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
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.