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.