Skip to content

Teesdale

Bracken Rigg, Upper Teesdale © Metaforz Photography 2013

Teesdale in County Durham borders Cumbria along an imaginary line drawn down the middle of Cow Green reservoir and via its road link at Crook bridge on the B6277. The region includes the market towns of Middleton-in-Teesdale and Barnard Castle and the villages and hamlets of Langdon Beck, Forest-in-Teesdale, Newbiggin, Eggleston, Mickleton, Romaldkirk, Cotherstone, Lartington and Bowes.

The River Tees  rises as a network of peat-stained streams on the slopes of Cross Fell (the highest point in the Pennines). Since 1969 they have converged to flow into Cow Green Reservoir which has had the effect of taming the river’s more extreme conditions. The river flows within the Moor House Nature Reserve that is home to a rare collection of alpine and sub-arctic plants often referred to as the ‘Teesdale Assemblage’ and which include spring gentian, teesdale violet, rockrose, spring sandwort, mountain pansy, bird’s-eye primrose and butterwort. Also found on the reserve are black grouse, golden plover and ring ouzel as well as England’s largest juniper wood.

Probably the most well-known geological feature in Upper Teesdale is the Whin Sill, an upwelling of volcanic magma that solidified along faults in the sedimentary rock around 300 million years ago and which extends far beyond the boundaries of County Durham to include some of the north’s most famous landmarks like Hadrian’s Wall and the Farne Islands. It is also responsible for creating the most dramatic and intriguing features in Upper Teesdale including the spectacular waterfalls of Cauldron Snout, High Force and Low Force (a favourite playground for kayakers) and the ‘sugar-limestones’ around Cow Green and Cronkley that were ‘cooked’ and transformed by the intense heat of the volcanic magma.

Summerhill Force at Bowlees is another evocative waterfall. The Bow Lee Beck, cascading over limestone outcrop has eroded the underlying sandstone to create a 10 m waterall together with a huge undercut known as ‘Gibson’s Cave’ which inevitably has its own legend associated with it.

Teesdale is well known for the opportunities it affords the outdoor enthusiast: walkers can access long distance paths like the Pennine Way and Teesdale Way as well as an extensive network of trails across the valley many of which were pack horse or drover’s trails; meanwhile cyclists can delight in the quiet but invariably challenging roads and trails of the upper dales (although there are easier options lower down). Kayakers are often found at the falls over Low Force and, like Weardale, the area is high enough to have supported a commercial ski slope at Yad Moss which it has done since 1975.

Teesdale, like Weardale and Derwentdale, is a landscape of lead mines and quarries. Quarrying is not as widespread as in Weardale but like its neighbour it still has one quarry – Forcegarth near Forest-in-Teesdale – outputting commercial quantities of rock; in this case dolerite taken from the Whin Sill alongside the River Tees.  Lead mining has made a distinct visual impact on the landscape with features like Coldberry Gutter, a huge ‘notch’ cut into the northern side of the dale with other great scars known as Red Grooves hushes below it; together they comprise the largest example of the ‘hushing’ form of lead-mining activity in the Durham dales. The basalt rocks of the Cleveland Dyke, the source of which was a volcano on the Isle of Mull also make several appearances in the dale.

Middleton-in-Teesdale is the major market town in the dale. It was once the headquarters of the London Lead Company whose mines populated Teesdale and Alston Moor further to the west. Many of the major buildings in the town are a legacy of the company. The enigmatic copse of trees across the valley from Middleton in Teesdale is Kirkcarrion. Where the trees now stand was an earth mound that was found to contain a stone-lined grave or ‘cist’ inside which was some pottery containing the remains of a cremation. Sadly the site, thought to be a bronze-age burial mound, was destroyed in 1804.

Below Kirkcarrion, in Lunedale, are the picturesque reservoirs of Selset, Grassholme, Hury, Blackton and Balderhead. It was Balderhead that became synonymous with the celebrated Lunedale farmer, Hannah Hauxwell whose frugal and ascetic lifestyle on her farm at Low Birk Hatt was documented in the 1973 Yorkshire Television programme ‘Too Long a Winter’. After moving to nearby Cotherstone in 1988 the pasture known as ‘Hannah’s Meadow’ were bought by Durham Wildlife Trust and is a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) because of the diversity of species arising from the fact that they had been farmed without using fertilizers.

The historic 12th century market town of Barnard Castle lies at the entrance to the dale. Amongst the many features in the town the most notable is surely its castle which stands high on the sandstone cliff overlooking the River Tees. It is ‘Bernard’s Castle’ – or the castle belonging to Bernard de Balliol, rebuilt in stone around 1125. This important fortress was besieged by Alexander II of Scotland in 1216 and in 1292, John Balliol by virtue of his mother’ s lineage, was sponsored to the vacant Scottish throne by the English king Edward I. His subsequent rebellion and the ensuing years of war would lead to several grim decades for northern England culminating in the battle of Neville’s Cross in 1346. In 1449 the castle came into the possession of Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick (the ‘Kingmaker’) and on his death in 1471 at the battle of Barnet it passed to Richard, Duke of Gloucester, the soon-to-be King Richard III (his personal emblem – a wild boar – can be seen on the walls of the church and the castle). In 1569 the castle was beseiged by 5000 rebels during the ‘Rising of the North’: with many of the defenders defecting to the rebels by jumping from its walls, the castle was eventually surrendered just as the rebellion was losing steam. After that the castle continued to decline until in 1952, Lord Barnard of Raby tranferred its guardianship to the Ministry of Works after which it came into the possession of English Heritage.

Many well known people have either visited or lived in the town: some of the most notable include Oliver Cromwell, Charles Dickens, Sir Walter Scott and JMW Turner plus the distinguished Durham historian William Hutchinson. Just to the east is the opulent Bowes Museum, built in the style of a french chateau and opened in 1892. This magnificent building is nationally renowned for its art collection that includes paintings by El Greco, Goya and Canaletto and for its charming automated sculpture of a silver swan.

Just beyond the Bowes Museum and across the river stands the premonstratensian abbey of Egglestone that was founded in 1195. The ‘white canons’ that lived there always struggled financially and were at the mercy of both the Scots and the English whose army, marching from Richmond, did great damage in the days prior to the battle of Neville’s Cross in 1346. Its death knell was finally rung in 1538 when the abbey succumbed to suppression by Henry VIII’s commissioners. Abbey Bridge which spans the splendid limestone gorge at Egglestone was constructed in 1773 to afford better access to the Rokeby estates.

Across County Bridge (reconstructed in 1569 although the inscription erroneously reads ‘1596’) and southwards across the A66 is the village of Bowes which before 1974 was in the North Riding of Yorkshire. The village is notable for being the location of William Shaw’s Academy – the model for Charles Dickens’ Dotheboys Hall. The character of the evil headmaster, Wackford Squeers, is supposedly based on Shaw’s (even taking his initials) although there is written evidence from at least one former pupil testifying to his being a much more compassionate man than Squeers. Shaw’s grave can be found in the church yard of St Giles’ church. Opposite the church is the ruined keep of 12th century Bowes castle which lies on the north-west corner of the Roman fort of Lavatrae.