Gainford, Piercebridge and Coniscliffe in the Tees Vale

Gainford on Tees

The vale of the Tees in the southerly portion of County Durham west of Darlington is home to much lovely scenery that stretches west to Staindrop, Raby Castle and Barnard Castle where the vale gives way to the uplands of Teesdale.

Gainford. Photo © David Simpson 2018

In parts Gainford takes on more of a dales character than its neighbours along the Tees at Piercebridge and Coniscliffe to the west. It is a particularly interesting village that was in Anglo-Saxon times the centre of an important estate belonging to the Northumbrian Congregation of St. Cuthbert.

In the later Dark Ages the area was settled by the Vikings, whose presence in the area is indicated by village names like Selaby, Eppleby and Killerby. Selaby was the village where sallow grew, Eppleby the place where apples grew and Killerby the village of a Viking called Kilvert.

The name Kilvert means ‘one who defends the prow of a ship’. Viking sculptures have been found at Gainford showing Northumbrian and Norse influence suggesting that there was a fusion of the two cultures in the vale of the Tees.

Gainford. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Gainford is a rather attractive village particularly around the village green and has long been a popular place of retirement for residents of nearby Darlington.

The origins of its name are disputed and it is usually said to mean ‘direct ford’ though there is a nice legend that there was once a ford on the river and that ownership of the ford was disputed by the residents on either side of the Tees. In the end a battle was fought in which the residents of the Durham side of the river gained the ford and so we have Gainford.

On the Yorkshire side of the river we find the site of the deserted village of Barforth or Barford. Its name is said to be a reminder of an attempt by its residents to barricade the ford during the battle with Gainford.

Gainford Hall
Gainford Hall. Photo © David Simpson 2018

In the nineteenth century Gainford village had its own spa. Today its main features are an unspoilt village green, the Jacobean Gainford Hall and an attractive Georgian street called High Row. The hall dates from 1603 and was built by the Reverend John Craddock.

A dovecot near Gainford Hall
A dovecot near Gainford Hall. Photo © David Simpson 2018

The beautiful thirteenth century church of St Mary at Gainford is of interest and probably stands on the site of an Anglo-Saxon monastery built by Bishop Ecgred of Lindisfarne in the early ninth century that is known to have existed at Gainford. It is said to be the resting place of a Northumbrian chieftain called Ida or Eda.

Ginford church
Gainford church. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Locally the church was once famed as the place where a vicar married a Pigg, christened a Lamb and buried a Hogg all in the same week.

Headlam, Ingleton and Wackerfield

Many of the villages in the vale of the Tees to the north of Gainford are fine looking unspoiled old villages that often feature houses dating to the 1600s and 1700s.

Headlam is a particularly tiny village and home to the lovely Headlam Hall, a former manor house of stone that is now a hotel. Parts of the building date back to the seventeenth century. It was home to the Brocket family in the eighteenth century.

Ingleton, nearby to the north, has a row of houses of the seventeenth and eighteenth century with similar looking hamlets called Killerby and Summerhouse to the east. To the north and again similar in appearance if rather peculiar in its name, is the village of Wackerfield – the meaning is uncertain though it is possibly from the Viking Vakrfeld meaning the watching or wakeful field.

North of Wackerfield towards Cockfield we enter the River Gaunless valley near Bishop Auckland where even the older green villages tend to be larger due to the influence of coal mining development as here we have also entered the old coalfield area.

To the west of Wackerfield is Raby Castle and the estate village of Staindrop which dominated much of the history of Teesdale in times past.

Morton Tinmouth, Bolam and Legs Cross

East of Wackerfield is Hilton and nearby Morton Tinmouth where the land once belonged to the Prior of Tynemouth.

Close by is Bolam, described as a shrunken medieval village by Nikolaus Pevsner’s Buildings of England. It derives its name from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘bole’ – a plank. Bolum was the plural form meaning ‘the planks’. Bolam is the modern form. It means either planks or tree trunks.

Bolam stands close to the Roman road of Dere Street which is just to its east. The principal feature of interest here lies next to the road and is a stone shaft called Legs Cross. Dating from around 850AD it is thought to have marked the northern boundary of the Anglo-Saxon estate of Gainfordshire possibly with Staindropshire to the north and Heighingtonshire to the east. The cross is thought to stand on the site of an earlier Roman cross marking territorial boundaries and the ‘leg’ of the name may in someway be a reference to an abbreviation of the word ‘legion’.

Dere Street – ‘the forest way’ or ‘road to Deira’ has a striking arrow-shot straightness in this part of the region as we would expect from a Roman road. Stretching from the Scottish Borders to York this section links the Roman fort of Binchester further north to the fort at Piercebridge where the road crossed the Tees into Deira – or Yorkshire as we know it today.

The bridge at Piercebridge.
The bridge at Piercebridge. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Piercebridge and the Grandfather Clock

Piercebridge, on the north bank of the River Tees, two miles downstream from Gainford is in County Durham but its hotel ‘The George’ is across the river in Yorkshire.

The George Piercebridge
The George Piercebridge. Photo © David Simpson 2018

The hotel is famed as the home of the clock that inspired a visiting American songwriter called Henry Clay Work to write his famous song ‘My Grandfather’s Clock ‘ (1878), from which all long case clocks now take their name.

My Grandfather’s Clock was too tall for the shelf
So it stood ninety years on the floor.

According to an information board on the outside of ‘The George’ Henry Clay Work was told the story of an old clock that stood in the hotel lobby which started losing time after the death of one of the two Jenkins brothers that then managed The George. Attempts by clocksmiths to mend the old timepiece failed and when the second brother passed away at the age of 90 the clock ceased completely.

Henry later set pen to paper to write the following verse:

It wrang an alarm in the dead of the night,
an alarm that for years had been dumb
And we knew that his spirit was pluming for flight,
that his hour of departure had come.
Still the clock kept the time with a soft and muffled chime
as we silently stood by its side.
But it Stopped, Short,never to go again
When the old man died.

When the song gained popularity long case clocks (also known as floor clocks) came to be commonly known as Grandfather Clocks. A long case clock can be seen in the hotel lobby alongside the framed lyrics of the song.

Piercebridge village on the Durham (Darlington) side of the Tees. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Romans and Brigantes

Piercebridge is situated at the point where the old Roman road called Dere Street crossed the River Tees. This road ran north from the Roman military headquarters at York well up into the valley of the Tweed in the present Scottish Borders.

Piercebridge is yet another pretty village centred upon a green and the remains of the Roman fort called Magae can be seen on its eastern side. This was an important Roman fort that guarded the crossing of the Tees. The remains of a Roman bridge have been found which stood just downstream of the present bridge.

Roman Piercebridge
Remains of the Roman fort at Piercebridge. Photo © David Simpson 2018

The fort at Piercebridge was perhaps of particular strategic importance as not only did it guard a river crossing but it was likely located in the heartland of the Brigantes tribe who were closely associated with this area.

The Brigantes were the largest tribe in Roman Britain (in fact a conferation of tribes) with territory extending over large areas of what is now Yorkshire, Durham, Cumbria and southern Northumberland. Celtic or Welsh speaking tribes like the Brigantes were the native inhabitants of Britain many centuries before Anglo-Saxons or Vikings made Britain their home.

South west of Piercebridge can be seen one of the most significant remains associated with the Brigantes at a place called Stanwick St John in North Yorkshire. Here we find the ancient earthworks of a Brigantian camp from which the tribe fought the Romans at the Battle of Scotch Corner in 71AD.

The River Tees at Piercebridge.
The River Tees at Piercebridge. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Coniscliffe : The King’s Cliffe

A mile east of Piercebridge the Tees begins to increasingly meander through its vale at High Coniscliffe as it moves closer to the southern outskirts of Darlington at Low Coniscliffe.

High Coniscliffe is a neat little village that stands on the north bank (historically the ‘cliffe’) of the Tees where we find an Early English medieval church of unusual length, dedicated to St Edwin.

St Edwins Church, High Coniscliffe
Church dedicated to St Edwin who was king of Northumbria at High Consicliffe (the king’s cliff). Photo © David Simpson 2018

A dedication to Edwin is also unusual and is of interest because Edwin (c586AD-633AD) was a king of Northumbria who was canonised as a saint and was a very important king at that. He was a Deiran (of Yorkshire) who also ruled over Bernicia north of the Tees and was so powerful that he was considered ‘Bretwalda’ or ‘overking’ of all the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. He was particularly important for introducing Christianity to Northumbria.

It is not known if Coniscliffe had a direct connection with King Edwin in his lifetime but certainly in the later Saxon period Coniscliffe appears under the name ‘Cininge’s Cliffe’ (king’s cliff) and ‘Eadwin’s Cliff’ in the eighth century records of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

The events recorded at Coniscliffe in the chronicle show that it was a place of importance, probably a Royal centre of some kind. It was the site of the murder of a prominent Bernician noble called Oswin who was killed by King Aethelwold Moll in 761AD and it was also the location of a murderous coup in 779AD. In the second of these incidents three ‘high reeves’ – powerful nobles called Ealdwulf, Cynewulf and Ecga were slain in an event that resulted in the succession of King Alfwold as King of Northumbria.

Tees views from High Coniscliffe
View across the Tees vale from St Edwin’s churchyard. Photo © David Simpson 2018

During the later Viking period the name ‘Cininges Clife’ changed to something closer to its present form under the influence of the Old Danish word ‘Kunung’ which also meant ‘king’. In later medieval times High Coniscliife was called ‘Conesclive Superiore’ to distinguish it from ‘Nether Coneslive’ (Lower Coniscliffe) to the east.

The lengthy and leafy Coniscliffe Road in Darlington links the town to Low Consicliffe. Tees Cottage Pumping station is located between the two places. The pumping station revolutionised Darlington’s water supply by piping water to its people. An impressive steam-powered beam engine in the pumping station is now a visitor attraction open to the public on special designated days during the summer.

The River Tees at High Coniscliffe
The River Tees at High Coniscliffe. Photo © David Simpson 2018

The River Tees

After the Roman period and before the Anglo Saxon era the valley of the River Tees around Piercebridge is thought to have formed the central plain of an ancient British kingdom called Catraeth whose people would have been the descendants of the earlier Brigantes of pre-Roman times. In fact the name of the River Tees is thought to date from the time of those ancient Britons, who spoke a language similar to modern day Welsh. The name Tees is related to the Welsh ‘Tes’ meaning ‘sunshine’ or ‘heat’.

Tees probably means ‘boiling or surging river’. East of Piercebridge the Tees, ironically is neither boiling nor surging as it lazily meanders its way towards the outskirts of Darlington where it is crossed by the A1(M) Motorway, unnoticed by the rushing motorists above.

There are a number of Viking place-names in the neighbourghood. Examples include Cleasby, Jolby, Brettanby and Ulnaby. Brettanby is a farm and manor near Scotch Corner and its name may be a Viking reference to the presence of Ancient Britons in the area. Ulnaby is a deserted medieval village on the Ulnaby Beck, a northern tributary of the Tees to the north of Coniscliffe.

Walworth Castle

Two or three miles north of High Coniscliffe is Walworth Castle which is now a hotel. It was built by Thomas Jennison, the Auditor of Ireland in 1603, on the site of an earlier building and is a place of great charm.

Walworth Castle
Walworth Castle. Photo © David Simpson 2018

To the castle’s immediate north (though there is nothing to see) is a farm that stands on the site of a deserted medieval village. Deserted medieval villages are not unusual but this is of particular interest as its layout is similar to the medieval town centres of Bishop Auckland and Darlington and suggests that it may have been intended as a borough or town that somehow failed to get off the ground.

Other than the layout little is known of its history but it is known to have been the site of a chapel dating to the 1100s, the few remains of which are incorporated into the farmhouse building.

The ‘worth’ in the Anglo-Saxon name Walworth refers to an enclosure and intriguingly Walworth’s name means ‘enclosed settlement of the Wealas’ or Britons. This is a probable Anglo-Saxon reference to a survival of Welsh speaking ancient Britons hereabouts. Perhaps they were the descendants of the Celtic people who occupied the Iron Age Hill fort at Shackleton Beacon near Heighington just to the north.

Our YouTube channel explores the Viking history of the River Tees.

Upper Teesdale | Barnard Castle 

Aycliffe and Shildon | Bishop Auckland 

West Auckland and the Gaunless Valley

Darlington Croft, Sockburn and Sadberge




North East England History and Culture