Origins of Darlington

Darlington began as an Anglo-Saxon settlement on the River Skerne which is a northern tributary of the Tees. Later the town seems to have come under the influence of the Danes as there are still many place-names of Viking origin in its vicinity. Since Norman times Darlington has been a borough and the site of an important market and was arguably the capital of southern County Durham though for administrative purposes it is no longer located within that county.

Historic view of Darlington showing the Skerne and St. Cuthbert's church
Historic view of Darlington showing the Skerne and St. Cuthbert’s church

The name Darlington derives from the Anglo-Saxon Dearthington, which seemingly meant `the settlement of Deornoth’s people’ but by Norman times its name had changed to Derlinton. Confusion does not end here however, because during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the town was generally known by the name of `Darnton’ or somewhat less politely as Darnton i’ the Dirt. This unfortunate name was probably due to the once unpaved streets of the town which are said to have inspired King James of Scotland to write the following uncomplimentary verses during a visit of 1603;

‘Darnton has a bonny, bonny church
With a broach upon the steeple
But Darnton is a mucky, mucky town
And mair sham on the people.’

‘Mucky town’ is certainly not a good description of Darlington today, as like many large towns in North East England it has a pleasant and attractive appearance. It is especially well endowed with town parks and leafy suburbs although despite its long history the very centre of Darlington is now largely of a Victorian and twentieth century nature.

St Cuthbert’s, the “bonny church” referred to in the rhyme is still one of the most admirable features of Darlington. Built in the twelfth century by Hugh Pudsey, Prince Bishop of Durham Sometimes referred to as the `Lady of the North, It is one of the largest churches in the region.

In the seventeenth century Darlington became a popular place of residence for members of the Quaker faith, who formed an influential and wealthy community in the town by the 1800s. The best known member of this Darlington fraternity was Edward Pease, the man responsible for Darlington’s fame as the `Cradle of the Railways’.

It was Pease who rejected an early nineteenth century plan by local businessmen to build a canal for the shipment of coals from south Durham to the mouth of the Tees and made the innovative suggestion that steam locomotives be used instead. The suggestion was accepted.

George Stephenson, the famous engineer of Tyneside was employed by Pease to design the locomotives and develop the railway, though it was Pease who provided the financial support and he was very much in charge. On one occasion Stephenson had suggested an alternative route for the railway which would have bypassed Darlington and altered the railway history books. Pease was clear with his reply;”George thou must think of Darlington; remember it was Darlington that sent for thee”

The Stockton and Darlington Railway

The Stockton and Darlington Railway was opened on the 27th September 1825, and history was made, for as well as carrying coal, the train included six hundred passengers, most travelling in coal waggons, but some in a specially designed carriage called ‘The Experiment’. The Stockton and Darlington Railway was thus the world’s first public railway. On the historic day, the coal wagons for the journey were linked up to the locomotive called ‘Locomotion Number One’ at Shildon and were brought there from Witton Park Colliery by inclines at Etherley and Brussleton. From Shildon the Locomotion travelled for two hours with only minor hitches before arriving in Darlington, where coal was distributed to the poor. From Darlington the Locomotion and its train of passengers continued its journey to Stockton stopping only at Yarm Junction where more passengers, including a brass band climbed on board.

George Stephenson’s original `Locomotion Number One’, the locomotive that hauled the train on the historic opening of the Stockton and Darlington Railway can still be seen in Darlington today on display in the town’s fascinating North Road Station Museum. This is one of the oldest railway stations in the world. A full size working replica of the `Locomotion’ can also be seen at the Beamish Open Air Museum near Stanley, in County Durham. The `Locomotion Number One’ is of course an older engine than Stephenson’s more famous `Rocket’, which won the victory at Lancashire’s Rainhill Trials in 1829.

Bridge Building and Journalism

Railways are not the only industry for which the town of Darlington is noted. Its engineering skills, particularly bridge building have long been important and famous bridges have been built at Darlington which span rivers as far away as the Amazon and the Nile.

Darlington also has an important publishing industry, as the headquarters of the Darlington and Stockton Times and The Northern Echo. The second of these newspapers was once edited by W.T Stead, the influential Northumbrian born social reformer who died on board the Titanic in 1912. Stead began his career as an editor with the `Northern Echo’ at the age of only 22.

Hell’s Kettle and the River Skerne

Although Darlington is undoubtedly in the valley of the River Tees, it is its tributary, the little River Skerne that flows through the centre of the town which is truly the Darlington river. The Skerne rises in eastern County Durham to the north of Sedgefield near the former colliery village of Trimdon and flows south before joining the River Tees at Croft near Darlington, close to the site of the famous `Hell’s Kettles’ at Oxen-le-Field.

These three, supposedly bottomless pits also known as `Devil’s Kettles’ or `Kettles of Hell’, have been the subject of numerous legends and superstitions. Said to have been created by a ferocious earthquake in 1179, locals may tell you that they are full of green, boiling sulphorous water. People and animals are allegedly drowned or eaten alive by the Pikes and Eels that infest their waters.

The pits once aroused the curiosity of people the length and breadth of Britain and were even visited by the writer and traveller Daniel Defoe, who dismissed them as `old coal pits’. This they certainly are not, as coal has never been mined in the Darlington area.

Croft on Tees, Sockburn and Sadberge

Durham Ox Country

to the north of Darlington is the ‘new  town’ of Newton Aycliffe, that was created in 1947. Nearby are the older villages of Aycliffe and School Aycliffe. The name of the latter of these has nothing to do with the site of a former school, but in fact derives from the name of a Viking warrior called Scula who owned land in this part of south Durham many centuries ago. The former Viking occupation of southern County Durham is also indicated by the predominance of local streams in the area called `becks’ rather than `burns’.

Across the other side of the A1M motorway from Aycliffe, near the northern outskirts of Darlington, is the village of Brafferton where the famous Durham Ox was bred.

The Durham Ox was developed by the brothers, Charles and Robert Colling of nearby Ketton farm in 1796 and achieved such great fame that it was exibited throughout England and Scotland in an especially designed carriage. Over a period of five years, the ox journeyed more than 3000 miles before the unfortunate beast dislocated its hip while on show at Oxford in February 1807. It was slaughtered two months later and weighed in at 189 stones. During its lifetime, it reached an incredible maximum weight of 270 stones. The Collings acheived far reaching fame for their development and throughout the country there are many inns named after the Durham Ox of Ketton Farm.

Gainford on Tees

Gainford on Tees, near Winston to the south east of Raby was in Anglo-Saxon times the centre of an important estate belonging to the Northumbrian Congregation of St. Cuthbert. In the later Dark Ages this area was taken by the Vikings, whose settlement in the area is indicated by the names of the nearby villages of Selaby, Eppleby and Killerby. Selaby was the village where sallow grew, Eppleby the place where apples grew and Killerby was the village of someone called Kilvert. The name Kilvert is thought to be an Old Norse name meaning `One who defends the prow of a ship’.Archaeologists have found a number of Viking sculptures at Gainford and some examples of these are on display at the Monk’s Dormitory of Durham cathedral. Many of the sculptures found at Gainford show both Northumbrian and Viking influence, suggesting that the vale of the Tees was an area where these two cultures intermixed. Indeed it is known that despite the Viking settlement, Angle Northumbrians continued to be important land owners along the banks of the Tees in Viking times.

Gainford Spa

Gainford is arguably the most attractive village in County Durham and has long been a popular place of retirement for residents of nearby Darlington. The origins of its name are disputed, though there is a legend that there was once a ford on the river and that the ownership of this ford was disputed by the residents on either side of the Tees. In the end a battle was fought in which the residents of the Durham side of the river gained the ford- hence Gainford. On the Yorkshire side of the river we find the site of the deserted village of Barforth or Barford. Its name is said to be a reminder of an attempt by its residents to barricade the ford during the battle with Gainford .

In the nineteenth century Gainford village had its own spa. Today its main features are an unspoilt village green, a Jacobean hall and an attractive Georgian street called High Row. The village church of St Mary’s, Gainford is also of interest, it is on the site of an Anglo-Saxon monastery built by Bishop Ecgred of Lindisfarne in the early 9th century and is said to be the resting place of a Northumbrian chieftain called Ida or Eda. In more recent times the church became famed in local folklore as the place where a vicar married a Pigg, christened a Lamb and buried a Hogg all in the same week !

Piercebridge and the Grandfather Clock

My Grandfather’s Clock was too tall for the shelf
So it stood ninety years on the floor.

Piercebridge, on the north bank of the River Tees, two miles downstream from Gainford is in County Durham but its Hotel `The George’ is across the river in Yorkshire. The hotel is famed as the home of the clock which inspired a visiting American composer called Henry Clay Work to write his famous song `My Grandfather’s Clock ‘ (1878), from which all long case clocks now take their name.

The clock is notable in that it stopped at the very moment of its owner’s death and never worked again.

It wrang an alarm in the dead of the night,
an alarm that for years had been dumb
And we knew that his spirit was pluming for flight,
that his hour of departure had come.
Still the clock kept the time with a soft and muffled chime
as we silently stood by its side.
But it Stopped, Short,never to go again
When the old man died.

Piercebridge and Stanwick : Romans and Brigantes

Piercebridge is situated at the point where the old Roman road called Dere Street crossed the River Tees. This road ran north from the Roman military headquarters at York well up into Tweeddale. The village green at Piercebridge marks the site of a Roman fort called MAGAE which stood on the road guarding the crossing of the Tees.This fort at Piercebridge will have been of strategic importance as the fierce Ancient British tribe called the Brigantes, were closely associated with this area.

The Brigantes were the largest tribe in Roman Britain with territory extending over large areas of what are now Yorkshire, Durham, Cumbria and southern Northumberland. Celtic or Welsh speaking tribes like the Brigantes were the native inhabitants of Britain many centuries before Anglo-Saxons or Vikings made Britain their home. South west of Piercebridge can be seen one of the most significant remains associated with the Brigantes at a place called Stanwick St John. Here we find the ancient earthworks of a Brigantian camp from which the tribe fought the Romans at the Battle of Scotch Corner in A.D. 71.

The River Tees

Between Roman and Anglo Saxon times the valley of the River Tees around Piercebridge is thought to have formed the central plain of an Ancient British kingdom called Catraeth whose people would have been the descendants of the Brigantes. In fact the name of the River Tees dates from the time of the Ancient Britons, who spoke a language similar to modern day Welsh. The name Tees is related to the Welsh `Tes’ meaning `sunshine or heat’.

Tees probably means `boiling or surging river’. East of Piercebridge the Tees, ironically is neither boiling nor surging as it lethargically meanders its way towards the outskirts of Darlington, where it is crossed by the A1(M) Motorway. There are a number of Viking place names in this area, examples of which are Cleasby, Jolby, Brettanby and Ulnaby. Brettanby is a farm and manor near Scotch Corner and its name may be a Viking reference to the presence of Ancient Britons in the area. Ulnaby is a deserted medieval village on the Ulnaby Beck, a northern tributary of the Tees.

Croft on Tees, Sockburn and Sadberge

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