Durham’s surrounding villages are in the main former mining settlements but many have more ancient origins and often have unexpected connections with Durham’s ecclesiastical history.
Sacriston, to the north of Durham for example takes its name from nearby Sacriston Heugh which means the hill of the Sacristan. In medieval times this was part of an estate which belonged to the Sacritsan or Sexton of Durham Cathedral Monastery. The Sacristan also known as a Segersten was the man responsible for ensuring that all cleaning, repairs of windows, bells and plumbing were carried out at the cathedral . Unfortunately the remnants of the country manor belonging to the sacristan were demolished in 1955.
Witton Gilbert, Pity Me, Bearpark
To the south of Sacriston is the village of Witton Gilbert pronounced with a soft `G’ because it is named after a Norman-French gentleman called Gilbert de la Ley. This is one of a number of villages in the Durham area which partly owe their name origins to the Norman French language. Others include Pity Me which derives from `Petit Mere’ meaning `a Small Lake’, and Bearpark which like Sacriston has an old connection with Durham cathedral
Situated between the valleys of the River Deerness and River Browney the name Bearpark conjures up the image of an old park containing bears but the name is in fact a corruption of the original Norman-French name Beau Repaire meaning `Beautiful Retreat’. This was the site of an important country residence belonging to the priors of Durham Cathedral and encompassed an estate of 1300 acres. The prior’s manor house here was largely destroyed by the Scots who invaded the area in 1640 during the Civil war.
A little to the west of Bear Park is the famous Roman Catholic seminary of Ushaw College which is the main centre in the north of England for the training of Roman Catholic priests. Its establishment dates back to the foundation of the great seminary at Douai in France which was founded in 1568 to supply catholic missionaries to England during a period of catholic repression. Douai pupils included a certain John Bost who was captured in the Deerness Valley near Durham in 1594. He was executed at Dryburn on the 24th July of that year.
In 1793 during the French revolution the college of Douai was seized and the occupants fled to England where they were permitted to establish a college at Tudhoe near Spennymoor, moving later to Crook Hall (near Lanchester) and later Pontop Hall. In 1808 the college was finally established at it present site to the west of Bearpark.
Ushaw College is the home to a number of important historical possesions including the finger ring of St Cuthbert which may be worn by the Roman Catholic Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle on special occasions. The college is also famous for a unique brand of squash originally played at the college of Douai.
Ushaw and Esh
The former mining village of Ushaw Moor lies to the south of Ushaw College in the Deerness Valley. Its name means `the wolf’s wood moor’ while the name of Esh Winning village a liittle to the west derives from the nearby smaller village of Esh meaning Ash (as in Ash Tree). The `Winning’ in Esh Winning describes the finding or winning of coal here many years ago
The history of the Deerness valley goes back a long way as a Roman road called Dere Street passed through this area. It crossed the River Deerness somewhere between Ushaw moor and Esh on its way towards the Roman fort at Lanchester.
The little village of Shinclifee just south of Durham City has a name that intriguingly derives from the Anglo-Saxon ‘Scinna Cliffe’ meaning ‘the hill of the ghost or demon’ although it is a pleasant old village which seems an unlikely setting for demonic activities.
In medieval times Shincliffe belonged to the priors of Durham Cathedral monastery who seemed to have got involved in several quarrels with the bishop in this area. It is recorded that in 1300 the prior was attacked by the bishop’s retainers on Shincliffe Bridge and five years later the same prior complained that one of the bishop’s servants had stolen a horse from him at Shincliffe and taken it off to Durham Castle. The priors park lay just to the north of Shincliffe.
High Shincliffe lies just to the south of Shincliffe itself. It is now a modern estate but occupies the site of an old mining settlement called Bank Top. The pitmen who once lived here came from all parts of Northumberland and Durham but surprisingly none actually originated from Shincliffe.
The pit had been sunk around 1837 and one of its later owners was Joseph Love a former pitman who married into wealth and became a coal owner. Despite his charitable donations to the church he had a reputation for undue harshness in his behaviour towards the miners. Love is said to have made a fortune from fining miners who in his opinion were not working hard enough and would also occasionally stop credit to miners at the local shops which he owned.
Love’s colliery village had a population of around 3,000 but in 1874 the seams had been worked and the pit was closed and its residents moved on.