Sunlight over Weardale pictured from Crawleyside
Sunlight over Weardale, pictured from Crawleyside near Stanhope © David Simpson 2021

Weardale : The Prince Bishops’ Valley

Weardale sits at the heart of the Durham Dales with Teesdale to the south and the valley of Derwentdale to the north. The dales are interconnected by remote little side valleys often known as ‘hopes’ and share much history and culture.

Along with the dale of the Eden in Cumbria to the west and South Tynedale and  Allendale in Northumberland to the north, they form the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. This whole area shares common features of landscape, geology and lead mining history as well as a setting on the southern fringes of the troubled Border country of times past that contrasts with the more settled lands to the south.

Upper Weardale scenery near Westgate.
Upper Weardale scenery near Westgate. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Anciently, the valley of Weardale seems to have formed part of a district of probable Celtic origin, later known as Aucklandshire. Acquired as part of the land of St Cuthbert, Aucklandshire lay firmly within the domain of the powerful Norman Prince Bishops of Durham who cherished the beautiful valley of Weardale as a medieval hunting park.

Weardale has a gentle charm and beauty all of its own, with lovely little towns and villages along the course of the dale. Here we explore the dale by heading up the valley from east to west.

The River Wear at Witton
View of the River Wear from Witton-le-Wear Bridge. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Officially Weardale (as opposed to the ‘Wear valley’) is said to begin just upstream from Witton-le-Wear at Fir Tree near Crook, although Fir Tree is in fact about a mile and a half away from the river to the north. A stream called the Wadley Beck joins the Wear near here while a bit further downstream on the opposite bank, the Wear is joined by the Bedburn Beck. The Bedburn Beck which forms a side valley to Weardale in neighbouring Hamsterley Forest is a good place to begin the Weardale journey.


Hamsterley is situated above the valleys of the Bedburn Beck and River Wear that lie a mile to its north and west. The village name comes from ‘hamstra-ley’ which means ‘a clearing frequented by corn weevils’ – a kind of beetle. It has the same meaning as Hamsterley by the River Derwent in north west Durham.

Hamsterley village, County Durham
Hamsterley village, County Durham © David Simpson 2021

Weardale’s Hamsterley is a village of mostly neat stone houses in a pleasing setting though in the nineteenth century it was noted for its poverty and once earned the nickname ‘Hungertown’. It wasn’t always gloomy in the past, however, as Hamsterley once had its own annual fair or ‘hopping’ that must have been a lively annual event.

Hamsterley village
Hamsterley village, County Durham © David Simpson 2021

There is an Early English church of the thirteenth century at Hamsterley, dedicated to St James, although this is half a mile outside the village to the east in an isolated setting. Yet situated within the village itself, closer to its people, there is a particularly pleasing Baptist Chapel that dates from 1774. The Baptists were established at Hamsterley by the Hexham Baptist Church who built an earlier chapel here in 1715.

Baptist Chapel, Hamsterley
Baptist Chapel, Hamsterley © David Simpson 2021

The valley of the Bedburn Beck is a tributary of the Wear just north of Hamsterley village. Another half a mile north of this valley near its tiny tributary called the Harthope Beck, is an extensive and enigmatic ancient site called ‘The Castles’. Usually said to be an Iron Age or Romano-British site, though its origins are something of an enigma.

Much of the nearby Hamsterley Forest is focused on the valley of the Bedburn Beck (also known as the River Bede) along with its western tributaries called the Euden Beck and Spurlswood Beck. The name Bedburn in fact means the stream belonging to or associated with an Anglo-Saxon called Bede, though probably not the famous Bede of Jarrow.

Bedburn near Hamsterley
The hamlet of Bedburn near Hamsterley Forest © David Simpson 2021

The name of the stream is not just curious from its possible association with Bede but also intriguing in that it uses the words ‘Burn’ and ‘Beck’ as if there was a debate over what to call the stream.  As we proceed up the dale beyond Wolsingham to Frosterley, the Anglo-Saxon and Scottish word ‘burn’ replaces the Viking word ‘beck’ as the local term for a stream. This change also happens along the Wear valley further downstream at Durham City where ‘burn’ again replaces ‘beck’ as the local term for a stream all the way to Sunderland – at least according to the maps.

The pretty hamlet of Bedburn itself is situated on the Bedburn Beck about a mile west of Hamsterley where there is a little bridge across the stream. Near Bedburn we enter the most north easterly, narrower end of Hamsterley Forest which broadens out to the south west. The forest is situated on the vast moorland hills between the valleys of Weardale and Teesdale with the valley of the River Gaunless to the south east. It is the largest forest in County Durham (the size of around 4,000 football pitches) and has lots of wonderful walking routes and cycle trails to explore.

Hamsterley Forest
Hamsterley Forest © David Simpson 2021

There is much remote, wild and inaccessible countryside surrounding the forest to the north and west. To the north we have Hamsterley Common and Pikestone Fell separating the forest from the Frosterley area of Weardale and to the west we have Eggleston Common separating the forest from the Eggleshope Burn in Teesdale. To the south is much less remote scenery formed by the neighbouring valley of the River Gaunless.

Harperley, Thornley, Bradley Hall

Returning to the valley of the Wear near Hamsterley we head upstream. Here the Wear virtually flows north to south for three miles. Between Fir Tree and the river, are a scattered collection of houses called Harperley, the clearing of someone called Harper in Anglo-Saxon or later medieval times. Low or Old Harperley Hall is of the sixteenth century and a private residence. Nearby Harperley Hall to its east dates from 1790 and is part of the Harperley police training centre.

During the Second World War, Harperley was the site of a Prisoner of War camp called ‘PoW Camp 93’ at nearby Craigside. Over forty camp huts  survive near the Weardale road. Some German prisoners at the camp stayed on in England following the war and married local women. The camp briefly served as a tourist attraction but is now home to Weardale Cheese, an artisan cheese making concern.

North of Harperley towards Tow Law is a pretty little stone village or hamlet called Thornley. This should not to be confused with Thornley in east Durham, particularly as both villages have a church dedicated to St Bartholomew and both are the location for an old farmhouse house called Thornley Hall. The Weardale Thornley has a name that derives from ‘Thorn-leah’ meaning’ thorn-tree clearing’ while the east Durham Thornley was  originally Thorn-Law ‘the thorny hill’.

South of Thornley towards the River Wear and upstream from Harperley is Bradley Hall, a private residence that began as a manor house that was crenellated (fortified as a castle) by Cardinal Langley, a Bishop of Durham, as a defence against the Scots in 1431. It is situated near the point where the River Wear changes direction. From this point if we follow the River Wear upstream we are heading west.

The River Wear at Wolsingham
The River Wear at Wolsingham © David Simpson 2021


The attractive Weardale town of Wolsingham is situated on the north bank of the River Wear where the river is joined on this north side by the Waskerley Beck. Wolsingham has an Anglo-Saxon name that means ‘homestead of Wulfsige’s people’.

There are many lovely stone-built houses in Wolsingham and the little town is the annual home to England’s oldest agricultural show, held on the riverside showground a mile to the east of the town. Wolsingham is the most easterly of the Weardale towns, as Crook, Willington and Bishop Auckland all lie outside the dale proper although they are still within the Wear valley.

Wolsingham © David Simpson 2021

There is a bridge across the River Wear at Wolsingham linked to a road called the Causeway that 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 and 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 of 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 and developed as a market town.

At the centre is a small town hall of 1861 in the tiny market place, though most of the handsome houses and cottages are eighteenth century with some dating to the 1600s. A market cross and stocks for punishment were once situated in the market place.

Wolsingham, Whitfield Cottages
Wolsingham: The seventeenth century Whitfield Cottages with the taller eighteenth century Whitfield House to the left. © David Simpson 2021

To the west of the Market Place is a tall early eighteenth century town house called Whitfield House with two adjoining stone cottages called Whitfield Cottages on its west side that are dated to 1677.

North of the market place are side streets of stone houses called Meadhope Street and Silver Street which lead, along with the B6296 (Angate Street), to another bridge across the Waskerley Beck.


Wolsingham. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Wolsingham looks like a place that was untouched by industry but just next to the bridge off Angate Street there was a Victorian iron foundry while over on the eastern edge of the town was a large steelworks. The steelworks, a major industrial feature of the dale, was founded by Charles Attwood (see also Spennymoor) in 1864 and operated until closure in 1984 when it was subsequently demolished. Its site is concealed from the main A689 Weardale road by a wall.

Close to the smaller foundry site off Angate is the former convent and school of St Anne, that are now converted into homes near the Roman Catholic church of St. Thomas. The siting of the convent here was no doubt attracted by the area’s earlier association with the twelfth century hermit Alric and his disciple, St. Godric, who was later connected with Finchale.

Alric’s hermitage may have been just across the other side of the Waskerley Beck or at least somewhere its valley. Grassy mounds in this area called Chapel Walls are thought to have been the site of a later medieval hunting lodge of the Prince Bishops of Durham destroyed by the Scots in 1316, though they may in fact be the remains of the bishops’ Wolsingham manor house that is known to have been established in 1341.

Church Lane, Wolsingham
Church Lane, Wolsingham David Simpson 2021

The parish church of Wolsingham dedicated to St Mary and St Stephen is situated along Church Lane at the western end of the old town. The church tower is Norman but the rest is mostly a nineteenth century rebuilding. Nearby, is the nineteenth century rectory and the Masonic Hall which dates from 1786. The Masonic Hall was originally built as the Wolsingham Grammar School, an institution established by the Bishop of Durham in 1612.

Tunstall Reservoir
Tunstall Reservoir © David Simpson 2020

Holywood, Baal Hill and Tunstall

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. It may be in some way associated with the hermitage of Alric and St Godric.

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.

Tunstall Reservoir.
Tunstall Reservoir. Photo © David Simpson 2018

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 area around Tunstall Reservoir is a pleasant spot for walks and has a neighbouring picnic area. Tunstall derives its name 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. This stream begins about three miles north west of Tunstall near the village of Waskerley and the Waskerley Reservoir which is towards Consett. Interestingly, the name Waskerley is also Viking – a bit of a rarity in north west Durham.

Weardale: Looking west along the dale towards Frosterley
Weardale: Looking west up the dale towards Frosterley from Wear Bank near Wolsingham © David Simpson 2021


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 included 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.

Frosterley. Photo © David Simpson 2018

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. Beautiful, but not a true marble, 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.

Weardale scene south of Frosterley
Weardale scene south of Frosterley © David Simpson 2021

Hill End and the Bollihope Burn

South of Frosterley a side road ascends into the hills towards the hamlet of Hill End and into the valley of the Bollihope Burn which rises on Bollihope Common. Lots of evidence of quarrying and lead mining can be seen in this area creating a curious landscape.

Weardale scene near Hill End to the south of Frosterley © David Simpson 2021

The burn is a popular place to explore with two car parks, one near Bollihope and another at Washpool Crags where the road continues south to Eggleston in Teesdale. Called ‘Bothelinghoppe’ in medieval times, the name Bollihope is thought to mean the valley (hope) with a bothel (a bothy or shieling, a kind of shelter). North of the burn are the peculiarly named Catterick Moss, Margaret’s Neck and Bridget Hill.

The Bollihope Burn, Weardale
The Bollihope Burn, Weardale © David Simpson 2021


Continuing up Weardale from Frosterley we reach Stanhope, pronounced ‘Stannup’, the ‘capital’ of upper Weardale with a name that means ‘stony valley’. This is a good description of the Wear and neighbouring 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 Market Place.
Stanhope Market Place. Photo © David Simpson 2018

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 church.
Stanhope church. Photo © David Simpson 2018

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 of the twelfth 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.

Stanhope fossil tree.
Stanhope fossil tree. Photo © David Simpson 2018

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. Named Stanhope Castle, it was built on the site of a castle that belonged to the fourteenth century Prince Bishop of Durham, Antony Bek.

Stanhope Castle.
Stanhope Castle. Photo © David Simpson 2018

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 that 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.

Bonny Moorhen, Stanhope
Bonny Moorhen, Stanhope. Photo © David Simpson 2018

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.”

Dales Centre, Stanhope.
Dales Centre, Stanhope. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Stanhope Halls and Hopes

Just south of the river from Stanhope are two stone buildings with unusual names: 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 seventeenth century.

View of Weardale from Crawleyside near Stanhope
View of Weardale from Crawleyside near Stanhope © David Simpson 2021

The Heathery Burn discovery

Just above Stanhope to the north is the little village of Crawleyside on Crawleyside Bank where there are some good views of Weardale below. Old records of the name show that it derives from ‘craw-law’ meaning the crow’s hill rather than a craw-ley which would mean ‘crow clearing’. The neighbouring area has been heavily mined and quarried in times past.

Nearby, in the moors about half a mile to north west is the Heathery Burn, a, tributary of the Stanhope Burn. In 1859 an important archaeological discovery was made in a cave hereabouts in which a huge collection of Bronze Age items were discovered, 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 found. 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.

Weardale scenery near Crawleyside
Weardale scenery near Crawleyside © David Simpson 2021

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.

Wolsingham Station on the Weardale Railway
Wolsingham Station on the Weardale Railway © David Simpson 2021

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.

The Rookhope Burn.
The Rookhope Burn. Photo © David Simpson 2018


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 are 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.

Remains of Rookhope Chimney, Weardale
Remains of Rookhope Chimney, Weardale. Photo © David Simpson 2018

On December 8th, 1569, Rookhope valley was the setting for a border fray in which a large group of mosstroopers (cattle raiders), from Tynedale, made a raid upon the valley of Weardale.

The raiders had decided to plunder the Wear valley for its livestock while most of the Weardale men were away assisting with the Rising of North against Queen Elizabeth I (see Raby Castle). Resistance to the opportunistic raid upon Weardale 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 : Hunting park

Eastgate and Westgate, two small villages in the upper part of this valley once marked the boundary of Stanhope Park, the Prince Bishops’ hunting ground and it was here that the famous ‘Great Chases’ were held.

Eastgate. Photo © David Simpson 2018

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.

Upper Weardale scenery near Westgate.
Dales scenery near Westgate. Photo © David Simpson 2018

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 the Crafty 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 populated 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.

Upper Weardale scenery near Westgate
Upper Weardale scenery near Westgate. Photo © David Simpson 2018

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.

St. John's Chapel, Weardale
St. John’s Chapel, Weardale © David Simpson 2020

Ireshopeburn has an Anglo-Saxon name that somewhat strangely 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 and settled around the northern tip of Scotland and then down the western coast along the Irish Sea. Dublin in Ireland became the capital city of 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.

Ireshopeburn is the home to the Weardale Museum, established in 1984 and occupying the former manse of the adjoining High House Chapel of 1760. It is run by volunteers who set up the museum during the renovation of the beautiful chapel which can also be visited. Situated on two floors, the museum includes the recreation of a lead miner’s kitchen and a number of displays and features concerning the history and geology of the dale. The museum also runs a family history service with information on around 70,000 Weardale individuals.

Weardale scene
A Weardale scene near Cowshill © David Simpson 2020

Beyond Ireshopeburn, to the west, streams converge to form the beginning 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 hosts 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.

Killhope Weardale
The Killhope Burn, Weardale © David Simpson 2020

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 course of the River Wear itself and this 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 onward to Alston in Cumbria on the South Tyne itself.

Killhope Wheel

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.

Killhope Wheel lead mining museum
Killhope Wheel lead mining museum, Weardale © David Simpson 2020

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 TeesdaleSouth Tynedale, the AllendalesDerwentdale 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.

Brancepeth, Crook and Witton-le-Wear

Bishop Auckland

West Auckland and the River Gaunless

Blanchland and Derwentdale

Teesdale | Barnard Castle 

Alston and South Tynedale

Deerness Valley | Browney valley





North East England History and Culture