Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Rey Cross, Stainmore (NY905124)

© Copyright Andrew Barclay and licensed for reuse

On the north side of the A66 in the middle of bleakest Stainmore stands a stump of a cross set in a stone socket known as the Rey (or Rere) Cross. Until the 1990s it stood a few yards to the west (at NY900123), but following road widening was relocated to its present location after a brief stay at the Bowes Museum.

As with many such relics, the landmark’s origins and general history are a confused mix of legend and fact. It seems likely that it was raised in the tenth century, and, since it is said to have once bore Viking carvings, has become linked inexorably with that most infamous of Northumbrian kings, Eric Bloodaxe. Eric enjoyed two brief spells as Norwegian ruler in these parts in the mid-900s, and his supposed death in battle on Stainmore have led many to believe that the cross acted as some sort of memorial to either the battle itself or Eric’s burial spot. However, no bones have ever been found near the (original) location of the cross, despite limited searches.

The word ‘Rey’ or ‘Rere’ probably derives from the Old Norse hreyrr, meaning "boundary cairn", so it is perhaps more likely that the cross was originally simply a boundary marker between Northumbria and Strathclyde erected at some point during the mid tenth century (on the orders of King Edmund, c.945, it is reckoned). The fact that Eric Bloodaxe may have died in battle or in some sort of ambush there a few years later is probably coincidental.

The cross (possibly of wheel-head form) would originally have been around ten feet high.

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

The Unfortunate Railtons (NY994135)

From the Bowes parish register:

Roger Wrightson, junior, and Martha Railton, both of Bowes, buried in one grave. He died of a fever, and upon hearing his passing bell, she cry'd out "My heart is broke," and in a few hours expired, purely (or supposed) [interlined in a different hand] thro' love. March 15, 1714–15, aged about 20 years each.

A lamentable tale indeed; and a short piece of primary source material upon which both a ballad (Bowes Tragedy; or, A Pattern of True Love) and a poem (Edwin and Emma) were later penned.

It seems that the demise of the two young lovers had quite a backstory. In short, the Wrightsons were a cut above the Railtons socially, being landowners – the latter being mere innkeepers. Roger and Martha kept their brief affair secret, but when the former fell ill with a fever Martha was as good as barred from maintaining any sort of meaningful contact with her lover. When the young man died, the young lass was distraught beyond reason and died of a broken heart within hours. The two were, however, buried in the same grave in Bowes graveyard.

In 1717, the local grammar school master compiled his Bowes Tragedy ballad – which was utilised to great financial gain by Martha’s sister, Tamar, who would sing it to travellers passing through the village. Then, in 1760, came poet David Mallet’s Edwin and Emma, which, he acknowledged, was inspired by the Bowes affair.

The curious story of the Railton siblings doesn’t end there. The brother of Martha and Tamar, John, inherited the landlordship of the village pub, The George Inn (now The Ancient Unicorn). Bowes being situated where it is, the establishment’s main source of income was from thirsty travellers crossing Stainmore. John had a thing about investing in road improvements and repairs (he was a Quaker with, therefore, a heightened sense of public duty). He is known to have dabbled (somewhat vaguely and unreliably) in the Carlisle-Newcastle Military Road project of the 1750s; and, closer to home, sought to try his hand in similar affairs in an attempt to improve trade at his pub…

… He is supposed to have ruined himself by improving the road over Stanmore [sic, road now the A66]. . . . The result, however, disappointed him; as formerly, travellers whose horses were exhausted by the bad state of the roads were glad to stop at The George, the first inn after crossing Stanmore, but when the road was improved they preferred going on to Greta Bridge.

Despite his hardships and failed enterprise, John Railton seems to have been held in generally high regard. From The Life of John Buncle, Esq, by Thomas Amory (1756):

... I gave the horses another feed of corn at Bows [sic], at The George, kept by Railton, the Quaker; an excellent inn, and the master of it an instructive and entertaining orator. I mention these things for your benefit, reader, that you may know where to stop to advantage, if you should ever ride over the same ground I went that day.

John Railton sold The George in 1760. He later spent some time in Newcastle where he eventually died and was buried. Despite its hard times, the pub survived – by 1810 it was called The Unicorn, and is now The Ancient Unicorn.

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.