The River Gaunless
Here we explore the valley of the River Gaunless upstream from South Church on the outskirts of Bishop Auckland westward towards West Auckland, Cockfield Fell and then deeper into the Pennines where the little River Gaunless rises in the region of Copley between Hamsterley Forest and Eggleston in Teesdale.
Gaunless is a river-name of Viking origin and despite the lovely scenery formed by this little river, the Gaunless has a rather unflattering name as it literally means ‘useless’. Perhaps it was too slow to work a mill or maybe it was a little short on fish at the time it was named. It is the most northerly Viking river-name in the eastern part of England.
The River Gaunless joins the River Wear near Auckland Castle. It forms a valley to the south west of Bishop Auckland where we find much unusual Pennine and sub-Pennine countryside. This is an area interspersed by farms and farming villages along with old mining settlements sometimes with traces of coal mining dating back to medieval times. The valley and its neighbouring countryside has a distinct character, particularly in the upland areas to the west.
South Church and St Helen Auckland
Upstream from Auckland castle and Auckland Park at Bishop Auckland, the first notable place we encounter as we head along the valley of the River Gaunless is the Bishop Auckland suburb and village of South Church which lies within a loop of the Gaunless.
South Church is home to a little bridge across the Gaunless and is the location of the medieval church of St Andrew Auckland which dates to the thirteenth century and gives the place its name. It is the largest parish church between the River Tyne and River Tees.
To the south west, the River Gaunless skirts the south eastern edges of Bishop Auckland and the industrial and retail developments around Tindale and Tindale Crescent. Allt Clud, an ancient Celtic name for Bishop Auckland and Aucklandshire has led to a suggestion that the Gaunless was once called the Clyde in pre-Viking times but names like Tindale and Tindale Crescent perhaps present the possibility that the Gaunless was once called the Tyne or Tin.
Here, the south western outskirts of Bishop Auckland almost extend into the two neighbouring villages of St Helen Auckland and West Auckland which are separated by the River Gaunless itself. The village of St Helen Auckland has a tiny tower-less twelfth century church dedicated to St Helen and its tiny size is in great contrast to its counterpart at South Church.
West Auckland was one of a number of places (including North or ‘Bishop’ Auckland) that were situated in an extensive district called Aucklandshire. This was a shire that dated back to pre-conquest times and seems to have occupied much of the Wear Valley and Gaunless Valley areas.
Aucklandshire is thought to have been one of a number of subdivisions of the Kingdom of Northumbria that perhaps traced their origins back to ‘Celtic’ times. Others in what later became County Durham included Wirralshire in the coastal area between the Tyne and Wear, Heighingtonshire and Quarringtonshire.
Today, West Auckland is primarily noted as a former mining village to the south west of Bishop Auckland but has medieval origins and a large village green dating back to the twelfth century. It is surrounded by eighteenth century houses and a couple of notable houses of the seventeenth century.
One is the Old Manor House of the 1670s, a substantial stone building of great character that is thought to have twelfth century foundations. Now a hotel, it is tucked away behind trees at the north west corner of the green. Also of note is The Old Hall, a three bay stone house of the 1600s that faces out onto the south side of the green.
In addition to its historic charms West Auckland has a fascinating story to tell. In 1909 the mining village made history when its football team travelled to Italy to represent England in the first ever football ‘world cup’.
The competition was instigated by the businessman Sir Thomas Lipton – of tea fame – and the legendary part of the story is that West Auckland FC were only invited to take part in the event due to a mix up over a letter addressed to Woolwich Arsenal FC (W.A.F.C).
Competing against the top teams from Switzerland, Germany and Italy, the amateur County Durham side defeated a team from Stuttgart 2-0 in the semi final and then defeated a side called Winterhur from Switzerland 2-0 in the final on April 12th 1909.
West Auckland returned to defend their title in 1911, defeating FC Zurich 2-0 in the semi-final and then retaining the trophy – ‘The Thomas Lipton Trophy’ for all time after defeating Italian giants Juventus 6-1 in the final. When the team returned home, however, they found themselves badly in debt and had to resort to selling their world cup to the local landlady for cash.
Nevertheless the village held on to the cup until 1994, when sadly, it was stolen and never recovered. A replica can be seen today in the West Auckland workingmen’s club.
Two miles upstream along the Gaunless to the west of West Auckland is the village of Evenwood on the south side of the river. Its name simply means ‘level woodland’ and the name of the much later neighbouring village of Evenwood Gate to the south refers to a tollgate on the road to Evenwood.
Evenwood was given to the Bishops of Durham by King Cnut, the Danish King of England, though sometime after the Norman Conquest it seems to have come into the hands of a family called Hansard.
A Gilbert Hansard created a park here around 1220 but later in that century it was conveyed to Bishop Bek by John Hansard. The manor and lands of Evenwood were later granted to Ralph Neville by Bishop Beaumont.
At least as early as 1368 there were coal mines and a bloomery (an iron making furnace) at Evenwood and also in the nearby neighbourhood of Gordon. The origins of the ‘Barony of Evenwood’ are obscure but it seems to have included West Auckland and Killerby near Gainford some way to the south.
Ramshaw, just across the Gaunless to the north of Evenwood means ‘meadow of the Ramsons’ (wild garlic) and is situated in the valley of a little stream called the Gordon Beck or ‘Gor-Dene’ which means ‘muddy valley’. In the upper reaches of this valley, about two miles north west is a little hamlet called Morley – ‘the moor clearing’.
Cockfield and Cockfield Fell
Further west along the Gaunless Valley from Ramshaw and Evenwood is the fascinating village of Cockfield, located where the valley has strayed south towards Raby Castle and the neighbouring dale of Teesdale which lies outside the area of the historic coalfield.
Cockfield is very much part of the industrial and rural landscape of Durham with very ancient roots. Cockfield Fell surrounds the village on three sides and is a lowland fell that forms an ancient landscape that escaped the field enclosures that swept across other lowland areas in the eighteenth century.
Described as one of the largest ancient monuments in the country, Cockfield Fell is one of Britain’s most important early industrial landscapes with traces of early medieval mining, medieval field boundaries and evidence of Iron Age farming settlements that date back 2000 years .
Coal mining traces can be seen on the fell that date back 600 years including medieval bell pits but the most recent traces of mining activity were associated with the Gordon House Colliery that closed in 1962. There are even traces of early nineteenth century colliery tramways where coal was transported in tubs – with the course of the tramways revealed by embankments.
In addition to coal mining, quarrying was an important activity on Cockfield Fell as outcrops of whinstone – the tough dark volcanic rock familiar for forming the Farne Islands, the crags of Hadrian’s Wall, Lindisfarne Castle and the High Force waterfall in Teesdale are found here on Cockfield Fell. The quarrying has left lots of distinct fan-shaped spoil heaps across the fell.
The people of Cockfield enjoy commoner’s rights on the fell and many keep pigeon lofts (huts) here. Sheep and horses can also be seen grazing on the fell.
Jeremiah Dixon : Cockfield to ‘Dixieland’
Perhaps the unusual landscape of Cockfield was an inspiration for Cockfield’s most famous son, the astronomer and surveyor Jeremiah Dixon (1773-1779) who was Ron in Cockfield and lived most of his life here. His map making and astronomy skills caught the attention of The Royal Society who appointed him to record the Transits of Venus across the sun in the 1760s.
Dixon travelled with another astronomer, Charles Mason of Gloucestershire to Sumatra but during the journey their ship was attacked by a French frigate. The ship escaped and rescheduled the landing to Cape Town in South Africa where a successful observation of the transit of the planet was made.
The success set the two astronomers up for their next great task and adventure – surveying the border between two separate landowners in America – a border which separated Maryland and Pennsylvania. This line called the Mason-Dixon line was surveyed by the two men from 1763 to 1768 and would later become the demarcation between the northern and southern states in the American Civil War and ultimately gave its name to ‘Dixieland’ and its famous jazz.
In 1769 Dixon was sent to survey another transit of Venus – this time sent to Norway but the mission was not a success due to cloudy conditions though the transition was successfully recorded on Tahiti by the Cleveland-born Captain James Cook.
After his adventures Dixon returned to Cockfield and worked as a surveyor for Lord Barnard at Raby and for the Bishop of Durham at Auckland Castle. He died aged only 45 and received a Quaker burial at Staindrop.
The River Gaunless marks the northern edge of Cockfield Fell and over the river to the north are the settlements of Low Lands, High Lands and to their west the village of Butterknowle, a name that means ‘butter hill’ a pasture of land that was good for producing butter.
The ‘knoll’ or hill of the Butterknowle name is perhaps specifically that knoll of land between the northern Gaunless tributaries called the Grewburn Beck and Crow Howle Beck, the knoll on which the village of Butterknowle is situated. In a Parliamentary survey of the Bishopric of Durham a Butterknowle Colliery otherwise called Grewburn Colliery is mentioned in the area.
It demonstrates that the area had long been mined for coal, however the real stimulus for the development of mining was the extension of the Haggerleases branch of the Stockton & Darlington Railway into the area. The Butterknowle and Copley Collieries (otherwise the Grewburn and Lynesack Collieries) were established from 1835 by Dowson and Co. on land leased from a Reverend William Luke Prattman of Barnard Castle.
The Grewburn Beck joins the Gaunless at a spot called ‘The Slack’, a word for a marshy area. Farms and hamlets to the north of Butterknowle include South Side, Low Wham, High Wham and Wham Cottage. Wham comes from an old word ‘Hwamm’ meaning ‘marshy hollow’ or ‘small valley’.
Lynesack and Softley
A little under a mile north west and west of Butterknowle are the settlements of Softley and Lynesack which together form the delightfully named and cosy sounding parish township called ‘Lynesack and Sotley’. The township was also known as South Side and has a history that encompasses a mix of faming and coal mining.
The ‘ack’ in Lynesack is from an ‘ac’ or oak tree that belonged to or stood on land belonging to someone with an unidentified name, perhaps a woman called Aeliana or something similar that was shortened to ‘Line’. The village is situated on the tiny Howle Beck.
In the fourteenth century survey of lands in the Bishopric of Durham by Bishop Thomas Hatfield, Lynesack was in the possession of the Prior of Finchale although lands were also held by a John Mawe. The Neville family were later owners of Lynesack.
In the 1850s Lynesack was described as “consisting of a number of straggling houses, built without any order or plan” and the population was described as a mix of agricultural labourers and workmen connected with the colliery undertakings.
Lynesack church, dating to 1847 was dedicated to St John the Baptist and along with the nearby cemetery was consecrated by the Bishop of Durham in the presence of Harry Vane (the Duke of Cleveland, of Raby Castle). The cemetery lies between the church and Lynesack’s Old School House, built for a school established in 1851.
Softley, is a farming hamlet to the north and means ‘the clearing in soft and spongy land’.
Copley is a larger village than Lynesack about half a mile to the south west and is situated just north of the wooded valley of the River Gaunless. Copley’s name could perhaps be the clearing (ley) of someone called Coppa or perhaps the ‘hill-top clearing’.
Copley has its own weather station and thus frequently registers as one of the coldest places in England. Stone cottages and farms line the street and a building of particular interest is the village’s old Literary Institute, opened in 1898 by Lord Barnard of Raby Castle.
Copley’s best-known landmark is, however the tall chimney of the old Gaunless Valley lead mill. The mill operated from 1790 to 1880 and the chimney itself dates from 1832.
The River Gaunless (in name at least) begins its journey at Copley where the streams called Cowclose Beck, Hindon Beck and Arn Gill come together to form the river.
On the Arn Gill about a mile upstream from Copley is a small waterfall called Jerry Force. The valleys of the Hindon Beck and Arn Gill stretch upstream for more than five miles west almost as far as Eggleston in Teesdale.
Across the Gaunless to the south of Copley we head into the sparsely inhabited valley of Langleydale which has the feel of a mini Teesdale. The valley is formed by the Langley Beck and skirts the northern edge of Staindrop near Raby Castle to the east and eventually enters the Tees near Selaby to the west of Gainford.
About half a mile north west of Copley is the hamlet of Lane Head and a further half mile to its north is Woodland, a place that historically provided wood to the estate of Cockfield in medieval times.
Woodland is a long linear village consisting of two rows of houses, stretching along either side of the B6282 road for one mile. Its eastern end was once a separate hamlet that was simply known as Edge and is still the home to a local establishment called Edge Hotel.
Other features of this rather relatively remote village include a post office, a Methodist chapel, a cemetery and a war memorial all situated towards the western end of the village.
At the very west end of the village a road branches off north towards Hamsterley Forest and Hamsterley village in Weardale with some excellent views along the course of this road looking towards the countryside and valleys to the east.
Continuing south west along the B6282 that forms Woodland’s main street this road skirts the northern edge of Langleydale and in approximately four miles of empty countryside reaches the village of Eggleston in Teesdale.
Some of the views from Woodland village and its surrounding area are excellent stretching out north and west across the Pennines and south and south east across the dale and vale of the River Tees as far as the distant Cleveland Hills and North York Moors.
The distinct outline of Roseberry Topping in the Cleveland area of North Yorkshire to the south of the Tees and beyond Middlesbrough can be very clearly seen. It is a little over thirty miles away to the south east.