Keys to the Past

Local History

Rokeby (County Durham)

The parish of Rokeby stands on the southern edge of County Durham, close to the modern boundary with North Yorkshire. The nearest town is Barnard Castle, which is only around 2.5 miles. One of the main roads across the north Pennines (The modern A66) runs through the area and crosses the River Greta at Greta Bridge, the site of a possible Roman fort.

Although there are upland areas to the north and south, Rokeby itself, is a relatively low-lying area. Unlike these surrounding upland areas, there are few surviving remains of the prehistoric period. A cup and ring marked stone was found, but it was re-used as a cover on a stone-lined grave of Roman date. Its original site is now unknown.

Despite the lack of early remains, it is clear from discoveries in the surrounding area that occupation may have begun in the area as early as the Mesolithic period, when groups of hunter-gatherers may have moved through the area as they travelled towards the uplands during the summer, when they could hunt wild animals such as elk. Permanent settlement probably began in the Neolithic and Bronze Age, when the farming of crops and animals began to be reared. The area was certainly well settled by the time the Roman army arrived in the 1st century AD.

The Roman swiftly realised that the route over the Pennines was militarily important, and that it needed protection, so they built a fort at the point the road crossed the river Greta. This fort, known as Maglona was defended by a single bank and ditch and protected the probable site of as Roman bridge. A small, civilian settlement grew up outside the fort; such settlements often grew up near Roman forts

Little is known about the area in the Anglo-Saxon period. The Roman fort had been abandoned in the late 4th century, before the arrival of the first Anglo-Saxon settlers in the mid- to late- 5th century. Although, no settlements of this period are known, Rokeby has a Viking name meaning 'rocky farm', and even the River Greta has an Old Norse name.

Several settlements stood in the area during the medieval period. Villages stood at Rokeby and Mortham. However, neither has survived to the present day. Mortham was repeatedly attacked by raiders from Scotland, and was not rebuilt after a fierce attack in 1346. Rokeby survived longer and at least twenty houses stood here in early 17th century. Few traces of either village can be seen now. The most obvious survival at Rokeby is the parish church of St Michael, of which the earth covered foundations can still be seen. Nearby stands the base of a medieval stone cross. At Mortham all that can be seen is the much altered tower house, which was substantially rebuilt in the 18th century. Not surprisingly, the old route over the Pennine remained important, and the crossing point at Greta Bridge was bridged over during the medieval period. A bridge with two or three arches was first mentioned here in1587. Although the great floods of 1771 destroyed it, it was rebuilt soon after.

What remained of the village of Rokeby was cleared in 1735, when Sir Thomas Robinson built Rokeby Hall. It was surrounded by an ornamental park, which lay between the junction of the Greta and the Tees. The hall contained a great collection of Roman statues, altars and gravestones. Some may have come from the Continent, but others are thought to have come from the Roman fort at Greta Bridge, as well as the Roman forts at Bowes and Birdoswald (Cumbria). The hall and its parkland were thought to be one of the most beautiful in the north-east of England, and the famous poet Sir Walter Scott wrote a poem about the site called 'Rokeby'.

Today the area is mainly a farming area, though tourism increasingly plays its part in the local economy. Rokeby Park is sometimes open to visitors and many people travel through the area to reach the Yorkshire Dales to the south and the North Pennines to the north.

Reference number:D6803
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.