Guisborough and the Cleveland Hills

Roseberry Topping, Cleveland Hills and the Tees Vale pictured from County Durham. Photo © David Simpson 2018
Roseberry Topping, the Cleveland Hills and the Tees Vale pictured from County Durham. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Guisborough : Capital of Cleveland

Guisborough is perhaps a Viking name – the borough or fort belonging to a Viking called Gigr. There is evidence of extensive Viking settlement in the vicinity. Guisborough is an attractive market town in rural surroundings and lies just outside the valley of the Tees on the northern edge of the Cleveland Hills south of Middlesbrough.

Guisborough. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Anciently Guisborough was the capital of that part of Yorkshire known as Cleveland, a district which lay entirely to the south of the Tees that stretched as far south as the Esk near Whitby.

Guisborough is a handsome place and certainly one of the most historic towns in the area. Like so many towns in North Yorkshire and South Durham the town of Guisborough is centred upon a busy market street.

Guisborough Westgate
Guisborough: Westgate. Photo © David Simpson 2018

At Guisborough the main street is called Westgate in which we can find a curious eighteenth century market cross decorated with a sundial and weather vane. The old town hall which stands on the site of a toll booth in Westgate dates from 1821 and is in need of a little tender loving care but happily is currently being redeveloped by Redcar and Cleveland as a building that will be a focus for East Cleveland.

Gisborough Priory.
Gisborough Priory. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Guisborough’s beautiful ruined priory which is the most notable feature of the town can cause confusion to tourists who notice that the name of this building is spelled ‘Gisborough’ without the ‘u’ that appears in the name of the town. It is situated at the east end of Westgate where it turns into Church Street. The grounds of the priory include a gatehouse of about 1200 and a dovecot of the 1600s which belonged to the influential local family called the Chaloners.

Gisborough Priory
Gisborough Priory Photo © David Simpson 2018

Originating from the twelfth century, this Augustinian priory was founded around 1120 by Robert De Brus a member of the family later known as the Bruces who were important landowners on both sides of the River Tees (see Hart and Hartlepool). The brethren of Augustinian priories were called canons rather than monks.

Robert De Brus of Skelton was an ancestor of the famous Scottish king Robert the Bruce (1290-1329). The original late Saxon or Viking age settlement lay within what would become the lands of the priory. It was superseded by the growth of the new and substantial town of Guisborough that prospered after a weekly market was granted by King Henry III in 1263. Close to the priory is the church of St Nicholas, built in the Perpendicular architectural style and dating from around 1500.

Guisiborough Church
Guisborough Church. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Roseberry Topping – A Viking summit

Roseberry Topping is undoubtedly the best known natural landmark in Cleveland and is steeped in local folklore. It can be clearly seen from many parts of rural Cleveland and industrial Teesside and has a distinctive outline. Known as ‘The Cleveland Matterhorn’.

Roseberry Topping
Roseberry Topping. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Roseberry Topping was once used by sailors out at sea as an indicator of changing weather, as the following rhyme records:

“When Roseberry Topping wears a cap,
Let Cleveland then beware of a clap !”

Roseberry Topping was connected with the Vikings, as the word ‘Topping’, from ‘Toppen’, is one of a number of old Viking words for a hill, but the original Viking name for Roseberry Topping was Odins-Beorge meaning Odin’s Hill. Roseberry may have been a centre for the worship of the Viking god, Odin in Pagan times.

Over the years, the name changed to Othensberg, Ohenseberg, Ounsberry and Ouesberry. Association with the village then called Newton-under-Ouseberry at the foot of the hill led to the modern name Roseberry when the final ‘R’ of ‘under’ produced the initial letter of the modern name. Newton under Ouseberry is now called Newton under Roseberry.


Much of the district around Guisborough was known as Langbaurgh a name that has ancient origins. It takes its name from the long ridge-like hill called Langbaurgh, a few miles south west of Guisborough in the Cleveland Hills. The name has two parts ‘Lang’ meaning ‘long’ and ‘Beorge’ meaning ‘hill’. Langbaurgh was a place of significance in historic times when it was the central meeting place of a Wappentake, or Viking settled district.

The ridge was a meeting point where the Vikings of the district assembled to discuss local affairs. In this respect Langbaurgh was similar to Sadberge on the north side of the Tees. Wappentakes continued as administrative districts into medieval times when some new wappentakes were created. These included Whitby Strand, annexed from part of Langbaurgh. Later, Langbaurgh wappentake was divided into two parts called East and West Langbaurgh with Roseberry Topping and Ayton Moor on the border between the two. For many centuries the whole wappentake was known by its other ancient name – Cleveland.

Captain Cook

Great Ayton, near Roseberry Topping is the place where the budding young sailor James Cook went to school when he lived as a boy at the nearby Aireyholme Farm at the foot of Roseberry Topping. On Easby Moor to the south east of Great Ayton there is an imposing monument to his honour. James Cook was actually born a little further north at Marton, now a suburb of Middlesbrough on the 27th October 1728 and late moved to Staithes, but it was as a young man that he began working for a Whitby shipowner employed on colliers shipping coals from the River Tyne to London. After learning basic seamanship, he joined the navy at the age of 27 and soon gained a reputation for his chart making skills.

Cook had a desire to explore new lands and in 1769 he was asked to command HM Bark Endeavour on an expedition that took him to Tahiti, New Zealand and Australia where he named the territory of New South Wales. On his return to England in 1771, he was promoted from lieutenant to captain and set sail the following year in search of the great southern continent, voyaging as far as the Antarctic Circle. This was a journey that took him further south than anyone else had ever been before. He then returned home to England.

Captain Cook
Captain James Cook

Cook’s last voyage was to prove fatal. Leaving England on the 25th June 1776 on board the Resolution and accompanied by the Discovery, Cook went on to discover Hawaii and the Cook Inlet of Alaska. On return to Hawaii where his ship stopped for provisions, Cook unfortunately lost his life on the 14th February 1779, following an affray between local tribesmen and members of his crew. There is a legend recited by local tourist guides on the island of Hawaii that the place where Cook met his death is the only part of the United States of America which still belongs to Great Britain, a mark of respect to the great explorer.

Stewart Park, Marton, Middlesbrough, is today the site of the Captain Cook Birthplace Museum, which has a number of displays connected with the life of the great sailor and the places he visited. A vase made of granite from Point Hicks, Australia stands close to the museum marking the site of the thatched cottage where Cook was born.

Kirkleatham, Upleatham and Yearby

Kirkleatham in the countryside on the southern outskirts of Redcar has a name of Viking origin. It comes from the Old Norse ‘hlith’ meaning ‘slope’ which in a plural form was lithum. It was once called West Lidium or West Leatham to distinguish it from Upleatham to the south east.

Around 1181 it became Kirkleatham because of a medieval church or ‘kirk’ that existed here. Kirkleatham is best-known today as the site of the Sir William Turner Hospital and Turner Mausoleum. Both were associated with the alum mining family called the Turners.

Kirkleatham Hall, a seventeenth mansion was the home of this family but the hall was demolished in 1954 and replaced with a school which is now the Kirkleatham Old Hall Museum. Sir William Turner’s Hospital was founded in 1676 as almshouses for the poor but was almost entirely rebuilt in 1742.

The pretty little rural village of Yearby just south of Kirkleatham seems a world away from the chemical industries of Wilton that lie close to its doorstep. It’s another Norse name from the Viking ‘Efri-by’ meaning upper village.

Further south still, Upleatham is on the Guisborough to Marske road south of Redcar. The name means ‘the upper slopes’. Here we find St Andrew’s, a twelfth century church measuring 17 feet 9 inches by thirteen feet. It is reputedly the smallest church in England.

Upleatham church
Above: Victorian illustration showing the church at Upleatham near Redcar

Stockton-on-Tees | Hartlepool Billingham Norton

Yarm and Eaglescliffe

Middlesbrough Around Middlesbrough

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