North West Durham
North West Durham includes the towns of Consett and Stanley and other places to the west of Chester-le-Street. From 1974 to 2009 up until the abolition of district councils in Durham it formed the County Durham district of Derwentside.
In truth the river actually lies on the western fringe of County Durham and has long been the traditional dividing line between the counties of Durham and Northumberland. Towns like Consett and Shotley Bridge lie close to the Derwent but others like Stanley and Annfield Plain in the colliery districts further to the east and south towards Beamish form a distinct region that was the oldest extensive coal mining area in the present County of Durham.
Several areas of the historic north western part of Durham have formed part of Gateshead since the 1970s. Like much of County Durham, North West Durham consist of much beautiful rolling countryside and wooded valleys with the hills of the Pennines increasingly dominant to the west.
The wooded lower Derwent
The River Derwent, two miles north east of Tanfield, for much of its course forms the boundary between the counties of Durham and Northumberland and is perhaps one of the least known valleys of the region. In its upper stretches, the river forms the Pennine dale of the Derwent while further downstream, close to the outskirts of industrial Tyneside, the lower part of the valley provides attractive wooded countryside, so typical of many parts of County Durham. The Derwent valley has probably always been well wooded hereabouts, as its ancient British name `Dere Went’ means `river where oaks grew’.
One notable feature of the lower Derwent valley in is the attractive Derwent Walk Country Park, which follows the course of the old Derwent valley railway between Swalwell on Tyne and the town of Consett. The park is administered partly by Durham County Council and partly by Gateshead MBC.
Chopwell – ‘Little Moscow’
On the north bank of the River Derwent, in view from the country walk, is the beautiful Chopwell Wood and nearby, the village of Chopwell, which was known in the 1920’s as `Little Moscow’ because of the extreme political views of its miners. During the General Strike of 1926, the residents of this former mining town went to the extremes of replacing the Union Jack at the local council offices with that of the ‘Hammer and Sickle’. They are also said to have removed a copy of the bible from the church and replaced it with the works of Karl Marx. Even the streets of Chopwell were once named after Lenin, Marx and Engels.
Hamsterley Hall nearby, on the south side of the Derwent was the home of Robert Smith Surtees (1803-1864), a character of a quite different nature to the once militant miners of Chopwell. Not to be confused with Robert Surtees the Durham historian, this author was more famous for his novels on foxhunting and country pursuits. He was the founder of the New Sporting Magazine of 1831, which featured his best known creation Jorrocks `the Sporting grocer’. Surtees is burried in the churchyard at Ebchester, a village further upstream.
St Ebbe and Ebchester
Ebchester was the place where the Roman road called Dere Street (the Forest way), once crossed the River Derwent on route between York and Hadrian’s Wall. It was also the site of a Roman fort called Vindomara, whose name meant `Edge of the Black Moor’.
The site of the Roman fort has undergone very little excavation, as it is largely built over, but some Roman remains, including an altar are incorporated into the stonework of the village church.Ebchester church, dedicated to St Ebbe, stands at what would have been the south west corner of the Roman fort. It is a Norman church with nineteenth century alterations and is supposed to occupy the site of an Anglo-Saxon monastery founded by St Ebbe in the seventh century. St Ebbe was the daughter of Aethelfrith, the first King of Northumbria, but there is no proof of the existence of her monastery at Ebchester. It may have been destroyed by the Vikings.
Lanchester : Longovicium
From Ebchester, the course of the Roman Dere Street leads six miles south to Lanchester village, site of the Roman fort of Longovicum. Lanchester is in the valley of the River Browney, which joins the River Wear near Durham City. Longovicium means the `long settlement’, and there seems to have been a large Roman civilian settlement orVICUS at Lanchester in addition to the fort. The fort which is in fact half a mile south west of Lanchester was built around the time of Hadrian’s Wall (A.D 122).
It superseeded the earlier Vindomara (Ebchester) and Vinovia (Binchester), which are the neighbouring forts on Dere Street. Longovicium was in use until the 4th century A.D. Some of the stones from the ruins of Longovicium are incorporated into local farm buildings and into Lanchester’s attractive Norman church of All Saints. Inside the south porch of the church, a Roman altar can be seen dedicated to a godess called Garmangabis.
Such Roman remains were of great interest to Canon William Greenwell (1822-1919), the historian, archaeologist and archivist who is burried in Lanchester churchyard. Greenwell was for forty six years a librarian at Durham cathedral and was noted for his studies of archaeological sites, like ancient barrows. He was also a keen angler and is perhaps best remembered in the name of Greenwell’s Glory, a type of fishing fly, which he inventedGreenwell’s father had been a great friend of the Durham historian Robert Surtees, but Lanchester is more closely associated with the principal historian of Northumberland, the Reverend John Hodgson, who lived here between 1804 and 1806. In his time at Lanchester, Hodgson made extensive studies of the fort of Longovicium.
Shotley Bridge and Consett
Shotley Bridge, a village in the Derwent valley near the town of Consett was once the heart of Britain’s swordmaking industry. The origins of swordmaking here dated from 1691, when a group of Lutheran swordmakers from Solingen in Germany, settled at Shotley, after leaving their homeland to escape religous persecution.Shotley had probably been chosen because of the rich iron deposits in the area and because of the fast flowing waters of the River Derwent, which were ideal for tempering swords. Another factor may have been the remoteness of the area, as the swordmakers were keen to preserve their trade secrets. Derwentside seemed an unlikely setting for industrial espionage. It is also worth noting that the swordmakers were able to employ the services of the famous local engraver Thomas Bewick. Sadly swords are no longer made in the Shotley district.
The iron ore deposits in the vicinity of Shotley, also encouraged the growth of the nearby town of Consett . Once known as `Berry Edge’, Consett began to grow after the finding of the Consett Iron and Steel works here in 1837. The Consett steel works were an industrial giant which once had iron interests in Germany and Spain. The works dominated the local skyline. until their closure in 1980.
There is a story that one of the Shotley swordmaking fraternity, a certain William Oley, was once challenged by two other swordmakers to see who could make the sharpest and most resilient sword. On the day of the challenge, the three men turned up, but it seemed that Oley had forgotten to bring an example of his work. The two other swordmakers, assuming that he had been unable to make a sword of a suitable standard, began to boastfully demonstrate the strength, sharpness and resiliency of their workpieces.
Eventually their curiosity got the better of them and they asked Oley why he had not brought a sword.With a mischevious grin, Oley removed his stiff hat, to reveal a super-resilient sword, coiled up inside. He challenged the other two swordmakers to remove the sword from the hat, but their attempts nearly resulted in the loss of their fingers. In the end the sword could only be removed by means of a vice. For strength, sharpness and resiliency Oley’s sword was undoubtedly the winner.
The Muggleswick Plot
The name of the Derwentdale village of Muggleswick, means `Mocla’s Wick’ – the farm belonging to Mocla, a descendant of a Celtic chieftain. In later times it was the site of the hunting lodge for Muggleswick Park, which belonged to the priors of Durham. Muggleswick park was enclosed by prior Hugh De Darlington in the thirteenth century as an alternative to the Prince Bishop’s hunting park at Stanhope, in Weardale. In 1662 a rather mysterious event took place at Muggleswick.
On March 22nd of that particular year, news came to the Bishop of Durham that a huge army of Quakers, and religous reformers were gathering on Muggleswick Common. It was said that they were preparing to murder the Bishop, Dean and Prior, and overthrow the parliament of all England. Bishop John Cosin, along with the High Sheriff of Durham, quickly collected together their retainers and set off for Muggleswick to put down the rising. When they finally arrived at Muggleswick there was however, no trace of the rebels.
In fact, there was no evidence that any large group of people had ever been anywhere near Muggleswick Common. The Bishop of Durham had clearly been the victim of a practical joke. Either that or the rising had been mysteriously abandoned.
At some point in time the village of Muggleswick is said to have been the home of a ferrocious giant called Mug, who was a friend of the neighbouring giants called Con (at Consett) and Ben (at Benfieldside). These three Giants are said to have amused themselves, by throwing a great hammer at each other, which when dropped, made huge dints in the hillsides which can still be seen to this day. The inspiration for this Giant legend, may have been a large statured hunting man, burried in Muggleswick churchyard. His favourite hound is said to have given birth to six puppies, in one of his shoes.
Moving deeper into the Pennine hills to the west of Muggleswick, the dale of the river Derwent is dominated by the three mile long Derwent reservoir, the largest in the region after Kielder. It was built in 1967.Further west still on the Northumberland side of the River Derwent, is the attractive village of Blanchland. Its name is Norman-French and means the `White Lands’. This is probably a reference to the white habits, worn by the Premonstratensian monks of the old Blanchland abbey, which was founded in 1165 by a Norman baron called Walter De Bolbec. A well known legend, relates how Blanchland abbey fell victim to a Scottish raid due to the foolishness of the monks.
The story is that Scots were raiding the Derwent valley hoping to plunder the Blanchland monastery for its riches. Fearful of what the raiders might do, the monks of Blanchland began to pray. Prayers seemed to have been answered, when suddenly a thick mist engulfed the Derwent valley and caused the raiding party to lose their way. Crossing the Derwent into County Durham, the raiders, unable to locate the abbey, continued to look for livestock, or anything else they could thieve from this north western part of the Durham Bishopric. It was then that the monks made a fatal mistake, for upon hearing that the Scots had passed them by, they began to joyfully ring the abbey bells in celebration.
The raiders still in County Durham at a place later named Dead Friars Hill, were of course able to hear the bells, which enabled them to make their way back towards Blanchland. Many of the monks lost their lives in the ensuing raid. The abbey was severely burnt. Did the bellringers, live to regret their actions ? – we do not know. All that remains of the old abbey today, is Blanchland’s church of St Mary.
Most of present day Blanchland is a well planned stone village dating from 1752. Using stone taken from the ruined Blanchland abbey, the village was built largely by the Trustees of Nathaniel Lord Crewe, an eighteenth century Bishop of Durham. The charming village is built around an L shaped piazza, with a gateway that gives it an Italianate appearance.Lord Crewe’s name is commemorated in the name of the Lord Crewe Arms, in the centre of the village.
The bishop’s association with the Blanchland area resulted from his marriage to a member of a local family called the Forsters, who also owned land at Bamburgh, (where we find another Lord Crewe Arms). The Forster family were strongly associated with the Jacobite rising of 1715, led by the Northumbrian, Tom Forster. The part played in the rising by Bishop Crewe’s niece, Dorothy Forster is commemorated in the Sir Walter Beasant novel Dorothy Forster (1884). Scenes from the novel feature Blanchland.West of Blanchland is the source of the River Derwent, at a point called `Gibraltar Rock’ . Here the river is formed by the confluence of the Nookton and Beldon Burns. To the south are the valleys of Weardale and the Rookhope Burn.