Chester-le-Street, Beamish and North West Durham


Durham’s Prince Bishops were the direct successors of the Anglo-Saxon Bishops of Lindisfarne. The story of the movement of their see from this Holy island, to the land between Tyne and Tees begins at the town of Chester-le-Street, half way between Durham and Newcastle upon Tyne. In 793 A.D the Vikings made their first attack upon the coast of Britain with a raid upon Lindisfarne. More raids were to follow.

Chester-le-Street Church

Chester-le-Street church spire photographed by David Simpson

By the end of the following century the threat of further raids was such that the monks of Lindisfarne were forced to flee their island with the body of Saint Cuthbert and seek refuge on the mainland.

How when the rude Dane burn’d their pile
The monks fled forth from Holy Isle :
O’er northern mountain, marsh, and moor,
From sea to sea, from shore to shore,
Seven years St Cuthbert’s corpse they bore.

(Sir Walter Scott)

In 882 A.D, after several years of wandering the north of England, the carriers of St Cuthbert’s coffin were eventually granted land at Chester-le-Street where Eardwulf, the last Bishop of Lindisfarne became the first Bishop of Chester-le-Street.

Chester-le-Street became a major centre of pilgrimage and its visitors included Athelstan, the first King of England who came to Chester-le-Street in 934AD. Another notable visitor was the Viking ruler Eric Bloodaxe who came to Chester-le-Street in 952AD.

There were a succession of nine bishops at Chester-le-Street until 995 A.D, when the threat of further raids, this time most probably from Scotland, caused the bishop’s see to be moved once again. After more wandering, St Cuthbert’s carriers were eventually led by a vision to Dunholm (Durham) where a great church was built for their saint’s shrine. It was at Durham City, that the later Prince Bishops were to rule.

Chester-le-Street Roman fort and Anglo-Saxon Minster

Although the town of Chester-le-Street can trace its origins back to the days of the Romans it does not have a great deal to show for its long history.

Of greatest interest is the eleventh century church of St Mary and St Cuthbert, which is built on the site of a Roman fort called Concangium. Here also stood the Anglo-Saxon Minster, where the shrine of St Cuthbert was housed. The present church has an interesting museum called the Anker’s House, with displays concerning Chester-le-Street’s Roman and Anglo-Saxon history.

The Anglo-Saxon minster that stood at Chester-le-Street many centuries ago was the place where the first ever English translation of the Gospels was made. The translations were added to the Latin text of the famous Lindisfarne Gospels which had been brought from Lindisfarne to Chester-le-Street with St Cuthbert’s coffin. This great book can now be seen in the British Library in London. English speaking visitors to the museum will however, have difficulty understanding the translations, since they are written in an old Anglo-Saxon language called Northumbrian, a language from which the modern dialect of North East England derives.

Chester-le-Street church

Church on site of Saxon Minster and Roman fort Chester-le-Street : David Simpson

Lumley and Lambton

Inside the church at Chester-le-Street, are fourteen Elizabethan effigies of Durham’s famous Lumley family. When James, the first king of England and Scotland, visited Chester-le-Street in 1603 he is supposed to have viewed the Lumley effigies and remarked; “I did nae ken Adam’s name was Lumley”

The first of the effigies is not in fact of Adam but Liulf of Great Lumley, an Anglo-Saxon noble, from whom the Lumley family claim descent. Liulf was killed in the eleventh century by one of William Walcher’s men in an incident that led to that Bishop’s murder at Gateshead in 1080.

Lumley Castle, which dominates the countryside across the River Wear, to the east of Chester-le-Street, was for centuries the seat of the Lumley family. It was begun in 1389 by Sir Ralph Lumley, whose descendants include `Lily of Lumley’, a ghost who reputedly haunts the castle. Today Lumley castle, situated by a pretty wooded valley adjoining the River Wear, is a hotel and restaurant where popular `Elizabethan Banquets’ are held.

Here guests are entertained by staff in period costume, as they enjoy a hearty feast of food, wine and mead. Across the A1M motorway to the north of Lumley is Lambton Castle which commemorates another of County Durham’s great families. Dating from 1797 Lambton Castle is not as historic as Lumley. The Lambton family notables included the reputed slayer of the Lambton Worm in medieval times and the nineteenth century politician John George Lambton, the Earl of Durham who is commemorated in the nearby Penshaw Monument.

Lumley Castle

Lumley Castle : John A. Simpson

North West Durham

North West Durham includes the towns of Consett and Stanley and other places to the west of Chester-le-Street. From 1974 to 2009 up until the abolition of district councils in Durham it formed the County Durham district of Derwentside. In truth the river actually lies on the western fringe of County Durham and has long been the traditional dividing line between the counties of Durham and Northumberland. Several areas of the historic north western part of Durham have formed part of Gateshead since the 1970s. Like much of County Durham, North West Durham consist of much beautiful rolling countryside and wooded valleys with the hills of the Pennines increasingly dominant to the west.

Beamish Museum

Entrance to Beamish Museum : David Simpson

Beamish Museum

Four miles west of Chester-le-Street, near the town of Stanley we find one of the North East’s biggest tourist attractions; the North of England Open Air Museum at Beamish. The museum was opened in 1970 with the aim of bringing to life the social and industrial life of the North East of England at the turn of the century.

Spread over 300 acres, the main features of the museum are a colliery, a drift mine, pit cottages, a working farm and a railway station.

Most popular of the attractions at Beamish is the old town, complete with its own printworks, stationers, dentist, co-operative store, brewery stables and public house. The co-operative store has drapery, hardware and grocery departments selling brand names long since forgot.

Different parts of the museum recreate life during different eras. The town and railway station, along with the pit village and colliery are set in the 1900s. The Home Farm moves forward to the 1940s while Pockerley Manor and the neighbouring Pockerley Wagonway with its early steam locomotives take us back to the 1820s.

Individual parts of the museum are linked together by means of real electric tramcars or an open top bus. The museum’s collections come from across the region and even the buildings with the exception of the indigenous Home Farm (once part of the Beamish Hall estate) and Pockerley (a farmhouse dating from 1720) were dismantled for preservation and brought to Beamish from other parts of the region.

At the pit village, the mahogany Drift Mine was part of the site before the museum came into existence but the colliery engine house was brought here from the nearby Beamish Colliery 2nd pit. The row of pit cottages in the Beamish pit village (Francis Street) came from Hetton-le-Hole where they had laid back to back with another colliery row in which lived a coal mining ancestor of Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge. See Hetton-le-Hole. The colliery school – always popular with the kids – is from East Stanley.

In the town the main terrace, Ravensworth Terrace is from Bensham in Gateshead, the Sun Inn pub is from Bishop Auckland, the Co-op store is from Annfield Plain and the facade of the masonic hall is from Sunderland. Nearby in the town park is a bandstand from Saltwell Park in Gateshead and just across the footbridge is Beamish railway station originally situated at Rowley near Consett.

Beamish museum is built near the grounds of the 17th century Beamish Hall, a former residence of the Shafto and Eden families. The name Beamish derives from the old French `Bew Mys’ meaning `Beautiful Mansion’ – See Place Names

Tommy Armstrong The Pitman Poet

Tanfield Lea, a former mining village to the north of Beamish was the home of Thomas Armstrong (1848-1919), who was known as the `Pitman Poet’ or the `Bard of the northern coalfield’. His songs, which were written in the Northumbrian style reflected life in the Durham coalfield at the turn of the century. They were primarily written to keep him in beer money. With fourteen children to support, Tommy’s ability to write good folk songs proved invaluable, when he had them printed and sold around the local public houses at a penny a time. Armstrong’s best known pieces include Wor Nanny’s a Maizor, The Trimdon Grange Disaster, The Oakey Strike Evictions and Durham Gaol. The Oakey Strike Evictions are a reminder of a particularly nasty aspect of life in the Durham coalfiled in the last century;

“It was in November and aw never will forget
How the polisses and the candymen at Oakey Houses met
Johnny the Bellman he was there squintin’ roond aboot
And he put three men at ivvery door te’ torn the miners oot
And what would a dee if aw had the power mesel’
Aw would hang the twenty candymen and Johnny whe carries the bell”

Despite poor and dangerous working conditions, low pay and long hours, the often tyranical coal owners of the last century would not hesitate to resort to such measures as eviction to deal with miners’ strikes. The `candymen’ employed by the coal owners to evict the miners were disreputable characters of the lowest order, brought in from the docksides of the large towns in the region. Described as “low, mean ragged fellows”, the “yelling, shouting, and tinpanning together with the pitiful cries of children had no effect on these inhuman beings employed to do this work”.

The wooded lower Derwent

The River Derwent, two miles north east of Tanfield, for much of its course forms the boundary between the counties of Durham and Northumberland and is perhaps one of the least known valleys of the region. In its upper stretches, the river forms the Pennine dale of the Derwent while further downstream, close to the outskirts of industrial Tyneside, the lower part of the valley provides attractive wooded countryside, so typical of many parts of County Durham. The Derwent valley has probably always been well wooded hereabouts, as its ancient British name `Dere Went’ means `river where oaks grew’.

One notable feature of the lower Derwent valley in is the attractive Derwent Walk Country Park, which follows the course of the old Derwent valley railway between Swalwell on Tyne and the town of Consett. The park is administered partly by Durham County Council and partly by Gateshead MBC.

Chopwell -`Little Moscow’

On the north bank of the River Derwent, in view from the country walk, is the beautiful Chopwell Wood and nearby, the village of Chopwell, which was known in the 1920’s as `Little Moscow’ because of the extreme political views of its miners. During the General Strike of 1926, the residents of this former mining town went to the extremes of replacing the Union Jack at the local council offices with that of the `Hammer and Sickle’. They are also said to have removed a copy of the bible from the church and replaced it with the works of Karl Marx. Even the streets of Chopwell were once named after Lenin, Marx and Engels.

Hamsterley Hall nearby, on the south side of the Derwent was the home of Robert Smith Surtees (1803-1864), a character of a quite different nature to the once militant miners of Chopwell. Not to be confused with Robert Surtees the Durham historian, this author was more famous for his novels on foxhunting and country pursuits. He was the founder of the New Sporting Magazine of 1831, which featured his best known creation Jorrocks `the Sporting grocer’. Surtees is burried in the churchyard at Ebchester, a village further upstream.

St Ebbe and Ebchester

Ebchester was the place where the Roman road called Dere Street (the Forest way), once crossed the River Derwent on route between York and Hadrian’s Wall. It was also the site of a Roman fort called Vindomara, whose name meant `Edge of the Black Moor’.

The site of the Roman fort has undergone very little excavation, as it is largely built over, but some Roman remains, including an altar are incorporated into the stonework of the village church.Ebchester church, dedicated to St Ebbe, stands at what would have been the south west corner of the Roman fort. It is a Norman church with nineteenth century alterations and is supposed to occupy the site of an Anglo-Saxon monastery founded by St Ebbe in the seventh century. St Ebbe was the daughter of Aethelfrith, the first King of Northumbria, but there is no proof of the existence of her monastery at Ebchester. It may have been destroyed by the Vikings.


Cottages at Lanchester : David Simpson

Lanchester : Longovicium

From Ebchester, the course of the Roman Dere Street leads six miles south to Lanchester village, site of the Roman fort of Longovicum. Lanchester is in the valley of the River Browney, which joins the River Wear near Durham City. Longovicium means the `long settlement’, and there seems to have been a large Roman civilian settlement orVICUS at Lanchester in addition to the fort. The fort which is in fact half a mile south west of Lanchester was built around the time of Hadrian’s Wall (A.D 122).

It superseeded the earlier Vindomara (Ebchester) and Vinovia (Binchester), which are the neighbouring forts on Dere Street. Longovicium was in use until the 4th century A.D. Some of the stones from the ruins of Longovicium are incorporated into local farm buildings and into Lanchester’s attractive Norman church of All Saints. Inside the south porch of the church, a Roman altar can be seen dedicated to a godess called Garmangabis.

Such Roman remains were of great interest to Canon William Greenwell (1822-1919), the historian, archaeologist and archivist who is burried in Lanchester churchyard. Greenwell was for forty six years a librarian at Durham cathedral and was noted for his studies of archaeological sites, like ancient barrows. He was also a keen angler and is perhaps best remembered in the name of Greenwell’s Glory, a type of fishing fly, which he inventedGreenwell’s father had been a great friend of the Durham historian Robert Surtees, but Lanchester is more closely associated with the principal historian of Northumberland, the Reverend John Hodgson, who lived here between 1804 and 1806. In his time at Lanchester, Hodgson made extensive studies of the fort of Longovicium.

Shotley Bridge and Consett

Shotley Bridge, a village in the Derwent valley near the town of Consett was once the heart of Britain’s swordmaking industry. The origins of swordmaking here dated from 1691, when a group of Lutheran swordmakers from Solingen in Germany, settled at Shotley, after leaving their homeland to escape religous persecution.Shotley had probably been chosen because of the rich iron deposits in the area and because of the fast flowing waters of the River Derwent, which were ideal for tempering swords. Another factor may have been the remoteness of the area, as the swordmakers were keen to preserve their trade secrets. Derwentside seemed an unlikely setting for industrial espionage. It is also worth noting that the swordmakers were able to employ the services of the famous local engraver Thomas Bewick. Sadly swords are no longer made in the Shotley district.

The iron ore deposits in the vicinity of Shotley, also encouraged the growth of the nearby town of Consett . Once known as `Berry Edge’, Consett began to grow after the finding of the Consett Iron and Steel works here in 1837. The Consett steel works were an industrial giant which once had iron interests in Germany and Spain. The works dominated the local skyline. until their closure in 1980.

There is a story that one of the Shotley swordmaking fraternity, a certain William Oley, was once challenged by two other swordmakers to see who could make the sharpest and most resilient sword. On the day of the challenge, the three men turned up, but it seemed that Oley had forgotten to bring an example of his work. The two other swordmakers, assuming that he had been unable to make a sword of a suitable standard, began to boastfully demonstrate the strength, sharpness and resiliency of their workpieces.

Eventually their curiosity got the better of them and they asked Oley why he had not brought a sword.With a mischevious grin, Oley removed his stiff hat, to reveal a super-resilient sword, coiled up inside. He challenged the other two swordmakers to remove the sword from the hat, but their attempts nearly resulted in the loss of their fingers. In the end the sword could only be removed by means of a vice. For strength, sharpness and resiliency Oley’s sword was undoubtedly the winner.

The Muggleswick Plot

The name of the Derwentdale village of Muggleswick, means `Mocla’s Wick’ – the farm belonging to Mocla, a descendant of a Celtic chieftain. In later times it was the site of the hunting lodge for Muggleswick Park, which belonged to the priors of Durham. Muggleswick park was enclosed by prior Hugh De Darlington in the thirteenth century as an alternative to the Prince Bishop’s hunting park at Stanhope, in Weardale. In 1662 a rather mysterious event took place at Muggleswick.

On March 22nd of that particular year, news came to the Bishop of Durham that a huge army of Quakers, and religous reformers were gathering on Muggleswick Common. It was said that they were preparing to murder the Bishop, Dean and Prior, and overthrow the parliament of all England. Bishop John Cosin, along with the High Sheriff of Durham, quickly collected together their retainers and set off for Muggleswick to put down the rising. When they finally arrived at Muggleswick there was however, no trace of the rebels.

In fact, there was no evidence that any large group of people had ever been anywhere near Muggleswick Common. The Bishop of Durham had clearly been the victim of a practical joke. Either that or the rising had been mysteriously abandoned.

At some point in time the village of Muggleswick is said to have been the home of a ferrocious giant called Mug, who was a friend of the neighbouring giants called Con (at Consett) and Ben (at Benfieldside). These three Giants are said to have amused themselves, by throwing a great hammer at each other, which when dropped, made huge dints in the hillsides which can still be seen to this day. The inspiration for this Giant legend, may have been a large statured hunting man, burried in Muggleswick churchyard. His favourite hound is said to have given birth to six puppies, in one of his shoes.


Moving deeper into the Pennine hills to the west of Muggleswick, the dale of the river Derwent is dominated by the three mile long Derwent reservoir, the largest in the region after Kielder. It was built in 1967.Further west still on the Northumberland side of the River Derwent, is the attractive village of Blanchland. Its name is Norman-French and means the `White Lands’. This is probably a reference to the white habits, worn by the Premonstratensian monks of the old Blanchland abbey, which was founded in 1165 by a Norman baron called Walter De Bolbec. A well known legend, relates how Blanchland abbey fell victim to a Scottish raid due to the foolishness of the monks.

The story is that Scots were raiding the Derwent valley hoping to plunder the Blanchland monastery for its riches. Fearful of what the raiders might do, the monks of Blanchland began to pray. Prayers seemed to have been answered, when suddenly a thick mist engulfed the Derwent valley and caused the raiding party to lose their way. Crossing the Derwent into County Durham, the raiders, unable to locate the abbey, continued to look for livestock, or anything else they could thieve from this north western part of the Durham Bishopric. It was then that the monks made a fatal mistake, for upon hearing that the Scots had passed them by, they began to joyfully ring the abbey bells in celebration.

The raiders still in County Durham at a place later named Dead Friars Hill, were of course able to hear the bells, which enabled them to make their way back towards Blanchland. Many of the monks lost their lives in the ensuing raid. The abbey was severely burnt. Did the bellringers, live to regret their actions ? – we do not know. All that remains of the old abbey today, is Blanchland’s church of St Mary.

Most of present day Blanchland is a well planned stone village dating from 1752. Using stone taken from the ruined Blanchland abbey, the village was built largely by the Trustees of Nathaniel Lord Crewe, an eighteenth century Bishop of Durham. The charming village is built around an L shaped piazza, with a gateway that gives it an Italianate appearance.Lord Crewe’s name is commemorated in the name of the Lord Crewe Arms, in the centre of the village.

The bishop’s association with the Blanchland area resulted from his marriage to a member of a local family called the Forsters, who also owned land at Bamburgh, (where we find another Lord Crewe Arms). The Forster family were strongly associated with the Jacobite rising of 1715, led by the Northumbrian, Tom Forster. The part played in the rising by Bishop Crewe’s niece, Dorothy Forster is commemorated in the Sir Walter Beasant novel Dorothy Forster (1884). Scenes from the novel feature Blanchland.West of Blanchland is the source of the River Derwent, at a point called `Gibraltar Rock’ . Here the river is formed by the confluence of the Nookton and Beldon Burns. To the south are the valleys of Weardale and the Rookhope Burn.

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