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 2,930 feet this hill is a very familiar sight to walkers on the Pennine Way.
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, (2,099 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.
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.
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.
At the top of the waterfall the build up begins in a series of rapids before it takes the initial plunge. The noise is impressive as onlookers descend along the edge of the fall carefully making their way along the solid cube like blocks of whin stone. Finally at the foot of the waterfall is a basin with a cauldron-like quality that presumably gives its name to the waterfall.
From Cauldron Snout the River Tees still presents much drama as it meanders around the huge whin sill cliffs of Cronkley Scar, Raven Scar and Falcon Clints. To the north lies Widdybank Fell and to the south is Cronkley Fell as the river heads east.
From here the Tees is joined by the Maizebeck, Merrygill, Harwood and Blea Becks as it makes its way towards High Force. Of the becks that join the Tees on this stretch of the river, the Maizebeck Force meets the south side of the Tees at the foot of Cauldron Snout. Upstream it plays host to a little waterfall of its own called the Maizebeck Force.
Merrygill Beck is another beck that joins the south side of the Tees, a little further downstream but by far the largest of the becks adjoining this stretch of the Tees is the Harwood Beck. This beck meets the Tees on the north side of the river and forms a valley stretching for four miles to the north west.
About a mile before the Harwood Beck joins the Tees it is itself joined by a beck from the north called Langdon Beck which merges with its companion at a place called Langdon Beck.
At Langdon Beck there is a welcome place of refreshment – the Langdon Beck Hotel. It is one of Britain’s more remote hotels. Here a road leads to Cow Green where visitors can begin the walk to the reservoir and Cauldron Snout waterfall.
There are some curiously named features in the neighbourhood of the moorland road that leads to Cow Green: Guy’s Moss; Peghorn Lodge; Peghorn Sike; Cowrake Rigg; Cocklake Rigg; Honeypot Cottage and Unthank.
However, the Harwood Beck now fueled by its Langdon Beck tributary joins the Tees downstream from Cow Green at Forest in Teesdale. From there the river continues south east meandering around Dine Holm Scar on the edge of Force Garth Pasture before it reaches High Force.
The name of Forest recalls the name of Forest and Frith, the highest township parish in Teesdale. Forest in the old sense meant open land used for hunting rather than a dense area of trees as it does today. Nevertheless the combination of Forest with ‘Frith’, an Anglo-Saxon word for ‘woodland’ shows that the area was at least partially wooded.
Teesdale Forest was the hunting forest of Bernard Baliol (the second) and is first mentioned in the twelfth century. It was similar to the hunting park of the Prince Bishops, further to the north in upper Weardale.
Houses in Forest consist of scattered farms, though there is a rather lonely and isolated Wesleyan Methodist chapel dating from 1867 which ceased operating for services in 2019.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The upper layers of rock over which the stream tumbles are limestone with softer sandstone and shale beneath. The waterfall’s formation is very similar to that of the much larger though similarly cavernous waterfall of Hardraw Force near Hawes in Wensleydale. Geologically, the Summerhill Force is very different to the other famous waterfalls of Teesdale which are whin stone formations.
Across the river to the south of Low Force is Holwick and the prominent Howick Scars and neighbouring Crossthwaite Scars. However, the main road through the dale here is on the north side where, a little down stream to the east of Low Force and Bowlees is the village of Newbiggin.
Newbiggin is an Anglo-Saxon name that means ‘new building’ and is one of a number of Newbiggins in the historic county of Durham. Other places of this name exist near Lanchester, Bishopton and Heighington. The Teesdale Newbiggin is first recorded in the fourteenth century as ‘Neubinghinge’ but a later record of 1462 is closer to the modern spelling when it was called ‘Newbigging in Tesedale’. Like many places in Teesdale it was a place historically associated with lead mining as well as farming.
Middleton-in-Teesdale: Lead mining past
Two miles downstream from Newbiggin and four miles downstream from High Force we reach the attractive little town (or large village) of Middleton-in-Teesdale.
Middleton is the main settlement in the upper part of Teesdale and only Barnard Castle in the lower part of the dale is bigger and like ‘Barney is situated on the historic Durham side of the river. Here the River Tees is joined by the Hudeshope Beck which rises on Middleton Common about six miles to the north.
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.
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.”
Along a street called Hude at the north western end of Middleton is Middleton House in a commanding position overlooking the dale. Dating from the mid 19th century this handsome building was the headquarters building for the London Lead Company.
Lunedale, Baldersdale and Mickleton
East of Middleton, the next points of interest are over on the south side of the River Tees where the river is joined by the River Lune near the village of Mickleton.
Mickleton means ‘large farm’ and though it has been a village for centuries, it is slightly smaller than its more westerly neighbour of Middleton over on the north side of the Tees.
Mickleton is one of three villages located between the valleys of the Lune and Balder, the others being Romaldkirk and the tiny village of Hunderthwaite to the south which are both much nearer to the Balder whereas Mickleton almost lies across a neck of land formed by the Tees and Lune.
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 Durham for administrative purposes.
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.
The next village downstream from Mickleton is Eggleston which is situated over on the north side of the River Tees. It should not be confused with Egglestone Abbey (notice the different spelling) which is situated much further down the valley to the east of Barnard Castle.
Eggleston is situated on the Eggleston Beck which forms a remote valley to the north of the village called Eggleshope that stretches some seven or eight miles almost as far north as Bollihope Common across the watershed in Weardale.
On the surface Eggleston and Eggleshope look like ‘eccles’ place names which are thought to refer to ancient churches of the late Roman and early Anglo-Saxon period, however it seems that their names derive from the personal name of an Anglo-Saxon, probably Ecgwulf. The B6278 follows the Eggleshope valley to Bollihope Common and Stanhope and traces of a Roman Road have been identified running through the valley.
A private house called Eggleston Hall dates from 1820 and was built by the Durham architect, Ignatius Bonomi for William Hutchinson. Owned by the Gray family from 1918, the hall once served as a convalescent home for World War Two veterans and as a finishing school. In more recent times it featured in a reality TV series of 2005-2010 called Ladette to Lady, a kind of Pygmalion theme in which ladette girls were taught old-fashioned skills of etiquette and mannerism to learn how to behave like a traditional lady.
The hall is a private house but can be hired by large groups or families. There is a garden centre and a café and the ruins of an 18th century church in its grounds. A later Victorian church stands outside the gates of the hall. The bridge across the Tees at Eggleston, linking the village to Romaldkirk and Mickleton dates from the seventeenth century.
East of Eggleston roads lead north east to Woodland; Hamsterley Forest and the Gaunless valley; east to Langleydale, Kininvie and Staindrop and south east towards Barnard Castle. There is little of note along the north bank of the Tees from Eggleston to Barnard Castle but to the south are the villages of Romaldkirk, Hunderthwaite, Cotherstone and Lartington.
Romaldkirk and Hunderthwaite
Baldersdale is divided from Lunedale by the moors of Hunderthwaite and Romaldkirk, which both take their names from nearby villages.
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 a local pub that has 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!
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.
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 are perhaps the remains of a Viking temple to the honour of Balder. Sir Walter Scott sets the scene:
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.
Returning to Teesdale proper, along the valley a mile to the south east of Cotherstone is the attractive little village of Lartington. It is best known as the home of the seventeenth century Lartington Hall. The hall has an attached former Roman Catholic chapel connected with the Maires, a family of Catholic recusants who resided at the hall.
A mile and a half south east from Lartington the road from Lartington reaches Barnard Castle (specifically Startforth) where a long heavily wooded valley called the Deepdale Beck joins the Tees from the south.
South of Deepdale the main road south west from Startforth and Barnard Castle is the A688 which follows a Roman road to join another former section of Roman Road (the A66) at Bowes.
Bowes is situated above the dale of the River Greta which joins the River 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 Bowes is the main village of the area, some four 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 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 stands at the entrance to the bleak Stainmore Pass, a Pennine crossing place for thousands of years. In AD 954 Stainmore was the site of a battle fought between the Viking King of Northumbria, Eric Bloodaxe and men sent to ambush his retinue on their journey 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…”
These words were written at St Peter’s, York by a 10th century chronicler. Eric, a Norwegian had a notorious reputation for success in battle but his luck finally deserted him on Stainmore. Oswulf of Bamburgh, a High Reeve, who ruled Northumbria north of the Tees plotted Eric’s downfall leading Bloodaxe to believe he recognised his overlordship.
An agent called Maccus finally killed Eric, working for Osulf and supported by the Saxon kings of Wessex. The death brought an end to the Viking Kingdom of York and ended Northumbria’s long history as an independent kingdom. According to the Eiriksmal Saga, Eric was warmly welcomed in Valhalla.
Bloodaxe supposedly met his death at a roadside point marked by Stainmore’s ancient Rey Cross. The stone cross, little more than a stump, is next to a layby on the A66 about five miles west of Bowes. It once marked a boundary between Northumbria and the Kingdom of Strathclyde in Cumbria. ‘Rey’ means cross or ‘boundary’.
Our YouTube channel explores the Viking history of the River Tees.