A CURIOUS christening ceremony, a centuries-old but unfinished country house and a headless horseman – if only there were a witness who had lived through the last millennia and so could tell us the truth behind these fabulous stories that percolate down through the years at the top end of Teesdale.

There is a witness which has stood for around 800 years but unfortunately it is keeping if not a stony silence then at least a wooden one.

It is the Doe Park Oak which last week we reckoned was the oldest tree in the district, growing on the cliffy edge of the River Balder just outside Cotherstone.

It must have sprouted from its acorn around 1200, and if it could talk what amazing stories it could tell…

Doe Park is beside the B6277 which runs from Cotherstone to Romaldkirk, which contains St Romald’s Church, “the cathedral of the dale”. To the north of Doe Park, a lane branches off the B6277 and heads west into the finger-shaped dale of the River Balder. It passes through the hamlet of Hunderthwaite before encountering the reservoirs of Hury, Blackton and Baldershead that fill much of the dale.

When it was just a sapling, then, the invasion of Teesdale by King Malcolm of Scotland would have been in living tree memory. The local humans of Teesdale took a stand against the violent incomers at Hunderthwaite where they were slain in their hundreds – hence, according to this story, the name Hunderthwaite.


The Doe Park oak with an 800cm girth could well be 800 years old. We believe it to be the oldest tree in this district

The Doe Park oak with an 800cm girth could well be 800 years old. We believe it to be the oldest tree in this district


Twenty years later, a castle was built of wood on top of a grassy mound at Cotherstone to keep the Scots out – perhaps our oak’s ancestors were felled for this castle.

The Fitzhugh family came to own the castle and had Baldersdale as their deerpark. Doe Park, with its deer-like name, was their hunting lodge.

After the Fitzhughs came the Cradocks and then the Ledgards, who, with our oak already 300 or 400 years old, built the curiously-shaped Doe Park farmhouse. The house is tall and thin – it looks as if it should be twice as wide as it is.

There are two stories about why this may be and the oak tree, having witnessed them both, could tell us which is true.


Ledgard Hall, or Doe Park, near Cotherstone, in a 1904 drawing

Ledgard Hall, or Doe Park, near Cotherstone, in a 1904 drawing


Firstly, it is said that James Ledgard backed the Roundhead cause during the English Civil War of the 1640s, and the Royalists executed him – hung, drawn and quartered – on Romaldkirk green, leaving the house half built.

Or was it that Georgio Ledgard died in 1727, leaving the house half built. He was buried at Romaldkirk crossroads, which suggests he had taken his own life – suicide was seen as a crime against yourself and God, and so you couldn’t be buried in church, so a crossroads was the nearest you’d get to a religious symbol.

The death of either James or George left the house unfinished and the family without the funds to complete it, so they plonked a roof on the bit that was habitable and made the best of their tall, thin house, which they called Ledgard Hall.

But what events have taken place in its grounds! In a nearby field is the base of an Anglo-Saxon cross, so it is even older than the oak. It is believed to have been on an old road, a hollow-way, which once connected Cotherstone with the parish church at Romaldkirk. Perhaps there were crosses all along the road; perhaps this cross is where coffinbearers rested their heavy load having climbed up from the Balder on their way to the funeral in St Romald’s.

This cross, though, is known as the Calf Christening Stone. In pagan times, the first calf born each spring had a special significance, showing the seasons really had turned. Perhaps a pagan ritual was adopted by the Christians so that every May Day, the first calf was christened on the Calf Christening Stone – it was given a name, and blessed before God.

No such ceremony has been known for centuries, but the oak probably witnessed the last of them.


Doe Park, near Cotherstone, which is steeped in in history. Picture: Alison Lamb

Doe Park, near Cotherstone, which is steeped in in history. Picture: Alison Lamb


It may even be able to shed light on the last of our stories because for many of its 800 years the roads around Cotherstone, Romaldkirk, Hunderthwaite and Baldersdale have been bedevilled by a headless horseman riding crazily along them – he can’t be blamed, poor fellow, as he has no eyes to see where he is going.

The parish registers give a partial explanation as they record that in 1690, the head of James Hutchinson, of Baldersdale, was buried near his pew in Romaldkirk church.

So is the rest of his body condemned to ride around forever in a fruitless search for its missing head?

Oh, if only ancient trees could talk and tell us…

  • With many thanks to Rodger Lowe, of Teesdale Heritage Trees, and also to Alison Lamb of Doe Park. Her family has been at Doe Park for four generations and this year their caravan site is commemorating its 40th anniversary.
  • Many thanks for all the emails about notable trees. We’ll return to them in the near future after our holidays…