EIGHTEEN months ago, Ross Serino and his family bought The Three Tuns pub at Sadberge. They did it up, called it The Tuns at Sadberge and began establishing it as a place to eat as well as to drink.

As well as an 18th Century building sitting on top of older cellars, Ross acquired a bafflement of legalistic deeds dating back to the 17th Century, and some old photos going back to the 1940s.

Most interesting, with the documents came a wild array of stories, telling of Romans, wapentakes, secret tunnels, hanging judges and lost power. Nearly all the stories have a grain of truth to them – for nearly 2,000 years, The Tuns has had a roadside seat to history:


Since time began, Sadberge has been on the highest hill for miles around – on a good day you can see the sea 20 miles to the east at Redcar to the walls of Barnard's castle 20 miles to the west at Barnard Castle.

The Romans were the first to take advantage of this strategic position, and marched Rykeneild Street straight through it – straight past The Tuns' front door. Rykeneild was a road of secondary importance which probably connected York with South Shields.

After crossing the River Tees at Middleton One Row, Sadberge was the first stopping point. In the fields behind The Tuns are pronounced undulations, and nearby is the highest point of the village, a manmade mound surrounded by a quadrangle of sunken streets which is today occupied by Sadberge church.

The undulations are believed to be the remains of the Romans' camp while the manmade mound was the Romans' fort surrounded by a defensive moat. Should they spot local tribes advancing up the hill menacingly, the Romans would retreat into their fort and fight off the invaders.


After the Romans' departure in AD420, Sadberge's lofty position enabled it to become the capital of the Tees Valley – from Newbiggin, Langton and Eggleston in upper Teesdale, through Gainford, Coniscliffe, Hurworth and Neasham, to Long Newton, Egglescliffe, Thorpe Thewles and Greatham on the way out towards Teesmouth.

When the Vikings began raiding in the 8th Century, they gave the village its name – Setberg, or "flat-topped hill" – and described it as a "wapentake", or "weapons-touching". In a wapentake, the local leaders would gather at the highest point to clink their weapons together and profess loyalty to one another.

These Saxon and Viking times were Sadberge's heyday. It laid down the law for its own wapentake, a thin corridor of land nearly 50 miles long from coast to Pennines.

In the 9th Century, the kingdom of Bernicia, which claimed all of England north of the Tees, broke into two: Durham and Northumberland. The wapentake of Sadberge, despite being in south Durham, became part of Northumberland, ruled by the Earl of Northumbria. Because it was distant from the rest of the earldom, Sadberge continued to run its own affairs.

But, in 1075, Waltheof, the Earl of Northumbria, joined forces with the Scots against William the Conqueror. Waltheof soon realised the error of his ways, but it was too late. The king of England chopped off Waltheof's head and seized his land, including Sadberge.

After centuries of independence, the old wapentake now came under the command of the king of England, but it was coveted by the bishops who were becoming increasingly powerful in County Durham because it was the largest piece of land between Tees and Tyne that they did not own.

1189-1457: DURHAM DAYS

Crusading to the Holy Land was all the rage in Richard I's day, and the Bishop of Durham, Hugh du Puiset, "at the expense of his greviously taxed people" made "splendid preparations" to join the king. However, having collected a vast amount of money, Bishop Hugh changed his mind and decided to stay at home.

Richard wanted the money to fund his expedition and so sold the wapentake of Sadberge and the title of Earl of Northumberland to the bishop for £11,000 (many millions today) in 1189. Bishop Hugh also became the first Earl of Sadberge.

With the land and the titles came the "sac and soc, toll and theam, and infangnethefe, and all franchises and customs, and with pleas of the Crown".

These weird words indicate the powers of Sadberge. Sac, soc and theam referred to the rights to hold various types of courts. Infangnethefe related to the right to imprison suspected thieves, and toll was the right to collect taxes.

So Sadberge was an important judicial centre. In fact, some sources say the village's name comes from Sac-berg – "the court on the hill", or "the hill of pleas".

In the beginning, the court would probably have met on the Romans' manmade mound, but in the 8th Century, a little Saxon church was built there. This church was replaced by a larger Norman one in 1266, so the judiciary moved into nearby buildings.

The assizes, or court, met in what is now the Tuns. The pub's beer cellar was reputedly the dungeon which was connected to the prison, over the road, by a tunnel. In front of the pub, on an island in the middle of the old Roman road, lived the Sheriff of Sadberge. He, too, is said to have been connected to the courthouse by a tunnel.

The ultimate sanction that the judges of Sadberge could impose on criminals was death. The gibbet where their punishment was carried out was on a hill – now occupied by the Dogs Trust kennels – half-a-mile north.

It is said that another tunnel connected the pub cellar with the scaffold. It must have been an extraordinary construction, dropping 25 metres to the foot of the valley before climbing another 20 metres to where the hangman was waiting.

Memories is generally sceptical of tunnels – if they exist, they usually turn out to be drains – but there is a story of an 11-year-old boy, convicted of stealing a loaf of bread, who was dragged screaming from the Tuns' cellar down the bricklined, torchlit tunnel and up to the gibbet where his miserable life was ended in seconds. This story obviously proves that the tunnel existed.

A more reliable example of the cases heard at Sadberge is dated 1228 when a dispute arose between the Bishop of Durham, Richard Poore, and Peter de Brus, the lord of Skelton in east Cleveland. The bishop believed that all ships wrecked on the beach belonged to him, but the lord's servants seized some valuable plunder. At Sadberge, judges appointed by the bishop found in favour of the bishop, and fined the lord 50 shillings.

A few months later, a second vessel was wrecked on the Cleveland coast and this time the bishop seized it. The Sadberge judges arbitrated, and again found in favour of the bishop. However, they ordered that an enormous wooden cross should be made out of its mast and erected between Sadberge and Hartlepool, and that its main sail should be turned into a candelabrum to catch the wax dripping from candles in Sadberge church.

The last case heard at Sadberge Assizes was in 1457, when the rector of Romaldkirk was hauled before Judge Sir Thomas Fulthorp and accused of stealing land at Stainton, near Barnard Castle, which belonged to Henry Horn of Lartington.

The judge ruled that the rector had "unlawfully taken" the land and gave him "a foule rebuke". The disgraced rector slunk away from Sadberge, his reputation in tatters.

The assizes then transferred to Durham.


Gradually, other roads, like the Great North Road over Croft bridge, rendered Rykeneild Street redundant, and other towns, like Darlington and Durham, established their pre-eminence over the old wapentake.

The village's last vestiges of power remained for a surprisingly long time, though. For centuries after losing the criminal court, the "bishop's jail" continued to be used to lock up miscreants. It was repaired in 1520, and in the second half of the 16th Century, Queen Elizabeth imprisoned local Catholics who were plotting against her in it.

But in the 19th Century it became a butcher's shop and it was demolished in 1926 to widen the Darlington to Stockton road.

A county court, presided over by the Sheriff of Sadberge, continued to be held in the courthouse opposite the jail until the 17th Century when it was converted into a public house, called the Three Tuns. Its dungeons now hold beer rather than people, but make it one of the most historic pubs in the area.

And as for the tunnels...?

The final blow for Sadberge came when the Church Commissioners were established in 1836 to take control of the Church of England's finances away from the bishops. They also took away all the bishops' titles and honours and conferred them upon the Crown.

So Sadberge could no longer claim a special place in the heart of the Bishop of Durham who, since 1189, had also been the Earl of Sadberge.

Someone noticed that this old title was dying. Someone knew that the female equivalent of an earl was a countess. Someone also spotted there was an opportunity when the new monarch was crowned on June 28, 1838.

In pubs across the country, people raised their glasses to Victoria, the new Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland who later became the Empress of India. In the Three Tuns, they also proposed a toast to Her Majesty's new royal title: the Countess of Sadberge.