307: Tow Law

OS Explorer map 307, Consett & Derwent Reservoir: Stanhope – I own this map, but had not visited it before starting this blog. Visited for this post 3rd January 2022.

Google Maps location links: Tow Law, Hedleyhope Fell nature reserve, Parkhead Station, Hexham


Attentive readers may remember mine and Vesper’s May 2021 trip to the area around Durham, to visit our friend Erithacus, who was living in the area for a few months. On that occasion, it being not allowed for us to meet Erithacus indoors at the time due to the UK’s second wave of the coronavirus pandemic, Vesper and I stayed in a rented cottage in the town of Tow Law, which sits some 10 miles to the west of Durham, on the edge of the North Pennines and looking down on the lower reaches of Weardale.

As you’ll soon read, this was a snowy holiday!

Fast-forward several months, and Vesper and I wanted to go on a week’s holiday in the new year. After looking at several places, we ended up deciding to come back to the very same Tow Law cottage – I was disappointed not to have got to explore the North Pennines on our previous trip up here, so it would let us do that; we knew the place was comfortable, and it was very cheap, which is always a plus!

The journey up

Now, the previous time we stayed here, the post I wrote was about the Durham map area (#308) – I didn’t actually write a post about Tow Law. This is because Tow Law itself is in the overlap between map areas 305 and 307, and I’ve been to map 305 before. Luckily for you though, dear readers, this time around Vesper and I did venture out of the overlap zone into unique areas of map 307, so you’re getting a post about it!

This holiday started just a few days after New Year, such that Vesper was still at her parents’ house, while I’d only got home to Cambridge from my trip to the Wye Valley with my parents a few days before. We’d initially planned to come up by train and hire a car in Darlington, but this turned out to be difficult for a trip starting on a Sunday, so instead I borrowed Niko, my parents’ current “dog car” – i.e. the car my dad claims to need for taking his dogs on walks, so that he doesn’t have to get his own car dirty. I therefore drove up to Tow Law via Leicestershire, collecting Vesper there.

Vesper, Niko and the swede pile

One slightly notable incident happened on the way up. Stopping at a service station near Wetherby for a toilet break, we found that the toilets were out of order, and the temporary replacement toilets were heavingly busy and crowded, and so decided to instead find a location for a “wild wee” nearby. We therefore drove through the village of Goldsborough, and stopped next to a giant pile of freshly-harvested swedes at the end of a single-track road, where a footpath led into a little wood. The stop itself went smoothly other than for a lot of mud, but there was a bit of drama when we wanted to leave: the car wouldn’t turn on.

Now Niko, the car we were in, is the replacement of Margaret, the previous holder of the coveted “dog car” position, who has featured on this blog many times before. Margaret was a Toyota Previa people carrier and served my parents – and, when I borrowed her as I did fairly often, also me – very well for many years. However, last year, at the tender age of 16, she finally gave up the ghost, and needed replacing. Father Dearest was very keen to replace her specifically with another Toyota Previa, which led him to buying Niko, who was the only such available at the time. However, Niko came with a significant quirk: she’s a Japanese import, and as such all of her controls and little screens are in Japanese, and at times her systems says words in Japanese aloud (including every time you turn her on). Given that it apparently can’t be set to English, and that none of us understand Japanese, we just have to accept this and hope for the best!

The view from the swede pile out towards the nearby woods

In this instance, when I tried to turn the car on, I was just hearing a loud beep, and seeing some Japanese error message coming up on the screen. After several tries at working out what was going on, I had no luck, and we were resigning ourselves to a long wait next to the swede pile for the AA to turn up. However, fortunately the swede pile, despite seeming very middle-of-nowhere-y, did have 4G signal, and I was able to point a Google Translate app at the error message. “Please press the brake pedal when starting the car”. That sorted that.

This map area

After that interlude, everything went smoothly with the rest of our drive, and we arrived at Tow Law in the mid-afternoon. Vesper and I passed a very pleasant, quiet week there, divided between going on various walks and little trips out, and and relaxing in the house.

On our first full day of the trip, we decided to travel north to Hexham, over the border into Northumberland and up in Hadrian’s Wall country, to go to visit Hexham Abbey and its wondrously cool, 1300-year-old, Anglo-Saxon crypt. We decided to go there via a scenic route, spurning the A68 to instead drive a little way down Weardale to Stanhope, so that we could make our way northwards to Hexham over the top of the moors to get some nice wilderness views. [1]

On our short wander along the Waskerley Way and back from Parkhead Station

The drive was indeed very scenic! We stopped for a little while at Parkhead Station, a house sitting curiously entirely alone in the middle of the moors (and “properly” in this map area, not in an overlap), now run as a café and B&B. Its tale is that it was once a station master’s house for the Stanhope and Tyne Railway that ran right alongside, a railway taking a moortop route over to Stanhope, coming from Tyneside to the northeast. Goodness knows why there was a station up at this point! We parked up and went for a short wander along the Waskerley Way – the walking and cycling route that this part of the rail route now lives as – admiring the moors, before returning to the car to continue our journey. Since I was driving, I didn’t get any photographs of the rest of our drive, but the latter half, through Northumberland farmland and villages, was really pretty too.

Hexham Abbey

We soon arrived at Hexham, our destination on this trip, which is outside this map area, and indeed has featured on this blog before – though not particularly excitingly, given that all I did in Hexham itself on that trip is go to a Tesco! Unfortunately, Abbey was closed for the day, so we didn’t get to see the crypt, but had a nice wander around the town. I would very much like to come back one day when the Abbey is open!

That evening, after we’d returned to Tow Law via the more direct route and spent the afternoon relaxing in the cottage, we were washing up in the kitchen back at the cottage after dinner when I shaded my eyes to look through the window into the dark garden, and made a discovery that would shape the rest of our week: it was snowing!

Tow Law in the snow!

It was the first time Vesper or I had seen snow that winter, so we headed out for a nighttime wander around snowy Tow Law, and had a great time! I love snow – the way it feels underfoot, the way it makes the world look, it’s just great. I wouldn’t want to live somewhere where it’s snowy quite all the time, but a month or so of settled snow a year would be lovely. On this walk, we also discovered the nearby Hedleyhope Fell nature reserve, which we’d return to later in the week – we didn’t penetrate very deeply into the reserve on this occasion due to the darkness, instead satisfying ourselves with petting the ponies near the entrance who trotted over to inspect us.

The snow, as you may have gathered by now, stuck around for the rest of the holiday, which made it a rather magical week. We did several more little outings and walks, two of which took us significantly away from Tow Law and over into a neighbouring map area, and so will feature in my next post.

The view we woke up to the morning after the snow started falling – Wolsingham Moor seen from Tow Law

The rest of the time – of which I won’t attempt a continuous narrative from here on – was spent relaxing in the cottage, punctuated with various shorter snowy walks in and around Tow Law itself, including returning to Hedleyhope Fell a couple of times to explore it more thoroughly.

Hedleyhope is an interesting place. The moors and heaths I’ve encountered previously feel like they fell into two categories: either high, huge, windswept moors that you have to climb up a hill to get to – like we’d seen around Parkhead Station earlier, or like in the Peak District, Exmoor or Northumberland – or low-lying, flattish heaths, like in Suffolk. Hedleyhope felt sort of between the two, being surrounded by farmland on all sides, but still sitting on a raised ridge, at a middling-feeling altitude.

As you can tell from the state of my beard, it was both snowing and rather windy on this Hedleyhope Moor walk!

The combination of several inches of snow on top of heather and scrub made for the most soft and springy walking experience I think I’ve ever felt! Additionally, I was thankful for the freezing weather: the paths would have been extremely muddy otherwise. I had a great time bouncing around in the nature reserve: I’m sure there is an amount of snow-walking that I could tire of, but I didn’t hit it on this trip!

You don’t see that many donkeys in Britain, so it’s always a treat to come cross some!

And… that was it, really! It was a nice quiet holiday, of snowy walks, reading and chatting, and strengthened mine and Vesper’s desire to move out into the countryside not too many years from now. I look forward to our next trip!

[1] I couldn’t find a single name for this area of moorland in the northeastern corner of the North Pennines – the map gives me Stanhope Common, Waskerley Park and Muggleswick Common, without much indication of where one ends and the other begins!

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