Tuesday 20 February 2018

The Pennine Way & the Great North-East (NY897067)

At a desolate spot high upon the backbone of England, where the modern-day counties of Cumbria, North Yorkshire and County Durham meet, can be found Tan Hill. Famous for it’s desperately isolated inn, it is also the point where the magnificent Pennine Way trail both enters and exits our region. Almost half of its 268-mile long route winds its way through Northumberland and County Durham, providing the fit and healthy among us with some of the most spectacular and historically interesting scenery in Europe.

Running north-south from Kirk Yetholm, a little over the Scottish Border, to Edale in Derbyshire, the trail was devised by keen walker Tom Stephenson, inspired, it is said, by the American Appalachian Trail. A journalist by profession, Stephenson first presented the concept in an article for the Daily Herald as long ago as 1935, and campaigned for an incredible 30 years before the very last section of the path was officially opened on 24th April 1965. Prior to its being thrown before the feet of the British public a comprehensive feasibility study was carried out - including, astonishingly, an on-the-ground hiking test by the British Army conducted by several separate patrols in a single day. In the 50-odd years since, the path has proved to be an outstanding success with around 12,000 long-distance and 250,000 day-users accessing the route per year.

Starting at the top, the UK’s most famous long-distance path begins at the Scottish border town of Kirk Yetholm, quickly angling SE to pick up the border itself and the Cheviot Hills. Clipping the top of the College valley, one is presented with an optional leg to the summit of the Cheviot, before swinging SW (with the border) over heights such as Windy Gyle, Mozie Law and the tasty-sounding hills of Beefstand and Lamb. Skirting the upper reaches of the Coquet basin, it drops down onto Chew Green Roman Camp, away from the line of the border, and thence southwards, eventually, into Redesdale, a little downstream from Catcleugh Reservoir. Easing around the western banks of the Rede, the path ascends Padon Hill, and then drops down directly into Bellingham - and over the River North Tyne.

A mixture of moor and coniferous woodland next, as the trail heads further south towards Hadrian’s Wall country - and almost too much history to bear! Crashing into the Roman Wall itself a little to the west of Housesteads, it staggers over the most dramatic section of the World Heritage Site in a westerly direction. Steel Rigg, Winshield Crags (the Wall’s highest point), Cawfield Crags, Great Chesters Fort - then it strikes across to Thirlwall Castle just north of Greenhead. Finally, the path turns south again, away from the Roman Wall, over Blenkinsopp Common, and into a landscape pockmarked with disused quarries and mining shafts - relics of a different, industrial, age.

Next the route arrows between the Cumbrian border to the west and the River South Tyne to the east, picking up the Maiden Way Roman road for a while, then chasing the River South Tyne valley through Slaggyford and Kirkhaugh - calling in at Whitley Castle Roman Fort, before disappearing into Cumbria.

In Cumbria it snakes through Alston and Garrigill - prime leadmining country - before heading to the top of Cross Fell, which, at 893m, is the highest point on the Pennine Way. After a loop around to Dufton, the walk heads sharply eastwards and back over the North-East border - this time into County Durham, at a point directly under the dam of Cow Green Reservoir.

It’s along the River Tees for a stretch now, as the spectacular Cauldron Snout and High Force waterfalls are taken in. Then, just before Middleton-in-Teesdale, the trail turns west and south, into lands once part of Yorkshire’s North Riding but now, since 1974, belonging to County Durham. Piercing Selset and Grassholme Reservoirs and ditto Balderhead and Blackton Reservoirs, we move thus into Baldersdale and then over Cotherstone Moor. Here the path splits, presenting one with options via Bowes (to the east) or God’s Bridge (to the west) - both of which cross the A66 - before we are directed southwestward up the Sleightholme Beck.

Climbing up and over the moors, Tan Hill finally beckons as the Pennine Way prepares to take us into the foreign land that is North Yorkshire. But there will always be time to drop in at the famous Tan Hill Inn, Britain’s highest pub at 528m.

But, whoa there! Just a minute. North Yorkshire? We’ve come a little too far.

And so ends the Great North-East History Tour, via 500-odd historical stop-offs…

… With occasional updates to (hopefully) follow.

Thanks for tagging along.

If you have enjoyed the ‘tour’ then you may wish to consider a little 'thank you' by way of a PayPal donation via the button in the right-hand column. Enough for a pint would be rather nice. Cheers!

Tuesday 13 February 2018

Wedding Present: Scargill Castle (NZ053107)

© Copyright Stanley Howe and licensed for reuse

Overlooking the River Greta in the deepest depths of Co.Durham (formerly the North Riding of  Yorkshire), sits the scattered - and partly restored - remains of Scargill Castle. Somewhat bizarrely for a historical relic, the most notable period in its long history probably belongs to the last couple of decades... when it was bought and given as a wedding present by one archaeologist to another!

As is so often the case, this castle was never really a castle at all, but rather a fortified manor house. It was founded in the late 12th century by one Warren de Scargill, and would have amounted to a strong stone house (and a few other sundry outbuildings) within a small walled courtyard. As well as offering protection to Warren and his descendants, the local villagers could also be brought within the walls in time of trouble.

By the early 14th century the Scargills had moved on and the ‘castle’ eventually found its way into the hands of the Tunstalls in 1531, around which time it was strengthened, including giving it its now distinctive three-storey gatehouse. However, the castle was abandoned again in the late 1600s, and, other than acting as a home for farm workers and being used as target practice during WWII, nothing notable seems to have happened to it until 1999 when…

… It was purchased by Niall Hardie-Hammond, the county archaeologist for County Durham, to be given by him as a wedding present to his wife, Caroline, who just happened to be the county archaeologist for Northumberland. It only cost him £100, but the substantial and prolonged period of renovation which followed cost them both a fair bit more. To cut a very long story short, the site was stabilised and made structurally safe, before eventually being properly restored - in medieval style - and opened as a holiday let in 2012.

Scargill Castle does have a couple of ‘nearly’ claims to fame. For years stories have circulated about an underground passage leading from the castle to Egglestone Abbey about three miles to the north (unsubstantiated); and for just as long it was thought that King Edward II had stayed there on his way north in 1323… but it turns out that he almost certainly hadn’t.

Readers may remember that the castle featured on Channel 4’s Time Team in January 2009.

Further info here.

Tuesday 6 February 2018

Old Spital, Stainmore (NY910121)

© Copyright N Chadwick and licensed for reuse

These days, the Old Spital equates to the farmhouse building of a roadside farmstead on the infamously desolate A66. It was once an old inn; and previous to that - a very long time ago - a medieval hospital, hence the name. Over the years it has invariably featured in the history books as the venue of a tale of folklore-ish proportions known as the ‘Hand of Glory’.

But, starting at the beginning, the medieval hospital was originally set up in the 12th century by the Abbot of Marrick (Richmondshire). Nearby we can find other similarly named place-names such as Spital Grange, Spital Park and Spital Farm. Over the years the Old Spital has been known by a variety of names: The Spittle-on-Stainmore, Spittle House, then, by the turn of the 19th century, the Spittle Inn (having been rebuilt in the late 18th century).

The ‘Hand of Glory’ incident dates to around this time, c.1800, when George Alderson and his family ran what was described as a ‘homely hostelry’. Helping them out - and central to the story - was a maid called Bella. In those days the ground floor of the building was occupied by stables and the like, and the upper stories were reached by stairs from the road. The story goes that on a stormy October evening, after the inn had been locked up for the night, the occupants were roused by a knock on the door. Alderson had been to Brough Hill Fair that day and had in his possession a large sum of money, so was wary of any unexpected visitors. Anyway, the door was answered and what appeared to be a bent old woman in a cloak and hood was admitted. She refused bed or food, insisting instead that she be allowed to rest by the fire as she had to resume her journey early the next morning. A little suspicious of the strange looking character, Bella the maid was instructed to stay in the room with the old lady and she curled herself up in a blanket feigning sleep.

In time, the mystery visitor stood up, revealing themselves to be a tall man disguised in woman’s clothes. From his cloak he took out a withered human hand - the Hand of Glory - and placed in it a candle. He bent over the maid and muttered: Let all who sleep, sleep on; let those who are awake, be awake.
The candle brightened, and the stranger opened the door, stepped outside onto the stairway and called for his companions. But Bella, still awake, rushed to the door, pushed the man down the stairs, and bolted the door behind him. The family, though, could not be woken - until, that is, she doused the candle with a cup of milk. George Alderson, suitably stirred, then rushed into the room and fired his blunderbuss from a window. After some time there was a shout from the darkness: Give up the Hand of Glory and we'll not harm you.

Another shot was fired ... and no more was heard. The withered old hand was, apparently, kept by the Aldersons for some time before being buried beneath the local gibbet.
In case you’re wondering (and I’m sure you are) a ‘Hand of Glory’ is the dried and pickled hand of a hanged man; and the accompanying candle is made from the fat of a hanged man. The two in combination are supposed to have magical powers, including keeping still a sleeping person to whom they are shown. And milk is the only thing that can dowse such a cursed light.

True story (ahem).

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.

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.