England Everyday Adventures Nature & Wildlife

Wild Things to Do with Kids in Durham

Working with a bucker.Image b The Family Adevnture Project
Written by Kirstie Pelling

Have your children seen a red squirrel recently? Or ever? And when did they last sleep under the stars in a truly dark sky? In this post, an advertising feature for This is Durham, we got wet, wild and back to nature in the North East. Staying in a yurt in the grounds of Killhope MIning Museum and visiting High Force and Raby Castle we followed a challenge of 20 wild things to do in Durham, the Durham Dales and the North Pennines AONB…  

Armstrong Waterwheel at Killhope Mine. Image by The Family Adventure  Project
Armstrong Waterwheel at Killhope Mine. Image by The Family Adventure Project

What to do in Durham and North Pennines AONB

Silence never descends on the North Pennines, Not during my visit anyhow. But the stars quietly rise, without a fuss, much later than our bedtime. By the time I wander to the bathroom at 3am they are in full beam. Although we are only a few miles from a stack of Durham villages, and a short drive on hairpin bends to Alston and the Cumbrian border, it feels really wild here. The mine we are camping at may have ended production decades ago, but nature doesn’t come to a halt on demand. Everywhere I walk, even in this narrow slit of night, water ebbs and flows and pumps and drains and dumps and tips.

Killhope. One example of what to do in Durham and the North Pennines
Water flows everywhere at Killhope. Image by The Family Adventure Project

Staying at Killhope Lead Mining Museum

Killhope Lead Mining Museum is an unusual place to rest your head. It is one of 17 Dark Sky Discovery Sites in the North Pennines AONB. (An area with the most ‘Dark Sky Discovery Sites’ than anywhere else in the UK.) And there’s an on-site observatory that occasionally offers the chance to view them through a telescope.

There are yurts, but it’s not glamping. There’s an exhibition but it’s not sightseeing. Instead it’s an immersion into history and nature. We sleep on the polished wood floor of a yurt called Plover, warm ourselves on the wood burning stove and in the morning go red squirrel spotting just yards from our sleeping bags.

“Would you like to feed the squirrels?” asks a guide. Would we?

Feeding The Squirrels

“We had Newcastle University here a while back to do a survey and they discovered we had 19 in the breeding colony. It’s actually breeding season now; the kittens from the first litter should be coming out and about,” says guide Sue Pidd as we walk up the hill to the hide. “Sometimes you get here and find the squirrels are actually waiting for you. They are quite brave and they hop away for a bit until you get the food sorted out for them. There is one cheeky chap who sits in the car park and he’s quite happy to be stared at. He’s absolutely unfazed, but others are a bit more squirrelly.”

Squirrel watch

The girls empty the feeders, scattering the black sunflower husks onto the ground. “The squirrels split them in the middle and then very kindly put the husks back in; we empty them onto the forest floor and the pheasants feed on them.” Sue explains. We add fresh seed for the squirrels who watch quietly from the trees in a flash of red fur coat and tail. This is apparently the best time to see them before the mine’s washing floor becomes a hive of activity with kids hunting for treasures. Feeding squirrels is just one of the activities on a fun, downloadable map of 20 Wild Things to Do in Durham. Download one before you go if you have kids, or pick them up from a Tourist Information.          

Feeding ourselves

But we mustn’t forget to feed ourselves! On the way to the mine we bought Taste Durham award-winning food from Bradley Burn where the Stephenson family run a dairy farm. Bradley Burn collects the best in local food from farmers and producers and sells it in the shop and café. We stocked up on marmalade from Darlington, cheese from Weardale, and apple and ginger chutney from the farm itself. A barbecue breakfast outside our yurt fuels us up for the day ahead.

Spar box of delights

Any introduction to Killhope Mine starts at the small on-site museum where you can get a feel for the industry in Victorian times. The museum takes visitors through community, domestic and family life of the time, as well as geology and the minerals of the North Pennines. But it’s the collection of spar boxes that wow. These are small structures (some were believed to be old cases for ferns) filled with lumps of mineral the miners collected from the vein as they mined the galena. An arrangement of their “best bonny bits.” Many are created into scenes, and offer both a glimpse into the imaginations of the miners, and inspiration for making mini mineral worlds. If you have kids that like dolls houses they will be bewitched.

Spar boxes at Killhope Mining Museum
Spar box at Killhope Mining Museum.Image by The Family Adventure Project

Adventure underground

We put on wellies and hard hat for an underground adventure with our guide Bridget. In the mine where the WB Lead Company first began digging in 1853, tunnels are narrow (about the width of a pony, not-so coincidentally) and tours are intimate and geared at the kids.

“What’s in this rock?” Bridget asks, after introducing herself.

“Glitter?” volunteers a small child. Good guess but no.

“This is galena.” Bridget sends round a chunk of the lead ore in its natural mineral state. It is surprisingly heavy, much heavier than limestone.

“Are we ready to go underground? Can the last one in pull the gate?”  

Inside the tunnels at Killhope.Image by The Family Adventure Project
Inside the tunnels at Killhope. Image by The Family Adventure Project

Where ponies used to tread

There’s a flow of water in the mine and our wellies are soon covered to the ankles, We walk where the Dales ponies used to tread, avoiding splashing the person in front as much as we can. It’s slimy and very dark, winding back a mile into the hillside. although we don’t go nearly that far. We shine our torches onto the graffiti initials of Peter Milburn, Joseph Carrick, Joseph Emerson and Joseph Peart who started cutting the tunnel. At its peak there were 120 miners working here. This was one of the most productive and rich lead mines in the country in the 1870’s. Yet its success was short-lived; by 1910 it was shut.  

Near some mannequins of the workers, Bridget introduces us to their tools; the sledgehammer, the jumper and the pricker. “This pricker is a nasty little tool,” she explains.”It is made of iron and if you scrape it across a rock it makes a spark that could catch on gunpowder.”

Outside the miners cottage at Killhope Museum. Image by The Family Adventure Project
Outside the miners cottage at Killhope Museum. Image by The Family Adventure Project

Mining for fluorite

Killhope Museum describes itself as a ‘worksheet free zone’ and its main objective is to get the kids involved in learning by doing things. So next it’s off to the washing floor. Sue leads us once more. She puts her hand in her pocket and pulls out the kind of minerals the workers would have found in the veins of galena.

Mineral specimens. Image by The Family Adventure Project
Mineral specimens. Image by The Family Adventure Project

“Hopefully you are going to find some of this stuff. That’s the galena, the lead ore.” She reassures me it is non toxic; “Nothing at all got smelted on this site. You might also find some of this stuff here which is fluorite, sometimes called fluorospar, and that pretty green is only found here in Weardale. It is quite rare, but unfortunately it fades in daylight.”   

Sue explains how the tubs came out of the horse level mine, with the contents sent for washing and sorting.“Teamwork is what this place is about; not knocking people over with a shovel,” she jokes. Hannah and Hermione are just a bit older than the Victorian boys who lived and worked here. They take a bucker; a hammer used to break up the larger stones, put on safety goggles and start to smash. Soon they find treasure, or it finds them, shattering in many directions.

Things to do in Durham and the North Pennines aonb
We have treasure?

Then it’s over to the washing rake. “This is the job the boys would do. Smaller stones go through the grate and land. Sometimes the prettiest pieces are in here. The galena gets smaller as the process goes on.” There are squeals as the girls find green fluorite and galena. “We make sure no one goes away empty handed. We do have secret stashes. “ Sue tells me when they aren’t looking.

Floral education at  Bowlees

There’s a café at the museum, but  the day is still young, so we press on into Upper Teesdale to the Bowlees Visitor Centre. Bowlees is a characterful former methodist chapel, where over coffee in the excellent Ford Kitchen cafe Information Assistant Mark Tyler briefs us on an afternoon’s walk. He tells us about the unique wildlife and fauna flourishing in this part of the Durham Dales and gives us an illustrated card to help us spot common and rare flowers, as well as a map.

“It takes about two hours to get round. This is the gateway to the North Pennines AONB including High Force, Summerhill Force, and Gibson’s Cave, named after an outlaw.” And there’s the Wynch Bridge, a suspension bridge over the trees. “Quite a lot in a small space.” he says, It’s a four and a half mile walk or five including the cave, and most of the natural attractions Mark has listed are part of the 20 wild things challenge for us to tick off. There’s more too. Upper Teesdale is the only place in the UK where we might find the “Blue Gentian flower.” We can also look out for a big V; or hush called Coldberry Gutter. Coldberry is a great example of opencast working along a lead vein dating back to the 18th Century. You can learn so much about mining in the North East without even trying.   

Nature at High Force Waterfall .Image by The Family Adventure Project
Nature at High Force Waterfall. Image by The Family Adventure Project

Walking high and low

Our walk is leisurely and sunlit, winding upstream by the side of the water. We stop to view Low Force, stoop to smell and touch juniper and globeflowers near the riverbank. (Like buttercups but bigger and less common.) There are over 200 plant species between the Wynch Bridge and High Force. At a natural viewing area we enjoy the might and rush of High Force waterfall as it plunges over the Whin Sill onto dramatic layers of sandstone and limestone.

High Force Waterfall, Durham.Imae b The Family Adventure Project
High Force Waterfall, Durham. Image b The Family Adventure Project

A Global Geopark

In 2003 the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty became the first area in Britain to be awarded the status of European Geopark. In 2014 it became a UNESCO Global Geopark. It is a unique limestone region filled with meadows, woods, and farmland. We take in a little of each on our walk back through farmland to Bowlees. It’s a gentle and easy loop. We pass the distinctive white cottages of the Raby estate and several farmers stop for an end of the day chat as they check their cows.   

Wynch Bridge.Image  by The Family Adventure Project
Wynch Bridge.Image by The Family Adventure Project

Otter spotting

We think we have seen the last of the waterfall for the day. But at The High Force Hotel, Manager Andrew Lindsey sends us back down their private path to the waterfall, to watch the baby otters play about in the eddies. Sadly there are too many people round for the otters to put on a full show, but we do spot one checking us out from a rock.  

otter spotting at High Force Waterfall. Image by The Family Adventure Project
Looking for otters at High Force Waterfall. Image by The Family Adventure Project


Perhaps we’ve spent too long looking at waterfalls but later we spot the shape and form of High Force in a towering stack of homemade burger and onion rings. It doesn’t stand up for long; we’ve done so much walking we are starving and soon demolish everything on the table.

High force Hotel burger. Image by The Family Adventure Project
High force Hotel burger. Image by The Family Adventure Project

Dolphins and swans at Raby Castle  

Spotting shapes appears to be a theme of the weekend. For anyone with a bit of imagination, the diversity of nature is evident in the hedges at Raby Castle. (The deer park at Raby is yet another of the 20 wild things to do in Durham challenge activities.) The huge English Yews planted 300 years ago resemble massive green puffs of cloud and a favourite activity of the gardeners is to challenge school children to spot different animal creatures: “We line them up and say ‘how many animals can you see?‘ says Ben Ridley, one of two full time gardeners at the castle. “Honestly the amount of animals they come up with! They’re only there two hours and they see trains, carriages, dolphins, soldiers, birds. Elephants!”

Gardener at Raby Castle.Image by The Family Adventure Project

We pick out dolphins and mermaids. “I can see Voldemort” declares our guide and we all admire the lack of nose on that particular patch. Ben is full of stories and tells us the hedge takes two months to trim. It’s also deeply poisonous, and cuttings have been used to help with cancer research.

Raby Castle is worth a whole morning; we play boules and quoits and venture into the deer park to watch herds of cows graze alongside the deer. The castle itself is closed on our visit, so we use the fields around it to do cartwheels and pirouettes and we roll down hills towards a body of water that was once the moat and is now christened “the pond,” and filled with swans and ducks.

Good night from Killhope

Back at Killhope, squirrels are the only other guests as dusk falls. I walk down towards the tiny miners’ cottage that held more than thirty men and boys. I take in the view of the Armstrong waterwheel, like a bronze sculpture against the sunset, and I look upwards, to the reservoirs and forest and stars. It is not dark yet, but soon it will be. The miners may have gone, but tonight their ghosts will once more ride this star-lit lead and water park, surfing the pipes, troughs and streams, while the spar boxes sparkle and glow.

Washing tub at Killhope Mine
Washing tub at Killhope Mine

Practical Information

Killhope Mining Museum is a great option for anyone who would like to sleep under the starry sky without having to put up a tent. There are three yurts available for overnight accommodation. Plover and Curlew accommodates a maximum of 4 adults and 2 children. There are bigger yurts available for larger groups or families. Th cost is £60 per yurt for Plover and Curlew and the accommodation comes with BBQ area and novel pizza oven attachment.

Tours of the mine run several times a day and times vary depending on visitor numbers. The best thing is to pitch up and grab a slot.

What to do in Durham and North Pennines AONB
What to do in Durham and North Pennines AONB? Visit Low Force

Raby Castle walled gardens and deer park are open daily from 10am. The castle itself is open from 11am Wednesday to Sunday.

Dancing at Raby Castle  Image by The Family Adventure Project
Dancing at Raby Castle . Image by The Family Adventure Project

Bowlees Visitor Centre is open from 10m-5pm in summer. There’s lots to do at the centre including trails, treasure hunts, star gazing and guided walks on archaeology, insects and birds.

High Force Waterfall riverside walk is free but it is worth paying the £1.50 to follow the private path from the hotel. As well a a chance to spot otters it takes you to the foot of the waterfall. The money raised is spent on up-keeping the paths.

If you are interested in visiting the city of Durham while in the area check out our post on things to do in Durham. You can also check out Globalmouse blogger Nichola West’s great itinerary for family things to do in County Durham. And here’s Ting Dalton’s experience of Beamish, Hamsterley Forest and other treats in a Durham weekend with younger kids.

Disclosure: This post, and our trip, was a collaboration with This is Durham. All mineral mining, castle ballet and waterfall wandering was all our own, along with the words and images.

About the author

Kirstie Pelling

Kirstie is the Editor of The Family Adventure Project. A professional writer and poet, she's the creative and journalistic force behind many of the stories and features published here. She's a co-founder and co-director of The Family Adventure Project and also works as the #poetinmotion producing and performing poetry for print, video and live performance.


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Follow Us

We're Kirstie & Stuart. We share an adventurous spirit, a passion for indie travel and 3 kids. The Family Adventure Project is our long term experiment in doing active, adventurous things together. Find out more...


Trips100 - Travel Blogs   Trips100

© Copyright: Stuart Wickes & Kirstie Pelling 2000-2021