Skiing in County Durham

Is England’s best ski area worth a visit? I went to find out. Picture By Katie Lee

Can skiing in England match the Alps? I’ve skied with happy mediocrity in every major Alpine resort over the last 24 years. Last week I visited Country Durham, to see how England’s best skiing compared.

skiing in weardale 11The ski area – a hill with two button lifts – is Swinhope Moor in Weardale, County Durham. It has the longest runs of any English ski area, some over 1 km: long enough for a good ski. The forecast claimed a chance of snow. However, I drove the six hours from London though utterly snow-free countryside, wondering what I’d find.

The hills surrounding the liaison point were more dead grass brown than snow-sparking white. I met Mike Leatherland, a 55 year-old antique clock restorer from nearby Stanhope. He’s Field Officer for the Weardale ski club. “There are 14 Committee Members.” Mike explained. “We swap the jobs around, and between us maintain the lifts, slopes and the clubhouse. It’s entirely voluntary, taking up around 100 man days a year. ”

The club started in the 1950s outside Durham, then moved to Weardale in 1963 where the high, wide north-facing bowl promised excellent skiing potential. The club flourished. The original lift, a rope attached to a motorbike engine, was replaced by two Austrian button lifts, rising in series 600 feet, and capable of whooshing 420 skiers an hour up the hill.

Mike drove me up the slightly snowy road to the skiing car-park (“We always tell people to bring a spade. The snow can come fast up here”). There we met Alan Gove, a 34 year-old company director from Harrogate, loading a snowboard into his 4X4.

“I’ve been here four times this season,” he told me. “When you’ve got the snow bug, it’s hard to give up. It’s great here. You can ski all day for £15, which is the same as an hour on an indoor slope, and it’s so much better. The volunteers who keep it going deserve medals.

“But it’s terrible today.” He added, “Hardly any snow. That’s why I’m going home. You should be alright on skis though!”

skiing in weardale 12The button’s base is usually 10 minutes hike from the car park, but I was ferried up the moor on a snow bike. It was bleakly beautiful. Dead, tufty grass and patches of mud were dusted by a scattering of snow. A skier materialised from the white cloud that sullenly obscured the upper slopes. Somehow, he or she was gliding along quite smartly on the brown and white.

The two storey clubhouse, at the junction between the long button lifts, was impressive, as was the little red piste-basher (a wide-tracked bulldozer for smoothing ski runs) parked outside it. You know people are serious about skiing when they’ve got a piste-basher.

“When the snow comes, we’re ready to use it!”, Mike said. Yes. When the snow comes….

The wide slopes around us had great ski-zone potential. With both lifts running, there are seven pisted tracks, 12 un-pisted itinerary slopes, and plenty of off-piste. Today though, only the lower lift was running, and there were no pistes because there wasn’t enough snow to make them.

The clubhouse wasn’t exactly your Valhalla-like Alpine restaurant awash with booze and melted cheese, but no doubt its classroom-style tables and little kitchen create a cosy atmosphere when it’s full. There are around 100 skiers and boarders there on a busy day.

That day, as I strapped on skis – Mike’s unfortunately, as the bindings broke on his spares that he’d brought for me – the only other skiers around were 10 year-old Harriet Gallagher from Durham, skiing with her father and little sister.

Harriet told me that she skied regularly here, and in Les Arcs, France: “There aren’t as many runs, but a good day at Weardale is as good as a good day at Les Arcs.” She enthused. But today wasn’t a good day, so the Gallaghers were heading home.

Which left two skiers. Me and Bob, AKA Robert West, a 63 year-old retired rig worker from nearby Chilton. He said he’d be pleased to escort me down the hill.

Bob zipped off, and I followed, across snow and slick grass. On my first turn, both skis slid out and I crunched hip-first onto hard ground. I clambered up, noting that it must be above freezing, because my ski suit had a muddy smear down the left flank. I chose my second turn point badly – on top of a molehill – and fell again.

This was no good. But there was only one way down the stupid slope, and Bob was already at the bottom. Tensing every muscle, skiing in the lavatorial position favoured by utter beginners, I struggled downhill without falling again. Puffing like a post-coital elephant and hoping to delay the next run, I asked Bob about Weardale.

“I’ve been skiing here since 1964. Two years ago we had Alpine conditions, and I’ve had four good days here already this season. It’s different to the Alps because it’s so friendly. You can ski along and chat to anyone. Today’s the worst for a while, but you’ve got to get out and about when you’re 63, haven’t you?”

With that he was off, before I’d had time to disagree.

We did four more runs. I strained to find purchase on the bizarre grass-snow surface. My operated-on lumbar five disc, usually fine for skiing, began firing angry complaints brain-wards. After the fourth run, giving up seemed reasonable.

“Another run?” asked Mike enthusiastically. I looked at his kind, cheery, helpful face. He was missing out so that I might ski. He devotes vast amounts of his free time so that others might ski here. He really wanted me to like it.

“Yes please!” I said.

And then, by Klammer, I got it. Perhaps because this was the last run, I found my nerve. I discovered, as with all skiing, that a bit of bravery and a modicum of speed worked wonders. I danced down the slope, mincing jauntily with the wiggly little turns so popular in the eighties, and I really loved it.

skiing in weardale 14“And again?” Asked Mike, when I arrived at the bottom, happy, and hardly puffing.

“Yes please!” I said. This time I meant it.

In good conditions (which can be checked with the links below), you would have a great day’s skiing at Swinhope Moor. It’s not the Alps. There are no long-distance adventures, nor is there gluhwein-fuelled dancing to DJ Otzi in ski-boots afterwards. Swinhope Moor is about skiing. If you love skiing, and the conditions improve (no reason they shouldn’t, we’ve just had the coldest December since 2001), then you’ll love it there.

DETAILS , Call 01388 527527

Where: Weardale, 40 minutes drive from Durham, an hour from Newcastle, six from London.

Lift pass: £15. Less for concessions. Pay there.

Level: Intermediate and better

Ski hire: None nearby, but Crossley Tordoff of Pontefract, (01977) 702002, hire skis. A couple of hours south, but on your way if you’re coming from London.

An hour away in Sunderland is Silksworth dry ski slope, which will rent out boots and skis – or 0191 553 5793

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009 / Copyright on pictures Katie Lee 2009