Villages around Durham City


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.

Countryside near Brandon Photo © David Simpson

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.

Ushaw College

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 College
Ushaw College : Photo © David Simpson

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.

Brancepeth Castle

Of all the villages that suround Durham City, old Brancepeth to the south west of the city is particularly well steeped in Brancepeth Castle which in spite of modern restorations has a long story to tell.

The castle was originally founded many centuries ago by the chief of the Anglo Saxon Bulmer family whose last male heir, Bertram Bulmer had a daughter called Emma who married Gilbert De Neuville, a Norman baron who had come to England with William the Conqueror. De Neuville’s descendants were called the Nevilles and were the owners of Brancepeth Castle until the sixteenth century.

In 1569 Brancepeth was confiscated from the Nevilles by the crown following their involvement in a plot to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I called the Rising of the North. The Nevilles had been the chief instigators of this rising which had been plotted at Brancepeth and Raby Castle with the assistance of the Percys who were the most powerful family in Northumberland.

“From every side came noisy swarms
Of peasants in their homely gear;
And, mixed with these,
to Brancepeth came Grave gentry of estate and name,
And captains known for worth in arms,
And prayed the earls in self- defence
To rise, and prove their innocence.”

William Wordsworth

The Neville family were of Norman origin but had married into a local Saxon family of Brancepeth, called the Bulmers and thus adopted the bull’s head as their emblem

Brancepeth Castle remained in the hands of the crown for a number of years until King James I gave it to Robert Carr, Earl Of Somerset. Later the castle was taken from Carr when he was found guilty of the murder of Sir Thomas Ovebury. From Carr it passed to the wealthy son of a Gateshead blacksmith called Ralph Cole who also bought Kepier Hospital.

The next owner was Sir Henry Bellaysyse, whose daughter Mary fell in love with Bobby Shafto who lived at Whitworth Hall near Spennymoor just across the River Wear from Brancepeth. Miss Bellaysyse’s love for Bobby became the subject of a very famous north country song but alas Mr Shafto had eyes for someone else and Mary is said to have died of a broken heart.

In 1796 Brancepeth was bought by William Russell a Sunderland banker . The Russels of Brancepeth became one of four great coal owning families in the north called the `Grand Allies’ and William’s son Matthew became the richest commoner in England. Later by marriage Brancepeth became the property of Lord Boyne who is commemorated in the name of a public house a little further to the north at Langley Moor. There have been a number of other owners since that time.

Brancepeth Village
Brancepeth Village Photo © David Simpson

Brancepeth Village

The surroundings of Brancepeth are quite pleasant and the ivy covered cottages which lead up to the castle are particularly attractive. The Brancepeth area caught the attention of both William Wordsworth who visited the place and featured Brancepeth in a poem and Albert Lord Tennyson who wrote Come into the Garden Maud at Brancepeth.

Of particular interest in Brancepeth is the 12th century church of St Brandon –  a beautiful church in a beautiful setting. Brancepeth is said to be named from being the Brawn’s Peth, an area frequented by a notorious brawn (or Wild boar) many centuries ago. The brawn roamed the marshy forests that once existed south of Durham in Saxon and Norman times and is said to have terrorised the local people. There is no doubt such beasts actually lived in the Durham area and there is another brawn legend associated with Bishop Auckland.

A young man by the name of Hodge from Ferryhill was employed in the pursuit of the Brancepeth Brawn and he took careful note of the paths that it frequently used. He then constructed a deep pit on the brawn’s highway and covered it with boughs and earth. Hodge was successful in his pursuit. The brawn came tumbling along and went head first into the depths of the pit. Its nauseating screeches echoed throughout the countryside. No doubt the beast later ended up on someones dinner plate.

It has been suggested that the nearby village of Brandon was anciently the site of the Brawn’s lair or den but this may also be claimed by an ancient iron age site to the north west of Brancepeth called the brawn’s den.

Brandon to the north of Brancepeth was of course the colliery village that was the setting for Frederick Grice’s delightful children’s novel about growing up in the old Durham coalfield entitled `The Bonnie Pit Laddie’ .

Croxdale and Shincliffe

From Brandon a B road leads a little way south to the junction with the Great North Road near to the point where the River Browney joins the River Wear at Croxdale. There are two great halls in this area to the east and west of the River Wear. One is Croxdale Hall which has been the seat of the Salvin family since the fifteenth century. The other is Burn Hall which was built to the designs of the Durham architect Ignatius Bonomi in 1821. It once also belonged to the Salvins but is now a Roman Catholic seminary.

Tiny chapel at Croxdale :Photo ©  David Simpson

To the north of Croxdale the River Wear is well wooded on its eastern side by Croxdale wood which leads north to the river crossing of Shincliffe bridge and the nearby village of Shincliffe. This village derives its name 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.

Shincliffe Photo © 2015 David Simpson


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 3000 but in 1874 the seams had been worked and the pit was closed. Poverty quickly followed and gradually all the residents were forced to move away. The modern High Shincliffe stands on the site of the old Bank Top Colliery village.

Kelloe and Casop Vale

The main road south from Shincliffe (the A177) leads to Coxhoe and may follow the course of a Roman Road. Coxhoe along with nearby Cornforth, Kelloe and Quarrington Hill are in Limestone Quarry country and a number of old quarries exist in this area. Some are now protected as nature reserves. The villages in this area are situated on the Magnesian Limestone Hills which are typical of the east Durham countryside between Hartlepool and South Shields.

These limestone hills were once at the bottom of a great lagoon which was pushed to the surface by powerful earth movements in prehistoric times. The local limestone is of a type called Dolomite and contains calcium and magnesian deposits. It has been used in the past as building material most notably to cement together the bricks of Durham Cathedral. Today it is an important raw material in the chemical industries of Teesside.

The village of Kelloe with a name that derives from Caluh Law (Bare Hill) had eight small coal mines in its vicinity during the last century but its history goes back well before the days of mining. Kelloe Law nearby is the site of a cist discovery dating from the Bronze age where the skeletons of an ancient family were found consisting of a father and mother aged about thirty and three children aged about four, eight and twelve.

Kelloe church : Photo © David Simpson

A little to the east of Kelloe we are at the site of a deserted medieval village called Church Kelloe. The only remains of the settlement is the Norman church of St Helen

which is noted for the well preserved and beautifully detailed Norman cross dedicated to St Helena. A tablet inside the church is also of interest. It commemorates the birth of Elizabeth Barrett Browning who was born nearby at Coxhoe Hall in 1806. Elizabeth’s family of course provided the model for the `Barretts of Wimpole Street’ but the hall where she was born was demolished in 1952.

One of the Bishops of Durham, Richard De Kellaw (1311) is known to have originated from Kelloe. He was much troubled by Scottish invasions which were fought off by the forces of the bishopric under the leadership of the bishop’s brother Patrick.

Another less notable resident of Kelloe was John Lively the seventeenth century vicar of Kelloe who was noted for the fact that he had no male heir:

Here lies John Lively,
Vicar of Kelloe
who had seven daughters
but never a fellow.

Not far from Kelloe is Beacon Hill, the site of a Napoleonic warning beacon, and also nearby is Signing Bank where pilgrims traditionally first encountered Durham Cathedral. A little further to the north is a pretty little valley called Cassop Vale. In early times this was a hunting area for Durham’s Prince Bishops. Its name derives from Cat’s Hop meaning valley of the wild cats.


To the north of Cassop are the little villages of Shadforth and Ludworth with names that mean `Shallow Ford’ and `Ludda’s Farm’. Ludworth is noted for the ruins of a Pele Tower a feature very common in Northumberland but a lot rarer in County Durham.

Peles are oblong tower houses built to protect local people from the invasions of the Scots. The fortification at Ludworth was constructed in 1422 by the Holden family on the site of their manor. A large part of the building collapsed in 1890 but one wall remains along with the foundations of a tight spiral staircase which is a typical feature of a pele tower.

To the north west of Shadforth is the village of Sherburn (From Scir Burn meaning`Bright Stream’) and the nearby Sherburn Hall which was founded in 1181 by Bishop Pudsey as an asylum for lepers. Most of Pudsey’s buildings were destroyed by an invasion of Scots and today the only original part of the building is the chapel.

Sherburn House Chapel
Chapel at Sherburn Hospital : Photo © David Simpson

Sherburn Hospital lies on the banks of the Old Durham Beck which joins the River Wear near Old Durham. In times gone by this stream was also known as the Sher Burn or the River Pitting. Upstream the beck leads to Pittington, which is the site of the historic Norman church of St Lawrence.

Pittington church underwent some restoration by Ignatius Bonomi in the nineteenth century but it has some notable surviving medieval features in the form of the nave, the tower and the north arcade. The Norman arches and zig zag decorated pillars in the church are strikingly similar to those found in Durham Cathedral.

Some of the features of the church interior are strikingly similar to the cathedral’s Galilee chapel. The reason is that both were built by Christian the master architect of Hugh Pudsey the twelfth century Bishop of Durham. Christian had been granted land in the Pittington area by the bishop.

In the nineteenth century Hallgarth near Pittington was the scene of a very famous northern murder in which a young nineteen year old servant boy at a local mill by the name of Thomas Clarke was accused of the murder of a servant girl of the same age by the name of Ann Westropp.

It was at 6 o’clock in the evening of Sunday 14th August 1831 while the mill owners were away that Thomas Clarke in a most distressed state alarmed the residents of the village of Sherburn with the information that six Irishmen had brioken into the house at Hallgarth. He claimed that they had ransacked the house for its money, and then assaulted him with a poker before brutally murdering the servant girl.

Returning to the mill with the people he had informed, the girl’s body was found in the kitchen with several brutal wounds including a cut to her throat from ear to ear. Upon futher investigation it was found that money had been stolen from the household and that a whitewashed tool had been used to break into the drawers containing the money. It was then discovered that Clarke’s room had recently been whitewashed and in that room was found a blunt piece of metal which would have fitted the identity of the tool used in the robbery.

Further suspicions arose that Clarke was the murderer when it was realised that he bore no signs of an attack upon him. Moreover Clarke and the girl had been seen together earlier in the day and he had apparently been overheard to comment on some `saucy remark’ which she had made.

Huge crowds turned out for Clarke’s trial at Durham on Valentines Day, February 14th 1831 and despite Clarke’s calm plea of innocence he was found guilty. On Monday 28th February he was hanged on the order of the judge. His last words were;

“Gentleman I am innocent, I am going to suffer for another man’s crime”

The Hallgarth murder became the subject of an interesting local ballad recalled in the Monthly Chronicle of North Country Lore and Legend 1891;

Eighteen hundred three times ten,
August the eighth that day
Let not that Sunday and that year
From memory pass away
At Hallgath Mill near Pittington
Was done a murder foul
The female weak- the murderer strong
No pity for her soul.
Her skull was broke, her throat was cut,
Her struggle was soon o’er;
And down she fell, and fetched a sigh,
And weltered in her gore.
Her fellow servant, Thomas Clarke,
To Sherburn slowly sped,
And told a tale that strangers six
Had done the dreadful deed.
Now, woe betide thee, Thomas Clarke !
For this thy coward lie;
A youth like thee for girl like her
Would fight till he did die.
“They’ve killed the lass,” it was his tale,
“and nearly have killed me”;
But when upon him folk did look,
No bruises could they see.

West Rainton

There are two notable old mansions in the vicinty of Pittington one of which is the eighteenth century Elemore Hall, birthplace of Ann Isabella Milbanke the wife of the poet Lord Byron. The other is a battlemented hotel called Ramside Hall, a building originally called Belmont Hall by Thomas Pemberton the coal owner who constructed it as a mansion in 1820.

Pemberton surrounded the hall with extensive plantations and the whole park acquired the name of Belmont. The building is now called Ramside from the name of an old grange or farm which stood on the site of the Hall. Today Belmont is the adopted name of a large housing estate adjacent to the former mining village of Carrville.

To the north of Belmont is the village of West Rainton, which was once an important coal mining area where former colliery owners included John Duck, `Durham’s Dick Whittington’ and the third Marquess of Londonderry who had a reputation as a very hard hearted employer.

The spire of the Victorian church at Rainton is a very prominent feature and can be seen from miles around. It was donated to the church by a local M.P called Sir George Eliott in 1877. A large granite tablet records the donation of the spire by the M.P – this tablet being of special interest in that it is a piece of stone taken from the great pyramid of Ghizeh in Egypt. It was removed from the pyramid with the permission of the Khedive of Egypt.

Finchale Priory

Just over a mile to the west of West Rainton across the other side of the River Wear are the ruins of Finchale Prory which is one of the most historic sites in the district of Durham City.

Finchale is mentioned as early as A.D 792 when it was the site of a synod for the Northumbrian Church held to discuss church discipline. The meeting was followed by another two in A.D 798 and in 810, which suggests that Finchale was a place of considerable importance.

In about 1104 Finchale became the site of a hermitage belonging to St. Godric who lived here for sixty years. Godric was born in Norfolk in the year 1065 and in his early years lived the life of a pedlar but later became a sea captain and travelled extensively throughout Europe. In the middle part of his life he went on a pilgrimage to Compostella in Spain where he made the decision to return home to England to live the life of a hermit.

For a time he established a hermitage at Carlisle before moving on to Wolsingham in Weardale where he lived in a cave. Following the death of a close friend Godric witnessed a vision in which he was instructed to go to a place called Finchale. He knew of the site and got the permission of the Bishop of Durham, Ranulf Flambard to establish a hermitage there. Here he built a wooden hut as a simple place of residence and committed himself to a life of prayer.

During his time at Finchale, Godric is said to have been troubled by fiends and demons who took various shapes and forms, most often appearing in the form of a damsel. Visited by `evil concupience’ he would do anything to rid himself of such trouble such as rolling naked in thorns and then pouring salt into his wounds.

On other occasions Godric would stand naked in the river for a whole night with the water up to his neck, although it is said that often the devil would make a sneaky appearance at the river bank and make off with his clothes. Godric’s activities, however eccentric they may appear, do not seem to have done the saint any harm as he lived to the grand old age of one hundred and five. His burial place lies among the ruins of the Finchale priory.

Following Godric’s death Finchale passed into the hands of the priors of Durham Cathedral Monastery and a Benedictine priory was built here around 1196 by Henry Pudsey son of Hugh, Bishop of Durham.

From the fourteenth century the priory had four resident monks but the monks of Durham Cathedral made regular visits to Finchale which they used as a kind of holiday retreat. Visiting in groups of four, the monks took it in turns to holiday at Finchale.

It is most likely that the monks travelled to Finchale above ground but there is a legend that a secret passage runs underground from Durham Castle to Finchale.

Legend has it that in the eighteenth century the passage was discovered by a blind fiddle player who with his dog walked along the passage while playing the fiddle.The sounds of the fiddle could be heard above ground and this enabled the listeners to follow his course as far as Framwellgate Bridge where the passage was said to pass underneath the River Wear.

Mysteriously upon reaching this point the music stopped and the fiddler was never seen or heard of again. His little dog is said to have turned up later with a ghostly look upon its face but Finchale’s secret passage has never been found.

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