From Stanhope Hall to Rokeby Park

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High up in Upper Weardale, close to the source of the River Wear, stands the tiny village of Eastgate, so called because it once provided the eastern entrance into the ancient hunting ground of the Mediaeval Prince Bishops of Durham, feudal lords of the former Prince Bishopric or County Palatine. In former times, the Prince Bishops’ former seat in this, still one of the wildest expanses of untamed countryside anywhere in County Durham, was the fortified manor house of Stanhope Old Hall.

Originally built as the Prince Bishop’s own personal hunting lodge, the Old Hall is surrounded by a protective barmkin wall; a common feature of larger residences across the entire Border region. Considerably greater in size than the standard Border Tower, examples of which can still be seen in the locality, most notably at Mortham, at the confluence of the Tees and the Greta, just outside of Barnard Castle, the Old Hall is at present a private residence, having formerly been a hotel, and at that time the oldest building of its kind to be in use for such a purpose in the country.

The name Rookhope, according to Brigadier Conyers Surtees, is derived from two Celtic words, “Roc”, a mass of stone, and “hwpp”, a small valley. Direct evidence of large scale military movements having taken place in Roman times can be found throughout the district, and this name may well be indicative of this location having been used as a highland refuge by the Ancient Britons. Among the many ancient Roman sites referred to by Sir Walter Scott in his voluminous writings on historical and archaeological subjects is “a well-preserved Roman encampment, with triple ditch and four entrances”, which in Scott’s time stood behind “the George Inn at Greta Bridge”; now the Morritt Arms Hotel, which the poet refers to elsewhere, in verse, as being a
“…….mound,
Raised by that legion long renowned”,

in his Civil War poem “Rokeby”. Immediately adjacent to this location is the eighteenth century country house Rokeby Park, one time residence of Scott’s friend and correspondent J.B.S. Morritt esq., and in former times the location of a now vanished fortified tower destroyed by marauding Scots during the Plantagenet Wars.

Morritt himself was to correspond at some length with Scott on a variety of different subjects of mutual interest, before Scott’s eventual first visit to the latter’s seat in County Durham in the company of his two children. A journey they made on horse back in an age before the onset of steam driven locomotion would radically transform the landscape. Although it was here that Scott was to find inspiration for his narrative poem Rokeby, and much else besides, the real influence that was to drive Scott’s curiosity could well have been the area’s former association with St. Cuthbert as is evidenced by the naming of nearby Cotherstone in Upper Teesdale. It was here that an early church foundation dedicated to St. Cuthbert, in the centre of an ancient ritual landscape formerly dedicated to Pagan Gods, may provide clues as to the origins of the establishment of what had formerly been the See of Chester-le-Street as the Bishopric of Durham; following the flight from Lindisfarne in 875 following the fall of the Northumbrian Kingdom to the Danish host.

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On the Trail of the Last Minstrels: Sir Walter Scott as a Collector of Ballads and Folk Traditions

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Scott’s pioneering work in this field was to bring him into contact with a number of important Durham ballads, largely through his patient correspondence with the somewhat difficult local character Joseph Ritson; himself possessed of a longstanding association with the town of Stockton. One of these ballads in particular, itself entitled “Rookhope Ryde”, was to exert a considerable degree of influence upon Scott, owing to the historical setting in which the storyline is framed; and its connection with the “Great Rising of the North” in 1569.

The “Rising” itself was to involve a failed attempt by the Earls of Northumberland and Westmorland to rise up with their retainers and tenantry, place Mary Queen of Scots on the throne of the Two United Kingdoms, and re-establish the Roman Catholic Religion. Whilst the majority of the menfolk were either away with the Earls beseiging Sir George Bowes in Barnard Castle, or else shut up in the castle with Sir George, a great body of Border Reivers, from around Thirlwall and Willeva up on the Roman Wall, came thundering out of the forests up by Rookhope Head in a near successful attempt to drive off all of the sheep in the locality from off of their winter pastures.

‘Then o’er the moss, where as they came
With many a brank and many a whew,
One of them could to another say,
“I think this day we’re men enew.

For Weardale-men have a journey ta’en,
They are so far out o’er yon fell,
That some of them’s with the two earls,
And others fast in Bernard Castell.

There we shall get gear enough,
For there is nane but women at hame;
The sorrowful fend that they can make,
Is loudly cries as they are slain.”

Unfortunately for the robbers, the Bailiff and nine or so other men from about the district were still in the vicinity, and a terrible battle ensues in which four of the reivers are slain, a substantial number wounded and still more taken prisoner.

About the time the fray began,
I trow it lasted but an hour,
Till many a man lay weaponless,
And was sore wounded in that stour.
Also before that hour was done,
Four of the thieves was slain,
Besides all those that wounded were,
Eleven prisoners there was ta’en.

The words to the version of this ballad which appeared in Scott’s own “Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border”, provided by a certain Mr. Frank, himself Joseph Ritson’s literary executor, were taken down directly from the chaunting of George Collingwood of Boltsburn, interred at Stanhope, according to Scott’s own introduction to the ballad, in 1785.

The historical notes appended to the ballad are those of Surtees. Much additional information to that actually utilized by Scott appears to have been provided by Surtees, a fact which was to lead to the publication, in 1925, of “The History of the parishes of Rookhope, Westgate and Eastgate in the Co. palatine of Durham”, by Brigadier General H. Conyers Surtees, Scott’s friend’s then successor at his estate at Mainsforth. This latter work refers to the existence of a now vanished pele tower, located at Westgate, which was in former times part of a defensive network of fortified buildings in the immediate vicinity of the Bishop’s Deer Park; specifically set up for the purpose of dealing with situations exactly like those recounted in the words of the ballad.

The verses of the song also refer to what may well have been a fortified bastle house, located at Eastgate, and itself the former residence of the Bailiff of the Deer Park, at the time of the Raid a member of the Emerson Family; who still have numerous scions living in and around Weardale and the surrounding district. A third fortified building which is itself still in existence and in a very reasonable state of preservation is the Old Hall at Stanhope.

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Last of the Border Minstrels: the literary legacy of Sir Walter Scott in County Durham

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A little known aspect of Sir Walter Scott’s work as a writer and published author is his longstanding association with Teesdale, Weardale and County Durham. Scott’s earliest endeavours as a writer of prose, before his success as a poet led eventually to offers of the Laureatship, was as a collector of ballads and folk traditions; an activity which was to lead to his publication of “A Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border” in 1802.

His researches for the “Border Minstrelsy” itself were to bring him into contact with a large amount of historical material connected with the history of County Durham, much of which was drawn to his attention by two very important local figures whose contributions to Scott’s own literary successes have almost entirely been forgotten. Probably the most important historical work produced so far, with respect to the history of the locality, is Robert Surtees of Mainsforth’s “History of the County Palatine of Durham”. Scott’s extensive connections with Surtees and his links with Joseph Ritson, the musicologist, were to result in his enthusiasm for Durham’s history as well as his eventual authorship of a full length narrative poem, “Harold the Dauntless”, which is in itself the only work by a major poet to celebrate the ancient landscape of Weardale and the Gaunless Valley.

“Fair Metelill was a woodland maid,
Her father a rover of greenwood shade,
By forest statutes undismay’d,
Who lived by bow and quiver;
Well known was Wulfstane’s archery,
By merry Tyne both on moor and lea,
Through wooded Weardale’s glens so free,
Well beside Stanhope’s wildwood tree,
And well on Ganlesse river…….”

“Harold the Dauntless”, 2.iii

These little known lines, taken from one of Sir Walter Scott’s least read poetical works, celebrate the ancient forested landscape of Weardale. In Scott’s time, much of this primordial and largely broad leafed woodland had already been cut down as a primary consequence of the industrialization process which was to shape the face of North East England and pass on the legacy of Stephenson, Brunel and others which has come down to us into modern times.

To the poet himself, however, whose intent it was to re-invoke the high drama of Mediaeval and Dark Age Romance, through the medium of the poetry which he himself wrote, these forests represented the very spirit of Weardale itself. And, the disappearance of this great ecological heritage was perhaps a guiding influence in Scott’s decision to write a full length narrative poem centred around the ancient Deer Park of the Prince Bishops. A locality with which Scott himself had largely become familiar as a result of his early work as a collector of ballads and folk traditions.

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