeon, tufted duck and whopper swans; the log book recorded sightings of a pterodactyl and Loch Ness monster! Balderdash in Baldersdale.
You wouldn’t know it from the outside but the farm here, Low Birk Hat, has a claim to fame. It was home to Hannah Hauxwell, a hill farmer, who worked alone and without power or running water for 50 years until her retirement in 1988. Her unbelievably harsh subsistence was portrayed in a series of Yorkshire Television documentaries in the 1970s. Hannah would barely recognise her property now. Private and fully restored, the farm has a nice conservatory at the back, skylights in the roof and satellite dish. I can’t imagine the current owners have ever had to break the ice on the reservoir for water as Hannah did back in her day. What was once a rough track is now a smooth Tarmac lane providing an ideal right of way up to the road. This was one bridleway gamble that worked out.
I paused half way up the ascent to have a look at Hannah’s barn somewhat grandly designated as a visitors centre. Accessed via a winding boardwalk, the building contains simply some old farm implements hanging on the walls and three panels. They explain how the adjacent upland hay meadow is one of the rarest natural habitats in the country and, for this reason, is a Site of Special Scientific Interest. In her biography Hannah wrote of Baldersdale: “To me there’s nowhere like it and never will be. This is my life – my world.” Her soul seems even more embedded in these Durham dales than James Herriot’s was in the Yorkshire Dales but the locations of Hannah Hauxwell country are much more discreet in keeping with her way of life.
In danger of becoming a reservoir bagger I diverted briefly to cycle along the dam of Balderhead Reservoir and then resumed the planned route by heading over a moor, the highest point of the ride at 1,556ft, and into Lunedale. A farm nestling in a hollow looked so lonely and surrounded by empty moorland I felt that I was much further away from civilisation than I actually was. Two mysterious concrete sighting towers with what look like iron handles on top of them were erected to aid construction of water mains leading from Selset Reservoir. I swept down through a forest and emerged at old road sign denoting the former North Riding of Yorkshire which used to extend this far. Fittingly, the landscape has the feel of a remote border post about it.
My next stop, the Grassholme visitor centre, explained more about the water supply network. Not surprisingly, reservoirs partly owe their location to the high volume of rainfall in the area. If this point has already been driven home on your ride then the centre is the ideal sanctuary. The small exhibition room is as cosy as a hostel common room and has a great view over the reservoir and, on the other side of the block, is a café and shop.
When Hury and Grassholme opened in the 1880s and 1915 respectively the Tees Valley Railway was already well established. It closed in the 1960s and now provides an off-road alternative from Mickleton back to the start. Be warned: the number of gates en route makes the line more of a stopping than express service. The best bit is the unexpected Balder Viaduct over a deep river valley near Cotherstone. It was good to be off-road but I was sad to exchange the untamed wilds of the dales for dog walking country.
The railway path halts briefly at Romaldkirk since part of the former line crosses private land but the diversion into the village is anything but a hardship. In fact, Romaldkirk is a real gem and it would have been a great pity to have missed it boasting, as it does, stone cottages around three greens, a mini-cathedral of a church, pair of stocks, water pump and two pubs. The watercourse nearby is called Beer Brook. This is my kind of place. With just two miles of the route remaining I could afford to relax and linger as long as I liked. Perfect timing at the conclusion of a perfect ride.
Distance: 18 miles.
Time: 3 hours.
From the green in the centre of Cotherstone cycle north through the village and fork left signed to ‘Hury and Blackton Reservoirs’. Keep following these signs all the way to Clove Lodge Farm. Where the road ends continue ahead along a bridleway passing through the farm via two gates. Follow the bridleway (a distinct track) beside a dry stone wall up to the brow of a hill and descend into the valley. Pass over two bridges then bear sharp right along a grassy track to Low Birk Hat Farm. Bear left and through a gate and then cycle up a Tarmac lane passing Hannah’s Barn to the road. To check out Balderhead Reservoir turn left or, to carry on, turn right. Soon turn left signed ‘Grassholme 2’. Pass through a gate and over a cattle grid then descend sharply through a forest to Grassholme Reservoir. At a crossroads turn right (unsigned). Pass the Grassholme visitor’s centre and café and head towards Mickleton. Shortly before reaching the village, leave the route and descend via steps to the right to join the railway path towards Romaldkirk. After a very steep incline the track reaches the road. Turn left and into Romaldkirk. At a crossroads in the village centre turn right and right again (signed ‘Balderdale, Hury and Hunderthwaite’) to rejoin the railway path. Follow it over the viaduct and across a road then, at the next junction, turn left onto the road into Cotherstone.
Pubs and grub:
The Fox and Hounds Country Inn, Cotherstone. 01883 650241.
The Red Lion, Cotherstone. 01883 650236.
The Crown, Mickleton. 01833 640381.
The Rose and Crown, Romaldkirk. 01833 650213.
The Kirk Inn, Romaldkirk. 01833 650260.
The Coach House coffee shop at Egglestone Hall. 01833 650553.