Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Darlington’s Boulders (NZ290150, NZ288137 & NZ290146)


If, one day, you find yourself wandering around Darlington, then you may well notice rather a lot of large rocks lying here and there – items that have been named or labelled, and held in a sort of strange esteem. I know of three, and there may well be more.

© Copyright Chris Twigg and licensed 
for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

The first one lies near the southern end of Northgate on the edge of the town centre. It can be found on the western side of the main road behind some iron railings and is known as the Bulmer Stone. It used to sit kerbside until, in 1923, it was deemed a traffic hazard and moved to its present location. The relic, a generous lump of Shap granite, was deposited hereabouts at the end of the last Ice Age, 10,000 years or so ago. It is named for the old town cryer, Willy Bulmer, who used to announce the London news from atop the rock during the early nineteenth century. It was once known as the Battling Stone, on account of local weavers who used to beat flax on it.

With kind permission of John Durkin - see here.

An even bigger chunk of Shap granite can found near the Victoria Embankment entrance to the town’s South Park. It was heaved from the River Tees at Winston and placed there in 1900 in remembrance of local geologist and naturalist Dr Richard Taylor Manson as a tribute to his literary and scientific work. It was he, apparently, who first documented the fine specimen – which is now, of course, known as the Manson Boulder. Its transportation took eight men four days to effect, with the help of a good deal of machinery. It was actually accidentally dropped on its way through the gates of the park, and was then just left where it fell!

© Copyright Hugh Mortimer and licensed 
for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Boulder No.3 – Stead’s Stone – is located outside Darlington Library in Crown Street. It sits opposite the offices of the Northern Echo and was used by the newspaper’s most famous ex-Editor, William Thomas Stead, to tether his dogs and pony. As you can read for yourself in the image above, he perished on board the Titanic in 1912 – more on this extraordinary man here.






Tuesday, 21 June 2016

The Aycliffe Angels (NZ276234)



There can’t have been many more dangerous locations in the North-East during World War II than the square mile of land immediately to the west of Aycliffe village. For, in the expanse of built-up area now occupied by Aycliffe Industrial Park, there lay a Royal Ordnance Factory known as ROF Aycliffe.

The establishment was home to the famous ‘Aycliffe Angels’, being the 17,000-strong body of (almost entirely) female employees who worked round the clock to keep the ammunition flowing for the Allied war effort. They obtained their distinctive nickname following a radio broadcast by notorious Nazi sympathiser, Lord Haw-Haw, who warned that the “little angels of Aycliffe won’t get away with it”, and that they’d soon find themselves being bombed by the Luftwaffe. They weren’t troubled in such a manner, as it happened, but the work was dangerous enough in its own right, as you can imagine. There were a fair few accidents – and deaths – along the way at the works, but such was the secrecy surrounding the site that all such incidents went unrecorded and unacknowledged. One explosion, for example, killed eight girls.

The site was chosen, apparently, on account of it being a somewhat marshy spot and was therefore often cloaked in mist, which helped to hide the works. ROF Aycliffe opened in 1941 – at a cost of some £7 million – and operated through to the end of the war. It turned out 700 million bullets, plus a fair few shells and mines – and involved some rather dangerous fiddling about with detonators and fuses. In order to keep moral up, Churchill, royalty and a regular flow of high profile entertainers all paid visits to the establishment.

After the war the complex was turned into an industrial estate, though many of the original buildings have survived through to the present-day.

Amazingly, not one letter of thanks was sent out to a ROF worker after the war – indeed, they were pretty much forgotten about. Not until a recent local press campaign were the supreme efforts of the Aycliffe Angels finally recognised with a memorial service and the unveiling of a statue. Better late than never.



Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Middridge Grange: Bulldogs & Thoroughbreds (NZ244247)



Middridge Grange, between Shildon and Newton Aycliffe, began life as an Elizabethan manor house. It has changed a good deal since those 16th century days, and, after an extended period of dereliction, has recently been returned to a habitable state. It has enjoyed a colourful history, of which two notable periods stand out.

During the English Civil War it was the home of Colonel Anthony Byerley, a Royalist who commanded a regiment which was garrisoned in the house with him and his family. This body of men built up a fine reputation for their indomitable spirit, earning the label of Byerley’s Bulldogs. They served under the Marquess of Newcastle during hostilities, and are known to have fought in the Siege of York and the Battle of Marston Moor in 1644. Following the Restoration in 1660, Col. Byerley was awarded the Order of the Royal Oak for his feisty efforts. It is said that a great underground tunnel exists in the grounds of the estate, which could well date to this troubled time – indeed, King Charles I himself was supposed to have taken refuge for a time at the Grange during the war.

Anthony Byerley’s fourth son, Robert, was born in 1660. At the age of 14 he found himself in charge of the Middridge Grange estate after the death of his father and his three older brothers. Then, in 1685, he became an MP; and a year later found himself embroiled in the Battle of Buda as part of the Holy League’s campaign against the Turks. It was during this time that he gained possession of his famous Arabian horse, which came to be known as the ‘Byerley Turk’. He took it home with him and it lived with the family at Middridge Grange, before following Robert to his new home at Goldsborough, near Knaresborough, in the mid 1690s. During its stay at Middridge, the horse served as Robert Byerley’s charger during his military forays – including the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

But what was so special about the Byerley Turk was that it was the earliest of the three founding stallions of the entire modern thoroughbred horse racing stock (the other two being the Godolphin Arabian and the Darley Arabian)…



Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Shildon: Trains for the World (NZ233257)


If Shildon is known for anything it is its contribution to the history of the railways. If you’re not sure what I mean, then look it up. We’re talking about the 1820s and 30s here, of course – the very earliest days of the industry proper, when a certain Mr Timothy Hackworth was the main man in these parts. I’m sure you’ll have heard of him.

You may also have heard of the Stockton & Darlington Railway, which hosted the very first passenger steam railway journey on 27th September 1825. The workshops for this company (the Soho Works) were at Shildon, and it was Hackworth who was very much the man in charge at this famous establishment.

The North-East of England didn’t only give railways to the UK, of course, but it gave them, in turn, to the world. There are many examples of this proud boast, but two notable cases (at least) are linked directly with the Shildon plant. For both Russia and Canada have this modest County Durham town to thank for the founding of their rail networks.

Russia came knocking in 1835 when they needed a steam locomotive to make their very first railway line, from St.Petersburg to Tsarskoye Selo, viable. It was built to the standard designs of the day, then, remarkably, Hackworth put his sixteen-year-old son, John, in charge of operations. And, despite the huge logistical problems of transporting a loco 1,600 miles across land and sea and getting the engine up and running, the young man completed the task successfully. By the late summer of 1836, with the engine fully operative, the youngster was being praised from all quarters, including a very pleased Tsar Nicholas I.


The General Mining Association of Nova Scotia, Canada, then came along in 1838, and placed an order for three engines. These were the first contraptions of their kind to run in British North America, being shipped out in the spring of 1839. The very first loco was named Samson, and ran from its inaugural journey in the autumn of 1839 until 1882 – and it still survives to this day. Amazingly, its driver throughout its working life was a Shildon employee of Timothy Hackworth’s, George Davidson, who emigrated to Nova Scotia with the engine. 


The Samson, pictured above in days of old together with its very first passenger coach, is now on display at the Nova Scotia Museum of Industry. It is one of only three surviving locomotives designed by the great Timothy Hackworth (the others being Derwent and Sans Pareil).




Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Letter to the Bishop Auckland Guardians (NZ208290)


In September 1895, the Poor Law Officers' Journal newspaper reported:

A MINER IN SEARCH OF A WIFE – AMUSING APPLICATION TO THE BISHOP AUCKLAND GUARDIANS
At last week’s meeting of the Auckland Board of Guardians, the following letter was read from a miner:
Having noticed that you have some orphan children and other class of people you want rid of from your Workhouse, I thought it a likely place to get a wife. I am a respectable working man under 40 years of age, a widower with no encumbrance, a good set-up house, a coal-hewer by trade, and wants a wife, as I am completely sickened of housekeepers, having had no less than 18 in as many months. If you can fit me up with a respectable lassy between 30 and 50 I would be glad, and would be glad to take an orphan girl into the bargain free of charge. I prefer a single woman before a widow, as widows won’t do for me. I have no particular fancy for beauty; a plain girl will do for me, only she must be clean and industrious. If you have one please let me know and I will come with a trap and take her away free of charge to the Guardians. Let me know soon, please.
The reading of this letter caused much amusement, and Mr. Leonard (Crook), moved that a committee of bachelors be appointed to consider the matter, but this was not seconded. Mr. Todd said they should try to accommodate the man (Laughter). The Chairman: I cannot answer that question. Mr. Leonard: Let him come and have a look round the Workhouse and see if he can find a woman suitable (Laughter). The letter was ordered to be handed over to the Workhouse Master.

[taken from ‘The Workhouse’ website – specifically here]


Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Auckland Castle Deer House (NZ215304)


© Copyright Paul Buckingham and licensed for 

With its lofty social connections, Bishop Auckland and environs is blessed with many historical highlights and curiosities. One such item is the extraordinary Auckland Castle Deer House a little to the north of the town.

Bishop Auckland is, of course, the home town of the bishops of Durham. And in case you have ever wondered why these guys chose to live here instead of Durham City, well, you need look no further than Auckland Park – a magnificence expanse, purpose-built for hunting more than 800 years ago. It provided a means by which the famous Prince Bishops could entertain both themselves and their guests, as well as giving them an income by various means and a handy supply of timber, etc.

Included among the sumptuous mix of bits and pieces that adorns the park is the extravagant Deer House – built during Bishop Richard Trevor’s tenure in 1760 in the Gothic Revival style. It existed to provide shelter for the deer, and doubled as the animals’ dining area, too. The complex also had a resting/viewing area for the bishop and his guests, and the whole construction was built to impress, doubling as a sort of landscape folly for aesthetic purposes. It is essentially a courtyard surrounded by an arcade, with a gateway on one side and a tower on the other.

It is clear that these Prince Bishop chaps had far too much money, though the resulting extravagance that is Auckland Castle Deer House is a particularly fine – and, indeed, rare – example of its kind in the UK.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Fortress Kirk Merrington (NZ262315)


In the squabbling following King Henry I’s death in 1135, the Scots, under King David I, used the dispute as an excuse to lay claim to vast tracts of Northern England. To cut a long story short, they were largely successful, being granted most of what lay north of the Tyne, including Newcastle. And, though they weren’t actually presented with County Durham, they hoped to exert severe pressure over the Prince Bishops, too.

Scottish rule didn’t last, of course. It spanned what must have been eighteen bizarre years during 1139-57, before King Henry II brought Northumberland and Cumberland back under English rule for good.

In County Durham, though, the period was one of confusion. Scotland’s Chancellor at the time was one William Cumin. And when the Bishop of Durham, Geoffrey Rufus, died in 1141, King David tried to insert Cumin as his successor. The process was only ever half-completed, with Cumin never actually being consecrated – and so began a three year battle for the bishopric.

Cumin had some supporters, but plenty of opponents too, and the dispute was heated to say the least. Accounts of Cumin’s ‘rule’ are pretty severe, as his troops terrorised the city of Durham and beyond. In 1142, King David threw the towel in and abandoned Cumin, but the usurper battled on by producing a forged letter of support for his cause from the papacy. Word was then squeezed out to the pope of Cumin’s shenanigans and he was excommunicated in 1143 – but the fuss carried on unabated. Historian Simeon of Durham tells us of Cumin’s men incessantly making forages; whatever they could lay their hands on they plundered... wherever these men passed it became a wilderness. Their torments were of many and various kinds, difficult to describe and difficult to believe. Men were hung from the walls of their own howses... others... plunged into the bed of the river... everywhere throughout the town there were groans and various kinds of deaths.

The conflict came to a head at the village of Kirk Merrington in 1144, where Cumin’s unholy band of men holed themselves up in the church and, taking advantage of its slightly elevated position, fortified the site – principally by the digging of a ditch around the building. However, it was to no avail, and the ‘enemy’ overwhelmed them without too much fuss. He must have been quite a talker, though, as he managed to negotiate his way out of immediate danger by relinquishing his claim to Durham in return for lands to endow his nephew, Richard. He did spend some time in jail, but eventually found himself restored to prominence of a sort as Archdeacon of Worcester in 1157 – a post he had held thirty years earlier. And the same year in which, coincidentally, the northern counties were taken back by the English.

Nothing remains of the ditch at Kirk Merrington these days. In fact, very little of the original church remains, either, having been almost completely rebuilt in 1850-51.


Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Oddities of Howden-le-Wear (NZ160335)


Howden-le-Wear is only a little place. However, it has a healthy collection of strange bits and bobs…
  1. The Australian Hotel – a pub with one of the most ‘out-of-place’ names in the North-East. It was established by local man William Walton on his return from an expedition to the Australian Goldfields in Victorian times. Apparently, he made his fortune out there (equating to around half a million pounds in today’s money), and set about spending it in the village. The story goes, though, that he wasted his money – drinking a good deal of it away – and died with next to nothing to his name. The title of the pub, however, stuck.
  2. Hill 60 – a local pit heap from the coalmining era, named thus by soldiers returning from World War I. It was the fashion to name low-lying hills on the battlefields of northern France and Belgium (over which armies fought) according to their height above sea level. So, somewhere in northern Europe lies the original ‘Hill 60 (metres)’!
  3. The Wurlitzer Organ – rescued from a theatre/cinema in Bradford by local enthusiasts and rehoused in the village’s New Victoria Centre (formerly the Trinity Methodist Chapel). Only a handful of these were ever made – and it is still occasionally put to use today.


Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Thomas Wright & Westerton Tower (NZ223341 & NZ240310)



© Copyright Hugh Mortimer and licensed for reuse 

Thomas Wright was born in the little village of Byers Green, near Spennymoor, in 1711. He disappeared for the duration of his working, adult life, before returning to the area in his retirement, where he set about building the still-existing Westerton Tower. He died before it was completed, meaning that his planned observatory became little more than a folly adorning the Durham landscape.

Wright had his fingers in a lot of pies. He was schooled in Bishop Auckland, before being apprenticed to a clockmaker in the town. In his working life he began as a teacher of mathematics and navigation at his own school in Sunderland in the 1730s, before moving to London to work for several wealthy patrons. He dabbled in garden design, was a bit of an architect and designed scientific instruments – famously building a huge working model of the solar system (an orrery) for one of his clients. Indeed, Wright is best remembered as an astronomer.

Despite what you may have read elsewhere, it was Thomas Wright who first speculated that the Milky Way was most likely a flat disc of stars, and that the blurry blobs of light we see in the night sky (nebulae) are actually distant galaxies. These ideas are often attributed to the brilliant German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, but they first appeared in Wright’s An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe in 1750. He also helpfully (and correctly) postulated Earth and humankind’s relative insignificance in the ‘grand scheme of things’, and was the first man to coin the phrase ‘galaxy’ to describe a large group of stars.

Retirement sent him back to his homeland in Co.Durham, where he set about work on his pretty little observatory (though construction may have begun earlier in his lifetime). His death in 1786 preceded the tower’s completion, so his planned observatory rather unfairly became a mere folly. It has been used, periodically, as a reading room and more recently as council offices. A commemorative plaque was placed there by Durham University in 1950 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the publication of his famous treatise.


Tuesday, 26 April 2016

The Spennymoor Settlement (NZ260342)


In 1930, with the world sliding into the Great Depression, there were some on the front line of this desperate historical low who took matters into their own hands and sought to make the most of their lives despite the odds being stacked against them. One extraordinary example of this was the ‘Spennymoor Settlement’.

It all began with a charitable organistion called the Pilgrim Trust, which was founded by American philanthropist, Edward Harkness. He had a great fondness for the country of his ancestors and in recognition of Great Britain’s sacrifice during the First World War he gave us £2million to spend on worthy causes. A small amount of this found its way to Bill & Betty Farrell, who, in 1931, founded a local arts community at a disused shop on King Street, Spennymoor, to encourage tolerant neighbourliness and voluntary social services and give its members opportunities for increasing their knowledge, widening their interests, and cultivating their creative powers in a friendly atmosphere. It was known as the Spennymoor Settlement – or more commonly as the Pitman’s Academy – and was a runaway success.

At the time, though, both the present and the future were grim. Unemployment was rife and poverty spreading like wildfire. The Farrells, however, together with deputy Jack Maddison, provided a means by which the locals could fight back. At a time when central government provided little support to the impoverished, the organisation showed the town’s residents how to broaden their horizons and make the very best of a poor hand.

It was all about self-improvement. Education – in all areas, not just the arts – as well as practical lessons such as shoe-repairing and needlework, ran alongside innovative schemes such as pre-school playgroups, a citizens’ advice bureau and a volunteer-run library. The biggest success, though, was arguably the Everyman Theatre, built in 1939 by unemployed miners, which encouraged appreciation – and, indeed, critical thinking – of the arts. The theatre, having been renovated a few years ago, still operates today, and the building is considered so important a part of our social history that it is Grade II Listed.

A great many men and women of artistic note have the Spennymoor Settlement to thank for their renown. Heard of writer Sid Chaplin? Or of artists Norman Cornish and Tom McGuinness? Both these, and many more besides, have the old Pitman’s Academy of Spennymoor to thank for their deserved success.



Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Jack Greenwell: Football Pioneer (NZ160372)



One of the North-East’s greatest sporting heroes is also one of its least known: John Richard “Jack” Greenwell, who was born at Billy Row, Crook, in January 1884. Like many of his generation, he was a notable North-Eastern footballer and manager; but, unlike pretty much every other sportsman of his ilk, he made his name overseas – and big style, too.

Though Greenwell’s managerial achievements would heavily outweigh those of his playing career, he did take part in one extraordinary episode as a jobbing midfielder. Whilst he turned out almost exclusively for his home town team, Crook, during 1901-12, he also guested for the West Auckland squad that won the Sir Thomas Lipton Trophy in Turin in 1909 – a tournament often referred to as the ‘first World Cup’, and quite a story in its own right.

Then, in 1912, he left these shores and began a short playing career for the then part-time FC Barcelona – making 88 appearances over four seasons. In 1913, he arranged a three-match series between his new and former team-mates – one can barely imagine such a thing now! He made such an impression on the pitch that he was then (in 1917) appointed the club’s first full-time manager by president, Joan Gamper. He remained in the post for more than six years – the second longest run in Barcelona’s history – and won seven major trophies. Leaving Barcelona in 1923, he went on to manage several other Spanish clubs, with a good deal of success – and even returned to Barcelona for a second spell in charge during 1931-33, taking his tally to 492 matches in charge of the club. Civil unrest caused him and his family – a wife and daughter – to spend much time apart during the mid-late 1930s.

The Spanish Civil War eventually caused him to flee, first, to Turkey, then to Peru – where his family joined him, themselves leaving Britain on the last passenger ship out of the UK prior to the outbreak of World War II. He was appointed manager of Universitario de Deportes, won the national championship, and was then put in charge of the Peruvian national team. Astonishingly, he led them to their first ever South American Championship in 1939 (aided by the withdrawal from the tournament of several top teams) – the only non-South American coach to win this competition, and, of course, the first Englishman to manage a national team to win an international tournament.

In 1940 he moved into Columbian football, where early promise was cut short by a fatal heart attack (some sources say a brain haemorrhage) in 1942 in Bogotá.


Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Brancepeth’s Silver Lining (NZ224377)


© Copyright Oliver Dixon and licensed for reuse 

When fire swept through the medieval church of St. Brandon’s, Brancepeth, in September 1998, the locals – and, in fact, everyone of a historical bent in the North-East – couldn’t imagine that anything good could ever come out of the tragedy. A smouldering shell was all that was left of the building – no roof, no windows, no internal fixtures or fittings and, importantly, not a trace of the famed 17th century Cosin woodwork. It all seemed like a very, very bad result indeed.

It took more than 15 years to complete a £3 million renovation of the building – and a beautiful one it is, too – but it turns out that the fiery intervention actually had, unbelievably, a really rather impressive silver lining: the discovery of a large horde of rare medieval tombstones hidden in the heights of the structure.

More than 100 of these curious artefacts were found – essentially large stone grave covers – all of them engraved with crosses, swords and other emblems, and dating from the 12th and 13th centuries. They are known as ‘cross slabs’ because of the preponderance of large cross-like images to be found on the pieces; but many of the etchings remain a mystery, and have been collectively termed the ‘Brancepeth Code’. Furthermore, it is the largest collection of its kind in the north of England.

It seems that the slabs were placed up in the heights of the church by Bishop Cosin in the 17th century – possibly to keep them hidden from puritan reformers (they were found facing upwards), or maybe for purely structural purposes. A selection of the best examples are on display in the refurbished church and more can be found on view at Brancepeth Castle – whilst the rest have been retained in the structure of the church.

Note: Unfortunately, there don’t seem to be any decent images of the Brancepeth cross slabs online, though a general search of the subject matter will give you a good idea of the look of the items.


Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Thomas Tredgold, Civil Engineer (NZ233401)



Born in Brandon, Co.Durham, in 1788, Thomas Tredgold was to become an unlikely hero of American history. Though he spent his early years as an apprentice cabinet-maker, by his death in 1829 he had established himself as a leading thinker and exponent in the field of civil engineering; and, thanks to his writings, his ideas and principles influenced many like-minded individuals for decades after his demise. Most notably, his theories held great sway in the early days of railroad construction across North America – which in itself is quite a legacy.

His road to the top was somewhat circuitous. He went from his apprenticeship days to journeyman carpenter in Scotland. Eventually, he found himself working in London for his uncle, William Atkinson the architect, during which time he studied architecture (of course), mathematics and engineering – much of it in his spare time. But from around 1820 he began writing in earnest – and on the topics he knew and loved so well: the principles of carpentry, the properties of materials and, essentially, the science of building.

From 1823, Tredgold became a full-time writer; and during 1825-27 came three important works on the mechanics of that brand new mode of transport: the railways. His final book, The Steam Engine published two years before his death in 1827, was perhaps his most famous, and was reprinted several times in the ensuing decades. Both this and his Practical Treatise on Railroads & Carriages (1825), were pounced upon by American railroad developers of the era as North American pioneers swept into the open spaces of the New World. Many of his recommendations were adopted on an industrial scale, propelling the Brandon boy to an unlikely form of celebrity.

Tredgold’s definition of civil engineering contained the memorable phrase “[civil engineering is] the art of directing the great sources of power in Nature for the use and convenience of man…”. Needless to say, he was an early member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, and was its president for a time.
  
Tragically, he died in London in 1829 aged only 40. It was said that his early demise was due to his general ill health following his years of dedicated study, during which he denied himself proper rest and sleep.



Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Inkerman, Tow Law (NZ113398)


Prior to the 1840s there was next-to-nothing at the spot now known as Tow Law. Then, in 1844-45, an enterprising chap by the name of Charles Attwood decided to take advantage of the local reserves of iron ore and coal to set up an ironworks. And, though the ironworks only lasted 30-odd years, the related industrial activity continued unabated – well, until recent times, of course.

One of the village’s strangest claims to fame is the fact that the cannonballs used in the Crimean War of 1853-56 were made from Tow Law Iron (as well as, in fact, girders for the London Underground). This direct link between the conflict of the time and the village was reinforced when, in 1862, a new pit was sunk to the north of Tow Law and named ‘Inkerman Colliery’ – the Battle of Inkerman being one of the key clashes of the war and still very fresh in everyone’s minds. The OS map of 1861 shows that there was also an existing ‘Inkerman Inn’ at the site – having probably been renamed immediately after the 1854 battle. So, strictly speaking, the pit was named after the pub!

So, again, where once there had been pretty much nothing, a little community sprung up – with a rather odd-sounding name. At its height, more than 300 men were employed at the new colliery, so there would have been quite a throng at Inkerman at its peak. The railway fed into the location, and there were great banks of coke ovens to the north and east of the site. At one point, Tow Law’s Salvation Army was based there, albeit briefly.

In time, though, the demise of, firstly, the main iron works, then eventually coalmining in and around Tow Law took its toll. The fall from grace was spread across several decades: from the early exit of the former to the closure of the last deep mine – that of Inkerman, in fact – in 1969.

Whilst Tow Law remains very much on the map, there is nothing of note to be found at the settlement once known as Inkerman – though some of the old coke ovens were repaired for display recently.



Tuesday, 22 March 2016

The Flag of County Durham



County Durham’s official flag is something of an oddity, having been designed and adopted in the very recent past – 2013, in fact – being the last of England’s northern counties to take up the flag-waving mantle. As you can see, it shows the outline of St.Cuthbert’s Cross counter-changed horizontally between the county colours of blue and yellow (or gold, if you prefer!).

Prior to this, the ‘unofficial’ flag looked like this…


…being the county council’s official effort, and in use from the 1970s county boundaries reshuffle. However, in the summer of 2013, campaigner Andy Strangeway launched an online competition for a new design – and the winner was the splendid effort at the top of this piece. It was put together by twins Katie and Holly Moffatt and their father James from Chilton, near Ferryhill, who beat off the competition by public vote. And by the end of November 2013 the flag was flying proudly over Durham Cathedral.


Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Quebec & Other Odd-Sounding Places (NZ181437)


What might be called the ‘shrunken village’ of Quebec lies a mile or so NW of Esh Winning in Co.Durham. It is one of the better known of the many odd-sounding placenames which pepper the North-East – and periodically throw locals and outsiders alike into a mildly confused state. I mean, just how do these little settlements get their peculiar names?

Daft place-names fall into various categories, of course. Near to Quebec there is Click-em-Inn Farm (one of several across the UK) – names of this form are probably corruptions of earlier versions. Then there are bright-sounding monikers such as California, Paradise, and the like – applied quite often to dour-looking situates, possibly with a hint of irony or to attract new settlers to an otherwise ordinary area. But what of those spots that are named after not-so-glamorous, out-of-the-way corners of the earth, such as Greenland, New York, Toronto … and, of course, Quebec? The explanation is two-fold. Basically, it’s down to one of two things: geography/topography or historical events. In Quebec’s case it may be down to both.

When new farmsteads, or even individual fields, are created and named, quite often (at certain points in history and as fashion dictates) they may be given labels to tie in with current trends and particular historical events. These days, a modern housing estate or ‘new town’ may be named in honour of some past historical figure or event, or a feature of the landscape; but in times gone by it was often the present which was honoured. And when much of our countryside was so controversially enclosed in the eighteenth century many new names were called upon, for both farmsteads and fields. In the case of little Quebec, it seems, it was the fantastically important victory of our boys over the French in the Battle of Quebec in 1759 which brought the name of the North American province into prominence and, consequently, onto the face of our map. Famous battle + new farmstead/field system = fancy new placename for Co.Durham. In time, a settlement grew around the spot, and Quebec expanded into a village.

However, there is a counter-argument. You may have noticed that many of these new placenames are imported from very distant corners of the globe. And there is a theory that as enclosure often placed particular fields at a considerable distance to their ‘home’ farms, the new tags arose as a sort of mickey-take on their relative remoteness. Places like Quebec, Toronto and New York all seemed a very long way away to eighteenth century farmers; just as some of their newly-allocated fields seemed to be!



Tuesday, 8 March 2016

The Beginnings of Ushaw College (NZ219438)



The building complex which was, until very recently, known as Ushaw College was for many years the principal Roman Catholic seminary in the north of England. It acted as a training facility for young catholic priests, but was closed in 2011 due to falling numbers of scholars. From its founding in 1808, it grew into an institution of substantial proportions over its 400+ acres.

Despite its high profile history (in the catholic world at least) the most interesting aspect of its 200-year existence is the backstory to its establishment. Amazingly, the tale begins in the early years of the reign of Elizabeth I and the re-imposition of Protestantism in England, which led to the exile (voluntary or otherwise) of many of those of the catholic faith. At Douai in northern France (then in the Spanish Netherlands), a small community of English exiles assembled, who, in turn, helped establish the University of Douai – indeed, the institution’s first chancellor was an Oxford University import. Almost immediately the idea of an ‘English seminary’ was mooted for the little commune – and so was founded Douai’s ‘English College’ in 1568.

The academy effectively became a ‘Catholic University of Oxford in exile’, readying itself for the reconversion of England to the catholic faith. Although this, of course, never transpired, a great number of priests were secreted into England in the decades and centuries that followed – though the fortunes of the college ebbed and flowed over the years. Then, when the French Revolution hit in the 1790s, the great majority of the officials fled back to England and the college was quickly suppressed.

The fleeing clerics and their students were eventually able to establish new college sites in Ware, Hertfordshire, and at Crook Hall, Durham – the second of these relocating, in time, to Ushaw. As for the Ushaw site, a building programme spanning 1804-1808 saw a new seminary opened as ‘St.Cuthbert’s College’ – under the guidance of Bishop William Gibson and to the designs of James Taylor. In the following decades it was much expanded with the aid of several other eminent architects.

Since its closure as a seminary in 2011, the site has been run by a charitable trust with a view to long-term educational use (possibly, eventually, as a catholic scholarship/heritage centre). It is also, in stages, being opened up to the public, including as a venue for concerts, etc.


Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Greenwell’s Glory (NZ168464)



William Greenwell was born in 1820 at Greenwell Ford, a little to the south of Lanchester, Co.Durham. He lived a long and full life, dying a few weeks short of his 98th birthday in January 1918 - and, being born into a life of some privilege, he was accorded many opportunities during his extended stay on the planet. However, Greenwell is best remembered for something remarkably trivial.

He was educated at Durham School and at University College, Durham, before shunning a career as a barrister in London, deciding instead to return to the North-East and a life in the church. In 1854, he was appointed canon of Durham Cathedral (a post which he held until his death), and dabbled, too, in the life of the university. He was also an archaeologist, and became a leading light in the various clubs and societies of the region which were dedicated to the pastime. He excavated sites at Danes Graves, Yorkshire, and Grimes Graves, Norfolk, and amassed an immense collection of artefacts, which is now held by the British Museum.

His greatest claim to fame, though, is the delightfully named ‘Greenwell’s Glory’ - a trout fly for flyfishing, created for him by famed fly-dresser, Jimmy Wright of the Borders. It came about following a day of disappointment for Greenwell whilst fishing in the Tweed; whereupon a visit to Mr Wright brought about a new creation based on the canon’s observations of the day. The new design was fashioned thus:

The wings, inside of a blackbird wing; body, red and black hackle; tied with yellow silk.

Simple, yet highly effective, as, the very next day, Greenwell returned to Mr Wright’s abode with his creel and pockets bulging with trout - and the name ‘Greenwell’s Glory’ was born in the ensuing celebration. This is all thought to have happened in the mid 1850s, but the new fly soon caught on, and, indeed, is still with us today.  


Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Lanchester: Site of the Battle of Brunanburh? (NZ160469)


A few hundred yards to the SW of Lanchester in Co.Durham lie the remains of the Roman fort of Longovicium. And it was here that, possibly, was fought one of the most important encounters in English history: the Battle of Brunanburh.

I say ‘possibly’ as no one really knows where this history-shaping clash took place, only that it happened in the autumn of 937AD. But, my goodness, it was an important one, as King Aethelstan of the recently formed England led his forces to a crucial victory over the combined armies of Scotland, Strathclyde and the Irish Vikings. The battle put the English nation firmly on the map for good.

What is not on the map, though, is the venue. Several sites across the north of England have been put forward, with current thinking favouring a spot on the Wirral peninsula. However, as has already been suggested (here), the North-East of England also lays claim to the battle; but recently it has been proposed that the aforementioned site near Lanchester could well be the spot we’ve all been looking for these past few hundred years.

By studying the word itself, historian Andrew Breeze suggests that ‘Brunanburh’ means ‘the burgh by the Browney’ – that is, ‘the stronghold near the River Browney.’ The stronghold being, of course, the old Roman fort, with the River Browney running around the foot of the hill below. To help seal the deal, the Roman road of Dere Street runs north-south through the site, which, it is suggested, would have facilitated the movement of the respective armies to and from the site. This, frankly, makes a lot more sense than the awkward situate of the Wirral … and may well give the region another important historical claim to fame.


Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Venture Buses


for the use of the above image)

Those of a certain age who live in, or frequent, the Derwent Valley will remember a grand old bus company by the name of Venture Transport. They were once major players in the public transport industry, and have actually made a mini-comeback of late, to the delight of many.

In the early days of motorised road travel - the immediate post-WWI era - many dozens (hundreds?) of independent bus companies battled for the custom of a populace who didn’t own very many cars between them. And Venture Transport, who were based in Consett and ran services around and about the Co.Durham town, were at one time the biggest concern of their kind in the North-East. With a pool of vehicles hovering around the 80-90 mark, for many years they played a very important role in the lives of a great number of people.

Launched shortly after the First World War, they expanded further after amalgamation with Robson Bros and Reed Bros in the 1930s, by which time their distinctive yellow, maroon and cream livery had become well-known. Operating out of Consett, the company maintained depots at High Spen and Blackhill, and, in time, integrated its services with the United and Northern bus companies, whilst remaining independent.

As the market tightened and the private car industry boomed, Venture experimented with the car sales, hire and servicing industry - and it also provided tours and excursions.  In time, though, things got a little too tight, and in 1970 it was eventually swallowed up by the giant that was the Northern General Transport Company - though its fleet still extended to an impressive 86 buses and coaches, and many vehicles maintained the distinctive ‘look’ for some time thereafter.

Though the Venture name disappeared from our streets for a time, Go-Ahead Northern revived the name shortly after deregulation in 1986; then relaunched it yet again recently by way of a network of services between and around Consett and Stanley. So, once again, the familiar colours of the Venture buses grace the roads of the North-East - if in slightly fewer numbers.