The Teesdale Way – Section 08
Distance: 12.3 km (7.6 miles) | Profile: Generally flat | Going: Generally good, muddy in places. Sheltered on trails and road through farmland and woodlands | General Stores: Gainford; High Coniscliffe; Darlington [1 km]
Section 8 of the Teesdale Way is 12.3 km (7.6 miles) from Gainford to Darlington in County Durham. It offers a gentle stroll along the river through a flat, arable landscape on well trodden trails with only a couple of inclines worth noting on the entire route. Its seven and a half miles are perfectly punctuated by pleasant villages all of which host attractive and inviting pubs. The landscape is one of narrow river terraces and steep limestone bluffs that have been smoothed by glacial drift; evidenced by the small boulders and rocks that abound particularly after Piercebridge. Alder, oak, ash and willow are found along the banks of a river that by now is beginning to meander markedly. Historically, most of the villages en-route share a Saxon/medieval heritage but a large Roman fort and settlement at Piercebridge and some Neolithic finds at Gainford suggest that there may have been habitation well before that in some places.
Gainford, as its name suggests, was built at a crossing point on the river and is laid out like the medieval village it is, around a large and well-tended village green. It has a number of claims to fame, one of which is that its boarding school which overlooked the village green counted the comedian Stan Laurel amongst its pupils. Many hundreds of years earlier the village had been the site of an Anglo-Saxon monastery although the present church of St Mary dates from the C12th but includes stonework from Roman, Saxon and Viking sources.
Ultimately the village became a major centre in the parish witnessed by some outstanding examples of Jacobean (Gainford Hall) and Georgian architecture. On the road out of Gainford is the imposing brick-built St Peter’s which since its establishment by the Roman Catholic Church has been a school, an orphanage, a school for young offenders and a care home.
Turning off the road, the trail goes through a tunnel under a railway embankment then hugs the riverbank to pass in front of Snow Hall. The hall had been owned by the Raine family for almost 200 years when in 1758 Edward Raine died. Only five years earlier his horse – called Old Drummer – had passed away at the age of 45 despite having suffered a bullet wound at the Battle of Sherrifmuir in 1715. A plaque – now long gone – had been dedicated to the horse and nailed to a tree in the wood below the hall. However alongside the trail, just after the hall, is a large enclosed stone which I was informed had been dedicated to the horse’s memory.
Gallows Hill to the east of Snow Hall is believed to have been a baronial place of execution and the site of some gallows for that purpose. The Lord of the Manor of Gainford was in the habit of pronouncing summary judgment on thieves caught on his manor and dispatching them on the hill.
Further along the trail, the village of Piercebridge is all about the romans. The fort there was known as Morbium (or Magis) and is free to visit. It was built in the 3rd century AD to defend the bridge on Dere Street and a small town subsequently grew next to it on the present site of Tofts field. If you cross the bridge and continue on the road past The George Hotel, an old coaching inn, you can visit the ruins of the Roman bridge that was re-sited when the earlier bridge on the original line of Dere Street collapsed.
On 1st December 1642 a party of Royalists including William Cavendish, the Duke of Newcastle, successfully defended the site of the present bridge against parliamentary forces under Lord Thomas Fairfax.
Back on the trail we go down the steps and under the arch at the end of the quaint row of painted Georgian and Victorian cottages. If you don’t want to visit the fort, go through the gate and continue across Tofts Field which was the site of the civilian settlement or ‘vicus’.
Soon after, the low magnesian limestone cliffs become apparent that put the ‘high’ into High Coniscliffe. The trail then crosses Piercebridge Beck to run between the beck and the mill race that serviced Carlbury Mill, destroyed by fire in 1889. At the end of what is the first substantial area of woodland encountered on the trip comes the only incline of any significance.
Into High Coniscliffe, a village with Saxon roots that was once known as ‘Cyningen Cliffe’, the trail turns downhill off the road just before the C12th church of St Edwin. The view from the riverbank of the church sitting solidly on the limestone promontory is impressive. After this the trail makes for Low Coniscliffe alongside the river which by now is beginning to meander significantly making it possible to reach the village more quickly by taking more direct routes.
Once under the motorway bridge the village is quickly reached and from there the pub and the finish to this section is just a couple of fields away.