30: Warden Law, Sunderland

Warden Law in hail
Looking up to the highest points of Warden Law, through one of the day’s friendly hail storms.

Date: 9th April 2021.

Weather conditions: A mixed bag. There was a lot of pleasant sunshine, making me regret, at first, that I had dressed for a cold-weather walk. But this choice of clothing was vindicated by two hail storms that blew in off the North Sea each side of the summit, and the day was never all that warm.

County Top bagged: Warden Law, which is the highest point in the local authority of Sunderland. It became a County Top when this city, historically part of County Durham (see Burnhope Seat), acquired its own local authority in 1986, following the dissolution of the metropolitan counties (in this case, Tyne and Wear).

Go-kart track at the summit
The rather distinctive view seen from the highest point.

This is a fairly prominent hill and while there is little doubt that it is the highest land for some distance around, establishing the precise summit was easier on the ground than it was on the map. There are no spot heights in this area. A couple of 170m contours are depicted in the vicinity of Warden Law North Farm and in advance I assumed these marked the summit, but once I was there it seemed clear that the highest point in fact lay on the embankment at the north edge of the karting track, at about grid reference NZ370506. As a rough guess, this point must be about 568 feet/173m above sea level. By altitude, it ranks 120th of the 172 modern Tops, and 141st of the full list of 196.

According to an (unreferenced) account on the relevant Wikipedia page, the hill was the site of the epiphany of Aldhun, the first Bishop of Durham, in 994 AD, after which he was inspired to found Durham Cathedral. It was also the site of one of the first ever engine- (as opposed to animal-) powered railways, built to transport coal in 1822. These days its main claim to fame will be as, surely, the only County Top to have a racetrack at the summit — as pictured.

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Seaham promenade
The final stages of the walk, along the side of the North Sea.

Start and end point of walk: Started at Chester-le-Street railway station. This is on the main East Coast rail line, and can be easily reached by services from Leeds, York and Newcastle. Finished at Seaham railway station, which has services to Middlesbrough, Sunderland and Newcastle. There are also hourly buses from Seaham town centre back to Chester-le-Street. Do the walk the other way round if you wish, but I think the North Sea makes a good climax.

As I note below, in the end this walk was rather too long for the benefits gained. It took me just over six hours. With hindsight I would start instead in the town of Houghton-le-Spring. This does not have a train station, but you can alight at Durham and get a bus from there.

Riverside stadium
The River Wear, and the (appropriately named) Riverside stadium, in Chester-le-Street.

Pub at end: There were plenty of pubs in Seaham, but I could patronise none of them, thanks to the Great Fear. The walk also passes several en route, particularly in its first half (which, of course, is the less useful way round). But again — none could be sampled today.

Distance walked: 15 miles/24km approximately. This makes it the second-longest of all my CT walks so far, only just behind Ben Nevis.

Starting in Houghton-le-Spring would chop off nearly half this distance and turn it into a walk of about 8 miles. There are some other possible short-cuts, described below, but these require either walking along a main road, or reducing the interest factor.

Near Morton House
Near Morton House.

Feet of ascent: 810 feet/245m approximately.

Difficulty: ★★★. Although the walking is easy throughout, length alone gets this three stars: I was knackered at the end. Starting at Houghton would reduce this score to two at most, possibly one star.

Ease of access: ★★★. The East Coast main line (or the A1) makes it easy to reach the start of the walk, but Seaham is less accessible. Sunderland is also a long way north, relative to the rest of England. I did it on a day trip from home in West Yorkshire, but I had to get up early.

Scenic qualities: ★★. There are some good aspects to the walk, scenically. Once you are up on Warden Law the views become extensive, ranging from the Pennines in the west to a long expanse of the North Sea coast, including the city of Sunderland itself, and round to the North York Moors. Finishing along the coast is a bonus.

View west from the ascent
Looking west to the Pennines, from the ascent of Warden Law.

But I am deducting a whole star thanks to this being my most litter-strewn walk yet. The local councils (and population) really could do with sorting this out; it’s quite offensive, in places. Several busy roads also affect the tranquility: doubtless the karting track will do the same, when it’s operating.

The area: I had never been to Sunderland before today, and might have expected to, at least for football. Not that Sunderland FC, once a powerhouse of the English game, have done much in the last eighty years, but they do have a fine stadium. That it has recently pulled in crowds of 40,000+ to see third-tier football says something about the city, though I’m not quite sure what.

St Mary's Church
The very, very old St Mary’s Church, in Seaham.

Doing my research I was surprised to discover how much history Sunderland has. One of the oldest remanining monasteries in Britain was founded at Monkwearmouth (monks, living by the mouth of the River Wear: you dig?) in the 7th century. St Mary’s Church in Seaham (pictured), passed toward the end of the walk, is also 1,300 years old. At points in the past it was reckoned that around one-third of all ships built in the UK were launched from Sunderland, and the city now hosts the biggest car factory in the country (Nissan).

It’s also the only non-capital city in the world to be twinned with Washington DC. This bit of municipal networking on behalf of Sunderland might seem inexplicable, until you look at the map: for lying within the authority’s boundaries is the town of Washington, Durham, ancestral home of the first President of the good old U S of A.

Map: There were plenty of times I needed to consult OS Explorer 308: Durham and Sunderland, so it’s worth bringing it along in some format or another. On this summary map, the walk proceeds from west to east (left to right).

Map of walk 30

Route: Although this was a good walk, with decent views (despite the litter), it was too long. I decided to start from Chester-le-Street partly for the convenience of the rail service, and also because, looking at the map, I thought the valley of Lumley Park Burn would make a nice prologue. But while it offered a profusion of wild garlic — I look out for this stuff, and have never seen such vast swathes of it growing in one place — in the end, I could have missed it out. The sections from Houghton-le-Spring on are more representative.

It was quite firm underfoot. We’ve had a fairly dry period recently so perhaps it does get swampier at times, although, nestling in two different rain shadows, this is apparently one of the driest regions in the UK. I see no reason why misty or wintry weather should preclude the walk.

If you do complete the full yomp, starting at Chester-le-Street station, from there, follow the signs to the ‘Riverside ICG’: that is, the International Cricket Ground, built in the 1990s and by far the biggest thing in the town, so I doubt you’ll miss it.

Under the A1
Two walkers head under the A1 motorway.

Cross the River Wear by Lumley Bridge, then turn left, heading downstream along the river bank. Soon after, this path swings right, leaving the Wear to head up the side stream of Lumley Park Burn. You need to cross this by the second, not the first, of the footbridges (and thank you to the golfer whose advice here saved me from error). Then just follow the stream up, through (in the spring) endless carpets of wild garlic. At one point, before reaching the gates of the Manor House, you are directed to the right, crossing the stream by an embankment and coming up to a road. On reaching this, turn left, past the secluded pub that may one day reopen, and then bear right under the motorway bridge (pictured) to rejoin the valley path.

When the valley finally ends at a road, by another pub, the way lies to the right. This road, the A1052, could be followed all the way into Houghton and this is a shorter route, but that would have involved about two miles of walking beside an A-road. I decided to avoid that by using a track that departs from this main road near a war memorial, signposted to Morton House. This lane offers views of Warden Law, and also the neo-Classical monument on top of Penshaw Hill, before it comes out onto a road, where turn left. This is the only bout of road walking today that lacks a pavement, so take care. At the end of this road, turn right, then left to follow a path through fields and then a housing estate to come out in Houghton-le-Spring.

Monument on Penshaw Hill
Looking over to the monument on Penshaw Hill.

Less masochistic souls, who took heed of my advice, will have caught a bus to this point and will be starting the walk here, at the town’s smart central green. However you reach this point, take the road to the right of the big church, which crosses the dual carriageway by a footbridge. Keep going the same way until reaching a street called The Green, where turn left, then right. Head uphill, as far as the weighbridge for the quarry ahead, where turn right along a path beside the little stream.

The views open up behind you as you ascend Warden Law. On reaching the steepest part of the slope, a field that today was filled with horses, the path disappears, but the map assures that this is still a right of way, so pick your way through the equines to reach the farm buildings at the top.

Here’s where I made my observations regarding the location of the summit. While the lay of the land can sometimes trick the eye — which is why the theodolite was invented — I was nevertheless pretty confident that the highest land in the vicinity was to be seen to the right, in the direction of the mast. Sticking to the rule, ‘always go uphill’, I ended up on the embankment above the racetrack, and declared Warden Law bagged at that point. I suspect that the racetrack has been built on the site of whatever old mine or quarry was responsible for the historic railway mentioned above (and apparent on the map), and which munched away the hill’s natural summit.

View to the North Sea
The North Sea, as seen from Old Burdon.

From the summit, head for the road and turn left, then right along the next signposted footpath, which leads to the clutch of attractive buildings around Old Burdon Farm. Signs direct you all the way around these, to the lane heading north, across the busy A19 and onto a quiet road, where turn right, leading you through the somnolent hamlet of Burdon. Past the houses, turn right, taking this lane as far as Burn Hill Farm, then the bridleway. This climbs a little before dropping down across another old railway line, goes under another busy road by two claustrophobic tunnels, and heads through an industrial estate before reaching the B1285 on the edge of Seaham, where turn right.

If time is pressing, just follow the signs from here to the railway station. But I wanted to finish the walk by the sea and it is worth doing so. For that, turn left at the crossroads and follow this road over the level crossing, then bear right down the signposted footpath that skirts the grounds of Seaham Hall Hotel (and its ‘Serenity Spa’). This comes out at the astonishingly old St Mary’s Church, and thence to the sea front.

Seaside splash
You risk a soaking on Seaham promenade.

I finished the walk down on the shoreline path, although you could stick to the cliff top. Either way, around ‘Tommy’, a steel statue of a soldier (quite a neat bit of sculpture in fact), there are bars and cafés to slake one’s thirst. Although this spot marks the natural end of the walk, I would still leave 15 minutes to get to Seaham station from here, as this lies some way inland.

Commentary: I’ve been intermittently ‘at work’ over the last fortnight but today can count as the final act of my Easter break. I started with my trip to Burley Moor and Ilkley, and also managed my first Lake District walk in nearly four months on April 1st, when Joe and I went to Ullswater and bagged three Wainwrights.

I did consider going back to Cumbria today, but there has been some strange weather over Easter. It’s been, mostly, clear and sunny in Yorkshire. But whereas this would normally presage warm weather at this time of year, the wind has been blowing straight in from the north and this has kept the temperature well down, as well as dumping snow on the high fells, something I didn’t fancy dealing with at this point.

View over Nissan
View north from the summit. The white buildings will be the Nissan factory.

Hence today’s walk, which — being positive about it — I like to see as the latest vindication of my project, and the way that it is designed to get me exploring those parts of my country that I’ve never seen. There was plenty of interest today, though Sunderland (and Seaham, which lies over the border in Durham) really should engage in some serious litter-picking. Even Wigan’s environment was not as scarred as this. But as a result of the walk — and, additionally, of writing this blog — I learned some things I didn’t previously know, saw some things I would not have otherwise seen.

And that’s the point of travel, isn’t it? To broaden the mind, to gain access to new experiences and new points of view, and yes, to have fun. The Great Fear has stopped all that. The problems this will cause in the long run will go deeper than just some people being pissed off that for the second summer in a row they won’t be going to the Med (though why shouldn’t they feel that way?). Tourists won’t be coming here either, meaning further economic disaster for a whole sector that, you know, we might all actually miss — and on a global scale we’re all walled up in our own heads, subtly and not-so-subtly encouraged to see the foreigner as the problem, the source of our woes, a figure of suspicion.

Lumley Castle
Lumley Castle, near Chester-le-Street. The latest establishment to have been undercustomed these last few months.

This has even begun to happen within the UK at the internal level: I am still officially forbidden to travel into Wales and Scotland, though in the case of the latter, this will apparently be lifted on 26th April. But there is no cause to feel grateful about this — a stance that would just legitimate the dreadful nature of the ban in the first place. These places are still my country, and please don’t tell me otherwise, as there’s no constitutional basis for doing so. What we have at the moment are roadblocks, and arbitrary ones too.

The train from York to Newcastle this morning was dead. Chester-le-Street, dead. Houghton-le-Spring, deader than dead. Newcastle railway station — on a Friday evening for heavens’ sake — an echoing hall of deadness. OK, there were a few people out on the sea front in Seaham but the town centre itself was uniformly boarded up, the Wetherspoons with a sign on the door saying ‘Open May 17th’, another five weeks away yet, by the grace of Johnson and his Troupe of Comedy Trousers. These places need help, badly, and ‘Minimise Travel’ is just salt in the wounds. Get out there, people. Not when told to do so — but now. Your country needs you.


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