Stanhope DU [Stanhopa 1183 BoB, -hop 1228 Ep]. ‘Stony HOH or ridge and HOP or valley.’
Graham and I drove up into the Wear Valley to Stanhope to have a look at the wonderful fossilised tree in the churchyard of St. Thomas’s church.
The 320 million year old fossil was found by quarrymen at a sandstone quarry at Edmundbyers Cross in 1915. It was originally taken to Newcastle and was brought to Stanhope in the 1960s and placed in the churchyard.
This is a superb relic of one of the trees that grew in the Carboniferous forest. It is a species known as Sigillaria, an early ancestor of modern club mosses. Today clubmosses are small mountain plants, only a few centimetres high, but in the tropical swamps of the Carboniferous Period they grew into 30-metre high giants!
Another fossil tree recovered from the sandstone quarry can be seen in the Hancock Great Northern Museum in Newcastle.
While here we thought we’d take a look inside the church. This was a very different building to the previous church we had visited at Escomb. St. Thomas’s is a very well endowed church and reflects the fortunes that have been made from farming and mineral extraction in the district.
The first thing you notice when you enter the church is the Victorian baptismal font. Beautifully carved in Frosterley marble with an extremely ornate cover complete with an over-engineered lifting mechanism.
Frosterley Marble has been used on the chancel floor.
Frosterley marble isn’t a true marble. Marble is a metamorphic rock, i.e. a rock that has been altered from its original state by temperature and pressure. Frosterley marble is merely a highly fossiliferous limestone, that when cut and polished forms a highly decorative stone.
Fossil – Laing Art Gallery Newcastle
This sculpture is a carved block of Frosterley Limestone inset with cast bronze interpretations of the fossils found within it. The fossil installation is displayed on an oak plinth among the Frosterley floor tiles and oak doors and display cabinets in the Marble Hall of the Laing Art Gallery. The sculpture is finished on one side to reflect the smoothness of the floor tiles and the central section shows and explains the unusual shapes seen in the tiles with carved and truncated fossils. The third section is a representation of a carboniferous sea floor with ‘living’ dibunophyllum bipartitum cast in bronze. The Department of Coelenterates at the Natural History Museum in London offered invaluable advice in establishing the most accurate representation of ‘dibunophyllum’.
This ancient stone coffin in the grounds of the church was carved from a single block of Frosterley marble.
The only true marble in the district is to be found in Upper Teesdale. A limestone which was subjected to heat and pressure from contact with the igneous rock that forms the Whin Sill. The resultant rock is known as Sugar Limestone. It is quite crumbly in nature and therefore pretty much useless as a decorative stone.
It was nice to see this Roman altar displayed inside the church. A translation of the inscription is provided, it reads..
To Silvanus, the invincible, sacred
Caius Tetius Venturius Mecia
Prefect of the Sebosian Cavalry
On account of a boar of enormous
size taken which
many of his predecessors
were not able to destroy, erected (this
altar) willigly in discharge of a vow
The town of Stanhope is surrounded by quarries and the valley has a long history of lead mining and smelting. Spoil heaps from the quarries encroach onto the margins of the town but I can find very little evidence in the church of the people who worked in the quarries and mines of Weardale. We left Stanhope and drove up the dale to visit the Rookhope Arch. The arch is all that remains of a two mile long horizontal chimney or flue. The flue carried the toxic gases and fumes from the lead smelt mill to the moortop. Mill workers were periodically sent into the flue to dig out the deposits. The average life span of a lead miner in 1860 was 45 years. Perhaps this ruin is a more fitting memorial to their lives than some mossy obelisk in a churchyard
The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names. 4th Edition. Eilert Ekwall. 1974
North Pennines AONB Geoparks Leaflet
Laing Art Gallery – Topografik