East Durham and the Durham Coast

Coastal Denes

The Crimdon Beck immediately north of Hartlepool forms the first of a series of small wooded valleys called `Denes’ which are a regular feature of the County Durham coast. The best known of these is the attractive Castle Eden Dene, which joins the sea to the north of the cave infested Blackhall Rocks. The Castle Eden Dene, formed by the wooded ravine of the Castle Eden Burn, provides an ideal nature reserve for the town of Peterlee.

In prehistoric times, a large area of what is now County Durham formed part of a glacial lake which during a melting period cut its way through the limestone escarpment of the Durham coast to form the Denes at Crimdon, Castle Eden, Easington, Hawthorn, Dawdon, Seaham and Ryhope.

The names of the streams and denes on the Durham coast are of interest, because to the north of Crimdon they tend to have the Anglo-Saxon name `Burn’ while to the south they are called `Becks’ in old Viking style. The reason may be that the land south of the River Tees was formerly a part of the Viking Kingdom of Jorvik (York) while the area to the north of Hartlepool remained in the old Anglo-Saxon province of Northumbria, where the older `Germanic’ dialect has partly survived.


Peterlee is one of the North East’s new towns, though few know it is also the site of a deserted medieval village called Yoden. The modern town was created in 1948, to rehouse growing populations from nearby mining villages. It is named after Mr Peter Lee, an important miner’s leader who became the chairman of England’s first all Labour council at Durham in 1909.

Lee was born in 1864 at Trimdon Grange, a colliery village in eastern Durham and at the age of ten he started work as a pony driver at Littletown Colliery,  just outside Durham City. By the age of sixteen he had achieved the status of a coal hewer. In 1886 Lee emigrated to the United States, where he worked in the mines of Ohio, Kentucky and Pensylvania, before returning to County Durham in 1887. He died in 1935 at the age of seventy.

The Easington Hare

Easington, a village to the north of Peterlee, was once the home of Nicholas Brakespeare, who later became Adrian IV, the only English pope. The village is also associated with a curious piece of local folklore; `the Legend of the Easington Hare’. This strange little creature had been persistently hunted on numerous occasions, throughout the countryside near Easington but it was extremely elusive, always managing to escape.

Finally one day, a hound managed to bite the leg of the hare just before it escaped into a hole in the wall of a nearby ruined building. The huntsmen were determined to capture the mischevious little beast and entered the building to search for it. To their astonishment they could only find an old woman nervously bandaging her bleeding leg. The building was searched throughout and there seemed to be no way that the hare could have escaped. Only one conclusion could be made, the old lady was the hare, the hare was a witch !.

Seaham and Byron’s wedding

Three miles up the coast from Easington to the north of the Hawthorn Burn Dene we find the town of Seaham Harbour. The harbour was created in 1828 by the Marquess of Londonderry, whose family name of Vane Tempest is remembered in the name of a local colliery. Londonderry built the harbour for the shipping of coals from the collieries he owned at Rainton near Durham City.The poet Lord Byron (1770-1845), was married at Seaham in 1815. His bride was Lady Ann Isabella Milbanke, the daughter of a local squire.

The marriage was not a happy one and the unfortunate wife was later ridiculed in one of Byron’s poems as `Lady Millpond’. Byron does not seem to have enjoyed his time at Seaham as in a letter to his friend Moore he complained; “Upon this dreary coast we have nothing but county meetings and shipwrecks; and I have this day dined upon fish, which probably dined upon the crews of several colliers lost in the late gales”.

Trimdon : King Canute’s pilgrimage

According to legend Trimdon, near the source of the River Skerne was the place where King Canute shaved his head and trimmed his beard before donning a cloak at the beginning of a bare foot pilgrimage from Garmondsway near Coxhoe to St Cuthbert’shrine at Durham. Sadly there is no evidence to support the claim that Trimdon means ‘trimming and donning’ as early forms of the name are quite different.

Historic forms of the name include Tremeldona in 1196 and Trembledon in 1339 and the present form Trimdon did not come into use until 1539. The don in Trimdon is almost certainly an Anglo-Saxon word for a hill and is perhaps a reference to the nearby ridge which stretches west to Cornforth. Tremel the first part of the early name Tremeldon is thought to mean a wooden cross or sign. It has been argued that the name referred to a wooden post erected by pagan Anglo-Saxons and that a Christian church was later established on the site.

The old view that the don referred to a mound formed by a pagan burial is now thought unlikely. Today the original Trimdon is the site of a medieval church but is now accompanied by the nearby villages of Trimdon Grange and Trimdon Colliery, both more recent settlements with coal mining origins.

The Trimdon Grange Explosion

Mining disasters and colliery explosions were a feature of life in the coal mining days of County Durham history (See Coal Mining and the Railways). The Trimdon Grange Colliery Explosion which took place ion February 16 1883 is especially famous because it was recorded in a song by the County Durham Pitman poet Tommy Armstrong of Tanfield Lea, North West Duham(1848-1920). Tommy’s song was composed to raise money in aid of the widows and orphans.

Let us not think of tomorrow,
Lest we disappointed be;
All our joys may turn to sorrow,
As we all may daily see.
Today we may be strong and healthy,
But how soon there comes a change
As we may learn from the explosion.
That has been at Trimdon Grange.
Men and boys left home that morning.
For to earn their daily bread.
Little thought before that evening
T hat they’d be numbered with the dead;
Let us think of Mrs Bumett,
Once had sons but now has none.
By the Trimdon Grange explosion.
joseph George and Tames are gone.
February left behind it
What will never be forgot;
Weeping widows, helpless children,
May he found in many a cot,
Homes that once were blest with comfort,
Guarded by a father’s care,
Now are solemn, sad and gloomy,
Since the father is not there.
Little children, kind and and loving,
From their homes each day would run
Far to meet their father’s coming,
As each hard day’s work was done.
Now they ask if father’s left them.
Then the mother hangs her head
With a weeping widows feelings.
Tells the child that father’s dead.”
God protect the lonely widow,
Help to raise each drooping head;
Be a father to the orphans,
Never let them cry for bread.
Death will pay us all a visit,
They have only gone before;
We may meet the Trimdon victims
where explosions are no more.

Bishop Middleham and Mainsforth

A mile to the north west of Sedgefield, is the village of Bishop Middleham, where the remains of a castle earthwork can be seen. The castle was once an important residence of the Prince Bishops of Durham. Two little known Durham Bishops, Robert De Insula (1274-1283) and Richard Kellaw (1311-1316) are known to have died at the Bishop Middleham residence. De Insula was described as “a jolly monk, whose mother complained of too many servants” while Richard Kellaw’s reign was troubled by Scottish raids and problems with local robbers and bandits, who he tried very hard to suppress.

To the west of Bishop Middleham, on the other side of the Durham motorway and back into former colliery country, is the small hamlet of Mainsforth near Ferryhill. This was the site of Mainsforth Hall, home of Robert Surtees (1779-1834), author of The History and Antiquities of the County Palatine of Durham. His four volume work is the classic pre-industrial history of the County. Mainsforth Hall was demolished in 1962, but the Surtees Society was set up after the death of Robert, aiming to continue his work through the publication of historical manuscripts relating to Northumberland, Durham and the North Riding of Yorkshire.

Sedgefield the heart of South East Durham

The untypically flat Durham countryside to the east of Newton Aycliffe and Darlington is among the least populated parts of the eastern part of the County. Parts of the Sedgefield district were not within the Durham coalfield and as a result there are no former colliery villages in the locality. Apart from a few tiny rural villages, many of which are now in the nearby county of Cleveland, the most prominent feature in the area is an old Roman road called Cade’s Road, which runs northwards from Dinsdale on the Tees through the village of Sadberge towards the outskirts of Sedgefield on its way to Chester-le-Street. Sedgefield is a small market town, with the pleasant appearance of a very large village.

The town is at the heart of south east Durham and in days gone by, was fortunate enough to lie just outside the now largely redundant Durham coalfield. The town is the home of County Durham’s only racecourse and is situated close to two notable parkland estates, namely Hardwick Hall (and Country Park), to the west and Wynyard Hall (now in Cleveland), to the south.

Sedgefield is only six miles north of Stockton-on-Tees and many of its residents are commuters who work on Teesside. The church at Sedgefield is of particular interest. It contains good examples of the beautiful woodwork of John Cosin, Bishop of Durham (1660 – 1672). Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, the architectural historian, has described the work of John Cosin as “one of the most remarkable contributions” of County Durham to the history of architecture and decoration in England.

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