Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Cockfield Fell (NZ120250)

Hooked around the northern reaches of the village of Cockfield, Co.Durham, are large expanses of open and largely redundant common land. It is not the prettiest place on the planet, nor is it, you would have thought, the most obvious haven of historical interest. But, whilst you may not want to take your family a-picnicking on the low-lying hills of Cockfield Fell, you may be surprised to learn that hereabouts forms one of the most important sites in the region when it comes to industrial heritage. And it is, in fact, the largest Scheduled Ancient Monument in England.

At 350 hectares (that’s 850+ acres in old money), Cockfield Fell has been described as “one of the most important early industrial landscapes in Britain”. There are traces of human activity here (in the shape of flint arrowheads) stretching back 10,000 years; and there is clear evidence of pre-Roman occupation, too, by way of at least four Iron Age settlement enclosures. A rectangular-shaped earthwork may, it is thought, be Roman; and there are plenty of Medieval remains to be found, too (field systems, quarrying, etc.).

Most interestingly, though, documents name Cockfield Fell as one of the earliest (the earliest?) known sites in the North-East for coal mining – the Bishop of Durham having issued a licence for such activity in 1303 – and a proper colliery was established in 1375 by William Vavasour. Consequently, a good deal of waste soon built up on the fell; and the general mess was greatly added to when whinstone quarries were subsequently dug around and about. The railways also made their mark, primarily with the Bishop Auckland-Barnard Castle line which once swept across the fell (1862-1962). In 1869 the moorland became a ‘regulated pasture’, which effectively turned it into a grazing area.

Its pock-marked appearance is clear to see on aerial photographs and satellite images. And it has been thus for many, many centuries – which probably explains why it was never enclosed during the 18th and 19th centuries. Its unusual look and protected status thus gives this corner of the North-East a somewhat mysterious and eerie air, providing the curious visitor with a thirst for more information. If ever there was a place ripe for further archaeological examination it is Cockfield Fell…

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Raby’s Greek Slave (NZ129218)

Image from www.rabycastle.com

If you’re not a very arty person you may not have heard of a marble statue by the name of The Greek Slave. In fact, it is one of the most important sculptures of the nineteenth century – it being especially highly rated in the USA, as it is the work of their very own Hiram Powers. And I am pleased to report that it sits here in the North-East, amidst the artistic treasures of Raby Castle.

It was created by Mr Powers in 1844, was exhibited at the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London and then bought by the 2nd Duke of Cleveland of Raby Castle in 1859 for £1,800. At nearly 40 stone in weight, it can’t have been an easy delivery to make, via train and truck from the capital to its new home in Co.Durham.

In case you’re wondering, the statue represents a life-size Greek Slave girl standing, chained and fully naked, at a Turkish slave market. During Victorian times, as you can imagine, it was a very controversial piece – so much so, in fact, that at many exhibitions men and women were obliged to view it separately. The young lady’s innocence is illustrated by the presence of a small Christian cross hanging near her right hand.

That at Raby Castle is one of  six marble copies that were created – with ours being the first (primary) copy, created from first a clay, then a plaster, ‘original’. Powers worked out of Florence, and the primary marble copy was purchased by an Englishman in 1845. It appeared in several exhibitions – including the famous Great Exhibition – before its move north.

In Power’s own words:

The Slave has been taken from one of the Greek Islands by the Turks, in the time of the Greek revolution, the history of which is familiar to all. Her father and mother, and perhaps all her kindred, have been destroyed by her foes, and she alone preserved as a treasure too valuable to be thrown away. She is now among barbarian strangers, under the pressure of a full recollection of the calamitous events which have brought her to her present state; and she stands exposed to the gaze of the people she abhors, and awaits her fate with intense anxiety, tempered indeed by the support of her reliance upon the goodness of God. Gather all these afflictions together, and add to them the fortitude and resignation of a Christian, and no room will be left for shame.

All the other full-size versions are to be found in the USA, though a smaller-scale affair is held by the V&A, London.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Staindrop Lock-Up (NZ131207)

(photo by Roy Pledger - see 

In the days before police constables as we know them plodded the streets of our towns and villages, general law and order was a somewhat haphazard affair. Quite often it would be the local churchwardens who would be pressed into service when a miscreant was identified – and any troublesome individuals would, temporarily at least, be thrown into a local ‘lock-up’ until they cooled down a bit.

There are not a lot of these curious little buildings left, but one such strongroom remains in the village of Staindrop – still resolutely attached to the substantial church of St.Mary’s. Very little is known about its history, other than it was originally added to the south aisle several hundred years ago as a vestry to the chantry chapel (the Lady Chapel, actually) to which it is attached. Its change of use necessitated the opening up of an external door (see above – right-hand window) – indeed early photographs of the building still show the door intact. It has since been reformed into a window.

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Summerhouse Earthworks (NZ202189)

(taken from The Victoria History of the County of Durham, 1905)

Around and about us there are layers of history buried beneath our feet. The vast majority of it remains hidden and undiscovered, a good deal has been wiped out completely – and just here and there can be found tantalising glimpses into the world of our ancestors. Only by tapping into the archives can we begin to make a little sense of these faint ghosts from our distant past.

South Durham has many such spots. The Romans drove Dere Street through these parts, of course, and much of the human activity that followed during the Dark Ages was wiped from the face of the earth during the Norman ‘Harrying of the North’ and other such cleansing operations. Later still creations, such as the remarkable lost village of Ulnaby (13th-16th centuries) as well as that at Walworth (among others), provide evidence aplenty of the fluctuating fortunes of local life. And at the little village of Summerhouse, a few miles NW of Darlington, lies another odd little example of our mysterious past.

At the southern extremity of the settlement’s north-south village green can be found an area of apparently open countryside – but which, in fact, contains a series of winding earthworks. As can be seen from the image above, the small, central section encloses an area of land (about 15m or so square), with a southern ‘feed-off’ into a larger moated area. Towards the west there is a sluice-gate which regulated the flow of water into the system from a small lake. The lake is now a wood.

Not a lot is known about exactly what the system of moats was protecting, but the faint remains of a tower within the smaller enclosure suggest that there was a fortified manor house on the spot. Adjacent and to the south lie remains of another, larger building – then there is the even more expansive and partly-moated area further to the south. All very mysterious, and abandoned long, long ago – though it is likely that the earthworks may hint at a connection to the Raby estate (their ‘summer house’?), and the monks of Durham City also had interests hereabouts.

By way of further illustration, here is a splendid aerial shot (taken from the west, facing east).

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Who Was Barnard? (NZ049165)

The town of Barnard Castle is, of course, named after its, er, castle – but who, or what, was Barnard? Turns out that the Barnard in question was actually a Bernard, with historical origins stretching back to the time of the Norman Conquest.

Bernard Balliol (or, rather, Bernard de Balliol I), was a twelfth century nobleman whose father, Renard, and uncle, Guy de Balliol, had literally come over with the Conqueror during the Norman invasion. As a reward for his military service in Normandy, Uncle Guy was handed the Lordship of Gainford at the very end of the eleventh century, and he set about building a wood and earthwork fortification on the site of the later ‘Barnard Castle’.  Then, when his nephew, Bernard, succeeded him in the 1130s, the stronghold was rebuilt in stone, like so many others the country over.

Bernard I died around 1150-60 and was succeeded firstly by his son Guy, then almost immediately by a younger son, another Bernard. And though the castle was much adapted over the succeeding centuries, the work done by the two Bernards during 1130-1190 cemented ‘Bernard’s Castle’ as the name for the settlement which developed around the stronghold. In time, this became ‘Barnard Castle’, which is what we’re stuck with today.

I’m sure you don’t need me to remind you that the Balliols had a colourful history, what with their connections in Normandy, England and, of course, Scotland, where John Balliol was king during 1292-96. John, in fact, was most probably born in Barnard Castle around 1249. And the castle also had strong connections to the English throne, being later owned by ‘Kingmaker’ Richard Neville and King Richard III.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Founding of the Bowes Museum (NZ056163)

The extraordinary mansion that is the Bowes Museum lies on the eastern fringes of Barnard Castle. Designed and constructed in the French Renaissance style, it is perhaps the North-East’s greatest oddity, being so obviously out of place. And, perhaps just as strangely, it is a purpose-built museum and has never been used as a residence.

It was the brainchild of a rather odd couple, too: the illegitimate John Bowes, a rogue branch of the family line that was to produce Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, and one Joséphine Benoîte Coffin-Chevalier, Countess of Montalbo (San Marino) who was an employee of a Parisian theatre. The two had met and fell in love during one of John’s long stays in the French capital, during which time he bought the establishment in which Joséphine worked. They were married in 1852.

John’s wife was big on art, and her husband soon came to share her passion. And so, around a decade into their marriage, they began collecting pieces of art for their own gratification and with the long term intention of establishing a public museum – funded by John’s coal industry dabblings. The collection soon grew to mammoth proportions.

It is simply assumed that John & Joséphine’s English base, Streatlam Castle (a few miles NE of Barnard Castle), became too small to house the collection, hence the necessity of a new purpose-built museum. However, it seems that the spectacular structure almost ended up at Calais…

The late Mr Bowes and his first wife, the Countess of Montalbo, when they formed the idea of founding a museum, did not originally propose to locate it at Barnard Castle. Their first idea was to place it at Calais, within the Countess of Montalbo’s own country, and yet looking towards England, Mr Bowes’ country. They abandoned this idea from a consideration of the permanently unsettled state of politics in France. They thought there was less chance of revolutions occurring in England than in France, in which the works of art might be injured. 
[from an account by Mr E.Y.Western, sole acting executor under the will of the late Mr John Bowes of Streatlam Castle]

It took years to bring the plan to fruition. It was not until 1872 that the building work commenced in earnest, but it then ceased in 1882 on account of a slump in the coal trade. In the meantime, Joséphine died in 1874 and John followed her in 1885 – but they made provisions in their wills for the completion of the museum. The establishment finally opened to the public in 1892 and was a massive success.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

The Pub With No Bar (NZ086103)

© Copyright Hugh Mortimer and licensed for 

In days of old there could be found many hundreds of institutions known as ‘alehouses’ scattered across the nation, which were essentially domestic dwellings that brewed and served ale. In time, of course, there developed the traditional ‘pub’ as we know it – commercial institutions specialising in the boozing business – and the basic alehouses fell from use.

Most alehouses didn’t really have proper serving bars; folk just turned up and bought their beer from the house owner/tenant. Across the UK today there are less than ten such survivals from the distant past – and one of them is the Milbank Arms, Barningham, on the Co.Durham side of its border with North Yorkshire.

It looks like a regular public house from the outside, but on entering you are faced with little in the way of pub-like options. The landlord will be there waiting for you at the top of the cellar steps, and he will fulfil your request by scampering down to, and up from, the cellar. And if you’re interested, there are plenty of fancy cocktails to choose from, too (their speciality, in fact), and the cellar stairs are adorned with thousands of miniature bottles.

There is a small tap room for visitors to down their drinks, actually, as well as a seldom used ‘domino room’. It is on the Campaign for Real Ale’s National Inventory of Historic Pub Interiors – and quite right, too.

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Strange Neighbours of Hutton Magna (NZ127124)

© Copyright Oliver Dixon and licensed for 

Hutton Magna’s two most curious items are located within a few feet of each other in the centre of the village. Both are contained in the image above and they are very different in their nature.

The first is, obviously, the red telephone box – or the ‘News Box’ as it is affectionately known. It is always a delight to fall upon one of these distinctive and well-loved landmarks, especially as they have been disappearing from our landscape at an alarming rate of late. When the same fate threatened to swallow up Hutton Magna’s specimen in 2009, the villagers asked if they could buy it from British Telecom – and they did… for £1. Unfortunately, it then cost them £250 to have the phone disconnected!

Suitably phone-free, the locals decided to turn the little box into their very own multifunctional village ‘News Box’, complete with community notice board, lending library (books and DVDs) and newspaper distribution point – together with any other bits and bobs which folk are happy to pass on. Nice.

Just behind the ‘News Box’ can be seen an old water tap and commemorative tablet. The latter pays tribute to one Cuthbert Watson of nearby Ovington, who, in 1858, laid a water pipe from Warden Hill to the spot in order that the villagers might at last have a fresh water supply. It ran for 1,200 yards and was initially a great success … until, twelve years later, the iron that the pipe was made from rusted up and, well, that was the end of that. They should have seen that one coming.

An 1890 account tells us that the supply had still not been reinstated. One assumes that the problem has now been rectified.

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

The Four Alls, Ovington (NZ131146)

© Copyright Peter McDermott and licensed for 

Scattered throughout the British Isles are a dozen or so pubs and inns with the curious name of ‘The Four Alls’ – and sometimes ‘The Five Alls’. The unusual moniker is often easily explained by the pub signs – in the case of that at Ovington on the Durham/Yorkshire border the ditty below runs alongside pictures of a monarch, a soldier, a clergyman and a common working class man:

I Govern All, I Fight for All, I Pray for All, I Pay for All.

A brilliantly simple take on life as it has always been…

On the ‘Five Alls’ version, a lawyer may appear with the motto ‘I plead for all’. The Devil may also pop up, too, from time to time!

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, café, 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)…