Following the Tees in footsteps of mystery poet
By Stuart Laundy - Senior Reporter
An 18th century poem which celebrates the Tees from source to sea has proved the inspiration for former Barnard Castle town councillor and writer Judi Sutherland to put pen to paper and produce an updated version, as Stuart Laundy reports.
NOT much is known about Anne Wilson, who published one remarkable piece of work during her lifetime – a 1,600-line poem written in 1778 entitled Teisa: A Descriptive Poem of the River Teese, in Towns and Antiquities.
“She is totally forgotten apart from this one poem,” says Judi Sutherland. “We don’t even know where she lived.”
An American academic believes Anne Wilson was working class and widowed at an early stage.
Ms Sutherland thinks differently. Her research points to Anne being born to Richard and Elizabeth Allason at Middleton-in-Teesdale, in June 1727, marrying William Wilson, also from Middleton, 20 years later, being widowed in 1760 and passing away aged 61 in September 1788.
“She certainly knew something about cheesemaking, herb gathering and land drainage and showed a concern for the welfare of working people,” says Ms Sutherland.
“I believe she had most affinity with the area between Middleton and Barnard Castle.
“If she had enough education and leisure time to write a poetry book and then have it self published in Newcastle, she certainly wasn’t destitute, but she is mysterious.”
After reading Anne Wilson’s poem, Ms Sutherland starting thinking about what had changed and what has stayed the same in the intervening 240-odd years.
She began writing her updated version, entitled Following Teisa (Teisa being the Celtic name for the river) after arriving in Teesdale as a stranger in 2014.
“I did not know the place but there was this beautiful landscape and I realised there was a Teesdale Way. I started going to poetry nights in Middlesbrough – and the river was there as well.
“It was then I thought why don’t I ‘write the river’, walk as much as I could and do an updated version of Anne Wilson’s poem.”
She adds: “I started writing it in 2015/16 – little bits here and there. I showed a few pages to a poet called Jo Bell who encouraged me to keep going.”
Which is exactly what Ms Sutherland did until circumstances conspired against her.
The pandemic, followed by relocation to Ireland, meant she could not get to every single place along the river she had planned to investigate.
The result is a book which is beautifully illustrated by Middleton-in-Teesdale-based artist Holly Magdalene Scott.
Author and artist first met through a shared passion for singing.
“We were both members of TLC – Teesdale Ladies Choir – and we used to rehearse at Mickleton,” says Ms Sutherland.
“Holly’s illustrations are stunning – and she’s got a lovely voice.”
For this interview, we are chatting via Zoom, with Ms Sutherland finding her feet in the still relatively new surroundings of Fingal – “it means land of strangers” she says – north of Dublin.
After almost seven years in the dale, which included a spell as a town councillor in Barney, Ms Sutherland relocated to the emerald isle, a move prompted by a change of job for husband Frank. However, Teesdale remains very much at the forefront of her mind.
“I miss the old place, I really do,” she says.
And having explored much – if not quite all – of the river’s meandering course, it is the upper dale which is the most revered stretch for Ms Sutherland.
“I really like the Low Force/Wynch bridge area.
“Low Force is just as spectacular as High Force and in the summer, the wild flowers are just amazing. And you can get a nice cup of coffee at Bowlees,” she jokes.
With her book out, published by The Book Mill, near Penrith, she is planning a return to her former stomping ground, albeit a fleeting one, travel restrictions notwithstanding.
“Hopefully, I'll be across in June for the Crossing the Tees festival in Middlesbrough, and I hope to do a reading in Barnard Castle and catch up with friends.”
In the meantime, she is curious as to how her updated version of Anne Wilson’s epic will be received.
“It is only my take on what I thought of these places,” she says.
But having followed a career in science, living and working across the UK, before turning to poetry, she concludes the Tees is unique among the country’s rivers.
“I remain convinced that the contrast between the upper and lower reaches of the Tees is much greater than anything a southern river can offer.”
Following Teisa, by Judi Sutherland, with illustrations by Holly Magdalene Scott, is published by The Book Mill Press, and is available for £9.99, www.thebookmill.co.uk.