TO celebrate the 130th anniversary of their club, naturalists have recreated an expedition that their founders once undertook into deepest Teesdale in search of pencils.

At 7.30am on New Year’s Day 1897, a hardy handful of unhungover members of the Darlington and Teesdale Naturalists’ Field Club caught a train from North Road station out to Middleton-in-Teesdale. Then they crammed themselves into a “covered trap” so that a horse could pull them the five miles to the High Force Hotel where the landlady, Mrs Coltman, had a roaring fire and a sizzling breakfast waiting for them.

The Northern Echo: High Force Hotel on a 120-year-old postcard, as it would have looked when Dr Manson and the field club visited

High Force Hotel on a 120-year-old postcard

“We could not travel by train to Middleton-in-Teesdale anymore and the only pony and trap we could find was booked for a wedding,” says member David Selby. “Therefore, on Saturday, May 7, 21 members arrived by road at the hotel for a celebratory breakfast.”

The Northern Echo: Members of the Darlington and Teesdale Naturalists' Field Club enjoy a hearty breakfast at the High Force Hotel, just as their predecessors had 125 years earlier

The field club members enjoy their hearty breakfast at the High Force

Before anyone criticises the 2022 membership for choosing a balmy May date to recreate an expedition their founders bravely undertook on a freezing January 1, it should be remembered that the outing was to celebrate the anniversary of the club which held its first meeting on April 29, 1891, in the Mechanics Institute in Darlington.

Among the founding members was vice-president Dr Richard Taylor Manson who led the New Year’s Day expedition.

The Northern Echo:

Dr Richard Taylor Manson with Bulmer's Stone in Northgate, Darlington. It is an erratic porphyry which is now behind the Technical College railings

Dr Manson was a keen vaccinationist, a convinced cremationist, a great geologist and a fabulous journalist.

As a vaccinationist, he unapologetically vaccinated all babies he came across against smallpox even though there was a virulent anti-vaxx movement 150 years ago. As a cremationist, he founded the Darlington Cremation Society which led to the town having its first crematorium a couple of years before cremation became legal. As a geologist, he was fascinated by “erratic porphyrys” – rocks which glaciers picked up from Shap Fell in the last Ice Age 22,000 years ago and rolled down the Tees Valley, knocking off their edges. When the ice melted, these strange smooth stones fell to ground, and Dr Manson mapped where they landed.

After his death in 1900, the Field Club fished a 12-ton porphyry rock out of the Tees at Winston and hauled it ten miles into Darlington, where it acts as a memorial to him at the Victoria Embankment entrance to South Park.

The Northern Echo:

The mayor of Darlington, Cllr Rita Fishwick, in 1990 led a clean-up operation of the Manson monument in South Park

And as a journalist, for decades he wrote a column, The Zig Zag Ramblings of a Naturalist, in the Echo’s sister paper, the Darlington & Stockton Times, about his wanderings in search of rocks, plants and birds. Indeed, in 1897, he arranged the New Year’s Day outing into Teesdale, and he wrote a voluminous account of it in the Teesdale Mercury.

The Northern Echo: The headline above Dr Manson's length article in the Teesdale Mercury 125 years ago - he called it "chippings" because the geologists had hammered off little pieces of rock to take home and study

The headline on Dr Manson's account of the outing in the Teesdale Mercury - "chippings" because the geologists carried hammers to break off samples of rocks to take home

Arriving by trap at the hotel, he wrote: “We soon disposed of a very substantial breakfast and then (went) off out into the glorious free keen air, under a bright clear sky, with the hills and moorland horizons in sharp defined outline, and every tree and house for miles away almost unnaturally visible, and with the thundering roar of the great waterfall unceasingly calling to us that, scientists though we might think ourselves, deep mysteries of nature never yet solved were around us, above us, beneath us – had been there ages before we came into existence, and would be there ages after we were gone and forgotten.”

The Northern Echo: The majesty of High Force, as seen on an Edwardian postcard

High Force in all its majesty on an Edwardian postcard

Awakening from their reveries, they set off in search of interesting rocks. “We passed nobody except an old man with a wooden leg who cheerily wished us a happy new year,” he wrote.

But one of the field club party recognised the shoe the one-legged man was wearing – it was an item of footwear he had lost while exploring a nearby cave some months earlier. The one-legged man said that when was alerted that a party of geologists was coming to visit the cave, he would “upset a few buckets of water judiciously on the floor of the place” to create an enormous quagmire that sucked off the visitors’ apparel.

“He digs them out of the clay and sells what he doesn’t want,” wrote Dr Manson with a degree of amazed admiration. “He hasn’t bought a shoe or boot at a shop for years.”

The purpose of the 1897 was to visit the abandoned Cronkley Pencil Mill, which was a couple of miles upstream of High Force.

“We found dilapidated machinery, broken flooring, fragmentary iron instruments and a white dust overlaying everything,” wrote Dr Manson, of the remote cottage whose foundations we believe can still be seen in this remotest of locations.

The pencil mill worked from about 1847 until 1889, and it created pencils out of unusual soft shale rocks that were quarried on the fell. The pencils were used by schoolchildren to write on slateboards.

In some places, sheets of rock were cut into slim lengths by a waterpowered saw and then the lengths were punched into a round iron mould to create the pencil. At High Force, it looks as if the rock was ground into a powder by the waterpowered mill and then, with a little water a bit of fat, it was compressed to make a pencil.

The Northern Echo:

A schoolgirl using a slate pencil on a slateboard

In County Durham schools, a pencil that wrote on a slateboard was known as a “widdy” because the stone came from near Widdybank Fell in upper Teesdale.

Dr Manson noticed that the pencil shale had veins of mica schist and quartz running through it, and the members chipped off samples with their geological hammers to take home for further study.

“The president said we could talk the matter over at the club – he was sure we might have a much warmer discussion there than where we now were,” wrote Dr Manson. “We took the hint, packed up our bags and hammers, and marched off for the High Force Inn.”

Members of the 2022 expedition, after their breakfast, headed for Cow Green reservoir.

The Northern Echo: Spring Gentians

“As we set out a skylark appeared overhead and showered us with its spring song,” writes David Selby, the club’s modern equivalent of Dr Manson. “The wildlife put on a really good show for us. The little beauties, the very rare Teesdale Spring Gentians (above) were everywhere - they are found almost nowhere else in the UK, and were mostly in full flower.

The Northern Echo: Moonwort, discovered by the field club. Picture: Derek Risbey

“Other ‘stars’ that we found were Birdseye Primrose, Spring Sandwort, Teesdale Violet, and Moonwort, a fern (above). This really excited the botanists amongst us as there were about nine plants where previously there had only been one.

“There were some birds as well, mostly curlew and lapwing, a golden plover and also a ringed plover, showing off by strutting around on a little ridge.

“For geologists there was the rare sugar limestone, fossilised corals and the remains of an old barytes mine.

“We had a really good day. Nature pulled out all the stops and showed us what it could do in spring in this remote and wild environment.”

Most of the chatter was about the moonwort, which has leaves that look like the half moon. It was once common but, as land usage has changed, it has retreated to the wild margins of the country, although it must be making a comeback in Teesdale.

Moonwort has magical properties. It was well known by ancient alchemists for turning lead into gold.

The renowned 17th Century botanist Nicholas Culpeper wrote: “Moonwort will open locks, and unshoe such horses as tread upon it. I have heard commanders say that on White Down in Devonshire, near Tiverton, there were found thirty horse shoes, pulled off from the feet of the Earl of Essex's horses.”

It could have been moonwort that mysteriously removed the shoes from the earl’s horses, or it could have been that Teesdale fellow with the wooden leg, dispossessing them of their footwear by laying a muddy trap for them…

To find out more about the Darlington and Teesdale Naturalists’ Field Club, and the summer programme of outings, visit

The Northern Echo: Members of the Darlington and Teesdale Naturalists' Field Club enjoy a hearty breakfast at the High Force Hotel, just as their predecessors had 125 years earlier

  • With thanks to Sue Campbell, Derek Risbey and David Selby