Ayciffe village, situated close to the River Skerne is a place with a long history and the home to a church of partly Anglo-Saxon origin dedicated to St Andrew. Aycliffe was evidently a place of importance in Anglo-Saxon times as religious synods, important meetings of the Northumbrian church, were held here in 782 AD and 789 AD.
Aycliffe of course has a Saxon name meaning ‘oak clearing’. It was originally called Acley and was part of a felled area in a great oak woodland that stood in the district. In later times one part of Aycliffe’s Saxon estate was acquired by a Viking called Scule which is why we have the neighbouring village of School Aycliffe.
To the north and east of Aycliffe the River Skerne winds its way southward through the flat, sparsely populated and historically poorly drained lands to the south of Sedgefield. The river, which has its source near Trimdon, is always little more than a large stream, only becoming a small river in the Darlington area as it approaches the River Tees.
East of Aycliffe the Skerne passes the farmstead of Preston-le-Skerne. As with other Prestons the name suggests a place that once belonged to a priest with the ‘le’ element added by Norman French bureaucrats to help them distinguish it from other places called Preston.
The name of the Skerne itself derives from the Old Norse ‘skirr’ meaning bright and clear which is the same as the ‘sher’ in Anglo-Saxon place-names like Sherburn. Skerne is also the name of a village in the East Riding of Yorkshire which is named from a nearby beck.
Newton Aycliffe and Woodham
Newton Aycliffe to the north west of Aycliffe is a new town that was created in 1947 to provide new housing and industrial growth in south Durham. Named from the nearby village of Aycliffe it was given the prefix ‘Newton’ to distinguish it from its older neighbour.
The southerly half of Newton Aycliffe consists of industrial estates and includes Heighington Railway Station on a north westerly extension of the old Stockton and Darlington Railway.
The industrial estate also includes the site of the Aycliffe Royal Ordnance Factory that was situated in Heighington Lane. Here worked the ‘Aycliffe Angels’ a name given to around 17,000 women from surrounding villages who were employed in the dangerous work of munitions manufacture during the Second World War.
Housing in Newton Aycliffe is focused in the northern part of the town and is mostly modern late twentieth century. Woodham, the most recent development in the northerly part of the town includes the site of the deserted medieval village called Woodham that can still be traced as mounds and bumps in a field alongside the neighbouring Woodham Burn.
Surprisingly the name of School Aycliffe which lies to the west of the other two Aycliffes has nothing to do with an educational establishment, but derives from the name of a Viking warrior called Scule who owned land in this part of south Durham many centuries ago. It is probably the same Scule who was given land in south Durham (from Castle Eden to Billingham) by Ragnald, the Viking king of Dublin and York as a reward for military service around 920 AD.
Ragnald and his warriors were Irish Vikings who invaded the north of England from their colonial base of Dublin in Ireland. Ragnald seized York from the Danes and appointed himself king of all the Vikings in Britain. In addition to the land given to Scule, Ragnald also awarded land in East Durham (from Castle Eden to the mouth of the Wear) to another of his warriors called Olaf Ball.
The former Viking occupation of southern County Durham is indicated by the predominance of local streams in the area called ‘becks’ rather than ‘burns’ and as we head south a substantial number of Viking place-names around Darlington can be found that often end in the tell-tale letters ‘by’.
Heighington and Redworth
Heighington is a pretty village set around a substantial village green to the south of School Aycliffe and is worth checking out. The village stands on high ground which looks out across the vale of the Tees to the south and west. At the centre of the village green is a Norman church dedicated to St Michael which completes the setting.
The scale of the old part of the village may reflect its former status as the centre of an Anglo-Saxon estate called Heighingtonshire of which the village may have been the capital. Such estates are thought to have had their roots as tribal districts going back to Celtic times. Aucklandshire, Quarringtonshire and Wirralshire are other examples of such estates, the last of these being the name of a shire between the mouths of the River Wear and Tyne.
It is possible that the ancient Celtic district that became Heighingtonshire was originally focused on the small Iron Age fort at Shackleton Beacon just to the north west of the village. Ancient Britons were Celts and were described by the later Anglo-Saxons as ‘Welsh’ which means ‘foreigner’. Interestingly Walworth to the south of Heighington has a name that means ‘enclosure of the Welsh’.
The name of Shackleton Beacon Hill comes from the Anglo-Saxon ‘Sceacere Dun’ which means robber’s hill and was recorded as Shakkerdounlawe in the 1380s. At some point in history, probably long after it had been abandoned by the Britons it perhaps became a camp for thieves.
North of Heighington towards Shildon is the village of Redworth which is home to the Redworth Hall Hotel. The hall dates to the 1600s with additions of 1744. It was extended by Robert Surtees in the 1820s. The hall was long associated with the Surtees family who originated from Dinsdale near the River Tees from which they took their name.
It was a Robert Surtees who built the hall in 1744 but he should not be confused with Robert Surtees, the Durham historian of Mainsforth (a great nephew). Nor should he be confused with Robert Smith Surtees the author of Jorrocks who lived in Hamsterley Hall near the River Derwent in North West Durham. Smith Surtees was the nephew and heir of Redworth’s Robert. Members of the Surtees family still lived at Redworth Hall up until 1955.
Shildon is situated half way between the towns of Bishop Auckland and Newton Aycliffe and is about a mile distant from each of the two places. The name Shildon means ‘shelf-dun’ – the shelf hill – from its location on a level shelf of land between hills which was an important factor in its later development as a railway town.
In the nineteenth century the old village of Shildon (Old Shildon) started to grow and was also joined by a new neighbour about a quarter of a mile to the south called New Shildon which was associated with the railway developments for which Shildon is principally famed. Over time the two places merged into one.
Old Shildon was the site of Shildon Lodge Colliery in the West Road area (1830s-1930s) whose owners included Robert Surtees of Redworth and the Middlesbrough ironmasters Bolckow and Vaughan. New Shildon was the home to Shildon Colliery (1880s-1924). This was also known as Dabble Duck Colliery because it was wet in the workings and its site is now marked by the Dabble Duck Industrial Estate.
However, Shildon was primarily a railway town in origin and will be forever associated with the early history of the railways, as it was from here on the 26th September 1825 that George Stephenson’s famous ‘Locomotion Number One‘, made its historic journey to Darlington for the opening of what was effectively the world’s first public railway.
Shildon, rather than Darlington was the western terminus for locomotives on the Stockton and Darlington railway and in fact the railway itself, extended further west still, beyond Shildon towards Etherley and Witton Park Collieries near the River Wear. This part of the railway was operated by means of inclines and stationary engines.
Shildon was noted in railway circles as the home of the railway pioneer Timothy Hackworth, who had been an assistant to George Stephenson before setting up his own works in the town of Shildon. Hackworth hailed from Wylam in the Tyne Valley and worked at Wylam Colliery like his father before him. George Stephenson and the locomotive builder William Hedley had also worked at Wylam.
Locomotives built by Hackworth at Shildon included the Royal George, which ran between Stockton and Darlington. Perhaps more famously, he built, along with William Hedley, the Sans Pereil, which competed against Stephenson’s victorious Rocket at the Rainhill Trials in Lancashire in 1830. Sans Pereil means ‘without equal’.
Until the 1980s Shildon could still claim to be an active railway town, but sadly its last great link with the industry was broken in 1984 by the closure of the Shildon wagon works and today their site is now the Hackworth Industrial Estate
The works opened in 1833 to serve the Stockton and Darlington Railway and engines were maintained here by Hackworth who served as engine superintendent. Hackworth’s brother, Thomas Hackworth, was the manager of the works.
Today, however, the town’s railway links are restored in the national conscience, as the home to the National Railway Museum at Shildon. The museum, a branch of the national museum was opened in 2004 by Tony Blair and the main part of the museum occupies a modern purpose-built engine-shed building situated on railway sidings just off the old Stockton and Darlington Railway on the east side of Shildon.
The main building houses several interesting and impressive locomotives from the national collection as well as carriages. Locomotives include Timothy Hackworth’s original Sans Pareil locomotive and a working replica of the same. Also here is a replica of Stephenson’s famous Locomotion Number One.
Other parts of the museum are notable historic sites still in their original locations along the course of a demonstration railway line where working locomotives occasionally operate. At the opposite end of this line is Timothy Hackworth’s cottage which has long been established as a museum and in between are a railway workshop, a goods shed and a coal drops.
As well as Hackworth, another great industrial notable associated with Shildon was Daniel Adamson (1820-1890) who was famed as an iron manufacturer and canal builder in Manchester. Adamson’s father who was also called Daniel was the proprietor of the Grey Horse in Old Shildon which can still be seen and is thought to have been Daniel junior’s birthplace.
Opposite the pub is what may well be the oldest surviving railway coach station where Daniel senior operated a horse drawn coach service to Darlington. A branch of the Stockton and Darlington Railway called the Surtees Railway ran through this area in Shildon’s West Road from the 1830s serving the Shildon Lodge Colliery. There is no railway there today.
All of the activity and excitement surrounding the foundation of the Stockton and Darlington Railway may have provided inspiration for the younger Daniel who was apprenticed to Timothy Hackworth at the Shildon engine works. He built his first locomotive in his teens and went on to become manager of the works.
Adamson progressed to become a very wealthy and successful industrial entrepreneur, moving on to the North West where he set up an iron works in Cheshire and then Manchester where he is principally remembered as the driving force behind the Manchester Ship Canal which he successfully instigated in the 1880s. Getting the act for the construction of the canal through parliament made him a great industrial hero in that city but he did not live to see the canal’s completion.
On a literary front, Shildon was the birthplace of the North East writer Sid Chaplin (1916-1986) who later moved to Ferryhill where he worked in the mines. The Jarrow playwright Alan Plater based his musical ‘Close the Coal House Door’ (music by Alex Glasgow) on Chaplin’s early work. Chaplin later lived in Newcastle upon Tyne which was the setting for his best-known novel The Day of the Sardine.
The village name Middridge between Shildon and Newton Aycliffe describes a situation between ridges of hills. A hill near the village – probably Tuft Hill – was once noted in legend as being the chief meeting place for fairies who once gathered here in their hundreds on summer nights. It was said that if you caught a glimpse of them it was considered very lucky but to address them was considered very dangerous.
There is a story, well-known in the 19th century, that a young man called William, expressed his disbelief at their existence and after a few drinks at a Harvest Festival in Middridge, accepted a challenge to disprove their existence. Visiting their gathering place as dusk approached on his mater’s palfrey, he found no sign of them but spoke out at full voice:
Rise, Little Lads,
Wi’ your iron gads,
And set, the lad
o’ Middridge hame.
Poor William soon found himself surrounded by the avengeful little people, with one particularly aggressive fairy wielding an iron gad (javelin) but he gave William a head start:
Silly Willy, mount thy filly,
And if it isn’t weel corned and fed,
I’ll hae thee afore thou
gets home to thy Middridge bed.
Fortunately for Willy his home was close by and the terrified palfrey was as fit as a fiddle. Willy kicked his spurs and the palfrey returned to Willy’s abode at lightning pace where to his fortune, the door had been left wide open. The other startled occupants of the house were much surprised to find him ride straight into their home, but realising a danger, they quickly bolted the iron bar of the door behind him.
The following day when it was deemed safe, the door was opened and a tiny iron javelin was found sticking from it which could only be removed with the forge hammer of a blacksmith. For generations the Fairyland relic was preserved but its whereabouts today is unknown.
East Thickley Farm just south west of Middridge near the Locomotion railway museum was historically associated with the Lilburn (or Lilburne) family who owned the place and whose numbers included the radical John Lilburne (see Sunderland) known as ‘Freeborn John’, the founder of the Levellers movement during the time of Oliver Cromwell in the 1640s. Its not certain whether Lilburne was born at Thickley or at Sunderland.
The villages of Old Eldon and Eldon lie north east of Shildon and to the north west of Newton Aycliffe.
Eldon, which either means ‘Ella’s hill’ or ‘elder-tree hill’ was given to the church of Durham by King Canute in the 11th century. In much later times it was associated with the Scott family who purchased the manor and took the title Lord Eldon.
One John Scott, a Lord Eldon, who became Lord Chancellor of England was famed in his younger days for eloping with the Newcastle merchant’s daughter Bessie Surtees after she escaped with his assistance from her father Aubonne Surtees’ house on the Newcastle quayside by a ladder in 1772. Newcastle’s Old Eldon Square is named after Eldon.
Old Eldon is more of a small farming hamlet than a village and should not be confused with the villages of Eldon and Eldon Lane about a mile to the east towards Bishop Auckland which were colliery villages.
Coundon lies just over a mile to the north of Old Eldon and less than two miles south of Spennymoor. It can be reached from Rushyford on the Great North Road or from Coundon Gate on the Bishop Auckland to Spennymoor road (A688). The name Coundon is thought to mean ‘cow’s hill’ and in the 1850s was described as being mostly the home to pitmen.
At the time of the Boldon Buke in the 1180s Coundon was on land belonging to the Bishop of Durham. In the 1380s William De Coundon (William of Coundon) held land here. In 1387-38 it is recorded that the tenants of Coundon mowed 107 acres of Auckland Park for the Bishop of Durham.
The eastern part of Coundon is called Leeholme and in the countryside to the east is Leasingthorne. This was once the site of the local colliery but today consists of a single terraced street (Eden Terrace) on the road north to Kirk Merrington and nearby Leasingthorne Farm.
Howlish Hall, now a care home to the south of Coundon derives its name from Howletch – the hollow stream. The hall was once the home to Nicholas Wood, one time owner of the nearby Leasingthorne Colliery to the east which operated from 1836 to around 1967.
South of Coundon towards Bishop Auckland and Shildon is Coundon Grange in the Dene Valley which is separated from Coundon itself by a farm called Grange Hill.
The Dene Valley
The ‘Dene Valley’ to the north of Shildon and west of Bishop Auckland is formed by the Dene Beck – where individual village sign posts inform you that they are part of the Dene Valley parish. The parish is made up from a collection of former mining settlements just north of Shildon and just to the east of Bishop Auckland.
Dene Valley includes the villages of Close House, Eldon Lane and Coundon Grange. The last of these should not be confused with the village of Coundon to the north. Nor should it be confused with Coundon Gate or New Coundon which are alongside the A688 Bishop Auckland to Spennymoor Road to the north west.
Also included in the Dene Valley parish is a place called Gurney Valley to the north of Eldon and the village of Auckland Park near the A688.
In the western part of the parish we find the terraced villages of Bridge Place and Coronation respectively situated to the west and east of the bridge that carries the railway line from Darlington to Bishop Auckland. The sign on the Coronation side of the bridge tells you that you are entering Bridge Place and a sign on the Bridge Place side tells you that you’re entering Coronation.
Beyond Coronation is the neighbouring village of South Church which is partly included in the Dene Valley Parish. To reach the historic part of South Church and its huge medieval church of St Andrew Auckland you leave the parish and cross the bridge over the River Gaunless.
The collieries in the Dene valley area and its surrounds included South Durham Colliery near Eldon which operated from 1829 to 1932 and was once owned by the Pease family. Also here was the nearby Black Boy Colliery (1830-1939) which included the Gurney Pit. It was operated by Nicholas Wood of Howlish Hall and later by the Black Boy Colliery Company and then by the Middlesbrough firms of Bolckow and Vaughan. A later owner was the Teesside firm of Dorman and Long.
The Black Boy Coal Company, Bolckow and Vaughan and Dorman Long were also the successive owners of Auckland Park Colliery to the north west which was worked from 1864 to 1946.
Outside the parish just over the other side of the Bishop Auckland to Spennymoor road in the Auckland Park area is the sweetly-named village of Canney Hill and to the north are Coundon Gate and New Coundon. Canney Hill was the site of a pottery in the 19th century.
Brafferton: Durham Ox Country
Across the other side of the A1(M) motorway from Aycliffe, near the northern outskirts of Darlington is the village of Brafferton where the famous Durham Ox was bred.
The name of this village is Anglo-Saxon and derives from from ‘Brad Ford Ton’ – the ton or farm near a broad ford over a stream. The ford crossed the nearby Skerne where Brafferton Lane links the village to Coatham Mundeville.
The huge Durham Ox for which Brafferton is famed was developed by the brothers, Charles and Robert Colling of Ketton Farm near Brafferton in 1796 and achieved such great fame that it was exhibited throughout England and Scotland in an especially designed carriage.
Over a period of five years, the ox journeyed more than 3,000 miles before the unfortunate beast dislocated its hip while on show at Oxford in February 1807.
It was slaughtered two months later and weighed in at 189 stones. During its lifetime, it reached an incredible maximum weight of 270 stones. The Collings acheived far reaching fame for their development and throughout the country there are many inns named after the Durham Ox of Ketton Farm.
South of Brafferton and just off the A1(M) motorway is the village of Coatham Mundeville. Coatham comes from an Anglo-Saxon word ‘cotum’ meaning shelters and was once known as Coatham on the Skerne from the little river which passes close by.
Coatham became Coatham Mundeville because it later belonged to a French family called Amundevilla who were named from a place in Normandy. Curiously, the French place-name Amundevilla means the ‘ville belonging to Amundr’ and is named from a Viking who settled in northern France. The ‘Northmen’ or Vikings who settled in northern France were known to the French as ‘Normans’ and over time they adopted the French language. The Normans would of course invade Britain in 1066.
The Hallgarth Golf and Country Club alongside the Skerne at Coatham Mundeville has wings dating to the 17th and 18th century and there is an old deer house in its grounds.
Just south of Coatham Mundeville we approach the northern outskirts of Darlington at Beaumont Hill which has the strangely superfluous meaning ‘fine hill-hill’.