Living Uplands

Natural History of Upper Weardale


By Ian Forbes and Rob Young: the Editor’s synopsis

This chapter examines the human contribution to the evolution of Weardale’s landscape, from the Later Mesolithic Period (7000 – 4000BC) to the present day, explaining how the landscape has changed with human pressure on it and requirements from it. And this continues.

The most significant archaeological finds tell us that in the Later Mesolithic Period early ‘base camps’ were set up, followed by ‘exploitation camps’ with evidence of forest clearing on a small scale. Pollen diagrams suggest that Neolithic farming (c.4000–2,500BC) moved up the Dale from this time. Lithic scatters and isolated finds of classic, Early Bronze Age artifacts are spread around the Dale. Burial mounds, monuments and artifacts imply more sophisticated societies developed but no definite houses have survived. The Heathery Burn Hoard, deposited around 900BC in a cave in the valley of a tributary of Stanhope Burn, is on show in the British Museum (and viewable online).

Detailed field survey plan of round houses and enclosures on Bollihope Common (Drawing by Rob Young)

From around 800BC to the coming of Rome in the late-first/second century AD human influence intensified and there is evidence for Romano-British clearance from Steward Shield Meadow and Bollihope. The main valley of the Dale became increasingly populated in the Iron Age and very ‘busy’ in terms of human exploitation. Recent excavations at the site of St Botolph’s Chapel in Frosterley provide evidence for a possible early monastic site.

The Medieval period is generally the best documented with developing settlement, agricultural and industrial activities. Frosterley, Wolsingham and Stanhope were all established by 1100AD and the Bishops of Durham started to exploit the area for its vast hunting potential. The so called ‘Boldon Book’ of 1183 details the early history of the three main villages in the Dale, documenting some of the actual people living in them and their trades. Frosterley marble may have been exploited commercially by this period.

The Prince Bishops had rights to all of the Dale’s minerals from the mid-twelfth century, and lead mining revenues expanded the episcopal purse in addition to existing rents and fees. This trend developed throughout the succeeding centuries until just after 1598 when the then Bishop gradually relinquished his monopoly holdings in the lead industry. Further settlement expansion, development of agricultural and industrial processes occurred, with long term impacts, from the sixteenth century onwards.

From the seventeenth century onwards the face of Weardale as we now know it becomes clearer, as later dwellings, settlements, field boundaries and industries were superimposed open earlier ones. Two industries began to increase in economic and cultural importance whilst farming continued. Lead mining surged – and doubled between 1770 – 1800. The population reached its highest point a little later and in the 1861 census nearly 5,500 people were recorded as living in the upper Dale beyond Eastgate. Lead miners placed great value on their smallholdings and for mine owners they were a useful way of keeping them from emigrating in hard times.

Miners in their work clothes at Groverake mine. Note the home-made candle lanterns two of the men are carrying: Image (c) Friends of Killhope

Enclosure of the open moors came later to upper Weardale than in more prosperous lowland areas. Wolsingham Enclosure Acts were passed in the 1760s. Today we can recognise a three-tier landscape division in the upper Dale - enclosed hay meadows and pastures in the valley bottom, grazing pastures higher up and unenclosed moorland reaching to the fell tops.

Farmsteads reflect the tiny size of agricultural units and there are almost no traditional farm buildings for housing livestock separate from the farmhouse in the upper Dale.

Through the twentieth century many smallholdings were amalgamated, outby houses were abandoned and the higher pastures left to return to rushes.  In the fourth quarter of the twentieth century, however, the balance changed as families from beyond the Dale sought a different way of life buying up abandoned houses. At the same time, with an increased interest from outside in the potential to develop grouse moors, shooting lodges were built and heather regeneration and a reduction in sheep numbers encouraged to support the grouse population.

Post-Medieval development of quarrying was facilitated by the development of the railways. The Stanhope and Tyne railway, opened in 1834, snaked over the moors and down the hill into Stanhope, linking Weardale to the industrial east. The quarries were owned by the major Teesside iron masters as well as the Consett Iron Company and quarrying firms such as Ord and Maddison.

Ironstone quarry heaps above Westgate. in the background is the reservoir which supplied water to power machinery and pumps Slitt lead mine: Image (c) Ian Forbes

By the 1890s, some 1,200 men were employed in quarrying in Weardale and Frosterley and Stanhope. Eastgate Cement works opened in 1966 and closed in 2002. Weardale also saw ironstone mining, quarrying for ganister and whinstone. But lead mining is the most widely known and probably the most researched element of the Dale’s human history. The last commercial fluorspar mine, Frasers Grove, closed in 1999 and today one small private mine, at Rogerley near Frosterley, continues to operate, mining exhibition-grade fluorite specimens for the mineral specimen collecting market.

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