Gainford, Piercebridge, Coniscliffe

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 © David Simpson

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.

Gainford village green
Gainford village green © David Simpson

In the later Anglo-Saxon era the area was settled by the Vikings, whose presence in the area is indicated by village names like Selaby, Eppleby, Killerby and Ulnaby. Selaby is recalled in the name of Selaby Hall which is situated above the Alwent Beck that joins the River Tees half a mile west of Gainford about half way between Gainford and Winston. Selaby was the village where sallow grew – an old name for willow trees. Eppleby village – where apple trees grew – is over in Yorkshire two miles south of Gainford.

Gainford © David Simpson

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. Viking influenced ‘hogback; sculptures have been found at Gainford showing Northumbrian and Norse features.

High Row Gainford
High Row Gainford © David Simpson

The origins of Gainford’s name are debated. It is usually said to mean ‘direct ford’ but 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.

A dovecot near Gainford Hall
A dovecot near Gainford Hall © David Simpson

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 © David Simpson

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.

Gainford Hall
Gainford Hall © David Simpson

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 © David Simpson

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.

Gainford village green
Gainford village green © David Simpson

Headlam, Ingleton, 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 Village
Headlam Village © David Simpson

Headlam a mile slightly to the north east of Gainford is a particularly attractive little village and is home to the lovely Headlam Hall, a former manor house of stone that is now a hotel. Parts of Headlam Hall date back to the seventeenth century. It was home to the Brocket family in the eighteenth century.

Headlam Hall
Headlam Hall © David Simpson

Ingleton village, about three-quarters of a mile slightly north west of Headlam has a name that could mean ‘farmstead of the English’ or ‘farmstead belonging to Ingeld’. During the reign of King Cnut (994-1016) it was part of the lands he gifted to the church at Durham.

Ingleton Village
Ingleton Village © David Simpson

Later Ingleton became the property of the Nevilles of Raby Castle. It consists of two rows of houses of the seventeenth and eighteenth century and a Victorian church. The church, dedicated to St John the Evangelist dates from 1843 and was designed by the Durham architect Ignatius Bonomi.

Ingleton Village
Ingleton Village © David Simpson

To the north and of similar appearance if rather peculiar in its name, is the village of Wackerfield. The meaning of the name is uncertain though it is possibly from the Viking ‘Vakrfeld’ meaning the watching or wakeful field.

North of Wackerfield roads head towards Cockfield and Evenwood both in 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 enter 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
Morton Tinmouth © David Simpson

Morton Tinmouth, Killerby, Summerhouse

East of Wackerfield is Hilton and nearby Morton Tinmouth where the land once belonged to the Prior of Tynemouth. Morton Tinmouth is more of a large farming-hamlet than a village and has white-washed buildings.

Morton Tinmouth
Morton Tinmouth © David Simpson

Killerby less than a mile south of Morton Tinmouth was the village of a Viking called Kilvert.  We know nothing about him except that the name Kilvert means ‘one who defends the prow of a ship’. In later times this village, which still has a farm like appearance formed part of the Barony of Evenwood.

Killerby © David Simpson

About three quarters of a mile south west of Killerby is the village of Summerhouse called ‘Summerhusum’ in 1200. The name refers to houses or shelters situated close to summer grazing grounds. It is less than a mile west of the Roman Dere Street with Denton and Walworth Castle across the other side of the street to the east.

Summerhouse © David Simpson

Walworth Castle

Walworth Castle, now a hotel 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. The castle is in a relatively isolated location in the vale of the Tees. It is about two miles north west of the outskirts of Darlington; two miles north of High Consicliffe; two miles south west of Heighington and just under two miles east of Summerhouse.

Walworth Castle
Walworth Castle © David Simpson

To the castle’s immediate north (there is nothing to see) is a farm that stands on the site of the deserted medieval village of Walworth. 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 with a street like Bondgate in those two towns for ‘bondsmen’. This suggests it may have been intended as a borough or town that somehow failed.

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.

Walworth Castle
Walworth Castle © David Simpson

The ‘worth’ in the Anglo-Saxon name Walworth refers to an enclosure. Intriguingly Walworth means ‘enclosed settlement of the Wealas’ or Britons. This is a probable Anglo-Saxon reference to 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.

Bolam and Legs Cross

The village of Bolam just west of Dere Sreet  is about two miles north of Summerhouse and just over half a mile north east of Morton Tinmouth and is described as a shrunken medieval village. It derives its name from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘bole’ – a plank.

Bolam © David Simpson

‘Bolum’ was the plural form meaning ‘the planks’. Bolam is the modern form of the name and means either planks or tree trunks. It should not be confused with the village of Bolam near Belsay in Northumberland near which we find Bolam Lake Country Park. The two places have the same meaning but the Northumberland Bolam seems to be the source of the North East surname Bolam.

Dere Street and the Tees Vale from Legs Cross
The Roman Dere Street (left) and the Tees Vale from Legs Cross © David Simpson

Bolam stands close to the Roman road of Dere Street which is half a mile to its east. The principal feature of interest here lies next to the road and is a stone shaft called Legs Cross.

Footpath and stile near Legs Cross
Footpath and stile near Legs Cross © David Simpson

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.

Legs Cross
Legs Cross © David Simpson

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’.

Legs Cross
Legs Cross © David Simpson

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.

Legs Cross and Dere Street
Legs Cross and Dere Street © David Simpson

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.

Dere Street from Legs Cross
Dere Street from Legs Cross © David Simpson

Piercebridge : 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 bridge at Piercebridge.
The bridge at Piercebridge © David Simpson

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.

The George Piercebridge
The George Piercebridge © David Simpson

Henry Clay Work was apparently 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 who then managed The George. Attempts by clocksmiths to mend the timepiece failed and when the second brother passed away, aged 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 © David Simpson

River Tees : Britons, Romans, Vikings

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.

Numerous Roman items have been found at Piercebridge including hundreds discovered by divers in the River Tees. Examples of Roman military, domestic and religious items from Piercebridge along with many items connected with Roman horses can be seen at Durham University’s museum of archaeology at Palace Green in Durham City.

Roman Piercebridge
Remains of the Roman fort at Piercebridge © David Simpson

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

The Brigantes, the largest tribe in Roman Britain, forming a confederation 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.

Under three miles south west of Piercebridge can be seen one of the most significant remains associated with the Brigantes at Stanwick St John in North Yorkshire. Here we find the ancient earthworks of a huge Brigantian ‘hill fort’ (strangely in a low-lying setting) from which the tribe under Venutius fought the Romans before AD 73 during the Roman conquest of Britain.

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

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 (across the Tees from Low Coniscliffe), 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.

The River Tees at High Coniscliffe
The River Tees at High Coniscliffe © David Simpson

Coniscliffe : King’s Cliffe

A mile east of Piercebridge the Tees begins meanders 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 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) © David Simpson

A dedication to Edwin is unusual and of interest because Edwin was a King of Northumbria (586-633) canonised as a saint and a very important king at that. He was a Deiran (Yorkshire) who also ruled Bernicia north of the Tees and so powerful he was considered ‘Bretwalda’ or ‘overking’ of all the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. He was particularly important for introducing Christianity to Northumbria.

St Edwin's church at High Coniscliffe
St Edwin’s church at High Coniscliffe © David Simpson

It’s not known if Coniscliffe had a direct connection with 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 eighth century records of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

St Edwin's church at High Coniscliffe
St Edwin’s church at High Coniscliffe © David Simpson

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

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

During the later Viking period ‘Cininges Clife’ changed to something closer to its present form under the influence of the Old Danish word ‘Kunung’ meaning ‘king’.

Low Coniscliffe and Broken Scar

In later medieval times High Coniscliffe was called ‘Conesclive Superiore’ to distinguish it from ‘Nether Coneslive’ (Lower Coniscliffe) further to the east. The centre of Darlington is linked to Low Coniscliffe by the lengthy and leafy Coniscliffe Road which runs through the southern part of the town.

High Coniscliffe and Low Consicliffe are both situated on the north bank of the River Tees about a mile and a half apart with Low Coniscliffe very close to the outskirts of Darlington.

The River Tees approaching Broken Scar near Darlington about half a mile downstream from Low Coniscliffe
The River Tees approaching Broken Scar near Darlington about half a mile downstream from Low Coniscliffe © David Simpson

Between the two villages is Merrybent, a village of a more recent age, presumably named from pleasant swathes of grass called ‘bent’ A Merrybent Wood lies to the north and the A1(M) motorway passes beneath the road here following the old course of the former Merrybent Railway.

Above the River Tees as we approach the south western edges of Darlington just east of Low Consicliffe is the Tees Cottage Pumping station waterworks and nearby Broken Scar picnic area alongside the River Tees.

Tees Cottage Pumping Station, Darlington
Tees Cottage Pumping Station, Darlington © David Simpson

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 oldest engine house dates from 1849 with later developments in 1904.

Tees Cottage Pumping Station, Darlington
Tees Cottage Pumping Station, Darlington © David Simpson

Further east and south east along the Tees as the river flows through the countryside to the south of Darlington are Blackwell, Blackwell Grange, Croft-on-Tees and Hurworth Place where the Tees is joined by the River Skerne.

River Tees, Broken Scar near Darlington
River Tees, Broken Scar near Darlington © David Simpson

Upper Teesdale | Barnard Castle 

Aycliffe and Shildon | Bishop Auckland 

West Auckland and the Gaunless Valley

Darlington Croft, Sockburn and Sadberge

YouTube : Viking history of the River Tees




North East England History and Culture