Brancepeth, Crook and Witton-le-Wear

Brancepeth Castle

Brancepeth is the home to Brancepeth Castle and is a place steeped in history. The castle probably stands on the site of a manor house owned by the chief of the Anglo-Saxon Bulmer family whose last male heir, Bertram Bulmer had a daughter called Emma. She married Gilbert De Neuville, a Norman baron who came to England with William the Conqueror.

Brancepeth Castle
Brancepeth Castle. Photo © David Simpson 2018

How the Bulmers, who also owned Sheriff Hutton in Yorkshire, managed to hold onto their lands following the Norman Conquest is not known but they must have somehow found favour with the Norman conquerors.

The De Neuville’s adopted the bull’s head as their emblem as a symbol of their Bulmer blood. Their descendants were called the Nevilles, who later also acquired the castle at Raby and became one of the most powerful northern families. Brancepeth was a greater military stronghold than Raby and the Nevilles continued to be owners of both castles until the sixteenth century.

In 1569 Brancepeth was confiscated from the Nevilles by the crown following their involvement in the plot to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I called the Rising of the North. The Nevilles had been the chief instigators of this rising which was plotted at Brancepeth and Raby Castle with the support and assistance of the Percys of Alnwick, the powerful family of Northumberland.

From every side came noisy swarms
Of peasants in their homely gear;
And, mixed with these,
to Brancepeth came
Grave gentry of estate and name,
And captains known for worth in arms,
And prayed the earls in self- defence
To rise, and prove their innocence.

William Wordsworth

Brancepeth Castle remained in the hands of the Crown for a number of years until King James I gave it to Robert Carr, Earl Of Somerset. Later the castle was taken from Carr when he was found guilty of the murder of Sir Thomas Ovebury. From Carr, the castle passed to the Newcastle MP, Ralph Cole who also bought Kepier Hospital near Durham.

Brancpeth Castle
Brancpeth Castle. Photo © David Simpson

The next owner of Brancepeth was Sir Henry Bellaysyse, whose daughter Mary is said to have fallen in love with Bobby Shafto who lived at Whitworth Hall near Spennymoor just across the River Wear from Brancepeth. Mary’s love for Bobby supposedly inspired the very famous north country ballad about Bobby going off to sea and marrying his sweetheart on return. Sadly, Mr Shafto had eyes for someone else and Mary is said to have died of a broken heart.

In 1796 Brancepeth was bought by William Russell of Newbottle, who was a Sunderland banker and coal owner. The Russells of Brancepeth were one of most powerful and wealthiest coal owning families in the region. William’s son Matthew, the MP for Saltash became the richest commoner in England. Matthew Russell extensively rebuilt much of Brancepeth Castle around 1817.

Later, through marriage, Brancepeth became the property of Lord Boyne (who took the name Hamilton-Russell). Boyne’s title is commemorated in the name of the Lord Boyne public house a little further to the north east in the village of Langley Moor.

During World War One Brancepeth Castle was used as a military hospital and later became a headquarters for the Durham Light Infantry, but for much of the remaining century up to the present day it has been in private hands.

During the Second World War, a military camp of around 100 huts was built within the neighbouring grounds. The camp was still there until 1971 before which time the huts had been used as early storage units for collections of historic artefacts gathered by a Mr Frank Atkinson. This collection would become the basis for the early foundation of Beamish Museum.

Brancepeth village.
Brancepeth Village, the north side. Photo © David Simpson

Brancepeth Village

Brancepeth is a very pleasant place and the ivy covered cottages which lead up to the castle are particularly attractive. The Brancepeth area caught the attention of both William Wordsworth who visited the place and featured Brancepeth in a poem and Albert Lord Tennyson who wrote Come into the Garden Maud at Brancepeth. Matthew Russell, the owner of Brancepeth Castle was married to Elizabeth Tennyson, the aunt of the poet.

Brancepeth is said to be named from being the ‘Brawn’s Peth’, an area frequented by a notorious brawn (or wild boar) many centuries ago. The brawn roamed the marshy forests that once existed south of Durham in Saxon and Norman times and is said to have terrorised the local people.

A young man by the name of Hodge of Ferry (Ferryhill) was employed in the pursuit of the Brancepeth Brawn and he took careful note of the paths that it frequently used. He then constructed a deep pit on the brawn’s highway and covered it with boughs and earth. Hodge was successful in his pursuit.

Brancepeth Village
Brancepeth Village. Photo © David Simpson 2018

The brawn came tumbling along and went head first into the depths of the pit. Its nauseating screeches echoed throughout the countryside. No doubt the beast later ended up on someone’s dinner plate.

It has been suggested that the village of Brandon to the east of Brancepeth was anciently the site of the Brawn’s lair or den but this may also be claimed by an ancient Iron Age site to the north west of Brancepeth which is called the brawn’s den.

Strangely, according to the legend, the beast was finally defeated around the year 1200 at Cleve’s Cross near Ferryhill where a medieval cross is said to mark the site of its capture. The cross can still be seen on the edge of a valley on the side of Ferryhill. This is several miles from both Brancepeth and Brandon, so it would have involved the beast swimming across the River Wear before it could embark on its journey to Ferryhill.

Brancpeeth village south side,
Brancpeeth village south side. Photo © David Simpson

This ‘brawn’ explanation of the name of Brancepeth may in fact be a myth created by the famed nineteenth century Durham historian Robert Surtees who lived at Mainsforth Hall near Ferryhill.

‘Peth’ in place-names often describes prominent roads of times past and especially Roman roads. In local dialect ‘peth’ often described roads that made sudden descents. In the case of Brancepeth it may refer to the Roman road that passes through the area linking Willington to Durham. The name means Brand’s Peth and Brand, interestingly, is a Norse personal name.

Brancepeth church.
Brancepeth church. Photo © David Simpson 2018

It was perhaps through association with this name and the nearby village of Brandon that the medieval church at Brancepeth was dedicated to St Brandon. A church already existed at Brancepeth in Anglo-Saxon times and its first known rector was a Durham monk called Haeming.

The church is mostly Early English (thirteenth century) with a twelfth century tower. It was once noted for the beautiful woodwork of its interior associated with the church’s one time Rector John Cosin who became Bishop of Durham in 1660. Sadly, this seventeenth century woodwork was completely destroyed in a fire of 1998 along with the oak-beamed roof. Cosin’s work can still be seen at the church of Sedgefield and in the castles at Durham and Bishop Auckland.


The village of Brandon to the north of Brancepeth has a name that comes from ‘Broom-Dun’ meaning the ‘hill of broom’ (gorse). The similarity of the name to Brancepeth seems to be a coincidence. Brandon colliery village was the inspiration for the fictional setting of Frederick Grice’s delightful children’s novel of 1966 about growing up in the old Durham coalfield called ‘The Bonnie Pit Laddie’.

Countryside near Brandon Photo © David Simpson

Brandon grew as a mining village and the main pits here were Brandon Colliery (1856-1968) and Brandon Pit House Colliery (1836-1968), which were both Strakers and Love-owned mines. There were a number of other collieries and colliery villages in the neighbourhood but the older, former farming village of Brandon, or Old Brandon can still be seen at the western end of the village.

The front street of Brandon along the course of the main road from Willington to Durham forms the village of Meadowfield which merges with another former mining village called Langley Moor. Langley Moor is the place where the little river called the Deerness joins another little river called the Browney which eventually joins the River Wear near Croxdale.


Willington to the west of Brancepeth was once the site of Brancepeth Colliery and takes its name from the settlement belonging to an Anglo-Saxon called Wilfel, In fact, the name is not recorded until around 1190 when it was called ‘Wyvelinton’.

Willington is near the junction of two Roman roads which make it a particular place of interest. Dere Street, the main Roman road from York to Scotland passes along Willington’s western edge and from Burn Farm near Willington Dene to Hunwick it follows the course of Hunwick Lane southward to nearby Hunwick.

Just north of the burn, Dere Street was joined by another, un-named, Roman road that intriguingly headed north east towards Durham. Its course crossed Willington’s West Road (part of the High Street) just west of the Burn Inn pub and then follows the course of a lane along the edge of fields in the direction of Brancepeth and Stonebridge.

The course of this Roman road in the Durham City area is unknown but it must have connected up with Cade’s Road, another Roman road in the Durham City area which linked Brough on Humber to Chester-le-Street and Newcastle. Cade’s Road enters Durham City at Shincliffe but like the Roman road from Willington, its course through Durham City is uncertain.

Willington. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Who Wilfel was that gave his name to Willington is not known but in later Anglo-Saxon times Willington belonged to a man called Barnard who gave the manor to Cutheard the Bishop of Chester-le-Street who died in 915AD. Later owners of Willington included the Bowes family whose lands here were later absorbed by the Nevilles of Brancepeth. In the mid nineteenth century Willington belonged to the Russells of Brancepeth.

The older part of the village of Willington is that around the Black Horse stretching east towards St Stephens church though the church itself is Victorian, only dating to around 1857. The coal mine at Willington was called Brancepeth Colliery which despite its name was situated at Willington rather than Brancepeth village. It opened in 1840 bringing growth to Willington as a colliery town.

The colliery was owned by Strakers and Love who also owned a colliery north of Willington at Oakenshaw. Oakenshaw, called Akynshawe in medieval times means ‘oak copse’. Good views across the valley of the Deerness to the north and the Wear valley to the south can be seen from Oakenshaw.

The colliery of Oakenshaw north of Willington opened in 1855 and was connected with Brancepeth Colliery. The two collieries closed in 1967. The Brancepeth Colliery site on the north side of Willington is now a factory of the James Durrans group, a company that specialises in manufacturing carbon-based products including products manufactured from coal and coal dust.

Sunnybrow and Newfield

Sunnybrow forms the south western part of Willington but was once a separate colliery village. It was actually the site of Willington Colliery though this was also called Sunnybrow Colliery. It operated from 1840 to 1932. Like Brancepeth Colliery it was owned by Strakers and Love.

Fields south of Willington and Sunnybrow are skirted by the River Wear. Across the river from Willington are Tod Hills, Byers Green and Newfield. Newfield was the site of a colliery established in 1841 and was owned by the Middlesbrough ironmasters Bolckow and Vaughan and later by another Middlesbrough company, the steel firm of Dorman and Long.

Hunwick. Photo © David Simpson 2018


To the south but on the same side of the river as Willington is Hunwick with a name that means the ‘dairy farm of Hunna’ an Anglo-Saxon personal-name. In the late 1100s, during the time of Bishop Pudsey, Hunwick belonged to a family called Binchester who took their name from the Roman fort site just across the river to the east. Other later owners of Hunwick included the Burdons, Eures and Nevilles. A notable trace of these earlier times is a building that includes substantial parts of a former medieval manor house behind the main street on the east side of Hunwick’s little village green.

The northern part of Hunwick was once called Lane Ends. Here there was a kink in the Roman Road where the road comes into Hunwick from the north along Hunwick Lane and then turns south east to cross the River Wear to reach Binchester, the site of the Roman fort of Vinovia.

A wooded stream that runs along the northern side of Hunwick village is called the Quarry Burn Beck or simply the Quarry Burn. The terminology for streams changes hereabouts as streams south of Willington tend to be called becks in the fashion of Yorkshire while those to the north are called burns as in Northumberland and Scotland.

Even in the area immediately north of Willington there seems to be an element of indecision relating to the terminology for a stream as we have a Holywell Burn and a Helmington Beck. The term ‘burn’ was once used for streams throughout all County Durham perhaps as recently as the nineteenth century but the word ‘beck’ a term of Viking origin entered the dialect and was widely adopted, especially in the south of the county.

On the north side of the Quarry Burn Beck at Hunwick is a farm called Helmington Hall which dates in part to 1686, though much of the old building was destroyed by a fire in the 1890s. The name comes from Helm Dene – meaning valley near a helm-shaped hill and was first mentioned in the 1350s.

Neighbouring collieries at Hunwick in the era of coal mining included Hunwick Colliery which closed in 1921. It was established in the 1850s and was operated by the Hartlepool businessman and industrialist Ralph Ward Jackson, and later by Bolckow and Vaughan of Middlesbrough. A West Hunwick Colliery operated until the 1930s and also a Rough Lea Colliery just east of Hunwick was worked from 1858 to 1931. Its owners once included the Darlington firm of Pease and Partners.

To the south of Hunwick the River Wear meanders northward from Bishop Auckland where we find Toronto, Newton Cap and the loop of the river that now provides the stage setting for the Kynren spectacle.

Helmington Row and Job’s Hill

Helmington Row, two miles north of Hunwick between Crook and Willington takes its name from the same ‘Helm’ hill as Helmington Hall Farm at Hunwick. Helmington Row was a colliery village but although the name might make you think of a pit row, a row of houses existed here in medieval times when it was a farming settlement. The row gave Helmington Row its name which is first recorded in the 1380s as ‘Elmylandraw’.

The Helm-shaped hill of the name is likely Job’s Hill near Crook to the west. Here there is also a Low Job’s Hill, High Job’s Hill and Job’s Hill Bank while field-names in the farms hereabouts include Job’s Balk, Job’s Close and Job’s Piece. Job of course was a figure in the Bible whose patience and endurance was constantly tested. Perhaps the farmers who worked the land hereabouts may have had similar experiences. A farm called Annapoorna (named from a Himalayan mountain) just south of Helmington Row might be another wry comment on the challenges faced by farmers hereabouts.

A neighbouring hill just to the south is Rumby Hill which is also the name of a farm. This looks as though it might be a rare Viking place-name as betrayed by the ending ‘by’ which often indicates a settlement associated with the Danes. Rumby is thought to mean Hromundr’s farm, from a Viking personal name Hromundr. It is difficult to ascertain whether it was settled in Viking times, as the earliest record of the name is not until 1382 when it is recorded as Ronunby, long after the Viking period.

Crook. Photo © David Simpson 2018


Recorded as ‘le Croke next Brauncepeth’ in 1378 Crook is named from a secluded nook of land that was probably formed by the Beechburn Beck (in parts called the Crook Beck and sometimes called the Bitchburn) which passes through the town and once powered a flour mill here.

Crook is a small town but was originally a tiny village. The historian Fordyce writing in 1857 described Crook as a village that was “until recently, of inconsiderable extent”. Crook’s growth came about as the result of the nineteenth century mining developments and grew into a small town. Until recent times it was the headquarters of the local Wear Valley District Council that has since been absorbed by Durham County Council.

Council offices, Crook.
Council offices, Crook. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Billy Row, Roddymoor and Stanley Crook

To the north of Crook between the town and the neighbouring villages of Billy Row and Roddymoor once stood the Pease’s West Colliery which was worked from 1844-1963. It was established by the Quaker-owned Joseph Pease and partners of Darlington.

Billy Row and Roddymoor were mining settlements that served the local collieries but their history goes back earlier when they were farming settlements. ‘Billyraw’ as it was called in medieval times was first mentioned in 1425 and was a row of houses on a hill called a billy – a bill-shaped hill. The village is set on a steep hill with good views of the surrounding countryside stretching south towards Roseberry Topping and the Cleveland Hills.

Billy Row.
Billy Row. Photo © David Simpson 2018

It has sometimes been said that Billy Row was named from a man called Will o’ the Raw who lived at Cornsay and died in 1315 but this is apparently incorrect.

Nearby Roddymoor is thought to have been the moor or marsh where rods were cut.

Just north of Billy Row and Roddymoor is Stanley Crook on the fringe of the Deerness Valley with views across that valley to the north. Stanley means ‘stony clearing’ and is called Stanley Crook to distinguish it from the Stanley in north west Durham.

A Stanley Colliery opened at Stanley Crook before 1828 and operated until 1911. Wooley Colliery, another mine lay just to the west near Wooley and was one of the mines owned by Joseph Pease and Partners of Darlington. It closed in 1963.

Howden-le-Wear and Bitchburn

South of Crook towards Howden-le-Wear and to the west of the Beechburn valley were located the collieries of Woodifield (1840s-1940s), Low Bitchburn (1890s-1937) and the Strakers and Love mine of Bitchburn Colliery (1860s-1902). The numerous collieries around Crook placed the little town at the heart of a significant mining area.

Bitchburn, incidentally, is a variation on the name Beechburn and means the valley where beech trees (or possibly birch trees) grew.

Howden-le-Wear. Photo © David Simpson 2018

The village of Howden-le-Wear is named from ‘Hol-Den’ meaning the ‘hollow dene’ which refers to the valley of the Beechburn Beck. Since it is not actually on the River Wear the addition of ‘le-Wear’ to the name is perhaps to distinguish it from Howdon on the Tyne near Wallsend. It may also be named through association with the neighbouring village of Witton-le-Wear to the south which is situated on the north bank of the River Wear.


Witton means ‘wood settlement’ probably signifying a place that supplied timber to neighbouring places for fuel and building, through the felling of trees. The Witton in the name of Witton Gilbert to the north of Durham has the same meaning as the Witton in Witton-le-Wear and both Wittons were given suffixes to distinguish one from the other.

Witton-le-Wear. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Witton-le-Wear was called ‘Wudutun’ around 1040 but by the 1340s it was called Wotton in Werdale which later became ‘Witton oppon Weire’. Part of the ancient medieval district called Aucklandshire, Witton included Witton Castle and its park – from which we get the name of the village of Witton Park to the east.

Witton is an attractive village situated on a shelf of land on the north bank of the Wear and is arguably the first village in Weardale, as the supposed start of the dale is at Fir Tree just to the north. Witton village includes a church dedicated to St Philip and St James which dates to the thirteenth century but this was largely rebuilt in the 1890s. The attractive main street of the village is called the High Street and has a number of pleasant houses.

One building of particular interest in this street is Witton Tower, a private residence, but once a defensive pele tower that is partly medieval with some rebuilding of the 1600s and an eighteenth century wing.

Witton Tower.
Witton Tower. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Alongside the river just east of Witton-le-Wear is Low Barnes nature reserve which consists of an extensive wetland area of ponds and lakes that form a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). Noted for its waterfowl, the wetlands were created from years of excavation of sand and gravel near the river banks. The reserve also includes the former course of the River Wear which changed its direction during the great flood of 1771 creating an island here that is encircled by the river.

Further ponds and lakes can also be found on the opposite side of the river just to the the west towards Witton Castle and also just to the east towards Witton Park and Escomb.

Witton Castle

There is a bridge across the River Wear at Witton-le-Wear that dates to 1788, linking the village to Witton Castle on the south side. The bridge replaced an earlier one dating to 1771 that was destroyed by a flood in 1787. The bridge of 1771 had also replaced an earlier bridge destroyed in the great flood of that year.

The River Wear at Witton
View of of a shallow looking River Wear from Witton Bridge, photographed after several days of warm weather. Photo © David Simpson 2018

The manor of Witton which included the site of the present castle was bought by the powerful Prince Bishop, Hugh Pudsey of Durham in the reign of Henry II for his nephew but later passed to the Eure family (sometimes called the Ever family) around 1370.

Sir Ralph Eure began the conversion of this manor house into a castle but this was undertaken without the permission of the then Prince Bishop of Durham, Cardinal Thomas Langley. Fortunately for Eure, the bishop forgave him when the misdeed was discovered. A licence to crenellate was granted in 1410.

Part of the original building at the core of the castle remains but in the 1600s the castle was purchased by the Darcys and much of it was dismantled by a Lord Darcy in 1689 and he subsequently rebuilt it around 1700.

Witton Castle.
Witton Castle. Photo © David Simpson 2018

In the 1740s Witton Castle passed to William Cuthbert, the Recorder of Newcastle and then to a family called the Hoppers before a great fire in 1796 damaged a large part of the castle’s interior.

In 1816 the castle was purchased by the Chaytors of Croft Hall near Darlington and Butterby near Durham who became notable coal owners. They sold the castle to an Oxford MP called Donald Mclean in 1839, who lived here for some years but Mclean later went bankrupt and as he had never actually paid Chaytor for the purchase of the castle it reverted, following lengthy legal inquests, to the Chaytor family.

Later, the castle was purchased by the Lambton family and in the 1970s brought about the development of the country park with static caravan holiday homes in this beautiful parkland and woodland setting. The enterprise helped to pay for the upkeep of the castle. Today the castle with its country park and holiday homes is part of the Shorewood Leisure Group.

For many years Witton Castle was the home to the famous Red Boy portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence, a painting of the only son of John George Lambton, the First Earl of Durham. Today the painting is part of that family’s London collection.

The Red Boy
Witton Castle was once the home of ‘The Red Boy’ painting by Sir Thomas Lawrence

Witton Park

Witton Park is a former colliery and iron works village on the south side of the Wear to the east of Witton Castle and played a significant part in the industrial history of the region.

When the famous Stockton and Darlington Railway opened in September 1825 it was Witton Park and not Darlington that stood at the western terminus of the line which was built to transport coal from south west Durham to Teesside for shipment. The 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.

Witton Park.
Witton Park. Photo David Simpson 2018

The line then 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.

The colliery at Witton Park that was linked to the terminus of the railway had been established by William Chaytor in 1819 and was just to the south of what became Witton Park village and to the 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 with blast furnaces at Witton Park, utilising iron deposits from Weardale and Whitby and the good quality coking coal of the area for making iron. The works spurred on a rapid population growth at Witton Park and included a strong Welsh element in its population. When violence and riots erupted during a strike in the village in 1866 the arrested ring leaders were called William Thomas, William Evans, David Thomas and John Thomas.

The discovery of rich iron stone deposits in the Eston area of 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 that at Newton Cap (Toronto Colliery) across the river to the west. Of course these collieries would subsequently close but the village of Witton Park, like so many Durham villages that saw tough times in the past, still lives on.

The village of Escomb with its beautiful Saxon church and the town of Bishop Auckland are just to the east of Witton Park. Returning to Witton-le-Wear if we head upstream the River Wear is joined by the Bedburn Beck near Hamsterley on its western bank as we heads up dale towards Wolsingham and Weardale.

Bishop Auckland | Aycliffe and Shildon | Weardale 

West Auckland and the Gaunless Valley

Deerness Valley | Lanchester and the Browney valley

Teesdale | Durham City | Spennymoor



North East England History and Culture