Assignation with Greta
by Bill Hartley
Some rivers are well known with their name denoting a whole region. Others can be quite obscure and it doesn’t help when more than one river carries the same name. There are two called Greta, the best known being in the Lake District. The other rises close to the northern boundary of the Yorkshire Dales National Park and runs for only about 20 miles until it joins the Tees. Here the country rock is soft limestone and during its short journey the river has created a narrow valley and at intervals deep wooded gorges, meaning it can be a risky business to stray off the footpath. Packed into this short and little visited river is some wonderful scenery. The surrounding country was once well fortified, physical symbols of the area’s turbulent past. Castles are to be found in unlikely locations. In a nearby farmyard is Scargill (no relation), one of the smallest. However it’s not just the scenery which makes the river Greta worth a visit. The final three miles of this river has a significant artistic and literary heritage.
The easiest approach is via the hamlet of Greta Bridge, just off the A66. A mile or so upstream is the ruins of St Mary’s church and the site of a deserted medieval village. This was once a thriving settlement and no-one is sure why the inhabitants left. A better question would be why people settled there in the first place. Egglestone Abbey lies nearby and perhaps the monks saw it as a good location for lime or charcoal burning, since there is ample timber here. The dissolution of the Abbey and sale of its lands may have led to less centralised rural activities.
The church itself lingered on in use long after the villagers left, until the locals removed some of the stone to help in the construction of a new church in nearby Brignall. It would still have been in use, though, when Turner arrived here in 1816 and saw the possibilities. He sought the most elevated position looking westwards when painting his watercolour Brignall Church on the Banks of the Greta. The picture captures all the romantic wildness of the scene with the church as keynote, providing the only man made feature. Unfortunately the painting was destroyed in a house fire in 1877 but an engraving survives in the Tate Gallery. This is enough to show that the location remains exactly as Turner painted it, except there is less of the church left.
Back downstream, Greta Bridge itself has both artistic and literary connections. The Morritt Arms, then a coaching inn, is where Dickens stayed in 1832 and is mentioned in Nicholas Nickleby. The infamous Dotheboys Hall was based on a local school and the building which housed the ‘academy’ is just up the road at Bowes. The Morritt is now a hotel and also has associations with two quite different artists. John Cotman (1782-1842), an acquaintance of Turner’s, visited in 1805 originally as a guest at nearby Rokeby Hall but subsequently stayed on at the Morritt to continue painting. Downstream in Rokeby Park is the location for Greta Woods Cotman’s Bridge which forms part of the Cotman Collection in Leeds City Art Gallery. His better known watercolour is of Greta Bridge itself with the Morritt Arms in the background. In each case the scenes are virtually unchanged since the time they were painted.
In the bar of the Morritt is artwork of a different kind. John Gilroy (1898-1985) was the creator of the famous Guinness advertisements which appeared between 1938 and 1960. Gilroy was also a society portrait painter and considered something of an artistic polymath. In 1946 whilst staying at the Morritt he set to work on a mural. Influenced by the inn’s connection with the famous writer, Gilroy adorned he walls of the bar with Dickensian characters. The mural can still be seen there.
A little further downstream art becomes mixed with architecture. Rokeby Hall, built between 1725 and 1734, is a neoclassical country house which never needed formal gardens, since it was felt that with the Greta running past, nature could hardly be improved upon. The original of Rokeby’s most famous artwork no longer hangs in the house. The Toilet of Venus by Velasquez, more commonly known as the ‘Rokeby Venus’, is in the National Gallery, with a 1906 copy taking its place. When he acquired the painting the then owner of Rokeby, JBS Morritt, wrote a letter to his friend Sir Walter Scott which illustrates his artistic sensibilities:
‘…my fine painting of Venus’s backside which I have at length exalted over my chimneypiece whilst raising the said backside to a considerable height the ladies may avert their downcast eyes’.
Another building lies hidden behind the trees in the park. Mortham Tower is considered one of the finest fortified manor houses in Northern England. The core of the building is its peel tower, the most southerly of these border fortifications. The building dates back to the reign of Henry VII and is best viewed by following the footpath for about a mile from Greta Bridge. This was the original home of the Rokeby family before they decided to upscale and build the hall. Close by is an unexcavated site of a villa, believed to have been the home of the garrison commander at Vecus, the Roman fort at Greta Bridge.
Sir Walter Scott was a frequent visitor to Rokeby and knew Mortham Tower well. It was here that he set his epic poem Rokeby. Just below the house an artificial cave near the Greta was created by Morritt as a place where Scott could sit and find inspiration. The cave still exists at the Meeting of the Waters, where the Greta drains into the Tees. Scott’s publisher predicted that sales of the poem would be increased by some Turner illustrations. The artist made a final visit to the district in 1831. The Junction of the Greta and the Tees, now in the Ashmolean Museum, comes from this period. Again the scene has scarcely altered. All told, not bad for a three mile stretch of an obscure river.
William Hartley is a former Deputy Governor in HM Prison Service