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Pints & Parkruns: Chopwell Wood

Into the woods to battle a beast

By Andy PottsPublished 2 months ago 3 min read

Strange things happen, deep in the woods. Terrors lurk here, usually in the form of steep inclines. Chopwell Wood, in an unexpectedly rural outpost of Gateshead, boasts some nasty little hills. The steepest gradient on the course comes in at 14.3%, as part of an extended 500m climb about 1km in. Then, after a gratifying downhill, there’s another long rise, about 800m, with some 10%+ sections. Mercifully, the last 600m or so is dead flat. Just as well, since most runners are dead on their feet by this point.

Almost exactly two years ago, I made my first trip here and it defeated me. More than once, I was reduced to walking as the hills got too much. So today’s return had an extra resonance: could I defeat the demons of the deep, dark woods? After getting round the equally hilly Marshall Drive a couple of weeks earlier, I was confident that it could be done. But a course that features longer, steeper climbs still had to be treated with caution. No blasting off along the opening flat stretch along the old railway line, nor skipping blithely up to the old footbridge before tackling the first killer climb. Equally, despite the potential for a 1km PB on that long downhill, I promised myself I’d be sensible and let gravity do the work for me.

At the finish.

Others followed different tactics. I saw at least one runner who flatly refused to run up any hill, but sprinted the descents and jogged along the flat stretches (and this course does have some long flat bits, usually following the path of the old wagonways). If I mutter about cheating, that’s just because he got round faster than me overall. Still, it’s a run, not a race – and I beat the target I set for myself by running the whole 5k and shaving a few seconds off the time I set in 2022.

The bridge over the old wagonway. The parkrun route goes under and over this one.

Although anybody who runs here will go away with an impression of some tough hills, that shouldn’t put off visitors. This is a lovely forest run that celebrates the rewilding of some once-bleak industrial land. This used to be prime mining territory: records suggest that surface mines were winning coal here back in the 14th century, and the first deep pit opened as early as 1756. In the 19th century, the industrial revolution drove an insatiable thirst for fuel and the high-quality coking coal under these hills was highly prized. There was a militant streak among the local miners, with Chopwell village earning the nickname “Little Moscow”. Today, with red kites circling above and the chance of glimpsing a deer in the thickets (note – wildlife spotting is easier on a gentle stroll, not panting and stampeding up a hill!), it’s hard to imagine this peaceful spot as a hive of heavy industry. Like much of the Derwent valley, recent decades have wrought a transformation back to nature.

Practicalities: this is a good one for trail shoes. Even when dry, paths are uneven and there’s always a danger of an unexpected tree root. There’s plenty of free parking (and not many realistic public transport options), but leave time to navigate the back roads to High Spen. There are no toilets in the wood, but there is a nice café – Beat ‘n’ Track – in High Spen village, just next to the turn-off into the woods.

The Pint

Blaydon’s Firebrick Brewery is probably the closest, geographically, to Chopwell Woods. But the connection is a bit deeper than that. Chopwell emerged as a replacement for Gibside parkrun, a similarly hilly trot around a nearby National Trust property that never returned from lockdown. Firebrick is something of a house beer for the Friday evening Pizza nights at Gibside, making it the obvious choice for Gibside parkrun’s successor. There’s a wide range available, much of which references the industrial heritage of the region. The Cushy Butterfield stout, named after another song from the pen of Blaydon Races writer Geordie Ridley, is a personal favourite; the Coalface mild, a contemporary take on a classic style, might be the most appropriate tipple to commemorate a run through former mining territory.

First visit: March 2022; PB: 27:56, March 2024

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About the Creator

Andy Potts

Community focused sports fan from Northeast England. Tends to root for the little guy. Look out for Talking Northeast, my new project coming soon.

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Comments (3)

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  • Charlene Ann Mildred Barroga2 months ago

    personal challenges met with community support amidst the beauty of nature's transformation.

  • I really enjoyed running vicariously with you… excellent time for such a gruelling run.✅ ‘I saw at least one runner who flatly refused to run up any hill, but sprinted the descents and jogged along the flat stretches’🤣… being a middle distance runner… that was my default method & yes, I got better times than the few times I did the entire course without walking one step😳. I like the photo of the bridge over the old wagonway. Looks picturesque.🧐

  • John Cox2 months ago

    This is a wonderful essay. It reminds me of a brutal ten K I ran almost 40 years ago now that was mostly uphill until the turn around mid way through the race. Early on I passed a brave sole competing in a wheel chair and I really felt for him til he rocketed past me on the way down.

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