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A Introduction to the history of Teesdale by Ken Fairless

The River Tees rises near Cross Fell 2390ft (730 m) above sea level in the Pennines and flows for some 85 miles (137 km) in an easterly direction before reaching the North Sea coast between Stockton and Middlesbrough. This area of the river valley, Teesside, has become industrialised and heavily populated in the last two hundred years. A short way up stream of  Teesside is Darlington, most famous for its part in the Darlington to Stockton Railway, an important communications centre, market town and part of this Tees Valley development.

Eight miles beyond Darlington is the village of Gainford. Some would argue that the description of Teesdale proper should begin here since from early medieval times this was the capital of an estate, the Gainford, extending westwards upriver beyond Barnard Castle. Gainford itself has an ancient church bearing witness to its antiquity. It is also noted for its spa.

Others would say that it is only when we reach the vicinity of Barnard Castle that the area deserves the description of ‚€˜dale‚€™.But bowing to more recent usage, the following account will follow this latter practice and for convenience divide Teesdale into two parts. The territory around and beyond Middleton-in-Teesdale may conveniently be termed Upper Teesdale while those parts south of Middleton reaching as far as Barnard Castle and encompassing the area around it Lower Teesdale.

Upper Teesdale

The term ‚€˜Upper Teesdale‚€™ is eminently appropriate in view of the striking contrast which exists between this area and the lower Dale. It is an elevated, indeed mountainous, district of fells and moors covered with heather, peat bogs and rough ground. Human habitations are scattered and the main occupation of the inhabitants is farming, although the gamekeeper is also to be found and the countryside warden. Enclosed land is generally fenced by dry stone walls, a feature common to Pennine areas. Extreme weather conditions prevail yet the survival of rare flowers has led to it being popular with specialist plant hunters. Many people value this rather bleak region for its wild beauty and this is undoubtedly visible in the course of the river and its adjacent tributaries. The Tees tumbles downwards through its rocky gorges and over impressive waterfalls; these include Cauldron Snout and High Force, the highest waterfall in England. As the river arrives at Middleton the countryside becomes gentler and though the valley sides are high there is an abundance of green fields. This change marks the beginning of Lower Teesdale.

Lower Teesdale

Middleton-in Teesdale is a village which has been in existence since at least the 12th century for this is the date of the earliest record of a church. According to its Anglo-Saxon name, however, it seems likely that it was established much earlier. Over the years Middleton served as a farming centre and during the 18th and 19th centuries became the hub of lead mining in the upper dale. With the decline of this industry at the end of the 19th century Middleton‚€™s main role reverted to that of farming centre and market town. Improved transport also has had an influence leading to an increase in the number of visitors to the area.

Moving down-Dale from Middleton, while farming is still evident by the presence of isolated farmsteads, high on the eastern side of the vale the main population occurs in Eggleston. On the western side are hamlets such as Hunderthwaite and small attractive villages, notably Mickleton, Romaldkirk, Cotherstone and Lartington. Views across the valley from either side vary but are equally attractive.

It is in the western part of the Dale where two of the main tributaries of the Tees, the Lune and the Balder, arrive coming from the uplands beyond. Both these rivers have for the visitor their own delights and in addition have been utilised to create reservoirs, as has the Tees itself at Cow Green, with the aim of providing water supplies for the Tees Valley industry and population.

Barnard Castle

About three miles distant from Lartington is Barnard Castle, reached from Startforth on one side of the river via a bridge over the Tees. Nearby is the site of a ford where a Roman road crossed the river. This matches the place name in question which is derived from the Anglo-Saxon term ‚€˜street-ford‚€™ applied to Roman roads. Although this road can be traced in Barnard Castle itself so that there might be a suspicion that such a strategic position would encourage the building of a Roman fortification no evidence has been found. The first fortification of the site did not arrive until many years later, when, in the 11th century under Norman rule, Guy de Baliol raised a fortified timber structure to mark the centre for his newly acquired estate of Gainfordshire. This fort was rebuilt in stone and extended by his successors, one his son and the other his nephew, both called Bernard. This was the origin the town‚€™s present name.

The castle which towers high above the steep river banks provides an imposing sight. At one time it was one of the most powerful castles in the north of England. Changes of ownership and fortune have over the years taken their toll and much of the structure has become a ruin. In 1626, Sir Henry Vane bought the property but in 1630 transferred his main residence to Raby Castle near Staindrop and thus accelerated the process of decay. Enough remains, however, to enable the visitor to envisage and understand its original features and function.

The town of Barnard Castle itself began as a small settlement in the vicinity of the castle. From small beginnings it grew over the years to become a bustling prosperous town. Industries based on the products of farming developed so that leather tanning was prominent in the 17th century. Later, a corn market developed, woollen manufactures flourished and the town was noted for the making of carpets and rope production. Iron foundries were established in the early 20th century and later came the establishment of GlaxoSmithKline chemical laboratories. One fine building worth singling out is situated on the edge of the town but within easy walking distance. This is the Bowes Museum. Built in the19th century by the son of the Earl of Strathmore, John Bowes and his French wife Josephine, to house their art collection, it is designed in the French Renaissance style and stands in twenty acres of land. Nowadays, it is a focal point for visitors to the town. Overall, Barnard Castle is a busy shopping centre with its castle, ancient church, many interesting side alleys and fine buildings and it is surely worthy of the designation of ‚€˜Gateway to Teesdale‚€™.


Looking beyond Barnard Castle is Staindrop, situated six miles to the north-east. It lies close to Raby Park with its famous Raby Castle which first appears in the records in the 11th century. It became the base of the powerful Neville family who dominated political affairs in England for some 400 years. In the 17th century, as noted earlier, the Vane family gained control and their descendants, the Lords Barnard, are still in possession. The castle is the largest in County Durham and is set in magnificent parkland where deer roam freely. Over the years the castle itself has been modified and changed from fortress to home thus matching the fashion of the times and suiting the requirements of an aristocratic family.

The large village of Staindrop has long been closely associated with the Raby estate. Its ancient church, St Mary‚€™s, contains many memorials revealing this connection. The church itself began as a plain Saxon structure but was subsequently elaborated so that now it reflects various architectural features belonging to different periods right up to Victorian and indeed later times. The village itself is notable for its long wide street, today part of a main highway, and for a long series of interlocking greens. There are many interesting buildings and the fact that it was formerly a flourishing market centre is reflected by the existence of fine 18th century buildings.

Greta Bridge

To the south-west of Barnard Castle are Rokeby Park and Greta Bridge. The river Greta has been called the most romantic of the tributaries of the Tees. In Victorian times this area proved a great attraction for writers, poets and artists, notably Sir Walter Scott and Turner. The ‚€˜meeting of the waters‚€™ where the Greta joins the Tees was then, and still is now, a popular venue for visitors. The bridge over the Greta, which was designed by the architect Carr, is outstanding in its own right and famous because it was chosen as a subject for portrayal by the artist Cotman. Here is also the site of a small Roman fort the ramparts of which can still be detected.

From here a road slopes up to the village of Brignall whose Victorian church has a commanding view of the wider countryside typical of the range of lush meadows, green fields and wooded areas that exist hereabouts. In the shorter view, the church immediately overlooks the river valley in which stands the now-ruined 12th century church. This ruin, in its romantic position, attracted the attention of Turner. For the historian, however, the presence in its walling of an Anglian cross shaft of possible 9th century date leads to the conclusion that there was earlier Christian presence there. More speculation becomes possible with the discovery of Roman altars and, in trial excavations, the presence of structures underground.


To the west of Greta Bridge stands the village of Bowes. Before the modern bypass the main road used to pass through the village providing it with a broad main street along each side of which most of the village houses are situated. At the western end of the village is the site of a rectangular Roman fort whose ramparts can still be discerned. In one corner of these remains stands a medieval tower. Both fortifications in their own period served the same purpose of guarding the eastern approaches to the trans-Pennine route known as the Stainmore pass. Roman inscribed stones kept in the nearby church of St Giles record the fact that in the early 3rd century A.D. the Roman fort was garrisoned by the 1st cohort of Thracians.

It was to Bowes that in 1838 Charles Dickens came after staying at Barnard Castle. This was part of his research into the Yorkshire Schools which provided material for his book Nicolas Nickleby. The latter was a great success and largely instrumental in ending the much maligned Yorkshire boarding schools.

Habitation in Teesdale

The question now arises regarding the people who in earlier times settled in Teesdale.

When the Romans conquered what is now northern England in the late 1st century A.D. the British tribe called the Brigantes were in occupation. By the early 5th century A.D. when Roman control was ending Anglo-Saxon invaders were entering the country and settling. Considerably later, Scandinavian immigrants came as raiders and then settlers. Place names illustrate the presence of both groups in Teesdale; Middleton, for example, meaning ‚€˜middle settlement‚€™ is Anglo-Saxon, while Skyer Beck, is Norse, meaning ‚€˜shining stream‚€™. In addition Anglo-Scandinavian sculptural material, showing a merging of the two traditions, has survived at Cotherstone, Wycliffe and Gainford. The original British presence survives in most of the river names such as the Tees itself which appears to have meant something like ‚€˜the boiling river‚€™, an apt description.

Little was known, however, about the activities of the native population in pre-Roman and Roman times. During the 19th century the prehistoric burial mound known as Kirk Carrion, still visible across the valley from Middleton-in-Teesdale was dug into and an urn recovered. This was removed to Streatlam Castle but appears to have been lost. On the Eggleston side of the valley were other remains. According to Hutchinson, the historian of Durham, who lived at Barnard Castle there existed a mound and a circle of upstanding stones. Unfortunately, these were dismantled during the enclosures for wall building. The Quaker Backhouse family of Darlington and York also explored ‚€˜maulkins cave‚€™ situated between Ettersgill and Langdon beck which yielded both animal and human remains.

In the 20th century awareness of human presence was for long confined to stray finds of such objects as flint tools, polished stone axes, quern stones and the like. It was not until the 1970s and 80s that survey combined with excavations revealed the extent of occupation even in the remoter parts of the dale. These showed that human occupation had begun some six or seven thousand years ago when the people were hunters and food gatherers whose tools were mainly bone, flint and chert (a flint like rock). Later this way of life was replaced by farming which in due course saw technological progress in the use of bronze and later of iron. The new investigations revealed actual examples of dwelling sites and field systems and even extended their scope into the post-Roman period. So it is that our understanding of the area here designated ‚€˜Teesdale‚€™ has been broadened.

In a general survey of this kind much has of necessity been omitted. But perhaps enough has been said to encourage the reader to undertake further exploration of that often underrated gem that is Teesdale.