Gibside Wonders of Nature Trail
Explore woodlands, meadows, wetlands and along the riverside. You'll see nature at work and, if you are lucky, spot some wildlife at play.
Market Place, grid ref: NZ171583
Find the start of the trail after crossing the road from the raised wooden walkway beside the estate map. Go straight ahead with the Walled Garden wall on your left and the play castle on your right.
Here at Market Place you have a range of facilities to use before you start if needed. This is the place to stop for refreshments from the cafe or shop to take with you. Toilets and baby change are found here too.
At the doorway to the Walled Garden, take a left turn and head through the door. The path leads you straight through the middle of the garden, passing apple trees and allotment plots. The end of the path leads to large wooden gates.
Gardens can be a haven for wildlife, particularly through the summer months when flowers are in bloom. Gibside's Walled Garden is no different. On warm sunny days a selection of butterflies such as large white or orange tip can be seen fluttering from flower to flower. The bees are also busy at this time. Take time to visit the observation beehive (in the far right corner from where you arrived). See them at work making honey and if you look carefully, try and spot the queen who should have a white dot on her back. Next to the beehive is the pond, which was originally created for fish in the garden design, but is now a sanctuary to newts, including the rare great crested newt.
Out of the Walled Garden turn right and head towards the Avenue and when you reach it, turn left. Follow the road with the Avenue on your right and a large field and Orangery ruin on your left. Continue past this field which becomes a section of woodland. Just after the wood ends, another field appears, turn left at this point, following the edge of the woodland and into the wood itself.
The Avenue stretches for about 1/2 mile and is now home to over 200 trees including common lime, sycamore and various species of oak. Squirrels are often seen scurrying here from tree to tree, but these trees also provide a home to a variety of birds who are also potentially gathering nuts like the squirrels, such as the jay. There are also holes in several of the trees along the road side that have made a great nest site for smaller song birds. Listen out in spring for a constant chirping (the chicks shouting for food) and see if you can spot the parents returning to the hole to feed them.
As you enter the woodland, carefully walk down the steps and follow the steep path that takes you to the bottom of the dene. The path bends to the left where it emerges onto a grassy clearing (the site of the historic bath house (only stone foundations can be seen today), and turns back on itself to take you alongside the river.
Ice House Dene & fernery
This damp and steep-sided woodland is ideal for the ferns that grow here.
Continue along the path that slowly starts to descend down to the riverside. It's a roughly surfaced path that has some steeper slopes than others. The trail follows the river, so ignore any paths that join the trail from the right. There are several benches to stop and rest at along this stretch, so have seat and see what wildlife shows up at the river and in the meadow (known as Lady Haugh) behind you. The path eventually turns away from the river, cuts across the end of the meadow and heads back up into the woodland where it joins one of the forestry roads. Take a right at this point.
The River Derwent, a haven for wildlife
This peaceful and tranquil area of Gibside, is the ideal place to have a rest and watch for kingfishers flashing past or diving for fish, dippers bobbing among the rocks, herons poised to strike, fish jumping in the water or if you are really lucky, see otters swimming or playing along the rivers edge. The River Derwent is one of the best rivers in the UK for seeing otter! But don't just look at the river. Look up and watch for red kites or buzzard soaring in the skies above you, watch for roe deer grazing in the meadow, or small tortoise shell or peacock butterflies flying across the meadow grasses. Lady Haugh is actually managed by Gibside's farmer, and the long grass is cut for hay in late summer.
Follow the track as it starts to head uphill through the woods. Pass the steep trail to your left that is signed for the Column, and continue up to the Lily Pond, with the Column to Liberty towering above you. The track emerges from the woodland with a clearing and a dip in the landscape on your right (the Hollow Walk). If you look across the Hollow Walk, you can see the Avenue leading along to the Chapel. Behind you is a small path leading from the track back into the woods, signed for the Column. Head up this path.
You can get up to the waters edge at this pond. Look into the water, and among the reeds and water plants spot pond skaters, water boatmen or depending on the time of year, tadpoles, frogs or newts. Great crested newts also live here, contributing to this pond and the surrounding woodland of Snipes Dene, being classed and protected as SSSI (Site of Special Scientific interest). Due to this protection, it's only Gibside's conservation team who can pond dip here. Also watch out for damsel and dragon flies that are a common site in the summer months.
The path winds its way through the trees, eventually emerging in a clearing, home to the Column to Liberty. Take a moment to admire this grand tower and its surrounding glades, before continuing back on the trail, with the Column to your left, reenter the woodland and at the junction, turn right. The path weaves through more conifer woodland, and soon with a field on your right (Brick Kiln Field). At the next junction, turn left and you will begin to see some of the slopes that have been felled of their trees. The trail gets quite steep at this point as it drops downhill, so take your time, the it levels out to pass the coal mine entrance on your right. Continue straight ahead and when the path forks, take the right hand path that starts to head back uphill and joins another of the forestry roads.
Woodland and bats
Much of this woodland is dark due to the pines, larch and in places western hemlock, growing so close together. Glades have been cleared in stretches leading away from the base of the Column allowing grass and other meadow species to reestablish. These clearings also increase the amount of woodland edge which are ideal for insects, which in turn attract bats to feed on them. There are six species of bats found at Gibside, and like the great crested newt, are all protected species. Try and spot some bats feeding in these glades or along the paths if you're walking around here at dusk.
Turn right and begin the walk up to the top of Snipes Dene. The track gets a bit steeper in places, but heads upwards for just over half a mile, with established woodland on your left, and cleared areas on your left. There are several benches on this stretch if you need to take a break. Keep looking across the cleared areas to spot deer or fox in the undergrowth. At the top of the hill, the track bends round to the right and heads back down along the other side of Snipes Dene. Continue on this track, passing a track junction on your left, and see your first glimpse of the Octagon Pond at the bottom of the hill in front of you.
Managing conifer woodland
Much of the woodland in Gibside is managed under a forestry plan that was created by the Forestry Commission as they actually own much of the woodland. When they acquired the woods they planted large amounts of fast growing conifer trees so the could harvest them in years to come. Some of that felling has been done (hence the clearings in Snipes Dene). Once these areas have been harvested, they fall to the National Trust Conservation team to manage. You will notice young trees growing in tree guards. The idea is now that the conifers are gone, native deciduous trees can re-establish themselves and create a better habitat for native wildlife. More light will reach the woodland floor creating conditions for ground flora to establish and then as the trees grow, various layers will emerge within the woodland. Each layer being suitable for a different wildlife. Snipes Dene looks a little bare now, but in the near future will be thriving with a wider range of plants and animals.
The track bends to the right, passing the Octagon Pond on your left, however, before continuing to follow the waymarked trail, you can take the path on your right, taking you back into the woodland, and visit the bird hide which is just along the path on your left. You can also get a better look at the Octagon Pond and head onto the grass on your left. once you are ready to continue, return to the forestry track, and head down, ignoring the right hand track going down the hill, but walk straight along, passing straight over the t-junction and seeing the stables on your right.
Bird life at the hide & Octagon Pond
A stop at the bird hide is always worthwhile as you might get a closer glimpse of small woodland birds such as great tit, blue tit, nuthatch, but there could also be a great spotted woodpecker on a feeder or see a pheasant or even a mouse feeding on the ground. Back at the Octagon Pond, there are the usual birds swimming around, like the coot, mallard and tufted duck. But you might also hear what sounds like a 'witches cackle' and see a small little diving bird disappear for a couple of minutes. This is a little grebe and they are often present here. Dragonflies can also been seen in the summer, zooming across the tops of the reeds, and on occasion a roe deer might stray out of the woods across the grassy slope in front of the Banqueting House at the top of the hill.
Continue to follow the track towards the Stables. Take this opportunity to stop at the Stables to grab a drink from the Carriage House Coffee Shop or use the toilet facilities. There's rooms to learn about Gibside's history and wildlife too. To continue on the trail head straight up the hill from the Stables back into the woodland, passing the Woodland Bothy on your right and just further up on your left, spot the site of the historic sawmill. Continue up the hill, passing a yurt on your left.
Wildlife Room, Stables
The Stables has a number of facilities for you to use, but the Wildlife Room is worth a visit. Its located on the right hand side of the courtyard, and has information on Gibside's habitats and wildlife. TV's show wildlife films that were recorded on site by one of the Conservation Rangers, but you can also find live feeds on bird feeders or nest cameras, depending upon the time of year. The birds filmed are often the swallows that arrive to nest in the building. The arrival of these birds indicate the start of spring, provide entertain as they swoop and dive around the courtyard, and when they leave for their African home, we know autumn is here. There is sometimes bird ringing demonstrations at the Stables too which are always really interesting to watch and see birds up close in the hand. The Stables is also home to a large roost of pipestrelle bats. They use the roof of the building for their maternity roost, and can be heard chattering away by the Learning team as the roost is above their Stables office.
Head straight up the hill and see Park Fields through the trees on your right. See if you can spot the large wooden bat that hangs from the trees over the track at the top of the hill. Keep going, passing across the t-junction, staying on the level. Just past this junction is the den building area. Continue straight on and follow the track as it winds through the woods.
Habitat piles & shelters
Along the edges of this stretch of woodland are several piles of wood. Some of them are there naturally, others have been created by the Rangers to provide homes for insects, amphibians and small mammals. Please don't pull them apart as you could be destroying an animal's home. If you have children with you, you could always stop at the den building site and build your own shelter. You could do this as a pretend home for yourself or create a small one for a mouse or a fox.
Follow the track until you reach a finger post that directs you down a path into the woods (signposted to the Low Ropes Course). Continue down the path, stopping at the Low Ropes Course if you feel like a quick challenge, reaching the bottom of West Wood. Cross over the bottom of the t-junction, and take a path on your right heading up the slope and signed for Strawberry Castle Play Area. The path leads you around the edge of the fields, and passes into the play area.
Walk through the play area, and continue around to the right with the woods on your left and fields on your right. The path winds along the edge of the wood and brings you out at the end of the Avenue, behind the Chapel and back to Market Place. Treat yourself to a refreshing drink or snack at the cafe or pop into the shop and see what wildlife books or animal themed gifts are in stock to remind you of some of the wildlife you have seen.
Field and meadow management
The fields to your right are called Park Fields, and were central to the garden design in the 18th-century, when they were managed intensively. These days the farmer grazes his sheep and cattle on the meadows, however, they are managed to benefit wildlife as well, creating habitats for hare, deer and a whole host of insects.
Market Place, behind the Chapel
You made it
Following this trail on mobile or tablet? Share your experience.