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Derwent Valley's Past

Communism, steel making and Roman remains at Chopwell.

Distance 7 miles (11.3km)

Minimum time 2hrs 30min

Ascent/gradient 541ft (165m)

Level of difficulty Easy

Paths Tracks, field paths and old railway line

Landscape Woodland and riverside, farmland and industrial remains

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 307 Consett & Derwent Reservoir

Start/finish NZ122579

Dog friendliness On lead, except on former railway line

Parking Roadside parking in Chopwell; follow signs for 'Chopwell Park Car Park'. Car park, itself, opens irregularly

Public toilets None on route


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1 Walk up the entrance road to Chopwell Park. Turn right past a metal barrier and bear right, past the 'Chopwell Woodland Park' sign. Follow the woodland track, turning right at a crossing track. Pass another barrier to a metalled area. Turn right and follow the track downhill. Where the woodland ends go over a stile and continue down a fenced path. Enter Almonside farmyard through a gate.

2 Bear right and follow the track to the road in Blackhall Mill. Turn left, over the bridge. Just after a footpath sign, go left along a field edge, right of the hedge. Follow the fenced riverside path. At a crossing path, turn left, uphill. At the top go sharp left, following waymark signs. Go left of the buildings, over a stile and across the field. Go over two wooden stiles then right. Follow the track uphill, passing Derwentcote Ironworks, to the main road.

3 Cross and take a signed footpath almost opposite. Go over a stile and, at a crossing path, turn right to another stile. Follow the path through woodland to the former railway track. Turn right and follow the track, which crosses another track (barriers at each side) and eventually rises to another barrier on to a metalled lane.

4 Turn right and descend into Ebchester. Bend right by the community centre to meet the main road. Cross over and turn right in front of the post office. Turn left at the footpath sign beyond. Follow the fence on your left, bend left at the end beside the wall, then follow the footpath downhill to reach a metalled lane. Turn right along the lane to a footbridge.

5 Cross the bridge. The footpath bends right before going straight ahead across the field to a stile. Follow the green lane uphill, pass a farmhouse and follow the track through two gates. Where the main track bears left, go straight ahead. Go through a farm gate, and along the field edge. Go though two gates to a T-junction of tracks.

6 Turn left, signposted 'Whinney Leas'. About 300yds (274m) after the farm go right, over a stile, and walk across the field to another stile, hidden in a hedge. Continue up the field to another stile right of the houses, and along a narrow lane. At the end, turn right along the tarmac lane. At the main road turn right and then left, following 'Chopwell Park Car Park' signs back to your car.

It was coal mining that created the village of Chopwell that we see today, with its red-brick buildings and no-nonsense atmosphere - and it was the miners who earned it the name 'Little Moscow' in the 1920s. The coal won from local mines was predominantly used for making coke to stoke the furnaces of the Consett Iron Company. When coal production declined after World War One, many miners were made redundant or put on short-time working. These conditions allowed Communist sympathisers to assume the running of the village. A miners' strike from July 1925 to December 1926 led to accusations of a Communist takeover of the local Labour Party. A national newspaper declared that 'the village is known far and wide as the reddest in England.' Streets were renamed after Marx, Engels and Lenin, and it is said that there were Communist Sunday schools in the village, as well as 'Das Kapital' on the lectern of the local church. For a time the hammer and sickle flag flew over the town hall.

The area between Blackhall Mill and Derwentcote Ironworks was once the centre of the steel industry in Britain. Steel was made here initially to supply the sword manufacturers of Shotley Bridge, eastwards along the river. Derwentcote, the earliest steel-making furnace to have survived, was built around 1720 and worked until the 1870s. Another furnace at Blackhall Mill lasted until 1834, when a flood washed away its mill dam; the mill was demolished at the beginning of the 20th century. Derwentcote survived, and is now cared for by English Heritage. It is open summer weekends, and contains an interesting explanatory display.

Beyond Derwentcote the walk enters Byerside Wood and then joins the old railway line that now forms the 12½-mile (20.1km) footpath and cycle route of the Derwent Valley Country Park. The route runs from Consett to Gateshead and, at its western end, connects with other former railway routes, including the Waskerley Way and the Consett and Sunderland Railway Path.

In contrast to the industrial theme of much of the walk, the history of Ebchester stretches much further back in time. Here was the site of the Roman fort of Vindomara, strategically placed where the road we know as Dere Street, which ran from York to the Firth of Forth, crossed the Derwent. Constructed around ad 80, the original timber buildings were later replaced by stone and the fort was finally abandoned in 410. A signboard by the post office shows the layout. It is possible to see its ramparts north of the main road and in the village churchyard. There is a Roman altar in the church tower.

Where to eat and drink

In the centre of Chopwell and in Blackhall Mill there are several pubs that serve food. A little up the hill from where the former railway line joins the lane into Ebchester is the Raven Country Hotel, which offers both bar meals and a restaurant; children welcome.

What to look for

The 949-acre (384ha) Chopwell Wood was once a wild area of oaks and hazel. Much affected by coal mining in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when a railway ran through it, it was taken over by the Forestry Commission in 1919, and largely felled during the two world wars. Restocking from 1952 has left it a mainly coniferous forest, with larch, pine and spruce. There are still patches of earlier broadleaved woodland remaining, however, some of it coppiced. The wood, which became a Woodland Park in 1994 and is managed by Forest Enterprise with the help of a local group, provides habitats for a wide variety of animals, including red squirrels, bats and, in the pools formed in three World War Two bomb craters, great crested newts.

While you're there

The National Trust's Gibside Estate is 4 miles (6.4km) east of Chopwell. Once home to the Bowes-Lyon family, the estate has riverside and forest walks, and a number of ornate buildings, including an 18th-century chapel and 140ft (42.5m) Column of British Liberty. The Gothic Banqueting House is now a holiday cottage.


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