Teesdale

Cross Fell where Tees is born

Born in the bleak North Pennine moorlands of east Cumbria, the River Tees begins its journey to the sea on the southern slopes of Cross Fell, where it rises less than a mile from the source of the River South Tyne. Cross Fell is the highest point in the Pennines and at 2930 feet this hill is a very familiar sight to walkers on the Pennine Way.

High Force Waterfall
High Force Waterfall

In times gone by Cross Fell was associated with demons and was often known as the `Fiends Fell’, possibly because of the great wind it can produce in the valley of the Eden to its west. Known as the Helm Wind, this fierce gale of hurricane proportions, can strike most unexpectedly during the spring.

Read about Barnard Castle the Teesdale capital here

Cow Green and Upper Teesdale

From its boggy origins on Cross Fell the River Tees flows five miles east before entering North East England near Viewing Hill, (2099 feet). Here it is soon engulfed by Cow Green, a two mile long reservoir which was built between 1967 and 1971 to supply the industries of Teesside. Environmentally speaking this part of Upper Teesdale is of National importance and the plan to construct this reservoir had been strongly opposed by local conservationists. Their main concern was the protection of the rich flora and fauna of the district and especially rare alpine plants like the unique Teesdale violet.

Thankfully only about a tenth of this plant’s habitat was destroyed by the completion of the reservoir. The remaining area was designated a National Nature Reserve in 1969.On a less serious note the creation of the Cow Green Reservoir may have destroyed the habitat of a certain Peg Powler, the grotesque green-haired mermaid of the Tees who used to inhabit the valley now occupied by the reservoir. Her presence could be indicated by frothy substances on the river known as Peg Powler’s Suds and children were always warned to stay clear as she had an insatiable appetite for youngsters. Beware she may still be there.

Teesdale Waterfalls: Cauldron Snout and High Force

At the eastern end of Cow Green Reservoir, beyond the dam, the Tees rushes in a series of cataracts over a 200 yard long rocky `stairway’ called Cauldron Snout. The vertical distance from the first cataract to the last is 200 feet, making this wonderfully named waterfall the highest in England. Cauldron Snout is said to be haunted by a ghost called the `Singing Lady’ whose sad tale is that of a young Victorian farm girl who drowned herself in the waterfall when her love affair with a local lead miner came to an end. On cold moonlit nights she may be seen sitting on a rock near the falls where she sadly laments the loss of her loved one.

From Cauldron Snout the Tees meanders around the huge whin sill cliffs of Cronkley Scar and Falcon Clints and is joined by the Maizebeck, Merrygill, Harwood and Blea Becks as it makes its way towards High Forcewhich is undoubtedly England’s biggest waterfall and one of the most impressive sights of the region. It is best seen after a heavy downpour when the sound of the Tees roaring over a vertical drop of seventy feet almost deafens the observer.

High Force is in fact two falls, each situated on either side of a massive central rock, but the smaller northern fall is only occasionally seen in action. One such occasion was the 24th of June, 1880 when two men became trapped on the central rock after one of the sudden surges of the Tees known locally as the `roll’ occured. The first man was pulled free by means of a rope, but the second was not so lucky, his rope snapped and unfortunately he drowned. Tragically both men would probably have survived had they stayed where they were, as there are no recorded instances of the two falls ever merging over the central rock.

A number of other waterfalls can be found in this part of Teesdale, including the White Force, Bleabeck Force, Maizebeck Force and Low Force. Naturally Force is a word of Viking origin, deriving from the Old NorseFors which simply means waterfall.  It is interesting to note that in Weardale and Northumberland a waterfall is usually called a Linn, a word of Anglo-Celtic origin.

Two of the most attractive little waterfalls in the valley are only a little further downstream from High Force. The first is Low Force which as might be expected is a smaller simpler version of its higher brother. Unlike High Force it is formed by a series of cascades. Here the Tees is crossed by an iron suspension footbridge built in 1830 which replaced what was reputedly the earliest suspension bridge in Europe.

Not far from Low Force the Tees is joined by the Bowlees Beck on which we find the Summerhill Force, where the stream flows over a band of limestone.This waterfall has partly undercut the limestone behind it to form the picturesque cavern known as Gibson’s Cave.

Middleton in Teesdale lead mining past

Four miles downstream from High Force we reach the attractive little town of Middleton in Teesdale, on the Durham side of the river at the point where the Tees is joined by the Hudeshope Beck.

Middleton is known to have existed in the days of the Vikings when it was owned by King Cnut or Canute (See Raby below), but did not grow significantly until the nineteenth century when it became an important lead mining centre. Today it has a population of around 1500. Lead mining was once a widespread activity in the Middleton area and is commemorated in the Teesdale song `Four Pence A Day’.

“The ore is waiting in the tub, the snows upon the fell,
Canny folk are sleeping yet, but lead is reet to sell
Come me little washer lad come lets away,
We’re bound down for slavery for fourpence a day.

Its early in the morning we rise at five o’clock,
And the little slaves come to the door to knock, knock, knock,
Come me little washer lad come lets away,
It’s very hard to work for fourpence a day.

My father was a miner he worked down in the town’
Twas hard work and poverty that always kept him down,
He aimed for me to go to school but brass he couldn’t pay,
So I had to go to the washing rake for fourpence a day.

My mother rises out of bed with tears on her cheeks
Puts my wallet on her shoulderwhich has come to serve a week,
It often fills her great big heart when she unto me say
I never thought thou would have worked for fourpence a day.

Four pence a day,me lad, and very hard to work
And never a pleasant look from a gruffy looking ‘Turk’,
His conscience it may fall and his heart may give away
Then he’ll raise our wages to nine pence a day.”

In 1880 Middleton became the headquarters of the benevolent Quaker owned, London Lead Company which built houses, schools and libraries for its workers and became the first British company to introduce the five day week. One of the company’s employees was a certain Richard Watson known as ‘the Teesdale Poet’ (1833-1891), who once wrote;

“I’ve wandered many a weary mile,
And in strange countries been;
I’ve dwelt in towns and on wild moors,
And curious sights I’ve seen;
But still my heart clings to the dale
Where Tees rolls to the sea,
Compared with what I’ve seen I’ll say
The Teesdale hills for me.”

Lunedale and Baldersdale

East of Middleton, the Tees is joined by the River Lune and River Balder, which in their upper valleys form a kind of `minature lake district’, comprised of the Selset, Grassholme, Balderhead, Blackton and Hury reservoirs. Baldersdale is divided from Lunedale by the moors of Hunderthwaite and Romaldkirk, which both take their names from nearby villages.Hunderthwaite is a Viking place name which may mean Hunrothr’s or Hundor’s meadow.

In 1070 A.D. it was the scene of a battle in which King Malcolm of Scotland heavily defeated the local people.Romaldkirk is a picturesque little village on the south bank of the Tees between the Lune and Balder and takes its name from a Northumbrian saint called Romald. The name of the village church, known as the `Cathedral of the Dales’ is dedicated to the memory of Romald, about whom we know very little, as he died while only a baby.

Visitors to Romaldkirk should call into one of the local pubs which have a tradition for good strong beer dating back to the days when the village had its own brewery. On the other hand those with a more unquenchable thirst might like to sample the qualities of the village stream; it is called the Beer Beck!.Two miles downstream from Romaldkirk we find the village of Cotherstone, which is famous as the home of Cotherstone cheese, one of a number of delicatessens unique to the North. Cotherstone is situated at the confluence of the Tees and Balder and may have been of importance in Viking times.

The River Balder may well take its name from Balder, the Norse god of light and innocence. Balder was the son of Odin and Freyja who could be described as `The king and Queen of the Gods’. It has been suggested that there are earthworks close to the village of Cotherstone which may be the remains of a Viking temple to the honour of Balder.

When Denmark’s raven soared on high,
Triumphant through Northumbrian sky,
Till, hovering near, her fatal croak
Bade Reged’s Britons dread the yoke;
And the broad shadow of her wing
Blackened each cataract and spring,
Where Tees in tumult leaves his source,
Thundering o’er Caldron and High Force.
“Balder named from Odin’s son ;
And Greta, to whose banks ere long
We lead the lovers of the song ;
And silver Lune from Stainmore wild
And fairy Thorsgill’s murmuring child”

Thor was of course the god of Thunder while Odin, the one eyed god of wisdom, poetry, agriculture, war and death is also commemorated in the locality under his Anglo-Saxon name of Woden at a place called Woden Croft. This place and the name of the River Balder certainly captured the imagination of Sir Walter Scott, in his poem `Rokeby’;”

Beneath the shade the Northmen came,
Fixed on each vale a Runic name,
Reared high their altar’s rugged stone,
And gave their gods the lands they won.
Then, Balder one bleak garth was thine,
And one sweet brooklet’s silver line;
And Woden’s croft did little gain
From the stern father of the slain.”

Many of the names of these Viking and Anglo-Saxon gods are very familiar to us today and especially if today happens to be Wednesday, Thursday or Friday. These are needless to say the celebrated days of Woden, Thor and Freyja

The last battle of Eric Bloodaxe

Bowes village, on the River Greta, three miles south west of Barnard Castle is the home of a ruined twelfth century castle and the site of a once important Roman fort called Lavatrae. The village stands at the entrance to the bleak and very lonely Stainmore Pass which has been one of the main Pennine crossing places for thousands of years. In 954 A.D Stainmore was the site of an important battle fought between the Viking army of King Eric Bloodaxe and their enemies which included the Angles of Northumbria north of the Tees.

“King Eric was treacherously killed in a certain lonely placewhich is called Stainmore with his son Haeric and his brother Ragnald, betrayed by Earl Oswulf…”

Written at St Peter’s, York by a Tenth Century Chronicler Eric Bloodaxe, a red-headed Norseman who had a Danish mother, was one of the most notorious of Viking kings with an heroic reputation for success in battle both in Norway and overseas. At Stainmore however, Eric’s luck was to finally run out when his Viking army were heavily defeated. Bloodaxe lost his life along with five other Viking leaders who had loyally supported him in all battles as the Fagrskinna Saga records.

“Eric had such a great army that five kings followed him because hewas a valiant man and a battle winner. He trusted in himself and his strength so much that he went far up country and everywhere he went with warfare.”

Oswulf of Bamburgh, an earl or High Reeve, who virtually ruled the Angle territory north of the River Tees, seems to have played an important part in Eric’s downfall. He had led Bloodaxe to believe that he recognised the Viking leader’s overlordship of all Northumbria and that his northern earldom could be counted on to support the Vikings of York. In truth Oswulf was an enemy of Bloodaxe. He had plotted Eric’s defeat and it was an agent of Oswulf called Maccus that finally killed King Eric. It could be argued that Eric had paid the price for the failure of his Viking ancestors to capture the Northumbrian lands north of the Tees in earlier centuries.

The death of Bloodaxe brought about the downfall of the Viking Kingdom of York (Jorvik) and Viking power did not rise again until the time of King Cnut, who is also associated with the Teesdale area (See Raby below). The point where Bloodaxe met his death is marked by the ancient Rey Cross, which is situated just to the south of the A66 five miles west of Bowes. At the time of writing the cross has been removed for the construction of a new road. Rey cross once marked a boundary between Dark Age kingdoms on either side of the Pennines. The word `Rey’ is Viking and simply means boundary. Interestingly there are a number of other places along the northern side of the Tees valley that contain the Viking word Rey.

A few miles to the south of Rey Cross is the Tan Hill Inn, the highest pub in England, where perhaps the ghost of Eric Bloodaxe may be seen supping a pint of his favourite brew ?. In Viking mythology the death of a warrior was not so much the end of his life as the beginning of a journey to Valhalla `the hall of the Gods’ – where only fallen warriors could reside. At the Battle of Stainmore we are told that Odin sent out his servants called the Valkyries who were the choosers of the slain to collect Bloodaxe and accompany him to Valhalla. It was therefore at Stainmore that Eric’s journey to Valhalla began..

According to the mythology Eric would be warmly welcomed by Odin in Valhalla. A transaltion from an Old Norse poem written in honour of Eric Bloodaxe called the Eiriksmal tells us about Odin’s preparation for a welcoming banquet .

“I dreamed I rose before day dawned, To prepare Valhalla For fallen warriors ; I woke the heroes, Bade them arise, Strew the benches with straw, And scour the vessels; Bade Valkyries bear wine Meet for a Prince.From the earth yonder I wait the coming Of highborn heroes; Glad now is my heart. ”

Two great warriors called Sigmund and Sinfjoli were sent to the gates of Valhalla to greet Eric at the end of his journey from Stainmore, causing Odin’s son Bragi to question his father as to why he should single out Bloodaxe for special treatment when other kings had died in the battle. Odin’s reply was swift in his praise for King Eric; “Because he has harried so many lands and borne a bloody sword” Bragi asked why Odin had not granted victory to such a fine warrior as Bloodaxe, but the great god explained that”It is safer for the gods to have such a hero in their own midst as a bulwark against the Fenris Wolf ” The Fenris wolf was the wolf and son of Loki the god of strife and evil who was the arch enemy of Odin. Mythology tells us that the upper and lower jaws of the Fenris wolf touched both heaven and earth. Odin evidently thought that Bloodaxe could protect him against such evil.

Paintings and Poets Rokeby and the River Greta

The River Greta, a tributary of the Tees which flows through the Stainmore Pass and rises to the west of the Rey Cross derives its name from the Viking word `Griota’ meaning a stony stream. It is interesting to note that there is a River Griota in Iceland, a country where considerable Viking settlement took place.From Stainmore the Greta makes a fourteen mile journey east before joining the Tees at Rokeby near Barnard Castle. Rokeby was once the site of a village of Viking origin but was later deserted following Scottish attacks upon Teesdale.

Today Rokeby lives on only in the names of Rokeby Park and Rokeby Hall, the latter an 18th century building belonging to the Morritt family. The artists, J.M.W. Turner and J.S. Cotman had a particular affection for this part of Teesdale and Turner’s famous picture `The Meeting of the Waters’ depicts the confluence of the Tees and Greta at Rokeby. Another artist, Velazquez is also associated with this area, his famous painting the`Rokeby Venus’ was housed at Rokeby Hall between 1805 and 1905. Today it can be seen at the National Gallery in London.Across the River Greta from Rokeby Park are the remains of a fourteenth century fortified Pele Tower , a reminder that even Teesdale in the very south of Northumbria, was arguably a part of the Scottish Border Country.

Sir Walter’s Viking poem

In the early nineteenth century Sir Walter Scott was a frequent visitor to Rokeby Hall and named his lengthy poem, Rokeby after the area. The poem includes verses with strong references to Teesdale’s Viking past,. Sir Walter was well aware of the Viking history of the Tees and in `Rokeby’ he uses many an opportunity to remind us of the Nordic connection.

“When Denmark’s raven soared on high,
Triumphant through Northumbrian sky,
Till, hovering near, her fatal croak
Bade Reged’s Britons dread the yoke;
And the broad shadow of her wing
Blackened each cataract and spring,
Where Tees in tumult leaves his source,
Thundering o’er Caldron and High Force.
To Odin’s son and Spifia’s spouse,
Near Startforth high they paid their vows,
Remembered Thor’s victorious fame,
And gave the dell the Thunderer’s name.”

This verse from `Rokeby’ refers to the Viking sounding Thorsgill Beck, a stream which joins the River Tees to the west of Rokeby, close to Startforth near Barnard Castle.

Raby Castle
Raby Castle © David Simpson

Raby Castle

From Rokeby near Barnard Castle, the River Tees passes through Whorlton, Wycliffe and Ovington to Winston on Tees, where a road leads two miles north to Raby Castle and the adjacent village of Staindrop, both in County Durham. Cnut (or Canute) the Dane (c 994 – 1035), Viking King of England, Denmark and Norway, the self appointed `Emperor of the North’ owned a mansion and estate in the vicinity of Staindrop in the tenth century.

It has been suggested that the mansion owned by Cnut was on the site of the nearby Raby Castle and some argue that it was from here that he ruled his kingdom and Empire. Raby Castle’s historic `Bulmer Tower’ is believed to incorporate Cnut’s mansion. Cnut `the Great’ was the son of Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark and was very much a Viking in the war-like way he took control of England, despite the fact that he had been baptised and claimed to be a practising Christian.

The name of Raby is Viking-Danish in origin and means `settlement on the boundary mark’ – perhaps a boundary between Angle, Danish and Norse settled districts ?. Raby lies on the course of an old Roman road that leads to Stainmore and Rey Cross – another boundary marker.Staindrop, which is historically the estate village for Raby also has a Danish name deriving from`Steinndrup’ meaning `stony valley’ – or perhaps `the valley of Stein’, a common Viking personal name.

Place names containing the Viking element Stain are very common along the Tees valley but virtually absent further to the north.Raby Castle and the lands around Staindrop village were returned to the Northumbrian Bishops of Durham by King Cnut in the eleventh century as a gesture of goodwill to the Angles of the north. These lands like many others along the Tees valley had been taken from the Northumbrians by Cnut’s Viking ancestors. Cnut may have wished to maintain good relations with Northumbria north of the Tees, because of its useful role as a `border region’ which could defend his kingdom from the threat of the raiding Scots.

Raby, one of the best medieval castles in northern England, in early times associated with Cnut, passed later into the hands of the influential Norman family called the Nevilles who were the most important barons in the Bishopric of Durham from the twelfth century onwards.The famous Rising of the North was plotted by the Nevilles at Raby in 1569, with the help of the equally powerful Percy family of Northumberland. Support for this rising came from all parts of the North East;

Rising of the North

Now was the North in arms: they shine
In warlike trim from Tweed to Tyne,
At Percy’s voice : and Neville Sees
His followers gathering in from Tees,
From Wear and all the little rills
Concealed among the forked hills-
Seven hundred knights Retainers all
Of Neville at their master’s call
Had sate together at Raby Hall.

William Wordsworth :From ‘The White Doe of Rylston’.

The Rising was an attempt to replace Elizabeth I with her cousin the catholic Mary Queen of Scots, at a time when the people of northern England were mostly of the Catholic faith. Unfortunately for the Nevilles the Rising failed and Raby was confiscated from the family by the Crown along with their other great properties at Barnard Castle and Brancepeth.

In 1626 Raby became the seat of the Vanes, Earls of Darlington and Dukes of Cleveland and the present owner, Lord Barnard is a member of this family. He is the owner of the vast Raby Estate which extends over a large area of south Durham. Farmhouses and cottages belonging to this estate can be found throughout the northern side of Teesdale and are easily identified by their attractive whitewashed exteriors.

Whitewashing goes back to the days when a Duke of Cleveland became stranded in a storm while out hunting in Teesdale. He was refused shelter at a local farmhouse which he had mistaken for one of his own properties. The Duke was determined not to suffer such a humiliation ever again and ordered that from that day on, all buildings belonging to his estate were to be painted white for identification. Raby Castle is said to be haunted by three ghosts, they are the headless Henry Vane the Younger, Sir Charles Neville and the First lady Barnard, who is known as `Old Hell Cat’.

Read about Barnard Castle the Teesdale capital here

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