Gelt, The Mad River

Walk in any direction from the centre of Brampton and it doesn’t take long to come across a Gelt. Especially heading south where the ground rises towards Capon Tree. It’s then that the view opens out towards the Pennines, Eden Valley and Gelt Woods.

Even on a short evening stroll after a day of heavy rain when the birds are going daft from being cooped up from the deluge, I counted five separate references to Gelt in just twenty misty minutes: Gelt Woods, Gelt View, Gelt Raise, Gelt Road and a footpath signpost to Gelt River.

Gelt the Mad RiverThe source of The River Gelt and the source of all these Gelt signs rises close to the border of Cumbria and Northumbria on the slopes of the northern Pennines. Here it’s called New Water and it’s not until the ‘New’ meets Old Water snugly inside the hanging valley of Kings Forest of Geltsdale that it becomes the Gelt and takes a direct cut through the sandstone of Gelt Woods to join the River Irthing and ultimately the Irish Sea.

Locals call it ‘The Mad River’ but why and where does Gelt come from? The dictionary states Gelt is derived from the Dutch and Germanic ‘geld‘ or Yiddish ‘gelt‘, all akin to the Old English ‘geld‘ or ‘gold‘,’payment‘ or ‘money‘, but also the Irish ‘geilt‘ meaning ‘lunatic‘ which is where the mad river may come from. Or maybe the madness is derived from the way the river writhes through the fissures of sandstone that make the Gelt in spate an inspiring spectacle.

Roman Quarrying

The travel writer William Camden first mentioned Gelt in his 1586 ‘Britannia’ or ‘A Chronographical Description of the Flourishing Kingdoms of England, Scotland, and Ireland’:

Near Brampton runs the little river Gelt, on whose bank on a rock called Helbeck is this imperfect inscription, cut by the Vexillato of the Legio II. Augusta probably an Optio placed under the Propraetor Agricola.

This inscription, difficult to see, even more difficult to read and quite dangerous to attempt closer inspection is the ‘Written Rock of Gelt’. This Roman ‘grafitti’ dates back to 207 AD, and records in three inscriptions the quarry workings of Roman soldiers belonging to the Second Legion and the 20th Legion Valerian and Victrix. Equally impressive are the individual chisel marks scoured across the remaining quarry walls as the Legionaries hewed away at the sandstone for this western section of the wall, most of which has been robbed out and re-built into Lanercost Priory.

The Battle of Hellbeck

In 1569 there was a Northern rebellion in support of Mary, Queen of Scots against Elizabeth I. One of the conspirators was Leonard Dacre of Naworth who had gathered 3000 troops to stake his claim to the Naworth estates after the untimely death of his nephew and natural heir, George Dacre. The queen sent an armed force to deal with Leonard’s treason and the battle took place near Hellbeck Bridge in Gelt Woods. So many men were killed that the River Gelt turned red for several days. Some years later, a skeleton in full battle dress was found in a tree near the Gelt – presumably a rebel soldier fleeing from the battle!

The Gelt, woods and river, are now an idyllic place to visit in all seasons. With free car parking, an RSPB nature reserve and a diversity or flora and fauna to be seen, you will soon understand why Brampton pays homage to this special place of history, warfare, beauty and madness, all rolled into one unique place.

You can explore Gelt Woods further on Walk Six in the new guided walks booklet “Cobbles to Countryside”, available to buy in the Tourist Information Centre, Moot Hall, Brampton.