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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 the site of the Kepier Quarries one of the locations where sandstone used in the building of Durham Cathedral is thought to have been quarried 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.
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.