Baldersdale (County Durham)
The parish of Baldersdale sits in the south-east corner of County Durham. Most of the area is moorland and the River Balder, which gives the parish its name, runs through the centre of the parish.
The first occupation in this area may have dated back as far as the Mesolithic period, but no remains of this date have been discovered so far. Although Baldersdale may have no very early prehistoric remains, it contains an important collection of prehistoric rock art. They are found in several groups. Some are found very close to the shallow valley at West Loups, close to the parish boundary with Cotherstone. The other main focus in of early rock art is on Bake Hill, on the north side of Baldersdale. They lie on a ridge of sandstone running roughly east-west overlooking Hury Reservoir. A particularly fine group have been found at How Gill Rocks. These lie on a flat, marshy area, that may include several small springs. The precise purpose of these carvings is of great debate amongst archaeologists. Most believe they may have had some simple religious purpose. They are most likely to have been carved in the late Neolithic or early Iron Age. Despite these early carvings, no actual settlements or burial sites of prehistoric date have been found in Baldersdale, though they have certainly been discovered in the neighbouring parishes of Romaldkirk and Cotherstone.
Baldersdale is not far to the north of the Stainmore Gap, an important west-east route over the Pennines. This pass was defended by the Romans who had forts at Stainmore and Brough and Bowes. However, there is little evidence for settlement of this period in the Baldersdale and the surrounding areas. It is likely that life continued with little influence from the Roman occupiers. Unlike the upland areas near Hadrian's Wall few Roman objects seem to have reached the native settlements in the surrounding area.
There is a similar apparent lack of early medieval settlement in the parish, though there was almost certainly some kind of occupation in the area. It has been suggested that the name 'Baldersdale' comes from the Old Norse for 'Baldhere's Valley'. This may mean that a Scandinavian incomer settled the land, some time in the 9th or 10th century.
There is a continued lack of firm archaeological evidence for settlement, well into the medieval period. Apart from a small group of earthworks at West Friar, which may be of medieval date, there are no certain medieval farmsteads. However, many of the small farms which still remain in Baldersdale may well have had a medieval origin.
One of the main reasons for the difficulty in recognising settlement remains in Baldersdale can be seen in the post-medieval period. The valley was heavily quarried for sandstone and limestone. Traces of at least thirty-six quarries have been recorded. This quarrying will undoubtedly have destroyed many archaeological remains. Some of this work was carried out on a large scale. The remains of the powder store, where explosives for a nearby quarry were kept, can still be seen. Another reason why so few archaeological remains have been found is the building of the Hury Reservoir and the Blackton Reservoir in the late 19th century. These were built to provide water for the towns of Stockton and Middlesborough far downstream. These flooded much of the valley floor along the length of the River Balder. Despite the quarrying and building work Baldersdale remained essentially a sheep farming area. The remains of many sheepfolds and a shepherds bothy's can still be seen. A stackstand at Willoughby Hall is a reminder of how the stacks of animal food used to be kept dry. Sheep farming is still an important way of life in the parish, and the farmer Hannah Hauxwell was the subject of a famous documentary in the 1980s, which recorded her simple way of life.
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