Sixteen of us gathered on a bright morning close to Cockfield Fell, on an elevated position to the west of Bishop Auckland in County Durham. The weather had been promising, although a sprinkling of snow appeared to have targeted this particular location just as we arrived. Being well wrapped and booted we remained optimistic.
Our leaders Martin and David had clearly done their research on this fascinating area. Cockfield Fell had been one of the earliest industrial landscapes of the north of England, with iron-age settlements, coal mining going back to the fourteenth century, medieval agriculture, quarrying and a branch of the Stockton & Darlington Railway built in the 1830s. Now all that remained was a vast empty space, which we now set off across, noting pockmarks of various slightly peculiar holes and nobbles on the way. We passed several grazing horses. The view was tremendous, east towards the distant coast and west towards the Pennine hills where more distant snow was visible.
We gradually descended to the river Gaunless (apparently this meant “useless” in the old Viking language) and followed it upstream for a while. We passed under the lofty remains of a railway viaduct built by Thomas Bouch, of Tay Bridge disaster fame (how pressured had he been to save costs when designing it, we wondered). This was a later railway, built mainly to connect the Teesside iron and steel industry with the west coast at distant Barrow in Furness, and closed in the early 1960s. The remains of beehive-shaped coke ovens were visible, half hidden in the nearby undergrowth, and we crossed an early stone skew bridge across the river.
Crossing a road and passing through the hamlet of Butterknowle, we gradually climbed the north side of the valley and the views opened out again. The map showed a number of interesting place names, like Lynesack, Grewburn, High Wham and The Slack, and no doubt local historians would be able to tell us more about the origins of these settlements.
We descended to the remains of the Copley lead smelt mill, now quite picturesquely situated among trees but with a surviving chimney rising above. The mill, we were told, had been active for ninety years. It was built by the Earl of Darlington in 1770 to process the ore from his Teesdale mines, using local coal and transport by packhorse during this pre-railway period. Lead mining was an extensive activity over a large part of the north Pennines and for a long period of time; many signs of it remain for exploration.
Now back on the south side of the valley, we climbed again to reach the old railway track, and followed it for a while back towards our starting point. We were pleased to complete the circuit in daylight, on this short December day!
Thanks are due to Martin and David for providing a fascinating itinerary. Thanks also to Ivor for the illustrations, and as always to all of our participants for their company on the day.