Here we explore the valley of the River Gaunless upstream from South Church on the outskirts of Bishop Auckland. We head westward towards West Auckland and Cockfield Fell, then head further into the Pennines where the little Gaunless rises in the region of Copley between Weardale’s Hamsterley Forest and Eggleston in Teesdale.
Gaunless is a river-name of Viking origin and derives from the Old Norse word word ‘gagnlauss’. Despite the lovely scenery formed by this little river, ‘gagnlauss’ somewhat unflattering means ‘useless’ or ‘profitless’. This should not be confused with the similar word ‘gormless’ which means lacking in ‘gaum’, a word that comes from a lack of understanding or not paying attention.
Why the Gaunless was considered profitless is not known. Perhaps it was too slow to work a mill or possibly short of fish at the time it was named. Maybe it recalls some other kind of long-forgotten ‘gain-less’ feature or event in history. It is the most northerly Viking river-name in the eastern part of England.
The valley forms an area interspersed by farms and farming villages along with old mining settlements in a landscape that has traces of coal mining dating back to medieval times. Neighbouring countryside often has a distinct character as we transition from the low lying lands near Bishop Auckland into the Pennines.
South Church : St Andrew Auckland
We are working our way upstream so we begin the journey at the mouth of the River Gaunless where it flows into the River Wear at Bishop Auckland. It enters the Wear just beneath Jocks Bridge at Dial Stob Hill, just north of Auckland Castle.
From Jocks Bridge, we follow the upstream course of the river southward along the edge of the Auckland Castle parkland. Here it is a well-wooded valley and winds its way around the eastern outskirts of Bishop Auckland. Lands to the east of the river, where we now find a golf course were part of what were once known as Pollards Lands.
Skirting Bishop Auckland, the Gaunless passes beneath the Durham Road under a bridge of the 1920s. It does so after passing underneath another older bridge at Durham Chare that was once part of the main route between Bishop Auckland and Durham.
Other than this, the River Gaunless largely avoids the built-up area of Bishop Auckland and can be followed upstream southward through wooded scenery east of the King James I Academy school. Further south we reach the village suburb of South Church which forms the south eastern corner of Bishop Auckland’s urban development.
South Church is situated upon the Gaunless where the river forms a meander as it changes direction. Continuing upstream we now follow a more south-westerly course where the meander encloses the old village of South Church and the church of St Andrew.
There is a small bridge at South Church that takes the B6282 across the Gaunless. To the west, on the other side of the meander is a small footbridge. Little remains of the old village of South Church, which in the 1850s was home to a shovel and spade manufactory, a brewery, four inns, some shops and a post office.
Some of these industries would be associated with the growth of coal mining as the population grew in the South Church township from 121 in 1801 to 1,329 in 1851. The most historic feature at South Church today is of course the church itself.
The church of St Andrew Auckland at South Church dates to the thirteenth century and gives the place its name. It is the largest parish church between the Tyne and Tees and had the important role of being a senior parish church with a collegiate status, granted by Bishop Bek in 1292.
St Andrew’s ‘college’ was headed by a dean supported by nine prebendaries, a similar administrative organisation to what you would find in a cathedral. At South Church, a footbridge leads across the river to the Deanery Farm, the historic lands of the Dean of Auckland that recall this collegiate status.
In addition to its historic collegiate status, South Church has an interesting historic connection to the Community of St Cuthbert who were the custodians of the saint’s shrine and relics at Durham. Originating on Lindisfarne, the Community were an elite group of secular priests who were allowed to marry. Their place in the community was hereditary and passed down through families.
The Normans evicted the members of this Community from Durham when they refused to commit to celibacy and adopt the Benedictine way of life. At Durham they were replaced by Benedictine monks from Jarrow and Wearmouth and were expelled to Darlington, Norton and St Andrew Auckland.
Over on the opposite side of the River Gaunless to the east of South Church the Gaunless is joined by the Dene Beck which hosts the villages of the Dene Valley communities such as Coronation to the north of Shildon.
We now continue upstream along the Gaunless from South Church. To the west of the Gaunless is an area of Bishop Auckland called Henknowle or Henknoll as it was known in historic times. Sometime before 1272 a John De Bellasis of Bellasis (it means ‘beautiful seat’) near Billingham sold his ancestral lands to the monastery of Durham in exchange for Henknowle to raise funds for his participation in the Crusades. It was seen as a poorly judged exchange as it is recalled in his family arms, depcited in a window in St. Andrews church with the couplet:
“Bellysis, Bellysis, daft was thy sowell,
When exchanged Bellysis for Henkowell”
To the south west of South Church, the River Gaunless skirts the southern edges of Bishop Auckland and the industrial and retail developments around Tindale and the village of 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 have led to a perhaps more fanciful suggestion that the Gaunless was once called the Tyne or the Tin. The Viking name ‘Gaunless’ will date no earlier than the mid ninth century.
St Helen Auckland
At Tindale Crescent, the south western outskirts of Bishop Auckland extend into the neighbouring villages of St Helen Auckland and West Auckland. Near Tindale Crescent and St Helen Auckland the Gaunless flows across fields to the south in the rough low-lying landscape of a flood plain through which the river twists and turns.
Dere Street, the main Roman road of the north crossed the River Gaunless in this area just downstream from where it is now crossed by the A6072. There are several traces showing evidence that the river has frequently changed course through this flood plain, revealed by dried up ox bow lakes of former meanders.
Neighbouring enclosed fields of adjoining farmland do not extend into the rough land of the Gaunless river plain which is wild, scrubby, and boggy with the endearing feel of a no-man’s land.
The village of St Helen Auckland has a tiny tower-less twelfth century church dedicated to St Helen and its diminutive size is in great contrast to St Andrew Auckland at South Church.
A quarter of a mile west of St Helen’s church, Station Road crosses the River Gaunless by a bridge. Here we cross the river from St. Helen Auckland into the village of West Auckland. The river can be followed upstream in a westerly direction along the northern side of West Auckland.
West Auckland village has both a mining and earlier rural heritage and is a great place to explore the North Pennines. Signposts direct visitors to Teesdale and to Weardale but the village itself is of much interest with an extensive village green bordered by pleasant houses.
The River Gaunless flows along the northern side of the village from west to east but is hidden from view in the centre of the village by the houses that line the north side of the green.
West Auckland was one of a number of places (including North Auckland or ‘Bishop’ Auckland) that were situated in the extensive district called Aucklandshire.
Aucklandshire dated back to pre-conquest times and seems to have encompassed much of the Wear Valley and Gaunless Valley areas.
The district of Aucklandshire is thought to have been one of a number of subdivisions of the Kingdom of Northumbria that perhaps traced their origins to ‘Celtic’ times. Other shires in what later became County Durham included Heighingtonshire and Quarringtonshire.
Today, West Auckland is primarily noted as a former mining village but has medieval origins and its large village green dates back to the twelfth century. It is surrounded by eighteenth century houses and there are a couple of prominent 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.
To the rear of the old Manor House is a small footbridge across the River Gaunless, alongside an old ford across the river.
Another prominent building of note in West Auckland is The Old Hall, a stone house of the 1600s that faces out from the opposite 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 (WAFC).
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. The sculpture on the village green commemorating West Auckland’s remarkable footballing feat and its mining heritage was unveiled in October 2013 by Sir John Hall, David Ticer Thomas and the actor Tim Healy who had appeared in a TV drama telling the story of West Auckland’s world cup win.
Thomas, a former England winger from West Auckland was present as the grandson of one of the players in the 1909 team which had also included the legendary Jack Greenwell.
West Auckland Front Street is comprised of two rows of houses on the north and south side of the village green. One of the houses in Front Street on the north side was the home of the notorious Victorian serial killer, Mary Ann Cotton (1832-1873), who was born Mary Ann Robson at Low Moorsley near Hetton-le-Hole.
Mary Ann is said to have been responsible for the deaths of at least 21 people, mostly members of her family, including her own children. It was at her home in West Auckland that she was finally found out and arrested, following the death of her stepson, Charles Edward Cotton. The post mortem was carried out in Mary Ann’s kitchen and the inquest held next door in the Rose and Crown pub, which is now the Auckhouse guesthouse. Mary Ann was hanged at Durham prison.
An interesting feature on West Auckland’s village green is the old pant – a water pump – which was built in 1848 to supply fresh water to the village. It was made redundant after 1877 when water was piped to the village from the Waskerley Reservoir.
Near Etherley Bank, the A68 crosses the River Gaunless by a bridge at a little place called Spring Gardens less than a quarter of a mile west of West Auckland. Here, continuing upstream the river passes close to the rear of the village pub through a slightly wooded dene and is briefly culverted to the west.
Ramshaw and Evenwood
Upstream west of Spring Gardens the River Gaunless continues to twist and turn through a wooded dene upstream for about a mile before reaching the village of Ramshaw on the north side of the river about a mile and half from West Auckland.
Ramshaw 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’. Gordon Beck joins the Gaunless slightly downstream from Ramshaw after passing through the village beneath a bridge.
After crossing the bridge the road heads up Oaks Bank into the neighbouring village of Evenwood. Despite being divided by the Gaunless, the two villages are closely linked and Ramshaw Primary School is on the Evenwood side of the river.
The name of Evenwood simply means ‘level woodland’, while 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 in the early eleventh century 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 origin of the medieval ‘Barony of Evenwood’ that once encompassed the area is obscure but seems to have included West Auckland and Killerby near Gainford some way to the south.
Cockfield and Cockfield Fell
Just west, upstream along the Gaunless Valley from Ramshaw and Evenwood the Gaunless is heavily wooded in the neighbourhood of a static caravan holiday park near Ramshaw. Within less than a mile up the valley we reach the edge of Cockfield Fell just north of Cockfield village.
Cockfield is located where the valley of the Gaunless has strayed slightly south towards Raby Castle and the neighbouring dale of Teesdale which lie just outside the area of the old coalfield.
At their nearest points from Cockfield village the River Wear at Witton-le-Wear is about four miles to the north of the village and the River Tees at Gainford is about four and a half miles to the south. Cockfield’s river is of course the Gaunless and is only around half a mile to the north of the village on the edge of Cockfield Fell.
Cockfield and its fell are fascinating places. Cockfield is very much part of the industrial and rural landscape of Durham with ancient roots. The fell surrounds the village on three sides and is a relatively lowland fell forming an ancient landscape that for some reason escaped the enclosures that swept across other similar areas to create fields 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 2,000 years.
The fell is best approached by the public footpath on the east side of the village almost opposite the parish church. Across the road from the church on the north side of the road the signposted public footpath leads on to the fell running alongside an adjacent cemetery and heads towards the lonely Fell Houses, as there are almost no other occupied buildings on the 600 acre site.
Coal mining traces can be seen on the fell that date back 600 years. A colliery was recorded at Cockfield in 1365 and bell pits going back to medieval times dot the landscape of the fell along with later larger pits and later drift mines from the eighteenth century.
Some of the more recent traces of mining activity at Cockfield were associated with the neighbouring Gordon House Colliery which operated from 1893 until 1962. It was situated on the south side of the road to the east of Cockfield church.
There are traces of colliery tramways on the fell where coal was transported in tubs – with the course of the tramways revealed by embankments. One tramway can be traced beyond Fell Houses as we head across the fell towards the River Gaunless. It carried coal to the Haggerleases Railway which was a westward extension of the Stockton & Darlington Railway.
The River Gaunless can be crossed by a footbridge over to its north bank and the riverside is a delight to walk with its wooded backdrop marking the edge of the fell, separated from the enclosed fields of High Lands near Butterknowle to the north.
An impressive relic here is the remnant of the Lands Viaduct built by Thomas Bouch in the 1860s. It once carried the South Durham and Lancashire Union Railway across the river and fell.
In addition to coal mining, quarrying was an important activity on Cockfield Fell as outcrops of whinstone can be found here. This tough dark volcanic rock also known as Dolerite is familiar for forming the Farne Islands; the crags of Hadrian’s Wall; the rocky foundations of Bamburgh and Lindisfarne Castles as well as the High Force waterfall in Teesdale.
The whinstone at Cockfield is part of what is known as the Cleveland Dyke or Greenstone Dyke. Quarrying for road stone has left lots of large distinct fan-shaped spoil heaps across the fell.
There are two long and deep canyons at the east and west end of the fell that are remnants of this quarrying as well as traces of a longer filled in middle section of canyon where we find the most impressive mounds of its former spoil heaps.
The Cleveland Dyke whinstone is an igneous or volcanic intrusion that stretches in an almost straight line from Langbaurgh ridge in Cleveland (where there is evidence of its quarrying) heading through the Preston Park area near Eaglescliffe and can be traced as far north west as the Eden Valley near Carlisle.
There are three notable prehistoric enclosed settlement sites within the north western part of Cockfield Fell that seem to have been built for farming rather than as defensive enclosures. Within the fell on the immediate west side of the village from more recent times are traces of sandstone quarrying where stone was quarried for buildings in the village.
Cockfield Fell is common land in a genuine sense and the people of Cockfield enjoy commoner’s rights on the fell which they have held for around five centuries. There are some pigeon crees here and sheep and horses might be seen grazing on the fell.
Just to the west of Cockfield village is Peathrow Farm near the Gaunless, historically part of the Raby estate. A little to the south, a road called Scotland Lane near Burnt Houses runs along the northern edge of Raby Park, which form the grounds of Raby Castle.
Cockfield Fell is a special place but the village of Cockfield itself is also a delight, with lovely stone houses lining the main street and some attractive pit terraces such as Model Terrace to its rear. An extensive green runs along much of the course of the Front Street.
At the east end of the village is the church of St Mary, a medieval church of around 1200 that saw significant but careful restoration in the nineteenth century.
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 born 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 that would come to separate 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 in 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. This ‘knoll’ is the hill on which the village of Butterknowle is situated. In a Parliamentary survey of the Bishopric of Durham in the 1640s, a Butterknowle Colliery otherwise called Grewburn Colliery was mentioned in the area.
It demonstrates that the area has 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 in the early nineteenth century.
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. It is near the north western edge of Cockfield Fell. 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 is dedicated to St John the Baptist. Along with the nearby cemetery, it 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 which was built for a school established in 1851.
Softley, is a farming hamlet to the north. Its name means ‘the clearing in soft and spongy land’. There is also a Softley Farm in South Tynedale.
Copley is a larger village than Lynesack about half a mile to the south west and 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 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 through 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 hills 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.