A1-The Great North Road

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The Great North Road used to run across County Durham from Croft, through Darlington and Durham City to Chester-le-Street and Gateshead along what is now the A167 but the modern A1(M) passes west of Darlington, crosses the A167 near Aycliffe at Junction 59 and for the next 20 miles follows a route a couple of miles to the east of the old road. But let's stay with the old road, remembering it came from Northallerton, not Scotch Corner, and crossed the Tees by the Croft Bridge. 


Charles Harper's sketch of about 1900, viewed from the upstream, northern side, shows the seven arches of the Croft Bridge and the Comet on the left.  In 1531 the bridge was described as: "...the moste directe and sure waye and passage for the King o'er Soveraigne Lorde's armie and ordyn'ce to resort and pass over into the north p'tes and marches of theis reaulme, for the surtie and defence of the same againste the invasion of the Scotts and others his enemyes, over which such armys and ordyn'ces hathe hertofor always bene accostomyed to goo and passe."


There are seven arches, with 95 yards of the bridge in Yorkshire, and 53 yards in Durham.  A bridge was repaired in 1356 but this was abandoned leaving the base of the pillars in the river bed just downstream of the present bridge, which was built by Walter Skirlaw, Bishop of Durham around 1400. It was rebuilt in about 1673. A Blue Stone of Frosterley marble, with some nice fossils, recording the restoration, is found on the third arch from the Durham side and marks the County Boundary line. It was a turnpike from 1745 - 1879.  The bridge was repaired again after the catastrophic flood of 1771 and widened upstream in 1795 using hard brown sandstone. During the flood of February 1995, the water level was higher than the top of the arches.

Croft Bridge looking upstream from the south.

In 1841 A.B.Granville published in his account of The Spas of England, a visit to Croft:

Without any further delay I hastened towards Croft, keeping always in sight, on my right, Black Hambledon Hills until I passed Northallerton, and alighted at the “Spa Hotel,” in full time to examine, leisurely and with care, the various parts of this comparatively modern watering-place.  The road, before reaching Croft, passes under one of the arches of the great railroad now constructing from York to Darlington, which is projected across the valley, and form part of the great north of England railroad.

John Emerson, the very civil and obliging landlord of the “Spa Hotel,” in manners far superior to persons of his class, escorted me to the springs, at about a quarter of a mile from the hotel, in a field near the road-side, where the “Old Spa” is situated.  Nothing can be more primitive or of ruder aspect than the whole concern.  At a very short distance from a very humble-looking cottage is the spring or head of the well, which is generally kept covered with a flagstone.  Here the mineral water is collected, and travels thence, by a short pipe, to a little cistern by the side of the porch of a cottage or Spa-house, for public use; as well as to the interior of the same building, where it fills up to a constant level a cold plunging-bath, six feet and a half long and four feet wide, sunk four feet into the ground.  Five stone steps lead down to the bottom, which is paved with large flagstones.

The water keeps incessantly running, coming in from the head well at the rate of about twenty-four pints to the minute, according to my experiments.  It is beautifully clear and transparent, and smells of its peculiar gas, though not so strongly as Harrogate water.  I should compare it to the Aldfield water, near Ripon, and it must be looked upon as draining to the north-east side of the great Richmond Hills, in the same manner that Hovingham spring derives its origin from the draining of the south-west shale and limestone strata of the eastern moorlands.

The temperature is 51°, and never varies.  A deposit of sulphur, as at Aldfield and Hovingham, is observed in the head well, and on the stone troughs through which the water runs, as well as upon the grass twigs near them.  Its taste is precisely like that at Hovingham—saponaceous and alkaline.  People drink from three to seven half-pint tumblers of it, and find it strongly diuretic.  They, however, prefer bathing in the water, which operation is always performed at its natural low temperature of 51°.  They take three or four dips overhead in the plunging-bath without complaining of chilliness, and assert that they experience, on coming out of the bath, a most genial glow of the skin, which feel quite soft after immersion.  This bath, however, is only resorted to by the common and working people—principally on Sundays

The "Old Spa" was closed upon the opening of the new bathing-establishment; but in consequence of the water of the former being preferred, and people coming to it from many distant parts, it was again put into operation; and one or two nice lodging-houses were built near the spot.

Entering a wood at a short distance from the "Old Spa" we find, after walking a quarter of a mile, a small hillock by the side of a narrow but rapid beck or brook, withinwhich is a well of sulphur-water, lined with red sandstone taken from the Tees.  The water smells and tastes more strongly of sulphur than that of the "Old Spa".  It is conveyed by tile-pipes to the building of the new baths, to be described presently; and its waste runs into the beck at the rate of fifty pints in a minute, and from thence into the Tees.  The poor people prefer drinking this water on the spot, thinking it more genuine.  The name it bears is Canniwell.

Thomas Dixon Walker, surgeon at Harworth (a small place between Croft and Dinsdale), a gentleman so much engaged in practice that he is never to be seen except mounting or alighting from a horse, and always equipped in top-boots and spurred, has published some "Facts relative to the medicinal properties of the Croft and Dinsdale waters".  The work has gone through three editions, and must consequently have been read; yet, oddly enough, the little volume in question contains not the slightest description of the local arrangements of the Spa, with the exception of a ground-plan and elevation of the new baths.  It is to supply that deficiency that I have entered into so many particulars.

I collect from Mr. Walker's analysis of the "Old Spa", that my notion of its similarity to the Hovingham water is borne out by its slight impregnation with sulphuretted gas, of which he reckons but one inch and three-quarters in a gallon.  And I am also pleased to find myself confirmed in the idea I formed of the origin of the old sulphur springs at Croft, by what Mr. Walker relates relative to the history of the discovery of the "New Well".  This was done by boring to the depth of twenty-six fathoms, when a much more strongly-impregnated sulphur-water than that of the Old Well rose to the surface.

Over this "New Well", so discovered in August 1827, or rather in front of it, Sir Wiliam Chaytor, of Witton Castle, upon whose property the Spa is situated, caused to be erected a suite of baths, with a pump room fifty feet by seventeen, with the principal elevation in the cottage style (decorated with a veranda o covered walk) facing east.

The pump-room is a modern oblong room, plain and unadorned.  In it the sulphur-water of the new spring is distributed, as well as that of another or third spring, the Canniwell, before mentioned, by means of the objectionable mode of pumping.  The firs of these waters is generally drunk warmed,, and with a tea-spoonful of common salt, as the water is totally deficient in that ingredient.  Ladies I have seen promenading at two o'clock in the afternoon under the veranda, who now and then applied to the pump-room woman for a small tumbler of the stronger kind of water, mingling the said quantity of kitchen salt in it.  With what appetite they sat down to dinner afterwards I could not learn, as I did not join the gay throng at the table d'hôte in the New Hotel.  But it seemed an odd time of day to quaff sulphur-water of no ordinary intensity.

The bath-rooms, with their respective dressing-rooms, are neatly arranged behind and on each side of the pump-room.  Among them is a large plunging-bath and a vapour-bath, and convenience for shower-baths;  all of which are to be had at prices much the same as at all other Spas—perhaps cheaper.  The baths are lined with stone flags, and paved with slate.  During the season of 1837 there had been as many as eight hundred bathers; but at the present and last season the number has been sadly inferior to that—a circumstance for which the unlucky author of "The Spas of Germany" was considered responsible.

The water supplied to the cold plunging-bath is derived from the "Canniwell Spring"; that for the warm baths is pumped by hand from the "New Well", adjoining, into a cistern and boiler above the bathing-rooms; and such is the strength of the sulphuretted effluvia of this water that all the doors painted with white lead-colour have acquired a jet black coating.  This is not to be marvelled at, considering that Mr. Walker detected no less than twenty-two and a quarter inches of sulphuretted hydrogen in the gallon; a quantity larger than that of any sulphur spring in England.

The source of this tremendous water—for such I must designate it—I afterwards proceeded to examine.  It consists of a wide shaft or sunken well, kept always covered; upon the inspection of which I found the mineral water reaching to within two feet of the margin, and looking on the surface like thick frothy soap-lees, of an opake bluish-white colour, but appearing very clear when pumped out of the shaft into the cistern, through a large leaden pipe which dips considerably into the water.

When the latter is received into a glass a great many air-bubbles are seen to ascend from the bottom of it, and to adhere to the inside of the glass.  Its taste I can hardly describe.  It is at first sweetish and astringent, corrugating the inside skin of the lips; but it soon becomes bitterish and metallic, as if Epson salts were mixed with a preparation of lead.  It is a discouraging taste, and I question not but it is owing to the presence of the leaden pipes plunged into the water—producing sulphuret of lead, which falls in scales from the surface of the pipe into the water, contaminating the latter.

How such an arrangement could ever have been permitted for a moment, it is not easy to conjecture. I stated its fatal objection to the persons around me, and urged it afterwards to Mr. Walker himself, who admitted its justice and confessed (as indeed he had previously done in his little work) that the water required great caution in its internal use, having often produced hyperatharsis, and even vomiting—at which I marvel not.  I shall not easily forget the momentary effect which the small quantity of the water I drank in the pump-room had on my head, my palate, and my stomach; and I should be sorry indeed to prescribe any such water internally, under ordinary circumstances, without great and minute precaution; but under the circumstances, without great and minute precaution; but under the circumstances of a large body of lead being constantly present it it—I should prescribe it never.  There appears also to be in this water a natural oily substance, which Mr. Walker has called petroleum, and which is not less objectionable than the lead.



I'm not too certain quite what Harper thought of Croft-on-Tees: It behoves one to speak respectfully of Croft and its Spa, for its waters are as nasty as those of Harrogate, with that flavour of rotten eggs so highly approved by the medical profession, and only the vagaries of fashion can be held accountable for the comparative neglect of the one and the favouring of the other.  A gentle melancholy marks the spot, where, on the Yorkshire bank, the mouldy-looking Croft Spa Hotel fronts the road, its closed assembly rooms, where once the merry crowds foregathered, given over to damp and mildew.

But fortunes change and change again and for a more up-to-date view of the Croft Spa Hotel one had better pay them at least a virtual visit.  There is not much evidence of the former raison d'etre.  Compare this account (thanks to Colin Hinson at Genuki) from Bulmer's History and Directory of North Yorkshire (1890):

The chief interest of the place lies in its Spa, the waters of which are highly reputed for their efficacy in the cure of cutaneous diseases. It was first brought into notice in 1668, and so early as 1713 the water had acquired such fame that it was sold in London, in sealed bottles, at a very high price. There are now four springs, the waters of three being sulphureous, and of the fourth slightly chalybeate. The sulphurous wells resemble those of Harrogate.  The water is used both internally and externally, and a neat building, with a verandahed promenade along one side, has been erected, and furnished with every convenience for hot or cold water baths. A large and handsome hotel erected by the late Sir William Chaytor, and now in the occupation of Mr. Alexander Metcalfe, is elegantly furnished for the reception of visitors.  That tradition of elegant furnishing continued with contributions from Robert Thomson, the mouseman.

The Croft Spa Hotel at the Yorkshire end of the bridge

and the Comet on the Durham side.


Just north of the Croft Bridge the Great North Road crosses the River Skerne by the Oxneyfield Bridge.  Originally of stone, it has been strengthened on the underside by courses of brickwork, set askew to produce an intriguingly graceful geometry.

A little further on, to the east of the road, are the pools known as Hell Kettles. There are many legends as to their origin.  Ogilby, in 1676, noted that, At Oxenhall are three pits call'd Hell-Kettles, whereof the vulgar tell you many fabulous stories.  Vulgar or not, the tale told by Abbot Brompton of Jervaulx and recorded by Holinshed is that at Christmas 1178,  The earth lifted itselfe up on height in appeaance like to a mighty Tower, and so it remained from nine of the clocke in the morning, till the even tyde, and then it fell downewith an horrible noise.  By way of more rational explanation, Hodgkin, in 1913, recounts the 1884 Zig-Zag Ramblings of Dr Manson who supports the theory that the pits were formed by the erosion of the magnesian limestone and the red sandstone above it, leaving only a comparatively thin roof of clay and gravel, which would ultimately fall in, even if, due to hydraulic pressure after heavy rains, it might first have pressed upwards "like a Tower".

In 1698, Celia Fiennes wrote thus: Two miles from Darlington I came to the ground the Hell Kettles are they talk much off, its in grounds just by the road where cattle were feeding; there are 2 pooles or ponds of water the one larger than the other the biggest seemed to me not to be the deepest nor is it esteemed soe deep; there was some sedge or flaggs growing round that, but the furthermost which was not soe bigg looked a cross that had noe flaggs or sedge on its bansks, but yet it look'd to me to cast a green hew, roleing waves of the water just in the collour of the sea, and as the wind moved the water it very much resembled the sea, but the water when taken up in the hand look'd white and the taste was not the least brackish but fresh; my conception of the cause of the greenish coullour was from the great depth of water, for the reason they call theam Hell Kettles is that there is noe sounding a bottom which has been try'd by plummet and line severall fathoms down; the water is cold and as any other water when took up, it seemes not to decrease in a tyme of drought nor to advance with great raines, it draines it self insensibly into the ground.

Only a few years later, Daniel Defoe dismissed the ponds as ...nothing but old coal-pits, filled with water by the River Tees.  But coal pits they certainly are not.  We are on the Triassic Bunter sandstones here and have to travel another dozen miles across the underlying Permian Magnesian Limestone before the Coal Measures are reached.

It's strange that Fiennes said the water tasted fresh.  Harper says ...the four pools...testify by their sulphureous taste of their water to the quality of Croft Spa. Certainly the spa waters were very sulphurous and a bath house had been built in the 17th Century.  Jackson recounts that by 1713 the water had acquired such a fame that it was sold in London in sealed bottles at a very high price.  No change there then.


North of the bridge over the Skerne the A167 makes a broad curve to the right with a broad grass verge on the right.  From the road one can only see the reed tops the far side of a field.  It is permanent pasture with the humps of a medieval strip field still visible.  Neither Fienes nor Defoe noted this but of course they were writing when such fields were a commonplace.  Spot the Canada geese in right-hand photo?



Sheela Na Gigs are quasi-erotic stone carvings of a goddess figure, usually found on Norman churches and medieval ecclesiastical buildings. There is one such curious item in Croft church, a little stone carving, quite crude and differing from the rest of the carvings in the church.  According to John Harding it has a small deeply incised slit for a vagina which is quite narrow and not immediately obvious.  An alternative explanation is that it is a little man holding his penis, long since removed in some act of prurient vandalism. Pevsner's description lacks commitment: By the door small human figure, one arm raised, decidedly funny.  Supposed to be Romano-British.


There is also a carving of a cat with a grin. 

Lewis Caroll's father was rector here and the young Charles Dodgson may have been influenced by the cat along with the bottomless pits of Hell's Kettles and the legend of the Sockburn Worm, upon which Jaberwocky is supposed to be based. This dragon lived a little downstream but was slain by the gallant knight Sir John Conyers, wielding a great sword known as the Sockburn Falchion. The Sockburn family held the tenure of the manor of Sockburn in return for presenting the falchion to any newly appointed Bishop of Durham, the presentation being made on Croft Bridge with the words,  My Lord, this is the falchion that slew the Worm Dragon, which spared neither man, woman, nor child. The custom ceased in 1826 with the demise of the Conyers family but has recently been revived.  The falchion may be seen at Durham Cathedral.

The Great North Road has not always crossed the Tees at Croft-on-Tees.  The old maps show the road taking a more direct route to the ford at Neasham, a couple of miles to the east. There has never been a bridge here but the two fords, High Ford and Low Ford, can still be used when the water is low, the old ferry plying once between them.

This extract from Ogilby's map of the 'London to Barwick' road of 1675 shows the road crossing the Tees not at Croft but a little downstream at Neasham.  Ogilby marks a ferry.  Warburton's 1720 map of Yorkshire also shows the road crossing the Tees at Neasham.  It is a slightly shorter route to Darlington than via Croft but perhaps a toll on the bridge was the real incentive for getting one's feet wet.  Armstrong's map of 1775 shows the road turning west at Entercommon, a couple of miles south of the river, to make for the Croft Bridge and the Great North Road followed this route thereafter. 

Click to enlarge this extract from Warburton's 1720 map

The old road towards Neasham, known as Eryholme Lane, meant dropping down Breakhorse Bank to the level of the Tees flood plain.  That might not have been to much of problem in packhorse days but as wheeled transport prevailed this obstacle would have been a good reason for diverting through Croft, not only to use the bridge but also to avoid what must have been one of the steepest gradients on the Great North Road.  One can understand the name 'Breakhorse Bank' but the farm at the top is now named 'Break House Farm'.  Well, they wouldn't want to call it Break Tractor Farm!

Still further downstream, Middleton-St-George is taken as the Tees crossing point of the eastern Roman road from Stamford Bridge to Durham.  Curiously, this road is omitted from Warburton's map which features so many Roman roads ruled freely across Yorkshire.


Tithe Farm Bed & Breakfast


©Biff Vernon 2001, 2003, 2004