Local Attractions in the North Pennines
Updated: Jan 10
As part of our Green Traveller's Guide to the North Pennines, Paul Bloomfield picks out a selection of local visitor attractions, from gardens and museums to visitor centres in this glorious Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in the north of England.
Award-winning museums and exhibitions, verdant nature reserves and gardens, and England's largest waterfall - the North Pennines AONB is packed with fascinating natural and cultural spaces.
From the multi award-winning Killhope Lead Mining Museum to the historic South Tynedale Railway, the region is rightfully proud of its industrial heritage, with a rich history in lead mining that dominated 18th and 19th centuries and ultimately transformed the landscape.
Alternatively, you could make the most of the abundance of dramatic natural spaces, from High Force, England's largest waterfall, to High Cup Nick, a stunning glaciated valley on the Pennine fellside. You might also spend time exploring Hamsterley Forest, or birdwatching in the Geltsdale RSPB Nature Reserve.
Ark on the Edge
Not only is Ark on the Edge an animal rescue centre and sanctuary (complete with wildlife education centre), it is also home to a mile-long nature trail that takes you through fields and past a nature pond teeming with wildlife. The education centre offers a range of courses in animal care, while the entire site is open to visitors who can come and see the animals, enjoy a stroll along the nature trail and perhaps even take a dip in the pond if the weather allows. arkontheedge.org.uk
Bowlees Visitor Centre
Run by the AONB Partnership, this is the perfect base for exploring the natural beauty of Upper Teesdale. Close to the Pennine Way and both Low and High Force waterfalls. You’ll find advice and displays on walks, wildlife, geology and other local attractions. Cafe1618@Bowlees has a varied menu perfect for walkers and cyclists. Car park, accessible parking, an electric car charge point, toilets, local art, gift shop, a picnic area, woodland trails and events. northpennines.org.uk
Eggleston Hall Gardens
A wonderful green space run by Malcolm Hockham, one of the best-known horticulturists in the north of England. You'll be free to explore four acres of gardens and tree nursary, as well as a 16th century churchyard complete with chapel ruins and a handful of rare plant species, not to mention a series of winding paths and a tranquil moorland stream. The private nursery is only open for two weeks each year, but if you do pay a visit you'll discover many rare plant species egglestonhallgardens.co.uk
Geltsdale RSPB Nature Reserve
Home to black grouse, birds of prey and breeding wading birds, Geltsdale RSPB reserve is one of the best spots in the area for bird watching. It also boasts a wonderfully varied landscape, from blanket bog to colorful hay meadows, and is a fantastic walking destination in its own right. You'll also find four separate waymarked trails, including the 1-2 hour Stagsike Trail. Once you reach Stagsike Cottages there's a visitor centre and art gallery that are well worth a visit. Geltsdale currently holds a Gold award with the GTBS. rspb.org.uk
Hamsterley is Country Durham's largest forest, offering some 2000 hectares of mixed woodland lying between the Wear and Tees valleys at the very edge of the North Pennines AONB. With a mixture of deciduous woodland, meadows and coniferous woods, Hamsterley is an ideal location for both walking and cycling, as well as horse riding. Cyclists are particularly well catered for, with bike hire facilities and a downhill mountain bike course for adventure seekers. forestryengland.uk/hamsterley-forest
Harehope Quarry Project
With the very admirable aim of promoting a more sustainable way of living, the Harehope Quarry Project has developed a fish farm and smallholding, as well as a fantastic nature reserve and eco-classroom built exclusively by volunteers. Based in a former limestone quarry, the project offers a truly unique location for everything from environmental education and field studies to rural skills training. At the western end of the quarry, the nature reserve is a haven for many species of wildlife including birds and otters, and is also home to a fantastic geology garden. It goes without saying that the project has been awarded Gold by the GTBS. harehopequarry.org.uk
High Force Waterfall
A trip to the North Pennines wouldn't be complete without encountering the roar and gushing torrent of England's biggest waterfall. From its origin high on the heather covered fells at the top of the North Pennines, the River Tees continues to swell and gain speed until the moment it breaks free and plunges some 21 metres into the river below. In order to visit High Force, you'll follow a well-maintained gravel path through a short woodland trail that is a delight in itself. If you're looking for a kayaking or canoeing adventure, head downstream to Low Force, near Bowlees Visitor Centre. raby.co.uk/high-force/waterfall
Moor House - Upper Teesdale National Nature Reserve
Take a quick trip to this beautiful reserve and you'll have the chance to spot some of the most impressive geological formations, waterfalls and vistas that the country has to offer. People interested in wildlife will be pleased to know that the reserve is famous for the rare spring gentian as well as being home to England's largest juniper wood. This is also a breeding ground for the black grouse, as well as the golden plover and ring ouzel. The area also offers up a range of walks and trails that stretch right across the reserve, including the fantastic Widdybank Fell Nature Trail, suitable for families and wheelchair users.
The Garden Station
You'll find this beautiful woodland garden and wonderfully restored Victorian railway station along the former Hexham to Allendale railway line. The garden itself is perfect for some quiet reflection, while the woodland walk was created in 2003 and is bordered by a collection of endemic plant species. Once you're done exploring you can enjoy some delicious home cooking using organic ingredients at the fabulous cafe. thegardenstation.co.uk
Epiacum Roman Fort
Epiacum is the highest stone-built Roman Fort in Britain. It housed a garrison of about 500 men, and was probably built to control mining for lead and silver. The Roman road, known as the Maiden Way, passes close by the fort. The site of the fort is open to visitors and is easily reached from Whitlow Farm. Alternatively, it can be reached from the Pennine Way, which passes alongside it. Plans to interpret the site for visitors are still at an early stage, but first-time visitors can join one of their guided walks. Alternatively, download a self-guided walk, which visits the fort as part of a 7.5 mile circular walk from Alston. epiacumheritage.org
High Cup Nick
One of the most dramatic examples of the North Pennines' unique landscape, the famous High Cup Gill and Nick is a deep chasm on the Pennine fellside. This glaciated U-shaped valley is formed by the well-known Whin Sill and the views from the top of the valley are some of the most impressive in the country. You can reach High Cup Nick by following the Pennine Way from Cow Green Reservoir in Upper Teesdale or from Dufton in the Eden Valley. visitcumbria.com
Considered one of the finest Medieval castles in England, Raby Castle was built during the 14th century and has been home to Lord Barnard's family since 1626. Gain access to the castle itself and you'll be free to explore the cavernous hall, medieval kitchen and drawing room, many of which display fine furniture and artworks. However, with a 200 acre deer park, magnificent ornamental walled gardens and a traditional coach house, be sure to spend just as much time exploring the castle grounds, too. raby.co.uk/raby-castle/
Durham Dales Centre
This fantastic visitor centre in Weardale is not just well stocked with local information - you'll also be able to pick up some delicious home baked food to enjoy in the tearoom or out in the garden. Also on site you'll find a range of shops selling everything from local books and maps to specialist photography and local handmade crafts. The gardens are well worth a bit of exploration, and kids will love the animal treasure trail. durhamdalescentre.co.uk
South Tynedale Railway
Hop on the historic South Tynedale Railway and take a scenic tour through the picturesque South Tynedale Valley, leaving from Alston and arriving at either Kirkhaugh or Lintley. The trip to Kirkhaugh is just over 2 miles, with many highlights including carved deer welcoming you to Kirkhaugh and beautiful open countryside with views of an Epiacum Roman Fort, plus streams and open moorland. Once you've arrived in either Kirkhaugh or Lintley, there's plenty of walking opportunities, plus the Alston station also boasts a gift shop and cafe. south-tynedale-railway.org.uk
Surrounded by beautiful grounds, this stunning museum has recently undergone a huge renovation and offers a fantastic 21st century visitor attraction. Pay Bowes a visit and you'll discover a fantastic collection of fine and decorative arts within a handful of new galleries. Once you've enjoyed looking at everything from photography and paintings to sculpture and wood carving, you'll be able to relax in Cafe Bowes and enjoy sumptuous fare made using local produce wherever possible. thebowesmuseum.org.uk
Weardale Museum and High House Chapel
An independent folk museum set up by volunteers back in 1985 to preserve the heritage of Weardale. There's a surprisingly large amount to see and do here, from visiting the Weardale kitchen for a hands-on experience of what life was like during the lead-mining period to discovering a fantastic collection of Weardale fossils and minerals, as well as learning about the quarrymen who collected them. Another highlight is the Weardale Tapestry, a beautiful 15ft-long free style embroidery that depicts the history of Weardale and finally there is access to High House Chapel, the oldest Methodist chapel in continuous weekly use, and the story of John Wesley and his travelling evangelists. weardalemuseum.co.uk
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