The Waterfront Weekender: The Teesdale Way

Seek out a mechanical silver swan, Roman ruins and a carving of Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat on this unexpectedly bucolic ramble beside the River Tees

Waterfront weekender


Hear the word ‘Teesside’ and you may well picture a hive of industry: steel works and spectacular bridges. Yet for most of its length the Teesdale Way – a long distance footpath that follows the mighty River Tees for 92 miles – takes you through some truly magnificent countryside.

The route starts in the heady heights of the Pennines, with its dramatic gorges and the thundering waterfalls, before meandering into gentler landscape around Barnard Castle. The whole route is way-marked – with signs bearing either a dipper or a salmon – so it’s easy to follow.

Join us in this third part of our ‘Waterfront Weekender’ series as we explore a 40-mile stretch between Barnard Castle and Stockton-on-Tees, which can easily be broken down into bite-sized chunks for more leisurely exploration.

Barney and Four Bridges

Barnard Castle – or ‘Barney’ as it’s known to locals – is a characterful place, with wide streets of stone houses and an octagonal Market Cross built to shelter butter-sellers from the dale. The town hall occupied the floor above, and the holes in its weather vane were made in a shooting contest in 1804.

You can pick up the Teesdale Way near the castle – but first you have to find it! From the town, the ruins are hidden from sight but they sit high above the river, overlooking the 16th-century bridge. The Teesdale Way soon reaches the riverside meadows. Look north to see the incongruously-wonderful, French-style chateau that houses the Bowes Museum.

After a mile or so you’ll reach Abbey Bridge across the Tees. Here you can take a detour west to visit Eggleston Abbey, with its ruined medieval church and Elizabethan house built into the former cloisters. It’s an ideal spot for a mid-morning stop, especially if you’ve bought some of the local creamy Cotherstone cheese in Barney before you set off.

Now on the south bank of the river, the Teesdale Way winds on to Rokeby Park, a Georgian country house that looks as if it’s escaped from Venice. Here, the Tees is joined by the River Greta; you’ll cross it on the Dairy Bridge, part of the landscaped setting of the house. Just beyond, look out for the medieval Mortham Tower, original home of the Rokeby family.

The path then climbs to go parallel with the river, before dropping down to the attractive pools and rocky ledges around Whorlton Bridge – a narrow suspension bridge with a span of 173 feet, built in 1831.

Clock in at Piercebridge

Back on the north bank, follow the Teesdale Way above the steep banks of the river to another impressive bridge, the 111-foot arch near Winston, designed by the owner of Rokeby Park in 1764. Then it’s on towards Gainford, one of Teesdale’s most attractive villages. Just before the village is Gainford Spa, where water spouts from a circular fountain. At Gainford, cottages cluster around a wide, well-kept green, and there’s plenty of benches for a rest and a snack.

The Tees becomes wider and grander as you approach Piercebridge. There was once a Roman bridge here, where the river was crossed by Dere Street, now the B6275. Look out for the remains of the bridge and the Roman Fort nearby. In the George Hotel is the clock that inspired the American writer Henry Clay Work to pen the song ‘My Grandfather’s Clock’ – the one that “stopped, short, never to go again when the old man died”.

Beyond Gainford the river begins a series of large meanders through peaceful farmland, with the footpath following closely. Not long after passing beneath the rumbling A1(M) you’ll join the pavement beside the A67 for a while, to reach the Tees Cottage Pumping Station. Inside the Victorian Gothic pumping house there are historic boilers and engines that lifted water from the river to supply Darlington’s houses. It’s open five weekends a year (the next open days are 23-24 June, 15-16 September and 6-7 Oct 2018).

Alice and whitewater thrills

The path re-joins the river for a while, before running beside the road where the A66 crosses the route (and the Teesdale Way crosses Blackwell Bridge to the south bank again) before reaching Stapleton Moor. It then follows a steep ridge parallel with the Tees to reach Croft. Lewis Carroll’s father was once vicar of Croft, and Lewis (real name Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) spent some of his youth here. He took inspiration for his Alice books from the area. In the church there’s a carving that looks distinctly like the Cheshire Cat, and the Jabberwock is supposedly based on a local legend of the terrifying Sockburn Worm.

After Croft there are several miles of pleasant country walking as the Tees continues to wiggle its way eastwards. Eventually you’ll reach Yarm, where a brick railway viaduct dominates the north end of an attractive high street. Next you’ll come across Egglescilffe and (confusingly) its adjoining neighbour Eaglescliffe, where you can visit Butterfly World, which boasts more than 100 species of these flying jewels.

The Teesdale Way soon turns north and threads its way beside the river between the urban and industrial landscapes of Stockton and Thornaby. Eventually, it turns east beneath the elegant double arches of the Infinity Bridge and heads into the Tees Barrage, which controls the flow of the river to prevent flooding. The building of the barrage also allowed the construction of an artificial whitewater course, where canoe slaloms and white-water rafting can bring a Teesside walk to an exhilarating end.

Trip planner

While you’re there
Not too far north of the route between Barnard Castle and Piercebridge is Raby Castle, a multi-battlemented medieval structure that was restored with sumptuous interiors in the 18th century. There are flower-filled gardens and acres of parkland to wander in, where you might even spot their herd of deer.

Rainy day
The Bowes Museum houses one the country’s best private art collections, put together by John and Josephine Bowes. The highlight is the mechanical silver swan, dating from 1773, which twists its head, preens and then swallows a fish from the moving glass rods that imitate a stream. The swan usually operates at 2pm when the museum is open.

Local food
Seek out the local Cotherstone cheese, made by Joan Cross in small quantities in the village of Cotherstone, just west of Barnard Castle. It’s a cousin to the more-famous Wensleydale and is made from unpasteurised, full-fat Jersey milk. It comes in two versions – white with a lemony tang and blue-veined

The Tees was once Britain’s most polluted river, but thanks to strenuous clean-up efforts it now supports a wide variety of wildlife, even in the more-industrialised areas. There are salmon and otters, and you might spot kingfishers, herons, cormorants and mute swans.

Did you know?
The railway line between Darlington and Stockton was the first passenger steam railway in the world, opening in 1825. The Head of Steam museum at Darlington’s North Road Station tells the story – and has the first engine, George Stephenson’s ‘Locomotion 1’.

Boat trips and hire

Preston Park Museum and Grounds
Yarm Road
Stockton on Tees TS18 3RH
Rowing boat hire and scheduled passenger boat between Yam and Preston Park.

Tees Barrage International White Water Centre
Tees Barrage Way
Stockton-on-Tees, TS18 2QW
01642 678000
White-water rafting, powerboat trips, canoeing and kayaking courses.

Public transport
Arriva services X75 and X76 run frequently between Darlington and Barnard Castle, via Piercebridge and Gainford. Darlington railway station is on the East Coast Mainline route, with frequent trains from London and Edinburgh.

More info
Find out more about the River Tees, as well as the Canal & River Trust’s role in managing the waterway, by visiting our website.

Louise Weir