Abandoned treasures

An eerily deserted town, two chimneys on an empty moor, a two-mile canal tunnel that leads nowhere – all over Britain there are mysterious ruins in spectacular locations that can only be discovered on foot. We investigate the often obscure histories behind some of them and the best routes to take you there

WORDS: Christopher Somerville

Ship's Graveyard, Purton in Gloucestershire

Ships’ Graveyard, Purton, Gloucestershire

LOST HISTORY

With its big sweeping bends, fierce currents and sandbanks, the River Severn seawards of Gloucester is a difficult tideway. Dozens of superannuated boats – concrete barges, and wooden Severn colliers with names such as Orby, Abbey, Huntley and Harriett – were rammed into the eastern riverbank between Purton and Sharpness some 50 years ago to stabilise it. Their bows and sterns, tillers and rudders can still be seen there, each site marked with a plaque carrying a brief history of the vessel.

ABANDONED TRAIL

From the Berkeley Arms pub in Purton, go south along the canal and River Severn past Ships’ Graveyard (SO683042) to Sharpness. Then from the village hall, venture east across fields (following the yellow arrows) to the Lammastide Inn at Brookend. Field paths north from Lip Lane return you to Purton for a total walk of about 6½ miles.

Sike Head Dam and Chimneys, County Durham

LOST HISTORY

In 1922, the youthful poet WH Auden wandered the moorland paths of west Durham to the recently disused lead mine at Sike Head. Dropping a pebble down a shaft and hearing it splash in the darkness far below, he had an existential revelation of his own creativity stirring in the dark. It’s certainly a moody place, with its long-abandoned reservoir and two tall chimneys standing stark. The lead ore trucks were winched down Bolt’s Incline to the smelting mills below, before cheaper foreign imports put them out of business.

ABANDONED TRAIL

From the Rookhope Inn at Rookhope, follow the long-distance path called A Penine Journey, for three miles up Bolt’s Incline to the dam and chimneys of Sike Head lead mines (NY955465). Return the same way.

Cliffe Fort, Kent

Cliffe Fort, Kent

LOST HISTORY

Some unauthorised madcaps have filmed inside Cliffe Fort. Enjoy their efforts online (see link below), but don’t be tempted to enter this dangerously derelict, spooky and strange old fort on the River Thames. It was built in the 1860s to deter a French invasion that never materialised. Now the grey bulk looks out across mud and marshes from blank windows sprouting weeds.

ABANDONED TRAIL

From the RSPB car park in Salt Lane, Cliffe (there are two bird-rich nature reserves en route), a four-mile circular route follows a path northwest to Cliffe Creek, where you pick up the Saxon Shore Way west beside the River Thames to Cliffe Fort (TQ706767). Continue south for about a mile, then east along a path through gravel works and a farm back to the car park.

Houghton House, Bedfordshire

LOST HISTORY

The 17th-century mansion of Houghton House, dominating the chalk ridge that looks down on Bedford, was well known to local tinker’s son John Bunyan. In The Pilgrim’s Progress, he named it House Beautiful, standing at the crest of the Delectable Hills. Today, the Countess of Pembroke’s hunting lodge – once the haunt of kings and courtiers – stands broken, roofless and hollow, yet still massively impressive. Shadowy, flitting figures are said to haunt the ruin.

ABANDONED TRAIL

From the Royal Oak pub in Houghton Conquest, a four-mile walk goes south along Rectory Lane, following field paths (marked with yellow posts) to the northwest corner of King’s Wood. Head west, then south, from here to pass Houghton Park House and explore Houghton House (TL039395), then return via the eastern edge of the ancient woodland nature reserve of King’s Wood along the Marston Vale Trail.

Butterley Tunnel, Derbyshire

Butterley Tunnel, Derbyshire

LOST HISTORY

After the Cromford Canal opened in 1794, the 2,712m Butterley Tunnel carried bricks, lead, limestone and raw cotton, as well as newly forged cannons and cannonballs, which were lowered directly into barges through a shaft from the Butterley Ironworks on the hill above. A roof fall in 1907 closed it. Now tunnel, spillway and the reservoir above are the haunts of wrens, dragonflies and marsh marigolds.

ABANDONED TRAIL

From Newlands Inn Station, near Ripley, follow the canal footpath west into the cutting to the eastern mouth of Butterley Tunnel (SK422513). Follow the tunnel above ground along Coach Road and through a business park to its western entrance at a sewage works (SK394517 – now just a culvert under the A38). You can return to Newlands Inn via the delightful, vintage steam Golden Valley Light Railway.

Rosedale Ironstone Railway, North Yorkshire

LOST HISTORY

The Rosedale Railway, opened in 1861, ran from the ironstone mines at Bank Top, above Rosedale Abbey, around the rim of the North York Moors and down the 1:5 Ingleby Incline to the mainline railway. When ironstone became unprofitable, so did the railway. It closed in 1929, and now snakes as a sinuous track of grass and cinders along the moor edge. The Coast to Coast, Lyke Wake Walk and Cleveland Way all make use of its firm, level and easily visible route.

ABANDONED TRAIL

From the Lion Inn at Blakey Ridge (NZ679997), the Rosedale Railway leads across the moors in either direction. Choose either the 4½ miles southeast to Rosedale or the five miles northwest to Bloworth Crossing, from where the Coast to Coast Path continues to Hasty Bank car park (a further 8½ miles).

South Elmham Minster, Suffolk

South Elmham Minster, Suffolk

LOST HISTORY

In a dense wood of oak and hornbeam, invisible until you are right upon it, a great Saxon building quietly crumbles away. Its age is uncertain – somewhere between 1,000 and 1,300 years. Was it a cathedral-like church, a retreat for the Bishop of Norwich or the fortified house of some local lord? No one knows. The minster stands hidden in its thicket, camouflaged by sun splashes and shadows, looking just like a ruined castle in a fairy tale.

ABANDONED TRAIL

For an hour-long walking tour, park opposite a byway 250m west of South Elmham Hall’s entrance drive (TM306835) and head down it to a stream. Turn left past South Elmham Minster (TM308827) and, in 300m, left again to cross Mill Lane, returning via Old Hall Farm.

Whiteford Burrows, Gower

LOST HISTORY

It’s a strange sight – a dark forest of pine trees, not on a northern moor or a Scottish mountain, but isolated at the tip of the Gower Peninsula on a range of sandhills at the edge of the Loughor Estuary. A beautiful walk takes you out among these resin-scented pines. They were planted as a commercial crop in the 1920s by the landowner, Captain NS Kinnersley, but never harvested. These days, the National Trust protects them.

ABANDONED TRAIL

A 4½-mile walk there and back from St Madoc’s Church in Llanmadoc descends a road to Cwm Ivy and follows the path along the edge of the marsh, through the pine forest and on out to the tip of the dunes. Look out for orchids, wildfowl and iridescent common blue butterflies, as well as the rusting remains of the UK’s only sea-level cast-iron lighthouse out to sea.

Dunnottar Castle, Aberdeenshire

Dunnottar Castle, Aberdeenshire

LOST HISTORY

Lowering and seemingly impregnable on its dark crag overlooking the North Sea, Dunnottar Castle is as grimly formidable and spectacular a stronghold as you could wish to see. The oldest part of the present building, a stone church, dates from the 13th century. The castle’s thick walls surround vaulted rooms and deep dungeons, and it boasts right-angle passages to stop the flight of bullets, as well as murder-holes and trip-stones. The castle rises from a giant fist of conglomerate rock that falls a sheer 50m into the sea, and one narrow neck of rock connects it to the mainland.

ABANDONED TRAIL

From Market Square car park in Stonehaven, follow Allardice Street south for a four-mile there-and-back walk, following the brown tourist signs to Dunnottar Castle (NO882839) via the clifftop war memorial on Black Hill and the exhilarating cliff path.

Tyneham, Dorset

LOST HISTORY

The remote village of Tyneham is tucked into a cleft of the Dorset coast. It has lain abandoned since 1943, when the villagers were evicted to make way for troops and tanks training for D-Day. “Please treat the church and houses with care,” said the handwritten note they left pinned to the church door. “We shall return one day.” They never did. Houses lie roofless, the church and school contain poignant exhibitions, and the faces of the vanished villagers stare like ghosts from old photographs.

ABANDONED TRAIL

From Tyneham car park (SY882802), explore the great barn, cottages, school and church. Then make an eight-mile anticlockwise circuit via the ridge north of the village to the Flower’s Barrow hillfort. Take note of warning signs: as well as cliff erosion, there are MoD firing ranges nearby. Head steeply down to Worbarrow Bay for a swim, take the Jurassic Coast path by Brandy Bay to Kimmeridge Bay, and return to Tyneham by the ridge again.

Discover more beautiful ruins in our interview with artist Gina Soden.