Castle Eden Dene
The beautiful and atmospheric three and a half mile long Castle Eden Dene is the largest and best-known of the wooded valleys or ‘denes’ that are formed by streams that cut their through way through the magnesian limestone of east Durham on their way to the sea.
Castle Eden Dene is a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a National Nature Reserve with a wide variety of trees and wildlife including birds and deer. In fact it is the largest area of semi-natural woodland in North East England, where trees include oak, ash and yew. Castle Eden Burn is the stream that forms the burn and often runs dry in the summer months, when its shallow flow is absorbed by the magnesian limestone bed rock.
The dene is steeped in legendary associations and there’s an intriguing collection of names for features along the valley’s course like Bruce’s Ladder, Gunner’s Pool, Black Bull’s Hole, Kissing Frog Stones, Devil’s Lapstone, Devil’s Bridge, Devil’s Scar, Seven Chambers and Pegjellima’s Cave.
The dene is also fed by several side valleys that are often deeply wooded too – Edderacres Burn, Edderacres Dene (from Ethered Acres – land farmed by an Anglo-Saxon called Aethelred). Then we have Blunts Dene formed by the Blunts Beck and another dene called Sunny Blunts. There’s also Priest’s Gill, Thorntree Gill, Scotchman’s Gill, Ash Gill and Hardwick Dene.
A couple of legends linked to Castle Eden Dene concern the devil apparently attempting to supply crumbly, poor quality stone for the building of Durham Cathedral to bring about its collapse and kill those attending its opening. The scratch marks on the Devil’s Lapstone are apparently those made by the devil when he accidentally dropped one such stone while flying through the valley. The scratches are from his fingers or claws as he desperately tried to recover it – allegedly.
Another spot, Gunner’s Pool is allegedly where a man called Gunner who was assisting the devil in collecting stone was stoned to death by the ‘evil one’ after defying the devil’s command not to turn around and look evil in the eye.
Given that the name Gunner (Gunnar) is a Norse one it is tempting to somehow link this legend to the evil doings of the Vikings Scule and Olaf Ball, whose territories were divided by the Castle Eden Dene from 918AD. Both men were granted land in East Durham by Ragnald, the Viking king of York and Dublin. Scule and Olaf Ball are both known to have abused the sanctity of St Cuthbert, much to the long-lasting horror and memory of the people of County Durham.
Castle Eden Dene finally reaches the sea and a beach at Dene Mouth on the coast. Nearby stands the impressive 10-arch Dene Mouth Viaduct which carries the coastal railway line over the dene. It was completed in 1905.
Around Castle Eden
The Castle Eden village area covers a broad rural, unspoiled and particularly attractive part of east Durham. It is found within a neck of land between the upper parts of the wooded valleys of the Castle Eden Dene and the Crimdon Dene. Popular with executive commuters it is within easy reach of the A19 and the countryside hereabouts is characterised by scattered hamlets and small, often seemingly un-named villages.
Nearest to the A19 is a small village of modern executive-type houses on the site of the Castle Eden Brewery. Part of the old brewery building remains – an attractive white-painted 19th century building overlooking the main road and resembling a large stable block.
Called the Old Brewery, this is now Castle Eden Business Centre and has a gateway with a clock and a little bird-cage like tower above. Castle Eden Brewery was founded by John Nimmo in 1826 and originally operated from the Castle Eden Inn about a mile to the south.
The brewery, called J Nimmo & Sons once owned 41 public houses and was noted for its Castle Eden Ale. In 2002, the brewery closed but the ale is now produced by North East brewer, Camerons.
Across the other side of the A19 to the west of the old brewery site is a farm called Thackmyers, a name first mentioned in 1250 but is much likely older in origin. Its name is influenced by an Old Danish word for thatch. It means mire (or pool) where reeds for making thatch grew.
Immediately east of the Old Brewery, along the B1281 is another collection of interesting buildings consisting of an attractive row of houses forming a village once called ‘The Factory’ that overlook their gardens (across the road) and open countryside beyond . The Factory is named from an extensive spinning and weaving mill works established by Rowland Burdon in 1792 and was run by the Salvins of Croxdale. The factory was engaged in making corduroy and sail cloth and employed 200 men, boys and girls.
Unfortunately it went out of business after the Salvins attempted to recover an unpaid debt for goods sold to the French government. Two members of the Salvin family, a brother and a sister went to Paris and were imprisoned and then bankrupted in securing their eventual release. The factory at Castle Eden closed in 1796.
Nearby on the edge of Castle Eden Golf Course near to the cricket club is Parklands, a large house of about 1800 with a collection of neighbouring houses of more recent times forming another village of a kind. The golf course is on the southern edge of Castle Eden Dene and occupies the former parkland grounds of the actual ‘castle’ at Castle Eden.
To the south along the Stockton Road are more hamlets. Then we reach the Castle Eden Inn (where the brewery was started) with the Village Hall of Castle Eden close by. The village is just south of the wooded course of an old railway line. To its south is yet another village, this one called Eden Vale. A bleachery stood close by before the nineteenth century but here we have reached the upper parts of a separate valley which becomes Crimdon Dene further downstream.
Castle Eden Village
Back in the northern part of the Castle Eden area if we head along the B1281 from the site of the old brewery and the former ‘Factory’ village we reach old Castle Eden Village itself.
The old village of Castle Eden is a pretty, but tiny village of two rows with the street-name ‘The Village’. Nearby, the delightful village church is dedicated to St James and dates from 1764. It replaced an earlier medieval chapel of St James dating to the 1140s and was founded by Robert Brus, the Lord of Eden, who also held Hartlepool and Guisborough.
Brus gave this chapel to the Church of Durham shortly after the Norman Conquest but the church also paid tithes to the Priory of Gisborough. The tower seems to be from the original medieval chapel with battlements and a spire added to it in 1764.
The village and its ‘castle’ to the north are on the site of the original settlement of Eden mentioned in medieval and Anglo-Saxon times. It was one of two Edens, the other being Little Eden – or Yoden – a deserted medieval village that is now part of Peterlee to the north.
Eden itself had been the northernmost territory of a ruthless Viking called Scule (also sometimes spelled Scula or Skuli) who was given all the land seized by the Viking King Ragnald that was situated between ‘the town of Eden’ and Billingham. According to the Norman scholar Simeon of Durham, Scule “oppressed the country folk with intolerable tribute”. Another Viking called Olaf Ball (Onlafbal) was given the tract of land from Eden to the River Wear.
Eden, incidentally is a name that comes from an ancient Celtic river-name given to the Castle Eden Burn, though another theory is that it derives from ‘Yew Dene’ from the sacred yew trees of the valley.
Castle Eden Castle
The actual ‘castle’ at Castle Eden is a grand mansion and private house that stands nearby on the edge of the dene. It was built from 1758 to 1786 by the Newcastle architect William Newton for Rowland Burdon although Burdon also consulted the renowned architect Sir John Soane who is sometimes incorrectly attributed as the architect although Soane did make some contributions to the design.
Rowland Burdon for whom the castle at Castle Eden was built was a merchant, businessman, pioneering industrialist, philanthropist and a Durham MP. The son of a Newcastle merchant and banker (another Rowland who also owned Eden), Burdon was the man who built the turnpike road from Sunderland to Stockton. He is perhaps best known for building the famous iron bridge across the River Wear in Sunderland in the 1790s. The bridge was widely famed and was the predecessor of the current Wearmouth Bridge. Burdon was also a mayor of Stockton-on-Tees.
The former mining villages of Blackhall Colliery and Blackhall Rocks are linked together along the coast road from Castle Eden Dene south towards Crimdon Dene and Hartlepool. They were built to serve the mine of Blackhall Colliery itself which was opened by Horden Collieries Ltd in 1909 and operated until closure in April 1981.
The name Blackhall was originally ‘Black Halls’ and refers to the dark caves in the magnesian limestone rocks of the coast here. Hutchinson’s 1857 History of Durham describes the rocks of the coast here as “very romantic”, and scooped into deep “caverns of the most rude and grotesque appearance”. In the nineteenth century there were unsuccessful attempts to mine lead hereabouts, probably because there wasn’t any lead.
Like neighbouring beaches to the north, Blackhall Beach suffered from the dumping of colliery waste for many years but has seen a thorough clean up in recent decades and is now a picturesque spot. During its grimy industrial heyday the beach featured in the chase that was the climactic scene in the 1971 film Get Carter starring Michael Caine.
Near Hardwick Dene (an offshoot of Castle Eden Dene) just to the west of Blackhall Colliery village is Hardwicke Hall, now the Hardwicke Hall Manor hotel.
Historically called Hardwick Hall, this hall is mostly eighteenth century and built around an earlier house. It includes hidden within an attic chimney, a priest’s hole dating from the sixteenth century, where illegally practising Catholic priests who faced persecution could hide to avoid detection in times of danger. A limestone cave in nearby Hardwick dene also served as a secret chapel that was used by the priests.
The name Hardwick means ‘herd farm’ and dates to Anglo-Saxon times. In the medieval period it had been the home to a chapel that belonged to the monastery of Durham Cathedral but was destroyed during a Scottish raid in the early fourteenth century. It should not be confused with the Hardwick Hall and park near Sedgefield.
Crimdon Beach and Crimdon Dene
South of Blackhall Rocks there is a coastal caravan park near the mouth of Crimdon Dene. This dene is formed by the Crimdon Beck which meets the sea at the lovely Crimdon Beach and coastline, a spot which is noted for its colony of Little Terns.
Crimdon Dene is not as extensive as Castle Eden Dene but is still the second largest dene of the Durham coast. It forms the border between County Durham and Hartlepool and is a place of beauty that is worth exploring. The name Crimdon was recorded in 1270 as ‘Crumeden’ and derives from the Anglo-Saxon words ‘crumb’ and ‘denu’ meaning ‘crooked valley’.
Near the dene’s mouth the coast road and Crimdon Railway viaduct cross the dene and then further up the valley, near Middlethorpe Farm was another railway (from Hartlepool to Thornley) that crossed the dene, but is now dismantled.
Close to here, two branches of the dene meet in a v-shape between which is situated a farm called Nesbitt Hall on a site first named in the 1380s. It is named from ‘nose-bite’ meaning the nose-shaped parcel of land. To the west towards the A19 and Hutton Henry is Hulam Farm – a site first mentioned around 1040 and named from being in a hollow or depression of land.
Thorpe Bulmer and Sheraton
The dene on the south side of Nesbitt’s nose-bite land is formed by the Bellows Burn and is called Thorpe Bulmer Dene. It is named from the nearby Thorpe Bulmer farm and forms the continuation of the Durham-Hartlepool border. Thorpe Bulmer combines the Viking word Thorpe with the name of the Bulmer family who owned land here from early times up until the sixteenth century.
Thorpe Bulmer was originally just called Thorpe but became Nesebite Thorpe by the 1240s and then ‘Thorpebulmer’ sometime before 1312. The delightfully named Short Cake Hill is close by to the east.
A mile to the west near the A19 is the site of the deserted medieval village of Sheraton. Its name was originally Scurfatun and means ‘farm belonging to someone called Scurfa’. Scurfa is a Viking personal name that means ‘scabby’ or perhaps ‘flaky-skinned’. The surname Sheraton later derived from residents who took the village-name and descendants included the famous Stockton-born furniture designer, Thomas Sheraton. The present village of Sheraton over on the other side of the A19 to the west is a modern development.
On the north side of Nesbitt is the longer, larger upper branch of Crimdon Dene called Hesleden Dene (or Nesbitt Dene). The name Hesleden in fact means hazel dene from hazel tress that grew in the valley. Close by to the north of the dene is a small farming hamlet called Monk Hesleden and nearby a farm called Hesleden Hall.
Monk Hesleden was once the site of a medieval church dating from the thirteenth century and was once the only medieval church between Hart Village and Easington. Sadly, the church was demolished in the 1960s, its site now lost in neighbouring woodland, though its cemetery can still be seen.
Originally Monk Hesleden was just called Haseldene but was renamed ‘Munkhesilden’ sometime before 1324 probably to avoid confusion with Cold Hesledon near Seaham which is also named from a hazel dene. The ‘monk’ of Monk Hesleden comes from it once belonging to the monks of Durham Cathedral monastery.
Just to the north towards Blackhall Colliery is High Hesleden, a farming village with a large inn called The Ship. To the west in the upper part of the dene is the village of Hesleden itself, formerly called Castle Eden Colliery and built to serve the mine of that name. It was one of the older collieries in this part of east Durham.
Castle Eden Colliery was sunk in 1842 and operated until 1959. It was facilitated by the construction of the Hartlepool Dock Railway Company’s line of 1835 that linked Hartlepool to coal mines in the Thornley area. Close to Hesleden are the various villages associated with the Castle Eden area all of which lie within a mile to the west.