Bishop Auckland or ‘Bishop’, as it is sometimes affectionately known to locals is situated near the confluence of the River Wear and the little River Gaunless and is positioned on a hill between them. An important market town since medieval times Bishop Auckland grew in the nineteenth century as a centre for the coal mining district of south west Durham.
Here we cover Bishop Auckland town with a westward excursion to Escomb, Witton Park and the Etherleys. Areas east of Bishop Auckland such as Coundon, Coundon Grange and the Dene Valley are covered on our Aycliffe and Shildon page. South Church, St Helen Auckland and West Auckland are covered by our Gaunless Valley page.
In 1801 the population of the township of Bishop Auckland was only 1,961 but through the influence of mining it had grown to a modest 5,112 by 1851 of which 4,400 lived in the town of Bishop Auckland itself. Today Bishop Auckland has a population of around 24,000 though it has absorbed neighbouring towns and villages.
There are still a number of older streets in the centre of the town that follow the medieval layout of the original borough and retain their medieval street-names. The early history of the town is centred around Auckland Park and Castle which was a principal residence of the Bishops of Durham for centuries. Bishop Auckland and its market place grew up alongside the castle.
However, the history of the name of Bishop Auckland goes back to earlier times. Its present English name ‘Auckland’ could be interpreted as ‘land of oaks’ but the name developed or was corrupted from an earlier name ‘Alclit’ of Celtic origin.
Curiously, the name Alclit seems to derive from ‘Allt Clud’ and may allude to an older name for the Gaunless. Since Gaunless is a Viking river-name (see our River Gaunless page) it can date no earlier than the Viking settlements of the mid ninth century, so it must have had an older name
Place-name academics have concluded that the earlier name for the Gaunless is found in ‘Allt Clud’ and that the Gaunless was once called the ‘Clyde’. Allt Clud (Auckland) meaning ‘cliff on the Clyde’ is thought to have been the centre of an extensive Celtic estate that encompassed much of the Wear Valley and Weardale and came to be known in later medieval times as Aucklandshire.
Strangely, ‘Allt Clud’ was also the old name (again meaning ‘cliff on the Clyde’) for the northern capital of the Britons at Dumbarton in what is now Scotland. Dumbarton ‘the fort or dun of the Britons’ was the capital of the Kingdom of Strathclyde, a kingdom that was also known as Cumbria from the Cumbric people who spoke a language related to Welsh.
The evolution of the name of Auckland – the hill on which Bishop Auckland stands – is complex but fascinating with the original Alcit or Alcuith name being interpreted by the Vikings as ‘Alklint’ a name recorded about 1190 in which it is associated with the Old Danish word ‘klint’ – meaning a steep bank overlooking a river from which we get the name of Falcon Clints in Teesdale.
Scandinavian influence also brought about an alternative spelling Auclent or Aucland from the Old Norse auka-land which means additional land. So, by the 1100s the district was recorded as both Acletshire and Auklandshire. Clearly, with the Welsh-like language of the ancient Britons forgotten, people had come to be confused by Bishop Auckland’s older name in medieval times.
Around the year 1000 ‘Alclit’ in the Wear Valley was in the hands of the Earl of Northumbria but became part of a grant of lands given to the Bishops of Durham in the reign of King Cnut.
At the time of the Boldon Book in 1183, Bishop Auckland was still called North Alclit when it was home to 12 villeins who were feudal tenants of the Bishops of Durham and the most prominent men in the borough. Boldon Book also mentions Alan the Cobler, Simon the Miller, William the Scot, William Boy, Eustace the Pinder and Elstan as holding land in Bishop Auckland.
‘Bishop’ was added to the name of North Auckland because it formed the demesne lands of the Bishop held directly by him as a lord of the manor. This distinguished North Auckland from the church settlement of St Andrew Auckland (South Church) as well as from St Helen Auckland and West Auckland.
Early references to the bishop in the place-name occur in 1306 when Bishop Auckland is called ‘Aukeland Episcopi’ and in 1358 when it is called ‘Bisshopaukland’ with the peculiar spelling ‘Bushop Aukeland’ occurring in 1522.
Bishop Auckland : Market Place
Bishop Auckland seems to have remained a relatively small town for many centuries. King Henry VII’s antiquarian, John Leland, described the town as being of no estimation but liked its “praty market of corne” (“pretty market of corn”). Despite its small size he noted its pleasing situation on the hill between the ‘Were’ and ‘Gaundelesse’
A Gothic style gateway leads from the market place at the centre of the town into the Auckland Castle grounds. Replacing a succession of earlier gatehouses on the site, it was built in 1760 by Sir Thomas Robinson of Rokeby Hall in Teesdale for Bishop Trevor but it is not the only building of note in the town’s centre.
One of the most prominent buildings in the market place is Bishop Auckland Town Hall (sometimes BATH for short), a handsome French-Flemish Gothic style building dating to the 1860s and a venue for music events and exhibitions.
It replaced an earlier open octagonal building where butter, eggs and poultry were sold, and was presumably a structure similar to that found at Barnard Castle. In the northern arch of this building was situated a public ‘pant’ – a source of water or fountain for the use of the town folk.
Right next to the Town Hall is the church of St Anne, a Victorian church of 1848 by the architect Salvin on the site of the medieval chapel of Bishop Auckland borough. To the rear of the town hall in Bakehouse Hill are ‘Bishop Cosin’s Almshouses’.
The almshouses were first built in 1662, earlier than Bishop Cosin’s Almshouses of 1666 on Palace Green in Durham City. However, the almshouses at Bishop Auckland were rebuilt in almost identical style to the original in 1845.
Bishop Auckland Market Place has seen some interesting developments in recent times. At number 42 Market Place is a craft workshop venue and gallery simply called ‘No. 42’ where the work of local artists can be viewed and purchased.
Number 45 Market Place is home to a super mining gallery with exhibitions showing the work of pitmen painters like Norman Cornish and Tom McGuinness. If sport, rather than art is your thing, the market place near Newgate Street, hosts a shop and museum dedicated to Bishop Auckland FC, one of the most successful amateur sides ever.
A new landmark to complement the Town Hall and other buildings in Bishop Auckland market place is Auckland Tower, a modern building that serves as a starting point for visitors to the town with a viewing tower. The architecture of the structure is partly inspired by medieval siege towers and was the creation of the architects Niall McLaughlin in 2018.
Bishop Auckland is approximately half way between the popular tourist towns of Durham City and Barnard Castle but in the past was often overlooked by visitors despite its beautiful castle, handsome parkland and historic town centre.
Recent investment in Bishop Auckland and its castle financed by philanthropist Jonathan Ruffer, has seen a major revival in the town, that is revealing its charm. Bishop Auckland is beginning to fulfil its potential, with the new galleries and the establishment of the spectacular Kynren event that attracts thousands of summer visitors to the town.
The town’s superb new Spanish Gallery, officially opened in April 2022 by HRH Charles, Prince of Wales and Queen Letizia of Spain is a very special attraction in Bishop Auckland market place occupying the former nineteenth century Barrington School and neighbouring former Backhouse Bank. It includes works by Spanish artists El Greco and Murillo.
The gallery collection complements the famed Francisco De Zurbarán paintings ‘Jacob and His Twelve Sons’ in Auckland Castle, which have been part of the castle’s collection for over 250 years. Bishop Auckland is the home to the UK’s largest collection of sixteenth and seventeenth century Spanish art outside London.
When we consider the equally spectacular nearby Bowes Museum’s established collection of art at Barnard Castle, we may consider south west Durham a focal point for European works of art of international importance.
Like the town itself, the beautiful Auckland Castle has also seen significant investment and is being developed as an attraction that remains in keeping with its beauty and historic status.
The central streets and market place of Bishop Auckland have a medieval layout. Here the old street-names include Bondgate consisting of Fore Bondgate, North Bondgate and High Bondgate. Other old surviving streets-names and lanes include Castle Chare, Wear Chare, Finkle Street, Saddler Street and Silver Street. The last two have their counterparts in Durham City.
Fore Bondgate is a particularly narrow street which gives away its medieval origins. Bishop Auckland was a borough by at least 1243 but the Bondgate area was the street of the Bondsmen and regarded as separate from the Bishop’s Borough. This was not unusual as a similar situation existed at Bondgate in Darlington.
North Bondgate runs parallel to Bondgate and Fore Bondgate and much of it faces out to town centre car parking where there are views of the Batts and Wear valley below the hill on which Bishop Auckland stands.
Fore Bondgate and North Bondgate merge at their west ends along with Finkle Street to form High Bondgate which has a more village-like appearance.
At the far western end of High Bondgate roads lead from the roundabout north to cross the river by two bridges. The principal road is the A689 which crosses the Wear via the eleven-arch Newton Cap viaduct, formerly a railway viaduct but now a road bridge. It dates from 1857 and once carried the North Eastern Railway line to Durham.
It was a railway viaduct until closure in the 1960s. In the 1990s it was adapted as a road bridge bringing the A689 into Bishop Auckland in grand style as well as forming part of the Brandon to Bishop Auckland railway walk.
Just west of the viaduct, Newton Cap Bank is the older route across the river crossing the Wear by the Newton Cap Bridge or ‘Skirlaw Bridge’ named from its association with the Bishop of Durham, Walter Skirlaw who was bishop from 1388 to 1406. The road across the bridge leads to a place called Toronto that was once the site of Newton Cap Colliery.
Skirlaw was noted for his bridge building with bridges at Yarm and Shincliffe also constructed during his episcopacy. The bridge probably saw much rebuilding in the nineteenth century when it was widened. Skirlaw Bridge and Newton Cap viaduct, situated side by side in Bishop Auckland form a picturesque view.
Newton Cap is the area on the north or Toronto side of the River Wear and is mentioned in the Boldon Book of 1183 when it is simply called Newton. Recorded as ‘Newtoncapp’ in 1382, the ‘Cap’ part of the name is from a surname as it was held by the Cappe family, who seem to have been associated with Allerton (Northallerton) which had important links to Durham.
East of the viaduct is the lovely green riverside area of Bishop Auckland called ‘The Batts’ situated alongside the south bank of the Wear on the north side of the town. Batts is a corruption of ‘butts’ where medieval bowmen once practiced their archery.
Once a well-populated area, the Batts suffered from severe flooding in 1771. Today flood defence embankments protect a small number of houses at the western end of the Batts. In 1863 the Batts was the scene of a mass meeting of miners who came to protest against the brutal uncompromising methods of the Strakers & Love coal-owning firm who owned several collieries in the area.
Towards the eastern end of the Batts a road called Dial Stob Hill is skirted by the park wall of the Auckland Castle grounds. Another road called Wear Chare climbs up from Dial Stob Hill towards the market place. The Roman road of Dere Street once passed through this area. Wear Chare and Dial Stob Hill perhaps followed part of its course.
The River Wear forms a loop or meander just north of the Batts which plays host to the Kynren event just across the Wear. The road called Dial Stob Hill runs around the eastern side of the Wear along the edge of this meander heading north to Binchester Roman fort and onward to Newfield and Byers Green.
As it curves round the outer edge of the meander Dial Stob Hill crosses the River Gaunless by a narrow stone bridge just as the little river enters the larger River Wear. This is Jocks Bridge, built by Bishop Shute Barrington in 1819 and probably later named from a now lost street called ‘Jocks Row’ that was once a gypsy settlement.
There has long been a connection between Bishop Auckland and gypsies for at least two centuries and in historic times they seem to have been particularly associated with the riverside area between the Batts and the Newton Cap bridge.
We know the Roman road of Dere Street (that passes through Bishop Auckland along Newgate Street) must have passed through this area. Did it head straight north, across the meander that now hosts the Kynren event (meaning it would cross the river twice) or did it skirt around the loop like the Dial Stob Hill lane to reach Binchester Roman which lies north of the loop?
After reaching Binchester fort, Dere Street then veered north west and within a short distance certainly crossed the River Wear. It then continued its journey to Lanchester and onward to Ebchester and Corbridge.
Heading back into Bishop Auckland town centre, the oldest thoroughfare in the town is Newgate which predates the medieval street layout. The ancient route that Newgate Street follows is the Roman Road of Dere Street and this accounts for its arrow-shot straightness similar to that of the main street of Chester-le-Street which also follows a Roman road.
Although it was a medieval street and follows a Roman road, Newgate Street probably developed late in medieval times as a built-up street and this which would account for the word ‘New’. Remember that in many old towns in the North East the term ‘gate’ in street-names is usually an old word for ‘street’ rather than a gateway. Newgate would see its greatest urban development in the nineteenth century as Bishop Auckland grew as a mining town.
Dere Street was of course the main Roman road from York to Corbridge and Hadrian’s Wall and continued beyond into Caledonia. The Roman fort of Vinovia at Binchester lies just outside Bishop Auckland to the north. Today Newgate Street is the main shopping and commercial focus for the town.
The partly-pedestrianised Durham Chare off the east side of Newgate Street was the old route to Durham and once called Gib Chare. Further down Durham Chare it crosses the modern ‘Kingsway’ road before descending steeply to cross the River Gaunless via an old stone bridge.
Today the neighbouring Durham Road is now the main modern route to Durham which it has been since the 1920s. Along with Newgate Street and Cockton Hill Road, Durham Chare was once part of the turnpike road (established in 1748) linking Barnard Castle to Durham City, joining the Great North Road at Sunderland Bridge near Croxdale.
Durham Chare formed a particularly steep stretch of the old turnpike road. On the west side of the Gaunless bridge where Durham Chare is joined by the even steeper Castle Chare (which descends from the Market Place) a horse was stationed to provide further assistance to wagons climbing Durham Chare.
A lovely drinking fountain with a trough for horses provided by the Temperance Society in 1873 was used by the hard-working horse that was based here. By chance on my visit I encountered the knowledgeable Mario Rea, a key figure in the preservation and restoration of this fountain and its environs, who tells me that there was another drinking fountain for people a little further up the chare.
Close to the Castle Chare and following a route along the Gaunless to St Andrew’s church at South Church was an old bridleway called the ‘Parsons Trot’, that followed an old route along the banks of the Gaunless. It is said to have been used by the vicar of that church as a hastily used short-cut from his home in the market place to the church, when he need to avoid being late for Sunday services.
Information boards near the bridge and at the Newgate Street end of Durham Chare provide further information on the history of the area. Now we return to Newgate Street itself.
Notable streets adjoining Newgate Street include Tenters Street on the west side where housing developed in the nineteenth century. This street street recalls the practice of cotton and linen cloth workers stretching their cloths on tenter hooks in the fields here. The name of Tenter Terrace in Durham City has a similar origin.
To the south of this street were once a number of locals farmland fields called ‘Pollards Lands’ with other parts of Pollards Lands found to the east of Newgate Street as well as to the north and east of the Bishop’s park.
Between Tenters Street and Finke Street, to its north, is Newgate Shopping Centre on the west side of Newgate Street and further to the south on the east side of Newgate Street is Victoria Avenue which is the home to a former Mechanics Institute of 1880.
A little further south, Newgate Street is crossed by the A689 Princes Street in which we find a statue of the comedian Stan Laurel, real name Arthur Stanley Jefferson (1890-1965) of Laurel and Hardy fame. He lived at number 65 Princes Street with his parents from 1891 to 1895 and was baptised in Bishop Auckland’s nearby St Peter’s church. He would later reside at North Shields where he is also commemorated by a statue.
Across Newgate Street directly opposite Princes Street is South Church Road where a little further along next to Bishop Auckland Cricket Club we find the former King James I Academy that was once Stan Laurel’s old school. The school was founded in 1604 but the present building or we should say its remaining façade dates from 1864.
The Victorian school building was gutted by fire in 2007 but the façade was successfully preserved as the front to a new building with apartments. Its modern neighbour to the south is the present King James I Academy School with grounds backing onto the wooded valley of the River Gaunless to the east.
Back into Newgate Street and heading south along the street is the former Methodist church of 1914. Now called the Four Clocks Centre, its prominent church tower with its clocks form a distinct feature of Newgate Street that can be seen from along the course of the street.
Further south still shortly after crossing the railway, Newgate Street becomes Cockton Hill Road where we find the Central Methodist Church of 1903 with its spire that can also be seen along the length of Newgate Street.
Newgate Street, Cockton Hill Road and its continuation to the south called ‘Watling Road’ as far south as the A688 roundabout all follow the Roman road of Dere Street. A little beyond the roundabout it then follows ‘Green Lane’ and somewhere beyond just to the south of Bishop Auckland it crossed the River Gaunless. For almost two miles the Roman Dere Street forms a major route and street through the modern urban environment of Bishop Auckland.
Auckland Castle, also called Auckland Palace, began as a manor house belonging to Durham’s Prince Bishops and is situated on an attractive ridge of land above the confluence of the Gaunless and the Wear.
Perhaps in existence from the time of the Norman conquest, if not before, the manor dates back to medieval times. The Prince Bishops of Durham owned a number of manor houses and castles that reflected their important status.
The bishops’ castles included Durham Castle; Bishop Middleham Castle near Sedgefield and the castle at Stockton-on-Tees. Further north at Norham in ‘Norhamshire’ on the River Tweed they owned Norham Castle and in North Yorkshire they owned the castle of Crayke.
Auckland Castle (or palace) began as a manor house and the bishops are known to have owned other manor houses at Evenwood and Darlington while in Yorkshire their manors were situated at Riccall, Howden and Northallerton.
Durham House on the Strand was the London residence of the Prince Bishops. Of these manors only Auckland survives and for many years it served as the principal and preferred home of the bishop.
Around 1183 Bishop Hugh Pudsey is thought to have been one of the first to build a residence on the site at Auckland but this was later converted into a grander establishment by Bishop Anthony Bek in the 1300s. Bek castellated the building and created an impressive chapel but the palatial manor house wasn’t referred to as a ‘castle’ until the late 1400s in the time of Bishop John Sherwood. It was about this time that Auckland superseded Bishop Middleham as the primary residence of the bishops.
In the Civil War and its aftermath, the Bishop of Durham was ousted from the palace and it was sold by the Parliamentary Commissioners to Sir Arthur Haselrigg who demolished around half of the building for the construction of his own mansion. Among the buildings to go was Bishop Bek’s chapel. Its actual site was unknown until it was revealed as one of the many great discoveries of the Auckland Project’s archaeological excavations that began in 2017.
After the restoration of the monarchy following the Civil War, renovations and reconstruction were undertaken in the later years of the seventeenth century by Bishop Cosin. The bishop converted the grand hall built by Pudsey into a chapel as a replacement for the chapel of Bishop Bek destroyed by Haselrigg. A new hall was built for the castle by Cosin in the former Presence Chamber.
Auckland Castle is extensively, genuinely and stunningly medieval inside but much of the Gothic exterior that we see today dates to the period of Cosin and the eras of Bishops Trevor and Bishop Egerton in the eighteenth century, with further work undertaken for Bishop Barrington by the architect James Wyatt.
Entering the castle grounds from Thomas Robinson’s gateway that looks out onto the market place the first thing we notice are the arches of a Gothic screen wall built by James Wyatt in 1760 for Bishop Trevor along with an inner gateway.
It sets the scene for the castle’s overall eighteenth century Gothic style with significant portions of the castle dating to the 1600s and the former great hall, now the beautiful chapel of St Peter, dating to the twelfth century and the time of Bishop Hugh Du Puiset (Pudsey).
An exciting new development at the castle is the extension that will house the first museum in England to explore the history of faith in Britain and Ireland. The project has been developed under advisory guidance from academics at the British Museum and the Universities of Durham, Cambridge, York and Newcastle.
Outside, the castle’s walled garden, first developed by Bishop Cosin in the 1600s and re-landscaped in the 1750s, is also undergoing a new restoration and revival and that will include a new walled garden restaurant.
The charming Gothic style Deer House of 1767 in the castle’s park is one of the most interesting features of the parkland grounds. The park was once home to 300 deer and they were fattened in the winter for hunting outside the winter months.
In October 1346 the park hosted an army of some 16,000 men prior to the battle of Neville’s Cross, a battle fought against the Scots near Durham. Anthony Bek (1284 – 1311), was a Bishop of Durham, who particularly favoured Auckland palace, rather than Durham Castle as a residence because of its proximity to the hunting grounds of Weardale.
The Bishop took a keen interest in military affairs, as well as hunting and was always ready and willing to lead his army into battle against the Scots, as at the Battle of Falkirk in 1300.
Just across the River Wear north of Bishop Auckland from the Newton Cap Bridge we enter the most southerly loops and meanders of the River Wear. Here we find the colliery village of Toronto – named from its Canadian counterpart.
Toronto probably derives from a farmer’s field-name, an allusion to distance, but later became the site of a colliery village. It was once the home to Newton Cap Colliery, opened in 1859 and also called Toronto Colliery. Initially operated by the Stobarts it was in production until 1967. Its pits included the Barrington Pit, probably named from Shute Barrington, one of the Bishops of Durham.
Nearby is the impressive prominent landmark of the former Newton Cap Railway Viaduct and neighbouring Skirlaw Bridge. Also nearby is the eastward facing loop of the River Wear near Toronto and Newton Cap that will be familiar to many visitors as the stage-setting for the open air performances of the spectacular Kynren performances which tell the 2,000 year story of England in epic style on certain evenings during the summer months.
The river meander that plays host to Kynren was historically Flatts Farm and was a site for horseracing in the nineteenth century. In the 1820s Charles Lyon of nearby Binchester Hall hoped to open a coal mine here but the last ‘Prince Bishop‘ of Durham, William Van Mildert objected as it would spoil the view from his castle so he bought the land from Lyon at considerable expense. Binchester Hall was later demolished by Van Mildert.
Even without Kynren, this area might be regarded as a special focal point in historical terms. Across the river loop further to the north are the remains of the Roman fort of Vinovia at Binchester. Over the river to the west is the moving Anglo-Saxon church of Escomb and of course just to the south we have the wonderful former palace of the Prince Bishops of Durham at Bishop Auckland.
Legend of the Pollard Brawn
A prominent family in Bishop Auckland in medieval times were the Pollards who gave their name to ‘Pollards Lands’, the origins of which are remembered in a local legend.
The legend has it that at some time in the Middle Ages the Bishop Auckland area was the haunt of a huge, ferocious brawn (or boar), which terrorised this part of the Wear valley in much the same way as the Lambton worm at Fatfield. Many attempts had been made to kill this dangerous beast, but all had failed, so the Bishop of Durham offered an unspecified reward for anyone who could rid the local countryside of the terrible creature.
Richard Pollard, a skilled but poor young knight rose to the challenge and began to study the behaviour of the brawn, which is supposed to have been as large as a cow. Finally, arming himself with several spears, Pollard was able to pursue the beast south of Auckland towards Raby Castle and Staindrop in Teesdale, where after a long and bloody struggle, he was able to kill the beast.
Upon completing the task Pollard proudly cut off the brawn’s tongue and placed it in his pocket as a souvenir. Unfortunately Pollard was exhausted from his pursuit and fell asleep as the dead creature lay by his side. A little later, a man was passing by and noticed the sleeping knight and his quarry.
Remembering the bishop’s promise of a prize, he could not resist the opportunity of reward and quickly made off with the carcass, without awaking Pollard. When Pollard awoke, he was horrified to see the brawn had been taken, but guessed what had happened and quickly made his way to Auckland Palace, to see the Bishop of Durham.
Arriving at the palace, Pollard found he was too late, learning that someone had already presented the bishop with the brawn and received an ample sum of money in reward. Pollard nevertheless gained entry to the palace, when he claimed that he was the one who had slain the brawn.
When Pollard showed the bishop the brawn’s tongue, the carcass was examined and the young knight’s claims were proved to be true. After considering, the bishop told Pollard that as a reward he could have all the lands he could ride around, in the time it took him to finish his meal.
Wasting no time Pollard set off, accompanied by one of the bishop’s servants, but astonishingly returned to the palace only a few minutes later. The bishop was surprised that Pollard had taken so little time, but learned that the reason was simple, Pollard had ridden around Auckland palace itself!
Of course the bishop could not possibly give Pollard his palace and its grounds, but was impressed with the young knight’s clever thinking, so instead presented him with some of the most fertile lands in the Auckland area. These lands became known as Pollard’s lands and include Bishop Auckland Golf Course on the north side of Bishop Auckland as well as land to the west of Bishop Auckland in the Etherley Moor area.
There is no evidence to show how the Pollards came to hold the land and like County Durham’s Lambton Worm and Sockburn Worm legends the story of the Pollard brawn is likely a way of proving or justifying a medieval family’s ancient rights to holding land in a certain area.
The name Pollard was associated with the Bishop Auckland area from at least as early as thirteenth century. In the 1240s a William Pollard held land at nearby Woodhouses. In medieval times ‘Pollard’s Lands’ were considered to be a separate manor.
Binchester Roman Fort
As we have noted the Roman road of Dere Street passes through Bishop Auckland in a striking straight line under the names of Watling Road, Cockton Hill Road and Newgate Street. Dere Street, leads north to the Roman fort of Binchester, the site of which lies above a loop of the River Wear to the north of Auckland Park.
In Roman times the fort at Binchester was called ‘Vinovia’ which means ‘a pleasant spot’. Only a small area of the fort site has been excavated and includes one of the best examples of a Roman hypocaust (an underground central heating system) that can be found in Britain.
The fort also includes the remains of the Praetorium or Commandant’s House. Part of the course of Dere Street through the fort has been excavated and can be seen. The top surface of the road has long been lost but would have consisted of fine material and clay. However, the underlying stones of the road that consist of stone cobbles taken from a nearby river bed can still be seen and these made up the foundation of the road.
Under the roof of a modern building, the most impressive remains at the fort are those of the bath building which dates from around AD 350. The bath house includes two hot rooms one in which the Romans would sit and sweat, while bathed in oils and a second hot room where the soldiers would scrape open the pores of their skin.
Also to be seen are the cold plunge baths or ‘frigidarium’ where cold water was more likely poured on to the Roman soldiers by slaves to close their pores. Most impressive, though not designed to be seen is the structure of the underground hypocaust where furnaces were lit to heat the rooms above.
The wonderful little Saxon church in the village of Escomb was built with salvaged stone from the Roman fort at Binchester and is just over half a mile across the River Wear south west from Toronto. Situated in the heart of the village a short distance from the River Wear, this could well be Britain’s oldest church.
There is no direct route across the River Wear from Toronto and it is at least a three mile journey by car heading back through Bishop Auckland to reach it or a little further if you continue west into the countryside and cross the river near Witton Park.
Escomb church is a pretty and somewhat humble looking building of Anglo-Saxon origin and was described by the great architectural authority, Nikolaus Pevsner as ‘one of the most important and moving survivals of the architecture of the time of Bede’.
It has some similarities to the Anglo-Saxon church of Bede at Jarrow which is the oldest dated church but Escomb is older. The early history of Escomb and why it should have survived is a mystery. Other Anglo-Saxon or part Anglo-Saxon churches in the region include churches at Monkwearmouth, Hart Village near Hartlepool and Seaham.
About a mile west of Escomb is Witton Park, a former colliery and iron works village south of the River Wear. Between Escomb and Witton Park are High Escomb, California and Woodside.
With its historic links to the Stockton and Darlington Railway, Witton Park played a significant part in the industrial history of the region. When the famous railway opened in September 1825 it was Witton Park and not Darlington that stood at the western terminus of the line that was built to transport coal from south west Durham to Teesside for shipment.
The Stockton and Darlington Railway ran south from Witton Park towards the River Gaunless via the North and South Etherley inclines with an engine house on the hill top between the two inclines hauling the wagons to and from the mines.
The line crossed the Gaunless at St Helen Auckland and proceeded to Shildon via the West Brussleton and East Brussleton inclines – again with an engine house on a hill top between the two. On the remaining section of the line from Shildon to the port of Stockton (and later Middlesbrough) the line was operated by locomotives.
Witton Park Colliery was linked to the terminus of the railway and established by William Chaytor in 1819. It was just south of what became Witton Park village and north of Etherley. From 1842 the Stockton and Darlington Railway took a new route to Witton Park which brought the line in from Shildon via Bishop Auckland.
In 1846 the industrialists Henry Bolckow and John Vaughan of Middlesbrough established an ironworks in the Paradise Cottage area of Witton Park with the blast furnaces utilising iron deposits from Weardale and Whitby and the good quality Durham coking coal for making iron.
The works spurred on a rapid population growth at Witton Park and included a strong Irish and Welsh element. Welsh influence in Witton Park was particularly strong and when violence and riots erupted during a strike in the village in 1866 the arrested ring leaders were William Thomas, William Evans, David Thomas and John Thomas. The discovery of rich iron stone deposits in the Eston area near Middlesbrough and new techniques in making steel brought about the partial closure of the works in 1878 followed by complete closure in 1882.
Poverty hit the village hard and many people moved on, some to Teesside, while others may have found work in neighbouring collieries such as Newton Cap (Toronto Colliery) across the river to the west. Of course these collieries would subsequently close.
In the 1950s Witton Park was one of a number of villages designated ‘Category D’ by Durham County Council which meant investment would end and the village would be left to decline and demolition. Some houses were demolished and many residents moved on to places such as Newton Aycliffe, but as with many other Category D villages the community resisted and the village lives on.
Most of Witton’s Park old terraces have gone but what was once one of Durham’s most industrial villages is a particularly pleasant place consisting of two main rows of houses at Main Street and Park Road separated by fields and a green. There is also a row of houses at Woodside to the south east and a small modern development of new houses to the north of the village.
Weardale’s Wear Valley Railway runs through Witton alongside which we find a former railway station of 1867. Now disused and converted into housing this was Etherley Railway Station although Etherley is a village to the south of Witton Park. Along the line just to the east of Witton Park on the outskirts of Escomb was situated Etherley Colliery. Under a bridge beneath the railway at Witton Park, a road leads to the Paradise car park near a wooded meander of the River Wear that was once the site of the Witton iron works.
To the east are a collection of riverside lakes and ponds and a fishery between Witton Park and Escomb, not to be confused with the lakes and ponds at Witton-le-Wear and Low Barns Nature Reserve less than a mile to the west.
Witton Park was the birthplace of four famous war heroes, the Bradford Brothers who are commemorated by a Corten steel sculpture in the village created by Ray Lonsdale entitled ‘The Boy and the Bradford Boy’. It depicts a miner civilian presenting a football to his friend, a soldier returning from war. The Bradford Brothers were keen sportsmen who played cricket and football.
Two of the brothers, Roland Boys Bradford (1892-1917) and George Nicholson Bradford (1887-1918) were awarded the Victoria Cross, the only brothers to receive a Victoria Cross in the First World War. Roland served in the Durham Light Infantry as a Lieutenant Colonel and George was a Lieutenant Commander in the Royal Navy.
The other brothers were James Barker Bradford (1890-1917) who was awarded the Military Cross and fought and died at the Somme and Colonel Sir Thomas Andrews Bradford (1886-1966) the only Bradford brother to survive the war. He was awarded the DSO and later served as a Deputy Lieutenant for County Durham.
About a mile west of Witton Park is Witton Castle with the beautiful village of Witton-le-Wear across the RIver Wear to the north as we head west towards Weardale. A little over half a mile south of Witton Park is the village of Low Etherley and between the two, a small isolated terrace of a tiny community called Phoenix Row.
The Etherleys and Toft Hill
South of Escomb and Witton Park and to the west of Bishop Auckland are four places called Etherley at the heart of a former mining and quarrying district.
Nearest to Bishop Auckland is Etherley Dene, named from a wooded dene that joins the Wear here. Half a mile west through Etherley Moor a road leads south to the curiously named Wigdan Walls Farm and onward to a hamlet called Woodhouses.
Another road heads west from Etherley Moor through Etherley Grange where twentieth century houses line the road. A mile further west is Low Etherley where a stationary cable hauling engine was once situated on the Etherley Incline of the famed Stockton and Darlington railway not far to the south of the railway’s western terminus at Witton Park.
Adjoining Low Etherley to the south is the village of High Etherley with a nineteenth century church dedicated to St Cuthbert. The name ‘Etherley’ is of uncertain origin but was originally Ederley and although ‘ley’ means ‘clearing’ the first part of the name is uncertain. It could be an Anglo-Saxon personal name such as Eadred or an old word meaning enclosure or fence. From High Etherley a road leads south and then across the River Gaunless heading towards West Auckland.
Toft Hill, clustered along the roadside west of High Etherley has a name that derives from the Danish Viking word ‘toft’ meaning building plot or house sites, perhaps indicating the site of a lost settlement that was maybe situated a little further to the west.
In the sixteenth century the area was referred to as the ‘tofts of the Barony’ of Evenwood. The road south from Toft Hill heads about a mile south to Ramshaw in the Gaunless Valley which is just across the river from Evenwood.
Our River Gaunless page covers South Church (St Andrew Auckland) which is situated on that river to the south of Bishop Auckland. The page also covers other places in the Gaunless valley to the west of Bishop Auckland including West Auckland, Evenwood, Cockfield, Butterknowle, Copley, Woodland, Wham, Lynsesack and Softley.
Places east of Bishop Auckland including Coronation, the Coundons and Eldon are covered on our Shildon and Aycliffe page.