County Durham has shaken off its grimy reputation in recent years and recast itself as a thriving tourist area. The well-to-do market towns of Bishop Auckland and Barnard Castle make great day-trips from Durham, and there’s plenty of excellent walking and cycling in the wilds of the two Pennine valleys, Teesdale and Weardale. You’ll find some top-class museums in the area, too, including Beamish, Locomotion and the Bowes Museum.
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Beamish MuseumThe open-air Beamish Museum spreads out over 300 acres, with buildings taken from all over the region painstakingly reassembled in six main sections linked by restored trams and buses. Complete with costumed shopkeepers, workers and householders, four of the sections show life in 1913, before the upheavals of World War I, including a colliery village complete with drift mine (regular tours throughout the day) and a large-scale recreation of the High Street in a market town. Two areas date to 1825, at the beginning of the northeast’s industrial development, including a manor house, with horse yard, formal gardens, vegetable plots and orchards. You can ride on the beautifully restored steam-powered carousel, the Steam Galloper – dating from the 1890s – and the Pockerley Waggonway, which is pulled along by a replica of George Stephenson’s Locomotion, the first passenger-carrying steam train in the world.
Sitting to the north of Teesdale, the valley of WEARDALE was once hunting ground reserved for the Prince Bishops, but was later transformed into a major centre for lead-mining and limestone quarrying; this industrial heritage is celebrated at the excellent Killhope Iron Mining museum and the Weardale Museum in Irehopesburn. The main settlement is Stanhope, a small market town with a pleasant open-air heated swimming pool, perfect for cooling off after a long walk in the hills.
Killhope Lead Mining Museum
If you’re keen to learn about Weardale’s mining past, a visit to Killhope Lead Mining Museum, five miles west of Ireshopeburn, is an absolute must. After many successful years as one of the richest mines in Britain, Killhope shut for good in 1910, and now houses a terrific, child-friendly museum that brings to life the difficulties and dangers of a mining life. The site is littered with preserved machinery and nineteenth-century buildings, including the Mine Shop where workers would spend the night after finishing a late shift. The highlight of the visit comes when you descend Park Level Mine – you’ll be given wellies, a hard hat and a torch – in the company of a guide who expounds entertainingly about the realities of life underground, notably the perils of the “Black Spit”, a lung disease which killed many men by their mid-forties.