Nature

Mining the Past

Can we tell you a secret? We’ve found the most picturesque stretches of cycle track you’ll find in Britain, and they’re only two miles from a city centre…
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They might not be internationally celebrated yet, but I’ll let you into a little secret: two miles west of Durham city centre are some of the most picturesque stretches of cycle track you’ll find in Britain. A bold claim perhaps, especially when you consider that this region was once the coal mining heartland of the county, but this area’s industrial past has actually proven instrumental in its reinvention, providing the basis for it to blossom into a true haven for the biker.

The key is the proliferation of old railway lines. Once used for shuttling coal and minerals through the valleys, linking stations, mining villages and collieries, they now form a wide-ranging network of cycling, walking and horse-riding tracks. Cutting through woodlands, fields, meadows and over open hills and beside rivers, each is a journey into a lush landscape now restored to its natural glories, where encounters with traces of industry are haunting reminders of what was here before.

One of the finest routes to tackle on two-wheels runs along the Deerness Valley Railway Path, a 17-mile circuit that begins and ends in the old mining village of Meadowfield. It traces the course of a historic railway that first opened in 1858 and carried coal for nearly a hundred years alongside the ancient river Deerness, before reaching the market town of Crook and looping back in a circle to the start.

After hiring cycles from Martin Stout at Specialist Cycles in Meadowfield, we follow his directions to the old railway and are soon sliding along up to a park on a hill. The surrounding meadows are awash with wildflowers; the grass is gleaming yellow with buttercups. It would be hard to imagine it was ever anything else, except there is a signboard showing the same view not so long ago when this spot was still a bleak, grey shunting yard, abandoned after the pit closures.

Cruising on we pick up signs for ‘Ushaw Moor’ and careen down a hill to a tiny bridge. Crossing the shining, slow-flowing Deerness, we are in a scene of classical beauty, of water meadows and woods straight from an oil painting. Even the East Coast mainline cutting along in the distance doesn’t detract from the view. A mother and her daughter, haloed by the sun, are picking their way through the sea of high, pollen-heavy flowers. There is the rich ground flora of red campion, dog mercury, wild garlic, bluebells, stitchwort and dog violet. When a train whooses past, bound for Scotland, butterflies stir and rise from the grasses: tortoiseshells, meadow browns and common blues flitting about like confetti.

All the way to Ushaw Moor, it’s the same story of rejuvenation. The trees – birch, hazel, holly and oak – have re-colonised the surrounding gullies and gaps, covering the land with remarkable lushness, almost seeming to grow more thickly over the scars of industry. The bike track is frilled with herbs and grasses that tickle our legs; we pass smiling cyclists, horse-riders and wandering couples holding hands, lost in the enchanting atmosphere.

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