THE Doe Park Oak is the oldest tree in the district, and over its 800 years, despite its remote location, what amazing stories it must have seen: the slaughter by the Scots, the christening of calves by an ancient stone, and the birth of the headless horseman of Baldersdale.

If only it could talk!

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

It might even be able to tell why the house at Doe Park, on the edge of the caravan park, is such an unusual shape…

Yesterday we told that, with a girth of 800cms, the oak on the banks of the Balder near Cotherstone is probably 800 years old and so the oldest known in our area - it must have sprouted from its acorn around 1200.

It is in the grounds of the Doe Park caravan park, which are steeped in strange history. Doe Park is to the north of Cotherstone, where the Balder joins the Tees. The B6277 runs from Cotherstone past Doe Park 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.

The Northern Echo: The calves' christening stone at Doe Park

It is said than in 1070, when King Malcolm of Scotland invaded Teesdale, local men took a stand against him at Hunderthwaite, a handful of miles west of Doe Park. They were slain in their hundreds – hence, according to this story, the derivation of the name Hunderthwaite.

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.

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.

The Northern Echo:

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 name of the stone lives on. The only possible witness still living, who could give us details about what humans did here in the distant past, is the 800-year-old oak…

ONE final mystery that our oak might be able to shed light on corners the headless horseman that has been seen riding crazily along the road between Cotherstone and Romaldkirk and out past Hunderthwaite into Baldersdale.

The parish registers record that in 1690, the head of James Hutchinson, of Baldersdale, was buried near his pew in Romaldkirk church.

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…

L 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