Bishop Auckland and the Gaunless Valley

Bishop Auckland

Bishop Auckland or ‘Bishop’, as it is sometimes affectionately known to locals is situated at the confluence of the River Wear and the little River Gaunless. An important market town since medieval times it grew in the nineteenth century as a centre for the coal mining district of south west Durham.

Gateway to the castle Bishop Auckland
Gateway to the castle Bishop Auckland © David Simpson 2021

The early history of the town is centred around Auckland Park and Castle which was a principal residence of the Bishops of Durham for centuries.

The history of Bishop Auckland goes back to much earlier times, however and although its medieval English name ‘Auckland’ can be interpreted as ‘land of oaks’ this developed or was corrupted from an earlier name ‘Alclit’ that has Celtic origins, deriving from ‘Allt Clud’ and thought to allude to an older name for the Gaunless.

Place-name experts have concluded that the earlier name for the river is found in ‘Allt Clud’ and that the Gaunless was once called the ‘Clyde’. Allt Clud, meaning ‘cliff on the Clyde’ is thought to have been the centre of an extensive Celtic estate that encompassed much of the Wear Valley and Weardale and came to be known in later medieval times as Aucklandshire.

Auckland Palace is situated on a steep setting
Auckland Palace is situated on a steep setting leading to the banks of the River Gaunless © David Simpson 2021

Curiously, ‘Allt Clud’ was also the old name, again meaning ‘cliff on the Clyde’, for the northern capital of the Britons at Dumbarton in what is now Scotland. Dumbarton ‘the fort or dun of the Britons’ was the capital of the Kingdom of Strathclyde, a kingdom that was also known as Cumbria from the Cumbric people who spoke a language related to Welsh.

By around the year 1000 ‘Alclit’ in the Wear Valley was in the hands of the Earl of Northumbria but became part of a grant of lands given to the Bishops of Durham in the reign of King Cnut. At the time of the Boldon Book in the 12th century, Bishop Auckland was still called North Alclit.

Bishop Auckland : Town and Market Place

A Gothic style gateway leads from the market place at the centre of the town into the Auckland Castle grounds. Replacing a succession of earlier gatehouses on the site, it was built in 1760 by Sir Thomas Robinson of Rokeby Hall in Teesdale for Bishop Trevor but it is not the only building of note in the town’s centre.

Gateway to the castle grounds Bishop Auckland
Gateway to the castle grounds from Bishop Auckland Market Place © David Simpson 2021

The central streets and market place have a medieval layout. Here old street-names include Bondgate (historically Fore Bondgate, Back Bondgate and at the western end, High Bondgate) while other old streets and lanes include Castle Chare, Wear Chare, Finkle Street, Saddler Street and Silver Street. The last two have their counterparts in Durham City.

Fore Bondgate is a particularly narrow street which gives away its medieval origins. Bishop Auckland was a borough by at least 1243 but the Bondgate area was the street of the Bondsmen and was regarded as separate from the Borough. This was not unusual as a similar situation existed at Bondgate in Darlington and the Bondgate in Alnwick.

Bishop Auckland
Bishop Auckland © David Simpson 2015

The oldest thoroughfare in Bishop Auckland is however Newgate which predates the medieval town as it follows the course of the Roman Road of Dere Street. This was the main Roman road from York to Hadrian’s Wall and beyond to Caledonia. The Roman fort of Vinovia at Binchester lies just outside Bishop Auckland to the north. In Bishop Auckland Newgate forms a two mile long High Street which is the main shopping and commercial focus for the town.

Newgate Street, Bishop Auckland
Roman Road: Newgate Street, Bishop Auckland © David Simpson 2021

One of the most prominent buildings in the market place is Bishop Auckland Town Hall (or sometimes BATH for short), a handsome French-Flemish Gothic style building dating to the 1860s and a venue for music events and exhibitions.

It replaced an earlier open octagonal building where butter, eggs and poultry were sold, presumably a structure similar to that found at Barnard Castle. In the northern arch of this building was situated a public ‘pant’ – a source of water or fountain for the use of the town folk.

Right next to the Town Hall is the church of St Anne, a Victorian church of 1848 by the architect Salvin on the site of the medieval church of Bishop Auckland borough. To the rear of the town hall in Bakehouse Hill are Bishop Cosin’s Almshouses. The almshouses were built in 1662, earlier than Bishop Cosin’s Almshouses of 1666 on Palace Green in Durham City. However the almshouses at Bishop Auckland were rebuilt (in almost identical style to the original) in 1845.

Bishop Auckland Town Hall
Bishop Auckland Town Hall Photo © David Simpson

Bishop Auckland Market Place has seen some interesting developments in recent times. At number 42 Market Place is a craft workshop venue and gallery simply called ‘No. 42’ where the work of local artists can be viewed and purchased. Number 45 Market Place is home to a superb mining gallery with exhibitions showing the work of pitmen painters like Norman Cornish and Tom McGuinness.

A new landmark to complement the Town Hall and other buildings in the market place is Auckland Tower, a modern building that serves as a starting point for visitors to the town. The architecture of the structure is partly inspired by medieval siege towers.

Auckland Tower, Bishop Auckland
Auckland Tower, Bishop Auckland © David Simpson 2021

Bishop Auckland is approximately half way between the popular tourist towns of Durham City and Barnard Castle but has often been overlooked by visitors in the past despite its beautiful castle, its handsome parkland and historic town centre.

Recent investment in Bishop Auckland has seen a major revival and the town is revealing its charms and beginning to fulfil its potential, with the new galleries and the establishment of the spectacular Kynren event that attracts thousands of summer visitors to the town. Like the town itself, the beautiful Auckland Castle has also seen significant investment and is being developed as an attraction that remains in keeping with its beauty and historic status.

Auckland Castle
Auckland Castle © David Simpson 2021

Auckland Castle

Auckland Castle, also called Auckland Palace, began as a manor house belonging to Durham’s Prince Bishops and is situated on an attractive ridge of land at the confluence of the Gaunless and Wear.

Perhaps in existence from the time of the Norman conquest, if not before, the manor dated back to medieval times. The Prince Bishops of Durham owned a number of manor houses and castles that reflected their important status.

View of Auckland Castle from across the River Wear
View of Auckland Castle from across the River Wear © David Simpson 2015

The bishops’ castles included Durham Castle; Bishop Middleham Castle near Sedgefield and the castle at Stockton-on-Tees. Further north at Norham in ‘Norhamshire’ on the River Tweed they owned Norham Castle and in North Yorkshire they owned the castle of Crayke.

Auckland Castle (or Palace), however began as a manor house and the bishops are known to have owned other manor houses at Evenwood and Darlington while in Yorkshire their manors were situated at Riccall, Howden and Northallerton. Durham House on the Strand was the London residence of the Prince Bishops. Of the manors only Auckland survives and for many years served as the principal seat of the bishop.

Auckland Castle Bishop Auckland
Auckland Castle Bishop Auckland © David Simpson 2021

Around 1183 Bishop Hugh Pudsey is thought to have been one of the first to build a residence on the site at Auckland but this was later converted into a grander establishment by Bishop Anthony Bek in the 1300s.

Bek castellated the building and created an impressive chapel but the palatial manor house wasn’t referred to as a ‘castle’ until the late 1400s in the time of Bishop John Sherwood. It was about this time that Auckland superseded Bishop Middleham as the primary residence of the bishops.

In the Civil War and its aftermath, the Bishop of Durham was ousted from the palace and it was sold by the Parliamentary Commissioners to Sir Arthur Haselrigg who demolished around half of the building for the construction of his own mansion. Among the buildings to go was Bishop Bek’s chapel.

After the restoration of the monarchy following the Civil War, renovations and reconstruction were undertaken in the later years of the 17th century by Bishop Cosin. Bishop Cosin converted the grand hall built by Bishop Pudsey into a chapel as a replacement for the chapel of Bishop Bek that had been destroyed by Haselrigg. A new hall was built for the castle by Bishop Cosin in the former Presence Chamber.

Auckland Castle chapel
Auckland Castle chapel. Photo © John Simpson

Auckland Castle is extensively, genuinely and stunningly medieval inside but much of the Gothic exterior that we see today dates to the period of Cosin and the eras of Bishops Trevor and Bishop Egerton in the eighteenth century, with further work undertaken for Bishop Barrington by the architect James Wyatt.

Entering the castle from the gateway that looks out onto the market place the first thing we notice are the arches of a Gothic screen wall built by James Wyatt in 1760 for Bishop Trevor along with an inner gateway.

It sets the scene for the castle’s overall 18th century Gothic style with significant portions of the castle dating to the 1600s and the former great hall now the beautiful chapel of St Peter dating to the 12th century and the time of Bishop Hugh Du Puiset (Pudsey).

Auckland Castle
Auckland Castle inner gateway © David Simpson 2015

Auckland Castle’s new Spanish Gallery is a significant attraction for Bishop Auckland making the region the home to the largest collection of Spanish art outside London. The star attractions are the Francisco De Zurbarán paintings of the castle’s great hall.  The Bowes Museum’s collection at Barnard Castle and this collection at Bishop Auckland make south west Durham a focal point for European works of art of international importance.

Another exciting new development at the castle is the extension that will home the first museum in England to explore the history of faith in Britain and Ireland. The project has been developed under advisory guidance from academics at the British Museum and the Universities of Durham, Cambridge, York and Newcastle.

Walled garden, Auckland Park
Walled garden, Auckland Park © David Simpson 2021

Outside, the castle’s walled garden, first developed by Bishop Cosin in the 1600s and re-landscaped in the 1750s, is also undergoing a new restoration and revival and will include a new walled garden restaurant.

Deer House Auckland Park
Deer House Auckland Park, Bishop Auckland © David Simpson 2021

The charming Gothic style Deer House of 1767 in the castle’s park is one of the most interesting features of the parkland grounds. The park was once the home to 300 deer and they were fattened in the winter for hunting outside the winter months.

Deer House Auckland Park
Deer House Auckland Park, Bishop Auckland © David Simpson 2021

In October 1346 the park hosted an army of some 16,000 men prior to the battle of Neville’s Cross fought against the Scots near Durham.

Anthony Bek: A hunting and fighting bishop

Anthony Bek (1284 – 1311), was the great hunting and fighting Bishop of Durham, who favoured Auckland palace, rather than Durham Castle as his main residence because of its proximity to the hunting grounds of Weardale.

The Bishop took a keen interest in military affairs, as well as hunting and was always ready and willing to lead his army into battle against the Scots, as at the Battle of Falkirk in 1300.

Deer House Auckland Park
Deer House Auckland Park, Bishop Auckland © David Simpson 2021

Like Hugh Pudsey, an earlier Bishop of Durham, Bek was not shy of controversy and on one occasion he even became involved in a dispute with the Archbishop of York, after refusing orders to excommunicate some Durham monks.

The Archbishop of York was so infuriated that he decided to excommunicate, not the monks, but Bishop Bek himself. Bek was not to be defeated so easily and persuaded the king to reinstate him on the grounds that an Archbishop had no right to excommunicate a ‘Prince Bishop’ without the permission of the king.

Deer House Auckland Park, Bishop Auckland © David Simpson 2021

Toronto, Newton Cap and Kynren

Just across the River Wear north of Bishop Auckland we enter the most southerly loops and meanders of the River Wear. Here we find the colliery village of Toronto – named from its Canadian counterpart.

Toronto. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Toronto probably derives from a farmer’s field-name, an allusion to distance, but later became the site of a colliery village. It was once the home to the Newton Cap Colliery – also called Toronto Colliery – initially operated by the Stobarts and in production until 1967. Its pits included the Barrington Pit, named from Shute Barrington, one of the Bishops of Durham.

Nearby is the impressive prominent landmark of the former Newton Cap Railway Viaduct of 1857. It was a railway viaduct until its closure in the 1960s but in the 1990s it was adapted as a road bridge, bringing the A689 into Bishop Auckland in grand style as well as forming part of the Brandon to Bishop Auckland railway walk.

Just to the west and also crossing the River Wear is Bishop Auckland’s historic Newton Cap stone bridge, thought to have been built by Bishop Skirlaw in the 1400s. A Roman bridge was once sited somewhere to the east of Newton Cap.

Newton Cap was recorded as Neowatun (the new farm) as far back as 1040 and was later owned by a family called Cappe, who were connected with the Northallerton area. Newton is recorded as Newtoncapp in Bishop Hatfield’s survey of his lands in 1382.

A nearby eastward facing loop of the river near Toronto and Newton Cap will be familiar to many as the stage-setting for the open air performances of the spectacular Kynren event which tells the 2,000 year story of England in epic style in the evenings during the summer months.

Kynren. Photo John Simpson

Even without Kyrnen, this area might be regarded as a special focal point in historical terms. Across the river loop to the east are the remains of the Roman fort of Vinovia at Binchester. Over the river to the west is the moving Anglo-Saxon church of Escomb and of course just to the south we have the wonderful former palace of the Prince Bishops of Durham at Bishop Auckland.

Legend of the Pollard Brawn

Legend has it that at some time in the middle ages the Bishop Auckland area was the haunt of a huge, ferocious brawn (or boar), which terrorised this part of the Wear valley in much the same way as the Lambton worm at Fatfield. Many attempts had been made to kill this dangerous beast, but all had failed, so the Bishop of Durham offered an unspecified reward for anyone who could rid the local countryside of the terrible creature.

Auckland Castle Bishop Auckland
Auckland Castle Bishop Auckland © David Simpson 2021

Richard Pollard, a skilled but poor young knight rose to the challenge and began to study the behaviour of the brawn, which is supposed to have been as large as a cow. Finally, arming himself with several spears, Pollard was able to pursue the beast south of Auckland towards Raby Castle and Staindrop in Teesdale, where after a long and bloody struggle, he was able to kill the beast.

Upon completing the task Pollard proudly cut off the brawn’s tongue and placed it in his pocket as a souvenir. Unfortunately Pollard was exhausted from his pursuit and fell asleep as the dead creature lay by his side. A little later, a man was passing by and noticed the sleeping knight and his quarry.

Remembering the bishop’s promise of a prize, he could not resist the opportunity of reward and quickly made off with the carcass, without awaking Pollard. When Pollard awoke, he was horrified to see the brawn had been taken, but guessed what had happened and quickly made his way to Auckland Palace, to see the Bishop of Durham.

Auckland Castle Bishop Auckland
Auckland Castle Bishop Auckland © David Simpson 2015

Arriving at the palace, Pollard found he was too late, learning that someone had already presented the bishop with the brawn and received an ample sum of money in reward. Pollard nevertheless gained entry to the palace, when he claimed that he was the one who had slain the brawn.

When Pollard showed the bishop the brawn’s tongue, the carcass was examined and the young knight’s claims were proved to be true. After considering, the bishop told Pollard that as a reward he could have all the lands he could ride around, in the time it took him to finish his meal.

Wasting no time Pollard set off, accompanied by one of the bishop’s servants, but astonishingly returned to the palace only a few minutes later. The bishop was surprised that Pollard had taken so little time, but learned that the reason was simple, Pollard had ridden around Auckland palace itself!

River Gaunless, Auckland Park
River Gaunless, Auckland Park © David Simpson 2021

Of course the bishop could not possibly give Pollard his palace and its grounds, but was impressed with the young knight’s clever thinking, so instead presented him with some of the most fertile lands in the Auckland area. These lands became known as Pollard’s lands and are now Bishop Auckland Golf Course on the north side of Bishop Auckland as well as land to the west of Bishop Auckland in the Etherley Moor area.

The name Pollard was associated with the Bishop Auckland area from at least as early as the 1180s when Pollardus owned land in North Auckland. In the 1240s a William Pollard held land at nearby Woodhouses. In medieval times ‘Pollard’s Lands’ were considered to be a separate manor.

Binchester fort and Escomb church

The Roman road of Dere Street passes through Bishop Auckland in a striking straight line under the names of Watling Road, Cockton Hill Road and Newgate Street. Dere Street led to the Roman fort of Binchester, the site of which lies above a loop of the River Wear to the north of Auckland Park.

In Roman times Binchester was called ‘Vinovia’ which means ‘a pleasant spot’. The remains of the fort, which cover an area of 10 acres has been excavated and includes one of the best examples of a Roman hypocaust (a central heating system) to be found in Britain.

Many of the stones from the Roman fort at Binchester were used in the construction of what could well be Britain’s oldest church at Escomb to the south of the River Wear, a mile to the west of Bishop Auckland.

Escomb Anglo-Saxon church.
Escomb Anglo-Saxon church. Photo © David Simpson 2018

The church is a pretty and somewhat humble looking building of Anglo-Saxon origin that was described by the great architectural authority, Nikolaus Pevsner as ‘one of the most important and moving survivals of the architecture of the time of Bede’.

It has some similarities to the Anglo-Saxon church of Bede at Jarrow which is the oldest dated church but Escomb is thought to be older. The early history of Escomb and why it should have survived is a mystery. Other Anglo-Saxon or part Anglo-Saxon churches in the region include churches at Monkwearmouth, Hart Village near Hartlepool and Seaham.

Anglo-Saxon church, Escomb
Anglo-Saxon church, Escomb © David Simpson 2020

About a mile west of Escomb is the village of Witton Park, with its links to the Stockton and Darlington railway. It was a one time site to an ironworks. Between Escomb and Witton Park are the settlements of High Escomb, California and Woodside.

Toft Hill and the Etherleys

South of Escomb and Witton Park and to the west of Bishop Auckland are four places called Etherley at the heart of a former mining and quarrying district. Nearest to Bishop Auckland is Etherley Dene, named from a wooded dene that joins the Wear here. Half a mile west through Etherley Moor a road leads south to the curiously named Wigdan Walls Farm and onward to a hamlet called Woodhouses.

Another road heads west from Etherley Moor through Etherley Grange where twentieth century houses line the road. A mile further west is Low Etherley where a stationary cable hauling engine was once situated on the Etherley Incline of the famed Stockton and Darlington railway not far to the south of its terminus at Witton Park.

Adjoining Low Etherley to the south is the village of High Etherley with a 19th century church dedicated to St Cuthbert. The name ‘Etherley’ is of uncertain origin but was originally Ederley and although ‘ley’ means ‘clearing’ the first part of the name is uncertain. It could be an Anglo-Saxon personal name such as Eadred or an old word meaning enclosure or fence. From High Etherley a road leads south and then across the River Gaunless to West Auckland.

Toft Hill, clustered along the roadside west of High Etherley has a name that derives from the Danish Viking word ‘toft’ meaning building plot or house sites, perhaps indicating the site of a lost settlement that was maybe situated a little further to the west. In the sixteenth century the area was referred to as the ‘tofts of the Barony’ of Evenwood. The road south from Toft Hill heads about a mile south to Ramshaw in the Gaunless Valley which is just across the river from Evenwood.

Valley of the Gaunless in Auckland Park
The River Gaunless in Auckland Park, Bishop Auckland © David Simpson 2021

Along the Gaunless Valley

Here we explore the valley of the River Gaunless upstream from Bishop Auckland, South Church and West Auckland to the upland area where it rises in the hills to the west of Copley between Hamsterley Forest and Eggleston in Teesdale.

St Andrew Auckland and St Helen Auckland

The little River Gaunless which joins the River Wear near Auckland Castle forms a valley south west of Bishop Auckland where we find interesting sub-Pennine countryside interspersed with former mining settlements and farming villages of earlier times.

Gaunless is a name of Viking origin and despite the lovely scenery formed by this little river it has the rather unflattering meaning ‘useless’. Perhaps it was too slow to work a mill or was a little short on fish at the time it was named.

St. Andrew Auckland at South Church
St. Andrew Auckland at South Church. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Upstream from the castle and its park, the first notable place we encounter along the valley is the Bishop Auckland suburb and village of South Church which lies within a loop of the Gaunless. This is home to the very large medieval church of St Andrew Auckland which dates to the 13th century and is the largest parish church between the Tyne and Tees.

To the south west, the Gaunless skirts the south eastern edges of Bishop Auckland and the industrial and retail developments around Tindale and Tindale Crescent. Although we have already suggested the Gaunless was once called the Clyde, it poses the question was the Gaunless once called the Tyne or Tin?

Here the outer parts of Bishop Auckland extend south westward into the villages of St Helen Auckland and West Auckland which are separated by the Gaunless itself. The village of St Helen Auckland has a tiny towerless 12th century church dedicated to St Helen and its tiny size is in great contrast to its counterpart at St Andrew Auckland.

West Auckland

West Auckland is a former mining village to the south west of Bishop Auckland but has medieval origins with a large village green dating back to the 12th century. It is surrounded by 18th century houses and a couple of notable houses of the 17th century.

West Auckland Manor House
West Auckland Manor House. Photo © David Simpson 2018

One is the Old Manor House of the 1670s, a substantial stone building of great character that is thought to have 12th century foundations. Now a hotel, it is tucked away behind trees at the north west corner of the green. Also of note is The Old Hall, a three bay stone house of the 1600s that faces out onto the south side of the green.

West Auckland Old Hall.
West Auckland Old Hall. Photo © David Simpson 2018

In addition to its historic charms West Auckland has a fascinating story to tell. In 1910 the mining village made history when its football team travelled to Italy to represent England in the first ever football ‘world cup’.

The competition was instigated by the businessman Sir Thomas Lipton – of tea fame – and the legendary part of the story is that West Auckland FC were only invited to take part in the event due to a mix up over a letter addressed to Woolwich Arsenal FC (W.A.F.C).

Competing against the top teams from Switzerland, Germany and Italy, the amateur County Durham side defeated a team from Stuttgart 2-0 in the semi final and then defeated a side called Winterhur from Switzerland 2-0 in the final on April 12th 1909.

West Auckland World Cup
Sculpture commemorating West Auckland’s World Cup victory of 1909. It was unveiled by Sir John Hall, David Ticer Thomas and Tim Healy in 2013. Photo © David Simpson 2018

West Auckland returned to defend their title in 1911, defeating FC Zurich 2-0 in the semi-final and then retaining the trophy – ‘The Thomas Lipton Trophy’ for all time after defeating Italian giants Juventus 6-1 in the final. When the team returned home however, they found themselves badly in debt and had to resort to selling their world cup to the local landlady for cash.

Nevertheless the village held on to the cup until 1994, when sadly, it was stolen and never recovered. A replica can be seen today in the West Auckland workingmen’s club.


Two miles upstream along the Gaunless to the west of West Auckland is the village of Evenwood on the south side of the river. Its name simply means ‘level woodland’ and the name of the much later neighbouring village of Evenwood Gate to the south refers to a tollgate on the road to Evenwood.

Evenwood was given to the Bishops of Durham by King Cnut, the Danish King of England, though sometime after the Norman Conquest it seems to have come into the hands of a family called Hansard.

A Gilbert Hansard created a park here around 1220  but later in that century it was conveyed to Bishop Bek by John Hansard. The manor and lands of Evenwood were later granted to Ralph Neville by Bishop Beaumont. At least as early as 1368 there were coal mines and a bloomery (an iron making furnace) at Evenwood and in the nearby neighbourhood of Gordon. The origins of the Barony of Evenwood are obscure but it seems to have included West Auckland and Killerby near Gainford some way to the south.

Ramshaw, just across the Gaunless north of Evenwood means meadow of the Ramsons (wild garlic) and is situated in the valley fo a little stream called the Gordon beck or ‘Gor-Dene’ which means ‘muddy valley’. In the upper reaches of this stream about two miles north west is a little hamlet called Morley – ‘the moor clearing’.

Cockfield Fell

Further west along the Gaunless Valley from Ramshaw and Evenwood is the fascinating village of Cockfield, located where the valley has strayed south towards Raby Castle and the neighbouring dale of Teesdale which lies outside the area of old coalfield.

View from Cockfield Fell.
View from Cockfield Fell. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Cockfield is very much part of the industrial and rural landscape of Durham with very ancient roots. Cockfield Fell surrounds the village on three sides and is a lowland fell that forms an ancient landscape that escaped the field enclosures that swept across other lowland areas in the 18th century.

Described as one of the largest ancient monuments in the country Cockfield Fell is one of Britain’s most important early industrial landscapes with traces of early medieval mining, medieval field boundaries as well as more ancient evidence of Iron Age farming settlements that date back 2000 years .

Fields and fell, Cockfield
Photo showing the contrast between Cockfield Fell and the enclosed landscape of neighbouring fields. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Coal mining traces can be seen on the fell that date back 600 years including medieval bell pits but the most recent traces of mining activity were associated with the Gordon House Colliery that closed in 1962. There are even traces of early 19th century colliery tramways – its course given away by an embankment where coal was transported in tubs.

Cockfield village
Cockfield village. Photo © David Simpson 2018

In addition to coal mining, quarrying was an important activity on Cockfield Fell as outcrops of whinstone – the tough dark volcanic rock familiar for forming the Farne Islands, the crags of Hadrian’s Wall, Lindisfarne Castle and the High Force waterfall in Teesdale are found here on Cockfield Fell. The quarrying has left lots of distinct fan-shaped spoil heaps across the fell.

The people of Cockfield enjoy commoners’s rights on the fell and many keep pigeon lofts (huts) here. Sheep and horses can also be seen grazing on the fell.

Pigeon lofts, grazing sheep and horses on Cockfield Fell
Pigeon lofts, grazing sheep and horses on Cockfield Fell. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Jeremiah Dixon – From Cockfield to Dixieland

Perhaps the unusual landscape of Cockfield was an inspiration for Cockfield’s most famous son, the astronomer and surveyor Jeremiah Dixon (1773-1779) born and lived most of his life here. His map making and astronomy skills caught the attention of The Royal Society who appointed him to record the Transits of Venus across the sun in the 1760s.

Dixon travelled with another astronomer, Charles Mason of Gloucestershire to Sumatra but during the journey their ship was attacked by a French frigate. The ship escaped and rescheduled the landing to Cape Town in South Africa where a successful observation of the transit of the planet was made.

The success set the two astronomers up for their next great task and adventure – surveying the border between two separate landowners in America – which separated Maryland and Pennsylvania. This line called the Mason-Dixon line was surveyed by the two men from 1763 to 1768 and would later become the demarcation between the northern and southern states in the American Civil War and ultimately gave its name to ‘Dixieland’ and its famous jazz.

In 1769 Dixon was sent to survey another transit of Venus – this time sent to Norway but the mission was not a success due to cloudy conditions though the transition was successfully recorded on Tahiti by the Cleveland-born Captain James Cook.

After his adventures Dixon returned to Cockfield and worked as a surveyor for Lord Barnard at Raby and for the Bishop of Durham at Auckland Castle. He died aged only 45 and received a Quaker burial at Staindrop.

On the road at Cockfield Fell
On the road at Cockfield Fell © David Simpson 2018

Butterknowle, Lynesack, Softley and Copley

Across on the north side of the Gaunless from Cockfield Fell are the settlements of Low Lands, High Lands and to their west the village of Butterknowle – from ‘butter hill’ a pasture of land that was good for producing butter.

Butterknowle is situated at a location near the Grewburn Beck and its tributary the Salterburn Beck. The Grewburn Beck joins the Gaunless at a spot called ‘The Slack’, a word for a marshy area. Nearby farms and buildings called High Wham, Low Wham and Wham Cottage recall an old word ‘Hwamm’ meaning ‘marshy hollow’.

A mile west of Butterknowle are the settlements of Softley, Lynesack and Copley. Softley – ‘the clearing in soft and spongy land’ is the most northerly of the three and can only reached by farm tracks. Lynesack, from an ‘ac’ or oak tree that belonged to someone with an unidentified name is on the tiny Howle Beck. Together these two places give their name to the delightfully named and cosy sounding parish of ‘Lynesack and Sotley’.

Copley, a small village is the largest of these three settlements and is just above the River Gaunless. From here a road stretches south for five miles across the barely populated countryside of Streatlam and Stainton Moor to Barnard Castle.

In name the River Gaunless begins its journey at Copley where the streams called Cowclose Beck, Hindon Beck and Arn Gill come together to form the river. On the Arn Gill about a mile upstream from Copley is a small waterfall called Jerry Force. The valleys of the Hindon Beck and Arn Gill stretch for more than five miles west almost as far as Eggleston in Teesdale.

View from the road between Eggleston and Hamsterley
View from the road between Eggleston and Hamsterley © David Simpson 2020

Along the road a mile north west of Copley is the village of Woodland that historically provided wood to the estate of Cockfield. It is situated on a road between Eggleston and Hamsterley in Weardale with some excellent views along the course of the road looking towards the countryside and valleys to the east.

Spennymoor | Brancepeth, Crook, Witton-le-Wear 

Weardale Darlington Aycliffe and Shildon

Barnard Castle | Gainford to Coniscliffe


North East England History and Culture