Croft on Tees and Lewis Carroll
Croft on Tees is an attractive little village just to the south of Darlington and was the place where Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll grew up as a boy. His father was the rector at Croft (Carroll’s father and mother are both buried here) and the rectory gardens are often said to be possible settings for scenes in ‘Alice in Wonderland’.
The church at Croft also has a noted carving of a grinning cat said to be the inspiration for Carroll’s Cheshire Cat. Lewis Carroll was of course born in Cheshire. However the most compelling connection between Lewis Carroll and the bridge at Croft is the link to the Jabberwock.
Lewis Carroll always considered Croft his home and it was here in the company of his large family that his unequalled talent for composing nonsense verse developed on this pleasant spot by the Tees. His earliest pieces were written in a little home-made magazine which he wrote for his family at Croft.
Fair stands the ancient Rectory
The Rectory of Croft
The sun shines bright upon it,
The breezes whisper soft.
Pieces written at Croft by Lewis Carroll include the first verse of one his best known poems, the ‘Jabberwock’, which was written in 1855 though not published until a number of years later. The rest of the poem was written further north during visits to relations at Whitburn near Sunderland where he is also said to have composed the Walrus and the Carpenter.
Carroll had other Sunderland connections – his sister lived at Southwick – and he was no doubt also aware of the Wearside legend of the Lambton Worm but in Carroll’s time there was a more famous worm legend associated with his home village of Croft.
Croft is linked to the village of Hurworth Place on the opposite side of the river over Croft Bridge. Hurworth Place merges to the east with another separate village called Hurworth-on-Tees which lies across the neck of one of the many meanders of the Tees – this one being shaped like a foot.
Hurworth Place grew following the opening of the Croft branch of the Stockton and Darlington Railway in 1829 and a coal depot was built here. However it is Hurworth-on-Tees or simply ‘Hurworth’ that forms the original village.
Hurworth is a pretty village centred on a village green and street that is also called ‘the green’. The village church towards the west of the green has a tower dating to the fifteenth century though much of the rest of the church was rebuilt in the 1830s.
Hurworth was described in the 1850s as being noted for the “salubrity of its situation and the beauty of its scenery” which made the place “very attractive to visitors”. The ‘salubrity’ of this situation was backed up by a period of seventeen weeks, reported in February 1840, in which there had not been a single death in the village.
In earlier times Hurworth has been called ‘Hurthworth’, which in Anglo-Saxon means the enclosed settlement (a worth) with a wickerwork hurdle or hedge (a hurth). The lords of Hurworth in medieval times were the Tailboy family and they continued to hold the land of the Bishop of Durham after the district of Sadberge (which included Hurworth) was acquired by the bishop.
The Tailboys continued to own Hurworth until 1540 when Robert, Lord Tailboy died without children and his sister sold the property. It then passed to the Lawsons of Neasham but was later divided into several parcels of land.
The most famous resident of Hurworth was William Emerson, (1701-1782) an eminent mathematician who lived most of his life in the village, remembered in the name of the local pub. Emerson, a noted eccentric, was married to the niece of Dr Johnson, who had apparently promised the couple a dowry of £500 for their marriage but later denied all knowledge of this and treated Emerson with contempt. The events are said to have made Emerson all the more determined to succeed in his field.
The foot-shaped meander of the Tees below the two Hurworths is home to Rockliffe Hall hotel and golf course and the Middlesbrough Football Club academy. Rockliffe Hall, originally called Pilmore Hall was built in 1863 by Arthur Backhouse a member of the well-known Quaker family of Darlington bankers.
In 1996 the land here was purchased by Middlesbrough Football Club and developed as their academy and training ground with the hall subsequently purchased in 2006 and developed as a golf course and hotel. The hotel which has a reputation for high quality food is one of the highest rated hotels in North East England.
Neasham and Eryholme
East of Hurworth are yet more meanders of the Tees with the village of Neasham situated on the north side at the tip of a particularly pointy meander. In fact Neasham means nosey-homestead, the settlement on a nose, and is named from this nose-like meander.
The same loop of the Tees might also give its name to Eryholme over on the opposite bank a little to the south. Such loops are often called ‘holmes’, a word of Viking origin meaning island formed by a river. Yet this name, ‘Eryholme’ is in fact a corruption of the original name ‘Erghum’ meaning shieling – a shelter for livestock, which derives from the Old Irish word word ‘airgh’.
This word ‘airgh’. was introduced into England by Norse Vikings known as the Hiberno-Norse who had previously lived in Dublin and the Gaelic speaking Viking colonies around the Irish Sea and Scotland. Initially settling west of the Pennines they began settling in Northumbria east of the Pennines after 918 AD and the lower Tees seems to have been one of the areas they colonised.
Neasham was once the home of a convent called Neasham Priory which had the distinction of being the only religious house in the old County of Durham (between Tyne and Tees) that was independent of the Bendictine Priory of Durham Cathedral. It was established for eight Benedictine nuns by a baron of Greystoke and its privileges were confirmed by the pope in 1157.
The priory was situated at the west end of the village where a large house called Neasham Abbey now stands, though there is no remnant of the nunnery other than a sculptured stone in Durham Cathedral. The priory had its own mill which stood on the Kent Beck that joins the Tees here. They owned some land in Hurworth and Bishopton and received a portion of revenues from the church of Whitburn, the rectory at Washington and from rents in Hartlepool and Bishop Auckland.
In 1428 when a new prioress was appointed, the Neasham nuns were listed as Jane Egleston, Alice Bewlof, Jane of Blakiston, Margaret Hawyk, Beatrix of Kyllom, Agnes of Tudowe, Jane Tympson and Margaret of Witton. The newly elected prioress (who succeeded Jane Egleston) was Margaret Danby a nun from St. Bartholomew’s nunnery in Newcastle. She came with a glowing reference supplied to the Bishop of Durham by Dionysia Aslakby who was the prioress at the Newcastle nunnery.
Sadly, the new Neasham prioress died in the winter of 1429-30 and under the new prioress, Margaret Hawyk, who was elected in her place the manners and morals of the convent seem to have declined. An investigation was undertaken in 1436 by the Rector of Houghton on the instigation of the Bishop of Durham and strict rules were imposed on their behaviour but the nuns continued to be disobedient leading to the resignation of Hawyk in 1437. Agnes Tudowe succeeded.
Prior to the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1537, the last prioress, Jane Lawson leased the possessions of Neasham Priory to her brother James who was a merchant in Newcastle and she remained in Neasham as a farmer – presumably on her brother’s lands – following the closure of the convent. The Lawsons continued to own Neasham until 1644 when the lands were divided up following the death of another James Lawson.
Jabberwock: The Sockburn Worm
A mile to the east of Lewis Carroll’s boyhood home of Croft, the River Tees forms a rather long and unexpected meander that penetrates in serpent-like fashion deep into North Yorkshire to form what was historically the most southerly portion of County Durham called the ‘Sockburn Peninsula’. Only part of the peninsula is accessible and is entered along Sockburn Lane from Neasham.
In local legend the Sockburn peninsula was the domain of a notorious creature called the ‘Sockburn Worm’.
This terrible beast, a kind of winged serpent or wyvern with very bad breath terrorised the local neighbourhood until it was eventually slain by a certain young man called Sir John Conyers, a member of a wealthy local family.
From that day on each new Prince Bishop of Durham was presented with the sword that killed the worm upon entering their new Bishopric for the first time at Croft on Tees bridge. The ceremony includes the following presentation speech, traditionally made by the Lord of Sockburn and in later times made by the mayor of Darlington:
“My Lord Bishop. I hereby present you with the falchion wherewith the champion Conyers slew the worm, dragon or fiery flying serpent which destroyed man, woman and child; in memory of which the king then reigning gave him the manor of Sockburn, to hold by this tenure, that upon the first entrance of every bishop into the county the falchion should be presented.”
The eighteenth century Durham historian Hutchinson was of the opinion that the legend of the Sockburn worm was a reference to some long since forgotten Viking rover or Viking army that had sacked and plundered this part of the Tees valley. It is possible as there are certainly some very strong Viking links to this area. A similar theory of a worm symbolising a Viking raiding party has been suggested for the Lambton Worm.
The sword used in the presentation, known as the ‘Conyers Falchion’ can still be seen and is in the collection of Durham Cathedral. It has been dated to the 1200s, although it features the emblem of Morcar, an Anglo-Saxon Earl of Northumbria of earlier times.
One theory is that the sword is a copy of a much earlier one that was perhaps associated with a local Viking or Anglo-Saxon dragon-slaying legend. If so, it would predate the arrival of Conyers’ Norman ancestors and Conyers’s supposed association with it may have been designed to justify Conyers’ land claims in the area.
Lewis Carroll grew up in the rectory close to the church and the bridge at which the sword ceremony took place so he would have known the tale of the worm very well. The Sockburn worm is almost certainly immortalised by Lewis Carroll in his brilliant Anglo-Saxon rhyme ‘Jabberwock’ that is featured in Alice through the Looking Glass. The vorpal blade of the poem could well be the Conyers falchion:
‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogroves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”
He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought –
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood a while in thought.
And, as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood
And burbled as it came!
One two! One two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.
“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms my beamish boy !
O’ frabjuous day! Callooh ! Callay !”
He chortled in his joy.
`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogroves
And the mome raths outgrabe.
Worm legends are a feature of both Anglo-Saxon and Viking mythology, where ‘worms’ take the form of ferrocious dragons, wyverns or serpents. There are other worm legends associated with the North East of England, most notable of which are the ‘Laidley worm’ of Bamburgh in Northumberland and the famous ‘Lambton Worm’ of the River Wear which is undoubtedly the best-known of the North East legends.
There is some doubt about the antiquity of the Laidley Worm legend but both the Lambton and Sockburn worm legends have much older roots going back to medieval times if not earlier. Historically the Sockburn Worm legend was the better-known of the two but a Tyneside music hall song of the nineteenth century popularised the Lambton Worm story and it has become the better known legend today.
Today Sockburn is a sleepy, hidden and rather mysterious area cut off from the villages of the neighbourhood and the nearby town of Darlington by narrow country lanes in private farmland. The main feature is the Jacobite style Sockburn Hall of 1834, a private house. It was built by the Blackett family on the site of an earlier hall and it was here that the poet William Wordsworth first met his future wife, Mary Hutchinson.
The poet Coleridge who was married by this time was here too and fell briefly for Mary’s sister, Sara. Coleridge described Sara leaning against a statue of the worm-slayer John Conyers within the ruined church of Sockburn Hall’s grounds:
She leant against the armed man,
The statue of the armed knight!
She stood and listened to my lay
Amid the lingering light
The medieval statue of Coleridge’s verse features Conyers in armour with shield and sword as a battle between a bear and a wyvern takes place beneath his feet.
The Sockburn peninsula encompasses an ancient Christian site that is much older than Durham to which it later belonged. Like Durham it lies within a meander of a river – this time the Tees rather than the Wear but is in a very different setting. There is no town, city or village or great cathedral within the peninsula and the extensive fertile and largely empty farmland is very flat. The meander at Sockburn could swallow up the steep river peninsula of Durham several times over.
In Anglo-Saxon times and in Viking times the Sockburn peninsula was a place of great importance. It was here that Higbald, a Bishop of Lindisfarne and Eanbald, Archbishop of York were consecrated in the 8th century A.D showing it to have been a place of religious significance.
It has been suggested that the name Sockburn derives from being at the soke or edge of the jurisdiction of a bishopric, or that it is from a personal name Socca or that it comes from being the shape of a sock – which indeed it is. In truth the name is a mystery but early spellings ‘Soccburh’ of the second part of the name show that it was a burgh – (a fortified manor or stronghold) rather than a burn.
The ruins of the ancient chapel in the grounds of Sockburn Hall are dedicated to All Saints and partly date to the Viking era of the 9th or 10th century (Vikings in Britain had converted to Christianity around this time). The church probably stands on the site of the earlier Christian site. The only other feature of note is a stone called the grey stone within the local farmland where the worm is said to be buried. It lies within private land.
The Sockburn area was settled by the Vikings and like the Teesdale village of Gainford to the west of Darlington, Sockburn was an important centre of Viking age sculpture. It was seemingly one of the most important centres of Viking settlement and worship in the North East of England. A number of Viking sculptured stones from Sockburn are in the collection of Durham Cathedral. Known as ‘hogbacks’ they display a transition between pagan styles and motifs and Christian themes.
The presence of Vikings in the area is also indicated by local place names such as the nearby hamlets of Hornby, Girsby and a little further south we have Birkby. Girsby derives from ‘Grisa by’ – ‘the village where pigs were reared’. In the North East (except in Yorkshire) such Viking place-names are rare outside the Tees valley.
Middleton St. George and Middleton One Row
From the southern tip of the Sockburn peninsula, the Tees flows three miles north, before reaching the pleasant riverside villages of Dinsdale and Middleton One Row and just to their north is Middleton St George.
It is perhaps rather curious that the name of St George, that well-known dragon slayer should spring up so close to a site associated with the slaying of a mythical beast, though the Sockburn Worm was of course technically a wyvern, rather than a dragon. This Middleton is so named because the church was dedicated to this saint.
In fact ‘Middleton St George’ was the name of the parish of the village of Middleton (now Middleton one Row) rather than the name of a village in its own right. It was only after the establishment of an iron works called the Middleton ironworks was established north of Middleton One Row near the Stockton and Darlington Railway in 1864 that a place started to develop here (although there was a collection of houses clustered around the inn called Fighting Cocks here near the Middleton Railway station.
Middleton One Row is an attractive village that has seen some growth in more recent times but the highlight is the picturesque single row of houses on the north side of the main street called the Front which stands on a high bank above the River Tees on its south side.
There is a church dedicated to St Lawrence in the village that dates from 1871 but the original medieval church of St George lies about a mile to the east of Middleton One Row in an isolated sport above the Tees valley.
Nearer to the river to the south is Low Middleton Farm and Hall. The hall was built in 1721 and includes an embattled tower. About a mile to the east towards Aislaby on the north side of a meander or ‘holme’ of the Tees is the site of the deserted medieval village of Newsham. Note that is Newsham (with a ‘w’) and is not to be confused with Neasham.
Nearby is Newsham Hall, an H-shaped house of the seventeenth and eighteenth century, which is a private house. There is also a deserted medieval village near Middleton St George called ‘West Hartburn’ near West Hartburn Farm on the road to High Goosepool Farm and Longnewton.
Middleton One Row and Middleton St George are best known for the nearby Durham Tees Valley Airport, formerly called Teesside Airport which started life out as an airforce base RAF Goosepool (and then RAF Middleton St. George) in 1941 during the Second World War.
Dinsdale : Surtees and Pons Tees
Dinsdale to the west of Neasham consists of three separate settlements on the banks of the Tees. These are Dinsdale Park and Low Dinsdale on the old County Durham side of the river with Over Dinsdale technically on the Yorkshire side sandwiched in between them – such is the ‘loopy’ nature of the Tees hereabouts.
Over Dinsdale is situated at the head of a prominent peninsula of the Tees on the Yorkshire side while Low Dinsdale to which it is linked by bridge is just within the neck of the Sockburn peninsula.
In Norman times Dinsdale was the home of a manor belonging to a family called Siward. Sometime after the Siwards settled at Dinsdale in the eleventh century they changed their name to Sur Tees which in Norman French meant ‘on the Tees’. The Siwards were initially called ‘De Dittensdale’, then ‘De Super Teysam’ or Surtees before the modern surname developed. The Surtees family held Dinsdale until 1511 when A Thomas Surtees died without issue and the estate was subsequently divided up, though much of it belonged to the Place family by the 1700s.
The old manor house, at Dinsdale associated with the Surtees family is a moated private house and dates back to medieval times and situated at Low Dinsdale in the north east corner of the Sockburn peninsula. The nearby church dedicated to St John the Baptist was built in 1196 and restored in the 1870s.
Descendants of the famed Dinsdale family have included Robert Smith Surtees, the author of Jorrocks, who lived near Ebchester in North West Durham, Bessie Surtees, the famous eloper of Newcastle upon Tyne and Robert Surtees the great historian of County Durham who lived at Mainsforth near Sedgefield.
Under the entry for Dinsdale in ‘the History of the County Palatine of Durham’ Robert Surtees compares this sleepy place of his ancestors to the ‘Border Country’ of the far north.
“The knights of the Tees might mingle in the border warfare; but the bugle horn of an assailant would seldom startle the inmates of their quiet halls. Their mansions stood without tower or peel”
A noted churchman called John of Darlington was born in Dinsdale and later became the confessor to King Henry III. He adopted the name of the nearby town of Darlington rather than his home village. He later became the Archbishop of Dublin but died in England in 1284.
Sulphurous wells in the vicinity of Dinsdale brought about the development of the place as a spa in the late 1700s, to rival an established spa established at Croft. The Dinsdale spa spured on the growth of nearby Middleton one Row. The Sulphurous water at Dinsdale was discovered in 1789 when workmen working for the Lambton family who then owned land at Dinsdale were digging for coal. One of the workmen who bathed in it was supposedly cured of rheumatism.
A site to the north of Low Dinsdale on the western side of Middleton One Row developed into the popular Dinsdale Spa and in the 1850s it was recorded that Middleton One Row was “generally the residence of invalids and others visiting the spa”. Baths were built here and in 1829 Lambton, the Earl of Durham opened a hotel at Dinsdale designed by Ignatius Bonomi for the visitors to the spa. The nearby Dinsdale Spa Golf Club was established in 1910.
Cade’s Roman Road
An important Roman road once crossed the Tees near Dinsdale on its way to the Roman forts at Chester-le-Street and Newcastle. The road which passes through Sedgefield is sometimes named Cade’s Road after a Gainford historian. It can be traced near the villages of Middleton St George and Middleton One Row and in later times it would have linked the Viking centres of Sockburn and Sadberge.
Here the old road is known by the name of Pountey’s Lane and is probably named after a Roman bridge that crossed the Tees here called Pons Tesie – ‘Bridge of the Tees’. The lane is overlooked by a small hill near Church Close called Tower Hill, site of an ancient fortification of some kind guarding the bridge or crossing, which could be an Iron Age, Viking or Roman site.
The bridge has long since disappeared with some of its foundation stones used in the construction of buildings at Middleton St George. The Roman road from Middleton St George passes through the village of Sadberge a few miles to the north. This was a place of some importance in Viking times.
Sadberge : A viking capital
The seemingly insignificant little village of Sadberge just off the A66 half way between Stockton and Darlington has one of the most extraordinary histories of any little village in the North East. If we exclude Yorkshire then this was the North East’s only Viking wapentake – a kind of Viking administrative district. Later known as the Earldom of Sadberge, this district stretched from Hartlepool towards Middleton in Teesdale (beyond Barnard Castle though that didn’t exist then) but strangely the district didn’t include Darlington or Stockton.
Wapentakes were found in those parts of England settled by the Danes and continued to be important administrative centres in medieval times. There were neighbouring Wapentakes to Sadberge at Northallerton in Yorkshire and at Langbaurgh in Cleveland. The word wapentake literally means ‘Weapon Taking’ and refers to the way in which land was held in return for military service to a chief.
Sadberge is a name of Viking origin deriving from ‘Setberg’, meaning ‘flat topped hill’, – an accurate description of the location of the village from where good views of the surrounding countryside can be obtained. The place name Setberg from which Sadberge derives also occurs in Norway and in Viking settled Iceland. Closer to home in Norse settled Cumbria we may find the village of Sedbergh near Kendal which has the same meaning.
Rather like many areas of the so-called Tees Valley today, Sadberge had a rather confused sense of identity. Culturally it was an overspill from the Viking colonisation of Yorkshire where the Viking hogback stones and Viking place-names are so numerous. The major Viking cult centre of Roseberry Topping in Yorkshire is not far away but that was in a different wapentake. Sadberge’s cult centre was very probably the peninsula of Sockburn just over two miles directly to the south along the old Roman road.
Northumberland, Durham, Scotland or Sadberge ?
Although it less than two miles north of the River Tees, Sadberge was never in Yorkshire and it originally wasn’t in Durham either. When those two counties began to develop Sadberge and its district was left out and because it had originally been in the Kingdom and Earldom of Northumbria it became an outlying part of the emerging county of Northumberland.
This makes the history of Sadberge rather confusing because in early Norman times the Earldom of Sadberge though north of the Tees was not initially under the rule of Durham’s Prince Bishops. This was because it had been a significant area of Viking settlement and had not been acquired by (or had had in some cases been taken from) the Anglo-Saxon Bishops of Chester-le-Street – who were the predecessors of the Bishop of Durham.
So the district became an outlying part of the county of Northmberland by virtue of the fact that it had been part of the old Earldom of Northumbria. To further add to confusion Northumberland was effectively given to Scotland by King Stephen of England in 1139 so that the Tees actually became the southern boundary of the kingdom of Scotland. This situation continued for eighteen years until Northumberland was repossessed for England by King Henry II in 1157.
Hugh Pudsey, Prince Bishop of Durham (1153-1195) was the man largely responsible for the decline in importance of the Sadberge district. He added the ‘earldom’ to Durham in 1189 and from then on Sadberge was ruled by Durham’s Prince Bishops.
The Earldom of Sadberge included the old parishes of Hart, Hartlepool, Greatham, Stranton, Elwick, Stainton (near Sedgefield), Elton, Long Newton, Egglescliffe, Middleton St George, Low Dinsdale, Coatham Mundeville, Coniscliffe and the baronry of Gainford in Teesdale.
Despite its fall in status, Sadberge retained a degree of independence and continued to be administered as an almost separate county until 1576.
Even as late as the nineteenth century there were still occasionally references to ‘the Counties of Durham and Sadberge’. In 1836 the revenues of the Bishopric of Durham including Sadberge passed to the Crown. A plaque attached to a large ice age stone on the village green reminds us how important Sadberge once was:
“This stone was placed here to commemorate the Golden Jubilee of Victoria, Queen of the United Kingdom, Empress of India, and Countess of Sadberge 1867”
Our YouTube channel explores the Viking history of the River Tees.