This week, Echo Memories revisits the battle of the blocked-up ford, and reveals how poor old Richard Ranson died in 1710 and 1711.

THE battle of the blocked-up ford was fought between the lawyers of the wealthy landowners and the foot soldiers of the ordinary people about 150 years ago.

The battlefield was at the end of the finger-thin Sockburn peninsula, which, to the south of Darlington, pushes Durham deep into Yorkshire.

For a millennia or more, the ordinary people of the parish had been able to wade across the River Tees to worship at All Saints Church. This church, back in Saxon times, had been one of the most important in all Northumbria.

But when Henry and Theophania Blackett, of Newcastle, bought the Sockburn estate in the 1830s, they had other ideas. They tore down the 1,000-year-old church and turned it into a romantic ruin – the centrepiece of their parkland surrounding their new luxurious hall.

As compensation, they built another All Saints church at Girsby, a mile or so from their hall and out of their sight.

Still, though, the local people traipsed past the Blacketts’ new hall to visit the church. In the 1850s, the wonderfully-named Theophania – by now a widow – grew so tired of unwelcome guests that she started charging them to use the centuries-old ford.

When they kept on coming, she blocked the footpaths – even planting trees across them.

Resentment simmered until the Darlington Highway Board picked up the case.

It took Theophania to the Durham Summer Assizes in 1867. No resolution. It took her to the Spring Assizes of 1868. No resolution. It took her to the 1868 Summer Assizes, where Theophania was ordered to reopen the ford and the paths.

She refused. She appealed twice, and lost. The board took her before local magistrates, but still she refused. Finally, she was ordered to appear before the Court of Queen’s Bench in London on January 21, 1869.

Legal costs were mounting, but Theophania could easily afford them from her family’s huge fortune. Then the Board hit upon a masterplan: it started levying rates on the people of the Township of Sockburn to pay its solicitors’ bills.

Theophania discovered that she, as the biggest landowner in the township, was paying most of the board’s legal costs – to fight herself.

It brought her to her senses. Days before the hearing, she approached the board with a conciliatory offer.

Still Regina versus Blackett went ahead in London. Theophania’s guilt was not doubted, and the Queen’s Bench decided she should be fined £400 unless she built at her own expense a bridge “dedicated to the public” over Girsby ford. She was ordered to pay all legal costs, and until she had complied, the paths around Sockburn were to be reopened.

She complied and paid the sizeable costs in September 1869. In 1870, at her full expense, Girsby bridge was opened to the public.

Having fulfilled her side of the bargain, the court then sealed the ford and the footpaths running into the fingertip of the Sockburn peninsula.

“But who had won?” asked CP Nicholson, of the Darlington and Teesdale Naturalists’ Field Club, in his 1949 book, Those Boys O’Bondgate. “Mrs Blackett had got all she wanted – by paying for it. The Board had a fine new bridge where there was none before – a bridge dedicated to the public.

“But gone for ever were the public rights through a district of great natural beauty and unique historical interest.

“Therefore, once again, who had won?”

Today Sockburn is still a very private place.

But at least the public can use Girsby’s metal bridge.

The hamlet’s isolated church stands splendidly on a high escarpment with a panoramic view over the valley of the Tees. A steep descent on the footpath brings you to the bridge in the middle of nowhere which is a magnificent relic of a long-forgotten battle.

MANY thanks to everyone who has been in touch since the article on Sockburn a fortnight ago. Much information has come from a pamphlet written in 1910 by Bertha Clegg and owned by Colin Wilkinson in Tow Law.

He has fished the waters around Sockburn for 40 years, catching three salmon in the Tees last year.

“It used to be a fine river for salmon, but they don’t come up so much now since they’ve been buggering about with barrages at the mouth of the river,” he says.

DON WHITFIELD, from Darlington, was reading a 1914 history of the North-Eastern Railway and noticed that in 1826, John Pemberton, a barrister-at-law in Bootham, devised a cunning scheme to link York to the newlyopened Stockton and Darlington Railway.

He planned a line through Easingwold, Thirsk and Northallerton, crossing the Tees at Sockburn to join the S&DR at Middleton St George. If he had got his way, Sockburn today wouldn’t be a splendidly isolated place – it would have the East Coast Main Line pummelling through its silence.

CLIFF HOWE, in Billingham, was puzzled by the Sockburn headstone. It records that Richard Ranson died on January 6, 1710/11.

“Surely people in January 1710 were unaware that in some 40 years time, the calendar would be adjusted to make January 1 the start of a new year,” says Cliff.

In the beginning of time, months and years were all over the place and completely out of sync with the seasons.

To bring time back into line, Julius Caesar introduced the Julian calendar in 46BC. It had 365 days divided into 12 months, with an extra day thrown into February every four years, just to keep everything in step.

Caesar decreed that the new year started on January 1.

Over time, the Roman influence faded. Christianity caught on. During the Middle Ages, countries started their new years on dates with religious significance. December 25, the birthday of Christ, and March 25, the day on which Gabriel told Mary she was about to conceive the son of God, fitted the bill and chimed with either the middle of winter or the start of spring.

The French went their own way for a while, starting their new year on Easter Day.

The British plumped for March 25, although when you weren’t really counting the years, the start of a new year was meaningful only as an excuse to party.

Unfortunately, the Julian calendar was too liberal with its leap days. By the 16th Century, the world was about ten days in front of itself. This particularly worried the Pope as Easter was no longer within touching distance of the March equinox.

In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII created the Gregorian calendar, which reduced the number of leap years. He worked from the formula: “Every year that is exactly divisible by four is a leap year, except for years that are exactly divisible by 100.

“Years ending in 00 that are exactly divisible by 400 are still leap years.”

So 1900 was not a leap year, whereas 2000 was.

Roman Catholic countries immediately accepted the Pope’s rules. These countries also accepted January 1 as the logical start of the year.

The British Empire thought it was all a Papist plot and stuck to the Julian calendar. They continued to think of March 25 as New Year’s Day.

In 1600, the contrary Scots adopted January 1 as the start of the year and the start of a mammoth drinking session. Because of the logic of it, the English started thinking in this way too.

So a grey area developed as to which year the days between January 1 and March 25 fell in. For example, Richard Ranson’s death on January 6 would have fallen in the new year of 1711 if you celebrated January 1, and in the old year of 1710 if you waited until March 25. So it was carved like a fraction as 1711/10 on his headstone.

In 1752, the British realised that their Julian calendar was now 11 days out of sync with the seasons and that March 25 was a silly New Year’s Day. So, by Act of Parliament, they brought time back into line.

Wednesday, September 2, 1752, was followed by Thursday, September 14, 1752, and for the first time the country was given an official New Year’s Day: January 1.

There was great confusion, most notably among the tax authorities.

They continued to hold March 25 as the start of their new year – but as the Julian calendar had thrown in 11 too many leap days since its start in 46BC, March 25 had slipped back to April 6, which is still the first day of the financial year.

Or so the story goes.

If your local churchyard has a similarly inscribed gravestone, we’d love to hear about it.