Keys to the Past

Local History

Bowes; Bowes Moor (County Durham)

The parish of Bowes has not always been in County Durham. Until 1974 it was on the northern edge of North Yorkshire. It stands on the edge of Stainmoor on the banks of the River Greta. It stands on the main pass across the North Pennines, linking North Yorkshire with Cumbria.

Although much of this area is moorland, there are many prehistoric remains, suggesting that the Stainmoor Pass was an important route way for the prehistoric inhabitants of County Durham. The earliest remains that have been found date to the Mesolithic period. A scatter of flints found at Ravock probably date to this period, and may have belonged to a small group of hunters. These people may not have lived permanently in the area, and probably camped at several sites over the course of the year.

There are few remains from the Neolithic period, but some of the scatters of flint tools from Ravock, may date to this period. It is possible that by this time the first permanent settlers were moving into this part of the North Pennines, and the Stainmore Pass probably continued to be a channel of communication. It is really only in the Bronze Age that there is ample evidence for settlement. A series of cairnfields in the Ravock area, as well as many flint objects, show that the land was starting to be farmed. Some of the stone and bronze axes found may have been used to clear trees from land to allow farming. Cairnfields were created when stones were cleared from the land to make ploughing easier, and are a good indicator of early farming. Not all the cairns in the area were created in this way. Some round cairns may have been used as burial mounds. Another important reminder of Bronze Age settlement is an example of rock art from Ladyfold. This stone is decorated with the cup and ring marks typical of the period. These carvings may have had some kind of religious purpose. The large hoard of bronze objects found at Gilmonby may also have had a religious purpose- possibly they were an offering to the gods. The objects included nearly 30 axes, 37 spears and 14 swords as well as many other items.

By the Iron Age much of Bowes was being farmed- the fields would have extended into the moorland areas, which are now just used as rough grazing. There are still traces of Iron Age cultivation to be seen, and the site of at least one settlement survives on Bowes Moor. A more spectacular Iron Age discovery was found in the 19th century, when a hoard of gold necklaces] was found- unfortunately they have now been lost.

When the Roman's arrived they quickly appreciated the military importance of the pass. They built a fort, known as Lavatrae, to the east of the pass, not far from the River Greta. It did not take long for a small civilian settlement or vicus to grow up close to the fort. They also built a number of temporary forts on the summit of the pass itself. There was also a line of signal stations, such as the one at Vale House, which would have been used to pass messages between the forts.

Although there is little surviving evidence for settlement in the Bowes area in the Anglo-Saxon period there was probably continued occupation. However, the placement of Rey Cross probably occurred in the 9th to 11th centuries AD.

The strategic importance of the Stainmoor Pass was again reflected by the decision of the Normans to build a castle at Bowes. It stands on the edge of a hill close to the River Greta. The church of was not far away- standing on the site of the Roman fort. Roman coins, altars, baths and aqueducts have all been found nearby. A Roman carved stone was even once used as the altar in the church.

From the post-medieval period until today, sheep farming has dominated the area, and many sheepfolds can still be seen. The remains of many old quarries and limekilns, however point towards an important part of the rural economy, which has now disappeared. Both sandstone and limestone were quarried. The sandstone was used as building stone and roadstone. Much of the limestone was burnt in the limekilns to make lime which was used to improve soil quality and make cement. The Stainmoor Pass remains important, and is now crossed by the modern A66, though even with all todays modern technology the weather sometimes gets the upper hand, and it remains one of the few major roads in the north-east to be regularly closed by bad weather during the winter.

Reference number:D6748
Event(s):Heart of Teesdale Project Heritage Audit; North of England Civic Trust

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Please note that this information has been compiled from a number of different sources. Durham County Council and Northumberland County Council can accept no responsibility for any inaccuracy contained therein. If you wish to use/copy any of the images, please ensure that you read the Copyright information provided.