Tuesday, 16 January 2018

The Butter Stone (NY999184)

© Copyright Hugh Mortimer and licensed for 

The Butter Stone sits near the edge of open moorland a few yards to the west of the minor road connecting Cotherstone in the north to Bowes in the south. It was deposited there quite by chance several thousand years ago by a passing glacier.

The oddly-shaped rock has in its top a cup-like depression, which, it is said, was used in times yore to leave monetary payment in exchange for food. This was during outbreaks of plague, when close human contact was best avoided – so the spot acted as a sort of mini-market or makeshift trading post for the health-conscious. Presumably, butter must have been at one time the most important commodity traded here, but there would have been much more besides. Elsewhere these sorts of landmarks are known simply as plague stones.

Nowadays you may find a coin or two placed there out of a nod to those troubled times – more often than not in a little puddle of rainwater! During commercial use, though, the money would have been placed in a pool of vinegar so that it may be adequately disinfected.

Perhaps the little boulder at one time had some deeper meaning, but I suspect we shall never know for sure.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Romaldkirk’s Devil’s Door (NY995222)

Early 20th century plan of Romaldkirk Church
[from A History of the County of York,
North Riding: Volume 1 (1914)]

A sprinkling of Britain’s parish churches retain a curious structural feature known as a ‘Devil’s Door’. Such churches are mainly found in Sussex, but we have one here in the North-East at Romaldkirk.

If it had one, a church’s 'Devil's Door' was in the north wall of the building – the north side belonging to Old Nick. The purpose of the same appears to have been two-fold, and both reasons go back to the early Middle Ages. Firstly, this door was traditionally left open during a christening to let out the evil spirits thought to reside in every child prior to baptism. Moreover, unbaptised ‘heathens’ could, if they so wish, enter the church via this route – remember that such sites were also considered sacred to pagans in the very earliest days of Christianity. In time the entrance/exit point became merely symbolic and, following the Reformation, most of these doors were removed or blocked up – in many cases to ‘shut the Devil out’.

In the case of the above plan, the Devil’s Door is not the ‘blocked doorway’ in the chancel, but rather the slab shown under the words ‘window over’ in the North Aisle. You can find interior and exterior views of the feature on Antony Cairns’ Flickr album (the internal shot shows a slender stone slab inserted in the doorway during the Victorian era).

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Middleton-in-Teesdale: A Potted History (NY950253)

The capital of Upper Teesdale; the centre of the region’s lead-mining industry; Alfred Wainwright’s favourite haunt – all titles bestowed upon this picturesque little town set deep among the hills of the Tees valley.

Pre-1800, Middleton-in-Teesdale was a quite ordinary agricultural village – a market town, in fact – until, that is, the London (or Quaker) Lead Company decided to relocate its northern headquarters there from Blanchland in 1815.  Lead ruled thereafter, until 1905, during which time a multitude of new buildings were erected, tastefully, and of local millstone grit.  A ‘New Town’ grew to the south, administrative buildings to the north (including the impressive Middleton House) – solid, functional erections, now softened with the passage of time and faded memories.  For the nineteenth century days of lead were difficult times – only the most hard working and loyal workers aspired to the New Town. But the Quakers were caring bosses, it seems – a very early co-operative was built here; and by 1857 90% of the population was involved in the industry.  There were Methodist, Baptist and Anglican chapels (but, strangely, no Quaker Meeting Houses), schools, and arches – arches everywhere, in fact: a trait of the town.

Always a market town for sheep and cattle, it is now a designated Conservation Area. Gardens and trees abound: ash, sycamore, elm – even giant redwood and a monkey puzzle tree!  Good walking country – including the Pennine Way – lies close by; and the waterfalls of High Force and Cauldron Snout, together with reservoirs a plenty, all nestle nearby. And in the churchyard lies the church of St.Mary’s, built in 1878, and a curious detached belfry – its three bells once operated by one man using both hands and one foot – standing since 1557.   The present church is at least the third such edifice to be built on the site, with the original most probably being constructed in the twelfth century.

Middleton-in-Teesdale railway station, as was, stood at the very end of the Tees Valley Railway branch line.  The line operated from 1868 until it fell to the Beeching axe in 1964.

The activities of ancient man are evidenced by the presence of nearby Kirkcarrion tumulus, a pine-covered hill to the south of the village dating back to the Bronze Age.

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

Wynch Bridge, Teesdale (NY904279)

Near the sequence of waterfalls known as Low Force in Teesdale can be found the present-day incarnation of Wynch (or Winch) Bridge – a shaky-looking suspension affair over a particularly ravinous stretch of the River Tees.

The wobbly crossing of today is at least the third version of its kind to have occupied the site. When the first such contraption was thrown across the gorge it was said to have been England’s first chain suspension bridge – and the second in Europe. This was in 1741, and was built to facilitate the movement of the Holwick leadminers from south of the river (old Yorkshire) to their place of work at Little Eggleshope in County Durham on the north bank. Apparently, it only had one handrail and was suspended on hand-forged wrought iron chains – and at 70ft in length and 20ft above the raging torrent, it must have been something of a leap of faith for the individuals concerned. This first bridge was washed away in the Great Flood of 1771, but was replaced by an only slightly more robust-looking second bridge (this time with two handrails). You’ll not be surprised to learn that this one, too, fell apart in 1802, imperilling the lives of several poor souls who happened to be on board at the time. It was a miracle that only one of them was killed.

It was patched up and eventually rebuilt again (a little further upstream) in 1830 to pretty much its current design and appearance, with the double handrails and timber platform suspended from iron chains secured to the banks over cast iron columns. It was strengthened further in 1992 … but still wobbles a lot.

Note: The old image above greatly exaggerates the height of the bridge above the river.

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

'Weardale Men and Manners'

A curious work concerning the life and times of the residents of Upper Weardale appeared in print in 1840. Entitled Weardale Men and Manners, it was authored by a local resident by the name of Jacob Ralph Featherston. It contains observations of the folk in and around the little settlements of St John’s Chapel, Ireshopeburn, Wearhead, Westgate and Daddryshield. Here are a few extracts…

The lead mines in the county of Durham can equal any part of England for a fine and athletic race of men. Removed from scenes of gross licentiousness, and unacquainted with the pernicious practices too generally prevailing in large towns, they inherit sound constitutions, and their bodily frames are strangers to loathsome disease. Their diet is plain and wholesome; but with a sad want of animal food. Frank and free in their manners, kind and hospitable at their homes, remarkable for helping and assisting each other, it is not to be wondered they are strongly knit to their native hills. 

The average life of a miner is about fifty years. Most of them are subscribers to Westgate and Wearhead libraries; a debating club has also been established, and an instrumental band, lately formed, is a pleasant pastime for those who are skilled in music.

The schools, conducted on the old system, are at Ireshopeburn and Burtreeford.

The masters in general are respectable and qualified for their situations, though it is highly desirable that more attention should be devoted to an improvement in the manners of the scholars. In this instance, their conduct is shamefully negligent, and it cannot be too severely reprehended. Surely it could not be any hard task to teach and enforce the boys to bow their heads, and the girls to make a modest courtesy, with good morning or evening, to their benefactors or any respectable stranger who may happen to meet them. Could this be accomplished – and there is no apparent difficulty, if laziness could be overcome – it would redound to the credit of the masters, the children, and the dale. It would stamp civility on the character of the rising generation, as what is learnt in childhood is rarely forgotten in after days.

A foolish and unseemly custom prevails of inviting to funerals five and six score of mourners. To mention nothing of the expense, it is impossible to prevent hurry, bustle, and confusion. It would be a great boon to Weardale, if some person, more courageous than his neighbours, would set the example and abandon this custom, which is condemned by everyone, and of the folly of which all are convinced. A hearse having now been provided, no plea or justification can be advanced for such a waste of money, or continuance of a custom so ill-befitting the melancholy occasion.

There cannot be a more interesting sight than a Weardale wedding.

It is customary for the bridegroom’s man to seek the bridegroom and conduct him to the house of the bride. Each young man arrives with a fair partner, and from ten to twenty couple, gaily dressed, assemble on this happy occasion.

The older people assist to wait upon them, and they breakfast first, so that they may be at the altar ere the clock strikes twelve. The priest having performed the ceremony, and all being duly signed, the party make to an inn, the landlord or landlady of which has had previous notice to provide cake.

Four or five hours are spent in drinking wine and punch; a fiddle is in attendance, and many a merry joke and airy jig have they. The gloves and expenses at the public house are paid by the young men – the bridegroom being exempted according to usage. They then set off arm-in-arm to the groom’s house, where a substantial supper is provided, and ale and spirits are handed round till all are satisfied. Then away they go again to the nearest tavern, where most part of the night is past in carousing, dancing, and merriment.

Ale and spirit drinking is the cardinal failing of the men of Weardale.

This cannot be disputed – as witness the waste of money – the frequent fightings – the loss of work – the disordered body – the remorse of conscience – torn clothes and bloody shirts – late hours and distressed friends – with a number of other ills.

Of all the vices which belong to us, this is the first we should try to overcome. Into this error, I confess, I have too frequently fallen, without any plea to offer in justification. Unfortunately there are too many of the same description. Even if country life, particularly in winter, be gloomy and solitary, and company be oftentime to be sought for in the tavern, it is a paltry excuse, and will not bear the test of next morning’s reflection. It is my firm and decided, because well considered, opinion that, be the yearly pays ever so good, Weardale will never be in a reasonably prosperous state till this foolish and expensive practice be considerably diminished. We drink and spend in days as much as would serve some people, in other countries, weeks; though let it be mentioned and borne in mind that there is no systematic tippling among us as there is in towns.


The full text can be found here.

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Cowhorse Hush, Killhope (NY824422)

© Copyright Andrew Curtis and licensed for 

Cowhorse, or Cowhaust, Hush is a substantial manmade gash in the landscape above and to the south of the Killhope Lead Mine complex in Weardale. It measures some 3,000+ feet in length and is around 90 feet deep. The damage was caused by a crude method of mineral prospecting known as ‘hushing’.

In this corner of the country, hushes were made as an environmentally unfriendly way to aid lead-mining. By the use of manmade channels (leats), water was collected behind dams and then released in an almighty torrent to wash away topsoil and loose rock to reveal the much sought after veins beneath the surface.

Hushing was mainly an eighteenth century pastime, after which the landscape would be hand hewn with picks and shovels, aided by explosives where necessary. By around 1800 this method of gaining access to ore was not considered economically viable and underground mining became the norm.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Allenheads Hydraulic Engine (NY859452)

© Copyright Helen Wilkinson and licensed for 

The chief attraction of Allenheads Heritage Centre is the recently restored Armstrong Hydraulic Engine, pictured above – or, to give it its full title, the ‘W.G.Armstrong twin cylinder, double acting hydraulic engine’. It was made and supplied by the famous industrialist for his friend, the almost as well-known Thomas Sopwith, who at the time was agent of the town’s lead mine.

The water-powered mechanism was one of several that ran machinery in the mine’s yard, primarily the saw-mill and the ore crusher. Installed in the 1840s*, it was fed by Spring House and East End reservoirs high in the hills above the town – and remained in service, remarkably, until 1960. After lying unused and then derelict for a couple of decades, it was rediscovered in 1986 and subsequently restored to full working order.

It is believed to be the last remaining engine of its kind in the world.

* The installation date of the engine does not seem to be precisely known. Some sources give this as early as 1846, but as Armstrong’s mighty Elswick Works in Newcastle were not founded until 1847, this seems unlikely. Sopwith’s diary entries for 1856 indicate that Armstrong’s ‘hydraulic machines’ had by then been up and running for some time.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Whitley Castle: a Very Special Roman Fort (NY695487)

Whitley Castle, as drawn by Thomas Sopwith in 
The Roman Wall by John Collingwood
Bruce, (1853). North is to the right!

Whitley Castle Roman Fort – or, more properly, Epiacum – lies on the Northumberland side of the county border with Cumbria a couple of miles NW of Alston. It is, of course, one of many such Roman remains scattered across the North-East, but this one is rather special in two ways.

Firstly, it is lozenge-shaped, as opposed to the standard playing-card set-up. This is due to the lie of the land hereabouts – a 1,050-ft high remote spot in the foothills of the Pennines – and the distorted ground plan is accentuated by the similarly skewed layout of the internal buildings. Its potted history is a familiar one: Iron Age site, followed by a Roman camp, then a full-blown fort c.120AD. There appear to have been rebuilds in c.200AD, then again around 300AD.

Its shape is, we think, unique in the Roman world. Additionally, it has the most complex system of defensive earthworks of any known fort in the Empire – an astonishing claim to fame. There are multiple banks, ditches and folds in the landscape outside the stone ramparts of the fort itself – it being suggested that the main purpose of the stronghold was to control and protect lead and silver mining in the area.

Despite its rather special features the fort has never been fully excavated and to this day lies largely undisturbed under permanent pasture. It is perhaps the greatest archaeological monument in the north of England yet to be uncovered.

Oh, and one other (quite) special thing: it is the highest stone-built Roman fort in Britain…

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

‘Disgraceful Doggerel’ at Knarsdale (NY678542)

Though now obliterated from sight, a curious epitaph to one Robert Baxter was once to be found near the porch of St.Jude’s Church, Knarsdale, in the valley of the South Tyne. The famous historian, John Hodgson, in his early 19th century History of Northumberland, took great offence at the tone of the inscription, terming it ‘disgraceful doggerel’…

In memory of Robert Baxter, of Far-house, who died Oct 4 1796, aged 50*.
All you who please these lines to read, 
It will cause a tender heart to bleed;
I murdered was upon the fell, 
And by the man I knew full well; 
By bread and butter which he’d laid, 
I, being harmless, was betrayed. 
I hope he will remembered** be 
That laid that poison there for me.

[*or ‘56’, depending on your sources; **some sources give this as ‘rewarded’]

The story goes that Mr Baxter, during the course of his shepherding duties on the fell, came across some bread and butter neatly folded up in paper. Being peckish, he ate it, but was soon seized with violent convulsions, and eventually expired – but not before pointing the finger at a malicious neighbour with whom he had recently quarrelled. The bait, he said, had been laid deliberately to kill him. It seems that the accusation was widely believed, but no inquest was held on the man’s body, so the suspect (whoever he was) was never charged.

Quite how this monumental inscription got past the eye of the incumbent vicar we shall never know. Eventually, though, someone saw fit to chip off the offending verse – and I believe the stone itself is now broken (can anyone confirm this?).

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Isaac’s Well, Allendale Town (NY838558)

© Copyright Mike Quinn and licensed for reuse 

Isaac’s Well sits quietly by the roadside of the main thoroughfare of Allendale Town in the valley of the River East Allen. It is one of several relics in the area with direct links back to a famed local eccentric and philanthropist by the name of Isaac Holden. But what makes the story of this particular do-gooder so extraordinary is that despite his prolific fundraising he himself had barely two pennies to rub together.

Holden began his working life as a lead miner, but when his local mine closed he and his family were threatened with destitution. So, whilst his wife, Ann, ran a little grocery shop in Allendale, he decided to start a modest venture of his own as an itinerant tea seller. And so he began his wanderings over the moors surrounding the town eking out a living as best he could for the rest of his working life.

The man himself

But Holden was a philanthropist at heart, and despite his lack of education and finances, determined to do his bit for the local community. Fired by not a little Methodist zeal, he set about his charity fundraising as best he could among the sparsely populated highways and byways of his working catchment area. Thanks to his drive Allendale would come to be blessed with, among other things, a savings bank and two chapels. And then, of course, there was the little well. As the nearby plaque tells us:

Isaac's Well is named after Isaac Holden (c.1805-1857), a local tea seller who raised the funds for its construction. Fresh, clean drinking water not only helped overcome the threat of cholera and typhoid but also made better tasting tea. Although no longer safe to drink from, the well now lies on the route of ‘Isaac's Tea Trail’, a walk that follows the tea seller’s footsteps through the North Pennines.

(originally, the well was located across the road but was moved when piped water was introduced to the town in the 1870s)

Isaac’s most famous ‘scheme’ was his last, raising money by selling photographs of himself for a ‘mystery’ cause. Turns out it was for the purchase of a hearse for use by the folk of the West Allen area for the princely sum of £25. It was quite a gesture, as dignity in the face of one’s death and funeral was of the utmost importance at the time, of course – no matter how poor you were.

When the humble Holden himself died in 1857 a substantial monument was erected in Allendale churchyard in his honour, with money donated by local residents, naturally. The epitaph reads:

In memory of
Isaac Holden
a native of this parish,
who died November 12th 1857
aged 51 years.
He gained the esteem
and respect of the public
by his untiring diligence
in originating works of charity
and public usefulness.
Upwards of 600 persons
subscribed to erect
this monument.

Now there’s a life well lived.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Whitfield Hall & Waterloo (NY777564)

Whitfield Hall is a private mansion on the banks of the River West Allen, set against the rugged backdrop of the Pennine Hills. The estate has been in the hands of the Blackett and Ord (and Blackett-Ord!) families since the 12th century, and sprawls over a not inconsiderable 18,000 acres or so. The current (and very difficult to see) house was erected in 1785.

The old place is these days best remembered, perhaps, as the location of a rather special historical find made in 1900 when a cache of documentation was found stashed away in its attic: namely, the papers of one Thomas Creevey. Among the large collection of almost indecipherable paperwork was found a pointed account of the Battle of Waterloo by none other than the Duke of Wellington himself…

Creevey (1768-1838) was a Whig politician, and though not a wealthy man, was able to maintain an extraordinary network of high-flying contacts through the sheer force of his personality. Crucially, he kept journals, diaries and all of his correspondence – all of which was written in an open and wittily honest style. Though not all seem to have survived his death, enough found their way into the upper reaches of Whitfield Hall (via his step-daughter, Elizabeth Ord) to give us a fascinating glimpse into the political and social life of the late Georgian era – and all in a most outspoken manner!

Quite apart from his use of offensive nicknames for the leading figures of the day, his greatest ‘scoop’ was being the very first civilian to interview the Duke of Wellington after his famous victory at Waterloo. Creevey, finding himself quite by accident to be living on the doorstep of hostilities in what is now a corner of Belgium in June 1815, mixed with the gathering throng following the Iron Duke’s finest moment. ‘I saw the Duke alone at his window,’ wrote Creevey, ‘Upon his recognizing me, he immediately beckoned me to come up’ – where the great commander poured his heart out to his acquaintance:

It has been a damned serious business... Blucher and I have lost 30,000 men. It has been a damned nice* thing – the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life. … By God! I don't think it would have been done if I had not been there.

(*use of the word ‘nice’ is in the older sense of the word, meaning “uncertain or delicately balanced”, and has sometimes been paraphrased as “a damn close-run thing.”)

It wasn’t the only thing he said to him, but it has become the most oft-quoted – and wouldn’t have made it into the light of day at all but for an accidental find at Whitfield Hall a little over a century ago. The Creevey Papers, as they became known, were part-published in 1903, and the original collection is now held by Northumberland Archives.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Coanwood Friends’ Meeting House (NY709589)

© Copyright Andrew Curtis and licensed for 

Quaker meeting houses are thin on the ground here in the North-East, but the one to be found at a remote spot a couple of miles east of Coanwood, Northumberland, is really rather special. For it is one of the best examples of its kind anywhere of a Society of Friends’ meeting house which has remained unaltered, internally, since its 18th century construction.

As a general rule these sorts of places were almost all remodelled in the Victorian era, but not so that at Coanwood – its remoteness no doubt helping it out in this respect. It was built in 1760 under the directions of Cuthbert Wigham, a local landowner and long-time Quaker, who had previously held meetings in his own house. Externally, the building is of sturdy stone construction, with a roof of Welsh slate – though it is thought this may have originally been heather thatched. Inside, however, little has changed in over two-and-a-half centuries.

© Copyright Mike Quinn and licensed for 

Within its robust outer shell can be found the simplest of layouts. Plain, open-backed pews face onto a raised area at the front where Elders’ benches are situated facing out over the congregation. At the rear is a movable screen designed to create a second room if required (which is heated by a small fireplace) and the whole of the interior is stone-flagged. Outside there is a small graveyard with the characteristically small, rounded headstones of the Quaker type – including that of Cuthbert Wigham, the house’s founder.

The meeting house ceased operating as a Quaker chapel in 1960, but can usually be found open to the passing public.