Take an easy hike through the Christmas trees of Durham's largest forest.
Distance 4.5 miles (7.2km)
Minimum time 2hrs 30min
Ascent/gradient 600ft (183m)
Level of difficulty Easy
Paths Forest track and clear paths, no stiles
Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer OL31 North Pennines or leaflet (small fee) A Guide to Hamsterley Forest from visitor centre
Start/finish NZ 093312
Dog friendliness Well-behaved dogs can run free in forest
Parking Large pay car park near visitor centre
Public toilets By visitor centre
1 Head south past the car park, turn right alongside Bedburn Beck. Follow the track that comes in from the right, and cross the bridge spanning the beck. The track angles away from the beck and climbs through Windy Bank Wood. At a junction of tracks turn left, then climb right, on a dirt path through the trees to reach another forestry road where you turn right. Go straight across the tarmac lane encountered and continue along the forestry track on the other side.
2 Where the forestry road turns sharp left, leave it for a woodland path descending to a forest track where you turn left. An orange waymarker highlights the next path on the right, which descends through the trees re-crossing the tarred lane before meeting and running alongside the forest toll road.
3 Use the road bridge to cross the beck, then follow the path to the right on the other side. This traces the stream behind the Grove car park. Don't cross the bridge to the car park but continue along the track that swings right through the trees before climbing in a northerly direction. You are now following an old coach road from Barnard Castle to Wolsingham, which went high over Cabin Hill at Doctor's Gate. Cattle drovers would also have used this ancient route. The stony highway escapes the conifers, on one side at least, and there are views on the right, down to the valley pastures of Middle Redford. The place is scattered with rowans and sycamore, with heather on the verges and there's an old ruin on the left.
4 At the far end of a large clearing on the right the route turns off the forest road but stays with the old drove road. This heads north east to the ruins of Metcalf's House, formerly an inn and once a popular resting place for coaches and drovers. There are picnic tables next to the ruins for those who would dwell here, but alas you'll have to bring your own beer. The path now heads east, parallel to the banks of Ayhope Beck, a pleasing stream scampering over mossy rocks and by some fine stands of Scots pine.
5 The path rejoins the toll road at Low Redford. After following this for a short way take the left fork, a tarmac drive passing some forestry cottages before degenerating into a track. The orange route soon diverts off the drive along a path to the right. Near the eastern edge of the forest this path descends right, and goes down some steps to emerge at the visitor centre.
The Grove in Hamsterley was home to the Surtees family, who farmed here and used the estate for hunting. One of the family Robert Smith Surtees (1805-64), created the character John Jorrocks, a fox-hunting cockney grocer who became Master of the Foxhounds. His popular articles appeared regularly in the New Sporting Magazine and in the novel Jorrocks' Jaunts and Jollities.
The Grove is still an attractive place today, sited in a clearing by the confluence of the Euden and Spurlswood becks and surrounded by some of the oldest trees in the region. However, when the Forestry Commission purchased the estate in 1927, they created Durham's most extensive plantation, Hamsterley Forest, covering over 5,000 acres (2,025ha) of the Bedburn and Ayhope valleys. Extending well into those fragrant heather moors, the Sitka spruce, larches and Scots pines engulfed the estate. Though the conifers are interspersed with broadleaved trees, including 62 acres (25ha) of oakwood, many find the spread unattractive and at one time it was suggested that wildlife would be decimated. However, around 150,000 visitors come here every year to enjoy the scenery and walk the waymarked trails. The quiet observant ones are able to study the abundant wildlife - the shy roe deer and the red squirrel, or up in the tree boughs, the woodpeckers and nuthatches.
This route follows one of the Forestry Enterprise's waymarked trails. Like all the walks it begins from the trailhead notice board north of the main car park and close to the visitor centre. You will be following the orange waymarkers around the Bedburn Valley.
There's a café near the visitor centre, but if you're looking for a hearty bar meal try the 18th-century Duke of York Country Inn on the A68 at Fir Tree, near Crook. The comfortable coaching inn is rightly proud of its furniture, some items were made by Yorkshire woodcarver, Robert Thompson. The blackboard menu is varied and includes vegetarian dishes. It's a free house with many fine ales including Black Sheep. There's also a children's play area.
Auckland Castle is a fine ecclesiastical palace in Bishop Auckland built for the Prince Bishops of Durham in the 12th century. Sited behind an 18th-century gatehouse at the end of Bishop Auckland's square is the chapel, built as the great hall and converted by Bishop Cosin in 1661. The chapel and state rooms, including the Bishop's Throne, are open to the public from early April to the end of September.