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The Gorgeous Grounds of Allen Banks

Walking through a wooded gorge to Dickie's watchtower.

Distance 5 miles (8km)

Minimum time 2hrs 45min

Ascent/gradient 420ft (128m)

Level of difficulty Medium

Paths Well-signposted woodland paths, 7 stiles

Landscape Wooded river valley

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer OL43 Hadrian's Wall

Start/finish NY 798640

Dog friendliness Dogs should be under close control

Parking Car park included in fee for walk (PNote below)

Public toilets At car park

Notes Early part of walk is not right of way, National Trust makes small charge per adult to walk here

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

1 Follow the riverside path from the back of the car park and stay with the lower left fork where the path divides. Stay on the Allen's west banks rather than crossing the suspension bridge. Beyond it the path tucks beneath Raven Crag. The river bends to the right and you soon enter the nature reserve at Briarwod Banks. Here the ancient woodland has seen continuous growth dating back to the end of the last ice age, some 10,000 years ago. With broadleaved trees like sessile oak, wych elm, ash, birch, rowan and alder flourishing this is a haven for wildlife, and over 60 species of bird have been recorded in the valley. These include the sparrowhawk, tawny owl, wood warbler, woodcock and song thrush.

2 On Briarwood Banks the path uses a footbridge across Kingswood Burn, then turns left to cross the suspension bridge across the Allen. You are now at Plankey Mill.

3 Turn right along the field-edge path close to the river and go over either of two step stiles back into woodland. If you chose the riverside stile some steps will lead you back to the main track. You are now following the green waymarks of the Staward Pele path which stays close to the river, though it's often high above the banks. Just beyond a footbridge the path divides. Take the right fork - the left is your downhill return route.

4 On reaching the top eastern edge of the woods the path turns left where it first passes the gatehouse of Staward Pele then the ruins of the fortified farm itself.

5 Beyond the pele the track descends, steeply, sometimes in steps back to the previously mentioned footbridge. Retrace your steps to Plankey Mill.

6 On reaching the tarred lane by the mill, turn right, go uphill along it, then, at a sharp bend, turn off it on to an enclosed footpath. This leads to a another footpath that follows a field edge alongside the river's east bank.

7 Turn left over the suspension bridge opposite the Morralee Wood turn off, then turn right along the outward footpath back to the car park.

After having an easy youth in the high Northumbrian moors and dales, the East and West Allen rivers join forces at Cupola. There's only 4 miles (6.4km) to go as the crow flies to get to the wide lazy waters of the South Tyne, but the Allen will be put through its paces as the hills in the east and west close in. Even in the last stretch the river has to wriggle and squeeze through a tight gorge between Ridley Common and Morralee Fell. This last place is known as Allen Banks and has, for centuries, been cloaked with thick woodland - a spot of great beauty.

Allen Banks was part of the Ridley Hall Estate, whose history goes back to medieval times when the Ridley family presided here. The original hall was destroyed by a great fire in the middle of the 18th century and the magnificent sandstone mansion you see today is Georgian. John Davidson of Otterburn purchased the estate in the 1830s for his wife Susan, granddaughter of the 9th Earl of Strathmore. In those times the valley was mined for both coal and lead. Susan Davidson took a keen interest in the grounds and not only laid out the formal gardens, but designed a network of paths through the wilder environs of the riverside and woods. The Davidsons were childless, and on their deaths the estate passed to John Bowes and his French wife, Josephine. It was the Bowes-Lyon family who gave Allen Banks to the National Trust in 1942.

Beyond the car park, which is sited on the hall's old kitchen garden, the hills close in, with Raven Crag towering above to the right and Morralee Fell on the far banks to the left. The river bends to the right and soon you enter the nature reserve at Briarwood Banks. After Plankey Mill the route climbs out of the valley and comes across the crumbling remains of Staward Pele. This 14th-century fortified house was once owned by the Dukes of York and leased to the monks of Hexham. Later it fell into the hands of Dickie of Kingswood, a local character and petty criminal. Although today the old house is tangled with scrub, in better times it would have had a commanding view of the valley and any invading border reivers. In Dickie's case, the police wouldn't have been confident about carrying out a successful raid if he had been suspected of any wrongdoing.

While you're there

Vindolanda and the Roman Army Museum north of Haltwistle are a must for those who want to discover all things Roman. Agricola first established Vindolanda around ad 85 as a turf fort to guard the Roman road known as the Stanegate. There's a reconstruction of the old turf wall and a timber milecastle. The museum has a superb collection of Roman armour, boots and shoes, jewellery and coins. The archaeological digs are still going on and new finds are added regularly.

Where to eat and drink

The Bowes Hotel, Bardon Mil, has recently been refurbished and has a smart restaurant with a blackboard full of specials. Children are welcome and there's wheelchair access. Not open for meals Sunday evenings and Mondays.

What to look for

Mink have been regularly seen in the valley. This brown, weasel-like mammal is about 12-20in (30-51cm) in length with short legs and a long neck. The species was originally imported from the forests of the United States and intended to be farmed for its prized pelts. Many have since escaped or been released into the wild where they have become a very successful predator to fish and also birds as large as geese and ducks. The mink generally hunts in the dim light of daybreak or in the evening, but in the dismal days of winter they are frequently visible during daylight hours.

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