A Teesdale scene. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Cross Fell : Where Tees is born

Born in the bleak North Pennine moorlands of east Cumbria, the River Tees begins its journey to the sea on the southern slopes of Cross Fell, where it rises less than a mile from the source of the River South Tyne. Cross Fell is the highest point in the Pennines and at 2930 feet this hill is a very familiar sight to walkers on the Pennine Way.

In times gone by Cross Fell was associated with demons and was often known as the ‘Fiends Fell’, possibly because of the great wind it can produce in the valley of the Eden to its west. Known as the Helm Wind, this fierce gale of hurricane proportions, can strike most unexpectedly during the spring.

Cow Green Reservoir
Cow Green Reservoir © David Simpson 2021

Cow Green and Upper Teesdale

From its boggy origins on Cross Fell the River Tees flows five miles east before entering North East England near Viewing Hill, (2099 feet). Here it is soon engulfed by Cow Green, a two mile long reservoir which was built between 1967 and 1971 to supply the industries of Teesside.

Environmentally speaking this part of Upper Teesdale is of National importance and the plan to construct this reservoir had been strongly opposed by local conservationists. Their main concern was the protection of the rich flora and fauna of the district and especially rare alpine plants like the unique Teesdale violet.

Moorland near Cow Green, Teesdale
Moorland near Cow Green, Teesdale © David Simpson 2021

Thankfully only about a tenth of this plant’s habitat was destroyed by the completion of the reservoir. The remaining area was designated a National Nature Reserve in 1969.

On a less serious note, the creation of the Cow Green Reservoir may have destroyed the habitat of a certain Peg Powler, the grotesque green-haired mermaid of the Tees who used to inhabit the valley now occupied by the reservoir.

Her presence could be indicated by frothy substances on the river known as Peg Powler’s Suds and children were always warned to stay clear as she had an insatiable appetite for youngsters. Beware she may still be there.

Cauldron Snout

At the eastern end of Cow Green Reservoir, beyond the dam, the Tees rushes in a series of cataracts over a 200 yard long rocky ‘stairway’ called Cauldron Snout. The vertical distance from the first cataract to the last is 200 feet, making this wonderfully named waterfall the highest in England.

Cauldron Snout is said to be haunted by a ghost called the ‘Singing Lady’ whose sad tale is that of a young Victorian farm girl who drowned herself in the waterfall when her love affair with a local lead miner came to an end. On cold moonlit nights she may be seen sitting on a rock near the falls where she sadly laments the loss of her loved one.

From Cauldron Snout the Tees meanders around the huge whin sill cliffs of Cronkley Scar and Falcon Clints and is joined by the Maizebeck, Merrygill, Harwood and Blea Becks as it makes its way towards High Force.

The River Tees near High Force
The River Tees near High Force © David Simpson 2018

High Force

Undoubtedly England’s biggest waterfall when its volume and height are taken into consideration, High Force is one of the most impressive natural sights of the region. It is best seen after a heavy downpour when the sound of the Tees roaring over a vertical drop of seventy feet almost deafens the observer.

High Force
High Force waterfall, Teesdale. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Few realise that High Force is in fact two falls, each situated on either side of a massive central rock, but the smaller northern fall is only occasionally seen in action.

One such occasion was the 24th of June, 1880 when two men became trapped on the central rock after one of the sudden surges of the Tees known locally as the ‘roll’ occurred. The first man was pulled free by means of a rope, but the second was not so lucky, his rope snapped and he unfortunately drowned.

High Force
High Force © David Simpson 2021

Tragically both men may have survived had they stayed where they were, as there are no recorded instances of the two falls ever merging over the central rock.

Low Force waterfall, Teesdale.
Low Force waterfall, Teesdale. Photo © David Simpson 2018

More Waterfalls

A number of other waterfalls can be found in this part of Teesdale, including the White Force, Bleabeck Force, Maizebeck Force and Low Force. Force is a word of Viking origin, deriving from the Old Norse ‘Fors’ which simply means waterfall. It is interesting to note that in Weardale and Northumberland waterfalls are called ‘Linns’, a word of Anglo-Celtic origin.

Low Force waterfall
Low Force waterfall, Teesdale. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Two of the most attractive little waterfalls in the valley are only a little further downstream from High Force. The first is Low Force which as might be expected is a smaller, simpler version of its higher brother. Unlike High Force it is formed by a series of cascades. Here the Tees is crossed by an iron suspension footbridge built in 1830 which replaced what was reputedly the earliest suspension bridge in Europe.

Summerhill Force and Gibson's Cave.
Summerhill Force and Gibson’s Cave.

Not far from Low Force the Tees is joined by the Bowlees Beck on which we find the Summerhill Force, where the stream flows over a band of limestone. This waterfall has partly undercut the limestone behind it to form the picturesque cavern known as Gibson’s Cave.

Middleton in Teesdale: Lead mining past

Four miles downstream from High Force we reach the attractive little town of Middleton in Teesdale, on the Durham side of the river at the point where the Tees is joined by the Hudeshope Beck.

Middleton in Teesdale
Middleton in Teesdale. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Middleton is known to have existed in the days of the Vikings when it was owned by King Cnut (Canute), but did not grow significantly until the nineteenth century when it became an important lead mining centre. Today it has a population of around 1,500.

Lead mining was once a widespread activity in the Middleton area and is commemorated in the Teesdale song ‘Four Pence A Day’.

“The ore is waiting in the tub, the snow’s upon the fell,
Canny folk are sleeping yet, but lead is reet to sell
Come me little washer lad come lets away,
We’re bound down for slavery for fourpence a day.

It’s early in the morning we rise at five o’clock,
And the little slaves come to the door to knock, knock, knock,
Come me little washer lad come lets away,
It’s very hard to work for fourpence a day.

My father was a miner he worked down in the town’
Twas hard work and poverty that always kept him down,
He aimed for me to go to school but brass he couldn’t pay,
So I had to go to the washing rake for fourpence a day.

My mother rises out of bed with tears on her cheeks
Puts my wallet on her shoulderwhich has come to serve a week,
It often fills her great big heart when she unto me say
I never thought thou would have worked for fourpence a day.

Four pence a day,me lad, and very hard to work
And never a pleasant look from a gruffy looking ‘Turk’,
His conscience it may fall and his heart may give away
Then he’ll raise our wages to nine pence a day.”

In 1880 Middleton became the headquarters of the benevolent Quaker-owned, London Lead Company which built houses, schools and libraries for its workers and became the first British company to introduce the five day week.

Memorial fountain of the London Lead Company, Middleton-in-Teesdale
Memorial fountain of the London Lead Company, Middleton-in-Teesdale. Photo © David Simpson 2018

One of the company’s employees was a certain Richard Watson known as ‘the Teesdale Poet’ (1833-1891), who once wrote;

“I’ve wandered many a weary mile,
And in strange countries been;
I’ve dwelt in towns and on wild moors,
And curious sights I’ve seen;
But still my heart clings to the dale
Where Tees rolls to the sea,
Compared with what I’ve seen I’ll say
The Teesdale hills for me.”

Lunedale and Baldersdale

East of Middleton, the Tees is joined by the River Lune near the village of Mickelton which lies on the south side of the Tees. Mickleton means ‘large farm’ though now, as a village, it is slightly smaller than its more westerly neighbour of Middleton over on the other side of the Tees.

Mickleton. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Across the Lune on a hill top to the west of Mickleton is the enigmatic Kirkcarrion. A Bronze Age burial site, it consists of a copse of pine trees surrounded by a wall. The trees have only been there since 1936 but the ancient site, probably the resting place of a long-forgotten chieftain has been there for more than two and a half thousand years.

The name Kirkcarrion derives from the Welsh-Celtic name Carreg Caryn meaning Caryn’s burial heap and has been associated with a Brigantes prince of that name, although the Brigantes tribe belong to the later Iron Age rather than the Bronze Age.

In their upper valleys the River Lune and River Balder form a kind of ‘miniature lake district’, comprised of the Selset and Grassholme reservoirs (in Lundedale) and Balderhead, Blackton and Hury reservoirs in Baldersdale. All of these are south of the Tees on what used to be the Yorkshire side of the river before this area was moved into County Durhamfor administrative purposes.

Hury Reservoir, Baldersdale. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Balder Reservoir was closely associated with the well-known daleswoman, farmer and television personality Hannah Hauxwell (1926-2018) who worked alone for many years at the nearby Birk Hatt Farm in very tough conditions.

She became the subject of a television documentary about her challenging dales lifestyle in the 1970s and this made her something of a celebrity, with subsequent documentaries featuring her on travels to London and Europe.

Romaldkirk and Hunderthwaite

Baldersdale is divided from Lunedale by the moors of Hunderthwaite and Romaldkirk, which both take their names from nearby villages.

Romaldkirk. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Romaldkirk is a picturesque little village on the south bank of the Tees half way between the valleys of Lune and Balder and takes its name from a Northumbrian saint called Romald. The name of the village church, known as the ‘Cathedral of the Dales’ is dedicated to the memory of Romald, about whom we know very little, as he died while only a baby.

Visitors to Romaldkirk should call into one of the local pubs which have a tradition for good strong beer dating back to the days when the village had its own brewery. On the other hand those with a more unquenchable thirst might like to sample the qualities of the village stream; it is called the Beer Beck!

Romaldkirk. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Hunderthwaite lies to the west of Romaldkirk and in truth is a farmstead hamlet rather than a village. Its Viking name may mean Hunrothr’s or Hundor’s meadow. In 1070 Hunderthwaite was the scene of a battle in which King Malcolm of Scotland heavily defeated the Northumbrians.

Cotherstone and the Balder

Two miles downstream from Romaldkirk we find the village of Cotherstone, which is famous as the home of Cotherstone cheese, one of a few delicatessens unique to the North. Cotherstone is situated at the confluence of the Tees and Balder and may have been of importance in Viking times.

Cotherstone. Photo © David Simpson 2018

The River Balder may well take its name from Balder, the Norse god of light and innocence. Balder was the son of Odin and Freyja who could be described as ‘king and Queen of the Gods’. It has been suggested that there are earthworks close to the village of Cotherstone which may be the remains of a Viking temple to the honour of Balder.

When Denmark’s raven soared on high,
Triumphant through Northumbrian sky,
Till, hovering near, her fatal croak
Bade Reged’s Britons dread the yoke;
And the broad shadow of her wing
Blackened each cataract and spring,
Where Tees in tumult leaves his source,
Thundering o’er Caldron and High Force.
“Balder named from Odin’s son ;
And Greta, to whose banks ere long
We lead the lovers of the song ;
And silver Lune from Stainmore wild
And fairy Thorsgill’s murmuring child”

Thor was of course the god of Thunder while Odin, the one-eyed god of wisdom, poetry, agriculture, war and death is also commemorated in the locality under his Anglo-Saxon name of Woden at a place called Woden Croft.

This place and the name of the River Balder certainly captured the imagination of Sir Walter Scott, in his poem ‘Rokeby’ of which verses are quoted above and below:

Beneath the shade the Northmen came,
Fixed on each vale a Runic name,
Reared high their altar’s rugged stone,
And gave their gods the lands they won.
Then, Balder one bleak garth was thine,
And one sweet brooklet’s silver line;
And Woden’s croft did little gain
From the stern father of the slain.”

Many of the names of these Viking and Anglo-Saxon gods are very familiar to us today and especially if today happens to be Wednesday, Thursday or Friday. These are needless to say the celebrated days of Woden, Thor and Freyja.

A Baldersdale scene.
A Baldersdale scene. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Bowes Village

Neighbouring dales to the south of the Balder include Deepdale formed by the Deepdale Beck that joins the Tees east of Barnard Castle and further south, the dale of the River Greta which joins the Tees east of Barnard Castle at Rokeby. The Greta runs close to the cross Pennine route of the A66 over Stainmore for much of its course and the main village of the area is Bowes about three miles south west of Barnard Castle.

Bowes village is the home to a ruined twelfth century castle and the site of a once important Roman fort called Lavatrae. The castle, built in 1171 by Richard the Engineeer for King Henry II never consisted of anything more than a keep and utilised stones from the Roman fort as building material. Stone was also plundered from the fort for the construction of St Giles, a partly Norman church that lies within the bounds of the old fort.

Bowes village is named from the nearby bow-shaped bends in the River Greta that can still be seen. Later the village gave its name to the Bowes family who were a very important part of Teesdale’s history and ancestors of our present Queen. This former Yorkshire village should not be confused with the Bowes Museum which is situated in the Durham town of Barnard Castle.

The famed Victorian novelist Charles Dickens was a visitor to Bowes and came here while undertaking research for Nicholas Nickleby. Dotheby’s Hall, the fictional school portrayed in the novel, was based on the Bowes Boys Academy and the old school building can still be seen in the village today. The proprietor of the school, William Shaw, was the model for the character Wackford Squeers.

Stainmore : The Last battle of Eric Bloodaxe

Bowes village stands at the entrance to the often bleak and lonely Stainmore Pass, a Pennine crossing place for thousands of years. In 954 A.D Stainmore was the site of a battle fought between the retinue of King Eric Bloodaxe and men sent to ambush them on their travels across the Pennines.

“King Eric was treacherously killed in a certain lonely place which is called Stainmore with his son Haeric and his brother Ragnald, betrayed by Earl Oswulf…”

The words above, Written at St Peter’s, York by a 10th century chronicler describe how the red-headed Viking, Eric Bloodaxe met his end. Eric, a King of Norway was a Norseman with a notorious reputation for success in battle.

A Norse saga recorded that “Eric had such a great army that five kings followed him because he was a valiant man and a battle winner. He trusted in himself and his strength so much that he went far up country and everywhere he went with warfare.” At Stainmore, however, his luck was to finally run out.

Oswulf of Bamburgh, an earl or High Reeve, who effectively ruled Northumbria north of the River Tees played a part in Eric’s downfall leading Bloodaxe to believe he recognised the Viking leader’s overlordship of all Northumbria. In truth Oswulf plotted Eric’s downfall employing an agent called Maccus who finally killed Eric.

The death brought an end to the Viking Kingdom of York and to Northumbria itself. According to the Eiriksmal Saga, Eric, fresh from Stainmore, was warmly welcomed in Valhalla by Odin.

The point where Bloodaxe met his end is supposedly marked by Stainmore’s ancient Rey Cross, just south of the A66 about five miles west of Bowes. The Rey Cross once marked a boundary between kingdoms on either side of the Pennines, surprisingly defining the south westerly limit of the Kingdom of Strathclyde. ‘Rey’ is a Viking word and simply means boundary.

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

Barnard Castle and Raby | Gainford to Coniscliffe

Darlington Bishop Auckland | Weardale 


North East England History and Culture