Weardale is perhaps the busiest of the Durham dales and is dotted with attractive villages and market towns for its entire length almost all of which lie on or close to the banks of the River Wear: Cowshill, Wearhead, Ireshopeburn, St John’s Chapel, Daddry Shield, Westgate, Eastgate, Rookhope, Stanhope, Frosterley and Wolsingham. The River Wear starts at the confluence of the Killhope and Burnhope burns at Wearhead (the Burnhope burn is the outflow from Burnhope Reservoir which was constructed in the 1930s to provide employment in the depression era).
Today the overall feel in this quiet haven of north east England is of ‘getting away from it all’ but there was a time, not too long ago, when Weardale was an industrial valley with a vastly expanded population whose fate lay in the hands of world markets. Personal testimonies of the families who experienced these times, many of whom departed for other parts of the world, can be viewed at Killhope Lead Mining Centre and at the small but perfectly formed Weardale Museum just outside Ireshopeburn, sandwiched between High House Chapel (the oldest in the world to have had continuous weekly Methodist services) and the outdoor pulpit of its founder, the 18th century Methodist preacher, John Wesley.
In the 18th and 19th centuries the upper dale, above the Anglo-Saxon market town of Stanhope (pictured) was dominated by lead mines whilst lower down the dale it was quarrying that proliferated (the legacy of which can still be seen in the valley sides today). Stanhope itself was at the very centre of activity; during the late 19th century it was home to at least one lead mine, ironstone mine, quarries and even a blast furnace.
The Weardale quarries a large workforce and were worked for carboniferous limestone, sandstone, ganister and, as in Teesdale, for the dolerite of the Whin Sill. Around the area of Frosterley, was found a particular type of limestone rich with the fossillised remains of primitive sea creatures and prized for its decorative effect when polished. This is the ‘Frosterley Marble’ that decorates many civic buildings and churches including Durham Cathedral.
Today, with the exception of Heights quarry which takes carboniferous limestone from the layer of rock known as the ‘Great Limestone’ that runs through most of Weardale, almost all of the industry has gone and like the rest of the county the transformation has been total. Agriculture now predominates with cattle and sheep quietly grazing the alluvial valley floors and intakes on the valley sides while the tourists pass by. The dale has its own ski school high on Swinhope Fell which comes into its own during the harsher winters.
Historically, the Bishop of Durham was the major landowner in Weardale where the farmers were his tenants with obligations to provide services within the two hunting parks he owned in the dale – one at Wolsingham and the other between Eastgate and Westgate (the suffix ‘gate’ being the clue to where the entrances to the park were). At Westgate it is known that the gate itself was incorporated into the crenellated lodge or ‘castle’, the remains of which have been excavated and the site covered over to the east of the Middlehope burn.
In August 1327, somewhere near Stanhope, Scottish and English armies confronted each other across the River Wear after what had been a long chase around the wastes of the north-east. Apart from almost capturing a young king Edward III in a daring night attack the stand-off came to nothing and the Scots departed under cover of night leaving only the slaughtered carcasses of 500 cattle and a couple of prisoners on the hillside.
On St Nicholas’ Day in December 1569 a much smaller but more deadly engagement took place when a band of Tynedale thieves (or ‘reivers) fell upon Rookhope over Dry Rigg. Quickly lifting several hundred cattle and sheep they made for home but were set upon by the few Weardale men that could be mustered (as many were away fighting in the unsuccessful rebellion known as the ‘Rising of the North’). On this occasion strength was on the side of the righteous and in the melee the Weardale men prevailed, killing several of the thieves for the loss of only one of their own. The tale became part of Weardale folklore and is told in detail in the ballad of the ‘Rookhope Ryde’.
As a consequence of the times described in the Rookhope Ryde, Weardale has several interesting buildings that have ‘defensible’ features incorporated into them: Bridge End Cottage is a ‘bastle’-type dwelling that were much more common in Northumberland; another is known to have existed in Eastgate but is now sadly lost and there are medieval halls at Stanhope, Unthank (also at Stanhope) and Bradley (east of Wolsingham).
In 1834, when railways were in their infancy, the feat of engineering that was the Stanhope and Tyne railway was built to take limestone from Stanhope and coal from collieries en-route to the staithes at South Shields. Its terminus at Park Head high on the moors was linked to Stanhope via a series of long inclines worked by stationary engines.
The Stockton and Darlington railway extended its line into the dale much later in 1847 and played a key role in the expansion of its limestone and lead industries. In 1895 the railway had reached its terminus at Wearhead but by then the market for Weardale lead had collapsed. With the development of road transport, passenger services went into decline and all of the stations were in the dale were closed as part of the Beeching cuts in 1953 although freight services continued to Wearhead until 1961.
In 1968 the line was cut back to the cement works at Eastgate which lasted until 1993 when the decision was taken to switch the transportation of cement to the road. With the line mothballed, the future looked bleak but the Weardale Railway Company stepped in with a plan to run heritage services from Bishop Auckland up the dale to Stanhope; these services continue today and make a huge contribution to the undoubted charm of the dale.
Today Weardale is a destination for the tourist and the outdoors enthusiast. Its historic market towns offer welcoming cafes, restaurants, pubs and accommodation in tranquil, stunning locations with excellent access to some of the most fascinating walking trails in the country including the upland sections of the Weardale Way and a network of heritage trails way-marked by the Mineral Valleys Project.