Durham City Gilesgate and Claypath

Old Durham

Directly across the eastern side of the river from Maiden Castle in the vicinity of Gilesgate is Old Durham Farm and the site of Old Durham. This area could once be reached from the Elvet side of the river by a ford which crossed the river from Green Lane near the Race course. Anciently the area may have had strong links with Maiden Castle as Old Durham was a Roman site. This in turn may have had connections with a possible third ancient site in the nearby Pelaw Wood.

Old Durham
View of Durham from Old Durham : ©  David Simpson

Pelaw is said to derive its name from Pele Law meaning `Fort Hill.It was known for many years that a Roman Road ran somewhere in the vicinity of Durham. Called `Cade’s Road’, its course can be traced between Coxhoe and the River Tees to the south and between Chester-le-Street and Newcastle to the north.

In the immediate area of Durham the course of the road has been lost without trace. In 1974 excavations beneath the cathedral cloister uncovered some Roman pottery and a Roman coin which may indicate the site of a native farm on the peninsula which came under a slight degree of Roman influence. It seems unlikely however that the largely inaccessible peninsula accommodated the site of a Roman Road

Old Durham near Gilesgate had long been suggested as the site of a Roman settlement and this theory seemed to be reinforced during a hot dry Summer in the last century when the remains of old bridge piers were exposed in the River Wear at Old Durham and further north at Kepier. It was suggested that these were the two points at which the old Roman Road crossed the River Wear on its way north towards Hadrian’s Wall.

The probability of a Roman Road here became more likely when in 1940 an accidental find during quarrying at Old Durham led to the discovery of the site of a Roman Bath House. Once capable of producing both dry and damp heat, the bath house is believed to have been associated with an adjacent Roman villa – the northernmost in the Roman Empire.

Excavations at Old Durham suggest that the site was occupied from the second century to the fourth century A.D. In much later years Old Durham became the site of a seventeenth century mansion belonging to the Heath family. This mansion was demolished in the following century but its terraced gardens still remain. Throughout the last century and into the present century Old Durham, its gardens and a nearby pub called the Pineapple Inn were a very popular place of recreation for Durham City folk. Some residents can still remember having picnics in the area.

Durham viewed from Gilesgate
Durham Cathedral and Castle viewed from Leazes Road, Gilesgate : ©  David Simpson

Gillygate and the Green

The long, steeply banked street of Gilesgate is still occasionally known by its medieval name of GIllygate, meaning the street of St Giles. It is named after the nearby St Giles Church, an attractive little building which claims to be the second oldest church in the City after the cathedral.

There are a number of interesting old houses in the street of Gilesgate but most picturesque are those situated by a Green near where a lane leads down to the River Bank at Pelaw Wood. Called Gilesgate Green, this was originally separate from Gilesgate itself. This area is known locally as the duck pond but there is no duckpond to be seen.

A little further up, Gilesgate splits into two parts called the Sunderland Road and the Sherburn Road and somewhere in the angle between the two (on a site now occupied by shops) stood a reputedly ancient site called the Maiden’s Bower where a signalling station or beacon is said to have existed associated with either Old Durham or the nearby fort of Maiden Castle.

Bishops skirmish at Gilesgate church

St Giles Church is well situated back from the street of Gilesgate with commanding views from its graveyard of the Cathedral, Pelaw Wood, Maiden Castle and Old Durham. Built in 1112 by Bishop Ranulf Flambard the church was constructed as a chapel for a hospital dedicated to St Giles.

The hospital stood close to the church but was burned down in the 1140sThe trouble which led to the burning of St Giles Hospital was caused by one of the most notorious characters in the history of the Bishopric of Durham called William Cumin, a usurper bishop who falsely appointed himself Prince Bishop of Durham with the encouragement of King David of Scotland. Cumin had taken up residence at Durham Castle where for three years he arrogantly abused his falsely claimed powers and terrorised the local people with the assistance of his band of armed retainers.

Cumin’s activities did not of course go unnoticed and in March 1143 when William De St Barbara was elected as the true Bishop of Durham it was realised that Cumin would have to be removed. When the real bishop came north he was supported by a number of the local barons including Roger Conyers.

They all expected the usurper to stand down. Unfortunately he did not and what is more Cumin would not allow St Barbara anywhere near the castle. The real Bishop was forced to take refuge at St Giles Church for the night. The following morning Cumin broke down the doors of St Giles Church and a pitched sword battle broke out between the supporters of the real bishop and the usurper. Terrified monks caught up in the fight prayed desperately for peace but one was nearly killed by a huge stone thrown by one of the usurper’s men.

On this occasion William St Barbara was forced to accept defeat and had to leave Durham for a time until a second unsuccessful attempt was made to oust Cumin at a later date. In August 1144 William De St Barbara tried once again to evict Cumin by enlisting the help of the Earl of Northumberland’s army. This time they were successful, Cumin’s men fled the scene, though not before he and his men had burned down the Hospital of St Giles. Later Cumin was captured by Roger Conyers at Kirk Merrington in the vicinity of Spennymoor.

Kepier Hospital

The destruction of the hospital of St Giles by William Cumin resulted in the relocation of the hospital by Bishop Pudsey to a new site a little further to the north by the River Wear at Kepier. Between Gilesgate and Kepier there is also another old hospital called the Chapel of St Mary Magdalene. This dates from 1451 and is now a protected ruin close to the A690 Sunderland to Durham Dual Carriageway road.

It lies close to a hotel which occupies the building of the original Durham railway station of 1844. The station was the western terminus of a railway line which more or less followed the course of the A690. Down towards the river Kepier Hospital remains in the form of its large vaulted arched gateway with rooms up above.

The hospital was built to relieve the poor and to welcome pilgrims visiting Durham. It was constructed by Bishop Pudsey some time after 1153 and was presided over by a master and thirteen brethren of which six were chaplains. Records show that the chaplains were entitled to new boots twice each year while the remaining brethren were only allowed simple leather shoes with thongs. Naturally Kepier was important for its hospitality and in 1298 King Edward I was among those entertained here.

Not many years later in 1306 the `visit’ of Robert the Bruce was not so warmly welcomed. On June the 15th of that year Bruce’s Scottish army swarmed towards Kepier and severely burned the building. It is likely that much of the hospital was later rebuilt as the existing gatehouse dates from the fourteenth century.

In later centuries following the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Kepier passed out of the hands of the church and in 1568 it was bought by a Londoner called John Heath who was a close friend of Bernard Gilpin `The Apostle of the North’. The Kepier Estate purchased by Heath was quite extensive and stretched as far to the east as the “farm or grange” called Ramside now the site of a hotel well to the east of Durham.

Kepier Quarry and Frankland Park

A mile or so to the east of Kepier Hospital the River Wear forms a steep gorge which is occupied on the south bank by Kepier Wood. This wood is of great importance in the history of Durham City as it is the site of the Kepier Quarries. The remains of quarrying can still be seen in the steep riverside escarpments occupied by pleasant woodland. Kepier’s ancient quarries are significant as this was the area from where most of the sandstone used in the building of Durham Cathedral was quarried many centuries ago.

Some of the stone also came from the area now occupied by Quarryheads Lane a little nearer to the cathedral. It is likely that the stone from Kepier was ferried upstream for the construction of the great church.On the northern side of the river from Kepier Wood is Frankland Wood and further west Frankland Farm.

This was the site of Frankland Park, an old deer park belonging to the Bishops of Durham. Today a large part of this area is occupied by the Newton Hall Housing Estate which is reputedly the largest private housing estate in Europe. It takes its name from the original Newton Hall, a Georgian mansion demolished in 1926. To the north east of the housing estate is H.M.P Frankland, Durham City’s second prison.

The Sands

To the west of Kepier Hospital a road leads along the river bank to a large riverside green called The Sands Since the fifteenth century this meadow has been the common pasture belonging to the freemen of the city of Durham. Across on the northern side of the river from here near Sidegate is Crook Hall a building with medieval origins. Its stairway is reputedly haunted by a ghost of a Grey lady.Back on the south side of the river, to the east of the Sands near Freemans Place is the former Ice rink once the home of the Durham Wasps ice hockey team.

The rink was founded by a very famous Durham character by the name of `Icy Smith’ and more or less occupies the site of the Bishop’s Corn Mill. Here a noisy weir crosses the River Wear beneath the busy concrete Millburngate road bridge. The Bishop’s mill was the place where the freemen of Durham could grind their corn. On the opposite site of the weir was the Clock Mill which was situated near the site now occupied by the Gates Shopping Centre. Mills are recorded in Durham as early as the twelfth century as they are mentioned in theBoldon Buke of 1183. The Boldon Buke was Durham’s equivelant of the Domesday Book.

Claypath – site of the Clayport Gate

From the Sands a road called Providence Row leads up a bank to adjoin the ancient street of Claypath known in times past as Clay Peth meaning Clay Hill. To the east Claypath becomes Gilesgate with their boundaries marked by a vennel called Tinkler’s Lane. To the west Claypath formerly joined the Market Place near St Nicholas Church but was cut off by modern road developments in the 1960s and 70s.

Close to here the Clayport Gate a feature of Durham’s ancient walled removed in 1791 formed part of the old medieval city wall of Durham and was of importance as it controlled the movement of people in and out of the city from the east. It was the only part of central Durham which could be approached without crossing the river. The gate was of a `good size’ with a chamber above it.

Adjoining the gate were walls which extended south towards Elvet Bridge and north along the back of St Nicholas church towards the river. Behind St Nicholas church the city walls ran adjacent to a 16th century house called New Place or New Palace which lay somewhere behind the Town Hall in the Market Place. The Palace was a town house belonging to the Neville family of Raby Castle who were the most powerful barons in the County of Durham. In more recent times the locality of this palace was remembered in the name of the the Palace Cinema now also long since gone.

Carpets and Cloth Workers

From St Nicholas Church the old walls of Durham City ran south down to the River Wear where a ford once crossed to Framwellgate. Here (once again in the vicinity of the Ice Rink) a road called Walkergate passed though the wall by a small gateway called the Walkergate Postern.Walkergate anciently meant the Cloth worker’s street and their trade seems to have traditionally existed in this area.

For a time in the early seventeenth century the old house called New Place (confiscated from the Nevilles following their involvement in a rebellion against Queen Elizabeth I) was used as a woollen factory. Unfortunately the business failed, as did a second attempt to establish the trade a little later.

Eventually in 1814 a weaver form Merrington called Gilbert Henderson successfully met the challenge of establishing a business on the site and by the later nineteenth century Henderson’s Durham carpets were famed throughout the world. Later the carpet factory building was bought by Mr Hugh MacKay, the Henderson’s manager who started another successful Durham business. The factory moved later to Dragonville near Gilesgate but the business is no more.

durham origins | cathedral | castle

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