A walk along the River Tees from Winston to Piercebridge and back again.

Stage 1 – Winston to Gainford

This 12.5 mile (20km) circular walk initially follows the long distance footpath the Teesdale Way from Winston to Piercebridge and back to Winston. The walk started in the village of Winston, just off the A67 and about 5 miles from the main town of Teesdale, Barnard Castle. Winston is set high up on a ridge above the Tees and is home to St. Andrews Church. Parts of the church date from the 13th century but the majority of the building was rebuilt in the mid 1800s by John Dobson, the architect responsible for designing many of the neoclassical buildings which today make up the centre of Newcastle.

After parking on the main road in the village I have a quick chat with an old woman who lives in one of the cottages. She asks me where I am walking to and I reply Piercebridge. She mentions that there is a bus back to Winston every hour should I wish to take the easy way back but as I don’t have any money with me that option is not open to me.

I turn left down the B6274 road leading to Richmond which took me down to the fine stone bridge over the wide, rocky and dark River Tees. The bridge was completed in 1763 and managed to survive the great flood of 1771 which caused much damage, and some deaths, elsewhere along the river. The bridge was designed by Sir Thomas Robinson – the politician, architect and 1st Baronet of the nearby Rokeby Park estate – and was comprised of one single 111 feet arch which was the longest single span arch in England at one point. The bridge was initially part of an important route used to transport coal from the pits in South Durham to the towns of North Yorkshire but once the railway system started to grow in the region the road because less important.

The Teesdale Way actually passes alongside the northern side of the River Tees for this section and so I turn left just before the bridge and pass through an open field which is separated from the river by a narrow strip of woodland. After passing a water treatment plant the path then makes its way through a field with the huge leaves of the wild rhubarb plant on one side and tall, pink willow herb on the other.

The path then enters woodland and moves closer to the river. Boardwalks take you over the more boggy areas and a number of smaller paths lead down to the river which is flat and calm producing mirror like reflections of the trees on the other side. I am able to spot numerous waterfowl making use of the river. In the distance a pair of grey heron rise up from the river’s edge and fly off upstream. A small, dark coloured bird, possibly a dipper or a grey wagtail, flits across the large rocks that run across the river

The path then starts to climb up the bluff which runs along the northern side of the river until it reaches a lay-by off the A67. The path then descends back down to the river level again and continues through woodland for about half a mile. From the riverbank I can see a bridge further downstream and soon I reach some steps which lead upwards to the top of the bridge. Another path passes below the bridge and leads further along the river. I attempt to follow it and I am soon passing beneath large under-hangs from a high rocky cliff and through overgrown undergrowth but eventually the path peters out and I am forced to return to the steps.

This bridge is the West Tees railway bridge which was originally built to take the Darlington and Barnard Castle railway across the River Tees. This line, opened in 1856, branched off from the Stockton and Darlington Railway and was the brainchild of the S&DR’s owner Henry Pease, the MP for South Durham who would also be responsible for the building of Saltburn-on-Sea.

After leaving Barnard Castle the railway line ran along the northern side of the River Tees, with stations at Broomielaw and Winston, before reaching the Selaby Park estate just north of Gainford. The estate was owned by William Vane, the 2nd Duke of Cleveland, who viewed railways with distain and refused to let the line pass through his parkland. Therefore Thomas Bouch, the railway’s chief engineer, was forced to re-route the line southward so that it would have to pass over the River Tees via the West Tees railway bridge for a short section before turning east and crossing back over to the northern side of the river via the Gainford railway bridge further downstream.

West Tees bridge is now fenced off and closed to the public but the Teesdale way follows the former track-bed along the raised embankment northwards through an avenue of trees until it reaches the A67. I now turn right, heading towards Gainford through a disused lay-by and crossing Alwent Beck. After walking about a mile along the main road a sign-post indicates where the Teesdale Way heads back down towards the river once more. The sign-post also pointed towards the old Gainford Spa. Next to the sign-post is a display board giving information about Gainford. Around the edge of the board are a number of colourful drawings by the local school-children.

The path, heading west for a short distance, leads down a set of steps until it reaches the river level. Here the Gainford Spa can be seen. This is a large fountain-like structure which has water bubbling out of its top. The very cold mineral water, emanating from a natural well which passes through the sandstone beneath, has a strong sulphurous smell but doesn’t taste too bad. The current structure is a replica built in 2002 after the original font was vandalized. The original bowl stands nearby and used to display a number of metal plaques displaying information on those people involved in the restoration but these now appear to have been stolen.

The spa was first discovered by coal miners around 1840 and led to a large increase in visitors to the town, drawn there by the supposed health benefits of the mineral water. The railway line from Darlington helped greatly in bringing tourists. There were plans to try and pipe the water to a pavilion within Gainford itself but these never came to fruition. Gainford’s population grew as a result of those visitors who decided to stay in the village and it soon grew into a small town. However, the Spa’s popularity waned after the First World War.

After leaving the Spa the path now heads through Grant Bank Wood towards Gainford. After a short distance the path heads back up to the A67 and there is another short section along the road before reaching the town. Across a field to the right the Gainford railway bridge can be seen. As explained earlier this bridge, along with the West Tees Bridge upstream, carried the Darlington and Barnard Castle line across the river until its closure in November 1964. The bridge is now overgrown with weeds and closed to the public. I was hoping there would be some way of crossing the river here so that I wouldn’t have to travel all the way to Piercebridge and then back to Winston the long way.

I enter the attractive small town, or large village, of Gainford, once known as the “Queen of Durham villages”, and turn right down Low Lane heading towards what used to be the centre of the old village. In doing so I pass by the Jacobean Gainford Hall originally built in 1603 for the vicar of Gainford and later Archdeacon of Northumberland John Cradock. Following Cradock’s death in 1627 the house was abandoned while uncompleted and later fell into disrepair along with the landscaped gardens. The building was restored in the 19th century. The grounds of the Hall also contain a fine example of a 17th century dovecote.

I then pass Gainford C of E Primary School before turning right down School Lane which leads down to the river. Next to the school are some Nissen Huts dating from World War Two which were used to house displaced foreign nationals, mainly from Eastern Europe, who were unable to return home for political reasons. Further down the lane is a building known as the Edleston Spite House. Spite houses were buildings built purely to annoy neighbours or rival land owners. The Edleston family owned this plot of land, just next to St. Mary’s Church. When Joseph Edleston, who had worked for the church for over 40 years including a spell as reverend, died in 1895 his family expressed the wish to build a monument to Joseph in the churchyard.

The church denied their request, saying that the churchyard was already full but told the Edleston family that if they wished to donate their land to enable the churchyard to be extended they were welcome to build their monument. Aggrieved, the family instead decided to build a house on the land which was completed in 1904. In 1923 Robert Edleston also purchased a 40 foot high Tuscan-style column which had been constructed around 1750 at the nearby Stanwick Park estate by Sir Hugh Percy, 1st Duke of Northumberland, to ccommemorate the Treaty of Aachen which ended the 7-year War of Austrian Succession. The column was re-built right next to the churchyard and formerly held a now destroyed statue that was said to resemble a “v-sign” although this may well be apocryphal.

Opposite Edleston House is a small road that leads to the Barforth Hall Bridge which I will come to later. School Lane passes by a playing field belonging to the school and then a small walled cemetery surrounded by tall conifers. After passing through a gate I now come to a pleasant riverside path with a number of memorial benches facing the river dotted around. In the 12th century the border between England and Scotland was set at the river Tees thanks to the peace treaty signed at Durham between the warring King Stephen of England and King David I of Scotland and so during this time Gainford would have been an important border town. This lasted until 1157 when the new English king, Henry II, reclaimed the land north of the Tees.

At the point where the River Tees turns from the south to the east there is a large expanse of large pebbles upon which two boys are fishing, their bicycles resting upon a tree on the bank. My OS map clearly shows a red dotted line, signifying a bridleway, crossing the river here but there is no crossing point across the river nowadays. But this is a site of the Barforth Wath (an Old English word meaning “ford”) and it is said that it was possible to see the remains of the road to Barforth when the river level was low. Near here, between places on the river known as High Boat Pool and Boat Scar, there was also a private ferry used by the Herbert family, owners of Barforth Hall at that time. There was also another wath, Gainford Wath, crossing the river at the end of School Lane.

The original settlement was built around what was an important crossing point of the River Tees and the name Gainford is said to have been derived from the Old English word “gegn”, meaning “ford on a direct route”. The ford was part of an important route used by the Brigantes, a Celtic tribe who inhabited much of northern England during pre-Romans times, taking them to the Iron Age hill fort at Stanwick, about 3 miles to the south. They were forced to cross here due to the presence of the Roman Fort at Piercebridge further downstream.

There was a ferry crossing here up until 1950 from a point at the end of Watergate, just east of the vicarage, known as Low Boat Pool to a boathouse, demolished in the 1970s, on the Yorkshire side of the river. A track, still known as Boat Lane, led up to the farms and villages on that side of the river. It is said that the last boat used for the ferry is buried beneath a sandy bank near to where the boathouse once stood. I follow the riverside path northwards alongside the school playing field until I reached the bridge which once led across to Barforth Hall. It was private built, with help from the army, just after the Second World War by John Graham, owner of Barforth Hall at the time, to help transport stone from his nearby quarry, now closed.

The bridge was closed in 2009 due to it being in a poor condition with many of the railway sleepers used to line the bridge being broken or missing and only two of the three support piers remaining standing. As this was the only route available to cross the river at this point many inhabitants of Gainford or Barforth , a tiny hamlet across the river, or visiting walkers took their own lives in their hands by continuing to cross the bridge until a large brick wall, and a large warning notice, was erected on the Gainford side of the bridge and a large gate on the Barforth side.

That meant that Barforth was now cut off from Gainford and those few people that lived there now had to drive 6 miles down a farm track to reach the nearest major road. Initially they would have had to travel a total of 14 miles to collect their mail from Gainford Post Office as the local postal workers refused to deliver anymore but now their mail is collected by the Richmondshire sorting office instead. I decided not to risk attempting to cross the bridge, especially as I had my dog Molly with me, and looked to see if I could get across the river somewhere else.

I headed back east along the riverside path to where the river was split into various channels by some heavily vegetated islands. The river was also quite shallow here with numerous large rocks that could be used as stepping stones. I picked up Molly and attempted to make a river crossing. I got about halfway across the first channel before the gaps between the rocks became a bit too large but decided to just enter the water to complete the rest of the crossing. Luckily it was only about shin deep but it meant my shoes and lower part of my trousers were now soaked.

Once on the island I fought through the thick grass to the other side but saw the southern channel was too deep and treacherous to cross and decided to head further down the island to see if I could find somewhere easier. This failed and so Molly and I were forced to cross back over to the northern bank. By now the northern channel was virtually clear of rocks and so I had no choice but to wade back across.

I squelched further down the riverside path until I came to a concrete viewing platform and groyne which jutted out into the river. As part of the year 2000 millennium celebrations a sundial was built on the platform but it didn’t look in the best condition during my visit. To reach the centre of the village I had to pass through the churchyard of St Mary’s. This 12th century church was built upon the site of the Saxon Gegenforda monastery, built by Egred, Bishop of Lindisfarne and dating from around 800.

The current church incorporates fittings and artifacts such as various Saxon crosses and a Roman altar and is surrounded by a graveyard dating back to ancient times. The church also has a tower which contains six medieval bells and a fine clock. Down some steps at the back of the church is St Mary’s Well whose water was used to carry out baptisms. The day after my visit the church was burgled and several pieces of silver, including three chalices, were stolen from a safe.

The large village green, the heart of the community and dating from the 12th century, can be seen here. Next to the church is the large, ivy-clad former Vicarage which has now been converted into two private houses. A row of two-storey stone cottages dating from the 18th and 19th century line the southern side of the green along with a number of houses built in the 1960s which look rather out of place in these surroundings. The larger Georgian and Victorian terraced houses on the north of the green are rather more prestigious and were built by some of Gainford’s richer inhabitants, many of whom were attracted to the area by the spa.

At the north-eastern corner of the green, at the top of a grassy bank which separates the Low Green from the High Green, is the former Gainford Academy, a private school which was founded by Rev. William Bowman in 1818 and attracted pupils from a wide area, including Arthur Stanley Jefferson (better known as Stan Laurel) until its closure in 1899 after losing out to the larger County School in Barnard Castle. The coffee shop next door to the Academy is actually named The Laurels, most probably in recognition of Gainsford’s celebrity pupil.

Stage 2 – Gainford to Piercebridge

After leaving the village green area my route now takes me east along Tees View with a row of large,stone terraced cottages on the northern side and a fine view of fields and woodland leading down to the river on the southern side. Then I pass the Lord Nelson pub, one of two public houses in Gainford (the other being The Cross Keys) and rejoin the A67.

Just to the east of Gainford is a large, dilapidated but quite impressive looking red brick building which I assumed used to be some sort of factory but was actually the former St. Peter’s School. The school was opened in 1900, a year after the closure of the Gainford Academy, and was originally a orphanage for around 300 Catholic children. In 1937 120 orphaned Basque children were brought to the school after their families had been torn apart by the Spanish Civil War. The Home Office took over the building in 1939 and used it as an approval school (borstal) until 1984 when it was sold and converted into a care home for the elderly under the name Greenacres.

It continued in this function until its closure in 1999. It is currently in a dangerous condition and attracts vandals and those attracted to the site by tales of its past inhabitants still stalking its floors. Developers Kebbel Homes, who own part of the site, have announced plans to built flats here but as yet no work has been carried out and the developers have been criticised by local people for failing to secure the site properly.

Just after the old school a sign-post points out that the Teesdale Way leads off through the field to the right. A fenced off path takes you diagonally through a pasture housing a few horses. After climbing a stile I pass beneath a bridge which once supported the Forcett Railway. This private line, opened in 1866, branched off from the main Darlington to Barnard Castle line to quarries in East Layton and Forcett as well as the goods station in the latter. The line crossed the Tees just south of here via a fine, high viaduct which was demolished in the early 1970s.

The path then leads mostly through open fields separated from the river by a strip of woodland. There is a brief section through this woodland where I pass the site of the old Gainford Mill which was transferred here from its previous location close to where the Barforth Hall bridge is by Rev. John Cradocke in the early 1600s. It continued to function after just after the First World War and was then abandoned to ruin. After leaving the woods to pass through the open field again I pass Snow Hall high up on my left. The original Snow Hall, occupied by the Raine family, existed in the early 1600s but the current building dates from the mid 19th century when it was bought, and renovated, by the 4th Duke of Cleveland Harry Powlett, who leased out the properties to numerous people.

Just before reaching Piercebridge I spot a strange structure which looks like a large green tube arching across the river. At first I thought it was some kind of modern footbridge but when I get nearer I see that it is actually a pipe bridge. The bridge was built in 1936 by the Tees Valley and Cleveland Water Board and is used to transport water, in two large steel pipes, from the north to the south side of the river. The bridge was repainted and reinsulated in 2007. There is an entrance to the bridge for maintenance workers on the south bank but is not accessible to the public.

After entering a gate I past by outbuildings attached to Mill House and then follow a path to a long driveway taking me into the centre of Piercebridge. Here I reach the B6275 which follows the much of the route used by the Roman road Dere Street which ran north from York, across Hadrian’s Wall to Newstead in the Scottish Borders. To cross the River Tees the Roman’s built a wooden bridge in around the 1st century AD that ran through what is now the grounds of the George Hotel, about 150m east of the current bridge. Wooden piers, which would have supported the bridge, were found in the river bed during a drought in the 1930s which lowered the water level. It is believed that this bridge was destroyed by a large flood at the end of the 2nd century.

A second, larger bridge was then built about 200m east of the first bridge. Collapsed masonry which were once at least five piers that held the wooden deck of the bridge can be seen in a field on the southern bank of the river. The partially complete abutment, the structure built at the end of a bridge to support its superstructure can also be seen at the southern end of the field. The hole used to hold the wooden timbers used for the deck of the bridge can still clearly be seen. The river has moved north since Roman times and therefore the northern abutment of the bridge have been washed away.

A large rectangular fort was also built by the Romans in the 3rd century AD. This fort, named Morbium, housed a number of legions used to fight the local Brigantes tribe and was in used up until the early 5th century when it was abandoned when the Romans withdrew from Britain. Part of the eastern section of the fort has been excavated and is now on display to the public. The site contains a bath-house, various defenses and drains and culverts used to transport water. The majority of the fort is still beneath the modern day village buildings and the village green.

Stage 3 – Piercebridge to Winston

The current 3-arched ashlar sandstone bridge was thought of have been originally built in the 13th century but much of it was rebuilt in the 16th century. The bridge was then widened in 1789. I cross over from Piercebridge in Durham to the Richmondshire village of Cliffe on the opposite bank, after a brief detour along a path leading through an arch at the side of a pink cottage to have a quick glance at the ruins of the Roman fort, and passed by the George Hotel on my left.

A local folktale tells of the Jenkins brothers, who ran the hotel about 160 years ago. The hotel had a fine grandfather clock which was renowned for its excellent time-keeping. However, when one of the brothers died the clock increasingly began to lose time and when the other brother passed away the clock stopped completely. In 1875 the American songwriter Henry Clay Work stayed in the hotel and heard the tale about the clock. This gave him an idea for what would become his most famous and best-selling composition “My Grandfather’s Clock”. The clock still stands in the corner of the lobby but its hands still refuse to move. Another of the hotel’s most famous residents was the highwayman Dick Turpin who has a room named after him.

Just after crossing the bridge I turn right through a gateway in the stone wall and enter Kathleen Wood. Where the path splits I take the southern branch and soon leave the wood to enter a open field. This field is the location for two tumuli (Bronze Age burial mounds). The first one is known as Betty Watson’s Hill, contained a tall oak tree, and was excavated in 1904 although nothing was found. It is suspected that grave robbers had get there first. Just to the south is the second tumulus, known as Howe Hill, which houses a clump of trees.

I then pass into another field which, to my surprise, contains a cricket pitch along with a small pavilion. This is the home of Cliffe Cricket Club who currently play in Division A of the Darlington & District League and who just managed to avoid relegation in the season just finished. After passing the cricket field I enter a long tarmac road which leads east towards the Cliffe Hall estate, established in the 13th century. Cliffe Hall was once a fine Georgian mansion by only the Victorian section of the house now remains and functioned as a bed and breakfast establishment until a large fire caused much damage in 2005.

The road continues past some cottages and then skirts around Low Field Farm to Chapel House farm after crossing the path of former Forcett Railway line. Here the path disappears and a couple of fields need to be navigated before joining the drive leading to Low Fields Farm. This soon joins Boat Lane which leads down to the former ferry crossing at Gainford. After a short distance I turn left onto a track which rises steadily up Crake Bank to give fine views of the river Tees to the north.

This path eventually brings you to the weed covered ruin of St Lawrence’s Chapel. Much of the walls still stand, including the eastern gable with its three windows, but the roof is long gone. The building is in two sections with the western part, the nave, originating from the 12th century. The chapel was enlarged in the 13th century and functioned as a religious building, possibly used as a training centre for monks, until the 16th century. The western part was then converted into a dwelling for the priest and then was used as a farmhouse up to the 18th century before falling into ruin.

There are also the remains of about four other buildings hidden nearby amongst the overgrown grass, as well as evidence of a pond, and it is probably part of a settlement called Brieforde or Bereforde (“Barley Ford”) which was deserted in the early 15th century, possibly due to many of its inhabitants dying from the Black Death plague. The area was also referred to as “Old Richmond” in some old texts. The remainder of the village is thought to been buried beneath the large field to the west.

This field is connected to the site of the chapel via the 14th century packhorse bridge Chapel Bridge over the small, dark Black Beck which tumbles down the hillside via the Hell Hole waterfall just to the north. The bridge was part of an important route in the area but is currently closed to traffic due to it being in a poor, unsafe condition. About 100m north of the ruined chapel is a 16th century dovecot, similar in style that the one in the grounds of Gainford Hall.  Doves were often kept as a source of food and a symbol of high social status. This particular dovecote could hold up to 400 nesting birds.

After leaving the ruin I headed up towards the tiny hamlet of Barforth which consists of only a few houses and farm buildings, including stables and a stud farm for horses, surrounding the former 16th century manor house Barforth Hall. Here I get a bit lost trying to find the correct route to take me back to the bridge at Winston. Initially I head past the Hall towards the condemned bridge to Gainford but quickly realise this is not the right way. As I head back I spot a couple of llamas in a field and go over to have a closer look. Then I spot a woman getting into her car and ask her how I can get to Winston, showing her the route marked in my guide-book, but she can only direct me to a bridleway which leads past the stables.

I follow her direction and come to a large field with another field, roped off and containing numerous horses, on the other side. I search for another exit from the field but there is only a locked gate on one side. Just then, an elderly gentleman enters the field and heads towards the horses so I make my way over to him to ask for further directions. He tells me I need to cross over the locked gate and follow the path down past a large oak tree to a dip where I can then take a path leading west across a field. I lift Molly over the gate and then climb over, pass a derelict caravan and come to a large corn-field with no discernible path anywhere to be seen.

I wander across the freshly-cut cornfield and head in what I assume is the corret direction and eventually I managed to spot a path leading across the edge of a field on the other side of a barbed wire fence. Luckily there is a section nearby where the wire has fallen down and so I’m able to climb over. After crossing the field I pass through a gate and join a farm-track leading down to, and then along the edge of the river.  I  pass Hedgeholme, a stud farm and the site of a ford across the river before the bridge at Winston was built before finally reaching the bridge and heading back up the hill to my waiting car. In total this walk took about 6 hours but I spent a lot of time exploring during the walk which would have added a bit of extra


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About Jeff Lawrence

Hi, My name is Jeff Lawrence and I'm a writer, photographer and Boro fan from north-east England who has an interest in football history, in particular that relating to Dutch (thanks to eight years living in the Netherlands) and Peruvian (thanks to a wife from Peru) football. Another interest is how English managers and players played their part in the development of football overseas, particularly in the early part of the 20th century.
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