Keys to the Past

Local History

Romaldkirk (County Durham)

The village of Romaldkirk lies about 6 miles to the north-west of Barnard Castle. Until the 19th century it was the centre of a huge parish covering much of Teesdale. It included the villages of Lartington, Cotherstone, Hunderthwaite, Mickleton, Lune, Holwick and Romaldkirk. In one direction in went for over 30 miles.

The earliest evidence for settlement in the area dates to the Mesolithic, when the first settlers were moving into Durham. A large number of flint tools of this date have been found at Briar Dykes. This may have been the remains of a temporary hunting camp. Farming had not reached this area yet, and food was gained by hunting and trapping wild animals and collecting plants, fruits and nuts. These hunters may have been moving up towards the higher moorlands, where it is thought that Mesolithic hunters went after large animals, such as deer, during the warm summer months.

The practice of farming began to spread in the Neolithic and Bronze Age. However, in much of the North Pennines, the open moorlands were probably not domesticated. It is possible that the several groups of cup and ring marks carved on stones marked the boundary between farmed land and the wide open uplands where animals were hunted. A number of such stones can be seen at Howgill Head D299), Guestwick Hills and elsewhere on {Romaldkirk Moor. It is likely that these carving also had some wider religious or ritual purpose as well.

By the Bronze Age we begin to have the first evidence for burials. Before this date bodies were probably burnt and the ashes scattered. However, from this period human remains, whether bones or ashes, were increasingly buried, and sometimes covered with a stone or earth mound. One of these burial mounds can still be seen at {Guestwick Hill D5421}. Two other possible burial mounds also stand at Howgill Heads.

Although we have information about prehistoric burial practices, it is not until the Iron Age that we at last have remains of early settlement sites. An earthwork enclosure at Briar Dykes are all that remains of a small Iron Age farmstead. It has an earth bank and a ditch. The ditch probably originally contained a wooden palisade.

The Romans arrived in County Durham in the 1st century AD, but appear to have had little effect on life in Upper Teesdale. Although they built forts at river crossings, such as Greta Bridge and further downstream at Piercebridge and also on passes such as at Bowes and Stainmore, they made little attempt to move further into the uplands. For most people life would have continued much as it had during the Iron Age.

In the same way life in the early part of the early medieval period would not have changed much, although we know that at some point there was a move from living in round houses to rectangular buildings. However, the first certain evidence for occupation in the area is the arrival of the Viking settlers who gave the village its name- Romaldkirk is Old Norse for 'church of St Romald'. Although much of the church is of later date, there are still traces of 9th and 10th century work in the nave. The size of the parish makes it likely that Romaldkirk was the centre of a very large Anglo-Saxon or Viking estate and the church was probably important. In later times it was known as the 'cathedral of the Dales'. The bases of two stone crosses still survive between Romaldkirk and Cotherstone- they may have marked the path along which bodies were taken for burial at St Romald's church. The crosses themselves were probably moved after the Reformation.

Despite of the size of the parish and the church, Romaldkirk remained a relatively unimportant village in the medieval period. Nearby Barnard Castle was the most significant settlement and would have been the nearest market, though it had its own fair. However, its relative isolation did not protect the village from the arrival of the plague in 1644, when many people died of the sickness.

In the post-medieval period, unlike in areas further to the north in the Pennines, Romaldkirk was not heavily influenced by the growth of lead mining. The area remained primarily an agricultural one, although there was some local quarrying for building materials and road stones. Farming and local industry benefited from the arrival of the railway in 1868; a passenger station and a goods station were built. Sadly, the railway was closed in 1964. Electricity only arrived in the village in the 1930s.

Today Romaldkirk is no longer so remote. It has a supermarket only four miles away and the village has become a Conservation Area in an attempt to keep the traditional character of this beautiful village.

Reference number:D6869
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.