Ayciffe village, situated close to the River Skerne is a place with a long history and the home to a church of partly Anglo-Saxon origin dedicated to St Andrew. Aycliffe was evidently a place of importance in Anglo-Saxon times as religious synods, important meetings of the Northumbrian church, were held here in the years 782 and 789 AD.
Aycliffe of course has a Saxon name meaning ‘oak clearing’ – it was originally called Acley – and was a felled area in a great oak woodland that stood in the district. It was in later times that one part of Aycliffe’s Saxon estate was acquired by a Viking called Scule.
To the north and east of Aycliffe the River Skerne winds its way southward through the flat, sparsely populated and historically poorly drained lands to the south of Sedgefield. The river, which has its source near Trimdon, is always little more than a large stream, only becoming a small river in the Darlington area as it approaches the River Tees.
East of Aycliffe the Skerne passes the farmstead of Preston-le-Skerne. As with other Prestons the name suggests a place that once belonged to a priest with the ‘le’ element added by Norman French bureaucrats to help them distinguish it from other places called Preston. The name of the Skerne itself derives from the Old Norse ‘skirr’ meaning bright and clear which is the same as the ‘sher’ in Anglo-Saxon place-names like Sherburn. Skerne is also the name of a village in the East Riding of Yorkshire which is named from a nearby beck.
Newton Aycliffe and Woodham
Newton Aycliffe to the north west of Aycliffe is a new town that was created in 1947 to provide new housing and industrial growth in south Durham. Named from the nearby village of Aycliffe it was given the prefix ‘Newton’ to distinguish it from its older neighbour.
The southerly half of Newton Aycliffe consists of industrial estates and includes Heighington Railway Station on a north westerly extension of the old Stockton and Darlington Railway.
The industrial estate also includes the site of the Aycliffe Royal Ordnance Factory that was situated in Heighington Lane. Here worked the ‘Aycliffe Angels’ a name given to around 17,000 women from surrounding villages who were employed in the dangerous work of munitions manufacture during the Second World War.
Housing in Newton Aycliffe is focused in the northern part of the town and is mostly modern late twentieth century. Woodham, the most recent development in the northerly part of the town includes the site of the deserted medieval village called Woodham that can still be traced as mounds and bumps in a field alongside the neighbouring Woodham Burn.
Surprisingly the name of School Aycliffe which lies to the west of the other two Aycliffes has nothing to do with an educational establishment, but derives from the name of a Viking warrior called Scule who owned land in this part of south Durham many centuries ago. It is probably the same Scule who was given land in south Durham (from Castle Eden to Billingham) by Ragnald, the Viking king of Dublin and York as a reward for military service around 920 AD.
Ragnald and his warriors were Irish Vikings who invaded the north of England from their colonial base of Dublin in Ireland. Ragnald seized York from the Danes and appointed himself king of all the Vikings in Britain. In addition to the land given to Scule, Ragnald also awarded land in East Durham (from Castle Eden to the mouth of the Wear) to another of warriors called Olaf Ball.
The former Viking occupation of southern County Durham is indicated by the predominance of local streams in the area called ‘becks’ rather than ‘burns’ and as we head south a substantial number of Viking place-names around Darlington can be found that often end in the tell-tale letters ‘by’.
Heighington and Redworth
Heighington is a pretty village set around a substantial village green to the south of School Aycliffe and is worth checking out. At the centre of the green is a Norman church dedicated to St Michael which completes the setting.
The scale of the old part of the village may reflect its former status as the centre of an Anglo-Saxon estate called Heighingtonshire of which the village may have been the capital. Such estates are thought to have had their roots as tribal districts going back to Celtic times. Aucklandshire, Quarringtonshire and Wirralshire are other examples of such estates, the last of these being the name of a shire between the mouths of the River Wear and Tyne.
It is possible that the ancient Celtic district that became Heighingtonshire was originally focused on the small Iron Age fort at Shackleton Beacon just to the north west of the village. Ancient Britons were Celts and were described by the later Anglo-Saxons as ‘Welsh’ which means ‘foreigner’. Interestingly Walworth to the south of Heighington has a name that means ‘enclosure of the Welsh’.
North of Heighington towards Shildon is the village of Redworth which is home to the Redworth Hall Hotel. The hall dates to the 1600s with additions of 1744. It was extended by Robert Surtees in the 1820s.
Brafferton: Durham Ox Country
Across the other side of the A1(M) motorway from Aycliffe, near the northern outskirts of Darlington is the village of Brafferton where the famous Durham Ox was bred. The name of the village is Anglo-Saxon and derives from from ‘Brad Ford Ton’ – the ton or farm near a broad ford over a stream. The ford crossed the nearby Skerne where Brafferton Lane links the village to Coatham Mundeville.
The huge Durham Ox was developed by the brothers, Charles and Robert Colling of Ketton Farm near Brafferton in 1796 and achieved such great fame that it was exhibited throughout England and Scotland in an especially designed carriage.
Over a period of five years, the ox journeyed more than 3,000 miles before the unfortunate beast dislocated its hip while on show at Oxford in February 1807.
It was slaughtered two months later and weighed in at 189 stones. During its lifetime, it reached an incredible maximum weight of 270 stones. The Collings acheived far reaching fame for their development and throughout the country there are many inns named after the Durham Ox of Ketton Farm.
South of Brafferton and just off the A1(M) motorway is the village of Coatham Mundeville. Coatham comes from an Anglo-Saxon word ‘cotum’ meaning shelters and was once known as Coatham on the Skerne from the little river which passes close by.
Coatham became Coatham Mundeville because it later belonged to a French family called Amundevilla who were named from a place of that name in Normandy. Curiously, the place name Amundevilla means the ‘ville belonging to Amundr’ and is named from a Viking who settled in northern France. The Northmen Vikings who settled in France were of course later called the Normans.
The Hallgarth Golf and Country Club alongside the Skerne at Coatham Mundeville has wings dating to the 17th and 18th century and has an old deer house in its grounds.
Just south of Coatham Mundeville we approach the northern outskirts of Darlington at Beaumont Hill which has the strangely superfluous meaning ‘fine hill-hill’.