The attractive Weardale town of Wolsingham is situated on the banks of the River Wear where the river is joined from the north by the Waskerley Beck. It has an Anglo-Saxon name that means ‘homestead of Wulfsige’s people’.
Wolsingham has many lovely stone-built houses and is the annual home to England’s oldest agricultural show. It is the most easterly of the Weardale towns, as Crook, Willington and Bishop Auckland all lie outside the dale, although they are still within the Wear valley.
There is a bridge across the River Wear at Wolsingham called the Causeway which links Wolsingham to the countryside and moorland to the south. In the Great Flood of 1771 the original bridge was swept away. Today the present bridge across the Wear is mostly used by locals and farmers but this is not the more familiar bridge at the centre of Wolsingham on the Durham to Stanhope road as that bridge actually crosses the Waskerley Beck.
In historic times the manor of Wolsingham belonged to the Prince Bishops of Durham and was home to the bishop’s beekeeper at the time of the Boldon Book survey in 1183. Wolsingham seems to have developed into a place of importance in its commanding position at the heart of lower Weardale and was granted its own charter in 1508. The streets in the town still have a medieval layout and there is a 12th century church dedicated to St Mary and St Stephen.
At the centre is a small town hall of 1861 in the tiny market place and many of the handsome houses and cottages are 18th century with some dating to the 1600s. These include three adjoining houses that were formerly a pub called the Queen’s Head.
Wolsingham looks like a place that was untouched by industry but there was a large steelworks on the eastern edge of the town founded by Charles Attwood (see also Spennymoor) in 1864 which operated until closure in 1984 and was subsequently demolished. Its site is concealed from the main road by a wall.
Thornley and Harperley
To the east of Wolsingham towards Crook and Witton-le-Wear is Harperley a collection of scattered houses. The little village of Thornley and Bradley Hall are nearby.
Bradley Hall is a private residence that began as a manor house but was crenellated (fortified as a castle) by Cardinal Langley, a Bishop of Durham, as a defence against the Scots in 1431.
Harperley, the clearing of someone called Harper back in medieval or Anglo-Saxon times is a home to notable farmhouses that are private residences. These include Old Harperley Hall which dates back to the sixteenth century and nearby Harperley Hall a quarter of a mile to its east which dates to 1790.
Harperley is best known as the site of a Second World War Prisoner of War camp that was called PoW Camp 93. It was located at nearby Craigside and more than forty huts of the camp still survive near the main Weardale road. In recent times the camp briefly served as a tourist attraction but is now home to Weardale Cheese, a small artisan cheese making concern. Some of the German prisoners who were once kept at the camp stayed on in England following the war and married local women.
Holywood, Baal Hill and Tunstall
Back in Wolsingham, the northern half of the town across the Waskerley Beck is called Upper Town and was the site of a moated manor house of the Bishops of Durham that was demolished in the eighteenth century.
The Waskerley Beck forms a picturesque little valley north of Wolsingham that is overlooked on the hillsides by an unusual modern village or estate called Holywood that consists of around thirty large and very substantial modern luxury mansion houses. In amongst them is the older mansion of Holywood Hall, now divided into four dwellings and once the Victorian home of the Wolsingham ironworks owner, Charles Attwood. The hall is situated on what was Holywell Lane leading to an ancient ‘holy well’ and a farm of that name in Wolsingham’s Upper Town.
A woodland separates the village of Holywood from a farm called Baal Hill House just to the north which was once a medieval tower house and has a sixteenth century tunnel-vaulted ground floor. The name of this farm comes from ‘Bailiff Hill Farm’ as it was historically the home of the bailiff of Wolsingham Park, which belonged to the Prince Bishops of Durham in medieval times. The name became ‘baal’ through popular association with a ‘baal’ or signal fire – a word of Norse origin.
Much of the Waskerley Beck valley to the north of here is wooded and part of the valley is occupied by the picturesque Tunstall Reservoir two miles north of Wolsingham which was constructed in 1897. The site of a 13th century hermitage was drowned during the reservoir’s construction. The area around Tunstall Reservoir is a pleasant spot for walks and has a neighbouring picnic area. The name Tunstall derives from ‘tunstede’ which simply means farmstead.
At Tunstall the Waskerley Beck is joined by the Tunstall Burn, notably a ‘burn’ rather than a ‘beck’. All of the streams in upper Weardale to the west of Wolsingham are called ‘Burns’, from an old Anglo-Saxon word, yet curiously streams joining the Wear east of Wolsingham around Bishop Auckland and east towards Durham City are generally called ‘Becks’ from the Old Norse word ‘Bekkr’.
The reason may be that the Wolsingham to Durham stretch of the River Wear deviates south towards the part of County Durham that had formed the Viking settled territory called Sadberge. The Waskerley Beck seems exceptional as it rises further to the north. The stream begins about three miles north west of Tunstall near the village of Waskerley and the Waskerley Reservoir which is towards Consett.
Frosterley is a pretty, stone-built village three miles up the valley to the west of Wolsingham and its name might create an image of a chilly climate but in fact derives from ‘forest-lea’ meaning ‘the forester’s clearing’, a glade of land once inhabited by a forester. The word Forester derives from the Old French word Forestier and was probably introduced into Britain by the Normans.
Historic owners of Frosterley includeed Ralph Cant, who owned Frosterley at the time of the Boldon Buke in the 1180s. Frosterley was later owned by the families of Bradley, Dewy, the Morgans, the Swinburns and later, a Valentine Rippon, who owned Frosterley in the mid nineteenth century.
A bridge across the Wear at Frosterley, like that at Wolsingham was destroyed during the Great Flood of November 1771.
Frosterley is famed for giving its name to a unique form of ‘marble’, that can be found in the vicinity of the village. It is formed from a black, carboniferous limestone speckled with the remains of prehistoric plants and marine creatures – a reminder of the dramatic changes in landscape that take place over millions of years. These rocks once formed part of a sea bed.
The tiny beasts that appear in the ‘marble’ are formed of sea shells and for this reason Frosterley marble was known to local quarrymen as ‘Cockle’. Frosterley marble can be found as a decoration in churches throughout the world and some of the best examples of the marble may be seen in Durham Cathedral.
Stanhope, pronounced ‘Stannup’, is the ‘capital’ of Upper Weardale and its name means ‘stony valley’. This is a good description of the Wear and burns of the area. Like many towns in the North Pennine dales, Stanhope grew most significantly in the nineteenth century as a lead mining centre, but is unmistakably a dales town with lovely stone houses lining its main road and charming little market place.
Stanhope’s attractive Durham Dales Centre is situated in the town just west of the market place. It includes a tearoom, gift shops, speciality craft shops, gardens, visitor information and offices for small businesses. The Durham Dales are the upper valleys of Teesdale, Weardale and the River Derwent.
Stanhope’s market place is overlooked by Stanhope Castle and the old church of St Thomas. The pretty church with its short, subtle tower, is part Norman and part Early English 12th century.
A curious feature of the church is found in a gap in the churchyard wall in which we can see a 320 million year old fossilised tree stump. According to the helpful accompanying information plaque on the churchyard wall it is a species called Sigillaria and grew in a tropical forest in the Carboniferous period and is an ancestor of modern clubmosses.
When the tree died, sand from a river filled its rotten trunk and roots and then hardened into sandstone which now forms the cast. It was found in a quarry near Edmunbyers Cross to the north and was brought to Stanhope in pieces and reassembled in the 1960s.
Also overlooking the market place is Stanhope Castle, in fact a house of 1798 built by the Gateshead MP, Cuthbert Rippon whose family owned the land hereabouts. Called Stanhope Castle it was built on the site of a castle that belonged to the fourteenth century Prince Bishop of Durham, Antony Bek.
The Bonny Moorhen
A pub called the Bonny Moorhen near the church looks out from the north side of the market place and commemorates a most unusual battle which took place in Stanhope in 1818. It involved the local lead miners and the Prince Bishop of Durham.
When times got hard, the lead miners of Weardale had come to regard it as their right to shoot the game which was so plentiful in their valley.
The Bishop of Durham had a different view and regarded such activities as poaching. He warned the lead miners that it would have to stop. When the poaching continued the bishop brought an army of his men into Weardale, arrested the suspected poaching ring leaders and temporarily imprisoned them in the local inn. Hearing of the arrests, a large and angry crowd of lead miners quickly gathered outside the inn and demanded the release of the men.
It was not long before a violent ‘battle’ broke out, in which the Bishop’s men were heavily defeated by the lead miners. Although no one was actually killed, much blood was shed and one man is said to have lost an eye. This bloody event known as ‘The Battle of Stanhope’ is commemorated in the lengthy folk ballad called The Bonny Moor Hen. We’ve included a few verses below:
“You brave lads of Weardale, I pray lend an ear
The account of a battle you quickly shall here,
That was fought by the miners, so well you may ken
By claiming a right to the bonny moor hen.
Oh this bonny moor hen, as it plainly appears,
She belonged to their fathers some hundreds of years;
But the miners of Weardale are all valiant men,
They will fight till they die for their bonny moor hen.
Oh the miners in Weardale, they are bred to the game,
They level their pieces and make sure of their aim;
When the shot it goes off – Oh, the powder doth sing,
They are sure to take off, a leg or a wing
Now, the times being hard and provisons being dear,
The miners were starving almost we do hear;
They had nought to depend on, so well you may ken,
But to make what they could of their bonny moor hen.
There’s the fat man of Auckland and Durham the same
Lay claim to the moors and likewise the game
They send word to the miners they would have them to ken
They would stop them from shooting the bonny moor hen.
Of these words they were carried to Weardale with speed
Which made the poor miners hang down their heeds
But then sent an answer they would have them to ken
They would fight till they died for their bonny moor hen.
When this answer it came to the gentlemen’s ears,
An army was risen, it quickly appears;
Land stewards, bum bailiffs, and game-keepers too,
Were all ordered to Weardale to fight their way through.
Oh this battle was fought all in Stanhope town,
When the chimneys did reek and the soot it fell down
Such a battle was ne’er fought in Stanhope before
And I hope such a battle will ne’er be fought more.”
Stanhope Halls and Hopes
Curious place-names around Stanhope include Shittlehopeside Farm just east of the town and just to the north on a climb up the hillside is the village of Crawleyside, its name meaning ‘the clearing inhabited by crows’. ‘Ley’ meaning clearing and is a common element in western Durham place-names like Waskerley, Satley, Rowley, Knitsley and Copley.
Just south of the river from Stanhope are stone buildings with another unusual name Unthank Hall and Unthank Farm. Dating from the seventeenth century with some older sections, the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner describes these as “a handsome group of buildings”.
There is no bridge across the Wear at Stanhope (except outside the town a little to the west) but there is a ford across the river linking Stanhope to the river bank on the south side. Alongside the ford are stepping stones so walkers may also cross. The A689 Durham to Weardale road crosses a bridge over the Stanhope Burn at the western edge of Stanhope but this is barely noticeable. The burn forms the stony ‘up’ or side valley which joins the river on its northern side and from which Stanhope gets its name .
Just across the other side of the burn is Stanhope Old Hall, an interesting old stone house that offers bed and breakfast. The main part of the house is Jacobean or Elizabethan that is to say late 16th or early 17th century.
The Heathery Burn discovery
Just over a mile up the valley of the Stanhope Burn, the stream is joined by a smaller tributary called the Heathery Burn. In 1859 an important archaeological discovery was made in a cave hereabouts in which a huge collection of Bronze Age items were uncovered, including evidence of the earliest use of wheeled vehicles in the British Isles.
The items found at the Heathery Burn cave seem to have belonged to a particularly wealthy Bronze Age family whose skeletons were also uncovered. For some unknown reason, perhaps a flash flood, the family became trapped in this cave some 3,000 years ago. Today the findings of the Heathery Burn Cave are kept in the British Museum, London.
The Weardale Railway
Stanhope has its own railway station which is the headquarters for the Weardale Railway. It is a charming award-winning station that has been recognised for the quality of its preservation. The original station first opened in 1862 following the extension of the line here that year but it was rebuilt in 1895.
The Weardale Railway itself had opened in 1847, initially terminating at Frosterley and was an extension of the famous Stockton and Darlington Railway of 1825. The line linked the quarrying and iron industries of Weardale to Teesside. In addition to Stanhope there are attractive stations at Witton-le-Wear, Wolsingham and Frosterley, all still served by the line.
The 18 mile long Weardale Railway is now a heritage line and stretches from Bishop Auckland to Eastgate and is run by the Weardale Railway Trust and partners. The services which are seasonal, presently run on the eleven mile section of the line from Witton-le-Wear station to Stanhope station with an aim to extend and open stations at Eastgate and Bishop Auckland in the future.
The Weardale line had closed to passengers in 1953 and to goods in 1965 but its potential as a heritage line was recognised in later decades beginning with experimental services in the late 1980s and the formation of the Weardale Railway Preservation Society (WRPS) in 1993. After much investment, the railway finally re-opened in 2004.
Services on the line are operated by an historic diesel locomotive though a steam locomotive called ‘No 40’ built by Hawthorn Leslie at Newcastle in 1954 is currently being restored for use on the line.
Near the village of Eastgate to the the east of Stanhope, the River Wear is joined from the north by the Rookhope Burn, which has a name that means ‘valley of the rooks’ and forms a distinct side valley that stretches north towards Blanchland in the valley of Derwentdale.
Rookhope valley includes the attractive stone village of Rookhope itself and beyond, the remains of the Rookhope Chimney, an important relic of lead mining . We may trace the course and remains of this two mile chimney which was a massive stone flue that carried dangerous toxic fumes across the moors away from the lead smelter at Lintzgarth near Rookhope village. A great stone arch can be seen which once supported the flue. It resembles a ruined stone bridge that leads to nowhere and crosses nothing at all.
The raiders had decided to plunder the Wear valley for its livestock while most of the Weardale men were away (in Teesdale ), plotting against Queen Elizabeth I in the famous Rising of the North. Resistance to the raid was expected to be low, but there were still a number of Weardale men left to defend their dale.
The raiders were pursued north into the Rookhope valley, as they made off with Weardale cattle and sheep. When the Weardale men eventually caught up with the mosstroopers, a fray ensued in which four of the Tynedalers lost their lives.
The event is remembered in the ‘Rookhope Ryde’, a 24 verse Weardale ballad dating from 1579.
“Rookhope is a pleasant place,
If the false thieves would let it be.
But away they steal our goods apace,
And ever an ill death may they dee.
Then in at Rookhope Heed they came,
They ran the forest but a miles;
They gathered together in four hours
Six hundred sheep within a while.
But all that was in Rookhope Heed,
And all that was in Neukton Cleugh,
Where Weardale men overtook the thieves,
And gave them fighting eneugh.
About that time the fray began,
I trow it lasted but an hour,
Till many a man lay weaponless,
And was sore wounded in that stour.
And before that hour was done
Four of the thieves were slain,
Besides all those that wounded were,
Eleven prisoners were tae’n”
Eastgate and Westgate : The Prince Bishop’s park
Eastgate and Westgate, two small villages in the upper part of this valley once marked the boundary of Stanhope Park, the Prince Bishop’s hunting ground and it was here that the famous ‘Great Chases’ were held.
The Great Chases were the hunting expeditions, led by the Prince Bishops and were by all accounts grand occasions, celebrated with much pomp and pageantry. Such was the scale of the Great Chases, that all the folk of Weardale were required to provide hounds for the hunt, along with enormous quantities of food, wine and beer for the hunters.
The Weardale people were also required to assist with the construction of a large temporary hunting lodge, a chapel, a kitchen and a larder, which were all purposely built for the ‘Great Chase’. Bishop Pudsey’s Boldon Buke of 1183, (Durham’s equivalent of the Domesday Book), gives a good insight into the preparation for a Great Chase, most notably under entries for West Auckland and Stanhope.
The following two passages from the Boldon Buke refer to the Great Chases and have been translated from the original Latin. The first relates to West Auckland:
“All the villeins of Aucklandshire, that is North Auckland and West Auckland and Escomb and Newton, provide 1 rope at the Great Chases of the Bishop for each bovate and make the hall of the Bishop in the forest 60 feet in length and in breadth within the posts 16 feet, with a butchery and a store house and chamber and a privy. Moreover they make a chapel 40 feet in length and 15 feet in breadth, and they have 2s as a favour and they make their part of the enclosure around the lodges and on the Bishop’s departure a full barrel of ale or half if he should remain away. And they look after the hawk eyries in the bailiwick of Ralph theCrafty and they make 18 booths at St Cuthbert’s fair. Moreover all the villeins and leaseholders go on the roe hunt on the summons of the Bishop”
Then under the entry for Stanhope we read: “…all the villeins build a kitchen, and larder and a dog kennel at the Great Chases and they provide straw for the hall, chapel and chamber, and they lead all the Bishop’s supplies from Wolsingham to the lodges.”
Weardale made up the second largest hunting ground in England after the New Forest in Hampshire which of course belonged to the King. The Prince Bishops are thought to have inherited their hunting rights from the earlier Bishops of Lindisfarne, but hunting took place in Weardale in earlier times, as a Roman altar found near Stanhope records the capture of a wild boar in the area.
Stanhope Park and the forest surrounding it, were well stocked with game, deer, wolves, and wild boar and the bishops jealously guarded their right to hunting in the area. A forest court was held at Stanhope, for the trial of poachers.
Westgate to Wearhead
Beyond Westgate are the settlements of Daddry Shield, St John’s Chapel, Ireshopeburn, Wearhead, Cowshill and Killhope. Daddry Shield has a name that probably means ‘shaky shelter’ – a doddery shieling, St John’s chapel is named from the chapel of St John which dates from 1752 and can still be seen there.
Ireshopeburn has an Anglo-Saxon name that curiously refers to Irish-Scandinavians. ‘Ires’ means Irish, ‘hope’ means valley and ‘burn’ means stream. The connection with the Irish probably comes from Cumbria, only a few miles to the west beyond the Durham border.
Cumbria was a place of considerable Viking settlement, settled primarily by Norwegian Vikings who sailed around the northern tip of Scotland and then down the western coast into the Irish Sea. Dublin in Ireland became the capital city of all Norwegian Vikings settled in Britain and many people of mixed Irish-Norse origin settled in Cumbria and Lancashire when the native Irish evicted the Vikings from Dublin in the tenth century. Ireshopeburn (pronounced ‘Iseupburn’) is thought to refer to a small colony of Irish Norsemen originating from just over the border in Cumbria.
Beyond Ireshopeburn, to the west, streams converge to form the begining of the River Wear here little more than a stream at the village of Wearhead. Above here to the north, the Killhope Burn is a particularly notable tributary that is home to the hamlets of Cowshill, Cornriggs Farm and the old lead mine that is now a museum called Killhope Wheel.
The far upper reaches of Weardale, above the village of Westgate have some of the highest primary roads in England, most notably in the vicinity of the small village of Wearhead. Close to here the River Wear begins, formed by the confluence of the Killhope, Welhope and Burnhope Burns which make up the westerly frontier of Durham near the border with Cumbria.
The valley of the Burnhope Burn plays host to the Burnhope Reservoir. This was built in 1936 as a joint project between the Durham County Water Board and the Sunderland and Shields Water Company. However it is the Killhope Burn that feels like the most natural upper reaches of the River Wear itself and its valley is followed by the A689 road which leads towards Nenthead in the valley of the Nent (a tributary of the South Tyne) and then onto Alston in Cumbria on the South Tyne itself.
While the eastern part of County Durham was part of the Great Northern coalfield, the dales in the western part of the county were just as important for their lead.
Since Roman times, lead had been exploited in Weardale and the northern Pennines and perhaps it is significant that Hadrian’s Wall divides the northern fringe of the North Pennine lead field, from the less mineral rich Northumbrian hills to the north.
From the thirteenth century lead mining in the Durham dales was encouraged by the Prince Bishops who profited from the mining of the ore.
The heyday of lead mining in the region was not, however, until the late eighteenth to mid nineteenth centuries, when the North Pennine lead field was arguably the most important in the world.
The lead field was bordered in the east by the Durham coalfield, in the south by the Stainmore Gap and in the north by the Tyne Gap. The main valleys of this area were Teesdale, South Tynedale, the Allendales, Derwentdale and at the centre, Weardale, collectively they were known as the ‘Lead Dales’.
Relics of lead mining can be found in all the ‘lead dales’ but the most imposing reminder is the great lead crushing mill called Killhope Wheel, on the remote Killhope Burn in the far reaches of upper Weardale.
Killhope wheel, wrought in iron and forty feet in diameter, is now part of a lead mining museum and is the most complete lead mining site in Britain. The museum includes a lead mine and a ‘mine shop’ where there is a reconstruction of the lead miners’ sleeping quarters.
Miners would have slept in these quarters for the whole of the working week and would only have returned to their homes further down the dale, at weekends.