Welcome to this Discovering Britain walk in Durham! This walk was created by Alan Rose. Alan is a computer network engineer but in his spare time he’s a keen naturalist and geographer.
Alan: “I was born a towny, but when I was 20, I lived in the Yorkshire countryside for a year. I loved being out in the country; and I was fascinated by the physical landscape and the way it had been shaped by the Ice Age. In particular I learned that many Northern rivers had their courses changed by the ice, and by stuff left by the ice.”
“When I came to Durham University, my Geography dissertation investigated one of these Yorkshire river diversions; then I settled in Durham and came to realise that this area had its own diverted rivers too.”
“I love the way that, in Durham City, the countryside comes right into the centre of the town and I like thinking about how the physical landscape has helped to shape the city’s rich history“.
This walk follows a river valley that has ‘lost’ its river and now has only a small ‘misfit’ stream.
From the city centre, we go out into the countryside to see how and where the river was diverted, and where it was diverted to. Along the way we pass through some green and tranquil places.
Make your way to the start of the walk at the North Road entrance of The Gates Shopping Centre
2 The Gates – aren’t gates!
Here we are in Durham City. It’s a city with a very long history – founded by Anglo-Saxon monks, raided by Danes and Scots, conquered by the Normans, ruled by Prince Bishops and enriched by pilgrims.
All made their mark on the built landscape here. And it is this modern shopping centre that you are standing outside that takes us straight back to the Viking settlers.
The Gates Shopping Centre takes its name from two old streets – Framwellgate and Milburngate. Nearby were Crossgate and Allergate.
In many other Northern cities there are also streets called ‘gate’, such as Deansgate in Manchester, Coppergate in York, Eastgate and Kirkgate in Leeds. These names date from when Vikings settled in northern England – ‘gate’ in Scandinavian languages means ‘street’.
However, here at Milburngate, it’s the other part of the name that provides the introduction to our story of lost rivers. The line of Milburngate – or Mill Burn Street – follows the course of the Mill Burn – burn, of course, meaning stream.
Look to the right towards the roundabout – the road drops quite steeply down and then up again between here and the roundabout. This was the valley of the Mill Burn.
Retrace your steps to the shopping centre entrance. Stop, and look up North Road.
4 How green was the valley
North Road roughly follows the line of the Mill Burn. Originally this area was a green meadow with the Mill Burn flowing through it.
The road was built and the area developed in 1831, which is when the Burn was put into an underground culvert.
But as you walk up North Road look to the left and right. You will be able to see slopes rising on both sides that show how we are in the bottom of a valley. In particular, look out for steep, cobbled Neville Street on the left.
Steep Neville Street marks the valley sides of Mill Burn
Go up North Road for about 100 metres. Stop outside the former cinema on the left side, which is a large stone building with an arch above the doorway.
5 The pits!
Although this is a story about rivers and the physical landscape, we’re also going to see how this has affected human activity.
Looking at the architecture of this building, you won’t be surprised to learn that this building was once a cinema.
When it was a traditional single-screen cinema it had a drainage problem: in the deepest point, at the bottom of the screen, water constantly seeped in and a pump had to be on permanently to stop the water filling the pit!
This was because the cinema was built on sand. In this part of Durham there is sand just about everywhere! Piles and piles of it. And where, you might wonder, did all this sand come from? Well, we’ll find out about that a bit later in the walk.
Continue up North Road, noticing the steep slopes of Neville Street on the left, then of Station Bank on the right. When you reach the roundabout at the top of North Road, stop at the area to the left at the side of the chapel.
6 Built on a bog
The Viaduct, built in 1857, is impressive. More impressive, perhaps, when you know what lies under it – bog!
It was so wet and soft here that, to build the viaduct, massive piles of oak had to be driven into the ground to form foundations.
They’ve lasted over 150 years now, and the bridge carries the London-Edinburgh main line. Quite an achievement for those Victorian engineers and builders.
But now, look at the gap that the viaduct spans. It’s a deep and wide valley, much bigger than the section we’ve just walked up.
It’s a substantial valley, but without a substantial river. You can search long and hard but you won’t be able to find much sign of a river in the bottom of the valley.
Actually the stream is tiny and completely hidden in its culvert. In the 1980s there was an intense cloudburst followed by a flash flood. The burn burst out of its culvert, lifted a manhole cover and for a short time there was a fountain in the middle of the road! But that was exceptional.
Downhill from here – the route that we’ve just walked – the stream is known as the Mill Burn, as we heard before, but further up the valley it’s called the Flass Burn. ‘Flass’ is a northern word for a bog. Flass Vale is our next goal.
From the side of the chapel, go clockwise around the roundabout to take the second exit. Go under a building and then cross the road at the traffic island.
Turn right under the viaduct into Sutton Street. Then take the second street on the left, which is Waddington Street. On the right of the road is the former County Hospital and on the left is Waddington Street United Reformed Church.
At the end of the street is Kings Lodge Hotel. Go through the hotel gateway – it’s a public right of way – and straight ahead is a path that climbs into woodland.
Follow this path until it leaves the shade of the trees. Stop when you reach the display board on the left of the path which tells some of the history and ecology of Flass Vale.
7 A rural haven
We are now in Flass Vale. As when we looked at the railway viaduct, we can see that we’re in a substantial valley. In fact, it’s even bigger than it looks because here, too, there are great piles of sand everywhere.
There are many old sand quarries; you’ll see some of them later when you come back down the far side of the Vale. In places this sand is 60 metres deep! Deeply buried below where you are standing is the original river valley, cut into rock. This was only discovered in 1928!
Here in the vale the stream is called the Flass Burn. Compared with the size and depth of the valley, the burn is tiny. A proper river flowed here once, but not now.
Down in the bottom is a marshy and waterlogged area. It’s called the Flass Bog – which, of course, means ‘the Bog Bog’! The drier areas were used for agriculture and orchards until they were abandoned in the 1950s and ‘60s. Since then, scrub and woodland have encroached but this is now being managed by the Friends of Flass Vale.
Alan: “The Friends first came together in 1973 when they fought – successfully – to prevent house-building in the vale. A few years ago, the vale was given formal legal protection when it was designated a Local Nature Reserve by the local council.”
“It’s a rural gem, surrounded on three sides by Durham City and its suburbs. I think it’s a wonderful place and I recently joined the Friends of Flass Vale to help preserve it and improve it”.
Continue along the path, after a time descending a flight of steps. Continue to a crossroads of paths. Take the left path and stop after about 5 metres by the culvert.
8 For peat’s sake!
Look on the left side of the path where the pipe comes out on the downstream side. Climb down if it isn’t too wet. In summer you’ll have to clear away some vegetation. Look for a dark, almost black layer. This is peat. It’s only a few inches deep here but further into the Flass Bog it’s a lot deeper.
Peat is formed from layers of dead vegetation. It can only build up, slowly, when the ground is permanently waterlogged, which prevents the plant remains from decaying. Scientists from Durham University have analysed remains of pollen that are found in this peat. They found that the bog started to form around 11,000 BC, at the end of the last Ice Age.
During the Ice Age northern Britain was covered repeatedly by huge sheets of slowly-moving ice. In some places the ice was like a huge bulldozer, scraping away rock and soil, then pushing great heaps of ground-up rock around – clay, sand and gravel.
In some places this material filled up valleys and hollows, a bit like when you spread butter on a crumpet. When the ice melted, fast-flowing streams spread the sand and gravel around: that’s how Flass Vale, North Road – and other parts of Durham City, too – came to have so much sand. Even over thousands of years, the Flass Burn has been too puny to wash this sand out of the Vale, and that’s why it’s remained – a bog.
Continue along the path, up the steps and into the wood again. At the crossroads of paths, go right. In season you may notice the scent of honeysuckle here. Continue for about 100 metres then stop and look to the right.
9 Highland Games
The valley here is much narrower but the valley bottom is flat – although in summer the vegetation makes it hard to see.
Do you remember passing a church on the left of the street before you came into the vale? It was founded as a Scottish Presbyterian church, serving a population of Scots who came to Durham in the nineteenth century to work in the carpet industry.
Just about here they built a low dam across the stream to make a curling pond and skating rink in winter. In the summer they let the water out and used the same space as a tennis court!
Sadly, there are no old photos of this; from old maps it seems to have been in use from about 1880 to 1910.
Follow the path for another 100 metres and stop when you reach a wooden footbridge.
10 Under the surface
We know that, during the Ice Age, the ice advanced and retreated a number of times. It’s difficult to be sure exactly what happened in a particular place because each time the ice returned it tended to rub out the traces of the last advance.
We do know that a particular type of clay was spread around, like butter spread on bread, with the ice being the knife blade. This clay is smooth and slippery but it contains pieces of rock of all sizes, from sand grains to large chunks - hence its name, ‘boulder clay’.
Wherever there’s boulder clay we know that the ice has passed over at some time; sand and gravel mean that ice melted here, creating fast-flowing streams.
In this part of the valley the stream has helpfully dug away the topsoil so that we can see ‘what lies beneath’.
Look at the banks of the stream where you can see a layer of light brown boulder clay. Walk a few metres upstream, stopping halfway between the bridge and some brickwork. The far bank of the stream is vertical and a metre or more high.
Here is a good view of the sand that makes up so much of this landscape and, in the stream bed, there’s lots of gravel because the stream has carried away the lighter sand. We can see that the sand lies on top of the clay, so it must be more recent.
We can now say that this spot was covered, at least once, by moving ice; then, when ice melted, there were fast-flowing streams that deposited sand.
Now we’re going to climb up the biggest sand pile of all, emerging into Durham’s suburb of North End.
Layers of sand and clay in a stream bank, Flass Vale
Now go back to the bridge, cross over and turn left, passing another interpretation board. Follow the path as it climbs and bends to the right until you emerge onto a residential street, which is Flassburn Road.
Go straight over the first crossroads and turn left at the next junction onto Fieldhouse Lane. Take the first left into Springfield Park. Where the road bends to the left, go straight along a footpath that goes between the backs of houses.
When you reach the main road, turn right. After about 200 metres cross the road at the traffic island. At the far side, turn right and continue up the hill. Shortly after a large road sign for a roundabout, there is a footpath sign to the left.
Go over the stile and follow the path as it twists and turns. After the second stile, keep to the right hand side of the field. Go over the next stile in the bottom corner of the field and then turn left into the next field. Follow the edge of the field round to the right.
You should end up walking parallel to, but one narrow field away from, a main road. Continue until you go under a line of pylons.
11 All is revealed!
At the bottom of the valley is a marshy area known as Bearpark Bog. As in Flass Vale, the ground there is wet, there’s a small, slowmoving stream and a lot of peat.
With your back to the pylons, you are looking up the valley of the River Browney. The river begins about 20 kilometres northwest of here.
Can you see that the small valley containing Bearpark Bog lines up with the Browney valley? That’s because it lies along the original course of the Browney, that’s now clogged with vast piles of sand and clay.
Turn back to face Bearpark Bog: to the left of the bog the land rises – this is part of the huge ‘dam’ of Ice Age deposits – sand and gravel and rocks dumped by the melting ice sheets – that blocked the river’s path. We came up the other side of this dam at the top of Flass Vale, after we came up North Road.
So Bearpark Bog, Flass Vale and North Road together mark the route that the Browney took before the last Ice Age. The present valley of the Browney is out of sight between us and Bearpark Village, but we will see it soon.
Continue along the footpath through another two fields and stop in a convenient place. In April and May this path is popular with butterflies because it’s sunny and the hedges provide shelter from cold winds. Watch out for peacock, tortoiseshell, orange tip and cabbage whites.
12 Scars of the past
Durham, as you probably know, was well known for its rich coalfields. Look across the valley. About 2 kilometres away is the former pit village of Bearpark. Bearpark and many villages like it only came into existence because of coal mining.
The pit at Bearpark was one of the last deep coalmines in County Durham to close – in 1984 – after 110 years of operation. Its underground workings were extensive and reached at least to where you are standing.
The wooded hillside to the right of the village marks the landscaped remains of the pit heap. Here and elsewhere in the county, millions of pounds were spent to heal and conceal the scars of its coalmining past.
Continue along the footpath. At one point the path becomes very narrow as it goes between two fences and may be quite overgrown. On the left is a farm storage area and you may meet a friendly horse. Continue through two more fields, crossing over their stiles. After the second stile turn left down the field, keeping a row of trees and a stream on your left hand side. At the bottom, go over the stile or through the gate and continue along the path to stop at a solitary tree.
13 Pitfalls of life
Look back along the track we’ve just come on and then look to the right. Can you see that the vegetation is quite different in colour and shape and height from the crops that surround it and that the land is quite low and sunken down? There’s a pool there but it has only existed for about 30 years.
Earlier we saw the former pit village of Bearpark. Mine workings under this spot have collapsed underground, causing the land here to subside and then fill with water. Locally, a hollow like this is known as a ‘pitfall’.
Wild ducks are shot here in season and you can see a couple of shooting butts. If you are walking in spring, you may be treated to a display of lapwings, with their aerobatic flight and bubbling call. They regularly nest in these fields.
From the solitary tree, follow the path around to the right. Go through another gateway, then the path turns to the left with a copse on the right and an open field on the left. At the end, go over the stile and turn right onto the farm track. Stop when you reach a bridge over the river.
14 The missing river!
Here at last is ‘Durham’s missing river’, the river that once flowed along the route that we have walked – Flass Vale and North Road.
Its original course, to the left behind the ridge, was blocked by the large deposits of sand and clay that we heard about earlier. Here we can see the beginning of the diversion it was forced into. The valley here is narrow, especially compared with the upper part of the Browney valley.
As the ice sheets melted, this meant that there was more water in the river. A river with more water flows faster and has more force. It can pick up pebbles and rocks – and as we have seen, the ice had left a lot of ground-up rock.
This meant that the Browney was able to cut a new course which started here. Further downstream the valley becomes a narrow gorge as it cuts through the local sandstone bedrock.
The narrow valley and bedrock created an opportunity for local people and once there were five watermills along this stretch of the river. Unusually, they were mostly paper mills, making paper out of rags. There were also quarries that produced good building stone.
If you look at the Ordnance Survey map, you can see what happens to the river downstream from here. The Browney is joined by the smaller river Deerness, 2.5 kilometres from here at Langley Bridge. It then flows another 3 kilometres before flowing into the River Wear east of Browney Bridge. The ice as it melted created a long narrow ridge of sand hills running north to south and the A167 follows this ridge, with the Browney below and just to the west of it.
Retrace your steps a few metres to the bend in the track. Go over the stile on the right and follow the footpath up to the top of the hill. Stop when you reach some ruins.
15 Beautiful retreat
Here the monks of Durham had a country retreat, a manor house where they could go to relax. They called it Beaurepaire which means ‘Beautiful Retreat’ in French. The estate was famous for its livestock and wild game. These are the remains of that manor house.
Do you remember seeing Bearpark village earlier? There were never any bears there! Instead, centuries of use turned ‘Beaurepaire’ into ‘Bearpark’.
In October 1346, a Scottish army of 15,000 men encamped here with their king, David, son of Robert the Bruce. They were about to join battle with an English army that had marched north from Yorkshire.
They ate all the famous Beaurepaire livestock and wild game! We will hear more about this later.
Retrace your steps back down to the farm track and turn right. Follow the track up hill, past a converted barn and farm house on the left, and after some time past another house on the left. Continue onwards over the stile or through the gate and follow the track.
At the highest point, where the electricity pylons on the left hand side come closest to the track, you are standing above the narrow valley of the Browney. Depending on the state of the vegetation it may be possible to see the river from here; but we are about to leave its valley and return to Durham.
Go through the gateway on the left hand side. Follow the footpath under the pylons and through the field. Just before the lowest point in the track, look left though a gap in the hedge.
16 More pitfalls
Here is yet another pitfall – this was formed about 15 years ago. This is very much a dynamic landscape - new pitfalls appear every few years while older ones develop from waterlogged grassland into permanent ponds with real aquatic ecosystems.
While the former coalmine has left traces in the landscape, the track that we have been following is far older. It is known as Club Lane and was used in medieval times by the monks to travel between Durham and Beaurepaire Manor that we saw earlier.
Continue along the field path. When you reach a gate and stile on the left, go over and follow the track until it meets the main road.
Directly ahead, across the road, is the exit of the path you came along on the outward journey but you aren’t going back down it.
Cross the road here with care. If you prefer, you can cross at the traffic island to the left. Stop here, standing with your back to the Whitesmocks road sign.
17 England 1, Scotland 0
Once again, we are standing on the enormous pile of sand and clay that separates the Browney valley from Flass Vale and Durham city centre. Looking right there’s a deep dip. This is just a place where the former valley isn’t filled to its full depth.
Now look left, uphill. Ahead, the road follows the north-south ridge referred to earlier. The Scots army advanced along this ridge, to meet the English, six and a half centuries ago. The narrowness and steep sides of the ridge put the Scots at a disadvantage and contributed to their crushing defeat – that and the unexpected appearance of 1,000 lethal English archers.
The Scots lost not just the battle and 5,000 of their number but also their king, David. It is said that he was found hiding under a nearby bridge over our River Browney and that his reflection in the river gave him away. Whether that’s true or not, he still managed to knock two teeth out of his English captor.
The English king demanded a ransom of £66,000, equivalent to £15 million in current value – quite literally a king’s ransom. He spent 11 years south of the border before he was allowed to return home. Apparently the canny Scots didn’t pay a penny, but won him back through a treaty!
The Battle of Neville's Cross (1346)
Froissart's Chronicle (CCL)
Continue uphill along the main road. Shortly before a bus stop there is a gravel driveway on the left leading to a large house. Don’t go down the drive but instead down a path that’s squeezed between the drive and the grounds of Durham Johnston Comprehensive School. This path will take you back down into Flass Vale.
Look out for a gap in the trees on the right that gives a fine view of Durham Cathedral. Continue downhill until you come to a crossroads of paths.
18 In the Vale again
We’re now in Flass Vale again, but on the opposite side from the outward journey. In spring and summer the dense vegetation blocks the view across the Vale.
As the path starts to take us out of the Vale, watch out for signs of former activities. On the left of the path there are brick walls marking the site of a piggery, and a few ancient fruit trees where once there were orchards. On the right of the path are the remains of many small sand quarries. Look out too for culverts under the path, built in the last few years by the Friends of Flass Vale.
From the crossroads, turn right and follow the path through the woods out of Flass Vale. Go down the road through the trees to another crossroads. Take the footpath opposite and to the right. Climb the steep steps up to Red Hills Lane and stop at the entrance to the Durham Miners building.
19 When the hills ran red
The road to the right is Red Hills Lane – named, it is said, because it once ran with the blood of the slain Scotsmen that we heard about earlier.
To the left the road becomes Flass Street. You will be able to guess where that name came from. Can you see the line of a small valley crossing the road? You’ll be able to guess what valley it is, too!
This is the last stop on our walk. We’ve come along North Road, walked along both sides of Flass Vale and seen how both are in a valley whose river no longer flows there.
Following the line of this valley out into the countryside we’ve seen how the upper Browney valley is closely aligned with Bearpark Bog and Flass Vale; that demonstrated that the Browney is Durham’s missing river. Towards the end of the Ice Age, the valley was blocked with sand and clay and the Browney was diverted from its former path.
Although traces of the coal industry have been carefully hidden from view, we’ve also seen along the way how collapsed mine workings are still influencing the landscape.
Along the way we hope you’ve enjoyed the glimpses of Durham City’s greenbelt and its wildlife. And if before this walk your mental picture of Northeast England was populated with pit-heaps and grimy-faced miners, we hope that mental image is now greener and more interesting!
Turn left down Flass Street. At the bottom turn right into Sutton Street and go under the viaduct. Turn left at the main road, cross over at the traffic island and go under the building back to North Road roundabout. From there you can return to the railway station, bus station or car park that you started from.