New walking guide describes the North East's wild places

PUBLISHED: 14:02 05 July 2011 | UPDATED: 19:39 20 February 2013

Britain and Ireland's Best Wild Places by Christopher Somerville (£19.99, Penguin Press)

Britain and Ireland's Best Wild Places by Christopher Somerville (£19.99, Penguin Press)

Jo Haywood discovers where the wild things are in the North East with the help of a new walking guide

A disused limestone quarry is probably not top of your list of places to visit. In fact, its probably not on your list at all.

But, according to a new scintillatingly idiosyncratic guide to the British countryside, it really should be on your must-see list, along with a former polluted marshland and a pair of looming smokestacks.

All are in the North East - Bishop Middleham Quarry, County Durham; Portrack Marsh, Teesside; and Sikehead Dam, County Durham - and all are highlighted by Christopher Somerville in his book Best Wild Places (19.99, Penguin Press), which picks out 500 essential journeys in Britain
and Ireland.

Magnesium limestone is uncommon in Britain, and County Durham has the lions share of it, he said, explaining his choice of Bishop Middleham.

This limestone is partly composed of dolomite, a crystalline mineral very low in acidity, which encourages the flourishing of limestone flora - especially orchids.

This old quarry has not been worked since before the Second World War and is now one of the best sites for beautiful limestone flowers in the North East.

It is also home to the Northern Brown Argus, a rare and handsome butterfly with a scalloped orange hem to its dark wings, which is drawn to the area by yellow buttons of rockrose that pepper the quarry ledges.

Somerville, who has spent the last 25 years walking the countryside lanes, hills and wildernesses of Britain for numerous books, television programmes and newspaper articles, first got to know the wilder side of the North East in the 1960s as a student at Durham University.

I would bicycle out to the coast for the freaky pleasure of exploring what seemed more moonscape than any terrestrial landform, he said.

This was a landscape apparently blasted beyond redemption by coal mining and colliery dumping; a blighted region from which nature had been ruthlessly expunged.


Yet after the coal mines closed, a breathtaking transformation began. These cliffs, denes and beaches, so drastically fouled only a few years ago, are being encroached upon and recaptured by nature. Its a remarkable success story.


And this is a remarkable book. Packed with nuggets of information about wild places both remote and astonishingly close to home, it is
the perfect guide for those seeking to discover untamed treasures off the beaten track.

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