The earliest reference to Stanhope Old Hall dates from 1139 with a reference to a William de Monte who lived in the time of King Stephen. In Latin, he is called “de monte”, of the mountain because his mansion or castle was on a hill called Craig hill a little way out of the town of Stanhope in the county of Durham. The English of his name in those days, was, no doubt William o’ th’ Crag. From the records it would seem that Stanhope Hall passed into the ownership of a Robert de Stanhope. A member of this family subsequently married a Robert Fetherstonhaugh and it remained as the family seat of the Fetherstonehaughs for several hundred years. Records say the last male Featherstonehaugh `fell’ at the Battle of Blenheim in 1704. The estate was sold soon after this event and we are unsure at the present time as to what happened in the intervening years to the family. Stanhope Old Hall we believe passed through the hands of the Bishops and also a connection to the Earl of Carlisle although further research is planned.
The main fabric of Stanhope Old Hall still reflects this history with many features remaining from its earliest times. In particular there are huge open fireplaces in several rooms, staircases dating from the 15th century and with original ancient doors, huge oak beams, stone walls and flagstones still remaining it is still possible to imagine how some of the rooms may have looked several hundred years ago. In the evenings especially with lamps lit and flickering light from open fires the house feels very atmospheric.
Stanhope itself, the ‘capital of Weardale’, is an attractive small town set amongst the fells of the North Pennines. The history of Stanhope is closely associated with the Prince Bishops of Durham, whose hunting lands stretched westwards into the upper reaches of Weardale. St Thomas’s Church dates from around 1200 and was built to serve the spiritual needs of the Prince Bishops and their entourage during their summer hunting trips in the Forest of Weardale. Inside the church is an inscribed stone Roman altar, which was discovered nearby in 1735 whilst in the churchyard is a fossilised tree stump that is thought to be 250 million years old.
Of the three Durham Dales (Teesdale, Weardale and Derwentdale) Weardale, at the heart of the county is historically most closely associated with the Prince Bishops. Eastgate and Westgate, two small villages in the upper part of this valley once marked the boundary of Stanhope Park, the Prince Bishop’s hunting ground and it was here that the famous `Great Chases’ were held. The Great Chases were the hunting expeditions, led by the Prince Bishops and were by all accounts grand occasions, celebrated with much pomp and pageantry. Such was the scale of the Great Chases, that all the folk of Weardale were required to provide hounds for the hunt, along with enormous quantities of food, wine and beer for the hunters.
The Weardale people were also required to assist with the construction of a large temporary hunting lodge, a chapel, a kitchen and a larder, which were all purposely built for the `Great Chase’. Bishop Pudsey’s Boldon Buke of 1183, (Durham’s equivalent of the Domesday Book), gives a good insight into the preparation for a Great Chase, most notably under entries for West Auckland and Stanhope. The following passage from the Boldon Buke refers to the Great Chases and has been translated from the original Latin. The first relates to West Auckland;
“All the villeins of Aucklandshire, that is North Auckland and West Auckland and Escomb and Newton, provide 1 rope at the Great Chases of the Bishop for each bovate and make the hall of the Bishop in the forest 60 feet in length and in breadth within the posts 16 feet, with a butchery and a store house and chamber and a privy. Moreover they make a chapel 40 feet in length and 15 feet in breadth, and they have 2s as a favour and they make their part of the enclosure around the lodges and on the Bishop’s departure a full barrel of ale or half if he should remain away. And they look after the hawk eyries in the bailiwick of Ralph the Crafty and they make 18 booths at St Cuthbert’s fair. Moreover the villeins and leaseholders go on the roe hunt on the summons of the Bishop”.
Under the entry for Stanhope,
“…all the villeins build a kitchen, and larder and a dog kennel at the Great Chases and they provide straw for the hall, chapel and chamber, and they lead all the Bishop’s supplies from Wolsingham to the lodges ”.
Weardale made up the second largest hunting ground in England after the New Forest in Hampshire which of course belonged to the King. The Prince Bishops are thought to have inherited their hunting rights from the earlier Bishops of Lindisfarne, but hunting took place in Weardale in earlier times, as a Roman altar found near Stanhope records the capture of a wild boar in the area. Stanhope Park and the forest surrounding it, were well stocked with game, deer, wolves, and wild boar and the bishops jealously guarded their right to hunting in the area. A forest court was held at nearby Stanhope, for the trial of poachers.
As well as being of importance as a hunting preserve it was lead mining that was the dominant industry in Weardale for nearly 500 hundred years. While the eastern part of County Durham was part of the Great Northern coalfield, the dales in the western part of the county were just as important for their lead. Since Roman times, this lead had been exploited in Weardale and the northern Pennines and perhaps it is worth noting that Hadrian’s Wall divides the northern fringe of the North Pennine lead field, from the less mineral rich Northumbrian hills to the north. From the thirteenth century lead mining in the Durham dales was encouraged by the Prince Bishops who profited from the mining of the ore.
The heyday of lead mining in the region was not however until the late eighteenth to mid nineteenth centuries, when the North Pennine lead field was arguably the most important in the world. The North Pennine lead field was bordered in the east by the Durham coalfield, in the south by the Stainmore Gap and in the north by the Tyne Gap. The main valleys of this area were Teesdale, South Tynedale, Allendale and at the centre, Weardale, collectively they were known as the `Lead Dales’. The industry created employment for the local population and created huge wealth for the Bishops of Durham providing the Rectors of Stanhope with ‘the richest living in England’ due to the tithes (rent) paid to the church in return for the rights to explore and dig for lead.
Relics of lead mining can be found in all the `lead dales’ but the most imposing reminder, is the great lead crushing mill known as Kilhope wheel, on the remote Killhope Burn in Upper Weardale. Killhope wheel, wrought in iron and forty feet in diameter, is now part of a lead mining museum and is the most complete lead mining site in Britain. The museum includes a lead mine and a `mine shop’ where there is a reconstruction of the lead miner’s sleeping quarters.
Miners would have slept in these quarters for the whole of the working week and would only have returned to their homes several miles further down the dale, at weekends. One can only imagine how hard life must have been for these workers trying to earn a living especially in the depths of winter on the high moors.
Other important relics of Lead mining in the region can be found in the Weardale side valley of the Rookhope Burn. Here we may trace the course and remains of the two mile long Rookhope Chimney. This was a massive stone flue which carried dangerous toxic fumes across the moors away from the lead smelter at Lintzgarth near Rookhope village. A great stone arch can be seen nearby, which once supported the chimney, it resembles a ruined stone bridge that leads to nowhere and crosses nothing at all.
Stanhope is associated with two notable ancient discoveries. One is a 250 million year old fossilized tree stump, which can be seen in Stanhope’s churchyard, the other the famous nineteenth century Heathery Burn Cave finding. In 1859 this great archeological discovery was made in the hills above Stanhope, in which a huge collection of Bronze Age items were uncovered, including evidence of the earliest use of wheeled vehicles in the British Isles. The items found at the Heathery Burn cave, seem to have belonged to a particularly wealthy Bronze Age family, whose skeletons were also uncovered. For some unknown reason, perhaps a flash flood, the family had become trapped in this cave some 3000 years ago. Today the findings of the Heathery Burn Cave are kept in the British Museum, London