Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Winston Bridge (NZ142162)

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

Winston Bridge straddles the River Tees at a point which may once have been bridged by the Romans. There was certainly a medieval bridge dating from around 1424, though the current effort was thrown up in the 1760s.

It is a rather special structure in that at the time of its erection it was the largest single-span stone bridge in England – and most probably, in fact, the whole of Europe. It was the work of amateur architect, Sir Thomas Robinson, and measures some 112ft (34m). Impressively, it was one of a handful of bridges on the Tees to survive the Great Flood of 1771.

It is built from hard blue ragstone – which means that the material, astonishingly, came from Kent – though even this robust old structure has recently been strengthened by the addition of iron bolts (which can be clearly discerned in the picture above). It once played a crucial role in the transportation of coal from Durham to Yorkshire, but the rise of the railways soon put pay to that. Still, though, it rose to fame again as recently as 1988 when a Spitfire was flown through its airy expanse for the TV war drama A Piece of Cake – an impressive piece of footage which was then reused in the even more recent Foyle’s War.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Gainford’s Spiteful Column (NZ168167)

© Copyright Stanley Howe and licensed for 

Overlooking the graveyard of St.Mary’s church, Gainford, there stands a conspicuous 40ft tall classical column. It is a lovely affair, yet seems to be so obviously out-of-place that you may wonder if it was placed there as some sort of affront to its religious neighbour. And, in fact, you are right…
Though the story dates back to relatively recent times, the truth is difficult to pin down precisely – not surprisingly, really, as the tale concerns one of the most eccentric families the North-East has ever produced, the Edlestons. Mainly, they were weird in a good way: they had always been big in the parish and were renowned for their good turns. Following the death of 79-year-old Joseph Edleston in 1895 (who had, in the past, served as vicar of Gainford and done his share of good deeds for the locals) an almighty storm blew up over how his legacy should be marked. The exact sequence of events is not known, but, basically, the family, having buried the old man near his Cambridge home, wanted a suitable memorial erected in the church grounds here in Co.Durham. The authorities, though, said the graveyard was full and suggested that the Edleston’s could donate some of their adjoining land to the church and put the memorial there. Suitably miffed, the family decided instead to keep the land in question and erect a large building known as a ‘spite house’ on the site to annoy the local clergy – a structure which is still there, and is known as Edleston Hall (shown in the background of the above image).
The hall bears the date 1904; but, several years later, and still seething, they added an imposing column placed right up against the graveyard wall. In typically eccentric fashion, they had purchased the ‘item’ from Stanwick Park/Hall, Yorkshire, in the 1920s and transported it north. Some accounts suggest an enormous V-sign once sat atop the pillar, but the two-fingered gesture was probably metaphorical – I’m quite sure the giant tower on its own said it all.
Moreover, this is only a very small part of the extraordinary tale of the Edleston family – more can be found archived away, here.

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Roman Piercebridge (NZ210157)

Piercebridge, on the southern edge of England’s North-East, is one of Britain’s most famous Roman settlements. Yet it is perhaps the least understood, due to the rather inconvenient fact that the modern-day village sits squarely atop the old fort. We don’t even know its Roman name, for heaven’s sake. Anyway, here’s what we do know…

  • c.70AD – The Romans arrive in the Piercebridge area, advancing north from York and building Dere Street as they go. A timber bridge is built over the Tees by 80AD. The first Roman fort is established by the early 2nd century – originally named Magis, Morbium or Vinovium by the Romans (we’re not quite sure which) – in order to defend the river crossing point against the Brigantes. No trace of this assumed first fort has so far been found, although a fort of unknown date existed a mile to the south – possibly the missing fortification;
  • c.125AD – The civilian vicus (settlement) is well established;
  • 130-150AD – The original Roman timber bridge is washed away in a flood. A new bridge is eventually built 200 yards downstream by around 200AD;
  • Early-mid 3rd century – The Roman fort is rebuilt in stone. The few visible remains that we see today date to around 260-270AD;
  • 330AD – Fort abandoned for c.20 years;
  • 350-410AD – Final period of Roman occupation/use. The Romans leave Britain by 410AD. Locals make some use of remains, it seems;
  • 6th century – Probable final time of occupation by locals. The bridge continues to be used for upwards of a further 1,000 years;
  • 1933-38 – Excavated;
  • 1940s/50s – Periodic excavations;
  • 1969-82 – Excavated, including the discovery of the remains of the late 2nd century ‘new’ stone bridge (in 1972);
  • Late 20th-early 21st century – Periodic investigations by the Northern Archaeology Group, including many dives in the Tees to retrieve thousands of artefacts;
  • 2009 – Time Team excavation/evaluation.

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Hell’s Kettles & Lewis Carroll (NZ281109)

© Copyright Hugh Mortimer and licensed for

A couple of miles south of Darlington, in a lonely field near the A167, lies a curious geological feature called Hell’s Kettles. Its story, amazingly, goes back to the 12th century, and it may well hold a unique place in the history of our nation’s literature.

The ‘kettles’ themselves are a couple of ordinary looking ponds by the roadside – the sort of thing you would skirt past without even noticing, ordinarily. They are said to have been formed in 1179 following a dramatic incident of subsidence. There are only two these days, but historical reports suggest that four ponds once existed here – one having been filled in, and two of the others have merged into one.

The sudden appearance of these sink-holes can be explained by the rapid erosion of the gypsum-like rocks near the surface which resulted in the sudden collapse of the ground. Surface run-off and underground springs then filled the voids – and, of course, the seemingly bottomless nature of the little lakes has since fed the imaginations of the locals over the centuries. Of the two that remain, one is unremarkable in that it is filled by run-off water, but the other (the southerly one, called ‘Croft Kettle’) is the only open-water expanse in the county fed by subterranean springs, and has therefore attracted a very special collection of biological growth. Hence, Hell’s Kettles is now a Site of Special Scientific Interest.

A twelfth century chronicler described the formation of the kettles in dramatic fashion, thus:
In the reign of Henry II, the earth rose high at Oxendale, in the District of Darlington, in the likeness of a lofty tower, and so remained from nine in the morning until evening, when it sank down with a terrible noise, to the terror of all that heard it, and being swallowed up it left behind a deep pit.

Intriguingly, it has recently been suggested that Hell’s Kettles may have inspired the scene in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in which Alice tumbles down a rabbit hole. Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) would certainly have been familiar with Hell’s Kettles, living, as he did, at nearby Croft for so long. Additionally, of course, he would have been well versed in the local legends surrounding the feature: animals and humans drowning and being lost in the pools, the voices of lost spirits thereabouts, and endless stories of the ‘bottomless’ nature of their depths.

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

The Extraordinary William Emerson (NZ308102)

One of the North-East’s greatest eccentrics, William Emerson, was born in Hurworth-on-Tees in 1701. He was also a brilliant mathematician, and can perhaps rightly be called a savant – a genius in his chosen field, yet a social misfit extraordinaire. His writings reached far and wide, including into the substantial mind and intellect of the great Thomas Jefferson.

He followed his schoolmaster father, Dudley, into the sphere of mathematics. As a young student, though, his offensive manner caused him to be sent to Newcastle and York during the course of his studies. In 1730 he returned to Hurworth to take over the running of his late father’s school, but his social shortcomings led to the institution’s closure in 1733. He resolved instead to live off his inherited estate near Eastgate, Weardale.

In 1735 he managed to get himself married to Elizabeth Johnson, the daughter of the Hurworth rector. However, his father-in-law, disapproving of his unkempt and uncouth new relative, refused to pay the £500 dowry, so Emerson piled all his wife’s clothes into a barrow and wheeled it round to the parsonage, saying he refused “to be beholden to such a fellow for a single rag”. In time, though, Emerson would make all those who thought him a wastrel eat their words.

Though he never really broke any new ground in his work, it was the interpretation and application of existing theories which would prove to be his greatest strength. His first work, The Doctrine of Fluxions [i.e. calculus], wasn’t published until he was into his 40s, but it became an instant bestseller. And, thereafter, as the man himself modestly pointed out, “I stepped forth, like a giant in all his might.”

And so he did. More than a dozen more critically acclaimed mathematical treatises followed on subjects such as trigonometry, astronomy, mechanics, navigation, algebra, optics, motion, music and more – all of them known for their error-free nature. The Principles of Mechanics (1754) really made his name, and was used by students into the Victorian era. Practical experimentation lay at the centre of his mathematical world, as he set his students to work splashing about in the Tees for his work on navigation, for example. He was, of course, consulted widely, yet when the Royal Society wished to make him a Fellow he refused, saying: “When a man becomes eminent, he has to pay quarterly for it. This is the way ingenuity is rewarded in England. Damn them and their FRS too.”

This outspokenness marked Emerson’s character all his life. He was often vulgar, ungrateful, bad-tempered, and had an infamously scruffy dress code. He would only tie the top and bottom buttons of his waistcoat, and wear his shirt back-to-front to keep himself warm. Then there were his bulging shin-covers, worn to stop his legs burning in front of the fire – to say nothing of his ill-fitting wigs! He walked everywhere, drank to excess and would stand fishing in the Tees for hours in the hope that the water would wash out his gout.

This mad genius died in 1782, aged 81, and was buried in Hurworth churchyard. And so finally, in the words of his epitaph, death, “as it happeneth to the fool, so it happeneth even to me.”

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

South Park, Darlington (NZ287134)

Of its many parks and nature reserves (26 at the last count), Darlington’s most famous open space is that which is known as South Park, near the A167 in the nether regions of the town. In addition to its fond place in the hearts of locals it also lays claim to being the very first officially designated public park in the North-East.

South Park’s known history begins in the mid-seventeenth century when it was mentioned in the will of Sir James Belasses dated 1636. In this document Sir James  (a resident of Hartlepool, strangely) bequeathed a 10 hectare site known as Poor Howdens Farm to the town for charitable purposes. Essentially, this meant renting out a few fields in the vicinity to local farmers and the income handed out to the local poor. Nothing much else seems to have been done with the open expanse until, more than two centuries later, the Victorian trustees of the charity recommended that the greater part of the site ‘be used as a park or promenade and a recreation ground for the public at large’. And so it was that during 1850-53 work was carried out to turn the vision into, at last, a proper reality.

With a good deal of financial help from the Pease and Backhouse families, it was known originally as Belasses Park, then the People’s Park. Eventually, it came to be called South Park, and currently extends to some 26 hectares (91 acres). It has always been a popular recreational venue and, after recent Heritage Lottery funding, is more attractive than ever – playing host to regular concerts and other events. It boasts a lake, bandstand, skateboard park, games area, education centre, cafĂ©, and rock, rose and sensory gardens. There is also, of course, the famous aviary – once the home of Max the foul-mouthed parrot!

It is a magnificent example of the very best type of Victorian municipal park, and is Grade II registered and holder of a Green Flag Award since 2006.

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Brick Train, Darlington (NZ325143)

© Copyright Dr Brian Lynch and licensed for 

For a sculpture with a difference, you can do little better than the splendid full-size brick effort at the side of the A66 to the east of Darlington. It is called simply ‘Train’, and was built to the designs of David Mach in 1997.

It was, of course, commissioned in celebration of the town’s rich railway heritage, and represents a Mallard-type locomotive travelling at full pelt, with steam billowing from its funnel. It appears also to be emerging from the hillside as if leaving a tunnel. The landmark can be viewed from any angle – including above, thanks to a specially-built platform, from where you can cast your eyes over its 185,000 bricks. It is 23ft high and 130ft long, and took a team of 34 men five months to build. It was funded from several sources, including the National Lottery and Morrisons supermarket, and was unveiled by Lord Palumbo of Walbrook.

In case you don’t really like it and are wondering, well, it cost around £760,000. But it does contain time capsules from local schoolchildren and, curiously, special ‘bat bricks’ to encourage wildlife to make use of its hollow interior.

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Barclays & Backhouses (NZ288146)

Barclays Bank, Darlington

© Karenjc and licensed under the
 Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported 
license (see here).

Quakers have played a very important role in the history of Darlington and its environs – and at a time when they were barred from political life, universities, the judiciary and a whole host of other roles in society. Being forced into their own businesses, they often found themselves acting as our bankers, financiers and industrialists – with startling results.

One such tale is the rise of the mighty Barclays Bank, which can trace a substantial portion of its roots to the town of Darlington. James Backhouse, a wealthy Quaker flax dresser and linen manufacturer, set up Backhouse’s Bank in the town in 1774 – originally as a sideline to his main business (from the 1750s), then subsequently as an entity in its own right. As the Industrial Revolution took hold in the years following this bold move, the institution grew, too – essentially bankrolling the growth of the railways and related industries of the area (most notably financing the Stockton & Darlington Railway).

James’s sons, Jonathan and James Jnr, helped and then succeeded their father; and in turn Jonathan’s son (another Jonathan) took over. The next generation (Edmund) took things even further; to be followed by his son, Sir Jonathan Backhouse – under whose guidance the bank merged with Gurney’s Bank of Norwich and the existing Barclays of London in 1896 to form the nationwide monster that we now know as Barclays Bank. At the time of the merger of these institutions – all of them Quaker-run – there were 20 Backhouse branches across the region, and this northern powerhouse was one of the lead banks in the amalgamation.

Interestingly, the Backhouse and Barclay families even intermarried. Alfred Backhouse, who for a time ran the HQ of the Backhouse empire from what is now the Barclays Bank building in High Row, Darlington, married Rachel Barclay in 1851. The couple, who were extremely wealthy, were pioneers of public health, helping to establish two hospitals in the town. Similarly, Alfred’s nephew, James Edward, also married into the Barclay family.

Many of the above named individuals are buried in the Quaker (Friends) Burial Ground in the town.

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:

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.