Here in the English region which gave the world the railways, Heather Barron explores the legacy of beautiful walks and cycleways created by disused train routes
IN years gone by, they were the setting for trains to rattle noisly along en route to their detsinations.
But now thousands of miles of former railway lines are open to the public as peaceful routes for walking or cycling through lovely countryside.
Sustrans is a UK charity enabling people to travel by foot, bike or public transport for more of the journeys they make every day.
One of the areas the charity works on is making disused railway lines accessible – creating traffic-free pathways that act as safe-havens and provide essential corridors for wildlife to move and adapt to as their habitats shrink due to development, climate change and disease.
In the North-East and Yorkshire, Sustrans feature a good selection of routes to satisfy anyone’s desire to see more of our beautiful countryside at their own pace.
The history of why there are so many disused lines and how we now have access to use them, is explained on the website of the Railway Ramblers – an organisation dedicated to the discovery and exploration of disused railway lines, and to encourage interest in the walking and conservation of these lines.
Here are six from Sustrans to get you started.
Much of the route follows the line of the former Stanhope & Tyne Railway, Britain’s first commercial railway, which was finally closed in 1985. The route into Sunderland takes you past the new Stadium of Light, along the riverside, through the marina and onto the beach at Roker.
There's plenty to visit along the route. Between Stanley and Beamish you pass the intriguingly named Hell Hole Wood, managed by the Woodland Trust and part of the Great North Community Forest. The Beamish Open Air Museum (below) is famous for bringing history to life, and its 19th century manor house and early 20th century town, colliery and railway station are well worth a visit.
Further along the ride, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust Centre at Washington is a haven for overwintering migratory water birds, and has large flocks of curlews, redshanks and flamingos - make sure you bring your binoculars.
When the route was built in the late 1990s, Sustrans commissioned artworks along the route so make sure you keep an eye out for the fantastic sculptures.
Berwick-upon-Tweed is a fantastic, historic town that is definitely worth exploring. Berwick’s town walls, built to keep out invading Scots, are still intact and you can walk almost their entire length. With beautiful views over the River Tweed estuary you can admire the Royal Border Bridge, built by Robert Stevenson.
The route starts at the train station where you follow signs for Route 1 that take you through the town and out to the quayside. Using the old bridge across the River Tweed you travel along Dock Road through Spittal - here you pick up the coastal path along the cliffs to Cheswick. Take care crossing the railway line. From here you travel past the golf course and out towards Beachcomber House and then on a stony path to the causeway road that takes you to Holy Island.
The Island has a fascinating history. The castle was built to defend a harbour sheltering English ships during skirmishes with Scotland and you can explore the rooms which remain largely unchanged. Ransacked by marauding Viking raiders in the 8th century, the stunning ruins of Lindisfarne Priory includes the famous ‘rainbow bridge’ which spirals skywards. The area is a National Nature Reserve and a great place to see wildlife including grey seals and a wide variety of migratory birds.
National Route 14 runs from Darlington north-east to Hartlepool, then north-west through Durham to Consett and routing back north-east to South Shields along the south side of the River Tyne. The route is described here from Darlington to South Shields but is signed in both directions. The route is entirely open with much of the route traffic-free along disused railway paths. Currently the complete route is 86 miles long.
- Darlington to Hartlepool Following an old railway line out of Darlington to Middleton St George, the route continues via a combination of on-road and traffic-free sections to Stockton-on-Tees. After a short stretch on National Route 1 through Stockton, Route 14 heads to Hartlepool. Over 50 per cent of the route between Stockton and Hartlepool is traffic-free.
- Hartlepool to Durham Following a mixture of traffc-free and on-road route through Hartlepool, Route 14 heads away from the coast on a continuous disused railway line, sharing with National Route 1 for part of the route, as far as Haswell in County Durham. From Haswell, mainly on-road routes take you west into Durham.
- Durham to South Shields Shortly after leaving Durham heading west, National Route 14 follows the Lanchester Valley Railway Path to Consett, continuing on disused railway paths to where it meets the River Derwent and then the south bank of the Tyne towards South Shields. Some short sections along the Tyne are on road but otherwise this whole stretch is a fantastic unbroken traffic-free path.
National Route 67 of the National Cycle Network runs from Long Whatton, near Loughborough, to join National Route 71 near Northallerton in Yorkshire. Sections currently open and signed in both directions are:
- Long Eaton to Heanor National Route 67 currently begins at Long Eaton, continuing entirely traffic-free to Heanor via Ilkeston. This section travels along the Erewash Canal and the Nutbrook Trail, which uses old railway lines.
- Blackwell to Grassmoor Blackwell (Derbs) to Grassmoor is also entirely traffic-free. Known as the Five Pits Trail, this section follows the route of the former Great Central Railway.
- Chesterfield to Leeds Chesterfield to Leeds via Sheffield is also known as the Transpennine Trail central. Within this section are a number of lengthy traffic free sections: Chesterfield to the northern edge of Sheffield is almost entirely traffic-free but for a few short on-road sections and incorporates the Chesterfield Canal and sections on disused railways lines. Heading north from here the route splits, giving you two options to get to Elsecar where the route once again becomes traffic-free along canals (Barnsley Canal) and disused railway lines (Dove Valley Trail) to Wakefield. Wakefield to Leeds is a mixture of traffic-free and on-road, although the route from Mickleton into the centre of Leeds takes you along the Aire and Calder Canal.
- Bramham to Harrogate This open part of National Route 67 includes an open section on an old railway path between Wetherby and Spofforth (Harland Way).
- Harrogate to Ripley Ripley is at present where National Route 67 currently finishes. This section consists almost entirely of a route along disused railway lines.
This route connects Bilton, North Harrogate, and Knaresborough with Ripley on a fantastic 4 mile converted railway line. There are currrently unsigned on-road connections between Ripley and the Way of the Roses cycle route to the North and the stunning Yorkshire Dales to the west.
The former railway line is also known as the Nidderdale Greenway. As well as developing the traffic-free path, this route development included bringing back into use the Grade 2 listed, seven-arch Nidd Gorge Viaduct (see the view below) and providing new safe crossings of the A61 near Ripley. The Greenway also links into the existing cycle network which takes you to Knaresborough, Starbeck and Harrogate.
For the people of Knaresborough, Starbeck and Harrogate the route provides a wonderful gateway to various fantastic National Trust sites to the North. Brimham Rocks, the spectacular Fountains Abbey and Studley Park are all within 15 mile cycle ride.
A signed high quality route from Harrogate Station to the beginning of the railway path has yet to be completed. Sustrans are working with Harrogate Council to develop this 1km connection. Exit West of the station and walk bikes up Station Parade before turning right on Bower Road before accessing the route at the back of Asda Car Park.
The Spen Valley Greenway uses a disused railway line running near the River Spen between the towns of Cleckheaton, Dewsbury and Heckmondwike, eventually linking to Bradford. The route is a wonderful green corridor running through densely populated urban areas with long distance moor-land views, it passes a wildlife reserve and a rolling golf course.
The path is also home to a collection of fabulous artworks including Sally Matthew’s flock of Swaledale Sheep, constructed from recycled industrial scrap, and ‘Rotate’ by Trudi Entwistle - 40 giant steel hoops set in a circle.
The route is traffic-free with a gentle climb from Dewsbury to Oakenshaw. From Oakenshaw, you can continue into Bradford using signposted cycle lanes and paths.
Protecting wildlife Traffic-free paths, usually on former railway lines and canal towpaths, make up around a third of the 14,700 miles of Britain’s National Cycle Network. Often in urban areas, these pathways act as safe-havens and provide essential corridors for wildlife to move and adapt to as their habitats shrink due to development, climate change and disease.
Projects along the cycle network help conserve a range of rare species, including the small blue butterfly on the Lias Line in Warwickshire, water vole (below) along the Foss Islands in York, grizzled skipper butterflies along the Fallowfield Loop in Manchester and the Water Rail, a genuine oddity amongst British birds.