The river name Derwent is an ancient Celtic name ‘Deerwint’ that means ‘river where oaks grew’. It is one of several rivers in Britain with this name and like many of the others was often pronounced or written as Darwen or Darwent in times past.
Our River Derwent traditionally formed the western border between the Counties of Durham and Northumberland all the way from Blaydon to Blanchland, though several places in the northern parts of the valley such as Rowlands Gill are now in the Borough of Gateshead.
Shotley Bridge, the near neighbour of Consett dominates the middle section of the Derwent valley with Ebchester and Hamsterley to its north. However, going upstream from Allensford to the south west of Consett we leave the former industrial towns behind along the winding course of the river towards the Derwent Reservoir.
Nearby, we find the tiny rural settlements of Muggleswick, Edmunbyers and Ruffside. To the south is the wild watershed country of Waskerley between Weardale and Derwentdale.
All of these places are on the Durham side of the Derwent but the most delightful and most substantial place is the beautiful village of Blanchland on the Northumberland bank of the Derwent a mile to the west of the Derwent Reservoir.
Snods Edge to Minsteracres
The countryside of Northumberland to the north and west of the Derwent is very sparsely populated with scattered farms, hamlets and very few villages. It is a remarkable contrast to the Durham side of the Derwent east of Consett with its numerous former mining villages and nearby iron towns. However, west of Consett and Shotley Bridge we leave the big former industrial towns behind altogether.
A number of farms and hamlets in Northumberland to the north of the Derwent have curious and peculiar names. They include Camperdown and Snods Edge about a mile and a half west of Shotley near Shotley Field. Camperdown is named from a naval battle of 1797 while Snods Edge has a name that may derive from an Anglo-Saxon word ‘snawede’ meaning ‘snow’.
There’s a North Snods and South Snods too. To the south towards Allensford is a place called Wallish Walls near the Wallish Walls Burn. It is thought to mean ‘Walls of the Welshman’, though who this Welshman was is hard to say. One possibility is that it refers to native Britons of early times who the Anglo-Saxon called ‘Waelas’ or Welsh. The word actually means ‘foreigner’.
West towards the Derwent Reservoir are Black Hedley (a house of about 1750) then we have Birkenside and Bullion, the last of these is named from some kind of enclosure for bulls rather than a stash of gold.
To the north of Shotleyfield are Unthank Farm and Kiln Pit Hill. Unthank is one of many farms with this name throughout the region, thought to allude to the thankless task of farming the land at certain locations.
There’s an isolated church in the country near Kiln Pit Hill. Dedicated to St Andrew it is cruciform in shape and dates to 1769, though it was restored in 1892. We also find a rather surprising, extravagant and imposing mausoleum of 1752 in the churchyard, built by Humphrey Hopper of Black Hedley to the memory of his wife, Jane Hodgson.
To the west is a large and impressive eighteenth century hall (of 1758 with additions of 1866) called Minsteracres, which is now the home of a Passionist monastery and serves as a retreat. It was built by George Silvertop who had become the first Catholic High Sheriff of Northumberland in 1831.
The neighbouring Catholic church, with its unusual dedication to St Elizabeth of Hungary has an ornate beautiful ceiling. The church was built by George’s nephew Charles Silvertop who was also a Northumberland High Sheriff.
West of Minsteracres towards Slaley much of the scenery is dominated by woodland and forest and there are yet more intriguing place-names: Donald’s Grave, Martin’s Chair and Hairy Side.
The name of the Derwentdale village of Muggleswick in County Durham, means ‘Mucel’s Wick’ – the dairy farm belonging to someone called Mucel. One theory is that he was actually called Mocla and a descendant of a Celtic chieftain, though there is no evidence. In later times it was the site of the hunting lodge and manor house for Muggleswick Park, which belonged to the priors of Durham.
Muggleswick Park was enclosed by Prior Hugh De Darlington in the thirteenth century to rival the Prince Bishop’s hunting park at Stanhope, in Weardale. The extensive ruins of the prior’s manor can still be seen.
In 1662 a rather mysterious event took place at Muggleswick. On March 22nd of that year, news came to the Bishop of Durham that a huge army of Quakers, and religious reformers were gathering on Muggleswick Common.
It was said that they were preparing to murder the Bishop and the Dean of Durham and overthrow the parliament of all England. Bishop John Cosin, along with the High Sheriff of Durham, quickly collected together their retainers and set off for Muggleswick to put down the rising. When they finally arrived at Muggleswick there was no trace of any rebels.
In fact, there was no evidence that any large group of people had ever been anywhere near Muggleswick Common. The Bishop of Durham had clearly been the victim of a practical joke. Either that or the rising had been mysteriously abandoned.
Edmunbyers and Ruffside
The name of Edmunbyers, another County Durham village, a mile and a half to the west of Muggleswick means’ the cow shed belonging to Edmund’. Generally called Edmunbyers today, the place has often been recorded with the spelling ‘Edmondbyers’ in the past – with an ‘o’ instead of a ‘u’.
The church at Edmundbyers is Norman, built around 1150 and is appropriately dedicated to St Edmund. Edmundbyers is mentioned in the Boldon Book (or Boldon Buke) of 1183 as ‘Edmondbires’ at which time it was held by someone called Alan Bruntoft.
In the 1600s and even into the 1700s Edmunbyers seems to have been associated with witches, with several women in the neighbourhood exposed for their witchery in the 1670s. Although there are tales of witches flying through the Derwent valley on broomsticks, the allegations and exposures seem to have been brought about by nothing more than hysteria and gossip.
Edmunbyers is about half a mile from the shore of the Derwent Reservoir. Ruffside, its neighbour to the west near the western end of the reservoir is slightly closer to the shore. Roughside as it was known in the past was historically part of the township of Cold Rowley but was included in the parish of Edmunbyers.
The three mile long Derwent reservoir is the largest reservoir in the region after Kielder. It was built in 1967 and includes the Pow Hill Country Park alongside its southern shore, half way between Edmunbyers and Ruffside.
The wild expanses of County Durham’s Waskerley Moor to the south of Edmunbyers are home to three more reservoirs called Waskerley, Smiddy Shaw and Hisehope. The Stanhope and Tyne Railway of 1834 passed through this area transporting lead from Weardale to South Shields. The line was linked to Stanhope via Crawleyside. At Waskerley the line was joined by a northward extension of the Stockton and Darlington Railway in 1845.
Waskerley was connected to both of these lines and had developed into a small railway village on this remote, isolated upland site. Here was a school, a chapel, shops, sidings and engine sheds, When the lead mines closed the line fell into decline and eventually closed in 1969 leaving Waskerley as a ghost town and today there is little more than a farm. The site of the Waskerley Railway Station is now a picnic area.
The name Waskerley predates the railway era and is Viking in origin. It is not certain whether it derives from the Old Norse ‘vas-kjarr’ meaning ‘wet marsh’ or from the Old Danish was-kjarr meaning ‘brushwood scrub marsh’.
The name refers to marsy land around the valley of the Waskerley Beck. This beck begins at Waskerley Reservoir to the south west of Waskerley and flows into and out of the Tunstall Reservoir in Weardale before joining the River Wear near Wolsingham.
The three little reservoirs on the bleak commons near Waskerley are all much older than the larger and better-known Derwent Reservoir in the Derwent Valley proper to the west. Smiddy Shaw Reservoir and Hisehope Reservoir form a pair just to the north of the remote Consett to Stanhope road.
Smiddy Shaw Reservoir, dating from 1872 is the oldest of the three and is in turn fed by the more westerly Hisehope Reservoir which dates from 1906. Smiddy Shaw and the Waskerley Reservoir of 1877, to the south of the road, feed a water treatment works at Honey Hill.
Heading upstream along the River Derwent and crossing over to the Northumberland side of the river to the west of the Derwent Reservoir is the beautiful little Northumberland village of Blanchland. Its name is Norman-French and means the ‘White Lands’ and it is one of the great gems of the North Pennines.
‘White Lands’ is probably a reference to the white habits, worn by the Premonstratensian monks of the old Blanchland abbey, which was founded in 1165 by a Norman baron called Walter De Bolbec (see also the ‘White Church at Bywell on Tyne). The monks had already settled in the valley in 1143 but it was Bolbec who granted them the land for the establishment of their monastery.
A notable visitor to the monastery was King Edward III who stayed at Blanchland Abbey in 1327 while pursuing an army of Scots who proved to be elusive out on the moors of Weardale, One factor in this may have been the abbot of Blanchland who had a cousin on the Scottish side. He is said to have been tipped off about the movements of the English.
Perhaps in someway related to those events there is a well- known legend that relates how Blanchland abbey fell victim to a Scottish raid due to the foolishness of the monks.
The story is that Scots were raiding the Derwent valley hoping to plunder the Blanchland monastery for its riches. Fearful of what the raiders might do, the monks of Blanchland began to pray. Prayers seemed to have been answered, when suddenly a thick mist engulfed the Derwent valley and caused the raiding party to lose their way.
Crossing the Derwent into County Durham, the raiders, unable to locate the abbey, continued to look for livestock, or anything else they could thieve from this north western part of the Durham Bishopric. It was then that the monks made a fatal mistake, for upon hearing that the Scots had passed them by, they began to joyfully ring the abbey bells in celebration.
The raiders still in County Durham at a place later named Dead Friars Hill, were of course able to hear the bells, which enabled them to make their way back towards Blanchland. Many of the monks seemingly lost their lives in the ensuing raid. The abbey was severely burnt. Did the bellringers live to regret their actions? We do not know as it seems these events were nothing more than a legend.
Another version of the story places the commissioners of Henry VIII as the enemies of the monks rather than the Scots and while this is also a legend, it was Henry’s Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s that brought about the final closure and subsequent ruin of the abbey.
Most of present day Blanchland is a beautiful well-planned stone village dating from 1752 that was built using stone from the abbey and partly utilising the abbey’s layout. The most obvious surviving feature of Blanchland abbey is the abbey church of St Mary which serves as the village church but the old abbey gatehouse of around 1500 is also a feature of Blanchland and separates the northern and southern half of the village.
One of the most beautiful villages in the North, Blanchland was built largely by the Trustees of Nathaniel Lord Crewe, an eighteenth century Bishop of Durham (1633–1721).
The south part of this village is built around an L-shaped piazza, with the old abbey gateway on the north side giving the place an Italianate appearance. Lord Crewe himself is commemorated in the name of the Lord Crewe Arms, at the centre of the village. This wonderful inn and hotel dates from the eighteenth century but incorporates features from the old abbey and inside it has an atmospheric mix of modern and old world charm.
The association between Blanchland and the charitable trust of the late Bishop Crewe had come about from the bishop’s marriage to a member of a local family called the Forsters, who also owned land at Bamburgh – where we find a Lord Crewe Hotel.
The Forster family were strongly associated with the Jacobite rising of 1715, which although primarily associated with Scotland was led by a Northumbrian general, Tom Forster. The rear of the huge and fabulous fireplace of stone in Blanchland’s Lord Crewe Arms apparently provided a hiding place for Forster who was pursued by the authorities following the failure of the rising.
The part played in the rising by Bishop Crewe’s niece, Dorothy Forster is commemorated in the Sir Walter Beasant novel Dorothy Forster (1884). Scenes from the novel feature Blanchland.
West of Blanchland is the source of the River Derwent, at a point called ‘Gibraltar Rock’. Here the river is formed by the confluence of the Nookton and Beldon Burns. Farther to the south are the valleys of Weardale and the Rookhope Burn.