Old Woodcroft is now a fragmentary ruin, standing at approx 250m OD on the south side of Weardale, equidistant between Stanhope and Frosterley. Its site is an ancient one, seat of the Blackett family in the later medieval period, and the slight remains of the house suggest it was once a substantial building of early date. North of the house are the remains of the heavily butressed barn and the circular gin-gan.
The Blacketts’ association with Woodcroft has its roots at least back into the thirteenth century and it is worth including an extract from, “All Around Stanhope”, by William Morley Egglestone. The book is undated but, on the basis of internal references, it was written between 1880 and 1907.
“Woodcroft stands on an eminence on the south of the Wear a mile and three quarters south east of Stanhope. The little stream of Dryburn runs past on the south of this ancient building, which commands a fine prospect of Rogerley, Frosterley and the valley of Wolsingham. Woodcroft is interesting as being the seat of the ancestors of the great families of Blacketts seated at various places in the North”.
Old Woodcroft stands on the northern slope of one of the undulating hills on the south side of this part of Weardale. The farmhouse formerly looked south into a small valley with a spring, after which the land rose much higher to the south towards the lip of the valley side. This area, once known as the Ridding Hills, was transformed by extensive quarrying, from the late nineteenth century onwards, into a far more dramatic industrial landscape.
The farm is approached from the Stanhope-Frosterley road south of the river Wear, onto a farm track which passes the modern Woodcroft Farm and the small stone Yeka Byre on the west side of the track. [i]
The track enters Old Woodcroft at its north east corner. The remains form three ranges around a courtyard open to the east.
The house stood in south range but only a small two-storey part of its west wall still stands. The west range was the main farm buildings with a gin-gan on its western side. The north range is marked by low mounds of buried stonework. Since the original survey in 1990 the west range has been extensively used as a source of building stone with the loss of most of its western wall and part of the gin-gan. The farmhouse fragment in the south range has lost little or no fabric during that time.
The remains of the house in the south range are the metre thick west wall with a return section of its front south wall. At ground level there is a small fireplace in the west wall with a broad chamfered (100mm) left jam visible above the rubble. This fireplace projects externally, though most of the stonework of its stack has now been robbed. Beside the fireplace is a small low window with a timber lintel. The internal facing of the upper ground floor walls are uneven and poorly faced, and against the south wall there is an indication of a low segmental vaulting line, with the axis of the vault running north-south.
On the first floor, the internal face of the west wall is slight offset from the thicker wall below, and externally it is featureless apart from the flue projection. The south wall at this level retains the west side of an opening with a large single stone jam set upright in the reveal. Beside it is a small square stone-lined alcove set approximately 400 mm deep into the wall.
The west range of farm buildings measures approx 27×7m. It now survives only in its lower courses, but in 1990 parts of its east wall stood almost to full height, supported by three huge dressed stone buttresses. The southernmost buttress had four trenches in its battered face suggesting that timber ties, now decayed, once sat there. This range accommodated the barn and threshing machine, as a circular gin-gan was built against its west side. The gin-gan is of two phases. First, the two free standing piers to support the horse gin, later an infilling of the walls around the gin and the addition of a roof, of which only the south western portion still stand, incorporating a dovecot in the upper gable.
The north range is completely demolished and is only identified by large mounds of buried stonework, but its eastern gable is conveniently exposed in its lower coursing.
The remains of the house though slight are of particular interest. Their thick walls, vaulted ground floor (a basement) and broad chamfered fireplace surround suggest a sixteenth century date at least, if not earlier.
Comment on the farm buildings is only necessary on the west range, where the survival of the fabric enables some interpretation. This was clearly the main farm range, as the north range is relatively narrow in plan. In addition to the barn, it may well have contained a byre and hayloft. What were most striking in 1990 were the powerful raking buttresses erected later in the nineteenth century to resist the outward movement of the east wall of the range. These buttresses, added to a traditional farm building, recall the industrial scale of construction visible in the lead mining sites in Weardale and suggest they were built by a local stonemason familiar with both.
Any gin-gan would command interest because it is a regionally distinctive building type, but at Old Woodcroft it is unusual in being both phased and dual purpose. The first edition Ordnance Survey map of 1857 shows the circular gin-gan unshaded, that is roofless and an open structure. This is an uncommon feature. The documentary evidence is confirmed by the two stone piers clearly predating the enclosing walls, which must have been added before the end of the century. Most gin-gans with circular plans were covered in a low conical roof of Welsh slate, the only material that can be easily laid in that form. At Old Woodcroft this form was not used as the gin-gan was also intended to serve as a dovecot. This was provided over the horse gin, under a conventional pitched roof, constructed and slated with some skill over the circular building below.
[i] Yeka Byre is shown in the 1st edition OS map, 1857.