A Whitwell walk

A description of this walk was first published in Bowburn Interchange no. 59, June 2011.

In late 2013, an excellent history of Whitwell Colliery, by E. T. Hancock, was published by Shincliffe Local History Society. Part of the following description has been amended in the light of this impressive research. (Any errors, however, remain our own!)

Start at the bottom of Kirby’s Drive (the road to Bowburn Hall Hotel) and walk to the top of Tail upon End Lane. Go left, over the motorway bridge, then turn right up the drive to Heugh Hall Farm.

You have been walking along the watershed between Bowburn and Whitwell. Rain to the right (south) drains towards Bowburn Beck and, ultimately, joins the River Wear near Sunderland Bridge. Rain to the left drains towards Whitwell Beck and, ultimately, to the River Wear below Shincliffe.

with thanks to Google maps

Just past the farmhouse, bear right through two gates and then turn left alongside the new A688 Bowburn-Wheatley Hill link road.

When you come to the first footpath arrow, on the left, you have a choice. You could keep going till you reach the next one. (Go that way to avoid having to climb a gate.) But we’ll turn left now, through the gate and across a small field. This path will once have connected the small quarry, now on the other side of the new road, to the old Sherburn road and it was once part of the route between Heugh Hall Row and Cassop Moor.

After the stile on to the Sherburn road, cross straight over and use the stile directly opposite. We could, of course, have come along this road from the motorway bridge. However we went via Heugh Hall farm to avoid the dangerous bend. Even so, beware of traffic, especially from your right, when you cross over.

The second stile leads you to an undesignated footpath, so there are no arrows here. The path was created as part of the restoration plan, after opencast coal workings in the 1990s, but it has not yet been entered on the definitive Rights of Way map. Turn right and walk parallel with the road for 300 metres. There is a gate to climb, though a narrow way, usually overgrown with brambles, does exist alongside the ditch on the right.

When you reach the track you are on the line of the original waggonway between Cassop and Whitwell. Cassop Moor colliery was straight in front of you and some residents still remember the pig farm there, next to the bend on the old road. The waggonway to the right (east) originally took coals up to Cassop and away, via Thornley, to Old Hartlepool.

The village of Cassop Moor was on the right of the old road. Its remains were uncovered when the new roundabout was built, in 2007. In 1851, there were 30 mining families living here but it declined after the colliery closed and there were only two households left by 1911. Cassop Moor Inn, known locally as Dolly Cook’s Pub, survived till just after World War I, though Dolly Cook herself died in 1893. Her husband was killed at Whitwell Colliery, in 1870. We are now going to head towards that.

Turn left, away from the road, and follow the waggonway westward, over the former opencast site. The hedges on either side are now well established. The restored path follows an old waggonway line, though the original cutting was destroyed by the opencast. This was constructed in 1873, some time after Cassop Moor colliery had closed, and was to connect Cassop Vale colliery, further to the east, with the Newcastle & Darlington Junction Railway (part of what is now known as the Leamside line). This would give the colliery an alternative route to the London coal markets to the one they had previously, via Cassop and Thornley, to Old Hartlepool. However it was short-lived: Whitwell colliery closed in 1875 and Cassop Vale soon afterwards. This section was already disused by the time of the 2nd Ordnance Survey map.

When you reach a gate (always open), you are at the northern end of the opencast site and back on the original waggonway. A footpath sign shows you where to enter a railway cutting. Follow this till the path takes you up, alongside the cutting, and out on to an open field.

Here you are on the site of the second of three Whitwell colliery pits, “B Pit”, which was sunk in 1838. There is now no sign of it, as the path crosses the field and goes on to an embankment.

Mind how you walk along the embankment, as it is riddled with rabbit holes. Follow the path straight for 550 metres, till you reach open fields again. Meanwhile you may have seen a wooded mound on the left, this side of the motorway, and then Whitwell House Farm. The mound was the spoil heap from Whitwell C Pit, which was sunk in 1855.

When you first emerge from the enclosed waggonway path into an open field, you can see a fork between a short railway cutting on the left and the main line that goes into a cutting straight ahead. The left hand cutting was probably intended for the connection to the Leamside line. However the actual connection was made from further north, near where the older Whitwell branch of the Durham & Sunderland Railway (D&SR) – which ran from Shincliffe, via Pittington and Murton, to Sunderland – ran under the newer Leamside line.

Look between the cuttings, towards the new buildings near the traffic lights at Dragonville, in the distance. With good eyesight (or binoculars) you can see a yellow footpath sign, on a stile, about 300 metres away. That is where you are heading.

The right of way, however, goes straight on, continuing along the main line of what was now the Whitwell branch railway. This right of way takes you through the site of the main Whitwell colliery (Whitwell A Pit, sunk in 1836-37) and the village of Whitwell itself. The only evidence of this today is the uneven land. But the Whitwell pits were once the source of “Whitwell Wallsend”, once famous for its high quality in the London coal market.

The first ever universal strike of Durham and Northumberland miners, in 1844, began with a meeting at Shadon’s Hill, chaired by Mark Dent, of Whitwell Colliery. (He lived in the colliery’s houses at New Durham, however, not on this site.) Dent was a Primitive Methodist lay preacher, as well as a miner, and he addressed numerous meetings in the north east, during the strike. He was victimised afterwards as a result and eventually emigrated with his family to Australia.

On the other side of the lost village, the right of way joins another one, coming from Byers Garth to the east. Miners walked along this path to Sherburn House Colliery, after Whitwell closed. The footpath junction is not marked, so you must guess where to turn 90o left. Then head across the open field towards the stile you spotted earlier.

When you reach it, turn left (south) along the track. This brings you back alongside the field you have just been in. There was once a row of houses on your left, south from the corner with the stile. Another row, north of that point, on the other side of the track, contained the last houses of this former colliery village before they were demolished in 1930, after being condemned as unfit for human habitation.

Follow the track from here all the way back to Bowburn, going round Whitwell House Farm and over the motorway on the way.

As you walk past the farm and up the bank to the motorway bridge, look right. The next bridge is that of the old Leamside Railway (the one that runs west of Bowburn and crosses under the A177 just north of Shincliffe). For some years, parts of the railway track were visibly detached from the embankment, which was falling away in places. However the embankment was repaired, and rails removed, in 2013.

Once over the motorway, turn left. (Turning right would take you to Shincliffe.) The track runs parallel with the motorway for 300 metres. Looking to your right, you may see a wooded mound, near Low Grange Farm. This was once the spoil heap of Victoria Pit, sunk, presumably, in 1837, the year of Queen Victoria’s coronation, but it was never successful.

When the track bears right, leaving the motorway, consider the valley in front of you, between you and Bowburn. This is the valley of Whitwell Beck, which rises near Heugh Hall farm. Was the beck once a torrent? Or has the valley just been worn by a trickle for hundreds of thousands of years?! This beck goes under the Leamside Railway embankment and then joins Chapman’s Beck (which comes down from Cassop) and then Sherburn House Beck, before entering the River Wear near Maiden Castle.

The track finally takes you past Whitwell South Farm and back on to Tail upon End Lane, 500 metres west of your starting point.

Length of walk: About 3.5 miles. Mostly on the level. Gates and stiles (apart from on the undesignated path next to the Sherburn road) are good.