The Tees Valley is brimming with wildlife, culture, and heritage, from the dunes of South Gare to the Roman remains at Piercebridge. The river corridor has been, and will continue to be, a vital component of the development of the area. What I will do is bring you the lesser-known heritage sites that are full of interesting facts, charms and in many cases, played a vital role in our history.

The Church of St Peter is located on the southern bank in the quaint former spa town of Croft-on-Tees, North Yorkshire. To access the church, you can obtain the key from the reception desk of The Croft Hotel, handily located over the road. Originally built in the 12th Century AD, the church has been developed over time as the parish increased in size and the status of its congregation improved. This status can be seen by the two magnificent marble tombs contained within the church. One belongs to Richard Clervaux, once lord of Croft. On this tomb you can see the family crest, along with the ‘S’ emblem of the House of Lancaster, the latter being a royal line. The ancient Clervaux family were related to the Plantagenet house and the French monarch Louis VIII (known as the Lion King of France!), albeit all quite indirectly! However, the claim of royal kinship must have foundation, as on his tomb is a Latin inscription which details that Richard was ‘of the blood of Edward IV and Richard III’. Richard Clervaux was also a ‘squire of the body’ to King Henry VI. A John Clervaux is also mentioned in the Ballad of Flodden, which commemorates and celebrates the Battle of Flodden of 1513 between the English and the Scots.

The other tomb belongs to the Milbanke family of Halnaby Hall. Here is another family rich in history. Annabella Milbanke married the famous, or as some would say, infamous, Lord Byron. She would give birth to his daughter, Augusta, more commonly known as Ada, before becoming estranged to Byron. It was at this point that he began his travels, ending up in Switzerland with Percy Bysshe Shelley. During this time, in the view of many of his peers and critics, his best work was undertaken, some of which is said to have inspired The Vampyre by John William Polidori. Sir Ralph Milbanke, MP for County Durham in 1791, was a vocal and active campaigner of the anti-slave trade movement, led by William Wilberforce. He is credited by many as the man who seconded the bill proposed by Wilberforce. The 10th Baronet, Sir John Peniston Milbanke, a close friend of Sir Winston Churchill, was awarded the Victoria Cross after his heroic actions saved many of his men during the Boer War on 5th January 1900.

 A two-storey pew built for the Milbanke family

The church has many other interesting items contained within it. You can see a wonderful two-storey pew, built for the Milbanke family in the 18th Century. There is also part of a 9th Century cross shaft, a wonderful sculpture commemorating Cornelia Milbanke who died giving birth to twins, some fine brasses near the altar and an ornate recess and piscina. On the outside of the tower, you can see two coats of arms, one of the Clervaux family, one of the Place family of Halnaby. These signify the settlement of a quarrel between the two families, possibly regarding hunting rights.

On the ornate recess, a seat for priests, is a carved face. This face is said to have been the inspiration for the Cheshire Cat character in Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland. If you sit on the nearest pew, you can see the grin that seems to appear, although you may have to squint a little! Carroll’s father was a Reverend, and the Rector of Croft, so it is likely that this legend is true!

 If you look from a certain angle, you can see where Carroll got his inspiration!

As part of our Guided Walks project, we have planned a walk involving the church. You can walk the local paths, see the wonderful medieval bridge, visit the church and enjoy tea and cake as part of the Cats and Coffins Heritage Trail on Wednesday 26th April. The start times and other details will be in our April Newsletter, as well as on our Facebook, Twitter and this website nearer the time.