Keys to the Past

Local History

Hamsterley (County Durham)

The village of Hamsterley lies between Weardale and Teesdale, to the north of Wolsingham. It was originally part of the parish of St Andrew's Auckland, which is several miles to the east.

As in much of the surrounding area the earliest occupation dates to the Mesolithic period. At this time people lived my hunting wild animals and gathering wild plants- farming had yet to be invented. It is likely that these first inhabitants of the area were passing through on the way up to the higher uplands of Teesdale and Weardale, where they would have hunted wild animals during the summer. In the colder, winter months the population would have come down to live in the slightly warmer lowlands. A number of simple flint tools of this period have been found at Doctor's Gate Quarry in Hamsterley Forest. This may have been the site of a temporary hunting camp.

A large number of flints of later, Neolithic and Bronze Age date have been found in Hamsterley and the nearby forest. By this period the first farmers would have begun to settle permanently in the area, although no remains of their settlements have been found. However, although farming was an increasingly important part of society, the presence of flint arrowheads, such as the one found at Beckside shows that wild animals and birds continued to be hunted. It is likely that much of this area continued to be heavily forested, and the small fields would have stood in small clearings. The trees would have been cut down using simple stone axes. Sadly, no traces of the burial mounds of Bronze Age, that have been found in so many other areas of County Durham, have been found in Hamsterley. Coffee Pot Barrow was thought to be one of these burial mounds, but excavation showed it to be a natural feature.

Like many of the upland areas of County Durham, there is little evidence for Roman settlement in the area. Whilst the arrival of the army would have had a major impact on the economy and landscape of the areas immediately surrounding the forts, in more remote areas, such as Hamsterley, life is likely to have continued with few changes. The lack of any Roman pottery or coins shows that the area had probably not become linked with the Roman economy.

The withdrawal of the legions in the early 5th century is unlikely to have had much impact on Hamsterley. Although no remains of settlements have been found, we can be certain that small villages existed, though the area remained heavily forested. The place-name Hamsterley shows the continued presence of trees; '-ley' is the Old English for 'forest clearing'. Interestingly 'hamster' is the Old English for 'corn weevil' suggesting that the area may have been poor farmland. It is possible that the church at Hamsterley may have first been built before the Norman Conquest. The small Sundial built into the walls of the church may be of Anglo-Saxon date, though the date is not certain.

The oldest surviving parts of the church dates to the 11th century, though it was enlarged in the 13th and early 14th century. Inside the church can be seen a 14th century effigy. The village of Hamsterley was first recorded in 1190, though there was probably scattered occupation in clearings in the surrounding forest. It is clear that iron forging was an important local industry in the medieval period. The forges were probably fuelled by wood and charcoal from the forests. The earthwork remains of one of these forges can be seen at Redgate Shield Forge.

Iron forging and lead mining became of increasing importance in Hamsterley in the post-medieval period, though farming remained the main way of life for most people in the area. Sheep farming provided the wool for the stocking factory that stood in the village. Although the simple life of farming and mining does not sound exciting, it is clear that the residents of Hamsterley knew how to enjoy themselves. The parish includes the site of an illegal 18th century distillery, where 'moonshine' was made, and presumably drunk by the locals. The village was also noted for its annual feast, known as a 'hopping'. This included many sports, such as cricket, wrestling, dog-trailing, quoits, foot races and donkey races.

Hamsterley remains a relatively rural area, though the iron and lead mining industries have disappeared. The most important development has been the growth of Hamsterley Forest. This has increased in size and is now owned by the Forestry Commission. Although this is still used for timber production, it has become increasingly important as a visitor attraction.

Hamsterley's contribution to the war efforts of the First World War and WW2 are commemorated on memorials within St. James' Church and on the village war memorial cross. One particular memorial in the church bears a dedication to a father and son where the father was killed in WW1 and his only son was killed in WW2 in the same location. This is one of a number of poignant stories from small villages of the county where members of single families can be traced through memorials.

Reference number:D6802
Event(s):The identification of Historic Landscapes in Durham Project; Chris Blandford Associates

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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.