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Coordinates: 54°42′58″N 1°55′30″W / 54.716°N 1.925°W / 54.716; -1.925

Weardale Wearhead
Weardale Rookhope

Weardale is a dale, or valley, of the east side of the Pennines in County Durham, in England. Large parts of Weardale fall within the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) - the second largest AONB in England and Wales. The upper valley is surrounded by high fells (up to 2454 feet O.D. at Burnhope Seat) and heather grouse moors. Before climate change its winters were typically harsh and prolonged with regular snow, taken advantage of by ski-ers using a ski-run at Swinhope Head.

Wildlife includes an important population of Black Grouse along with the more usual upland birds. Sea-trout and salmon run the River Wear. Adders are sometimes encountered on the moors. The flora is not as remarkable as that of neighbouring Teesdale, but in season is beautiful enough: some species-rich meadows remain, and the wood cranesbill (Geranium sylvaticum) and meadow cranesbill (G. pratense) are easy to spot in summer while the mountain pansy (Viola lutea) is a characteristic plant of the shorter grass round the upper dale. The tiny but beautiful spring sandwort (Minuartia verna) may be seen around old lead workings, enabled by its high tolerance of lead to colonise ground where contamination inhibits other species.

Past occupation or activity by man is attested by evidence such as the Heatheryburn Bronze Age collection of gold and other objects, now in the British Museum; altars placed by Roman officers who took hunting trips out from forts in present-day County Durham; and the use from Norman times onwards of "Frosterley Marble", a black fossiliferous layer of limestone occurring near that village, as an ornamental material in Durham Cathedral and many other churches and public buildings.

The dale's principal settlements include St John's Chapel and the small towns of Stanhope and Wolsingham. These latter two appear to have existed as Anglo-Saxon settlements before 1066 and the Norman Conquest. The Normans extended farming in this part of the dale, and later in the Middle Ages the upper dale was cleared for "vaccaries" - farms for pasturing cattle. The Bishops of Durham owned the mineral rights: the Church retained these throughout the effective life of the lead industry, miners and companies being lessees.

The River Wear flows through Weardale before reaching Bishop Auckland and then Durham, meeting the sea at Sunderland. Running roughly parallel to Weardale to the south is Teesdale. The Wear Valley local government district covered the upper part of the valley, including Weardale, between 1974 and 2009, when it was abolished on County Durham's becoming a unitary authority. (From 1894 to 1974 there was a Weardale Rural District). Upper Weardale lies within the parliamentary constituency of North West Durham.

In the c18 John Wesley visited the dale on a number of occasions and the valley became a Methodist stronghold. High House Chapel near Ireshopeburn has been claimed to be the Methodist chapel with the longest history of continuous use in the world, and contains the Weardale Museum (not to be confused with the Lead Mining Museum at Killhope) which includes a room devoted to Methodist and Wesley memorabilia.

As a youth between the World Wars the poet W.H. Auden walked amid the wild countryside and the relics of the lead mining industry in and around Weardale and found these a lifelong source of inspiration. One place he visited, Rookhope, is also the setting of a ballad called "The Rookhope Ryde" which describes in some detail how in 1569 Weardale men drove out a party of cattle-raiders who had come down from the Roman Wall area .

Among contemporary works, Helen Cannam's "The Last Ballad" is a lively historical novel set in the dale in the early 1800s.

Mining History

Weardale was historically important for lead mining, and there is a lead mining museum incorporating the preserved Park Level Mine at Killhope [1] (pronounced "Killup").

The first documented evidence of mining in the Northern Pennines dates from the 12th century, and records the presence of silver mines in the areas of what are now Alston Moor, just west of Weardale, and Northumberland. Weardale was at this time a forested area and belonged to the Bishops of Durham, who used part of it as a hunting preserve. The villages of Eastgate and Westgate mark the former Eastern and Western entrances to this forest preserve (King, 1982).

Lead mining in Weardale reached its greatest levels during the 18th and 19th centuries, when the London Lead and Beaumont Companies dominated mining throughout the region. During the 1880’s the declining prices for lead forced both companies to give up their leases in the area, though the Weardale Lead Company continued lead mining and smelting until 1931. According to Dunham (1990), 28 separate lead smelting operations were active in the region during the height of mining in the 19th century, but by 1919 the last major commercial mine had closed.

A major by-product of lead-mining was various crystals including the decorative coloured fluorspar, for which no industrial use was known till the later 1800s. Thereafter it was used in part of the steel-making process and also in the manufacture of non-stick frying pans, CFCs for aerosols, and other products. It is not a precious stone but fine samples are prized by collectors.

At the North of England Lead Mining Museum at Killhope one can see a huge working water wheel, known as the Killhope Wheel.This was installed in the 1870s to power the crushing of grit in tanks in an adjacent building, so as to complete the separation of lead ore from worthless stone. The Museum also exhibits a fine collection of local minerals, as well as "spar boxes" - display cases made by miners to show crystal specimens they had themselves found.

Not only lead, silver and fluorspar were extracted from Weardale. Large amounts of ironstone were taken especially from the Rookhope area during the Industrial Revolution to supply ironworks at Consett and other sites in County Durham. Local deposits of other minerals were also found on occasion.

The lead mining industry occasioned the coming and going of population. Cornish miners, used to tin-mining, are one group who came to find similar work in the Pennine ore-field; on the other hand, many left Weardale for better-paid jobs in nineteenth century coal mines in the North-East, or emigrated to the New World.

Economy other than mining

After the closing of the lead mines, there were few sources of income for the local population left in the upper dale.

In the lower dale round Stanhope and Frosterley, however, carboniferous limestone was quarried on a large scale from the 1840s, when rail links created with Teesside and Consett enabled it to be carried to these and other places for use in the iron and steel-making processes there. These places included Wolsingham in the lower dale, Tow Law on its fringes, and Witton Park further down the Wear valley. Of these, only a business at Tow Law now persists (2009) as a going concern.

Limestone quarrying continued into and beyond the 1960s, a relatively recent and large-scale development being the quarry serving the Blue Circle cement works near Eastgate, set up in the 1960s. This site has now been decommissioned and the major industry in Weardale is now cattle and sheep farming. Only one mine, The Rogerley Mine, is currently being prospected on a very small scale for mineral specimens.

Ganister (hard sandstone) and dolerite (whinstone, basalt) have also been quarried in the past in Weardale.

Weardale had a railway open as far as Wearhead for a brief period from the 1890s, but the section of the line above Eastgate soon closed due to the decline of the lead industry. The remaining line was kept open by cement traffic until the 1990s, after which it was taken over by the Weardale Railway. Passenger services recommenced briefly in 2004, but in 2005 the project went into administration. Trains began running again in 2006, under a new ownership structure.

Currently there is a regular daily bus service from Bishop Auckland and Crook to Cowshill at the head of the dale; it is possible at certain times of day to take the bus further on to the Killhope Lead Mining Museum, and to return by bus from it, at those times of the year when the latter is open.

There is a modest tourist industry, and inn/hotel, B&B and self-catering are among the types of accommodation available; there are some caravan sites. There are opportunities for pony-trekking and mountain biking, as well as much scope for the walker.

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