by Rachel Richards, Wilderness Ranger
Barnard Castle, or Barney as it is known locally, is a beautiful market town set on the banks of the River Tees.
Public footpaths follow the river on both banks upstream (NW) towards Cotherstone and downstream (SE) towards Eggleston Abbey. Footpaths leading west head up Deepdale Beck into Deepdale Woods Nature Reserve.
As you leave the town walking along the northern banks of the Tees following the ‘Tees Way’ towards Cotherstone you will find predominantly ancient and semi-natural broadleaved woodland. Old oak trees, both Pedunculate and Sessile grow together with beech, sycamore, elm, alder and ash with an understory of holly, hawthorn, blackthorn and abundant hazel.
The ground flora is diverse in these woods. The early spring flowers: bluebells, wood anemone, wood sorrel, goldilocks (a lovely little woodland buttercup), wild garlic and woodruff which flowered in the brighter months, have now finished flowering. These plants made the most of the spring sun before trees came into full leaf and the canopy began to close. For those who know these plants you will still spot their leaves and seed heads. Much of the ground flora is dominated by lush green greater wood rush and localised stands of dog’s mercury.
After crossing Percy Beck you reach the band stand, an open grassy area and small river beach. Dames violet, a naturalised non-native plant, is abundant here with its lilac and purple flowers alongside native plants such as: cow parsley, hogweed, creeping and meadow buttercup, bush vetch, crosswort, red campion, silver weed and wood cranesbill.
For those with a particular interest in botany it is worth looking closely at where the vegetation meets the shingle. You should easily spot the large heads of wood club-rush and perhaps the more discreet hairy sedge. If you have a keen eye you may pick out a localised speciality, the flat sedge.
On hot days, the sandy margins here buzz with dozens of small brown sandpit mining bees which burrow down into the sand to prepare a home for their young.
Across the river, house martins circle, chattering noisily, accompanied by swallows and sand martins which nest in the sandy banks. You may be lucky enough to spot a kingfisher, dipper, grey or even yellow wagtail and goosander but you will certainly see mallard and oystercatcher and hear the evocative calls of curlew in neighbouring fields.
Following the path northwest along the river old twisted, moss covered oak abound. Hazel, hawthorn, black thorn and occasional guilder rose below along with ferns, broad buckler fern, various male ferns and hard shield fern. Currently flowering are the yellow buttercup-like flowers of wood avens, the subtle peach of water avens, white of pignut and sanicle, along with wood sedge and wood melic.
The trees are busy with the sounds of bird life: chaffinch, black bird, thrush, blue tit, great tit, coal tit, marsh tit, tree creeper, nuthatch and great spotted woodpecker; residents which have endured the winter, along with the many returned migrants such as chiff chaff, willow warbler, whitethroat, black cap and garden warbler. If you’re lucky you may watch a spotted flycatcher flicking between branches or even a pied flycatcher.
As the path climbs up over rocks and roots and towards the viaduct, old oaks twist out of rocky crags along with young rowan, and the vegetation begins to change. It becomes more acidic, more heath like with bilberry bushes appearing along with lanky ling heather and stands of lush rushes peppered with the beautiful yellow flowers of common cow wheat. From spring to summer, there is always colour. Spring’s purple of bitter vetch followed by cow wheat which in later summer will be replaced by the deep yellow of golden rod, purple heather and pastel yellows of woods sage.
On the other hand, Deepdale Wood feels very tucked away; somewhere that’s an adventure to explore with a personality of its own. Beside the shaded stream, wild garlic abounds whilst the path sides in many places support lush stands of the giant, rhubarb like leaves of butterbur interspersed with a diversity of other wild flowers including stands of sweet cicely, red campion and wood cranesbill. Comprised of wet woodland, ponds, little paths, bridges and a ford when the river is up. Roe deer are regularly seen here and birds are always singing.
You can walk along footpaths as far or as short a distance as your mood takes you out of Barnard Castle, in whichever direction takes your fancy. Be sure to take time to look around, notice, enjoy, listen, smell and breathe in our beautiful countryside and all the life it supports.