How do you tell the tale of 2,000 years of British history, with a North-East twist, in just 90 minutes? The answer is simple, County Durham’s spectacular outdoor pageant, Kynren. JONATHAN JONES enjoys Bishop Auckland’s summer spectacle.
Having been lucky enough to see last year’s offering, taking place on a seven-acre site in the shadow of Auckland Castle, in Bishop Auckland, I did wonder what this year’s performance might offer that was different enough to justify paying members of the public forking out £50 for the best seats.
And I can happily say there’s enough new and extended scenes to make Kynren worth a return visit. Boosted by an increased number of participants (or archers as they are known), more than 1,400 volunteers in total, the show seemed to have more in terms of excitement, and, perhaps most importantly, it just seemed to flow better.
This view may also have been aided by the fact that this year I had a slightly more elevated position in the stands, rather than the ringside seat I took last year. This enabled me to see more of the action as it enfolded, for example, being among the first to see the burning bagpipe playing Scots army of Robert the Bruce, come face to face with the burning club juggling English army.
Something I hadn’t noticed so much last year, and perhaps this is due to the more enhanced staging of this year’s offering, is just how violent the last 2,000 years of British history have been.
The first 30-45 minutes of the show seemed to focus on one bloody skirmish after another, from the stallion riding Iceni queen, Boudicca, storming the stage accompanied by her daughters, battling with their Roman oppressors on the banks of a lake, from which scenes rise and fall, through the monk slaughtering attacks of the Vikings, to the death of Harold Hadrada, clutching an arrow in his eye, at the hands of the invading William the Conqueror.
Great fun for those watching, particularly the younger members of the audience, who particularly enjoyed the sight of a Roman Centurion being thrown from his horse, then dragged along behind it.
There was a slightly more sedate section, featuring Shakespeare and Good Queen Bess, which included the Queen entering the stage on a fabulous royal barge, while Shakespeare himself could be seen on the balcony of his home. But this was soon to be replaced by the skirmishes of the English Civil War featuring Cavalier cavalry facing off against Roundhead armour.
The show owes a lot of its continued success to the generosity of investment banker Jonathan Ruffer, the man spearheading the £100 million redevelopment of Bishop Auckland, which included buying Auckland Castle and saving paintings by the 17th century Spanish painter Francisco de Zurbarán.
After an initial £35million investment in the Kynren site, funded entirely from charitable donations, each subsequent year is funded from the previous year’s proceeds, with profits from tickets and merchandise sales reinvested in the show and keeping it at its best, continually increasing the skill level for volunteers to make this show the success.
Designed to emulate the success of France’s Puy du Fou, which helped to revitalise the Vendee area of Western France, Mr Ruffer is hopeful that Kynren will help to do the same for Bishop Auckland.
He joked, as he launched this year’s event, that he hoped Kynren would last for the next 50 years, and to ask him again then, at the age of 117, what he thought was the secret of its success.
He added: “We are not like Trooping the Colour where you see some wonderful things but the only thing that changes year after year is the name of the person who falls off the horse.
“We are not like a Premiership football match where every moment of every game is different but ultimately it’s just 24 blokes running around a lawn.
“We are more like Star Wars, or Harry Potter, which you can come back to year after year and see, in one sense, the same thing and same characters, but in another sense something different and unique because every performance is unique.”
Kynren is on target to attract more than 500,000 visitors to the North East by 2020, boosting the economy by almost £5million a year.
If the reaction of the gathered press and guests (mostly friends and family of the participants) is anything to go by, with a standing ovation at the end of the show, and numerous bouts of spontaneous applause throughout, County Durham has a hit on its hands.
If, as promised, production company Eleven Arches continues to upgrade the show each year, then I’ll be happy to make an annual visit.
However, I must add that my enjoyment of this year’s offering was perhaps improved by my choice of a slightly more elevated seat, rather than my choice of a front row one last year.
This more elevated position gave me chance to see more of the early action as it happened, in particular items that were happening to the far left or right of the stage area.
Under the watchful eye of US-born artistic director Steve Boyd, who choreographed Olympic opening ceremonies in London and Rio, revised and extra scenes have been added to this year’s offering. These include a completely new English Civil War section, and the marking of two special moments in history, commemorating 100 years since the end of the First World War, a moment laced with poppies and poignancy, and the successful struggle of the Suffragette movement, which led to women being given the vote.
There’s still something for those who like history, told from a North-East angle, with this year’s audiences again getting to meet the Venerable Bede and Prince Bishop Bek.
There’s also still a particularly moving sequence featuring the coal mining communities of the North East. Pit props rise from the lake, and miners march to work, only for a number of massive explosions to rock the stage, followed by the collapse of pit props. This is followed by mourning women following a number of hearses across the stage, showing just how dangerous working in the pits of County Durham, once the lifeblood of the region, was.
On a lighter note, however, there’s also a myriad of performing animals including 33 horses, a flock of 27 sheep (a crowd favourite), a gaggle of geese, numerous donkeys and a pair of Durham shorthorn oxen.
The show also features more stunts, including a Roman Centurion being dragged along behind his horse, in the early moments of the show, plus a motorcycle rider crossing the stage ablaze.
Stephenson’s Locomotion, the first steam locomotive to carry passengers on a public rail line, also makes an appearance, steaming across the stage followed by cheering crowds, and in later scenes, Winston Churchill makes his “fight them on the beaches’ speech, while a spitfire chases a German bomber overhead.
Produced by Eleven Arches, the 2018 season features 17 performances across, commencing on June 30, and running on Friday and Saturday evenings throughout July, August and September.
Tickets for Kynren range from £25-£55 for adults and £19-£41 for children. For more information, visit www.kynren.co.uk.
DAVID SIMPSON argues that history could play a bigger role in how we market our region when presenting ourselves to the world
Imagine going for a job interview where you weren’t allowed to say anything about your past, an interview where you couldn’t say anything about your past achievements or the challenges you faced or the ways you’ve inspired and motivated people.
We will allow you to say that you’ve got all the right attitudes and ambitions and that you have all the right skills in place but how are you going to prove it? Well it’s going to be hard especially as the competition, under the same restrictions, will be saying exactly the same things as you. So how are you going to demonstrate that you’re unique, that you’re special that you’re different?
Well, you’re going to struggle when it comes to saying something interesting and unusual about yourself. Of course in business there are no such restrictions, people want to known about your past because it demonstrates who you are, what you have achieved and what you might be able to achieve in the future.
Now, this is what frustrates me as someone with a passion for our region’s history. You see, surely the same goes for our region too? When it comes to marketing our region to the world we shouldn’t be coy about our history and past achievements, there’s no rule to prevent us from speaking of our past. We can be selective of course, who wouldn’t be? However, we shouldn’t be shy about it. The problem is sometimes we forget what we’ve actually achieved and it’s a good idea to refresh the memory now and again. It’s a great boost for confidence.
Look we’re in a market, competing with places across the world and when I say we, I mean all of us because everyone who lives and works in the region or even those who are just visiting are at some level potential ambassadors for the North East. We can all play a part in telling the world our great story and all the great things that we can do and all the great things that we have achieved in the past.
Yet there still seems to be a lot of amnesia around, forgetfulness or perhaps a lack of confidence in our story. The present, like the future is very important of course and in attracting investment to our region it’s great to say we are home to world leading companies: Nissan, Siemens Procter and Gamble, Hitachi Rail Europe and many more. It’s great to talk about our fabulous highly-skilled workforce, our partnerships, our infrastructure, transport networks, ports, airports and of course our world class educational establishments.
This is all good and we can be particularly proud to say that in our region it is often more than enough to get the world to sit up and take notice.
The thing is, though, just as with the job interview, you can guarantee that all the competition are all telling a similar story even if they may not be telling it quite so well.
So when it comes to the opportunity to demonstrate something unique, something different and special about ourselves as a region it’s a chance to share the extraordinary links and influences that we often have with the wider world. It’s here that we have an opportunity to shine and this is where our past comes into play.
Now I think in the world of business, history is too often seen as something of a novelty sideshow, or a dust-laden trinket that we bring out now and again to show off like a half-loved antique. It can be seen as something that is beneficial to our tourism industry and little else besides. The exception perhaps is in its contribution to our region’s townscapes, landscape and inherent beauty which we are not quite so shy to promote.
Marketers have recognised these visual attributes and this has been demonstrated by the impact of skilled photographers and film makers who have showcased the region’s glorious attributes in wonderful stunning, panoramic colour. This is great, it helps attract people to our region to see what it’s really like and that can only be good for business.
So we love the stage setting that is the North East but we also need to remember the rich array of stories and achievements from the past that this grand stage has hosted. We need to tell those stories boldly and with confidence.
In our region we have a phrase ‘Shy bairns get nowt’ which means if you don’t ask for things or if you don’t speak up with confidence, you will not receive. Ironically, it’s one of our region’s favourite phrases, yet too often we are rather shy about speaking up about our achievements. We are shy about asking for the recognition we deserve. This is certainly true when it comes to our history.
For example here in the region we pioneered electric light for the world: the story of Sunderland’s Joseph Swan; Newcastle’s Moseley Street; the Lit and Phil; the grand mansion at Cragside in Northumberland; a Benwell light bulb factory and even a house in Gateshead that’s now a care home played a massive, massive role in bringing electric light to the whole world. Yet all we ever hear about is the famed American inventor, Thomas Edison who seems to have that famous light bulb permanently and unreservedly screwed tightly in a permanent place above his head as if it was his idea alone.
Our role in this world-changing era of history was every bit as important as the contribution of Edison and yes, I dare say it, probably more so. It’s shameful that Britain as a whole knows so little about this and this may be partly due to our region’s ‘shy bairn approach’ when it comes to recognition of our cultural and scientific achievements.
Then we have the railways and the first public railway ever, which opened here in the region. There are arguments of course but the Stockton and Darlington Railway was there before its counterpart from Liverpool to Manchester that we hear so much more about. Is it because those two cities are seen as less provincial than the twin Tees Valley towns? Why? It’s probably down to our modest, shy bairn values again.
And even before those railways, we had the unique ‘Newcastle Roads’, the west’s first railways, horse drawn wagonways that existed here in the region long before the days of locomotives. And we may continue: Stephenson’s Rocket was the victor at Lancashire’s Rainhill railway trials as every school child knows it, but too often we forget it was built on Tyneside. So let’s speak up.
And then there is our present year 2018 and next year 2019 and so on and so on. Yes, even that is down to us. How? Well it was a Northumbrian scholar and saint – arguably the most influential man in his time – that popularised the system of dating our years from the supposed birth of Christ.
Yes, it was Jarrow’s own Bede that brought about the adoption of this system of numbering our years that came to be used across Europe and subsequently the entire western world. Just think about that, that’s a pretty major contribution to our world as we know it today. Bede, incidentally, also had the distinction of being the very first English historian as well. He was the first English historian in the whole of the English speaking world and by the way, he knew, quite confidently, that the world wasn’t flat.
There are so many things our region has given this world. Sometimes they are major industrial developments, sometimes they are quirky cultural contributions but they are all worth knowing and sharing as part of our story. We must make sure our young people know these stories and that every businessman and every ambassador at every level knows them too.
What about the world-changing architecture of Durham Cathedral or James Cook’s discoveries in the Pacific and Australia? How about Washington, the world’s most influential capital, which traces its name back to a small North East village? These are all part of the story of the world.
Let’s not stop there. Think about Durham lad, Jermiah Dixon who created the Mason-Dixon line which divided the north from the later ‘Dixieland’ of the south in the American Civil War, or Redcar and Washington’s Gertrude Bell who drew up the borders of Iraq. How about the region’s part in the development of football across the world? What about the first ever football World Cup – won by a team from a Durham mining village.
We could talk about the starring role the region has had in the movies, whether it be Sycamore Gap on Hadrian’s Wall or the majestic Bamburgh Castle, not to mention the role of Alnwick Castle and Durham Cathedral in the Harry Potter movies.
Oh yes, Hadrian’s Wall, almost forgot, the world’s largest Roman archaeological feature marking what was once the northern boundary of Europe’s greatest Empire.
We could talk about our language and dialect too which has some of the oldest English features in the English speaking world. Indeed some of these features date back to Bede’s time. Surprisingly the Northumbrian language had a profound influence on the speech of Scotland rather than the other way around. I mention this because it’s a reminder that we played a big role in some notable developments in the world’s most influential language.
In fact even our darkest periods have had some impact on language in this respect. Think about the battle-worn Border Reivers of Northumberland, Cumberland and the Scottish Borders who in times past brought into use phrases like ‘blackmail’ and being ‘caught red-handed’ a colourful and interesting feature of our language and our past. Alright, perhaps our connections to such phrases are something we might want to reveal with caution in the world of business.
Well ok, what about all those reiver surnames that still proliferate across the region today? You are going to encounter them everywhere. Reiver names can now be found all across Britain and the English speaking world in America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere. There must be millions of people with these name but how many of them know their connection to our region and know that our fascinating story is also a big part of theirs.
So if you’re doing business with an American Armstrong or an Australian Robson, or a Charlton, a Milburn, a Shaftoe, a Hetherington – there is a long list of names – it might be worth mentioning the connection. It’s an unusual opportunity to connect with our region and it is in my view one of the great untapped selling points of our region.
So when asked at that interview if there’s anything unusual or interesting we might say about ourselves as a region, we can see that we have plenty to say and plenty that we might share beyond the wonderful attributes of our workforce and our infrastructure.
However, we do need to lose the amnesia, embrace our history and start remembering our story. We need to be unashamedly proud of our past.
Just remember that ‘shy bairns get nowt’ and lets start speak up about our past achievements.
County Durham-based Tangled Worm is a new North East based business publishing poster prints with a bit of difference with an emphasis on Northern heritage, fun facts and just a little frivolity.
“We specialise in colourful poster prints with an emphasis on information, quirky facts and northern history as well as occasionally delve into other educational themes like science” says owner David Simpson, 50.
Based near Durham City Tangled Worm was set up in November by David, a former writer with The Northern Echo best known as the author of a number of books about the North East.
“I want to produce prints that are colourful, fun and informative” says David “and I’m especially keen to focus on Britain and particularly the North of England but also want to produce prints that are just for fun”.
One of David’s most popular prints is a map featuring over 1,000 rude and curious place-names in North East England which includes such wonders as Common Slap, Old Man’s Bottom, Comical Corner, Goodwife Hot, Make Me Rich, Crackpot and Stinking Goat. It also includes explanations for some of the more familiar unusual names like Pity me and Unthank as well as a wide range of place-names with an international flavour like Moscow, California, Boc Chica, Philadephia and Toronto that pop up throughout the region.
Northern history themed maps include the troublesome Border reiver surnames: Robson, Charlton, Milburn, Elliot, Armstrong and many others whose murderous raiding and livestock rustling culture dominated Northumberland and neighbouring border counties in Tudor times. The map includes a few tales associated with some of the most notorious reiving families.
Representing a more distant period is a map showing the Iron Age tribes of the North and the routes and events of the subsequent Roman invasion. Another map features the principal Roman features of the North and two very detailed poster print maps depict the Kingdom of Northumbria in the Viking age and in the pre-Viking era complete with details of raids, invasions, murders, settlements and lists of the all the Kings and Earls based at Bamburgh and York.
It’s not just about history though, Northern culture is well represented. Products include a Geordie Dictionary poster featuring explanations and origins for over 500 North East words and a unique map showing the names of 1,400 notable northerners ranging from scientists, celebrities, singers, comedians, inventors and notable industrialists from Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and Hull in the south all the way up to Berwick. All the northern counties from Cheshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire up to Northumberland are featured.
There’s even a map depicting the North East ‘worm’ legends which provided the inspiration for the business name. In case you’re wondering, worms are wyverns, legendary serpents that feature in ancient stories that are entwined and entangled with the mythology of invading Vikings, Angles and Saxons.
David says he loves unravelling such tales and history in general to reveal strange roots and sees the world as a place of entangled mysteries and puzzles waiting to be solved, untwisted and enjoyed with wonder. This goes for science too – his colourful Periodic table is one of his latest additions which explains how the elements combine in ways to make up our universe.
“In the same way as the knights of old defeated the by slicing up those worms I like to break up knowledge into morsels for entertainment and enlightenment. It hopefully whets the appetite to learn much more.”
Why is the Wear an appendage of the Tyne? Why is the ‘North Humber Land’ of Northumberland so far north of the Humber? Why is so much of the River Tees not even part of the ‘Tees Valley’?
In this blog, historian DAVID SIMPSON laments the loss of the straightforward traditional, easy to understand historic counties of the North East and Yorkshire.
Yorkshire, Durham and Northumberland are ancient counties with roots going back a thousand years or more but something changed in the 1970s that left communities confused and disembodied in a legacy that continues to this day. It was during that decade that those long-lived county regions were broken into little pieces, redefined for economic or political purposes and given artificial names that were in some cases little more than marketing brands.
Take Yorkshire for instance. It was recorded as ‘Eoferwicscire’ as far back as 1055, though its roots are much older than that. It developed from the Viking Kingdom of York and its three ancient ‘Ridings’. Indeed it was the Vikings who divided Yorkshire into the three parts called ‘Ridings’ (North, West and East) from the Norse word ‘thrithing’ or ‘þriðjungr’ meaning ‘third part’.
Despite this ancient division the Vikings didn’t re-brand the three individual bits with cumbersome names. They kept things clear. Yorkshire or ‘York’ as it was often simply known remained intact and the ‘Ridings’ remained in place up until 1974.
It was in 1974 that London’s brutal battleaxe of bureaucratic boundary changes hit Yorkshire as it did many other places in Britain. A new county called ‘Humberside’ was hacked out of Yorkshire’s south eastern corner and it annexed rather a lot of Lincolnshire too. People from Hull, wherever they might venture, now had to justify that they were still in fact Yorkshiremen, maintaining their centuries old right.
In 1996 Humberside was of course ultimately abolished and quite rightly too. It was then that the East Riding of Yorkshire re-merged (now the only riding) and although Hull’s separate city status was acknowledged, its place in Yorkshire is clear.
It was in 1974 that Cleveland was created too.
Now, as a name Cleveland was not without precedent. Even the Vikings knew of it, calling it ‘Cliffland’ in their time. As an ancient district it was part of Yorkshire and exclusively part of Yorkshire, that is to say part of that giant historic county south of the Tees. This Cleveland – the real Cleveland – stretched as far west as the little town of Yarm, encompassed Middlesbrough (a monastic cell in medieval times) and stretched right down to the River Esk at Whitby taking in the Cleveland Hills and the beautiful Cleveland coast.
However, the new 1974 County of Cleveland was something quite different to the old Cleveland district of Yorkshire. The new Cleveland still included Middlesbrough and Yarm and some of the Cleveland coastal towns but this county of Cleveland was, in historic terms, an awful anomaly.
For a start, Hartlepool, the ancient sea port of County Durham was annexed to Cleveland’s expanded realm along with the historic Durham towns of Stockton and Billingham and pretty villages like Egglescliffe and Norton. Yet south of the Tees much of the real, historic Cleveland was not included in the new county. So, bizarrely, most of the Cleveland Hills and the village of Carlton-in-Cleveland were not included in the new County of Cleveland.
The nonsense of ‘Cleveland the county’ eventually ended (as it did with Humberside) in 1996 after an existence of only 22 years but it was only to be replaced by a new kind of nonsense some twenty years later.
The so-called ‘Tees Valley Combined Authority’ (an awful mouthful it has to be said) began life as a ‘local enterprise partnership’ in 2011 but then became a combined authority in 2016. The new authority was more or less identical to the county of Cleveland, but now also included the historic County Durham town of Darlington which had long been the focal town for South Durham.
There was apparently much support for this new combined authority across that region with 65 per cent of people voting in its favour. In fact, on closer examination (according to Wikipedia) there were only over 1,900 responses to this question – that’s not very many when we consider the Tees Valley region has a population of 700,000.
What makes the term ‘Tees Valley’ really confusing is its geographical scope. For example, you can walk along the south bank of the River Tees opposite Darlington Borough and you are firmly in Yorkshire but for some reason you’re definitely not in the Tees Valley. Similarly up in the Dales you find that Barnard Castle and the surrounding countryside of Teesdale isn’t part of the ‘Tees Valley’ either.*
‘Barney’ as it is known to locals is the capital of Teesdale, on the north bank of the river and still in County Durham as it has been fro many centuries.
Then we have Hartlepool an historic town with an extraordinary history that was once one of Britain’s major sea ports is situated on the North Sea coast. Hartlepool was never a port on the River Tees but is included as part of the Tees Valley.
The reality is of course that Tees Valley is rather a nice marketing term for Teesside with Hartlepool and Darlington thrown in for good measure. It has no real historic meaning beyond that. If you think about it though Tees Valley has a quite a nice ring to it and it is a much more pleasing name than the now deeply ingrained and for some reason widely accepted term ‘Tyne and Wear’ which the American writer Paul Theroux compared to ‘Time and Wear’ (as in worn by time) but we’ll come to that ‘county’ in a moment.
North of the Tees (and yes we do mean the Tees) the name Northumberland (or in Latin style ‘Northumbria’) survived the Viking annexation of Yorkshire. It was a reminder that the whole of the North was once the name of the ancient kingdom of everything English north of the Humber. During the Viking era this remaining Northumbrian rump split into two parts with the land between the Tyne and Tees ultimately becoming County Durham, but the term Northumberland continued to be used north of the Tyne.
Durham developed as a kind of buffer state between Viking Yorkshire and the rest of Northumberland. Centred initially on Chester-le-Street (Conecaster) and then later Durham City it was focused on the revered shrine of St Cuthbert. ‘St Cuthbert’s Land’ as the fledgling County Durham was known was later called ‘Haliwerfolc’ (meaning Holy-man-people and certainly more northern than the ‘folc’ of Norfolk). It was recorded as Dunelmensisschira meaning Durham-Shire in 1100 but ‘shire’ or ‘folk’ never caught on as part of Durham’s name.
As a County Palatine ruled by Prince Bishops, the name County Durham later came into being as the Prince Bishops’ powers depleted. We should not forget that their influence was extensive across the region. I’m always amused by road signs telling yo that you’re entering the ‘Land of the Prince Bishops’ on the A19 near Sheraton just north of Hartlepool or on the A1(M) south of Washington. The ‘Land of the Prince Bishops’ in fact begins at the Tees and ends at the Tyne not according to some modern make-shift administrative boundary. In fact it ends about a quarter of way across the Tyne on the Gateshead side.
The boroughs of Sunderland and Gateshead were founded by the Prince Bishops marking the very beginning of those places as towns. Hartlepool was the Prince Bishop’s port, Stockton the site of one of their major castles. The Priors of Durham founded the port of South Shields. And of course the links between Washington (Washingon CD for County Durham) and the beginnings of the esteemed family of that nameis also directly linked to the Prince Bishops. Agreed that all of these events are a very long time ago but these places are still linked to the unique history of Durham. It’s part of what makes them special and interesting and different and part of their historic identity.
Durham continued to act as a kind of buffer state in post Conquest times with its defensive focus now, like that of Northumberland, directed towards the constant inroads of invading Scots. In later times Durham’s rich medieval roots were eclipsed by a new era of industrialisation. It became an industrial powerhouse of shipbuilding and engineering and above all coal mining with a population straddling the banks of the three great rivers of the North East and the Durham coalfield itself stretching north to the banks of the Tyne.
County Durham of course shared the Tyne with the neighbouring county of Northumberland (and with Newcastle) and shared the Tees with Yorkshire. It’s true that some of the strongest regional identities developed in the riverside communities where the allegiance can be more to the river rather than the county but this isn’t adequately reflected in terms like Tees Valley or Tyne and Wear.
Tynesiders and Teessiders and Wearsiders all identify most closely with their riverside communities which unite each of the people in each of the three areas. I think it’s unlikely you’ll ever hear anyone identify themselves with Tyne and Wear or Tees Valley – unless they’re a politician.
The Wear is odd man out as far as the three great rivers go as it was never a shared river in terms of county allegiance. It was and undoubtedly still is the County Durham river, rising in the Durham fells before flowing through Weardale, the historic town of Bishop Auckland, the City of Durham and Chester-le-Street. The it leaves the county without any apparent natural reason, eventually entering the sea at Sunderland in what is or was the largest and perhaps proudest of all the Durham towns – though now of course a city. It is to Sunderland to which this County Durham river is now most closely linked yet for the entire course of County Durham’s history up until 1974 it was entirely a County Durham river .
Today Sunderland is no longer in County Durham and any glance of the map shows that has become an appendage of the so-called ‘Tyne and Wear’.
Like Cleveland and Humberside ‘Tyne and Wear’ was established as a county in 1974 and despite its let’s be honest ugly name is still somehow going strong today, although now as a unified partnership of individual boroughs and cities linked by economic interests and an admittedly excellent integrated transport system.
Like ‘Tees Valley’ the Tyne and Wear makes much sense on an economic and business level but culturally and geographically there is something highly contrived about the term ‘Tyne and Wear’. In my view, any label given to a geographical entity that includes the doubtfully justifying word ‘and’ in its title must clearly have some kind of inherent disunity at some level. It might work for a business partnership but for political geography the term ‘and’ never really convinces.
Wearside, the City of Sunderland has a population of around 270,000 people that includes large, neighbouring towns, but in reality places like Washington and Houghton-le-Spring which may close relationships with Sunderland are really separate entities.
Tyneside by comparison is mostly a continuous almost homogeneous urban region (perhaps not an endearing description) straddling two sides of the Tyne. Tyneside has a much larger population than Wearside with around one million people – a point, incidentally, rarely taken into account when comparing the relative size of support for the rival Tyne-Wear football teams .
It would be interesting to know what people think of the old counties and if they still fell an affiliation to them within the Tyne and Wear and Tees Valley regions. I suspect older people, particularly in outlying towns and villages in boroughs and cities like Gateshead, Sunderland and Newcastle may still have a closer affiliation to traditional counties rather than the modern ones and those in the larger towns connect more closely with terms Tynesider (or Geordie), Wearsider/Mackem or Teessider.
On my travels I have certainly found an affinity with older people to the traditional counties such as County Durham in places like Houghton-le-Spring and Hetton-le-Hole. North of the Tyne Newcastle, Gosforth and particularly North Tyneside: Whitley Bay, Tynemouth and North Shields in particular certainly seem to me to have something very Northumbria in their nature and personality as much as they are ‘Geordie’ when compared to say Gateshead or South Shields to the south of the river.
Of course the Tyne (like the Tees) despite its different communities unites as much as it divides, whether it be in the form of the wider ‘Geordie’ culture or in sporting terms where Tyneside is mostly ‘United’ in Newcastle as its focal centre.
Yet in 2016 a vote on a region-wide North East devolution deal suggested that in another sense the traditional county divisions may still be strong. Durham County, Sunderland, Gateshead and South Tyneside all voted against the devolution plan for a North East combined authority. In other words all the places in the old County of Durham. **
However places north of the Tyne: Newcastle, North Tyneside and Northumberland all voted in favour. Subsequently a new deal was formulated solely focused on the region north of the Tyne – the Northumberland of old.
Historic identities dating back thousands of years are perhaps harder to shift than we realise despite the brutal machinations and manoeuvrings of London bureaucrats and local marketing men.
*Note confusingly 1974 also saw the annexation of that part of Teesdale south of the River Tees from Yorkshire into County Durham, moving places such as Romaldkirk and Mickleton into Durham. The administration of Teesdale is of course focused on Barnard Castle, historically a County Durham town on the north side of the river.
** The ‘Tees Valley’ counties were not included in the North East combined authority vote as they already had their own version of this.
DAVID SIMPSON reflects on finding a balance between looking back and looking forward in defining the future of North East England
I love history and especially northern history and I love nostalgia too. Old Photos and memories are wonderful to share and enjoy but I’m not one of those “everything was so much better in the past” types. The past is simply part of a journey; an eventful journey that brought us where we are today. It teaches us what we may achieve and features important lessons too, but that does not mean we should be limited by our past. In fact for me, the present is everything.
Some may say the “past is not important”. Now, I don’t hold with that view either. Just try going for a job interview or writing a CV without saying anything about your past. It would be pretty hard to do because to some extent your past defines you and what you can do, or at least it defines you as you are now. You will almost certainly fail if you have nothing to say about your past but you will also fail if you have no vision of your future.
The same goes for regions, cities and towns that are marketing and presenting their best attributes to the world. An ability to look back to the past with pride but build with a vision towards the future was one of the most impressive aspects of Sunderland’s recent City of Culture bid. It was one of the great reasons why, despite missing out on that title, it has been such a massive success for the city and for the region too.
That past is simply part of a never ending journey of often surprising events and opportunities. The past is merely the early chapter or chapters in an exiting book that is being continuously written. There will be wonderful twists and turns and new highlights as the story grows with each new event and opportunity.
I still love the past though, and like thousands upon thousands of people up and down the land I love to reminisce and look back, occasionally. Being from Durham I often visit a Facebook group called ‘Old Photographs and Memories of Durham‘ one of many such groups that feature compelling black and white snaps of towns and cities up and down the land that are passionately followed by locals and exiles.
It does frustrate me though sometimes, when I hear people who want everything to stay the way it was, who wish to go back or who wish for things to remain unchanged forever, like Miss Havisham in her wedding gown. Now even if it was possible for everything to stay exactly the same as it always was, where would the joy be in that?
‘Geordie’ is the name given to the natives of Tyneside or at least that’s what the term has come to mean today but what is the origin of this word?
Well to put it simply in one sentence: Geordie is a nickname for someone called George. That’s just about the only thing we can say with certainty in regard to its use in North East England.
How Geordie came to be associated with Tyneside has a number of different theories and it’s worth exploring a few of them here. Just don’t expect a definitive answer that’s all.
In the 1700s, just as today, ‘Geordie’ was the prevalent pet form of the name ‘George’ among the Scots and the people of the far north of England and since there was a succession of four ruling kings called George from 1714 to 1830, it was a very familiar name. Its use and adoption may very probably reflected the opinions and feelings of the populace towards their ruling monarch at any given time.
My personal favourite theory for why Newcastle in particular came to be the home of the ‘Geordie’ is linked to the Jacobite Rebellion of 1715 when the town closed its gates to the Jacobite army that had mustered strong support across Northumberland.
The Jacobites, named from ‘Jacobus’ a Latin form of James, wanted to place James Stuart, the Catholic ‘Old Pretender’ on the throne. Newcastle had other ideas however and declared its support for the reigning King, ‘Geordie’ : King George I, the German Protestant, who couldn’t speak a word of English.
This is a neat and very satisfying explanation perpetuated by writers and historians during the later half of the twentieth century – myself included. Even the late Bill Griffiths in his wonderful thoroughly researched ‘Dictionary of North East Dialect’ (2004) examines the origins for different definitions of ‘Geordie’ but can only point to an article in The Northern Echo newspaper (August 1997) to support the Jacobite theory.
Now, I have to confess straight away and say that I was in fact the enthusiastic young author of that particular newspaper article. I was merely repeating a theory that had more than once been thrown around by late twentieth century writers such as David Bean. In his book ‘Tyneside : a biography’ Bean admittedly added a cautious element of doubt to his colourful explanation with the phrase: “Or so it is guessed”. He then went on to make the familiar suggestion that it came from the use of Stephenson’s Geordie lamp.
Go back more than half a dozen decades earlier to the nineteenth century and you will find a legion of writers and researchers who left no stone unturned in their quest to explore and explain every facet of local culture and dialect. Not one of these – as far as I know – makes any mention of a link between George I and ‘Geordie Newcastle’. In fact as a written record it is not until the last decade of the nineteenth century that we get any reliable evidence that ‘Geordie’ was specifically associated with Tyneside. It does seem though that it was a name given by outsiders.
In 1892 Richard Oliver Heslop’s, two-volume tome entitled ‘Northumberland Words’ was published. This work formed the basis for late twentieth century Geordie publications like Cecil Geeson’s ‘Northumberland and Durham Word Book’ (1969) and Frank Graham’s ‘Geordie Dictionary’ (1974 and 1987). In one of the shortest entries in his glossary, Heslop explains that ‘Geordy’ is the name by which Tynesiders are known outside the district.
The use of the word ‘outside’ is curious because it suggests the term was not yet accepted onTyneside itself or at least not accepted by the middle class audience at which Heslop presumably aimed his work. Heslop said that ‘Geordy’ is also the term for a Tyne ship and for George Stephenson’s miners’ safety lamp. However, it is in Heslop’s accompanying cross reference to the related term ‘Cranky’ that we find a clear indication of the earlier meaning of ‘Geordie’.
Heslop reveals that ‘Cranky’ or ‘Bob Cranky’ was the popular old term for a miner in the region and cites its use in a phrase from a local song dating from 1804. Heslop says the phrase was in later times replaced by ‘Geordy’.
A linguist, Katie Wales, concurred on the association between Geordies and miners and pointed to an early use of ‘Geordie’ as a reference to miners in local ballads and songs from as early as 1793. The use of the term in this respect will have been reinforced by local miners adopting George Stephenson’s safety lamp (invented 1815) which they nicknamed the ‘Geordie’ or ‘Geordy’ if we are to use Heslop’s spelling.
Heslop, who was of course writing for a Northumberland and Tyneside readership gives an early link between the miners of Tyneside and the term ‘Geordie’ as he says “the men who went from the lower Tyneside to work at the pits in South Tynedale were always called ‘Geordies’ by the people there.” The date at which the Tyneside connection to ‘Geordie’ came into being in South Tynedale is not clear.
Almost half a century earlier, in 1847, John Brockett’s two volume ‘Glossary of North Country Words’ published in Newcastle upon Tyne opted for the spelling ‘Geordie’ which he describes “as a very common name among the pitmen” and showed that it was a form of address between them. He further confirmed that “the pitmen have given the name of ‘Geordie’ to Mr. Stephenson’s lamp in contra-diction to the Davy, or Sir Humphrey Davy’s Lamp”. Brockett made no mention of Newcastle or Tyneside in relation to the term Geordie.
Most of the evidence from the Victorian era points to ‘Geordie’ being a widely used for term for miners in the region. However, another source, J.P Robson’s ‘Songs of the Bards of the Tyne’ (1849) said that it was used as a word for ‘rustics’.
The first occurrence of the word ‘Geordie’ in ‘The Oxford English Dictionary’ is in 1866 as ‘Jordies’ and is defined as “the sailors belonging to the ports on the north-eastern coast of England”. Of course, this may have been the south country or London understanding of the term. London, remember was constantly visited by sailors from the North East coast as part of the coal trade.
Only three years later, in 1869, John Camden Hotten, a London bibliophile and expert on ‘slang’ contradicted the Oxford Dictionary stating that Geordie was a “general term in Northumberland and Durham for a pitman or coal-miner.” He stated that that the origin was not known and that the term had been in use for more than a century. The degree of certainty in Hotten’s statement is not known but it places the origin of ‘Geordie’ when defined as a ‘miner’ back before 1769.
There is, however, an early reference linking the term ‘Geordie’ specifically to Tyneside in relation to shipping. This occurs in the Sunderland section of William Fordyce’s ‘History of County Durham’ (1857). Here Fordyce mentions that a “recent periodical supplies us with the curious information that mariners term a vessel from the Tyne a Geordie and from the Wear a Jamie.” It’s a tantalising link back to the Jacobite theory but there’s no evidence to suggest that Sunderland had been particularly pro-Jacobite.
On the same page in relation to shipbuilding, Fordyce makes the remark that “it was derisively said that the Sunderland shipbuilders could either make a ship or build one” as the quality of the workmanship was seemingly regulated by price on Wearside. This was possibly an early origin for the term ‘Mac n’ Tac’ (later ‘Mackem’), used by outsiders in reference to Sunderland that perhaps regained prominence around the 1960s but seemingly was not familiar to Wearsiders until around the 1980s when the insult was enthusiastically adopted and became a badge of honour in much the same way that the ‘Geordie’ insult was adopted on Tyneside.
On further investigation it becomes clear that ‘Geordie’ seems to have originated as an insult for a miner (and perhaps a mariner). At the very least it was a patronising term and seems to have been a byword for a fool. Frank Graham suggested that the word originally literally meant ‘fool’ and linked it to the madness of King George III who reigned from 1760-1820.
Supporting the view that Geordie meant ‘fool’, Graham cited a quote that came from the famed music hall comedian, Billy Purvis in 1823 spoken at the Newcastle Races on the Town Moor that year. Billy slated a pitman who had left his wife and sold his furniture to become a performing clown and rival to Purvis. In the quote Purvis said the pitman was a genuine fool unlike Purvis himself, who was merely acting the clown to earn a living:
“Noo, yor a fair doon reet feul, not an artificial feul like Billy Purvis! Thous a real Geordie!”
‘Geordie’, as a slightly patronising term for a pitman was still widely used in the late nineteenth century.
From 1887 to 1891, a popular Newcastle-based publication called ‘The Monthly Chronicle of North Country Lore and Legend’ explored the heritage and culture of Northumberland, Newcastle and occasionally County Durham with a middle class readership in mind. Generally this publication is full of wonderful informative articles and illustrations but its pages also include countless features on local ‘North Country Wit and Humour’ usually featuring ‘Geordie’ who is almost always depicted as a generic pitman and a bit of a fool. In these features the pitman or ‘Geordie’ includes miners from as far south as Castle Eden near the Durham coast.
Frank Graham held the view that the middle classes of Newcastle once feared the miners and patronised them with the term ‘Geordie’ but over time, during the twentieth century it became a more friendly accepted term that was widely adopted across the region.
Graham was himself a rather colourful character. He was the Newcastle-based author and publisher of hundreds of small scholarly books for the general reader mostly featuring Northumberland history. Born in Sunderland, he was a noted Communist who had voluntarily fought in the Spanish Civil War against the Fascists.
In addition to his Geordie Dictionary, Graham was perhaps best-known as the publisher in 1969 of the tongue-in cheek ‘Larn Yarsel’ Geordie’ written by the humour writer and art teacher Scott Dobson of Blyth. At around this time Geordie was primarily associated with Tyneside but still often widely used in a broad sense for all people across the region in Northumberland and Durham. It was, it seems only in the 1970s and 1980s, perhaps in part due to increasing football rivalry, that ‘Geordie’ became much more exclusively associated with the people of the lower Tyne.
JONATHAN JONES visits the wonderful relics of St Cuthbert that are finally back on display at Durham Cathedral in a superb new setting that drew audible gasps at the official unveiling.
Anglo-Saxon artefacts, dating back more than 1,300 years, and belonging to monk, bishop and hermit, St Cuthbert, have gone back on display in Durham Cathedral.he relics, including the coffin in which St Cuthbert’s body was carried from Lindisfarne, to its final resting place on the site of Durham Cathedral, and the gold cross he wore around his neck, are the centrepiece of The Treasures of St Cuthbert, which opened to the public at the weekend.
The relics were described as the “Tutankhamun” of the North-East, by cultural historian and Anglo-Saxon specialist, Dr Janina Ramirez at the official launch of the exhibition.
She admitted that the excitement of seeing the relics, back in their rightful home, in a purpose-built exhibition inside Durham Cathedral, had made her unable to sleep the previous night.
The ornately carved coffin, featuring runic and Latin inscriptions, is rightfully, the centrepiece of the exhibition, and is regarded as the most important surviving relic from before the time of the Norman Conquest.
Images of Christ, the Virgin Mary, apostles and archangels are still visible on the incredibly preserved oak fragments, and brought audible gasps from the clergy, scholars, officials and journalists gathered to witness them for the first time in their new home, in a specially developed exhibition space inside the cathedral.
Dr Ramirez said: “Some people think that there is a time in the history of Western Europe when the lights went out – when the civilisation and refinement of the Roman Empire was replaced by a Dark Age, visible to us only through a glass darkly; through scraps of archaeology, fragments of enigmatic text, and the bones of early medieval people, who walked a thousand four hundred years before us.
“But the Cuthbert Treasures fly in the face of this theory: from the complex, visual riddles engraved across the oldest surviving example of wood carving on Cuthbert’s coffin, to the gold and garnet splendour of his pectoral cross; from the continental elegance of the ceremonial comb, to the remarkable examples of Opus Anglicanum, recognised at the time as the best embroidery in the known world, the Cuthbert Treasures bring colour, depth and drama to the so-called Dark Ages.”
She continued: “At their very heart lies a unique individual who was both Anglo-Saxon warrior, and early Christian Bishop. His connection to the North East means we can walk in the footsteps of arguably England’s most important saint.”
The exhibits are housed in the Great Kitchen, which has been transformed into a world-class exhibition space, following a year of environmental monitoring, to ensure the relics are kept in the right conditions to ensure their continued longevity.
The project has seen the construction of purpose built exhibition and gallery space in the Cathedral, with access to the treasures themselves being monitored at all times. Indeed, access to the space itself, felt more like entering the Star Ship Enterprise, than the stone walls of the Cathedral.
Visitors were beckoned into a chamber, through which they could see the artefacts beyond another door. Once the environment was stabilised, the inner door opened, granting access to view the fabulous treasures, in glass cases that only enhance their true beauty.
The relics of St Cuthbert, previously on display in the Cathedral’s undercroft, have been in storage for the past six years, during the main phase of the project.
The creation of this space, marks the completion of the Cathedral’s £10.9million investment in the Open Treasure project. The project has been generously supported by a £3.9 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
Speaking at the launch, Jim Cokill, Member of the North-East Committee for the Heritage Lottery Fund, said: “A place of worship for thousands and a spectacular attraction drawing visitor from near and far to the city, Durham Cathedral is a heritage treasure in the North East. The Treasures of St Cuthbert and the Open Treasures Exhibition will not only boost the Cathedral’s continuing popularity but will also keep its visitors at the heart of heritage.”
But perhaps the final word should go to the Dean of Durham, The Very Reverend Andrew Tremlett. He said: “It is very fitting that the final jewel in the crown of Open Treasure is centred on St Cuthbert, in whose honour Durham Cathedral was built.
“The launch of the Treasures of St Cuthbert on permanent display in their new home marks a new phase in the life of Durham Cathedral and its exhibition experience Open Treasure.”
Among the Treasures of St Cuthbert on display are:
St Cuthbert’s wooden coffin, widely regarded as the most important example of Pre-Conquest woodwork, and finely engraved with linear images, Latin lettering and Anglo-Saxon runes
St Cuthbert’s pectoral cross, a 7th century gold and garnet cross designed to be worn on a chain around his neck.
St Cuthbert’s portable altar, used to support his missionary work in the North East. It is believed to be the oldest surviving portable altar, dating from 660AD.
The original Sanctuary door knocker, dating from the 12th Century, and one of Durham’s most enduring symbols. Originally attached to the North Door of Durham Cathedral, those who had committed a crime could rap on the door knocker and be given 37 days of sanctuary, during which time they could reconcile with their enemies, or plan their escape.
The Treasures of St Cuthbert are now on permanent display within Open Treasure in the Great Kitchen, one of only two surviving medieval monastic kitchens in the UK. Tickets cost from £2.50 – £7.50, and are available online and from the visitor desk at Durham Cathedral. For more information visit www.durhamcathedral.co.uk, or telephone 0191 386 4266.
Did you know Newcastle has one of England’s highest concentrations of listed buildings? Guest blogger, JOHN MURPHY explores the North East’s building heritage and the risks historic buildings face in rural areas.
In Britain, Listed Buildings form the backbone of some of our most famous cities – whether found prominently on high streets serving as banks or offices, or tucked away in quiet streets as ornate homes.
Grade I and II listed buildings are beautiful, historical structures that have decades (and sometimes centuries) of character. They are prestigious, eye-catching and come with their own rules for builders and occupiers.
The North East, in particular, has one of the best concentrations of listed buildings in the UK with many in Newcastle upon Tyne. The North East enjoys a far higher concentration of Grade I and II* listed buildings than other regions.
Newcastle, in particular has the following:
Grade I – The national average for concentrations of Grade I buildings (which are of exceptional interest) is 2.5% throughout England. In Newcastle upon Tyne, that number is as high as 7%.
Grade II* buildings are deemed to be of more than special interest and in England Grade II* accounts for around 5.5% of all list entries. Newcastle, astonishingly, enjoys almost quadruple the national average at 20%.
Grade II (without the *) are buildings of special interest that make up the remaining 92% of listed buildings in England and in Newcastle that figure is 73%.
Grainger Town, the historic heart of the city centre, enjoys one of the highest concentrations of listed buildings in the entire country. Of its 450 buildings, 244 are listed – with 29 Grade I and 49 Grade II*.
All work on these buildings is protected by the planning authority, with English Heritage involved for any Grade I and II* buildings. Some of the most famous structures in the city fall under this protection. For example, the popular landmark Grey’s Monument is Grade I listed.
Unfortunately, despite this protection, listed buildings are at risk due to a lack of investment and damage from both vandalism and wear and tear. The Heritage at Risk register monitors buildings of historical significance that are at risk and unfortunately, the North East is in crisis – nationally the ratio is 3.8% and the North East has 6.2%.
What is causing this risk? How can the region remedy it?
One of the biggest risks the region encountered was urban decay in Newcastle City Centre during the early 1990s. The area experienced decay as private investor’s moved out of listed buildings, which were being classified as both ‘at risk’ and ‘vulnerable.’
However, a programme of development and enhancement was started by Newcastle City Council and English Heritage. Thanks to both government and private investment through the late 90s and early 2000s, the area was revamped and now stands as one of the best examples of listed buildings in the country.
Now, the more rural areas are by far the most at risk – with 30 buildings in Northumberland listed on the heritage risk list. 24 from County Durham are at risk. Compared to more urban areas, it’s clear buildings in those areas are more vulnerable. Just five buildings in Newcastle upon Tyne and six in Gateshead are on the heritage risk list – clearly illustrating that their more central location has given access to better funding and repair work.
Crime is one of the biggest risks to listed buildings, especially in rural areas where surveillance and protection isn’t readily available. A national survey found that 70,000 buildings were harmed in 2011, mainly due to metal theft.
However, in rural areas in the North East, such as Northumberland, the main threats to buildings seem to be erosion and plant growth. Perhaps the region as a whole needs to turn its attention to the more rural areas, especially as Northumberland grows as a visitor attraction. The historical buildings of the past must be preserved as the future nears.
JONATHAN JONES meets former Northumberland County Archaeologist, Chris Burgess, and learns something about the passion and obsession that drives him and others in his speciality.
There can be few places as blessed as Northumberland when it comes to history and archaeology and it’s a place that has long attracted people with a passion in both these fields. Former Northumberland County archaeologist, Chris Burgess must feel special affection for the county with a privileged first hand – and often hands on – insight into the region’s history.
Interviewed by BBC Radio 4 in 2014 while working on a project to excavate the site of the Battle of Flodden (1513) Chris described how it is always the possibility of the next find that keeps him going.
“Sometimes you find nothing. sometimes you find everything” he explained back then, but found he was always driven on by the possibility of giving a voice to individuals and events from the distant past.
In 2013-14, in conjunction with his role as county archaeologist, Chris had been the manager of the Flodden 500 Project, working with a team of up to 80 people from both sides of the border attempting to uncover the secrets of the famous battle site near Branxton, a couple of miles to the south of the River Tweed.
More recently Chris had been working on a landscape partnership project focused on Holy Island when he experienced a life changing event, suffering a brain haemorrhage, early in 2016.
Chris has learnt a thing or two about obsession, since then. His time on Ward Four, at Walkergate Park Hospital, in Newcastle, gave him many moments to reflect on the workings of the mind of the archaeologist, and the subjects or objects that they often obsess about. It seems that for Chris his particular passions and obsessions take him far beyond the borders of the North East.
“Every heritage professional has one site they obsess about” says Chris “and I am no different. For me it is the mythical ‘Amber Room’ in Tsar Nicholas’ Winter Palace, near St Petersburg, which sadly disappeared into the fog of war in early summer of 1945.
“Often held to be the eighth wonder of the world, the room was decorated with panels of mosaics, formed of Baltic Amber and backed with gold leaf. The entire room was lit only by candles.
“More than eight tonnes of Amber were used in the building of the room, which was constructed in the Charlottenborg Palace in Berlin, by Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, before being presented as a gift to his cousin Tsar Nicholas of Russia.”
Not only is the Amber room valued for its constituent amber and gold, but as an unparalleled piece of art. Sadly it was plundered by the Nazis during World War II, when it was stripped from its St Petersburg home by the retreating German army, ahead of rapidly advancing Russian forces.
Chris said: “Eyewitness reports have it packed onto a train, or trucks, and taken to the port of Konigsberg, where it was loaded onto the hospital ship SS Wilhelm Gustaf, which sailed from the port, only to be torpedoed and sank by Russian submarines in the Baltic Sea.”
But Chris’s obsession with this old decorated room, dismantled and lost more than 40 years before he was born, is not simply an “archaeological thing”.
He said: “It wasn’t just an archaeological thing that drove Howard Carter to search relentlessly for the Valley of the Kings, in order to gaze on the face of Tutankhamun in his burial chamber, ignoring warnings and curses, until he eventually found it.
“It’s a matter of personal obsession.
“My Dad, also an archaeologist, was fascinated by Stonehenge, how it was built, and why it was built, to such an extent that he wrote several books on the subject.
“For Howard Carter, it was an Egyptian boy prince, for my Dad it was Stonehenge, and for me, it is the missing eight tonnes of decorative amber from the Tsar’s Winter Palace.”
He added: “The wish to look upon and understand the unseen, unique and unusual, is what drives most archaeologists, which is why most have a particular artefact or site they become obsessed with.”
“I have looked into the face of Tutankhamun’s Death Mask, seen his other treasures, and think I understand Howard Carter’s obsession, and the passion that drove it.
“I live in hope of one day standing and looking on the rediscovered Amber room, but sadly do not really expect to do so.
“I have been to the Neues Museum in Berlin, and seen Schliemann’s mythical gold from Troy, and read his interesting justification of why he took ownership of it from the Ottoman Empire.
“In the same museum I have gazed in wonderment on the face of Nefertiti.
“The one thing all these artefacts have in common, is that now, following short interruptions for conflict, they are all freely available to people from all countries to enjoy, regardless of race or ideology.”
The same is true of our own region’s artefacts and archaeological finds which are here to be shared with the world at large with each and everyone giving its own insight into humanity’s past and adding ever more knowledge to our human story.
DAVID SIMPSON examines the ancient names of our rivers, streams and waterfalls and plots the great beck/burn divide
Alright please don’t ‘Pity Me’, but ever since I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated by place-names and especially those of the North East. I don’t know why precisely, but it’s certainly linked to my interest in history.
Across the region our place-names offer unique insights into our distant past and I find it fun to discover that a familiar place we take for granted is often not quite what it seems. Then of course we have all those strange and peculiar names: Pity Me, Witherwack, Wallish Walls, Snods Edge and Foggy Furze. How about Shiney Row, Seldom Seen, Success, Once Brewed or even No Place? These are the places that arouse much curiosity in our region but even seemingly mundane place-names also hold unexpected secrets.
The first thing to know when studying place-names is that for a period of a little over a thousand years – and that’s how old most of our place-names are – our language has changed an awful lot. This means spellings in old records can be notoriously inconsistent. So you can’t just look at a place-name today and guess what it means; you have to go back in time.
Place-name experts look for the earliest spellings, scouring ancient documents and interpreting the names according to the language of times past.
The experts are skilled linguists and historians, with an exceptional knowledge of how language evolved. They come with a good grasp of old languages like Latin, Old Welsh, Indo-European, Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse, Middle English and a knowledge of local dialect too. They also need a good understanding of local history and know about the local topography by familiarising themselves with the landscape. It might also help to know a few folk tales connected with the place-names they study. The experts are prepared to do much detective work to reach their final conclusions and even then they may not always be sure. In the end the fruits of their labour are often nothing more than a passing curiosity for most of us.
The fun part for me is exploring and interpreting this work and looking for patterns. I enjoy puzzling over baffling contradictions and being surprised that seemingly obvious explanations are not what I had expected. I also believe, well I’m certain of it in fact, that place-names and their local features have close links to local dialect. You see, place-names and dialect are living history and often a very old part of our heritage that we can easily overlook.
Since most place-names have evolved over long periods of time, it’s best to start at the beginning. If we glance at the map we find the most ancient names are those of the rivers and larger streams. Names like Tyne, Tees, Team, Wear, Aln, Allen, Don, Derwent and Deerness go back thousands of years to the pre-Roman Celtic times or sometimes to the era when the inter-related Indo-European languages across Europe and parts of Asia were beginning to evolve.
The Tyne, for example has one such ancient name. Tyne derives from a root word ‘ti’ meaning ‘to flow’ and could simply be interpreted to mean ‘water’. One of its tributaries, the River Team, now partly culverted through Gateshead’s Team Valley has a similar root, related to river-names like the Thames in London or the Taff in Cardiff. Further east, the Don that joins the Tyne downstream at Jarrow comes from an Indo-European word ‘danu’ simply meaning ‘river’. The Don of Jarrow shares its roots with the Don at Doncaster and the Don in Russia, as well as the Danube of Austrian river fame.
The River Tees is thought to have a Celtic river-name though its roots may be earlier. It’s related to an Old Welsh word for ‘heat’ and means ‘boiling, surging river’ perhaps alluding to the waterfalls of upper Teesdale like High Force.
The name of the River Wear is thought to derive from ‘uis’, another Indo-European word for ‘flow’ but Uisiria and Uedra were later forms of the name. This was interpreted by Welsh speaking Celts (the Britons) to ‘Gweir’ which means ‘bending’. Look at a map and compare the whole course of the Wear from source to sea with the course of the Tyne or the Tees and you will see that ‘bending river’ is an apt description.
Other river-names with ancient origins include the Derwent which forms part of the border between Northumberland and Durham. One of a number of rivers called Derwent in England, the name comes from Old Welsh and means the ‘oak tree river’. Further south, a smaller County Durham river, the Deerness combines the Welsh element ‘dwfr’ meaning river with an Indo-European element ‘nesta’ meaning , ‘roar, rush’ that is found in names such as Loch Ness and Inverness.
Some river-names came much later in Anglo-Saxon or Viking times, suggesting their earlier names were forgotten or replaced. In County Durham, for example, the little river called the Browney (occasionally called ‘the brune’) has a name dating to Anglo-Saxon times that comes from ‘brun-ea’ meaning ‘brown river’
In Northumberland the River Wansbeck at Morpeth and Ashington has a name from the same era and is thought to derive from ‘waegens-spic’, a bridge made from logs (a spic) that was crossed by wagons. The Wansbeck is not a ‘beck’ in the usual sense of the word though. The word ‘beck’ is usually from a Viking word meaning stream but that is not the case here.
For the Germanic Anglo-Saxons of Northumbria who arrived in Britain between 500 and 600 AD from southern Scandinavia and neighbouring areas of what is now the German coast ‘burn’ was one of the terms they used for a stream. As their territory extended north beyond Edinburgh into what is now Scotland the word was introduced there and has had a lasting legacy. Its roots however are Northumbrian rather than Scottish.
North East England or more particularly County Durham is the battleground between the ‘burns’ and their later Viking counterparts the ‘becks’. The Vikings arrived from across Scandinavia from around 866AD and in areas more intensely settled or shared out by the Norsemen the Viking word ‘beck’ replaced the older Anglo-Saxon word ‘burn’ in the names of streams although ‘burn’ often survives in the names of local places associated with those streams.
So we find places like Saltburn (salty stream) on the Cleveland coast and Sherburn (shiny stream) near Durham but the local streams from which they are named are now called becks on the map as well as by the locals too. The Bowburn Beck at Bowburn near Durham, for example, flows in the shape of a bow (as in bow and arrow) and was originally simply called ‘the Bow Burn’.
Many other places in the region include the word ‘Burn’ and the names of the streams from which they derive can often be self-explanatory. Take Fishburn and Seaburn for example, one would have been noted for its plentiful supply of fish, the other simply flowed into the sea.
It’s easy to be fooled though, as we find at Whitburn near Sunderland. Not a burn at all, this was originally the ‘white barn’, a white-painted barn or one built with white stone. Then we have Sockburn near Darlington which was actually Socca’s burgh rather than a burn. It was the ‘burgh’ (a fortified place) belonging to someone called Socca. Even here further doubt is thrown on the explanation because the River Tees hereabouts quite clearly flows in a massive meander that forms the very obvious shape of a sock offering a more popular ‘folk explanation’. The fact that Sockburn was for centuries the southernmost point of County Durham and thus at the limit of the ‘soke’ of the BIshops of Durham adds further to the confusion. Both Whitburn and Sockburn by the way have fascinating links to Lewis Carroll and his Jabberwocky poem and you can read about those links here.
So enough of the burns, what about the becks? Well, the word ‘beck’ comes from the Old Norse ‘bekkr’ – ‘a stream’. It is the usual term for a stream in Viking settled Cumbria and Yorkshire but is missing from Northumberland where burn is used. In County Durham we get both becks and burns with burns in the north and becks in the south and the boundary between the two lies somewhere around Durham City and mid Weardale.
Streams north of Durham City are called burns all the way up to John O’ Groats in the far north of Scotland while south of the city they’re called becks all the way down to the Viking settled areas of the Norfolk coast. Meanwhile in much of southern England and even in Lancashire they prefer the later Dutch word ‘brook’ though burn in the form ‘bourne’ often occurs in place-names across the whole of England.
In Hamsterley Forest in Weardale we find a stream named from an Anglo-Saxon man called Bede (though probably not the famous Venerable Bede of Jarrow). It is called the Bedburn Beck. It seems superfluous when surely the name Bed Burn would suffice? It’s as if they couldn’t quite make up their mind whether to call it a beck or a burn.
To the south it’s remarkable to discover that every single stream that joins the River Tees directly is called a ‘beck’ while to the north every stream that joins the Tyne directly is a ‘burn’. Along the Wear it varies between beck and burn. In upper Weardale as far east as Wolsingham the word ‘burn’ is the choice but in the mid Wear valley around Bishop Auckland and Spennymoor where the river briefly sways towards the south, the preferred word is ‘beck’.
In Durham City it changes again with the Mill Burn beneath the city’s shopping centre on the north side of the town marking the beginning of those burns again and it is the burns that continue to feed the river from Chester-le-Street all the way to the river’s end at Sunderland, or at least they do on the map. Over in East Durham locals use the term ‘beck’ and this may be the choice of word for some people in Sunderland too. It would be interesting to know.
River-names of Viking origin in the North East are not so common but include the River Skerne (it flows from Trimdon to the Tees at Darlington) but its earlier Anglo-Saxon name was something like ‘Sherne’ (the shining river). It became Skerne under Norse influence.
Other river names that are pure Viking include the River Greta (griota – its name means stony) that joins the Tees at Greta Bridge downstream from Barnard Castle. Upstream from ‘Barney’ the Tees is joined by the River Balder – Balder is the name of a Norse God.
At Bishop Auckland the Wear is joined by the River Gaunless, yet another Viking name. Gaunless (like gormless) means useless, but why is uncertain. Perhaps it was too short of fish to feed the hungry Vikings or too sluggish to power the workings of a mill.
Waterfalls are a bit like burns and becks in that they change their names according to where in the region you look for them. High Force and Low Force in Teesdale derive from a Viking word ‘foss’ that literally means waterfall. Forces also occur in Cumbria and Yorkshire too.
In Weardale though waterfalls are called ‘Linns’ and they go by this name in Northumberland too where there are many impressive waterfalls to see. Linn was seemingly a word used by the Anglo-Saxons of Northumbria but has Celtic roots deriving from ‘Hlynn’ a word for a pool – probably from the plunge pools found at the foot of a fall.
So we can see that ancient people of long ago and sometimes the slightly more recent settlers like the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings from Northern Europe have played an important part in the naming of our rivers and water features. Rivers and streams are unusual though for their ancient names. When it comes to the names of our towns, villages, cities and topographical features, it is more often than not the Anglo-Saxon who named them.