Tees Valley is a modern term that describes a particularly distinct part of North East England. It encompasses areas that were historically (and culturally still are) parts of south east County Durham along with much of an ancient district in the far north eastern corner of Yorkshire called Cleveland.
Officially, ‘Tees Valley’ includes, on the Yorkshire side of the River Tees, the Teesside borough of Middlesbrough along with Redcar and the associated smaller towns and villages clustered along the Cleveland coast.
North of the Tees and still in Teesside is the historic County Durham town of Stockton-on-Tees. Then we have the two slightly more outlying Durham towns of Hartlepool on the coast to the north and Darlington to the west. Darlington is situated in the low-lying countryside of the Skerne valley, a little river that forms a tributary of the Tees which it joins near Croft.
The Tees Valley is a ‘border zone’ between Yorkshire and Durham and has attributes common to both. As an industrial region in the North East one thing that makes Tees Valley distinct is that, unlike Wearside, Tyneside, south east Northumberland and much of County Durham, it lies outside the historic coalfield. That’s not to say it wasn’t affected by the industrial developments associated with coal, it’s just that culturally it was never situated within that part of the region.
Nevertheless, the most important historic event in the industrial history of the Tees Valley was the opening of the Stockton & Darlington Railway of 1825, its primary purpose being the shipment of coal from south west Durham to the port of Stockton-on-Tees. Similarly, West Hartlepool owed its birth and growth to the shipment of coal as too did the initial birth and growth of Middlesbrough.
However, partly associated with the nearby availability of coal, it was industries connected to iron and steel that were the primary factor in the development of the Tees Valley’s industrial might.
One legacy and important factor in this is the broad scattering of mining villages along the Cleveland coast near Saltburn, stretching south towards Whitby, at Brotton, Loftus, Skinningrove (once the site of a steelworks) and Skelton. Historically these mining villages have much in common with their County Durham coal mining counterparts except that these were places associated with the mining of ironstone rather than coal.
Iron and later steel was the lifeblood of the Teesside area and it was iron that really spurred on the extraordinary growth of Middlesbrough, Britain’s ‘Ironopolis’ as it was known in the nineteenth century. Bridge building at Middlesbrough and Darlington and the manufacture of railways were important steel-related industries too, along with shipbuilding and engineering, all of which were important aspects of local pride and prestige.
The iron ore deposits of Eston and the Cleveland Hills and coast helped to make the region’s steel making industry, a process enabled by purified coking coal from County Durham. Coal too played its part in the chemical industry that capitalised on the extensive salt deposits of the locality.
The iron and steel produced on Teesside significantly contributed to the industrial developments, heritage features and cultural characteristics of other parts of the region and across the world too perhaps best symbolised by the Middlesbrough- built Tyne Bridge at Newcastle upon Tyne or the Sydney Harbour Bridge over on the other side of the world.
You can read more about the history of the Tees Valley area in the following pages of the England’s North East site:
The Viking history of the River Tees is explored in a series of YouTube videos by David Simpson.
In an English region where borders and frontiers have shaped history more than any other, the River Tees is one part of the North East that’s often overlooked. Yet this valley has one of the most distinct and varied histories within the region and was as much a frontier as the Tyne, Hadrian’s Wall, the Cheviot Hills or County Durham’s ‘Land of the Prince Bishops’.
The story of the North East role as a frontier is covered in our new You Tube series: The Five Frontiers with four short videos covering each of five frontiers from the Tees to the Tweed.
Surprisingly, Scotland’s borders once stretched to the Tees and in the first of four videos covering the Tees we look at this legacy and the influence of the Baliol and Bruce families, both of whom once dominated the Tees valley and both of whom would produce Scottish kings. We discover how the Tees became a short-lived border for Scotland and became a focus for Scottish raids that sometimes bypassed much of the region to focus on the Tees.
The Tees was not just a Scottish frontier, however. In fact the earlier ‘frontier’ history of the valley is crucial to understanding the role of the North East’s distinct history and role as a borderland. The revelation of the river’s role in this respect is revealed through an exploration of the Viking period when the Tees became a distinct cultural frontier that separated off the rest of the region and helped form the North East’s distinct identity of which the Tees itself formed a part.
Viking settlement in the Tees valley divided the Kingdom of Northumbria into two parts with much of the Viking settlement falling upon Yorkshire and stretching only a little to the north of the Tees itself.
In the first of the four videos covering the Tees we explore the period when the Tees became the Scotland border before heading into the earlier period of Viking settlement that would partly inspire the nineteenth century Scottish poet, Sir Walter Scott in his Teesdale-themed work ‘Rokeby’. Scott partly draws on Viking place-names and themes including the Norse inspired river and stream-names: Balder, Thorsgill Beck and of course the famous ‘force’ waterfalls with their Viking terminology. Scott’s poem is set in a much later period – the Civil War – but Scott seems to have understood the earlier role of the Tees as a frontier drawing on its distinct Viking place-name nomenclature.
In our second video covering the Tees we see how two of the most famous Viking Kings to reign within England had associations with the Tees. Eric Bloodaxe met his end here in this valley as a result of a political intrigue associated with the old fault line within the Kingdom of Northumbria that lay along the River Tees.
The river separated the political sphere of influence of the ‘Kings’ of Bamburgh from the Viking kings of York and the downfall of Bloodaxe really marked the beginning end of the end for Northumbria itself. The other great and powerful Viking king associated with the valley is Cnut, the Danish king of all England who held land within the valley which he bestowed upon the Community of St Cuthbert at Durham.
The third of the videos covering the Viking heritage of the Tees looks at the Viking Wapentake of Sadberge – the Viking territory that lay just north of north of the river as well as exploring Viking place-names along the entire course of the valley.
South of the river we explore the strong Viking associations in the Cleveland area, focused upon the prominent hill of Roseberry Topping, once called ‘Odin’s Berge’ a former centre of Viking pagan worship. In this video we also look at the legacy of the unique and fascinating Viking hogback sculptures that are unique to Britain and most significantly focused on the Tees valley and neighbouring Northallerton ‘Allertonshire’ area of North Yorkshire.
In the fourth video again exploring the history of the Viking valley of the Tees we find the story of the Sockburn Worm, a probable mythological legacy associated with the Vikings and set within a loop of the river that has significant Viking links as well as connections to the Christian heritage of Northumbria. Finally, downstream from Sockburn within another loop of the Tees we visit the town of Yarm where the remarkable discovery of Britain’s first Viking helmet find was made.
At some point the Tees-themed videos will be followed by more videos covering the other frontiers of the region, namely Northumberland’s border country; the River Tyne and Hadrian’s Wall Country; County Durham’s Land of the Prince Bishops and of course the region’s magnificent frontier coast.
North East place-names and their origins. DAVID SIMPSON explores the sometimes surprising meanings of place-names in the North East region.
Did you know that Sunderland was the sundered or separated land; Newcastle was simply a ‘New’ Castle and Gateshead was, quite strangely, the ‘head of the she-goat’? We take place-names for granted but all have an origin and meaning that is often long forgotten or sometimes lost in time. No one actually knows how London got its name, for example.
I’ve always been fascinated by place-name origins. It’s an unusual hobby perhaps, though I find it rather strange that few people share my curiosity for such everyday features of our world. Peculiar place-names like Pity Me arouse much interest – and are often rather plainly explained as ‘poor farmland’ although there’s a wealth of more popular if rather dubious theories. In truth I think that everyday names can be just as interesting.
Some place-names give clues to the origins of the early settlers who founded the place. For example in the south of our region around Middlesbrough there are many place-names ending in the element ‘by’: Thornaby, Ormesby, Tollesby, Normanby, Danby, Lackenby, Lazenby, Maltby and so on. These ‘by’ names are all Viking – and usually Danish in origin, although Normanby points to Norwegian ‘northmen’.
Such Viking names are numerous just south of the Tees in the once intensively Viking settled area of North Yorkshire. Interestingly, they are quite rare north of the Tees – Aislaby near Yarmand Raby (Castle) near Darlington are exceptions that are not that far to the north of the river.
These ‘by’ ending names can also be found in Viking settled Cumbria particularly along the Eden valley all the way up towards Carlisle and there are a fair few in the Merseyside area in the North West of England associated with Viking immigration from the Viking colony of Dublin.
In Old Danish a ‘by’ was a Viking farm or village and even today a quick scan of a map of Denmark and you’ll find dozens and dozens of little villages with names like Norby, Kaerby, Staby, Balleby, Foldby, Karlby, Draby, Voldby, Rakkeby and Mejby. Many of these wouldn’t seem at all out of place in North Yorkshire.
Most place-names in England, including the North East of England are usually of Anglo-Saxon origin. The Angles and Saxons were a Germanic people closely related to the later Vikings. The original Anglo-Saxon coastal homelands stretched from Frisia and the Netherlands up to the present day border of Germany and Denmark.
The Angles, for example, who gave their name to England (the Angle Land) settled extensively in Northumbria and originated from Angeln near the border of those two countries and settled in our islands as invading warriors some three centuries before the Vikings arrived on our shores.
Just about anything ending in ‘ton’ or ‘ham’ is Anglo-Saxon including most of those ‘ingtons’ and ‘inghams: Darlington, Bedlington, Billingham, Bellingham and so on. A ‘ham’ was a homestead and a ‘ton’ an enclosed settlement. Ton or ‘tun’ to give the old spelling was, incidentally originally pronounced ‘toon’ and is at the root of our modern word ‘town’. Sound familiar?
I’m really into place-names for fun but with a quest for true knowledge about the place-names as part of our region’s history. I’m an amateur enthusiast when it comes to place-names to be honest. It is in fact a serious scholarly study and often a complicated one at that.
You can’t simply look at a place-name and guess what it might mean. You have to go back to the earliest known recorded spelling from perhaps a thousand years ago or more and work back from there.
Most place-name experts are skilled linguists with knowledge of several languages that are no longer spoken today like Old English (the language of the Anglo-Saxons), or the Old Norse of the Vikings as well as old Celtic languages like Brythonic and Old Welsh. The experts will have knowledge of how these languages evolved and changed over time and in the case of Old English and Old Norse, how they fused together along with the later Norman French to form the basis of the English language as we know it today.
A good knowledge of local dialect, local history and local topography is also very useful to the scholar of place-names. In fact its essential right down to a knowledge of local soil types, quality of drainage (at that time) and the suitability of land for early farming and settlement.
Newcastle, Sunderland, Middlesbrough
So, what about familiar names like Sunderland, Newcastle and Gateshead? Well the ‘separateness’ of Sunderlanddates to Anglo-Saxon times and refers to land detached or ‘sundered’ from an estate by the King of Northumbria for the use of the Wearmouth monastery.
The ‘New’ Castle of Newcastle dates to Norman times, the first castle being built by William the Conqueror’s eldest son Robert Curthose in 1080 on the site of a Roman fort. At that time the long-since ruined and redundant Roman fort and its associated surviving settlement was called Monkchester, and although this might be considered the ‘old castle’, it seems the rebuilding of the Norman castle by Henry II in the twelfth century was the origin of the true ‘New Castle’.
Just as intriguing, Gateshead across the Tyne lies at the head of the road or ‘way’ dating back to Roman times and perhaps earlier. Roads were sometimes called ‘gates’ in times past but this term was more commonly used for old streets in historic towns. ‘Head of the gate’ seems a plausible explanation for Gateshead, however, the Venerable Bede, writing in the seventh century describes Gatesheadin Latin as ‘Ad Caprae Caput’ – meaning ‘the head of the she goat’ so perhaps there was some form of totem or symbol of a goat’s head overlooking the ancient bridge across the Tyne.
More North East place-names explained
Ashington: ‘Ing’ usually means a kinship or tribal group and ‘ton’ usually means an enclosed settlement. On the surface Ashington looks like ‘the place belonging to the people of a person called Ash’ or something similar. However the earliest spelling in old records is ‘Aescen-denu’ and this is an Anglo-Saxon place-name that means ‘valley (a dene or ‘denu’) overgrown with ash trees’. It shows how important it is to find the oldest spellings.
Bamburgh: From Bebba’s Burgh, a burgh or fortified place named from a Northumbrian queen called Bebba who was the wife of King Æthelfrith. Before Æthelfrith’s time it was known by the Celtic name Din Guayroi.
Bishop Auckland: A complicated one this. The old name was Alcuith – a Celtic name referring to a river. Later it became the home of a castle and palace belonging to the Bishops of Durham hence the ‘Bishop’ part of the name. The old name came to be changed to Auckland (perhaps because it was thought to mean ‘oakland’).
Chester-le-Street: Places containing the word ‘Chester’ are usually Anglo-Saxon in origin even though they refer to the earlier site of a Roman fort. ‘Street’ usually refers to a Roman road. ‘Le’ was added by the Normans as part of a suffix to distinguish places with similar names ‘Le-Street’ distinguishes it from other places called Chester. Other ‘le’ places that would otherwise have potentially confusing similar names are Houghton-le-Spring, Houghton-le-Side, Haughton-le-Skerne, Hetton-le-Hill, Hetton-le-Hole and in North Yorkshire we have Hutton-le-Hole.
Darlington: Originally something like Deornoth’s People’s enclosure. You’d never guess this unless you see the early spellings.
Durham: Originally Dun Holm, ‘the hill island’. In Norman French it was Duresme and in Latin it was Dunelm.
Hartlepool: Means ‘Stag Island Pool’. Le-Pool was added by the Normans to distinguish it from the nearby village of Hart. Unlike other ‘le’ place-names it doesn’t use hyphens but it could easily have been called Hart-le-Pool.
Middlesbrough: Means middle manor or perhaps middle fortified place. One theory is that it is named from its middle location between the historic Christian centres of Whitby and Durham.
Stanhope: Means ‘stony side valley’. Hope meaning land in a ‘side valley’ is a common element in North East place-names, especially in the hilly country of the west.
Warkworth: Wark comes from ‘weorc’ – an earthwork or castle and ‘worth’ means an enclosed settlement. The villages of Wark on Tyne and Wark on Tweed were both sites for castles built on earthworks.