Hooked around the northern reaches of the village of Cockfield, Co.Durham, are large expanses of open and largely redundant common land. It is not the prettiest place on the planet, nor is it, you would have thought, the most obvious haven of historical interest. But, whilst you may not want to take your family a-picnicking on the low-lying hills of Cockfield Fell, you may be surprised to learn that hereabouts forms one of the most important sites in the region when it comes to industrial heritage. And it is, in fact, the largest Scheduled Ancient Monument in England.
At 350 hectares (that’s 850+ acres in old money), Cockfield Fell has been described as “one of the most important early industrial landscapes in Britain”. There are traces of human activity here (in the shape of flint arrowheads) stretching back 10,000 years; and there is clear evidence of pre-Roman occupation, too, by way of at least four Iron Age settlement enclosures. A rectangular-shaped earthwork may, it is thought, be Roman; and there are plenty of Medieval remains to be found, too (field systems, quarrying, etc.).
Most interestingly, though, documents name Cockfield Fell as one of the earliest (the earliest?) known sites in the North-East for coal mining – the Bishop of Durham having issued a licence for such activity in 1303 – and a proper colliery was established in 1375 by William Vavasour. Consequently, a good deal of waste soon built up on the fell; and the general mess was greatly added to when whinstone quarries were subsequently dug around and about. The railways also made their mark, primarily with the Bishop Auckland-Barnard Castle line which once swept across the fell (1862-1962). In 1869 the moorland became a ‘regulated pasture’, which effectively turned it into a grazing area.
Its pock-marked appearance is clear to see on aerial photographs and satellite images. And it has been thus for many, many centuries – which probably explains why it was never enclosed during the 18th and 19th centuries. Its unusual look and protected status thus gives this corner of the North-East a somewhat mysterious and eerie air, providing the curious visitor with a thirst for more information. If ever there was a place ripe for further archaeological examination it is Cockfield Fell…