A brief History of Romaldkirk
Hector C. Parr
St. ROMALD'S CHURCH
Historians must regret that the lives of rural communities such as Romaldkirk in past centuries were so poorly documented, but old buildings themselves often reveal much about the life and culture of the times in which they were built, even if no written records survive. St. Romald's Church presents clear evidence of its history to those who can read it. Some of the stonework shows the existence of a settlement and a church before the Norman conquest, and several centuries of building and rebuilding. It is believed that the nave and the North aisle were completed in about 1155, with the South aisle being added in the thirteenth century, the original chancel and the priest's vestry in the fourteenth, and the tower in the fifteenth.
Such an ancient and imposing structure as this, the "Cathedral of the Dales" as it has been known for centuries, deserves a more detailed description than can be given here. But the need is filled admirably in a booklet written by the late Canon John E. Lee, who was Rector from 1953 to 1977. Copies of this are available in the church.
Most of the existing houses were built during the 1700's, reflecting the prosperity of the times. Many probably replaced medieval or Tudor buildings, and their continued survival after more than two centuries is a tribute to their superior construction.
The few buildings from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries blend into the picture quite happily, and the row of council houses is far enough from the centre of the village not to intrude.
Just a few years after the Norman invasion the North of England was overrun by the Scots under their king Malcolm Canmore. Many villages were destroyed, and it seems likely that Romaldkirk and much of the existing Saxon church were pulled down at that time. This explains why in 1086 the Domesday Book Commissioners had to report, "There is in Romoldscherce one carucate of land of the geld and there may have been two ploughs. Torfin held it, now Bodin holds it and it is waste...".
Rebuilding of the church was begun in the twelfth century, and one may assume that the inhabitants were rebuilding their homes at the same time. A survey made in 1306 suggests that by then the region was again prosperous, but in 1340 or thereabouts it was apparently laid waste once more by the Scots. The church appears to have been spared on this occasion, and a valuation of church property carried out in 1535 by Henry VIII indicates that the village was again flourishing in the sixteenth century.
Another disaster befell Romaldkirk in 1644, when one-third of the population died in the Great Plague. But one inhabitant who survived was Grace Scott; she built herself a mud hut on the fell-side a mile from the village, and lived there away from the risk of infection until it was safe to return. The farm which was later built on the same site is still called "Gracie's Cottage".
In Saxon times the local capital was West Gilling, a small village some twenty miles away, but it was transferred to Richmond soon after the conquest, when Richmond Castle was built. Sometime in the next two centuries Romaldkirk gained a degree of independence, and the Rector acquired the title "Lord of the Manor". He was head of the Manor Court, which made its own bye-laws and sat in judgement over offenders, and he was served by a steward, a constable, a bailiff and a pinder. The duty of the pinder was to round up stray animals, keep them in the "pound", and exact fines from their owners, a halfpenny for a beast or sheep, and a penny for a horse. The "pound" was a walled enclosure which may still be seen as you leave the village on the road towards Mickleton. The Rector is still Lord of the Manor today, and nominally he is responsible for the preservation of the three village greens, but he has lost most of his other Manorial responsibilities and powers.
The earliest bye-laws and rulings of the Manor Court of which records still exist date from 1630. These records show that if you allowed your children to throw stones you could be fined 6d., breaking into the pound could cost you 2/6d., while "slandering the jury" merited a fine of 6/8d.
In more recent times Romaldkirk came under the jurisdiction of Startforth Rural District Council and the North Riding County Council. But all this changed with the ill-advised Local Government Act of 1974, which brought into being the Teesdale District Council, and brought upon Romaldkirk the great indignity of being moved from the North Riding of Yorkshire into the County of Durham. Now, in 2009, the District Council has been abolished, and Romaldkirk has become a small part of the unitary Durham County Council.
Another building with roots in the past is Hutchinson Terrace. William Hutchinson's will of 1693 made provision for building the Almshouses, which were to house six poor people from the parish, with strict conditions on their age, religion and morals. They were to be in their houses by 7 p.m. in the winter and 9 p.m. in summer, and were not to be drunkards, brawlers, blasphemers or adulterers ... The premises were rebuilt in 1829, and today the accommodation is a little more generous as it houses only three residents, and the conditions are less strict.
SHOPS AND HOSTELRIES
Baine's 1823 Directory of Professions and Trades provides a fascinating picture of life in Romaldkirk at the time. With a doctor, five farmers, three masons, two shoemakers, three shopkeepers and one butcher, two weavers, a blacksmith and three wheelwrights, the village would be almost self supporting. If you ever did need anything from a distance you could always enlist the services of William Lind, who described himself as a "common carrier".
It is even more revealing to compare Bulmer's Directory for 1890. The most significant additions to the list of occupations are provided by William Sewell, "Station Master", and Anthony Thompson, "Postmaster". There is also a "Tax Collector", but it is unlikely he worked in Romaldkirk; he was probably an early example of a commuter, using the new railway to travel to and from his office. With the coming of the railway, the importance of horse-drawn transport began its slow decline, and the 1890 list suggests that Romaldkirk had neither a carrier nor a wheelwright at that date.
The names of no fewer then five inns are recorded in Romaldkirk during the nineteenth century, although it is not certain that these were all in operation at any one time. In addition to the Rose and Crown and the Kirk Inn, which still flourish today, we find the Blue Bell, the Mason's Arms and the King's Arms.
There is mention of a Grammar School in the village as early as 1555. Michael Horner, the Master, earned £3 6s. 8d. per annum. The teaching profession has always been undervalued.
Then in 1654 a bequest in the will of John Parkin of Lartington provided for the establishment of a Free School in Romalkirk. The school hours were from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m., and from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., but the lucky pupils were allowed three short holidays a year. Free education for all became compulsory in 1880, and it was about this time that a new school building was erected, along with two cottages for the teachers. In the early years of the twentieth century this school prospered, and must have played an important part in the life of the village, until it was closed in the pursuit of efficiency and economy after the second world war.
A number of small independent schools flourished in the district during the nineteenth century. Mr. Simpson's establishment at Wodencroft, about a mile from the village, must have been better than many; of the three Helmer brothers who attended in the early 1800's, two became doctors and one became a solicitor. The school fees at that time were about twenty guineas per annum for boarders and eight guineas for day-pupils, with an additional two pounds for books, quills and ink.
Most villages have their Village Hall, and so has Romaldkirk, although ours is called The Reading Room, recalling its original purpose of enabling inhabitants to read the daily newspapers in the days before radio. It was built in 1910, in memory of King Edward VII, and improved in 1927. It features a well-used snooker room, while the main hall hosts many functions including coffee mornings, parish council meetings, village sing-songs, and craft fairs.
TRANSPORT AND SERVICES
The development of the railway system affected dramatically the lives of small villages, as hinted above. The single-track line between Barnard Castle and Middleton-in-Teesdale, opened in 1868, would allow many inhabitants of Romaldkirk to lead fuller and more varied lives than in former times. It also provided a magnificently picturesque way of travelling through this part of Teesdale, with its scenery of fells and forests, and its spectacular viaducts. But it had to go in 1964, along with most other rural lines throughout the country, because it did not earn enough money.
Romaldkirk had to wait many years before being granted the amenities that most other places regard as essentials in a populated area that calls itself civilised. Neither electricity nor mains water arrived until about 1936; before then the village had survived on paraffin, candles, and the two pumps on the village greens. Mains gas has yet to come. But Romaldkirk is now splendidly illuminated at night by efficient sodium vapour street lamps, mounted on tall metal poles. These hideous structures also serve to jerk you back to reality if, admiring the old houses of Romaldkirk, you momentarily imagine yourself transported back to the eighteenth century.
From 1807 until 1930 Romaldkirk held its Fair twice each year. Horse-drawn caravans arrived from afar, cattle, sheep and horses were brought for trading, and stallholders sold all manner of goods. One old lady brought her home-made toffee for many years, and called it "cure-all". But by 1930 these occasions had become too rowdy for comfort, and Romaldkirk withdrew its hospitality from these travelling traders.
Now once again we have an annual fair, but it is rather different. The aim is to give visitors a good time, and to raise money for the church, but horses and caravans are not welcomed, and the villagers themselves now tend the stalls and provide the goods for sale. There are games for the young and the young-at-heart, fell races for all ages, and in the big marquee you can buy almost anything under the sun. Tea is provided, with cakes baked by all the ladies of the village. They would not dare claim that these can "cure all" their customers' ailments, for fear of the Trades Description Act, but the happiness of the occasion should at least help visitors to forget their troubles for a while.
Romaldkirk no longer needs to be self supporting. There is a supermarket four miles away, and we can all shop in the world-wide market place; even our fresh fruit may have come from any one of five continents. And if we need the services of a doctor, a builder or a shoemaker, one of the two parties can travel to meet the other. So there is little work for people to do in villages such as ours, and today most residents of Romaldkirk are retired, enjoying the fruits of their life's work in a quiet and pleasing environment, while almost all the others work elsewhere, often commuting long distances to do so.
The last shop closed a few years ago. We still have a post office for a few hours each week, and those families without their own transport enjoy a subsidised bus service. Although Romaldkirk has seen fewer changes during the twentieth century than many other places, these changes have nevertheless been more extensive than in any previous century. Perhaps one may hope that the present orgy of destruction is coming to an end, and that respect for the past is becoming once again a factor to be considered before change is engineered for its own sake. Romaldkirk has recently become a Conservation Area, making more difficult the tasteless modernisation of old buildings, or the creation of incongruous new ones. Dare we hope that a time traveller, returning to Romaldkirk at the end of the twenty first century, will still recognise some of its old familiar landmarks?