Richmond, Swaledale and Catterick

Upper Swaledale

Swale is a river name of Anglo-Saxon origin and is thought to mean whirling, swirling swallowing river. It is one of the fastest flowing rivers in England and is the home to many waterfalls. In ancient times it is thought to have been situated within a Celtic kingdom called Catraeth along with the River Tees but was eventually conquered by the Anglo-Saxons.

Swaledale Scenery
Swaledale Scenery © Elise Simpson

The Swale rises near the villages of Keld and Muker in the west, where it is fed by a number of streams that rise near the Cumbrian border, a few miles further west. Across the bleak and remote moors to the north is Stainmore but there are few routes across these moors to Teesdale and the region we call the North East.

Swaledale scene near Keld
Swaledale scene near Keld © Elise Simpson

Much of upper Swaledale has a rather distinct and beautiful scenery. It is generally a narrower dale than Wensleydale and is characterised by the numerous isolated stone barns within the walled fields that litter the fell sides in a rather appealing way.

Many of the place-names in upper Swaledale are of Viking origin, as they are in neighbouring Teesdale and Wensleydale. Keld, for example derives from the Viking word ‘Kelda’ meaning a spring. The place was once called Appletre Kelde – the spring near the apple trees.

Muker, pronounced mewker, derives from the Viking Mjor-aker (acre). It means a small piece of land. A road from Muker leads across the moors to Wensleydale, through the Buttertubs Pass, where limestone potholes were once used for cooling tubs of butter. Further east is Gunnerside, meaning the slope belonging to a Viking called Gunnar.

Buttertubs Pass
Buttertubs Pass © Elise Simpson


Crackpot can be found in Swaledale to the east of Gunnerside and has two parts to its name, both of which occur in a number of other Northern place names. In 1298 it was called Crakepot and derives from the Old English ‘Kraka’, a crow and the Viking word ‘Pot’. A ‘pot’ was usually a cavity or deep hole, often in the bed of a river, but in Crackpot’s case refers to a rift in the limestone.

Pot also occurs in the place name Potto near Hutton Rudby in the Cleveland district, at Sand Pot near Northallerton at Pot Hall and in the name of the Pot Beck near Masham. The word is still used in Swedish dialects today.

Crake meaning crow occurs in many place-names throughout the North, although Crayke near Easingwold derives from the old Celtic word ‘Kraik’ meaning ‘rock’. The word can also occur in the form Craig. Sometimes places containing the word Crake result from a person’s name. Crakehill, near Dishforth for example means the hill belonging to a Viking called Craca. Crakethorn near Pickering means the thorn bushes frequented by crows and this may also be the meaning of Crathorne near Yarm.

Reeth and Arkengarthdale

Reeth is positioned a few miles to the east of Crackpot and was a former lead mining settlement. Lead was extensively mined in the dales of Yorkshire as well as in Teesdale and Weardale in the neighbouring County of Durham.

Reeth has an obscure Anglo-Saxon place-name and means something like ‘at the stream’. It has held a small market since 1695. Reeth is distinguished from the other little stone villages of Swaledale by its huge village green which makes it the most prominent of the Swaledale villages.

It is at Reeth that the Swale is joined from the north by the Arkle Beck, which forms the valley of Arkengarthdale. Arkentgathdale means ‘Arkle’s enclosure in the valley’. Arkle was a common Viking personal name and garth is a Viking word for enclosure. The moors to the north of Arkengarthdale separate Swaledale’s watershed from the River Greta, a tributary of the River Tees. South of Reeth a road leads to Redmire and the valley of Wensleydale.

The villages of Marrick and Marske to the east of Reeth add to our collection of Viking place names. Marrick is corrupted from Marr – rigg, meaning ‘horse ridge’. It was the site of a Benedictine or Cistercian monastery founded in the 1150s. Materials from the monastery were used to build a church in Victorian times.

Richmond Castle
Richmond Castle © David Simpson

Richmond Castle

Richmond, the capital of Swaledale was originally called Hindrelac, an Anglo-Viking name that is thought to describe a woodland clearing frequented by a hind or female deer. The present name of this historic Swaledale town is Old French and derives from ‘Riche-Monte’, a common French place-name which means ‘strong hill’.

It was here in 1071 that a French Count called Alan the Red (Rufus) of Brittany built a castle on the lofty hill overlooking the River Swale. Alan had led the contingent of Bretons (the Celtic-speaking people of Brittany) at the Battle of Hastings and was awarded for his service by William the Conqueror with these northern lands. In addition to Richmond, Alan  also built a castle at Middleham in Wensleydale, which belonged to his brother Ribald.

The territory surrounding Richmond became Alan the Red’s land and came to be known as Richmondshire, a Shire comprised of the former Viking wapentake districts of Gilling and Hang. It was known as a liberty or ‘Honour’ where its lords held distinct political rights, though these were not quite so extensive as the Prince Bishops in Durham.

Alan’s great nephew, Conan ‘the Little’ of Brittany is thought to have built the huge keep at Richmond Castle. Such was Richmond’s strong link to Brittany, that Richmondshire was often known as the Honour of Brittany. Until 1372 the castle often changed hands between the Dukes of Brittany often determined by allegiances in various rebellions. For a time King John was in possession of the castle.

From 1372 the castle was in Royal hands under the Lords of Richmondshire who were later Earls of Richmond.  This title seems to have become less closely associated with Richmond itself from 1460s and one of the holders of this title was the first Tudor King, Henry VII. In 1499, four years after his coronation, Henry, as the Earl of Richmond constructed a palace at a place called Sheen near London in the county of Surrey. Sheen was renamed Richmond. It is now the famous London Borough of Richmond upon Thames. Richmond in Surrey takes its name from Richmond in Yorkshire. By this time much of the castle at Richmond had sadly fallen into ruin.

In later years the castle belonged to the Dukes of Richmond and in the nineteenth century served as a barracks for the North Yorkshire Militia. During the First World War the castle became a place of employment for conscientious objectors who were willing to undertake work to assist with the war effort and also a place of imprisonment for those objectors who refused even to assist in that way.

Richmond, North Yorkshire
Above: Richmond market place and castle from an old postcard.

The Lass of Richmond Hill

It is often erroneously believed, particularly in southern parts of this nation that the song entitled The Lass of Richmond Hill originated in Richmond in Surrey, but in truth it belongs to the original Richmond town in Yorkshire. For those not familiar with the song its lyrics are as follows:

On Richmond Hill there lives a lass
More bright than May-day morn,
Whose charms all others maids’ surpass,
A rose without a thorn.
This lass so neat,
With smiles so sweet,
Has won my right good will.
I’d crowns resign to call thee mine,
Sweet lass of Richmond Hill!
Sweet lass of Richmond Hill,
Sweet lass of Richmond Hill,
I’d crowns resign to call thee mine,
Sweet lass of Richmond Hill!

The ballad was written by Leonard McNally about his wife Frances I’Anson who died at Dublin in 1795. Frances’s father was William I’Anson and her mother was Martha Hutchinson who lived at Hill House in Richmond in the North Riding of Yorkshire.

Frances herself was baptised in the village of Wensley in Wensleydale in November 1766 and although she did marry MacNally in London it seems quite clear that the song relates to the North Yorkshire Richmond that stands proudly on the banks of the Swale rather than the equally charming town of Richmond that stands on the banks of the Thames.

Richmond © David Simpson

Richmond Town

Richmond, North Yorkshire is situated around a broad market place that has many interesting Georgian and Victorian buildings. Apart from the prominent castle, which towers above, the most striking features of this extensive cobbled market place are the large obelisk erected in 1771 (the market cross) and the medieval Holy Trinity Church, which now serves as a museum dedicated to Yorkshire’s historical Green Howard’s Regiment.

The town or borough of Richmond seems to have developed under the castle’s protection during the twelfth century. At one time Richmond was a walled town, the walls constructed from around 1313 to resist Scottish attacks were paid for by a murage tax at Richmond fair, though the walls had already fallen into a ruinous state by the 1500s.

Old street names in the heart of the town include Pottergate, Millgate, Castle Wynd, Newbiggin, Cravengate, Finkle Street and Gallowgate, the last of these of course being the site of the town gallows where executions once took place. Frenchgate is one of the main streets in the town. It is presumably named from being inhabited by Frenchmen but was that to distinguish it from Englishmen or from Bretons? Gate was of course an old Anglo-Viking word for a street and the term seems to have been enthusiastically adopted by the Normans within their defended towns.

Richmond has a notable Georgian Theatre located in Victoria Road. Regarded as the oldest working theatre in its original form in Europe, it was built in 1788 and closed in 1848. For a time it served as an auction room and a furniture warehouse, but was restored and reopened in 1968.

Fenkle Street, Richmond
Fenkle Street, Richmond © David Simpson

Excellent views from the castle and lovely walks along the River Swale are yet another attractive feature of Richmond. Indeed it is possible to walk along the river bank for a mile to the east of the town to reach the pretty ruins of Easby Abbey which date from 1152. Dedicated to St Agatha, the abbey was established by Roald, the Constable of Richmond Castle as a Premonstratensian foundation.

Richmond Market Place © David Simpson

Scotch Corner and northern Richmondshire

The northern parts of Richmondshire stretch as far north as the River Tees near the outskirts of Darlington over the border in the historic county of Durham. Scotch Corner is one of the most familiar places in this part of Richmondshire and is the modern gateway to Cumbria, the North East and Scotland.

Historically Scotch Corner was a famous coaching stop situated at an important road junction. Here you could and can still can make a choice – follow the road north into Durham and Northumberland and continue onto Scotland (hence Scotch Corner), or follow the road west across Stainmore and on into Cumbria. This road west is of course the A66, a former Roman road that crosses the bleak and lonely Stainmore Gap, one of the main Pennine crossing points. The road north was traditionally the Great North Road – the old A1, but today the A1 (M) motorway has taken its place.

Other notable places in this area of North Richmondshire include the little village of Croft on Tees, near the outskirts of Darlington. Croft was the home village of Lewis Carroll, who went to school at Richmond. His poem the Jabberwock is thought to be based on the legend of the legendary dragon of County Durham called the Sockburn Worm which lived just across the Tees. Lewis Carroll was also inspired by visits to Whitby, Beverley and Sunderland.

Croft on Tees bridge links the Richmondshire area of Yorkshire to the Borough of Darlington in the historic County of Durham.© David Simpson

There are more places to mention including Piercebridge historically in County Durham, but which has a famous hotel called The George on the south side of the Tees in Yorkshire. The George Hotel has links with the famous song ‘My Grandfather’s Clock’ written by Henry Clay Work during a reputed visit.

Romans and Brigantes at Scotch Corner

In 71 AD the Romans took control of the North when they defeated the Brigantes, a great northern Celtic tribe at the Battle of Scotch Corner. The Brigantes were Welsh-speaking ancient Britons who occupied most of Yorkshire and South Durham and were the largest single tribe in Roman Britain. One of their main forts was just to the north of Scotch Corner at a place called Stanwick St John.

When the Romans first arrived in northern Britain, the fort of Stanwick was the most important stronghold of the Brigantes and it was from there that the great tribe fought the Romans in battle in the very opening chapters of recorded northern history.

Nearby, is Aldbrough St. John, its name being Anglo-Saxon and referring to an ‘old burgh’ – an old fortified site, but probably a reference to the nearby earthworks of Stanwick. When the Brigantian Queen, Cartimandua handed over the British rebel Caractacus to the Romans in the year 51 AD she infuriated her husband, Venutius, who captured Stanwick and rebelled against the Romans.

The Romans eventually forced the Brigantes to abandon the fort at Stanwick in 73 AD. As the Romans gradually took control of northern Britain, the Brigantes were surpressed and a Roman town called Isurium was built as the Brigantian tribal capital. This new tribal capital was located at Aldborough near Boroughbridge. Like Aldbrough St John (note the slightly different spelling) Aldborough’s name means old fortified site.

Catterick village © David Simpson


Catterick, a couple of miles to the south of Richmond was a place of great importance in Roman times and is now probably more famous as the home of a nearby army base called Catterick Garrison which lies to the west of Catterick village. The built up area formed by Catterick Garrison (where there have been permanent buildings since 1923) merges with the neighbouring  villages of Scotton and Hipswell, the latter of which was the birthplace of the famed theologian and founder of the Lollard movement John Wycliffe (c1328-1384). The actual camp of Catterick Garrison stretches over 2,000 acres.

In ancient times Catterick possibly gave its name to a Celtic kingdom called Catraeth, which was perhaps focused upon the Tees and Swale valleys. Catraeth held out against the invading Anglo-Saxons for some time before it was finally seized by the invaders and incorporated into the expanding kingdom of Northumbria. A decisive battle is thought to have been fought at Catterick in AD598 which completed the Anglo-Saxon expansion.

In later Anglo-Saxon times Catterick was an important Royal centre within the Kingdom of Northumbria, lying just within that part of the kingdom known as Deira. When King Edwin of Northumbria (a Deiran) converted to Christianity in AD 627 a mass baptism of his people took place in the Swale at Catterick, undertaken by Edwin’s Roman missionary, St Paulinus. Catterick continued to be important in later periods of the Anglo-Saxon age. In AD792, the Northumbrian King, Æthelred married the daughter of King Offa of Mercia at Catterick.

Catterick village and the Brough Beck © David Simpson

Ancient Britons had a reputation for fierce resistance in this area in earlier centuries and created much trouble for the Romans, who built a Roman fort and town called Cataractonium nearby. The town was situated just to the north of the present village on the south bank of the River Swale near Brompton on Swale where the Roman Dere Street crossed the Swale. It is more or less separated from the village of Catterick by the extensive Catterick racecourse. Horse racing has been held at Catterick since 1783.

Pretty Catterick village, with its pleasant village green is of course the original Catterick (or at least older than Catterick Garrrison) and is thought to take its name from the Latin ‘Cataracta’ meaning ‘waterfall’. It may be named from its proximity to the River Swale, which flows very swiftly nearby just to the east of the village. It is  joined here by the Brough Beck, a little stream which flows through the centre of the village  and which was once crossed by Dere Street just to the west of the village.

Catterick church
Catterick church © David Simpson

The church at Catterick dates from 1412 and is dedicated to St Anne. It was built over three years by a mason called Richard de Cracall (Crakehall) for Katherine Burgh and is referred to as the ‘Kirke of Katrik’ in the surviving detailed contract with Richard which describes its required specifications.

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