First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
Today was one of those ‘Shall we?’ days – a morning of chilly winds over County Durham, and a weather forecast of spitting showers followed by proper rain. It wasn’t really conducive, the thought of pulling on all the raingear and setting out through a dank and dripping Hamsterley Forest. But in the end we were glad we did.
‘Oh, it can get a bit clarty up there in the forest,’ said the jolly young ranger in the Visitor Centre. We hadn’t heard that local word meaning ‘mucky’ for many a day. And a bit clarty it turned out to be, once we’d got off the hard-surfaced tracks.
We had a look at the ranger’s map and decided on the Three Becks Walk, thoroughly waymarked and well laid out. The Bedburn Beck, charged with rain, went bouncing down under the trees, a vigorous young stream of water stained toffee-brown with peat from the moors. The forest steamed, a heady whiff of bark, resin and damp pine needles.
Timber climbing frames beside the trail catered for youngsters with energy to burn. In its maturity Hamsterley Forest plays a role as a leisure woodland for walkers, cyclists, runners and riders, but when it was created in the 1930s, it was as a severely commercial softwood forest.
Back then the north-east of England was in the grip of the Great Depression, and local pitmen and shipyard workers who had lost their jobs were only too happy to be paid for planting young trees in their millions. They lived on site in barrack-like wooden huts, still to be seen near the Visitor Centre.
We followed the Three Becks Walk west among the pines and larches, their hard dark presence softened by borders of beech, oak and sycamore. There was a steady trickle of chaffinch song, a background chitter of wrens, and in the treetops the excited thin squeaking of goldcrests foraging high up.
Soon we forked off the surfaced track, up a stony forest path bound together with knotty conifer roots. Clearings opened up, large areas left to grow scrubby where spindly rowans and silver birch swayed to the windy swirls of rain.
A steep descent on a slippery track, across Bedburn Beck and up through Frog Wood on an old drove road to a view over a gate onto open moorland rusty with heather sprigs and bracken. Down past the ruin of Metcalf’s House, once an inn for the drovers, with an apse-shaped bread oven at the house end. And a return along Redford Meadows beside Bedburn Beck, a beautiful lush end to the walk in steady rain, watching for dippers along the stream and breathing in the scent of the wet exhaling forest.
Start: Hamsterley Forest Visitor Centre, Co. Durham DL13 3NL (OS ref NZ 092312). Car park £6/day.
Getting there: Hamsterley Forest is signed from A68 (Darlington-Tow Law) at Witton-le-Wear.
Walk (5½ miles, easy, OS Explorer OL31): Follow the well-waymarked Three Becks Walk (white arrow on orange square) all the way round. NB Hamsterley Forest contains many walking and cycle trails, so look out for the right waymarks! On the return leg, vary the route by following Riverside Walk (blue arrows) from the road at Low Redford Bridge (081310). Turn right along road here to cross Aisford Beck; in 80m, left through car park (080309, ‘public footpath’ fingerpost) and follow Riverside Walk back to Visitor Centre.
Conditions: well surfaced, well waymarked trails. Trail maps available from Visitor Centre.
Lunch: Hamsterley Café, Visitor Centre.