Hartlepool & County Durham: A Week Exploring the North East of England

Hartlepool and County Durham

May 2016 and my husband and I took a week’s holiday to the North East Coast of England, specifically County Durham, basing ourselves in Hartlepool. Why Hartlepool you might ask? Well my husband hails from this coastal town and with family and friends still living there, I’ve made numerous trips a year to this area over the past 6 years.

It might look gorgeous, but this is the North Sea - It's still chilly!
It might look gorgeous, but this is the North Sea – It’s still chilly!

When I tell people I’m heading to Hartlepool and my husband comes from there, I often encounter the response “Well someone has to be…” in derogatory tones followed by a giggle. They think it’s funny… I respond – have you been? And the answer is always ‘no’, well HA…what do they know about the place?!! It frustrates me when folk pass such comment on a place they’ve never been to… It’s like being adamant about something you dislike, having not actually tried it out. How do you know you won’t like it?

Over the years, I’ve found that the area of the Tees valley and County Durham is highly underrated. There are some stunningly beautiful places and the landscape of the Durham Dales easily rivals its neighbouring Yorkshire Dales National Park and although the most of it is incorporated into the North Pennines AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) why it doesn’t have National Park status, I do not know…

Anyway, back to the trip under discussion… Instead of the long weekend used to get round as many family members as we can, perhaps managing to knobble in a wander around Hartlepool’s Headland, partake in Saturday fish n chips at ‘Surfside’ in Seaton Carew, followed by a walk along the promenade and ice cream at ‘Fizzy Izzy’s’ (both establishments I can highly recommend), this time we intended to actually do some sightseeing.

And for once the weather played ball! Normally I’m incredibly unlucky when it comes to the weather in the North East and have gained myself a label of ‘cursed’, always bringing lousy weather in my wake.

The inviting Hartlepool Marina
The inviting Hartlepool Marina

Hartlepool’s Marina & Historic Quay

Our first evening we set off on an unexpectedly pleasant walk around Hartlepool’s Marina and Historic Quay and it was glorious. In all the times I’ve been here, it’s usually bitterly cold, the wind biting, the waves battering the headland, the sea grey and aggressive, the rain insistent and visibility seriously impaired. HMS Trincomalee (the oldest British Warship still afloat) sits menacingly in the historic quay, its silhouette black and foreboding against an angry sky…

This time however, a different image presented itself! The marina looked like it could have been plucked from the south coast of France. Bright blue skies, clear and still; sun dazzling and glinting off the water, the white of the boats even whiter against the shimmering blue. You can walk right the way around the whole marina and quay area, crossing the sea lock which is fascinating to see in operation.

The Sea Lock at Hartlepool Marina
The sea lock at Hartlepool Marina

The Trincomalee came into her own, towering majestically alongside the P.S.S. Wingfield Castle, a restored paddle steamer; both perfect tributes to Hartlepool’s seafaring tradition and forming part of the Hartlepool Maritime Experience – a recreation of an 18th century seaport, with period shops and buildings designed in authentic architectural styles. The Wingfield Castle now serves as a coffee shop and can be visited free along with the Museum of Hartlepool.

Hartlepool's Historic Quay with the HMS Trincomalee towering in the background
Hartlepool’s Historic Quay with the HMS Trincomalee towering in the background

Look out for Hartlepool’s resident monkey by the sea lock, a reminder of the ‘monkey-hanging’ legend where residents hung a monkey found in the wreckage of a French ship during the Napoleanic wars as they believed it to be a French spy. For this, Hartlepudlians became known as ‘monkeyhangers’ and it’s also why you shouldn’t be alarmed when buying ice cream in the area if you’re asked if you want monkey’s blood on it (ie: raspberry sauce) Ewww….I still can’t get my head round that and my husband laughs at me every time!

Hartlepool's Monkey positioned by the Sea Lock
Hartlepool’s monkey positioned by the sea lock

 

Beamish

The following morning, we headed up to Beamish, a place our Hartlepudlian friends have been trying to get us to for years: so we made it a priority on this trip! As a couple requiring the guidebook: for the grand total of £40 we became ‘Friends Of Beamish’ which gives us unlimited entry for a year, the guidebook and regular newsletters and updates, special offers etc. This is the only version of membership that provides entry and the guidebook for a cheaper rate, so well worth doing! As we didn’t get round to seeing absolutely everything, it means we can revisit on a subsequent trip to the North East.

The 1900's town at Beamish
The 1900’s town at Beamish

So, what is Beamish? It’s a living outdoor Natural History Museum dedicated to life in the North East over the years. Beamish aims to create an “authentic, immersive experience of the region’s past.” (detailed in the Beamish guide book) The site is laid out over 350 acres and focuses on different built up areas linked by a network of paths and a circular tramway and bus route! The different areas include a 1900’s Pit Village, a colliery, a 1940’s farm, a 1900’s town, and an 1820’s Old Hall, landscape and waggonway.

The Rails of the Tramway at Beamish
The rails of the tramway at Beamish

Of course – the trams and buses aren’t what you’d see on today’s roads. Of the 7 trams in operation at Beamish, you’ll probably see this one below – the Sunderland 16 which was built as an open top tramcar in 1900 and has undergone many uses including a football changing room, a tool shed and an apple store before arriving at Beamish in 1989 and put into operation in 2003 after being fully restored.

One of the trams in operation at Beamish
One of the trams in operation at Beamish: the Sunderland 16

Everyone has their favourite parts to Beamish and mine would have to include the colliery where you can join a guided tour into a Drift mine. Beamish is built on the site of the Durham Coalfield, so it’s great that there is such a tour available to get a flavour of the industry that County Durham thrived on in the 1900’s.

The Colliery at Beamish
The colliery at Beamish

Also, wandering around the 1900’s town checking out the different shops is a highlight of the day. Don’t forget to dive into the sweet shop where you can watch cinder toffee being made and grab a free sample while you’re there (in addition to many other purchases I might add – Cola cubes and toffee bon-bons were amongst the order)

Not sure how I managed to get this shot with no-one in as it was very busy!
The 1900’s town at Beamish

The fish and chips at Davy’s are to die for, but make sure you eat breakfast early as you’ll want to get in the queue before the place opens for an early lunch, otherwise you’ll be there for ages!

There’s lots more that could be said about Beamish, this is just a flavour – however, it should most definitely be on anyone’s itinerary for the North East of England.

Horse and Carriage - another form of Transport at Beamish
Horse and carriage – another form of transport at Beamish

Walking Durham’s Heritage Coast

Day 3 dawned beautifully warm and still, a rare occurrence in this area of the world and so was the perfect conditions for a coastal walk along the Durham Heritage Coast. As we had 2 cars between us, we drove up to Seaham and left a car at the free car park at Nose’s Point, then drove back down to Castle Eden Dene and left the other car at the small parking area at Limekiln Gill (also free)

Walking at beach level near Limekiln Gill
Walking at beach level near Limekiln Gill

We started off walking the first mile north at beach level and it’s safe to say we had the place to ourselves! In fact, we encountered only 3 other walking parties in the whole 6.5 mile stretch, only reaching civilisation once again as we approached Noses’s Point.

Looking South along the Durham Heritage Coast
Looking South along the Durham Heritage Coast

The Durham Heritage Coast really is a beautiful stretch of coastline, without too many ups and downs to puncture the cliff top walk. One such puncture however was worth the effort, as the path dived down below an impressive rail bridge.

The coastal path dips down below this rail bridge between Hartlepool and Seaham
The coastal path dips down below this rail bridge between Hartlepool and Seaham

There’s a number of intriguing geological features en route including several stacks, the most impressive being Liddle Stack just north of Nose’s Point and the walk culminates with the most stunning view South at Nose’s Point with an easy way down to beach level.

Looking South at Nose's Point
Looking South at Nose’s Point

Hopping in the car, we adjourned to ‘Lickity Split’, Seaham’s answer to ‘Fizzy Izzy’s’ and just as good, if not better. Their Apple and Cinnamon Ice Cream Sundae is divine! The only problem with this place is that everyone else knows about it too and the queues therefore can be lengthy.

Use OS Explorer map 308 for this walk and I recommend walking from South to North so you’re not looking into sun the entire time! Remember to keep glancing back at the view the other way though!

The Beach below Noses's Point
The beach below Noses’s Point

Exploring Inland County Durham

The weather was somewhat sketchier the following day, so we headed inland to Bishop Auckland to have a look at the castle. Unfortunately horrendous rain greeted us on arrival – it was lashing it down as we pulled into a parking space in the town square. Funnily enough, no-one wanted to get out the car!

"Locomotion" - The National Railway Museum at Shildon
“Locomotion” – The National Railway Museum at Shildon

Plan B – head 4 miles south to “Locomotion” at the National Railway Museum, Shildon, a place I’d seen advertised on signs when approaching Bishop Auckland – that at least was primarily inside, and what a little gem the detour turned out to be.

As it was a bank holiday Monday, there was a huge craft, antiques and model railway fair on, the tables stretching down all the lines between locomotive carriages! I confess I got engrossed in the craft fair, finding all sorts of bits and pieces for sewing projects and gifts, causing me to part with a few pounds. Before I knew it, I was sat with a cuppa after a hard hours shopping admiring the locomotives from a distance realising I hadn’t really investigated the engine shed at all! But that was fine with me. My father who was a bit of a train-spotter in his youth and who was with us on this jaunt enjoyed the detour for the original purpose of the place!

Auckland Castle's Gatehouse - the main entrance to the property
Auckland Castle’s Gatehouse – the main entrance to the property

A couple of hours later and we were back in Bishop Auckland (minus the rain) visiting the castle.

Auckland Castle is not a huge place to visit, with only a small number of rooms on show to the public. However, what you see is quality! The Throne room and the Long Dining room are the most grandiose of the rooms in the castle, the latter complete with a grand piano that visitors are encouraged to play. My pianist Mum did just that! But the crowning glory of Auckland Castle is most definitely St Peter’s Chapel, the largest private chapel in Europe, converted in the 1600’s from a 12th century banqueting hall to what you see today.

The Chapel at Auckland Castle
St Peter’s Chapel at Auckland Castle

The grounds of the castle are well worth a walk around, are free to enter and home to what can only be described as the most impressive deer house on record. Built in the 1700’s in Gothic Revival style, it was constructed as a folly to provide shelter and a feeding venue for the estate’s deer and also had a viewing platform from which guests could watch the beautiful animals.

The Deer House at Auckland Castle
The Deer House at Auckland Castle (Photos courtesy of Sarah Scott: Click to follow her on Instagram)

If you want to check out Auckland Castle, get there before the end of September as they will be embarking on an 18 month restoration programme which will see normal opening hours suspended. I am looking forward to its completion as the state rooms will be returned to their original opulent appearance and I will be scheduling a return trip for when it’s finished. Keep checking their website for updates on the development project and opening hours throughout.

Extensive Grounds at Auckland Castle
Extensive grounds at Auckland Castle

High Force Waterfall

Our last port of call for the day was to High Force, a waterfall I have been longing to visit for years; after all, it’s dubbed one of the most impressive in the UK! Access is restricted to the hours of 10-5pm in summer (4pm in winter) for safety reasons, so we arrived just in time to take in the short easy walk to the force and give us half an hour to revel in the majesty of the spectacle. Like nearly all my trips to waterfalls, I always seem to manage to catch them in spate, which is fantastic as they’re all the more awesome and powerful. Compared to the normal images you see of this place, when in spate there is an additional fall of water to the right hand side of the gorge. Wow – 2 for the price of one!

High Force Waterfall in Spate
High Force waterfall in spate

There’s a small charge for access to High Force: £1.50 per adult and car parking is £2.00. From Easter to October the gift shop and conveniences are open and you purchase tickets in the gift shop. In low season admission is via an honesty box.

From the viewing platform at the base of the falls I could see people stood at the top on the other side of the gorge and felt slightly jealous I wasn’t going to see the falls from that perspective today. That viewpoint could only be reached from much further downstream at Low Force. From the carpark at Bowlees Visitor Centre, there’s a footbridge that gives access to the other side so you can walk the couple of miles upstream to High force. Next time, next time…..

Durham: the city!

Our last day of pure sightseeing took us to Durham city itself and was a blisteringly hot day. After meeting a friend for lunch at Lebaneat: fabulously tasty Labanese cuisine with an excellent and very reasonable lunch menu, the cool of the cathedral interior was a welcome respite. Set majestically on a rocky promontory next to the castle with the city sloping away to the north and surrounded on 3 sides by a meander in the River Wear, Durham has the most unique of settings and as one of the best known cityscapes of medieval Europe, it’s not surprising it was given UNESCO World Heritage Status.

The Cathedral Square facing the Castle
The Cathedral Square facing the Castle

I have no photographs of the cathedral interior as photography is not permitted by the general public. You can apply for a permit for academic purposes or join one of the evening photography sessions to get snaps of your own. The next one is on Thursday 4th August 2016, 6.30 – 8.30pm. But for me on this occasion, I had to make do with my eyes and my memory. In many ways, this is rather liberating not always viewing things through a lens, always concentrating on achieving the best composition. The inside of all UK cathedrals are impressive, but each usually captures you for different reasons. In Durham, it was the nave pillars which astounded me – each had eye-catching carved geometric patterns of chevrons, diamonds and vertical fluting and are considered a ‘sculptural tour de force’ unique to Durham.

Durham Cathedral 2
The beautiful architecture of Durham Cathedral (Photo courtesy of Chris Smith)

I could write reams on the subject of cathedrals as they’re one of my favourite things to visit, but nothing can ever do them justice. You have to see them with your own eyes. Make sure you visit the shop as it is situated in the undercroft and is considered one of the most remarkable, intact monastic vaulted undercrofts in the UK: a must see architectural gem! Also in the undercroft you’ll find the ongoing lego construction of Durham cathedral. With over 300,000 bricks, it’s as accurate a scale model as possible and for just £1 you can add a brick yourself. Hurry though as they’re hoping to finish it by the end of July. I have since seen other cathedrals doing the same thing at Chester and Exeter, but Durham is certainly the nearest completion!

The Almost Completed Lego Model of Durham Cathedral
The almost completed lego model of Durham Cathedral (Photo courtesy of Chris Smith)

After visiting the cathedral, a trip round the castle, now part of Durham University is worth a visit. Also spend some time just bumbling around the old cobbled streets of the town, soaking up the atmosphere and do a bit (or in my case a lot) of shopping! Durham is so compact and has a great range of shops it’s the perfect place for a spot of retail therapy.

Durham Castle
Durham Castle

Then, take your bags back to the car and head off on a wander round the meander in the River Wear. You can walk down both sides of the river, but if you only have time for one way, make it the opposite side to the city centre so you get fabulous views looking back at the cathedral.

I can’t wait to return to Durham, to see what else the city and indeed the county has to offer!

Future Travel to County Durham!

Other attractions I plan on visiting in the near future are:

Hartlepool & County Durham: A Week exploring the North East of England; a blog by TravelJunkieGirl.com

Have you visited County Durham?

Perhaps you live there and can recommend further attractions and things to see, I’d love to hear from you!

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