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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 though parts are Norman or Norman-Saxon at the western gable end.
St Brandon’s 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 interior of the stonework was beautifully restored at the beginning of the millennium but the woodwork was of course lost forever.
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’.
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.
The village of New Brancepeth is situated in the Deerness Valley to the north of Brandon and was the site of New Brancepeth Colliery, also known as Sleetburn Colliery. It is a reminder that coal mines and colliery villages in the area developed on the historic lands of Brancepeth Castle. There was also a colliery called Brancepeth Colliery but this was situated at Willington.
Willington to the west of old Brancepeth village was the site of Brancepeth Colliery from 1840 to 1967, a mine that was operated by the firm of Strakers & Love. The village dates back long before the colliery and probably takes its name from being the settlement of an Anglo-Saxon called Wilfel, 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.
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 Stephen’s church though the church itself, despite its medieval appearance, is Victorian, dating from the 1850s.
When Brancepeth Colliery opened at Willington in 1840 it brought growth to Willington which became almost a colliery town. The colliery owners, Strakers & Love 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 linked with Brancepeth Colliery. Both 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 or Sunny Brow 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 & 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 owned by Middlesbrough ironmasters Bolckow and Vaughan and later by another Middlesbrough company, the famed steel firm of Dorman and Long.
To the south on the same side of the river as Willington is Hunwick the ‘dairy farm of Hunna’ from 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 of Binchester 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 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 Wear to reach Binchester, the site of Vinovia Roman fort
A wooded stream that runs along the north side of Hunwick is called Quarry Burn Beck or simply Quarry Burn. The terminology for streams changes hereabouts as streams south of Willington tend to be called becks in Yorkshire Viking style while those to the north are called burns as in Northumberland or Scotland.
In the area immediately north of Willington there’s an element of indecision as we have Holywell Burn and Helmington Beck. The term ‘burn’ is Anglo-Saxon or we might also say ‘Anglo-Scottish’ while the word ‘beck’ is of Viking origin and widely used in the south of the county.
On the north side of Quarry Burn Beck at Hunwick is a farm called Helmington Hall that dates in part to 1686, though much was destroyed by fire in the 1890s. Its name is from ‘Helm Dene’ or ‘valley near a helm-shaped hill’ and was first mentioned in the 1350s.
Neighbouring collieries at Hunwick in the coal mining era included Hunwick Colliery that closed in 1921. It was established in the 1850s and operated by Hartlepool businessman and industrialist Ralph Ward Jackson, and later Bolckow and Vaughan of Middlesbrough. A West Hunwick Colliery operated until the 1930s and a Rough Lea Colliery, just east of Hunwick, worked from 1858 to 1931. Its owners included the Darlington firm of Pease and Partners.
Helmington Row and Jobs Hill
Helmington Row, two miles north of Hunwick between Crook and Willington is named from ‘Helm’ hill like Helmington Hall at Hunwick. It was a colliery village but the ‘row’ was not a a pit row, as a row of houses existed in the farming settlement of medieval times. Helmington Row was called ‘Elmylandraw’ in the 1380s.
The Helm-shaped hill is likely Jobs Hill (Job’s Hill) near Crook to the west. Here there’s a Low Jobs Hill, High Jobs Hill and Jobs Hill Bank while field-names in nearby farms include Jobs Balk, Jobs Close and Jobs Piece. Job of course is a figure in the Bible whose patience and endurance was constantly tested
Jobs Hill is possibly a reference to the steep climb of the hill or maybe refers to testing the patience of local farmers. A farm called Annapoorna (from a Himalayan mountain) just south of Helmington Row might be another wry comment on the challenges faced by farmers hereabouts.
A neighbouring hill to the south is Rumby Hill which is also the name of a farm. It looks as though it might be a rare Viking place-name betrayed by the ending ‘by’ that often indicates a settlement associated with Danes. Rumby may be 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 is not until 1382 when it is recorded as Ronunby, long after the Viking period.
Recorded as ‘le Croke next Brauncepeth’ in 1378 Crook is named from a secluded nook of land probably formed by the Beechburn Beck (partly called Crook Beck and sometimes called Bitchburn) which passes through the town and once powered a flour mill here.
Crook is a small town but originally a tiny village. The historian Fordyce writing in 1857 described Crook as a village “until recently, of inconsiderable extent”. The green at the centre of the town is home to a First World War memorial and the nearby church of St Catherine is of 1844, by the Durham architect, Ignatius Bonomi.
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.
Billy Row, Roddymoor, Stanley Crook
North of Crook between the town and the neighbouring villages of Billy Row and Roddymoor once stood 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 local collieries but their history goes back earlier when they were farming settlements. ‘Billyraw’ of medieval times was first mentioned in 1425 and was a row of houses on a hill called a billy – a bill-shaped hill.
Part of Billy Row village stretches north along Well Bank to reach the adjoining village of Stanley Crook on what is called Billy Hill. Here there are good views of the surrounding countryside stretching south towards Roseberry Topping and the Cleveland Hills.
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 seems to be incorrect. Nearby Roddymoor is thought to have been the moor or marsh where rods were cut.
Stanley Crook, just north of Billy Row and Roddymoor sits on Billy Hill between the Deerness Valley and the Wear Valley. Stanley means ‘stony clearing’ and is called Stanley Crook to distinguish it from the Stanley in north west Durham. A little over a mile north of Stanley Crook are Waterhouses and East Hedleyhope in the Deerness Valley.
Near Billy Hill House at the west side of Stanley Crook is the village church of St Thomas which dates from 1877 with some restoration in the 1890s following a fire. There are some good views nearby looking down into the Wear Valley with Billy Row and Roddymoor below.
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.
About a mile west of Stanley Crook is the village of Sunniside – ‘the sunny hillside’ not to be confused with the Sunniside near Whickham which has the same meaning. To the rear of a pub at the centre of Sunniside village is a curious high wall of a former hand ball court similar to that found at Langley Park. Just under a mile west of Sunniside is the hill top town of Tow Law.
Howden-le-Wear and Bitchburn
Back into the Wear Valley, south of Crook towards Howden-le-Wear and west of the Beechburn valley were once situated the collieries of Woodifield (1840s-1940s), Low Bitchburn (1890s-1937) and the Strakers & Love mine of Bitchburn Colliery (1860s-1902).
Numerous collieries around Crook placed the town at the heart of a significant mining area. Bitchburn, the variation on the name Beechburn means the valley where beech trees (or maybe birch trees) grew.
Howden-le-Wear is named from ‘Hol-Den’ meaning ‘hollow dene’ which refers to the valley of the Beechburn Beck. Since it is not on the River Wear (which is just over a mile to the south), the addition of ‘le-Wear’ is perhaps to distinguish it from Howdon on Tyne near Wallsend. The name may also be influenced by the neighbouring village of Witton-le-Wear about a mile to the south west, which is situated on the north bank of the River Wear as we head up into Weardale.