Hunting park of the Prince Bishops

Of the three Durham Dales (Teesdale, Weardale and Derwentdale) Weardale, at the heart of the county is historically most closely associated with the Prince Bishops.Eastgate and Westgate, two small villages in the upper part of this valley once marked the boundary of Stanhope Park, the Prince Bishop’s hunting ground and it was here that the famous `Great Chases’ were held. The Great Chases were the hunting expeditions, led by the Prince Bishops and were by all accounts grand occasions, celebrated with much pomp and pageantry.Such was the scale of the Great Chases, that all the folk of Weardale were required to provide hounds for the hunt, along with enormous quantities of food, wine and beer for the hunters.

The Weardale people were also required to assist with the construction of a large temporary hunting lodge, a chapel, a kitchen and a larder, which were all purposely built for the `Great Chase’.Bishop Pudsey’s Boldon Buke of 1183, (Durham’s equivalent of the Domesday Book), gives a good insight into the preparation for a Great Chase, most notably under entries for West Auckland and Stanhope. The following two passages from the Boldon Buke refer to the Great Chases and have been translated from the original Latin. The first relates to West Auckland;

“All the villeins of Aucklandshire, that is North Auckland andWest Auckland and Escomb and Newton, provide 1 rope at the GreatChases of the Bishop for each bovate and make the hall of theBishop in the forest 60 feet in length and in breadth within theposts 16 feet, with a butchery and a store house and chamber anda privy. Moreover they make a chapel 40 feet in length and 15feet in breadth, and they have 2s as a favour and they make theirpart of the enclosure around the lodges and on the Bishop’sdeparture a full barrel of ale or half if he should remain away.And they look after the hawk eyries in the bailiwick of Ralph theCrafty and they make 18 booths at St Cuthbert’s fair. Moreoverall the villeins and leaseholders go on the roe hunt on thesummons of the Bishop”

and under the entry for Stanhope

“…all the villeins build a kitchen, and larder and a dog kennelat the Great Chases and they provide straw for the hall, chapeland chamber, and they lead all the Bishop’s supplies fromWolsingham to the lodges. ”

Weardale made up the second largest hunting ground in England after the New Forest in Hampshire which of course belonged to the King. The Prince Bishops are thought to have inherited their hunting rights from the earlier Bishops of Lindisfarne, but hunting took place in Weardale in earlier times, as a Roman altar found near Stanhope records the capture of a wild boar in the area.Stanhope Park and the forest surrounding it, were well stocked with game, deer, wolves, and wild boar and the bishops jealously guarded their right to hunting in the area. A forest court was held at nearby Stanhope, for the trial of poachers

Upper Weardale, beyond the village of Westgate has some of the highest primary roads in England, most notably in the vicinty of the small village of Wearhead. Close to here the River Wear begins, formed by the confluence of the Kilhope, Welhope and Burnhope Burns which make up the westerly frontier of `Prince Bishop country’, on the border with Cumbria.The word `hope’ which occurs in the names of these streams is of Anglo-Saxon origin and means `side valley’. Hope-Burns are also very common in the dales of Northumberland but the Anglo-Saxon word hope is not so common in the stream names of the old Viking territory of Teesdale to the south – the main exceptions there are the Hudeshope, Harthope and Eggleshope Becks. The word Beck is of Viking origin.

The Rookhope Ryde

To the east of the Weardale `capital’ of Stanhope, the River Wear is joined from the north by the Rookhope Burn, which means `valley of the rooks’.On December 8th, 1569, this valley was the setting for a border fray in which a large group of mosstroopers (cattle raiders), from Tynedale, made a raid upon the valley of Weardale. The raiders had decided to plunder the Wear valley for its livestock while most of the Weardale men were away (in Teesdale ), plotting against the Queen in the famous `Rising of the North’. Resistance to the raid was expected to be low, but there were still a number of Weardale men left to defend their dale. The raiders were pursued north into the Rookhope valley, as they made off with Weardale cattle and sheep.When the Weardale men eventually caught up with the mosstroopers, a fray ensued in which four of the Tynedalers lost their lives.

The event is remembered in the`Rookhope Ryde’, a 24 verse Weardale ballad dating from 1579.

“Rookhope is a pleasant place,
If the false thieves would let it be.
But away they steal our goods apace,
And ever an ill death may they dee.
Then in at Rookhope Heed they came,
They ran the forest but a miles;
They gathered together in four hours
Six hundred sheep within a while.
But all that was in Rookhope Heed,
And all that was in Neukton Cleugh,
Where Weardale men overtook the thieves,
And gave them fighting eneugh.
About that time the fray began,
I trow it lasted but an hour,
Till many a man lay weaponless,
And was sore wounded in that stour.
And before that hour was done
Four of the thieves were slain,
Besides all those that wounded were,
Eleven prisoners were tae’n”

Lead Mining

While the eastern part of County Durham was part of the Great Northern coalfield, the dales in the western part of the county were once just as important for their lead.Since Roman times, this lead had been exploited in Weardale and the northern Pennines and perhaps it is worth noting that Hadrian’s Wall divides the northern fringe of the North Pennine lead field, from the less mineral rich Northumbrian hills to the north. From the thirteenth century lead mining in the Durham dales was encouraged by the Prince Bishops who profited from the mining of the ore.

The heyday of lead mining in the region was not however until the late eighteenth to mid nineteenth centuries, when the North Pennine lead field was arguably the most important in the world.The North Pennine lead field was bordered in the east by the Durham coalfield, in the south by the Stainmore Gap and in the north by the Tyne Gap. The main valleys of this area were Teesdale, South Tynedale, the Allendales, Derwentdale and at the centre, Weardale, collectively they were known as the `Lead Dales’.

Relics of lead mining can be found in all the `lead dales’ but the most imposing reminder, is the great lead crushing mill known as Kilhope wheel, on the remote Killhope Burn in Upper Weardale.Killhope wheel, wrought in iron and forty feet in diameter, is now part of a lead mining museum and is the most complete lead mining site in Britain. The museum includes a lead mine and a `mine shop’ where there is a reconstruction of the lead miner’s sleeping quarters.

Miners would have slept in these quarters for the whole of the working week and would only have returned to their homes further down the dale, at weekends. Other important relics of Lead mining in the region can be found in the Weardale side valley of the Rookhope Burn. Here we may trace the course and remains of the two mile long Rookhope Chimney. This was a massive stone flue which carried dangerous toxic fumes across the moors away from the lead smelter at Lintzgarth near Rookhope village. A great stone arch can be seen nearby, which once supported the chimney, it resembles a ruined stone bridge that leads to nowhere and crosses nothing at all.


Stanhope is the `capital’ of Weardale and its Anglo-Saxon name, meaning `stony valley’, is a good description of the Wear and the burns in the area. Like many towns in the North Pennine dales, Stanhope grew most significantly in the nineteenth century as a lead mining centre, but is unmistakably a dalestown.In 1818 Stanhope was the site of a most unusual battle which involved the local lead miners and the Prince Bishop of Durham. When times got hard, the lead miners of Weardale had come to regard it as their right to shoot the game which was so plentiful in their valley.

The Bishop of Durham had a different view and regarded such activities as poaching. He warned the lead miners that it would have to stop.When the poaching continued the bishop brought an army of his men into the Wear valley, arrested the suspected poaching ring leaders and temporarily imprisoned them in a local inn. Hearing of the arrests, a large and angry crowd of lead miners quickly gathered outside the inn and demanded the release of the men.

It was not long before a violent `battle’ broke out, in which the Bishop’s men were heavily defeated by the lead miners. Although no one was actually killed, much blood was shed and one man is said to have lost an eye. This bloody event known as `The Battle of Stanhope’ is commemorated in a lengthy folk ballad called The Bonny Moor Hen, a few verses can be found below;

“You brave lads of Weardale, I pray lend an ear
The account of a battle you quickly shall here,
That was fought by the miners, so well you may ken
By claiming a right to the bonny moor hen.

Oh this bonny moor hen, as it plainly appears,
She belonged to their fathers some hundreds of years;
But the miners of Weardale are all valiant men,
They will fight till they die for their bonny moor hen.

Oh the miners in Weardale, they are bred to the game
, They level their pieces and make sure of their aim;
When the shot it goes off – Oh, the powder doth sing,
They are sure to take off, a leg or a wing

Now, the times being hard and provisons being dear,
The miners were starving almost we do hear;
They had nought to depend on, so well you may ken,
But to make what they could of their bonny moor hen.

There’s the fat man of Auckland and Durham the same
Lay claim to the moors and likewise the game
They send word to the miners they would have them to ken
They would stop them from shooting the bonny moor hen.

Of these words they were carried to Weardale with speed
Which made the poor miners hang down their heeds
But then sent an answer they would have them to ken
They would fight till they died for their bonny moor hen.

When this answer it came to the gentlemen’s ears,
An army was risen, it quickly appears;

Land stewards, bum bailiffs, and game-keepers too,
Were all ordered to Weardale to fight their way through.

Oh this battle was fought all in Stanhope town,
When the chimneys did reek and the soot it fell down
Such a battle was ne’er fought in Stanhope before
And I hope such a battle will ne’er be fought more.”

Stanhope is associated with two notable ancient discoveries. One is a 250 million year old fossilized tree stump, which can be seen in Stanhope’s churchyard, the other the famous nineteenth century Heathery Burn Cave finding.In 1859 this great archeological discovery was made in the hills above Stanhope, in which a huge collection of Bronze Age items were uncovered, including edvidence of the earliest use of wheeled vehicles in the British Isles.

The items found at the Heathery Burn cave, seem to have belonged to a particularly wealthy Bronze Age family, whose skeletons were also uncovered. For some unknown reason, perhaps a flash flood, the family had become trapped in this cave some 3000 years ago. Today the findings of the Heathery Burn Cave are kept in the British Museum, London.

Frosterley and Wolsingham

Weardale, once noted for its lead, is also famous for a unique form of marble, which can be found in the vicinity of the attractive stone village of Frosterley. The `marble’ is formed from a black, carboniferous limestone which is speckled with the remains of prehistoric plants and marine creatures. These tiny beasts appear in the form of sea shells and for this reason Frosterley marble is known to local quarrymen as `Cockle’. Frosterley marble can be found as a decoration in churches throughout the world and some of the best examples of the marble may be seen in Durham Cathedral. To the west of Frosterley is the town of Wolsingham, where the Bishop of Durham’s beekeeper lived in the days of the Boldon Buke.

Today Wolsingham is a small, slightly industrial dales town and the annual home to England’s oldest agricultural show. To the north of the town is a picturesque little valley, formed by the Waskerley Beck and Tunstall Burn, within which we find the small, but picturesque Tunstall Reservoir constructed in 1897.All of the streams in upper Weardale are called `Burns’, from an old Anglo-Saxon word, but curiously streams joining the Wear east of Wolsingham towards Durham City are generally called `Becks’ (from the Old Norse word Bekk). The reason may be that this particular stretch of the Wear deviates south into the part of County Durham which had formed the Viking settled territory called Sadberge. This area is covered in an accompanying book entitled Vale of the Viking.

North East Regional Hub and Portal