Darlington began as an Anglo-Saxon settlement on the River Skerne, a northern tributary of the Tees. Later, the town seems to have come under the influence of the Danes and there are still many Viking place-names in its vicinity.
In AD 1003 ‘Dearthington’ as it was then called, was given by Styr, an Anglo-Dane, described as the ‘son of Ulphus’, to the Community of St Cuthbert at Durham. He did so with the permission of King Æthelred and Darlington became the centre of an important Anglo-Saxon estate. It was possibly a return of land that had belonged to the Community of St Cuthbert in pre-Viking times.
Styr, Darlington’s owner, was a powerful magnate in the City of York, best known for granting the hand of his daughter, Sige, to Uhtred, Earl of Bamburgh and Northumbria on the condition Uhtred would kill Styr’s arch enemy, Thurbrand.
In the event Uhtred himself was killed by Thurbrand after he was called to attend the court of King Cnut at Wighill in West Yorkshire in 1016. Thurbrand’s men sprung upon Uhtred from behind a curtain at Cnut’s hall. The event set in motion a family blood feud that continued across three generations.
Dearthington, Darnton, Darlington
Darlington’s name derives from the Anglo-Saxon ‘Dearthington’, which apparently means the estate of someone called Deornoth. It is perhaps one of the most unsatisfying explanations for such a prominent town. The name has undergone numerous transitions in its spelling and interpretation since early medieval times.
Old examples of the name include Dearnington, Derntoun, Darnton, Darnintone and Derlingtone to name just a few. The evolution of these various forms of the name have been studied by place-name experts with linguistic knowledge who support the ‘Deronoth’s Estate’ explanation. However, popular views of the name have occasionally been suggested such as the idea that ‘Dare’ or ‘Derne’ was an old name for the River Skerne.
An Anglo-Saxon cemetery and settlement certainly existed at Darlington and it seems likely there was an Anglo-Saxon church situated here too. Traditionally, Darlington is said to have been one of the resting places for the monks who carried St Cuthbert’s coffin – the Community of St Cuthbert.
Anglo-Saxon crossheads have been found at Darlington as well as a fragment of a ‘hogback’ Viking sculptured stone found in the churchyard and preserved in the church. Viking hogbacks have been found in several areas of the Tees Vale and in the Vale of Mowbray near Northallerton, associated with early Christian centres at Gainford, Sockburn and Brompton.
St Cuthbert’s church
Since Norman times Darlington has been a borough and the site of an important market as well as an important church. The town has long been part of the County Palatine of Durham and later the County of Durham.
For administrative purposes today it is no longer part of Durham County as it a borough in its own right but for ceremonial purposes it remains within the historic County of Durham. Its Anglican churches are of course within the Diocese of Durham including the prominent Darlington parish church of St Cuthbert.
In 1084 the Prince Bishop of Durham, William of St Carileph removed the secular priests from Durham and relocated them to Norton-on-Tees, St Andrew Auckland and to Darlington. At Durham, where the cathedral and new Benedictine monastery were being established, the secular priests were replaced by celibate Benedictine monks from Jarrow and Wearmouth.
The non-celibate secular priests who came to Darlington, Auckland and Norton were members of the old Community of St Cuthbert and are thought to be descendants of the monks of Lindisfarne.
It was under the influence of one of Carileph’s powerful successors, Bishop Hugh Du Puiset, known as ‘Bishop Pudsey’, (1154-1195), that Darlington became a borough and it was perhaps then, if not in the earlier Viking period, that the medieval street layout was set down featuring streets such as Skinnergate and Houndgate.
St Cuthbert’s church in the heart of the town is one of the most admirable features of Darlington and the town’s strongest link to its medieval past. Built in the twelfth century in Early English style for Bishop Pudsey, it has sometimes been called the ‘Lady of the North’ and is one of the largest parish churches in the region. It is has an almost abbey-like quality that is reminiscent of Hexham Abbey.
In 1164, Bishop Pudsey built a manor house in Darlington just south of the church on the banks of the Skerne. Long since gone, it was on a site now partly occupied by the present day Darlington Town Hall of the 1960s. Pudsey, who was in his time easily the most powerful man in Northern England, occasionally resided at the Darlington manor house.
When Pudsey died at the age of 70 in 1195 he was on his way south to report to King Richard I (Richard ‘the Lionheart). He seems to have been in trouble for spending money that he had ostensibly raised to help pay a ransom for the release of King Richard, who had been imprisoned in Austria.
Pudsey seemingly spent the raised money – quite literally the king’s ransom – in the construction of St Cuthbert’s church at Darlington. He didn’t make it to the meeting with the king. Pudsey died at Doncaster during his journey south.
It is unlikely that King Richard, who was so frequently absent from England, ever saw Darlington or its church but other kings of England certainly came this way. Edward I made a summoning of his chief military tenants in the north from Darlington in 1291 to assist him with his wars in Scotland. He would visit again in 1302 when he addressed a letter to the pope from the town.
Darlington was certainly not free from the threat of Scottish attacks and in 1327 the ruthless Scottish noble, Archbold Douglas, killed several English at Darlington at around the time of the Battle of Stanhope. King Edward III also visited Darlington from where he issued letters patent in 1336 and 1338. The bishop’s manor house was presumably a palatial home that was ‘fit for a king’.
In July 1503 Margaret Tudor, daughter of Henry VII stayed at the Darlington manor house after visiting St Cuthbert’s church. On her way north to marry James IV of Scotland, Margaret was greeted at Darlington by Sir William Bulmer, the Sheriff of Durham. She had crossed the Tees into Durham at Neasham and was received by the convent there.
By the mid 1500s Darlington was a place associated with lawlessness. Whether this was deserved is uncertain, though there is an inkling of troubles as early as 1311 when Bishop Kellaw issued a notice in Darlington church that “on Sundays and Holy days no person should be molested in coming to the markets or fairs”.
By Tudor times Darlington was considered a popular refuge for thieves from throughout the country, perhaps because County Durham and the North East in general, in the days of the Border troubles was seen as outside the usual realm of English law. A phrase ‘Darnton Trod’ (to head Darlington way) came to be a term used in respect of criminals fleeing from justice.
A Sir Ralph Saddler, a stranger to the town who stayed in Darlington in January 1537 on his way north to Scotland stayed at an inn in the town and was alarmed to see a small group of men gathered at the inn door. The small gathering had grown into a huge rowdy crowd of men with clubs and bats by the time he had ascended the inn’s stairs and looked out of his bedroom window.
When he suggested to the landlord that they needed to be dispersed by force, the landlord warned that this would only increase their numbers further. After tactfully speaking to the crowd in person, the landlord persuaded the mob to disperse.
In fairness, Sir Ralph’s visit to Darlington came with much tension in the wake of the repression of the Pilgrimage of Grace, the great northern rebellion against Tudor political and religious reforms. Many in Darlington would have no doubt supported this rising.
Certainly, in the other great northern rebellion against the Tudors, the 1569 ‘Rising of the North’, Darlington was the biggest supporter of this Durham-focused rising that was plotted at Raby Castle under the Nevilles and Percys. Once again, the rebellion failed and of the 115 Darlington men who joined the rising, some 23 were hanged and 38 pardoned.
Of those from Darlington who took part in the rebellion, 55 were from the Borough of Darlington; 28 from Bondgate; 14 from Cockerton and 18 from Blackwell plus another four from nearby Haughton-le-Skerne. All in all there were 917 persons who joined the rising in County Durham and 226 were executed – the executions focusing mostly on the poorest.
Northern insurgency, along with the threat of Scottish attacks and lawless Border Reivers were a major concern for the Tudor regime. Darlington became a centre for efforts to limit these threats when it became the preferred and strategic headquarters for the Council of the North in 1538, The Council was responsible for administering and defending the whole of Northern England.
The Council of the North sat here, presumably at the Bishop’s manor house (where Darlington Borough Council’s Town Hall now stands). It met regularly at Darlington until July 1544 when it relocated to Barnard Castle due to plague. During its time at Darlington the town was home to military leaders and administrators.
Darlington was once notorious, not just for the lawlessness associated with the ‘Darnton Trod’ but also for its dirt as the town was often colloquially known as ‘Darnton in the Dirt’. This unfortunate moniker was due to the town’s notoriously muddy, unpaved streets, that are said to have prompted King James I of England (James VI of Scotland) to write the following uncomplimentary verse, during a visit 1617 :
‘Darnton has a bonny, bonny church
With a broach upon the steeple
But Darnton is a mucky, mucky town
And mair sham on the people.’
The story may be apocryphal. King James (who had also visited Darlington in 1603) was staying at the Crown Inn on the corner of Tubwell Row and Prebend Row when he looked out upon the market place and observed the poor condition of the streets.
The ‘broach’ referred to in King James’ uncomplimentary verse is the spire that adorns the top of St Cuthbert’s church tower. In times past a ‘steeple’ was simply a church tower rather than specifically a spire in the way the term is used today.
Daniel Defoe visiting about a century after the monarch’s visit concurred with the king’s observations describing Darlington as having “nothing remarkable but dirt and a high bridge over little or no water”. The Darlington streets were seemingly not paved until 1749 and then perhaps successfully as in 1790 the streets were described as being very dirty in winter “not being paved”.
‘Mucky town’ is certainly not a good description of Darlington today, as it generally has a pleasant and attractive appearance. It is especially well endowed with lovely town parks and leafy suburbs.
Darlington Borough : old streets
In the Boldon Book of 1183 holders of land at Darlington included Osbert Bate; the sons of Wybert; Robert De Mowbray; Galfrid Joie and a man called Lambert. Numerous old street-names that show the extent of the early town demonstrate that it was a successful borough.
By the time of Bishop Hatfield’s survey in the fourteenth century, the principal figures in the town consisted of thirty-nine free tenants with notables including William De Hoton and John De Tesedale.
Many of Darlington’s town centre streets follow a medieval lay-outtypically named with the suffix ‘gate’, an old word for a street. There were no actual gates across these streets as it wasn’t a walled town. Thus we have Blackwellgate, Northgate, Skinnergate, Houndgate, Bondgate and Priestgate.
Early Darlington was virtually two towns. The first town was the Bishops’ Borough of Darlington – an episcopal freehold where the tenants were freemen called burgesses. The Borough included most of the Market Place, Post House Wynd, Tubwell Row, Houndgate, Blackwelgate, Skinnergate, Prebend Row, Priestgate and Northgate. Here the burgess tenants were subject to the bishop’s own court.
The other ‘town’ was Bondgate, centred on the street of that name that was not part of Darlington Borough. It formed a separate manor held as copyhold by ‘bondsmen’ who were tied to the land and subject to the bishop’s Halmote Court. Land held by the bondsmen (as at Bondgate in Bishop Auckland) was treated as a separate place in early times.
Some of the old streets in the centre of the town have long-forgotten earlier names. Horsemarket on the south side of the market place is home to a smart three storey Georgian house called Bennet House. The street was once called South Row.
Tubwell Row on the north side of the market place seems to have been alternatively called Tubwellgate. Tubwell Row was named from a tub-shaped well that supplied water to the Darlington populace. A well was mentioned here in 1545.
A nineteenth century well was uncovered in more recent times and is marked by a modern circular brick structure planted with trees and shrubs near the Cornmill Shopping Centre’s service yard entrance. A little further along its eastern end, Tubwell Row becomes Stonebridge near St Cuthbert’s church where one of a number of bridges cross the River Skerne.
Darlington Wynds and Yards
To the rear of Horsemarket and High Row there once stretched lengthy oblong medieval burgage plots of land in which some of Darlington’s wynds and town centre yards would later develop. The burgage plots of High Row stretched north to Skinnergate.
Darlington’s best-known ‘wynd’ is Post House Wynd situated between High Row and Skinnergate. It was the site of a Darlington posting house called the Talbot Inn (there is an adjoining Talbot Yard) from which mail was delivered across the country.
Wynds such as Post House Wynd must have been great transmitters of fire and plague in times past. A great fire at Darlington in 1585 spread across both High Row and Skinnergate making, it was claimed, some 800 people homeless. Plagues hit Darlington in 1597, 1644 and 1645 taking many lives in the town.
In earlier times Post House Wynd had been called Glover’s Wynd or Charegate. The term chare was an old term for a ninety-degree adjoining side street and is found in historic towns across the North East, notably at Newcastle and Bishop Auckland.
The wynds are passage-like streets and although they are narrow, they are broader than an alleyway. Another notable wynd in Darlington is Bull Wynd off the south side of the Market Place, linking Horsemarket and Houndgate.
Bull Wynd is thought to be named from property belonging to the Bulmer family. The bull emblem was a symbol of the family and also of their relatives, the powerful Nevilles. An old, roughly cut small stone carving of a bull can be seen in the entrance to the wynd.
‘Wynd’ seems to be an old term which in England is used predominantly in the Tees valley (notably at Yarm and Staindrop) as well as in nearby Richmond and neighbouring Cleveland area of Yorkshire, for example at Hutton Rudby.
It generally does not seem to occur as an historic street-name in other parts of England including the rest of Yorkshire, Durham or Northumberland, though there is a street called ‘the Wynd’ off St Mary’s Chare in Hexham and a long street called the ‘Wynding’ at Bamburgh).
Interestingly, the term ‘wynd’ is most widespread in Scotland where it is found in just about every historic town from the Borders northwards, all the way up to Shetland. There are several old ‘wynds’ in Edinburgh.
In Darlington there are also several side streets called ‘yards’ in the old part of town (there were once around seventy), again associated with former burgage plots – the long strips of medieval land held by the medieval burgesses. Clark’s Yard and the neighbouring Buckton’s Yard, like Post House Wynd, link High Row to Skinnergate.
The northern ends of High Row and Skinnergate are linked by the street of Bondgate while their southern ends are linked by Blackwellgate. The street of Blackwellgate links the town centre to Consicliffe Road and Grange Road which heads south towards Blackwell Grange.
Skinnergate was once the home to a sheep market and was presumably where animals were skinned for their leather. Traces of medieval limekilns have been found in the street which were likely used in the tanning process.
Skinnergate probably originated as a back lane on the northern fringe of the medieval town and the street-name ‘Skinnergate’ would not look out of place in other historic towns such as York.
Skinnergate is a relatively narrow street and still has the feel of being on the northern edge of the old town centre, with a number of its buildings dating from the eighteenth century.
One of the most prominent buildings in Skinnergate is Victorian, namely the former Mechanics’ Institute of 1854 which was built by a local Quaker architect called Joseph Sparkes. It is situated on the east side of Skinnergate near Mechanics’ Yard.
Another building of note in the street is connected to the town’s famous Quaker fraternity. Here we refer to the Darlington Friends’ Meeting House near the south end of Skinnergate. Parts date to the 1760s with the frontage buildings of 1839-1840. The first Friends Meeting House for the Darlington Quakers was established here in 1678. A surprising secret is the little haven of the Friends’ Burial Ground hidden behind Skinnergate to the rear of the building.
Towards the middle of Skinnergate on its west side Skinnergate is joined by Duke Street which takes its name from the Vanes, Dukes of Cleveland. The noted family of Raby Castle owned the land hereabouts. Neighbouring Raby Street and Barnard Street also recall the connection.
Despite its industrial past, Darlington still has a very smart town centre and the town is focused on the Market Place and the broad two-level street called High Row that was once part of the Great North Road. It is effectively the town’s main street or ‘High Street’.
High Row, once called ‘Headrow’ faces the west side of the Market Place at its south end near which we find the prominent clock tower. In truth High Row is only the part of the street above the steps, with the street below the steps forming West Row and Prebend Row.
High Row is a neat-looking street, and one building of particular note here is the former Backhouse Bank, now Barclays. The Backhouse Bank was founded in 1774 by James Backhouse, a prominent Quaker flax and linen-maker, along with his sons, Jonathan and James.
Backhouse’s enterprise was one of the early roots of what would become the Barclays banking ’empire’ – now one of the most powerful and influential banking institutions in the world. The present bank building was designed by the Darlington Quaker architect, Alfred Waterhouse and dates to 1864.
In 1538, Henry VIII’s Antiquarian, John Leland, described Darlington as the best market town in the Bishopric of Durham except for Durham itself and remarked upon the lively nature of its market. Today, Darlington’s centre still manages to retain the atmosphere of a very large market town, despite its later industrial history.
Darlington’s Market Place is situated between High Row and Church Row near St Cuthbert’s church and bordered by Tubwell Row and Horse Market respectively to the north and south. Branching off to the south from the south east corner of the market place is Feethams, that leads out to the meadows alongside the River Skerne near the cricket ground.
The name Feethams derives from a Norse word for ‘meadow’ and indeed the name of the Skerne itself shows Norse influence, resulting from a Viking pronunciation of an older Anglo-Saxon word ‘scir’ (sher) meaning ‘bright stream’ which occurs in place-names such as Sherburn.
A small collection of buildings including the Pennyweight pub form an island in the Market Place which add some additional character to the setting and are bounded by Tubwell Row on their north side. The south side, which includes the pub, forms a one-sided street called Bakehouse Hill that faces out onto the Market Place and was the site of a public bakehouse in times past.
Just to the west of this street is the indoor market hall with attached clock tower forming the most prominent landmark in Darlington, overlooking High Row along with the Victorian old Town Hall. These all form one building and like the Backhouse Bank, were completed in 1864 to the designs of Alfred Waterhouse.
The dominating clock tower on the corner of West Row and Tubwell Row is the symbol of Darlington. It was gifted by Joseph Pease. The adjoining Market Hall facing High Row on one side and Market Place on the other links the tower to the old town hall itself at the south end. This attractive relatively modest building faces out to Horse Market and the old market cross on the corner of West Row.
The market cross which dates from 1727 is not in its original location which was where we now find the market hall but is relatively close. For many years it was kept in storage before it was was restored and relocated to this spot in 1993.
The modern day Town Hall across the market square in Feethams to the south of St Cuthbert’s church is a relatively plain building of 1967-70 that stands alongside alongside the River Skerne in a site that was once home to the Bishop of Durham’s manor house in medieval times.
Priestgate and Prebend Row
Northward along High Row, towards Northgate, High Row faces out to the Cornmill Shopping Centre on the east side. Named from an old mill on the Skerne, the shopping centre dates from 1992 and is bordered by Tubwell Road on its south side. The part of the shopping centre facing out to High Row is called Prebend Row and joined on its east side by Priestgate at the junction with Northgate.
Priestgate and Prebend Row were historically associated with the prebendary of St Cuthbert’s church, a church that once had collegiate status, headed by a dean assisted by Prebends. The tenants of these streets contributed to the upkeep of the church. Other churches with a similar collegiate status included St Andrew Auckland at South Church near Bishop Auckland.
Priestgate has an historic association with Darlington newspapers and was the headquarters of The Darlington and Stockton Times and The Northern Echo which were located here in the Edwardian Priestgate premises up until January 2023. The two newspapers have now relocated to new premises elsewhere in the town centre. The Northern Echo had been based in Priestgate for 153 years.
The Northern Echo was once edited by W. T. Stead (1849-1912), the influential Northumbrian-born social reformer (born at Embleton) who died on board the Titanic in 1912. Stead began his career as an editor with The Northern Echo at the age of only 22.
Other former editors of The Northern Echo included the campaigning journalist Harold Evans (1928-2020), a Durham University graduate who as a student edited the University newspaper Palatinate.
Evans became editor of The Northern Echo in 1961 and in 1966 the assistant editor and then editor of The Sunday Times. Sometime later he edited The Times before continuing his career as a highly influential journalist and editor in the United States, becoming Editorial Director of US News, the New York Daily News and the President and Publisher of Random House.
Close to Priestgate and facing the old newspaper office is Crown Street which is the home to Darlington Library. This was originally the Edward Pease Library founded in the will of an Edward Pease (1834-80) and opened in 1885. To the rear the library stretching down to the Skerne was the site of the Pease family’s mill which had once employed hundreds of people in Darlington.
Pease was a woollen merchant who employed around 600 people at Pease’s Mill in the town. He saw an opportunity to make money from the export of south Durham coal. It was Pease who rejected an early nineteenth century plan by local businessmen to build a canal for the shipment of coals from south Durham to the mouth of the Tees and made the innovative suggestion that steam locomotives be used instead. The suggestion was accepted.
George Stephenson, the famous engineer of Tyneside was employed by Pease to design the locomotives and develop the railway, though it was Pease who provided the financial support and he was very much in charge.
On one occasion Stephenson had suggested an alternative route for the railway which would have bypassed Darlington and altered the railway history books. Pease was clear with his reply:
“George thou must think of Darlington;
remember it was Darlington that sent for thee”
To the rear of Horsemarket and accessed from Bull Wynd is a house called Pease House with a plaque marking what was once a former home of Edward Pease. However, Pease’s place of residence at the time of his meeting with George Stephenson is located further to the north in Northgate.
Closely involved with the development and management of the Stockton and Darlington Railway was Edward Pease’s son, Joseph Pease, who is commemorated by the prominent bronze statue of 1875 by G.A. Lawson in the centre of Darlington.
It was Joseph Pease who instigated the extension of the line across the River Tees to the site of a farm called Middlesbrough after buying up land there for the construction of a port initially called Port Darlington. Pease was the founding father of the town of Middlesbrough.
Quakers left their mark throughout Darlington and prominent members of the fraternity built their homes at locations across the town. They include Polam Hall (near South Park), home to Stockton and Darlington Railway Treasurer Jonathan Backhouse (1779-1842), who was the grandson of the bank founder, James Backhouse (1779-1842) who himself lived at West Lodge in West Crescent.
Southend in Grange Road was home to Joseph Pease (1799-1872) while The Woodlands was home to his son, a Stockton and Darlington Railway Director, Sir Joseph Whitwell Pease, the MP for South Durham (1828-1903). Pierremont in Tower Road was the home to Henry Pease (1807-1881) another South Durham MP, who was also Darlington’s first ever mayor.
Northgate (called ‘Duresmegate’ in early times) and its continuation High Northgate is the route north from the town centre towards Durham. Northgate continues beyond the roundabout of the inner ring road where the A167 and A68 meet, where reached by an underpass we find the striking former Technical College of the 1890s situated in Northgate and the adjoining Gladstone Street.
Behind a railing outside the old college is ‘The Bulmer Stone’ which once marked the northern outskirts of the old town and has probably been a feature of Darlington since prehistoric times. A glacial deposit of Shap stone, it was named from a Willy Bulmer who used to read aloud the London news from the spot in the early nineteenth century after the delivery of newspapers by the mail coach.
According to legend this huge boulder, a landmark on what was once the Great North Road, would occasionally and mysteriously turn round of its own accord at certain times:
In Darnton towne ther is a stane,
And most strange is yt to tell,
That yt turnes nine times round aboute
When yt hears ye clock strike twell.
The root of this legend is slightly baffling, though the riddle is perhaps that stones can’t actually hear anything. Before its association with Will Bulmer it was known as the Battling Stone because local weavers would beat their flax upon it.
Opposite the old college and the Bulmer Stone was the one-time residence of Edward Pease associated with his meeting with George Stephenson. You can find an inscription hidden high above a window amongst one of a number of kebab and pizza takeaway outlets. It simply reads: “Where Edward Pease Resided 1820”.
North Road : Railway Heartland
A little further north, near the railway, High Northgate becomes North Road, where we find the Darlington North Road Station and Head of Steam Museum as we enter what might be called Darlington’s railway heritage heartland.
When the Stockton and Darlington Railway opened on the 27th September 1825, history was made, for as well as carrying coal, the train included six hundred passengers, most travelling in coal waggons, but some in a specially designed carriage called The Experiment. The Stockton and Darlington Railway was the world’s first public railway.
On the historic day, the coal wagons for the journey were linked up to the locomotive called Locomotion Number One at Shildon and were brought there from Witton Park Colliery by inclines at Etherley and Brussleton. From Shildon the Locomotion Number One travelled for two hours with only minor hitches before arriving in Darlington, where coal was distributed to the poor.
From Darlington the Locomotion Number One built by George and Robert Stephenson at Newcastle continued the journey to Stockton, stopping only at Yarm Junction where more passengers, including a brass band climbed aboard.
Until recently the original Locomotion Number One could still be seen in Darlington on display at the town’s fascinating Head of Steam Museum in North Road where it had been on display since 1975 (when the museum was called the Darlington North Road Station Museum). Before 1975 it had previously been on display at Darlington’ Bank Top Station from 1892 where it was a familiar site to passengers on the East Coast Main Line.
In 2021, the locomotive was moved to the National Railway Museum’s ‘Locomotion’ museum at Shildon. The Head of Steam museum now hosts the working replica that was previously at Shildon’s museum.
The former Stockton and Darlington station building at Darlington, which houses the Head of Steam museum is one of the oldest railway station buildings in the world and dates from the 1840s.
The Head of Steam Museum is currently embarking on an exciting new redevelopment that will enhance the visitor experience focusing on the present museum and adjoining railway heritage sites ready for the celebration of the 200th anniversary of the Stockton & Darlington Railway.
Locomotion Number One is of course an older engine than Stephenson’s perhaps more famous Newcastle-built Rocket, which won the victory at Lancashire’s Rainhill Trials in 1829. Both the Rocket and Locomotion Number One were built by Stephenson’s works near Forth Street in Newcastle.
Not far from the Head of Steam Museum, just beyond in nearby John Street is a railway bridge across the River Skerne, built by the Durham architect, Ignatius Bonomi. It dates from 1825 and is part of the original Stockton and Darlington railway route.
A plaque on the bridge notes that this is the oldest railway bridge in the world in continuous use. The bridge once featured on the United Kingdom’s five pound note along with George Stephenson and his famous Rocket locomotive.
Further to the north along North Road was once located Darlington’s famed Darlington North Road Railway Works or North Road Shops which were established in 1863 and closed in 1966. The site is now primarily occupied by a supermarket, a modern building that features the clock of the former railway works.
Although the North Road area is at the heart of Darlington’s railway history, North Road station should not be confused with Darlington’s main line railway station over on the south side of the town centre. That particular station is part of the East Coast Main Line and links Darlington to York, London, Edinburgh and Newcastle. This railway station opened in 1887 and is noted for its prominent clock tower. It is sometimes called ‘Darlington Bank Top Station’.
The Bank Top station is situated south east of the town centre at the east end of Victoria Road. In recent years the neighbouring area just to its west has become a growing focus for government departments that have been relocated from London.
The opening of nineteenth century railways in Darlington were a great boost to the town’s population and industrial growth. A suburb called Hopetown grew up near the North Road station and a number of industries grew across the town during the Victorian age.
Industrial developments spurred on by the railways included the Darlington Forge of 1853; North Road Railway Workshops of 1863; the Rise Carr Rolling Mill of 1868; Richardson & Co Engineers of 1866 and in 1901 the Robert Stephenson & Co locomotive engineering works that relocated from Newcastle upon Tyne.
Darlington has long been famed for its engineering industries and particularly bridge building. Great bridges built at Darlington by Cleveland Bridge span rivers as far away as the Amazon and the Nile. Local examples of the company’s work include Middlesbrough’s iconic Transporter Bridge.
Yarm Road, Consicliffe Road, Grange Road
Darlington’s main thoroughfare heading east out of the town centre is Yarm Road, the historic route to Yarm. The best-known feature of this street is the Hippodrome Theatre which was for many years known as Darlington Civic Theatre.
In fact it began life as a variety theatre called the Hippodrome and has reverted back to the original name (though it was alternatively known as ‘The Palace’ in its early days). Dating from 1907, the theatre was designed by Darlington architects G. Gordon Hoskins.
Grange Road and Consicliffe Road are the two main routes out of the centre to the south and south west which meet in the town centre at the junction with Skinnergate and Blackwellgate.
Coniscliffe Road is a lengthy and leafy street of the well-to-do heading out to the villages of Low Coniscliffe. From Low Coniscliffe it continues onwards along the Tees valley as the A67 to High Coniscliffe and Piercebridge and beyond to Barnard Castle.
Grange Road heads southward from the town centre passing close to the town’s picturesque South Park and from there onward continues to Blackwell Grange and Croft-on-Tees.
South Park is one of Darlington’s gems and features the River Skerne with the beautiful graceful willow trees bordering the river banks.
The park can trace its roots back to 1636 when it was gifted to the town of Darlington as a farm by James Bellasis. In 1853 it became a public park named Bellasis Park and the lands of the park were extended further in the 1930s.
Cockerton and Haughton-le-Skerne
The main route out to the north west is Woodland Road, more anciently called ‘Cockyrngate’ and leading to the suburb of Cockerton. Then we have Haughton Road, the main route through Darlington to the north east, which heads towards Haughton-le-Skerne and Great Burdon.
Haughton-le-Skerne and Cockerton are two suburbs of Darlington that still retain their original village-like feel despite being absorbed by the growth of the town.
Cockerton is a north western suburb of Darlington and although once a separate village has been part of Darlington parish since medieval times. The name Cockerton comes from the Cocker Beck which has an ancient British Celtic name deriving from a word ‘Kukro’ meaning ‘crooked’.
Haughton-le-Skerne, a north eastern suburb was probably given its suffix to distinguish it from other similar sounding places in the historic county of Durham like Houghton-le-Spring near Sunderland and Houghton-le-Side near Heighington though the spelling is with an ‘a’ rather than an ‘o’ as it is named from a ‘haugh’ or riverside meadow next to the Skerne rather than from a ‘hough’ (a hill).
Unlike Cockerton, Haughton-le-Skerne was historically completely separate from Darlington as it has its own parish church which is dedicated to St Andrew and dates from Norman times (1130-1150). Haughton Green itself is a pretty place and still essentially a village.
Just out to the east of Haughton in the open countryside to the east is the still separate village (or perhaps more accurately hamlet) of Great Burdon. Its name means ‘great fortified manor on a hill’ and suggests it may once have been a place of importance. Its neighbours to the east are Little Burdon and further east still the village of Sadberge which certainly has historical credentials as a place of former significance.
Course of the River Skerne
Although Darlington lies within the vale of the River Tees it can’t really be described as a ‘Teesside’ town as the Tees is only peripheral to its outer southern reaches from which it is separated by open countryside other than a short stretch at Blackwell. It is the River Tees tributary, the little River Skerne that flows through the centre of the town which can be truly described as the Darlington river.
The Skerne rises in eastern County Durham to the north of Sedgefield between the villages of Trimdon and Trimdon Grange from where it initially flows east. Its course begins a little to the east of the deserted medieval village of Garmondsway from which the Viking king, Cnut made a pilgrimage to Durham in 1031.
East of Trimdon, the Skerne is joined by a stream called the Hurworth Burn after which the river feeds the Hurworth Burn Reservoir north west of Hartlepool. Hurworth Burn should not be confused with Hurworth-on-Tees near Darlington at the end of the Skerne’s journey where it joins the Tees. A curious coincidence that there should be a Hurworth at the beginning and end of the river?
An associated separate branch of the Skerne historically called ‘The North Skerne’ begins in the Ferryhill Carrs area near the East Coast Main Line where in the boggy woodland country of the ‘Ferryhill Gap’ (a glacial channel) it virtually links up with the Tursdale and Croxdale Becks to the north, which are tributaries of the River Wear.
The Skerne ‘proper’ departs from the south side of Hurworth Burn Reservoir and takes a course south west passing Fishburn near Winterton (the Skerne is the ‘burn’ or ‘stream’ of Fishburn’s name). It continues west, south of Bishop Middleham (once the site of the Bishop of Durham’s favourite castle). Nearby in one of several areas known as ‘the carrs’ it is joined by the North Skerne and continues its journey southward from here.
In truth the North Skerne is a fairly minor stream, being one of a number of watercourses amongst a legion of drainage ditches as the Skerne heads south through the ‘carr lands’ of the poorly-drained scrubby low-lying country around Mordon Carrs and Bradbury Carrs south west of Sedgefield.
Continuing south, the Skerne itself passes a deserted medieval village called Preston-le-Skerne before flowing beneath the A1(M) motorway. Opposite Preston-le-Skerne it is joined by the Woodham Burn from Newton Aycliffe, which together with its tributary, the Rushyford Beck (which rises near Coundon) form a much more substantial watercourse than the North Skerne.
From Preston-le-Skerne (the name means ‘estate of a priest’) the Skerne then passes another deserted village called Heworth. From there it flows along the western side of Aycliffe village and southward between Coatham Mundeville and Brafferton.
Brafferton means ‘broad-ford-settlement’ from an old crossing point on the Skerne. Coatham Mundeville, with its part-Norman name is yet another deserted medieval village best known today for its hotel.
The Skerne, never quite sure which direction to take, approaches Darlington tentatively from the north west from Beaumont Hill and Ketton Hall Farm (where the famous Durham Ox was bred), passing the southern edge of Barmpton and western edge of Great Burdon before entering Darlington itself on the south side of Haughton-le-Skerne.
After skirting a trading estate it passes underneath Ignatius Bonomi’s famed single-arched Stockton & Darlington Railway Skerne Bridge of 1825 as it approaches the town centre of Darlington
The Skerne continues south through the town and town centre, where it is crossed by several little bridges and passes close to St Cuthbert’s church and the borough council’s town hall; Feethams cricket and onward through the beautiful South Park.
The river forms a particularly beautiful and graceful feature of the town’s park. Historically the old manor of Blackwell, first mentioned in the Boldon Book in 1183, belonged to families that included the De Blackwells and later the Middletons, Eures, Bowes of Streatlam and the Nevilles.
Blackwell Grange, now a hotel, dates from 1710 and was built by George Allan (born 1663), a member of a prominent Darlington family. The Allans originated in Staffordshire but settled in the North East where one of their number, Thomas Allan became a coal owner on the River Wear at High Flatts in the South Pelaw area of Chester-le-Street.
Thomas Allan built the first colliery wagonways in the Wearside coalfield in the 1690s. Another notable Allan connected with Blackwell Grange was the antiquarian, George Allan (born 1736).
A tiny part of nearby Blackwell itself to the west of the Skerne lies above the bank of the River Tees to the west. It is the only part of Darlington town other than the old Tees Cottage Pumping Station that can be said to be situated on the River Tees.
Returning to the Skerne, the little river leaves the built-up area of Darlington town at Blackwell Grange. Beyond to the south it borders Blackwell Grange Golf Course and ‘South Park South’. Beyond the golf course is an extensive neck of land sandwiched between the ever-nearing Tees and Skerne called Oxen-le-Field or Oxneyfield encompassing the ‘Hell Kettles’ near the Croft Road
The three supposedly bottomless pits also called ‘Devil’s Kettles’ spawned numerous superstitions in times past. Said to have been created by an earthquake in 1179, it’s said they were full of green, boiling sulphurous water. People and animals were allegedly drowned or eaten alive by pikes and eels in their waters.
The pits once aroused the curiosity of people across Britain and were even marked on historic maps of England as prominent as major towns. They were visited by the writer and traveller Daniel Defoe, who dismissed them as ‘old coal pits’. This they certainly are not, as coal has never been mined in the Darlington area.
It is another three quarters of a mile across empty flood-plain farmland from the kettles that the Skerne eventually enters the River Tees near Hurworth Place opposite Croft about a mile and half a from the outskirts of Darlington and about two and a half miles from the town centre.