Many of us are unaware of the rich history and heritage all around us, and that our river valley was once thriving medieval landscape. The ports and market towns of Yarm and Stockton reflected our status. The Romans and Normans also left their mark. Signs of our past are there to explore.
Here are some examples.
Preston Hall Museum
Built by David Burton Fowler in 1825, Preston Hall began life as a Georgian gentleman’s residence, located between Yarm and Stockton. It was not until 1882, when the estate and lands were sold to Robert Ropner for the princely sum of £27,500 that the building of today was born. Ropner was a wealthy shipping and industrial magnate, and in common with the style of the times, demanded a home to befit his status in society. Major alterations included the addition of a Winter Garden, ballroom, entrance porch, billiards room and extensive landscaped parkland – all ‘must haves’ of the Victorian age.
The Hall & Park was served by legions of staff, from a butler and cook, through to maids and stable hands.Gardeners would tend the grounds and supply the kitchen with produce from the walled garden, the remains of which can still be seen today. In 1937, the Hall & Park passed into the hands of a number of companies, before being purchased by Stockton Corporation (now the Borough Council) in 1947.The site officially opened as Preston Hall Museum and Park in 1953, and has continued to bring pleasure to generations of visitors young and old ever since.
Egglescliffe Church sits in the middle of the pleasant village of Egglescliffe, high above the River Tees, overlooking Yarm. There was probably a church here in 1065 when there is a record of a ‘clerk’ of Egglescliffe and a piece of 8th century column suggests an earlier building. The church also contains a fragment of a cross shaft that dates from the time when the Vikings controlled the area.
The present church was built by the Normans, but has been heavily re-built and the tower is an addition of the 15th century. The church contains two medieval effigies of knights and 17th century pews and other woodwork that are a rare survival.
Yarm Riverside and Town
It hard to imagine today, walking along the riverside path, what a bustling port Yarm was once upon a time. In the medieval period it was the most important port on the Tees, being the first river crossing along the river from its estuary. It was home to rope makers, brewers, tanners and shipbuilders and in 1207 was granted a Charter by King John to hold weekly markets. The stone bridge crossing the Tees was built by the Bishop of Durham in 1400. Yarm may also have been a place of importance in Anglo-Saxon times and there are traces of stonework from the period in the parish church of St Mary Magdalene.
The wide High Street still bustles today and a reminder of the time it was one of the most important coaching stops on the north south route. A number of the couching pubs, together with buildings of the 18th magnificent Victorian railway viaduct crosses the river and the town reflecting its importance in railway history – the George and Dragon pub hosted the meeting in 1820 at which the decision was taken to build the Stockton and Darlington railway. The Teesdale Way footpath, running the length of the Tees, skirts the town, providing beautiful riverside walks upstream and downstream through the spine of the Tees Heritage Park.
Round Hill is a nationally protected monument that overlooks the confluence of the rivers Leven and Tees, dominating the approach to Yarm. The site is about 30m in diameter and the mound stands upto to 7.5m high. There are earthworks around the mound. The site is man made and it is generally interpreted as a Norman motte and bailey castle dating to the 12th century AD. This might have had a timber tower on top of the mound (motte) and a wooden palisade defining an area that also contained houses and stables (the bailey). It may have been constructed during the initial Norman occupation of the area or during the wars that took place in the middle of the 12th century.
Barwick lies on the south bank of the River Tees. As with all the medieval villages along the Tees it has been placed close to the river so that the resources of the river could be used as much as possible. The name means ‘Barley Farm’ and probably describes the main cereal crop grown in the medieval period. The remains of the medieval hamlet surround the present farm buildings and comprise earthworks which define plots which once would have contained medieval farms.
The main farm building would have been a ‘longhouse’ built of wattle and daub with a thatched roof. People would have lived in one end of the building and cattle the other, separated by a screened passage.
Quarry Farm Roman Villa
Quarry Farm is one of the northernmost villas in the Roman Empire; a number have now been discovered along the Tees Valley in an area where they were not previously known. The site was found by aerial photography in the 1970’s and partially excavated before the area was developed, the main building has been preserved.
The villa complex had several phases, and comprised a winged main building, and at least three stone buildings, including a huge aisled barn and caldarium (heated room). The villa was probably built for a local noble or a retired Roman soldier from one of the local garrisons. It was the centre of a farming estate in much the same way as 18th and 19th century country houses.
Thornaby Church sits in the middle of the green at Thornaby, surrounded by earthworks produced by centuries of use of the area. The medieval village of Thornaby surrounded the green, but has been replaced by more modern buildings. Thornaby sits high above the River Tees, but was reached by medieval shipping and was designated as a port in the medieval period.
The church of St Peter ad Vincula (St Peter in Chains – referring to the imprisonment of St Peter in Jerusalem) is a typical small Norman church, although it has lost its chancel which had been demolished by 1800 AD. The interior contains some interesting examples of 12th century carving including a depiction of a man fighting a sea monster.
Stockton and Darlington Railway Heritage
The first passenger railway in the world was opened in 1825 running between Darlington and Stockton. Originally devised to carry coal from Durham to the river at Stockton, it also accommodated passengers who travelled on the inaugural trip – estimated at around 450 people. Part of the original line ran through the western edge of Preston Park alongside the old turnpike road and it was here that the celebrated contest between the “Locomotion” and a stagecoach took place, at around 12mph!
Amid massive crowds and uproar the train arrived at the Stockton wharf to be greeted by bands playing, church bells, a 21 gun salute and cheers from the riotous crowd. This was followed by a sumptuous banquet at the Town Hall for proprietors, guests and the workmen to celebrate the achievement. The coming of the railway enabled the local towns to continue to prosper and led to the industrial boom of Teesside.
Only a short walk from the original Stockton wharf is a building reputed to the first booking office for the railway (and the world}. It stands alongside the line of the original track, not far from Victoria Bridge – the remains of old wooden staithes, used for loading coal onto boats are visible just downstream of the bridge.