Chester-le-Street and the Cong Valley

Roman Chester-le-Street

Chester-le-Street lies in a vale formed by the River Wear at a point close to where the river is joined by the Cong Burn. To the west and south west the land rises sharply towards Waldridge Fell while to the east the land rises towards the magnesian limestone plateau of the Sunderland and Penshaw areas. This page covers the town of Chester-le-Street along with nearby Waldridge, Plawsworth and the valley of the Cong Burn towards Edmondsley and Holmside.

Chester-le-Street viewed from Great Lumley
Chester-le-Street viewed from Great Lumley © David Simpson

A good view of the town’s setting can be seen from the village of Great Lumley to the east. Chester-le-Street is overlooked on its eastern side by Lumley Castle that provides a pleasing backdrop to the riverside park and cricket stadium. Lumley isn’t the only castle in the Chester-le Street area. A little further along the River Wear to the east, beyond this view, are the grounds of Lambton Castle and Lambton Park. The Lumley and Lambton families were prominent in the history of Chester-le-Street.

Lambton Castle
Lambton Castle near Chester-le-Street © David Simpson

At Great Lumley the panoramic view includes the church of St Mary and St Cuthbert with its distinct spire on the site of a Roman fort and Saxon minster. In the distance we see the fells stretching west toward the Pennines and to the immediate north the castle of Lumley and Angel of the North at Gateshead beyond.

Lumley Castle © David Simpson
Lumley Castle near Chester-le-Street © David Simpson

The valley setting of Chester-le-Street provided an important through-route from north to south and here around 1,800 years ago the Romans built a fort they named Concangis. This is thought to derive from a native Celtic tribal name in the neighbourhood that may mean ‘horse people’.

River Wear with the adjoining Cong Burn (Chester Burn) to the right at Chester-le-Street
River Wear with the adjoining Cong Burn (Chester Burn) to the left at Chester-le-Street © David Simpson

Another view is that the name Concangis comes from a speculative ancient British king or leader called Cunec, though this idea may have arisen later from the similarity of the word Cong to the Danish and Anglo-Saxon words for a king.

Cone Terrace where the 'Cone' or Cong Burn flows in a culvert beneath the parked cars
Cone Terrace where the ‘Cone’ or Cong Burn flows in a culvert beneath the parked cars © David Simpson

The old Roman and Celtic name is still recalled in the name of the large stream, the Cong Burn (or Chester Burn), that joins the Wear near here. A nearby street called Cone Terrace also takes its name from this burn as in the past the burn has sometimes been called the Cone. The terrace overlooks a car park beneath which the burn flows in a culvert.

Cong Burn, Chester-le-Street
Cong Burn, Chester-le-Street © David Simpson

In 1932 most of the Cong Burn’s course in Chester-le-Street was channelled through a culvert beneath the town’s market place that hid the burn from view. It was rather a sad loss for a watercourse that had been so closely tied to the town’s history. Thankfully this changed in 2021 when new flood defence developments brought part of the burn back into the open once again at the heart of the town near the market place.

The Roman fort of Congangis was situated on a Roman Road later known as ‘Cade’s Road’ (see Roman Newcastle) from a nineteenth century historian who identified its course. It links Brough on Humber (and Lincoln beyond) to Newcastle upon Tyne. In the North East it passes through Middleton St George, Sadberge, Sedgefield and Coxhoe and skirts Durham City near Old Durham and Shincliffe.

Chester-le-Street church of St Mary and St Cuthbert
Chester-le-Street church of St Mary and St Cuthbert stands at the centre of the old Roman fort © David Simpson

The course of the Roman road between Durham and Chester-le-Street isn’t clear. North of Chester-le-Street it is has been identified as following the Durham road through Gateshead and it crossed the Tyne by a Roman bridge where the Swing Bridge stands today.

Confluence of the Cong Burn (Chester Burn) and the River Wear
Confluence of the Cong Burn (Chester Burn) and the River Wear © David Simpson

Concangis was situated east of Chester-le-Street’s Front Street which more or less follows the Roman road. It is the ‘street’ of Chester-le-Street’s name, as the term ‘street’ ultimately derives from ‘via-strata’ or ‘paved way’ and was often a name given to former Roman roads by the later Anglo-Saxons.

Chester-le-Street’s Roman fort was built on a naturally raised piece of land between the River Wear to the east and Cong Burn to the north. Little remains of the fort though the church of St Mary and St Cuthbert stands at what would have been its centre.

Traces of Roman barracks Chester-le-Street
Traces of a Roman barracks at Chester-le-Street © David Simpson

Parts of Church Chare, Low Chare and Middle Chare lie within the Roman fort site and Middle Chare lines up with the location of the fort’s western gateway. The outline of an excavated Roman barracks that stood within the fort can be seen alongside the parish centre near the church.

Middle Chare, Chester-le-Street lines up with the site of a Roman gateway
Middle Chare, Chester-le-Street lines up with the site of a Roman gateway © David Simpson

A Roman granary was excavated near Park View School and also stood within the fort. There was a bath house outside the fort, to the south, and a civilian settlement located to the east of the fort with traces of a timber bridge discovered in the neighbouring Cong Burn.

Middle Chare Chester-le-Street
Middle Chare, Chester-le-Street Photo David Simpson 2018

Roman soldiers were stationed at Concangis until the fourth century. An altar dedicated to ‘Condatis’ was found here, thought to have been a celebration of the meeting of the waters of the Wear and the Cong. Altars and urns have been found and perhaps more would have been discovered if it were not for the growth of the parts of the town that cover much of the Roman site.

Anglo-Saxon Chester-le-Street

During the late Anglo-Saxon period (what we might call the Viking period), Chester-le-Street seems to have been one of the most important places in the North being a religious and political focus of power and was likely the centre of an important estate. It had long been claimed that it was arguably the most important place north of the Tees other than Bamburgh with an influence that extended well beyond to the south, however the role of Chester-le-Street during this era has recently come under question.

The River Wear at Chester-le-Street
The River Wear at Chester-le-Street © David Simpson

Durham’s Prince Bishops were successors to the Anglo-Saxon Bishops of Lindisfarne but the story of the movement of their bishopric from this ‘holy island’ to the land between Tyne and Tees, according to some historic sources, included a 113 year era in which Chester-le-Street became the new home for the Bishopric of Lindisfarne and the shrine of St Cuthbert. By tradition, Chester-le-Street played an important role in the early development of what later became County Durham.

St Cuthbert's coffin
The carriers of St Cuthbert’s coffin depicted in a painting in Chester-le-Street church

In AD 793 the Vikings made their first attack upon the coast of Britain with a raid upon Lindisfarne and more raids would follow. By the end of the following century the threat of further raids was such that the monks of Lindisfarne were forced to flee their island with the body of Saint Cuthbert and seek refuge on the mainland:

How when the rude Dane burn’d their pile
The monks fled forth from Holy Isle :
O’er northern mountain, marsh, and moor,
From sea to sea, from shore to shore,
Seven years St Cuthbert’s corpse they bore.

Sir Walter Scott

According to one strand of historical records it is claimed that in AD 882 after around seven years of wandering the North, the carriers of St Cuthbert’s coffin were granted land at what is now called Chester-le-Street by a Viking king called Guthred. At this point Eardwulf, Bishop of Lindisfarne supposedly became the first Bishop of Lindisfarne at Chester-le-Street.

Chester-le-Street Front Street
Chester-le-Street Front Street © David Simpson

At what date the Anglo-Saxons first encountered the ruins of Concangis is not known but they had renamed the place Cuneceastre, or Conecaster as more than one spelling is recorded. ‘Ceastre’ or ‘Chester’ is a word that the Anglo-Saxons often assigned to abandoned Roman forts.

Chester-le-Street church of St Mary and St Cuthbert
Chester-le-Street church of St Mary and St Cuthbert © David Simpson

Viking raids (and perhaps Scottish raids too) are thought to have been a constant threat to the Lindisfarne community that guarded St Cuthbert’s remains and this is said to have forced the community to leave Lindisfarne with the remains of their saint. Several places across the North were reputedly visited and used as a resting place for the carriers of St Cuthbert during their travels.

These places included Darlington, Billingham, Crayke in Yorkshire and places in the Lake District as well. Most notably, the resting places included Norham on Tweed which seems to have been the first stop and this became a particularly important centre for the community. In fact it may have been the only stop and the other places mentioned may represent lands associated with the community’s growing territorial claims.

For the Lindisfarne monks, the prominent location of Conecaster, their supposedly final resting place, in the vale of the River Wear, situated within the remains of a Roman fort may have offered the benefit of good communications to neighbouring areas and possible protection from raiders including Vikings if it is true that they did settle here. It was also a central focus for a large tract of land situated between the Tyne and Wear stretching west to Dere Street that came to be known as the Haliwerfolc Land : the land of the Holy Man’s People.

It is interesting that the land at Chester-le-Street is said to have been given to the community by Guthred, a Viking king of York who had converted to Christianity and to whom the powerful and influential community had given their support. If the Vikings had taken land around Chester-le-Street there is little evidence to suggest they significantly settled there. Viking place-names are rare in County Durham and are most numerous in the south of the county but even there they are nowhere near as numerous as they are in Yorkshire. Nevertheless Danish political influence probably extended to the Tyne and beyond.

Cong Burn, Chester-le-Street
Cong Burn, Chester-le-Street © David Simpson

Along with Chester-le-Street, the community received land to the north between the Tyne and Wear ‘Wirralshire’ stretching from the coast as far west as the Roman road of Dere Street (the LanchesterEbchesterCorbridge road). This meant their lands encompassed what is now the boroughs of Gateshead, South Tyneside, part of Sunderland and northern County Durham. Chester-le-Street seems to have been an important centre within this tract of land. Over time further lands were added from southerly and easterly parts of what would become County Durham.

It is said that St. Cuthbert had once visited Chester-le-Street during his lifetime and performed a miracle here but this may be a story created later to reinforce his links to the place. When the monks arrived they are said to have brought with them St Cuthbert’s wooden coffin containing his remains and relics. They would have also brought a stone cross; the head of the Northumbrian King Oswald and the beautiful Lindisfarne Gospels.

Distant spire of Chester-le-Street church viewed from Lumley Castle
Distant spire of Chester-le-Street church viewed from Lumley Castle © David Simpson

Whether they were based at Chester-le-Street or not, the community of St Cuthbert were powerful men who served as guardians of the much revered saint and passed this responsibility down through family members. These monks, perhaps more accurately described as canons or secular priests, had wives. They are said to have built a church for the saint’s shrine at Chester-le-Street, likely utilising stones from the Roman fort.

Conecaster

The layout of the tiny Anglo-Saxon town at Chester-le-Street is not known, but it’s possible the streets called chares developed at this time. Evidence suggests Conecaster was small but if it was once the home to home to St Cuthbert’s shrine it must have had some substance as a major centre of pilgrimage and political power in a role that it reputedly held for 113 years.

Athelstan at Chester-le-Street
King Æthelstan bestowing gifts to the St Cuthbert community at Chester-le-Street

It is said that there were a succession of nine bishops at Chester-le-Street. Pilgrims came from far and wide and included Æthelstan , first King of England who visited in AD 934. He bestowed gifts to the shrine – which can now be seen in Durham Cathedral and consisted of a maniple and stole, embroidered religious items used by bishops. Æthelstan also granted land at South Wearmouth, roughly encompassing modern Sunderland south of the Wear. This may have included land from Castle Eden to Wearmouth briefly taken from the Community of St Cuthbert by a Viking called Olaf Ball in 918.

Another notable visitor who is said  to have come to Chester-le-Street was the Viking king of Norway and York, Eric Bloodaxe. He visited St Cuthbert’s shrine in AD 952 in a surprisingly peaceful visit. Making a pilgrimage to St Cuthbert’s shrine and receiving the saint’s favour was an expedient political move for those who wanted to hold power. However, it didn’t seem to do Bloodaxe much good as he was murdered two years later in an ambush on the wilds of Stainmore.

Spire of Chester-le-Street church above the rooftops of the town
Spire of Chester-le-Street church above the rooftops of the town © David Simpson

The nine powerful Bishops of Lindisfarne who are said to have been based at Chester-le-Street were Eardwulf, Cutheard, Tildred, Wigred, Uhtred, Sexhelm, Aldred, Elfsig and Aldhun. In the North East their lands are thought to have stretched from the Tees to the Firth of Forth and they were only second in power to the Earls (or High Reeves) of Bamburgh who virtually ruled the region and with whom they forged a strong partnership. In fact it is possible they acted as a buffer or power broker between the Viking kings of York and Anglo-Saxon rulers of Bamburgh.

Aldred, the seventh bishop reputedly based at Conecaster played an important part in the history of the English speaking people as he was the man who undertook the first ever translation of the Gospels into English. This would have been undertaken in a scriptorium at the minster which housed the saint’s shrine.

Spire of Chester-le-Street church
Spire of Chester-le-Street church © David Simpson

The translation takes the form of ‘a gloss’ written in the margins of the Lindisfarne Gospels alongside the original Latin. It is written in the Northumbrian Old English language of the Anglo-Saxons. A facsimile copy of the wonderful Lindisfarne Gospels can be seen in Chester-le-Street church.

Chester-le-Street was undoubtedly an important centre in this period of the ‘Viking era’ but in recent years its role as the home of the one time shrine of St Cuthbert has been challenged by new academic research that cast doubts on the historic documents that claim Chester-le-Street was the home to the successors of the Bishops of Lindisfarne and shrine of St Cuthbert for 113 years.

Chester-le-Street may have been the centre of a bishopric  – perhaps the relocated bishopric of Hexham – but its status as the one time home to St. Cuthbert’s shrine is now under question. Also under question is the date of the transfer of the shrine to Durham (from Lindisfarne or Norham) which may have been slightly later than is traditionally thought. Whatever, the truth, the very mention of Chester-le-Street in the posthumous story of St Cuthbert highlights that this was a place of significance.

Cong Burn, Chester-le-Street
Cong Burn, Chester-le-Street © David Simpson

Chester-le-Street and Durham

By AD 995 the threat of raids, most likely from Scotland rather than Scandinavia (as the Scots were actively raiding at this time) resulted in the relocation of the historic Lindisfarne bishopric to a new centre. It was in that year (or perhaps as late as 1013) that the monks and bishop relocated to Durham where the shrine of St. Cuthbert has rested ever since.

Whether Chester-le-Street’s Anglo-Saxon church had been a ‘cathedral’ (the seat of a bishop) in the modern sense of the word is not known but it seems likely it was a ‘Minster’ – a high status Anglo-Saxon church that was also possibly a monastery of some kind. Sadly, nothing remains of the Anglo-Saxon church and the present church of St Mary and St Cuthbert that stands on its probable site dates no earlier than the eleventh century.

Chester-le-Street church © David Simpson
Chester-le-Street church © David Simpson

In 1050 Egelric, a Bishop of Durham, pulled down the minster at Conecaster and built a new stone church in its place. He probably used stone from the old Roman fort. A great hoard of treasure was apparently discovered during the demolition which Egelric kept for himself, retiring to Peterborough with his fortune.

It’s not known if the treasures were part of a Roman hoard or gifts bestowed upon the Anglo-Saxon church. If it was the latter then Egelric may not have been the first bishop guilty of such a theft. A hundred and three years earlier, Bishop Sexhelm had stolen treasures from St Cuthbert’s shrine in AD 947 again assuming the shrine was located in Chester-le-Street. He was expelled for his sins.

Chester-le-Street church

Although not the Anglo-Saxon original, the church of St Mary and St Cuthbert is of considerable interest. It is not known if Egelric’s church was completed and although parts of the church may date from that time – the vestry being the oldest part – the church was rebuilt in 1267 and this is largely the Chester-le-Street parish church of St Mary and St Cuthbert that we see today with the major exception of the spire that was added in 1409.

Church spire, Chester-le-Street
Church spire, Chester-le-Street © David Simpson

A row between two men over who should become rector of the church in 1286 caught the attention of Bishop Bek who dismissed them both and gave the church a collegiate status making it one of the senior parishes in the northern part of Durham.

Collegiate churches (which also included Lanchester and St Andrew Auckland) had a similar organisation to present cathedrals with deans, prebendaries, chaplains, deacons and other ministers. The Dean of Chester-le-Street would live in the Deanery, where Park View School now stands.

Inside the church are reminders of Chester-le-Street’s important past including a wooden ‘bishop’s throne’, though this is not ancient as it dates from 1927. Striking are the painted panels by A.K Nicholson which show events associated with Chester-le-Street’s history.

Chester-le-Street church of St Mary and St Cuthbert
Chester-le-Street church of St Mary and St Cuthbert © David Simpson

One panel shows the monks arriving in Chester-le-Street with St Cuthbert’s body and another depicts King Alfred the Great confirming the grant of the land made by Guthred. It was Alfred who is said to have granted the right of sanctuary to Chester-le-Street, a privilege later transferred to Durham Cathedral where it is symbolised by the Sanctuary knocker. There are figures of St Mary and St Cuthbert and stained glass windows, which like the panels, depict the early history of Chester-le-Street as well as the Lindisfarne Gospels.

Anker’s House and ‘Lumley Warriors’

Attached to the church as an integral part of the building is a medieval anchorage once occupied by a succession of hermits who were voluntarily locked away for the remainder of their life, only connected to the outside world by a very narrow squint or slit in a stone wall along with a tiny hatch for food to be passed through.

Ankers House Chester-le-Street
Ankers House Chester-le-Street © David Simpson

Anchorites here included a John Blenkinsopp of Birtley in the 1400s and John Wessington of Washington in the 1380s, a member of the famous family who would later give the world the first American president. The anchorage or ‘anker’s house’ was in use until 1547 and now serves as a tiny museum.

The stone tomb effigies of knights called the Lumley Warriors are a curious feature of the church with fourteen in total lined up in two rows from head to toe, some with missing feet so they could be squeezed in. Placed in the church in 1594, they were collected by John Lord Lumley who claimed they were all his ancestors though some are fakes created by Elizabethan craftsmen for Lumley and others were the tombs of other knights who were not Lumleys at all.

Lumley Warriors, Chestr-le-Street church
Lumley Warriors, Chester-le-Street church

Two were known to have been taken from the churchyard of Durham Cathedral are thought to be Fitzmarmadukes from Horden who had a similar coat of arms to the Lumleys. One had died serving Edward II at the Battle of Perth and had requested burial at Durham Cathedral. The Fitzmarmadukes were relatives of the Lumleys but distant ones.

The old church of Chester-le-Street has stood the test of time and is still an important landmark in the town but like all churches has required constant care. In the 1600s when King James passed through the town workmen were busy strengthening its spire. One man is said to have performed a headstand on the church spire to impress the passing monarch. The King sent his compliments for the free entertainment.

Chester-le-Street Front Street on the course of a Roman road
Chester-le-Street Front Street on the course of a Roman road © David Simpson

Chester-le-Street town

Despite the loss of Bishopric status in late Anglo-Saxon times Chester-le-Street’s place on the main road from London to Scotland ensured that it did not drift into obscurity although it remained a relatively small place.

Chester-le-Street
Chester-le-Street : the prominent church with the octagonal tower and grey spire is a Methodist church of 1902 that overlooks the town’s market place just north of the Cong Burn © David Simpson

By the 1100s, Conecaster was called ‘Ceastre’ or ‘Cestre’ and was referred to as ‘Cestria in Strata’ by 1406. It was called ‘Chestre in le Strete’ by 1411 and Chester le Street by 1419. ‘Street’ historically comes from the term ‘strata’ applied to old Roman roads because of their paved nature. The suffix ‘Street’ in Chester’s name helped to distinguish Chester-le-Street from other Chesters, but many locals today simply call the place ‘Chester’.

Front Street, Chester-le-Street
Front Street, Chester-le-Street © David Simpson

In the mid 1300s there would have been thatched cottages in the narrow lanes called chares and along the main street and there was a bake house and a common oven. Stocks and a pillory stood in the churchyard until 1790 for the punishment of offenders. By the mid nineteenth century when rapid mining developments in the neighbourhood had been significant Chester-le-Street was described as a town but was still more like a large village that had  become a central focus for surrounding mining communities.

Market Place Chester-le-Street
The Cong. Urn flows beneath the Market Place in Chester-le-Street © David Simpson

Up until the 1930s when it was culverted, the Cong Burn was the main feature of the town, crossed by a bridge that carried the main road over the broad stream.

Cong Burn, Chester-le-Street
Cong Burn, Chester-le-Street © David Simpson

John Leland, Henry VIII’s antiquarian described Chester-le-Street as “one main street of very mean building in height” and noted that the bridge across the “Conebrook” was “a very fair bridge of three arches.” Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) described the town as “an old dirty thoroughfare town empty of all the greatness which antiquaries say it once had”.

By the 1830s the town still consisted of little more than the Front Street but was the home to an engine works, a brass foundry, a corn mill, around sixteen inns and taverns and the homes of various tradesmen. As the century progressed it increasingly became a focal point for the mining villages of the neighbourhood.

Chester-le-Street Riverside Cricket Ground viewed from Lumley Castle © David Simpson
Fllodlights of Chester-le-Street Riverside Cricket Ground viewed from Lumley Castle © David Simpson

The most notable buildings in the main street are the historic pubs called the Queen’s Head and Lambton Arms. The Queen’s Head dates from about 1616, but has an eighteenth century façade. A former coaching house on the Great North Road, ten coaches a day once set off from here.

Queens Head, Chester-le-Street
Queens Head, Chester-le-Street © David Simpson

The Queen’s Head and Lambton Arms were listed as posting houses, where mail could be delivered up and down the Great North Road. The Lambton Arms dates from at least the eighteenth century, but its façade was added in the early years of the twentieth century. Court sessions of the Bishopric of Durham were once held at the Lambton Arms and Queen’s Head.

Lambton Arms, Chester-le-Street
Lambton Arms, Chester-le-Street © David Simpson

The Lambton Arms also hosted the Halmote Court ‘the Hall meet’ up until the nineteenth century. Such meetings were usually held in a manor house.

Central Methodists Chapel, Chester-le-Street viaduct
Central Methodists Chapel, Chester-le-Street © David Simpson

There are few buildings of important architectural merit in Chester-le-Street despite the town’s long history, though the medieval spire of the parish church and the numerous glimpses of Lumley Castle at various points around the town make up for this. The buildings in the market place and Front Street are mostly neat and the street is always lively with shoppers.

Bethel Chapel, Chester-le-Street viaduct
Bethel Chapel, Chester-le-Street © David Simpson

One of the most prominent buildings at the heart of the town is the Central Methodist church of 1902 overlooking the Market Place. It is one of three handsome non-conformist chapels in Chester-le-Street’s town centre. The others are the Bethel Chapel of 1816 (remodelled in 1860) in Low Chare and the Wesleyan Chapel of 1880 in Station Road.

Wesleyan Chapel, Chester-le-Street viaduct
Wesleyan Chapel, Chester-le-Street © David Simpson

The nearby railway station of 1868 is of particular interest to myself as the writer. When I was born, the station house was the place of residence of my parents. It was my first home, though I should say I was not born on the station nor found abandoned in a handbag on the station platform.

Chester-le-Street Station
Chester-le-Street Station © David Simpson

Dainty Dinah : Sweet Factory

One industry for which Chester-le-Street was famed was the Dainty Dinah sweet factory which made toffees, nougats, mints, caramels and sweets of many flavours. Sweets were made in the town from around 1878 when a factory was established by a Mr Luccock between the Front Street and neighbouring railway line.

The Dainty Dinah brand
The Dainty Dinah brand

Later, a Mr Samuel took over the business and manufactured jam but in 1910 it was taken over by George W. Horner of Norfolk whose confectionery brands at Chester-le-Street included ‘Mermaid’ and later from 1914 the famed ‘Dainty Dinah’ brand of toffee with local blonde-haired lady, Alice Scott, modelling the role of Dainty Dinah.

Dainty Dinah and Horner’s became an internationally recognised brand and the 106 feet high factory chimney was a Chester-le-Street landmark. Sadly, the company faced tough competition from other national confectioners in the 1950s and the business eventually closed in 1961.

Shrove Tuesday Football

For hundreds of years an annual Shrove tide football match was held at Chester-le-Street’s but unlike similar events at Sedgefield and Alnwick (which takes place in the castle park) it is no longer played today. The ball game’s origins are lost in time but it has been suggested that it dates to Roman times.

It is more likely to have originated in a later period, perhaps in the medieval era, though it may be significant that Eardwulf, the first Bishop of Lindisfarne to be associated with Chester-le-Street is said to have enjoyed ball games.

Shrove Tuesday football Chester-le-Street
Ball in the Burn, Shrove Tuesday football Chester-le-Street from an old postcard

The Chester-le-Street ball game was a riotous event held on Shrove Tuesday and traditionally involved a team of ‘Down-Streeters’ versus the ‘Up-Streeters’ with Low Chare marking the boundary between the two.

There were no goals, but the object was to get the ball to one end of the town or the other. It more often than not ended up in the Cong Burn and in 1891 a bridge across the burn collapsed, seriously injuring a boy. If it didn’t land in the burn one nineteenth century observer noted that the ball seemed to go from the yard of one local pub to another.

Shops were boarded up during the event but damage still seemed inevitable and eventually the protests of traders brought an end to the event with the last game taking place in 1932. A heavy police presence the following year ensured it would not continue.

Cong Burn valley near Edmondsley
Cong Burn valley near Edmondsley © David Simpson

Cong Burn Valley

Cong Burn (or Chester Burn as it’s usually known in Chester-le-Street itself) could be considered to be Chester-le-Street’s own little river and is of course recalled in the Roman (Concangis) and Anglo-Saxon (Conecaster) names for the town.

The Cong Burn valley near Edmondsley
The Cong Burn valley near Edmondsley © David Simpson

As we have seen, the Cong Burn joins the Wear just east of the A167 but here we take a short journey along the valley’s course upstream to the west and south west starting from the market place and North Burns area in the centre of town.

Viaduct and Cong Burn, Chester-le-Street
Viaduct and Cong Burn, Chester-le-Street © David Simpson

Heading upstream, just west of the market place, the burn briefly disappears into a culvert near a Tesco store and re-emerges after passing beneath the East Coast Main Line viaduct.

Chester-le-Street viaduct
Chester-le-Street viaduct © David Simpson

The Tesco store stands on an old part of the Victorian town of Chester-le-Street called South Burns and the area just opposite across the other side of the culverted burn, where there is a rising green bank was once called ‘Canada’. A mill and mill race were once situated in this area.

'Canada', Chester-le-Street
‘Canada’, Chester-le-Street © David Simpson

The land here once belonged to the Lambton family and is thought to commemorate John George Lambton, First Earl of Durham who was the Governor of Canada who oversaw the process of Canadian independence and Canada’s place in the Commonwealth. The famous Penshaw Monument was built in memory of Lambton.

The Cong Burn just west of Chester-le-Street town centre
The Cong Burn just west of Chester-le-Street town centre © David Simpson

During the twentieth century Chester-le-Street developed and grew westward on both sides of the Cong Burn including the South Pelaw area to the north but more particularly south of the burn in the Bullion Lane, Whitehill Way and Waldridge Road areas.

The Cong Burn just west of Chester-le-Street town centre
The Cong Burn just west of Chester-le-Street town centre © David Simpson

It is here south of the burn we find most of modern Chester-le-Street. The town suburbs are bordered on the south side by the South Burn which separates Chester-le-Street from nearby Chester Moor. To the west, the town is bordered by the woodland valley of the Cong Burn with Waldridge Fell to the south west.

Chester-le-Street railway viaduct with the retaining wall of the Cong Burn on the left © David Simpson
Chester-le-Street railway viaduct with the retaining wall of the Cong Burn on the left © David Simpson

Much of the Cong Burn and South Burn valleys form thickly wooded denes that mark out the edge of the town. From under the railway viaduct heading in the direction of Pelton, part of the valley is called Stella Gill where we approach Pelton Fell village. Pelton Fell is over on the west side of the Cong Burn.

The Cong Burn just west of Chester-le-Street town centre
The Cong Burn just west of Chester-le-Street town centre © David Simpson

Here as we continue upstream the valley takes us southward along the western edge of Chester-le-Street just after the Cong is joined on its west bank by Twizell Burn near Pelton Fell about three quarters of a mile west of the viaduct.  ‘Twizell’ means ‘fork’.

Stella Gill was once home to a mass of railway sidings and a coke works with the old Stanhope and Tyne Railroad once passing close by. Just north of South Pelaw the C2C cycle route follows the old railway route where we find the ‘King Coal’ sculpture by David Kemp at Pelton and the twisting ‘Lambton Worm’ earthwork sculpture by Andy Goldsworthy at South Pelaw. Here, however we have strayed some way from the Cong.

Waldridge Fell
Waldridge Fell © David Simpson

Waldridge Fell

From its junction with the Twizell Burn the Cong Burn Valley is particularly thickly wooded as we head upstream towards the village of Waldridge about a mile to the south. Waldridge village is near the edge of Waldridge Fell on the south western edges of Chester-le-Street.

Waldridge Fell
Waldridge Fell © David Simpson

Waldridge means ‘walled off ridge of land’ though another theory is that it was associated with ‘Wealas’ or Ancient Britons (‘Welsh’) in some way. Waldridge Fell is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and forms a beautiful nature reserve of around 300 acres described as the last surviving lowland heath in County Durham.

Waldridge Fell
Waldridge Fell © David Simpson

This is heathery, hilly country with bilberries and moorland grass and other typical heath vegetation. This landscape thrived after it was cleared of woodland cover during the Iron Age by the Britons, though woodland, as we have noted, still dominates the neighbouring valleys of the burns near its fringe.

Waldridge Fell
Waldridge Fell (north side) © David Simpson

The heath landscape is different to neighbouring Charlaw Fell and Pelton Fell that have long since been cleared of their vegetation to make way for the grazing fields of local farms. There are numerous footpaths crossing Waldridge Fell as it is a popular place for walking.

Waldridge Fell
Waldridge Fell © David Simpson

John Lambton, Earl of Durham once trained horses on the fell for his racecourse at Lambton Park and the Prince Bishops are thought to have likewise trained horses here. Another man to train horses on the fell was the nineteenth century Wolsingham and Tudhoe iron works owner, Charles Attwood who was a keen horse breeder.

Waldridge Fell
Waldridge Fell © David Simpson

A colliery and its associated wagonway was opened at Waldridge in the 1780s by a William Joliffe and linked to the River Wear in the Chartershaugh and Fatfield area from where the coal was ferried by keelmen downstream to Sunderland.

Waldridge
Waldridge © David Simpson

A deeper mine opened at Waldridge in 1831 linked to staiths on the Tyne and a new pit village at Waldridge began to grow. One of the pits at Waldridge was called Byron Colliery as mining rights in the area partly belonged to Lady Byron, wife of the famous poet, Lord Byron.

Waldridge pit wheel and lamp with the wooded dene of the Cong Burn beyond
Waldridge pit wheel and lamp with the wooded dene of the Cong Burn beyond © David Simpson

Close to the northern edge of the village is a little green with small pit wheel and a miner’s lamp sculpture that recall Waldridge’s mining past. The green stands on the edge of a steep ridge that drops quite suddenly into the deep wooded dene of the Cong Burn below. This is presumably the ‘ridge’ of Waldridge’s name.

The deep wooded dene of the Cong Burn below Waldridge village
The deep wooded dene of the Cong Burn below Waldridge village © David Simpson

Waldridge Hall, a modest house built in Regency style house near the village was the home to the eighteenth century architect, David Stephenson who is best-known for building Newcastle’s All Saints church. Until relatively recent times this hall stood alone in open country but is now part of a housing estate.

Scenery near Broomyholm
Scenery near Broomyholm © David Simpson

West of Waldridge is the farm of Broomyholm near Edmondsley and the nearby Tribley and Hett Hills while to the south of Waldridge Fell beyond the South Burn (Chester Dene) is Chester Moor that was once home to Chester South Moor Colliery. Close by the A167 that was once the old Great North Road heads south towards Plawsworth and Durham.

View from Edmondsley looking towards Waldridge Fell (centre), with the Northern Spire bridge at Sunderland and Penshaw Monument in the distance
View from Edmondsley looking towards Waldridge Fell (centre), with the Northern Spire bridge at Sunderland and Penshaw Monument in the distance © David Simpson

Edmondsley

Edmondsley is situated along the Cong Burn valley to the west of Waldridge Fell. It lies to the south of the Cong Burn’s wooded valley on the high ground of Edmondsley Fell with good views to the east and north.

Edmondsley
Edmondsley © David Simpson

The views from Edmondsley include Newcastle upon Tyne and St James’ Park football stadium to the north; the Northern Spire Bridge at Sunderland; Penshaw Monument and Lumley Castle.

View from Edmondsley looking towards Penshaw Monument and Lumley Castle
View from Edmondsley looking towards Penshaw Monument and Lumley Castle © David Simpson

To the south of Edmondsley is Daisy Hill and the much larger village of Sacriston with the nearby edge of Charlaw Fell dominated by Sacriston Wood to the west.

Edmondsley
Edmondsley © David Simpson

Though first mentioned in the Boldon Buke of 1183 the name Edmondsley has earlier roots and was probably the ‘ley’ (a woodland clearing) of a shepherd (Edemen).

Cong Burn woodland, Edmondsley
Cong Burn woodland, Edmondsley © David Simpson

Alternatively it has been suggested that it is named from a woman called Eda of Edemannesleye mentioned in the Life of St Godric of Finchale.  Eda was cured from sickness as the result of a miracle. Another view is that it was named from being the clearing of Eda’s man – Eda’s husband.

The Cong Burn, Edmondsley
Cong Burn, Edmondsley © David Simpson

For most of its history Edmondsley seems to have consisted of farms along the south side of the Cong Burn stretching west to Holmside. Its past owners included the Killinghalls in medieval times and the Tempests and Claxtons in the sixteenth century.

Street art at Edmondsley
Street art at Edmondsley © David Simpson

In 1840 a colliery opened here that resulted in the emergence of the pit village of Edmondsley. From the 1850s the mine was owned by a Mr Tyzack of Sunderland and later by the Edmondsley Coal Company.

Former Fleece Inn Edmondsley with the chamfered corner on the right where a wagonway once passed by
Former Fleece Inn Edmondsley with the chamfered corner on the right where a wagonway once passed by © David Simpson

A house near the Edmondsley crossroads that was once the Fleece Inn is positioned on a roadside plot at the heart of the village and has a chamfered corner that allowed for the course of a nearby colliery wagonway that once passed alongside the pub.

 Cong Burn Garden Centre, Edmondsley
Cong Burn Garden Centre, Edmondsley © David Simpson

Just north of Edmondsley on the road north to Craghead and Stanley the road dips into the pretty wooded valley of the Cong Burn near the Cong Burn garden centre. It is a relatively sheltered spot compared to the more exposed setting of Edmondsley village at the top of Edmondsley Fell.

Cong Burn, Edmondsley © David Simpson
Cong Burn, Edmondsley © David Simpson

On the bank of the road between the burn and the village we can see a former school master’s house of 1881 that was associated with the pit village. The old school for the pit village once stood next to the house but today Edmondsley’s present day primary school is on land to its rear.

Old schoolmaster's house Edmondsley
Old schoolmaster’s house Edmondsley © David Simpson

Heading south from Edmondsley on the road to Sacriston is the little village of Daisy Hill. Strangely as is often the case with place-names people are more likely to ask “why it is called ‘Daisy Hill’?” than they are to question the meaning of names like Sacriston or Edmondsley which perhaps have more interesting meanings. This is because Sacriston and Edmondsley have what look like typical place-names whereas Daisy Hill does not.

Daisy Hill with Sacriston beyond
Daisy Hill with Sacriston beyond pictured from Edmondsley © David Simpson

Daisy Hill is most likely named from simply being a hill covered with daisies rather than from a person. These kind of untypical place-names are numerous in County Durham as they often emerged as mining settlements with no precedent for an earlier village-name.

The edge of Charlaw Fell and Sacriston wood viewed from the road between Daisy Hill and Edmondsley
The edge of Charlaw Fell and Sacriston wood viewed from the road between Daisy Hill and Edmondsley © David Simpson

Just to the west of Daisy Hill is Sacriston Wood which forms the wooded edge of Charlaw Fell. Here the hill edge forms a right angle bend that may give its name to the fell as the word ‘chare’ or ‘chair’ can designate a ninety degree bend. The woodland along the edge of the hill stretches south towards Sacriston Heugh and west towards Holmside.

Holmside
Holmside © David Simpson

Holmside

The area stretching two and a half miles west from Edmondsley to Burnhope compasses Holmside. Here the Cong Burn is fed and formed by the Wheatley Green Burn along with the Wardles Burn and Whiteside Burn which are situated alongside the northern edge of Charlaw Fell.

Nature reserve on the road to Holmside west of Edmondsley
Nature reserve on the road to Holmside west of Edmondsley © David Simpson

Charlaw and Burnhope rise above the nearby valley of the River Browney which is over on the other side of these hills to the south and south west. Holmside consists of the tiny village called Holmside and similarly diminutive neighbouring settlements called Warland Green to the south and West Edmondsley just across Wardles Bridge to the east.

Holmside Park
Holmside Park © David Simpson

Further west towards Burnhope are Holmside Park, Holmside Hall and Little Holmside. Holmside Park is a popular family fun park set in farmland with a donkey sanctuary nearby. Roads from the Holmsides head north towards Craghead, Quaking Houses and Stanley.

Holmside Hall entrance gate
Holmside Hall entrance gate © David Simpson

In the Boldon Buke of 1183, Holmside is called Holneset – thought to mean ‘Holly Fold’ and perhaps linked in some way to the Holm Oak. The old name refers to what is now Holmside Hall, a medieval moated site west of Holmside village. This was once home to the powerful Umfraville family and there was a chapel nearby. Later owners included the Tempests.

Little Holmside Hall
Little Holmside Hall © David Simpson

Little Holmside Hall, a private house, further still to the west is a two and a half storey five bay house that dates from 1668 and was once the home of John Hunter of the Hermitage near Chester-le-Street. It was also known as ‘Holmside New Hall’ to distinguish it from the earlier Holmside Hall.

Little Holmside Hall
Little Holmside Hall © David Simpson

Heading back east towards Edmondsley, the pretty but tiny Holmside Village came into being as a nineteenth century mining village, though Holmside Colliery was the name given to the mine at Craghead just to the north where most of the miners resided.

Holmside village
Holmside village © David Simpson

Warland Green just south of Holmside village is an older settlement and its name ‘Warlandes’ is first recorded in 1311. It means taxable land belonging to a villein or feudal tenant. The nearby Wardles Burn (a tributary of the Cong) and Wardles Bridge refer to a family who were the seventeenth and eighteenth century owners of Edmondsley.

The Wardles Burn near Holmside
The Wardles Burn near Holmside © David Simpson

Wheatley Green, a farm just to the north belonged to the famed Umfravilles and later the Earls of Westmorland in medieval times. In the early nineteenth century the farmer was a relative of mine called Littlefair, though I have no connection to the illustrious noble families of earlier times.

A distant Charlaw Fell viewed from the countryside west of Little Holmside © David Simpson
A distant Charlaw Fell viewed from the countryside west of Little Holmside © David Simpson

Plawsworth and Kimblesworth

Plawsworth, Kimblesworth and Nettlesworth are situated close to the old Great North Road (A167) half way between Chester-le-Street and Framwellgate Moor on the northern edge of Durham City. Plawsworth lies to the east of the road with Kimblesworth and Nettlesworth on the road to Sacriston to its west.

Plawsworth
Plawsworth © David Simpson

Plawsworth includes stone houses, both old and modern, with the feel of a rural village rather than a pit village though there was a small mine mentioned here in 1647. Interestingly, the name Plawsworth means ‘enclosure for sports, games or amusements’ – a place of play. In the twelfth century, Simon Vitulus of Plawsworth provided greyhounds for the hunting expeditions of the Prince Bishops of Durham.

Plawsworth
Plawsworth © David Simpson

To the west, Plawsworth’s Red Lion pub is over on the opposite side of the road and a little to its south is an old farm (with a gin-gan house) that was once a nineteenth century roadside inn called the Highland Laddie.

View of Plawsworth from Kimblesworth
View of Plawsworth from Kimblesworth © David Simpson

To the east of Plawsworth is the East Coast Main Line railway – the main line from London to Edinburgh – and over a mile east from the village across low-lying farmland is the River Wear which here winds its way south-to-north between Durham and Chester-le-Street.

Red Lion, Plawsworth
Red Lion, Plawsworth © David Simpson

Back roads east of Plawsworth head north to Chester-le-Street, south to Newton Hall on the outskirts of Durham City or east across Cocken Bridge towards Great Lumley and Leamside. The intriguingly named Harbour House Farm near the River Wear east of Plawsworth derives from an old word ‘Herberwe’ meaning ‘lodgings’ and was not, as far as we know, the site of a harbour. The Roman Road called Cade’s Road (see Roman Newcastle) which forms the ‘street’ of Chester-le-Street passes through this area, though its exact course here is uncertain.

Looking across to the East Coast Main Line and Vale of the River Wear from Plawsworth
Looking across to the East Coast Main Line and Vale of the River Wear from Plawsworth © David Simpson

Nettlesworth and Kimblesworth are former mining settlements that merge together over on the other side of the A167 and are both named from earlier medieval settlements that were situated nearby. Kimblesworth (not to be confused with Kibblesworth near Gateshead) means ‘enclosure belonging to Cymel’.

Kimblesworth
Kimblesworth © David Simpson

In a field near Kimblesworth Grange there once stood a medieval church but nothing can be seen of this today other than traces in aerial photographs that betray the apse of a church that had fallen into ruin by 1593.

Former colliery officials' houses, Kimblesworth
Former colliery officials’ houses, Kimblesworth © David Simpson

Traces of the embankments of the ‘Vivarium De Kimblesworth’ – the artificial fish ponds of the Prince Bishops of Durham first mentioned in a Bishop Pudsey charter in the 1100s can be seen near the A167 and are recalled in the name of the nearby Stank Lane between Kimblesworth Grange and Pity Me nursery. A ‘Stank’ was another name for a fish pond.

Nettlesworth, just south of Kimblesworth means ‘enclosure overgrown with nettles’ though the later colliery village seems to have been called Broadmires for a time. Medieval owners of Nettlesworth included the Gategang family (see Gateshead) and later the Washingtons, who of course originated from Washington.

Nettlesworth
Nettlesworth © David Simpson

Nettlesworth Colliery operated from the 1850s up until its closure in 1974. Its earliest owner was seemingly George Elliott of Houghton who with William Hunter of Sandhoe, Northumberland also opened Kimblesworth Colliery in 1873, a colliery that operated until 1967. It was the opening of these two collieries that really saw the growth and development of the Kimblesworth and Nettlesworth pit villages. Nettlesworth is the home to the intriguingly named if somewhat unflattering ‘Ugly Lane’ which runs along the west side of the village primary school.

Lumley Castle and Great Lumley

Lambton Park and Bournmoor

Beamish Stanley, Pontop, Annfield Plain and Tanfield

 Lanchester and the Browney valley

Washington and Fatfield

 Penshaw and Worm Hill

Frawmellgate Moor

Durham City | Houghton | Rainton

Gateshead | Team Valley | Birtley area 

Home

The Kingdom of Northumbria 547-900 AD. Poster Print (A2 only).

 

North East England History and Culture