Derwentdale is the most northerly of the Durham dales. The River Derwent rises at the confluence of the Beldon, Nookton and Bolt’s burns and creates much of the border with the neighbouring counties of Northumberland and Tyne & Wear. The fells of upper Derwentdale share the same lead-mining, smelting and quarrying heritage as those of Weardale and Teesdale and the villages of Ramshaw, Townfield and Hunstanworth were at the centre of the industry in the 19th century. All that is left today are industrial scars and artefacts dotted around the landscape such as chimneys, dams and worked out quarries (although the quarry at Dead Friars is still active). Like so many dales villages their populations expanded rapidly during the boom times of the early to mid-19th century, with miners coming from as far afield as Cornwall in search of work, and declined just as dramatically leaving behind a fascinating social history for such isolated villages. Hunstanworth is also notable for its ruined pele tower in the grounds of St James’ church indicative of the times when towers such as these were required as a refuge in the troubled border areas of 16th century northern England.
Further down Derwentdale is the picture-postcard village of Blanchland which takes its name from the white robes of the premonstratensian canons who lived in the abbey there. Both Blanchland and Hunstanworth are mentioned in the Boldon Book of 1183. The village was owned by Durham’s longest serving bishop Nathanial, Lord Crewe who served from 1674-1722; the gardens of the hotel that bears his name ‘The Lord Crewe Arms’ with its cosy stone-vaulted bar area were originally the cloisters of the abbey. In this charismatic, timeless village it is easy to imagine a young Edward III, in 1327, frantically mustering an advance force of men-at-arms in an attempt to cross the River Tyne ahead of a Scottish army that was plundering the north. Being unsuccessful in their quest to waylay the Scots they returned through the area to eventually confront them near Stanhope in Weardale. As an interesting aside, it was in Blanchland where, in August 1938, a young Alfred Wainwright (who was undertaking his inaugural ‘Pennine Journey’ and not yet the legendary walker and author that he was to become) read in the newspaper of the conference between Chamberlain and Hitler to be held in Munich the next day.
At the other end of the 3.5 mile-long Derwent reservoir (pictured above), constructed in 1967, are the villages of Edmundbyers and Muggleswick – again both mentioned in the Boldon Book. The former may have started life as an Anglo-Saxon farmstead (St Edmund’s church was rebuilt in 1858 but stands on much older foundations) while Muggleswick lays claim to the ruins of the 13th century manor house (pictured) that was once a hunting lodge belonging to Hugh de Darlington, the prior of the monastery at Durham. To the south on Muggleswick Common above the dale are the reservoirs of Smiddy Shaw and Hisehope and Waskerley. The surrounding commons are all Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). Like the other dales, Derwentdale borders the Durham coalfield and is overlooked by what was once the site of the huge iron and steel works at Consett that closed in 1980 and which, but for a few industrial artefacts emplaced around its vast site, is no more than a rapidly fading memory.