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Causey Arch and the World's Oldest Railway

Through Causey Gill in the footsteps of the railway pioneers of the 18th century.

Distance 4 miles (6.4km)

Minimum time 2hrs

Ascent/gradient 394ft (120m)

Level of difficulty Medium

Paths Mostly on tracks, one short stiff climb

Landscape Farmland, woodland and industrial relics

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 308 Durham & Sunderland

Start/finish NZ 205561

Dog friendliness Off lead for much of walk

Parking Causey Arch car park, off A6076

Public toilets At car park


© AA Media Limited 2015. © Crown Copyright Licence number 100021153

1 From the car park, walk through the 'Exit' archway, left of the toilets. Cross the road and take a signed footpath, left of the bus stop. Cross a stile and go up the field to cross a stile on to a metalled road.

2 Turn left. After 200yds (184m) turn right, signed 'Beamish Hall'. Where the concrete track swings right, go straight ahead down a footpath, which brings you to a farm track. Go straight ahead. Where the track forks, bend right. Eventually the track goes through a gateway and into woodland.

3 Descend between houses to a road, opposite Beamish Hall. Turn right and follow the road for ½ mile (800m) to the entrance, on the left, to Beamishburn Picnic Area. Turn left and follow the lane through the picnic site to a footbridge.

4 Cross the bridge and follow the footpath, which bends right. Where the path forks, continue along the burn side. At a waymarked post turn left, go up steps and go right at a wide crossing track to reach a road. Turn left and then go right, by the Mole Hill Farm sign, marked 'Great North Forest Trail and Causey Arch'.

5 Go through a wooden stile beside a gate. Climb the track to a yellow waymark sign on a post. Go left off the track, and follow the path over a wooden stile. Continue with a hedge on your right to another stile. The path beyond curves downhill to a road.

6 Cross the road and take the footpath opposite. Ascend the hill, cross a field and descend to another road. Turn right, and follow the road for ½ mile (800m) to the 'Tanfield Railway' sign.

7 Turn right, up the approach road, then go ahead through a gap in the fence. Follow the wagon track alongside the burn, above the gorge, and eventually climb steps to a bench by the start of Causey Arch. To avoid the descent into the valley, cross the arch and continue along the path back to the car park.

8 To view the arch, turn left at the bench and go downhill, crossing the burn on a footbridge. Follow the path through woodland and over another footbridge. Go right at the end, then cross another footbridge by a quarry. Do not cross the next footbridge, but bear right, up steps. Turn left at the top and follow the embankment back to the car park.

When the Tanfield Railway was built in 1725 it was reckoned to be the largest civil engineering project since Roman times. It was paid for by a group of local landowners with collieries on their estates - they called themselves the 'Grand Allies'. During the walk you will see some of the enormous earthwork embankments the navvies constructed for the horse-drawn wagons that took coal from the local collieries to wharfs on the River Tyne. Steam trains now run on part of the line, from East Tanfield to Sunniside, with a stop at Causey Arch. Near by is the world's oldest surviving engine shed, built in 1854, where some of the railway's 40 locomotives and carriages can be seen.

The first part of the walk will take you away from the railway towards Beamish Hall, a former home of the Shaftoe family - one of their number, Bobby Shaftoe, attained fame in a nursery song. It was once the headquarters of the National Coal Board, and later an adult education college. It is now used for weddings and conferences. Further along the walk, look out by Beamish Burn for the ghost of a grey lady, said to have been an inhabitant of the hall who hid herself in a trunk to avoid a marriage she did not want, and suffocated. This part of the route follows the Great North Forest Trail, a 65-mile (105km) route from Causey Arch to Marsden Bay near South Shields, that was established as part of an initiative to regenerate urban fringe countryside in the area.

From East Tanfield you will follow one of several waggon ways that led to Causey Arch. Horses pulled wagons holding four tons of coal along this route above the increasingly steep slopes of the Causey Gill gorge - in many places embankments had to be built to ensure a level route for the wooden rails. Today it is a peaceful path but in its short heyday, from 1725 to the 1740s, the track saw hundreds of waggons, each only 50yds (46m) apart, carry their loads of coal towards the bridge.

Causey Arch is claimed to be the oldest railway bridge in the world. It was built by a local stonemason, Ralph Wood, for the Grand Allies, and at the time it was the largest single-span bridge, 105ft (32m) long and 80ft (24.4m) high. Wood relied on the same building techniques that the Romans used 16 centuries before. After railway activity stopped, the bridge quietly mouldered for almost 200 years until it was restored by Durham County Council in the 1980s. Below the bridge you can see where the Causey Burn was diverted through culverts to enable embankments to be constructed.

While you're there

Visit Beamish Open Air Museum, south east of Beamish Hall, with its reconstruction of an early 20th-century northern town. You can visit period shops, take a lesson in the village school, and even see how the dentist worked, as well as travel on a tram. The Home Farm has traditional farm animals.

Where to eat and drink

Opposite Causey Arch is the Beamish Park Hotel, which has both a bistro and a dining room. It also runs the Causey Arch Inn just across the road which serves a range of bar meals. Beamish Open Air Museum offers a wide variety of eating and drinking places - and a sweet factory!

What to look for

In the woodland around the waggon way beside Causey Gill you will be able to spot the downy birch tree, typical of the area. You can distinguish it from the silver birch by its rather greyer bark, which has horizontal grooves across it. The leaves are different, too - downy birch leaves are more rounded, and they tend to turn brown rather than yellow in the autumn. The name 'downy birch' comes from the small hairs that cover the tree's twigs.


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