Keys to the Past

Local History

Holwick (County Durham)

Holwick lies in Upper Teesdale to the north-west of Middleton-in-Teesdale. Most of the area is covered by high moors and fells

There are many prehistoric remains in the area. The earliest of these are a small number of Mesolithic flint tools, such as those found close to Wynch Bridge- these are probably all that survive of a temporary hunting camp. These early hunters did not settle permanently in the North Pennines, but moved to this area during the warmer summer months to hunt wild animals.

The earliest farming did not begin until the Neolithic period. A stone axe, probably used to clear trees prior to ploughing, was found at Strand's Gill. A fragment of a similar axe was also found at Birk Rigg. The remains of later, Bronze Age, fields have can still be seen on Holwick Fell. Hunting probably remained an important source of food as later as the Bronze Age - a flint arrowhead of this date was found at Park Endin 1904. By the Bronze Age and Iron Age we begin to have evidence for permanent occupation around Holwick. At sites, such as Stone Houses a number of stone enclosures and hut circles are probably the remains of prehistoric settlements.

We know little about prehistoric religion in this area. The earliest possible religious remains from Holwick are two jet beads- these may have come from a Bronze Age burial. Another possible Bronze Age burial has been found at White Earth, where fragments of a prehistoric pot, possibly also from a burial. More importantly, at least one stone circle is known to stand in the parish. Simple religious ceremonies may have been carried out at this site. Another, less certain circle has also been recorded at West Hush Ridge.

Although the Romans arrived in Durham in the 1st century AD and built many military installations the North Pennines remained little changed. The simple life of upland farming continued as it had in the Iron Age, and settlements continued to be simple hut circles surrounded by stone enclosures. Examples of these can be seen at Keld Smithy Green and Hind Gate.

Unusually the north Pennines Holwick contains the remains of early medieval period occupation. In fact, Simy Folds, is the only such site known in this part of the north-east. The remains from this site probably date to the 9th century or later. Unlike the earlier prehistoric and Roman settlements these houses were rectangular in shape; they were for predecessors of the later, medieval long houses used in the area.

In the medieval period the area remained dominated by upland farming. At this time the shepherds would take their sheep up to the highest pastures during the summer. The shepherds would live up here in simple huts known as shielings. They would then move down to the lower fields in the winter. The remains of simple shielings can still be seen at Crossthwaite Scars. It is in this period that the village of Holwick probably grew up. It was first recorded in 1235. The origin of its name is uncertain, and it may mean either 'dairy farm in a hollow ', or 'in the holly'. Other medieval settlements are known at Unthank and Hungry Hall. Aerial photograph evidence also suggests that the village during the Medieval Period was much larger than it was today and that the village is in fact a Shrunken Medieval Village. These remains can be seen in the earthworks to the south east of the current village.


It was in the medieval period that the first lead mining began to take place in the North Pennines. The remains of this early industry can be seen at sites such as Bracken Rigg, where traces of medieval bail hills are visible. A survey of charcoal pits in Upper Teesdale has been made. These are thought to be associated with the medieval iron industry. The charcoal pits consisted of a shallow depression surrounded by a ring of spoil containing charcoal. Mainly sited on slopes or ridge tops. Few on limestone escarpments (suggested that these areas were deforested before industry developed) or in boggy areas (suggested difficulty in maintaining fires in these areas). Many bloomery sites were located close to these concentrations of charcoal pits, indicating source of charcoal important for iron working. There was however a second concentration of bloomeries close to the ore source, but away from the charcoal pits.

Lead-mining really flourished from the mid-18th century, when the London Lead Company bought up many leases in the area and made Middleton-in-Teesdale the headquarters of their work in Teesdale. They build a series of mines along the length of the valley. The company also built the main road that runs along the valley and up over towards Alston, and the companies other settlements at Garrigill and Nenthead in Cumbria. As well as owning mines, the company also owned the processing sites, such as that at Lunehead where the ore was prepared for smelting.

Lead mining was not the only industry to grow up around Holwick- stone quarrying became increasingly important. The basaltic rock, or blue granite, is extensively quarried by Messrs. Ord & Maddison, of Darlington. The first prize was taken by this firm at the Newcastle Exhibition for paving sets, curbstones, and channel-stones. Slate, used for making pencils, was found at Widdy Bank, and for a while there was a mill making pencils existed.

Near the village is Winch Bridge, spanning the Tees across a rocky gorge, through which the water rushes with considerable force, and surrounded by beautiful scenery. This is the second bridge that has occupied the site. The first was erected in 1704, and was, without doubt, the earliest suspension bridge on record. Hutchinson, the historian of Durham, speaking of this bridge, says: "About two miles above Middleton, where the river falls in repeated cascades, a bridge, suspended on iron chains, is stretched from rock to rock, over a chasm near 60 feet deep, for the passage of travellers, but particularly for miners; the bridge is 70 feet in length, and little more than two feet broad, with a handrail on one side, and planked in such a manner that the traveller experiences all the tremulous motion of the chain, and sees himself suspended over a roaring gulph, on an agitated, restless gangway, to which few strangers dare trust themselves." The name of the man who conceived the idea, and planned such a bridge, has passed into oblivion; but his design, crude though it was, probably suggested the more elaborated structures erected in other parts of the country,
In August, 1802, whilst a party of haymakers were crossing the bridge from Holwick to their home on the Durham side of the river, one of the chains snapped, and three of the men were precipitated into the river. One of them, named Bainbridge, struck the rocks in his fall, and never rose to the surface; all the others were saved. The bridge was repaired, but in 1830 it was taken down, and the present substantial suspension bridge erected at the expense of the Duke of Cleveland.
Most of the quarries and all the lead mining has ceased by the early 20th century. Holwick has now returned to hill-sheep farming. Increasingly, though the North Pennines is becoming an increasingly important center for tourism, and many people enjoy walking in the hills around the village.

Reference number:D6832

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