Deerness Valley and Ushaw

The River Deerness

The River Deerness forms a valley in the Pennine foothills to the west of Durham City and has a pre-Celtic name that means something like ‘rushing or roaring river’. It may be the oldest place-name of any kind in the historic County of Durham. Along its course it runs parallel to the valley of the River Browney from which it is separated by the hills to the north.

Deerness Valley near Ushaw Moor
Deerness Valley near Ushaw Moor. Photo © David Simpson 2018

The Deerness rises near Tow Law where the hills to the south separate its valley from the Wear valley to the south. From there it flows east through Hedleyhope, Waterhouses, Esh Winning, Ushaw Moor and Broompark before joining the River Browney at Holliday Park in the former mining village of Langley Moor. The Browney itself then joins the Wear near Burn Hall to the north of Croxdale.

Tow Law and Hedleyhope

The River Deerness begins as a tiny trickle of a stream to the east of the lofty village of Tow Law which stands 1,000 feet above sea level. Until 1846 when six blast furnaces for a new iron works were established here by Charles Attwood, there was no village and Tow Law was only the name of a solitary house that derived its name from ‘tot-hlaw’ meaning ‘lookout hill’.

By 1882 Attwood, who had also established an iron works at Wolsingham had shifted his Tow Law production to his Tudhoe works near Spennymoor. However, in 1868 Joseph Bond had established an iron foundry at Tow Law near the iron works and this continued operating until 2017 when it was moved to the company’s site at Crook.

Coal mining was also once an important industry at Tow Law. Charles Attwood opened the Black Prince Colliery on the north side of the village in 1846 to serve his iron works (iron was mined nearby too) and this was still operating as late as 1933. A colliery called Inkerman opened nearby around 1854 – the year of the Crimean War Battle of Inkerman – and was operated by Ferens and Love. Interestingly, iron cannon balls for the Crimean War were manufactured at Tow Law in 1853.

To the east of Tow Law, there were collieries at West Thornley (1890s-1965) established by Charles Attwood and at Sunniside (1867-1925) owned by the Pease family and Hedleyhope Colliery (1836-1945) which was also owned by the Peases.

At East Hedleyhope on the Deerness, the East Hedleyhope Colliery operated from 1836 to 1959 and was once owned by Teesside industrialist Sir Bernard Samuelson and later by the Bearpark Coal Company. To its south was Stanley Colliery at Stanley Crook near Billy Row which operated from before 1828 up to 1911 and was once owned by the Peases.


To the east of East Hedleyhope the River Deerness flows through wooded countryside passing Hamilton Row, Waterhouses and, on its north side, Esh Winning.

Hamilton Row and Waterhouses are hard to distinguish and together form one tiny village. A coal mine called Ivesley Colliery of 1871 was served by the Hamilton Row village and was situated near the neighbouring Ivesley Farm. The mining village had been named Hamilton Row from the Hamilton-Russells of Brancepeth Castle who owned the land. The mine closed in 1896.

Ivesley is the site of a deserted medieval village. Nearby, an avenue of trees leading to Ivesley Farm is said to have been planted in the 1300s to commemorate plague victims.

Waterhouses originally consisted of three farmhouses near the waters of the River Deerness. In Elizabethan times it belonged to the Claxtons, who were retainers of the Neville family of Brancepeth Castle. Like the Nevilles, the Claxtons were fiercely Catholic and remained so during the era of religious persecution in Tudor times.

‘The Waterhouse’ was a meeting place for local Catholic nobility. These meetings were held in secret and had strong links with a Roman Catholic martyr called John Boste (or St John Boste) who was executed at Dryburn in Durham City. Boste was a Catholic priest born at Appleby in Westmorland but fled abroad to escape persecution.

In the 1580s Boste returned in secret and was often pursued by Protestant persecutors throughout the North of England. He preached on the lands of the Brancepeth Castle estate which included ‘the Waterhouse’ at Waterhouses. One associate of Boste was captured and under torture revealed that the Waterhouse was one of Boste’s meeting places.

In 1593, after Boste performed mass at the Waterhouse the Protestant authorities broke down the walls of the building to find Boste hiding in a secret place. Grace Claxton and Lady Margaret Neville who were both present were also taken and charged with treason but they escaped punishment. Grace was spared because she was pregnant and Lady Margaret was pardoned by the Bishop of Durham who claimed she had converted to Protestantism.

Boste was not so lucky. He was transported to London and displayed before Queen Elizabeth before imprisonment and torture in the Tower of London. He was returned to Durham for trial in 1594 and sentenced on the morning of July 23.

Before a large crowd at Dryburn on Durham’s western outskirts Boste was hanged, drawn and quartered. Many in the crowd mourned his loss. Nearly 400 years later, in 1970, he was canonised by the Pope as St John Boste.

As a colliery village, Waterhouses was developed by the Quaker Pease family of businessmen from Darlington. Edward Pease who funded the Stockton and Darlington Railway and his son Joseph Pease (the founder of Middlesbrough) owned the collieries in the Billy Row area of the Wear Valley.

The Pease collieries in this area were known as the ‘Peases West’ collieries and leased several hundred acres of Deerness valley land from the owners of Brancepeth Castle. They opened Waterhouses Colliery in 1855 and this was served by the Deerness Railway.

Today, the old course of the railway forms the Deerness Valley Walk, one of a number of railway walks in County Durham. The railway path also follows the course of the Deerness river valley.

Esh Winning

In 1866, the Peases established Esh Colliery just to the west of Waterhouses, and a new village was established called Esh Winning from the ‘winning’ of coal there. The Esh part of the name came from the village of Esh, just over a mile to the north, towards the Browney valley.

Waterhouses closed in 1966 and Esh Colliery closed in 1968. Perhaps the most notable landmark of Esh Winning’s days as a thriving mining village is the Edwardian style Pease Memorial Hall of 1923 in Brandon Road which once housed its own cinema, concert hall, library and swimming baths. It was redeveloped as flats for vulnerable people in 2012 and renamed Eshwin Hall.

The Roman Catholic Church of Our Lady Queen of Martyrs stands at the northern end of Esh Winning in Newhouse Road and is on or near the site of an earlier Catholic chapel called Newhouse that was established in the 1650s. In times gone by the priests of Newhouse served many Catholic farms in the area, though mass was often held in secret.

Our Lady Queen of Martyrs, Esh Winning
Our Lady Queen of Martyrs, Esh Winning Photo © David Simpson 2017

According to the records, one Newhouse Priest called Ferdinando Asmall, who died in 1798, lived to the grand old age of 103. In 1800 a new chapel was built at Esh Laude near the little village of Esh to the north. The present Catholic church of 1881 at Esh Winning is associated with 19th century Irish settlers who came to live and work in the mining village.

Just under a mile to the east of Esh Winning, the Roman road called Dere Street crossed the River Deerness somewhere in the region of the farm called Flass Hall. The hall’s name derives from an Old Danish word ‘Flask’ meaning swamp or marsh and has the same meaning as Flass Vale in Durham City.

The Deerness valley Flass is marked on Saxton’s map of Durham in 1576 and its first known occupant was William Brass. The last Brass at Flass still lived here in 1697 when it became the hall of the Halls.

In the 19th century Flass belonged to Jane Smythe of Esh Hall who married Sir Robert Peat, a friend of the Prince Regent. Robert had serious gambling debts and probably married Jane for her money. Later, they were estranged, partly because of Jane’s kleptomaniac tendencies. She chose to live at Sunderland, renting Flass Hall to the Reverend Temple Chevalier of Esh village.

Flass Hall became a property of the Peases in the 1920s before passing in the 1930s to a local farmer who kept pigs in the house. It was taken over by the National Coal Board in 1947 and converted into a private residence in the late 1960s. Locally it is called ‘the haunted house’, but the identity of the supposed ghost is not known.

Ushaw Moor

Ushaw Moor is a former mining village on the north side of the River Deerness half way between Durham and Esh Winning. It is central to communities of the Deerness and Browney valleys with the village of Bearpark just to the north.

Ushaw Moor came into being as a mining village in the nineteenth century on previously empty moorland though there was an earlier farming settlement nearby called Ushaw that was first mentioned in 1312. Its site is not certain but the name Ushaw came from ‘Ulf’s Shaw’ meaning Wolf’s Wood and may be named after Ulf, a man who held land west of Durham in the 1100s.

Little is known of the early Ushaw, except that a bake-house belonging to the Batmanson family existed here in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, perhaps where Ushaw college now stands to the north.

Deerness valley near Ushaw Moor
Deerness valley near Ushaw Moor. Photo © David Simpson 2018

The arrival of the Deerness Valley railway in the late 1850s provided the impetus for developing a mine on Ushaw Moor which was opened around 1870 by Ferens and Love on land that belonged to Henry Chaytor of Witton Castle by 1879. The first colliery village was about a mile to the west of the present village of Ushaw Moor but was cleared in the 1950s as the village had come to focus on its present site. The colliery itself closed in 1960.

Management at Ushaw Colliery was uncompromising and brutal in the early 1880s when there was a particularly bitter strike that resulted in the dismissal of a union official under dubious circumstances and the forceful eviction of miners from the village. Support for the newly homeless who encamped nearby came during this difficult period from Father Philip Fortin, the Catholic priest of Newhouse in Esh Winning.

The nearby Ushaw College, a Catholic institution, pitched a large tent in the college grounds in which the miners could reside. Labour was brought in from elsewhere to work at the colliery, though a group of men who arrived from Staffordshire to work at the mine in place of the striking miners were persuaded to return home by union officials who paid their fare home even though the new workers were threatened by the colliery manager working for Chaytor.

New Brancepeth and Alum Waters

New Brancepeth lies on the south bank of the River Deerness opposite Ushaw Moor. It should not be confused with Brancepeth village itself which is over two miles to the south beyond Brandon. Until the later half of the nineteenth century it was a home to farms that included Unthank Farm, first mentioned in 1314 and probably referring to the thankless task of farming here in times past.

At the nearby Hareholme Farm, a chapel once stood close to the Deerness that was reputedly founded around 1170 by a murderer called Redpath who is supposed to have been one of the assassins of Thomas a’ Becket but Redpath’s name doesn’t not appear in the list of assailants of that famous archbishop.

The nineteenth century colliery at New Brancepeth was established in 1872 (it closed in 1953) and was originally called Sleetburn but ‘New Brancepeth’ was adopted to avoid confusion with Sleekburn in Northumberland. The colliery and new village lay on land belonging to Brancepeth Castle and the coal of the Brancepeth region had a good reputation and this explains the adopting of the name. Nearby Alum Waters may be named from the presence of white-coloured alum in the waters of a neighbouring stream and this might also provide an explanation for Sleetburn. A bleaching mill once stood nearby and alum was often used as a fixative in the dyeing process.

Ushaw College

The impressive Gothic buildings of the former Ushaw College, now simply known as Ushaw are located on a hilltop north west of Ushaw Moor. Ushaw has a long history that begins many miles from County Durham and has stood on this site since 1808, long before the neighbouring villages of Ushaw Moor, Bearpark and Langley Park came into being. The roots of Ushaw’s story go back to Elizabethan times in 1558 when the queen suppressed Catholicism though many continued to secretly practise the religion, particularly in the North of England.

Ushaw College
Ushaw College. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Many Catholic priests fled to France or to the Low Countries to escape persecution and in the ancient French University town of Douai, 20 miles south of Lille, a Lancashire-born, Oxford-educated priest called William Allen (later Cardinal Allen) established a college for training English priests in 1568 and hundreds of priests flooded into England to secretly practice mass in their homeland, often resulting in the execution of those who were captured.

In 1791 the Catholic mass was legalised but the foundation of Catholic academies or colleges remained illegal. Douai at this time had a noted North East England influence. In 1790 William Gibson of Stonecroft near Hexham, who was the president of that college, was succeeded by Edward Kitchin, a chaplain of Lartington Hall near Barnard Castle.

It proved a troublesome era for Kitchin as the French Revolution was taking hold and the town of Douai found itself caught up in the rioting with mobs invading the college. In 1793, following the execution of the French king, England declared war on France and the English priests were evicted from Douai. Some students and teachers who remained were imprisoned though some escaped or were later released.

Ushaw College.
Ushaw College. Photo © David Simpson

A new location was needed for the college and influential Roman Catholics persuaded the British Prime Minister, William Pitt to legalise English-based Catholic colleges to keep money in the country.

While a new location was sought, former Douai pupils were educated at Old Hall near Ware in Hertfordshire and at a school at Tudhoe in County Durham. Land was eventually acquired at Crook Hall near Leadgate (not to be confused with Crook Hall in Durham City) and pupils were initially housed at nearby Pontop Hall while the building was prepared.

It was agreed Durham’s college would serve all England, but southern factions favoured the Hertfordshire site. Two separate colleges soon served northern and southern England and Hertfordshire’s Old Hall became St Edmund’s College.

Ushaw College.
Ushaw College. Photo © David Simpson

The northern students had all moved into Crook Hall in October 1794 but Crook Hall was small and it became increasingly apparent that a larger, grander establishment was needed. Many sites were considered including Gainford on Tees and Flass Hall in the Deerness Valley. Flass belonged to the Catholic Smythe family and it was Smythe farmland at nearby Ushaw Row that was eventually purchased in 1798 for the site of the new college.

Flass Hall near Ushaw Moor
Flass Hall near Ushaw Moor. Photo © David Simpson

The construction of Ushaw College commenced in 1804 on newly acquired land. The Smythes who were principally associated with Esh village had owned much land in the neighbourhood since the reign of Henry VIII and had taken part in the Catholic rebellion called the Rising of the North in 1569. The rising failed, but although the Smythe land was confiscated as a result of the rebellion, it was restored in 1609.

Sir Edward Smythe sold 200 acres of his land for the establishment of this important Catholic seminary. Smythe probably parted with this land with enthusiasm. Property at Acton Burnell in Shropshire had once been used as a place of refuge for schoolmasters from Ushaw College’s forerunner at Douai.

Around 40 students and teachers came north from Douai and moved into the completed Ushaw College in 1808. James Taylor, an architect from Islington, constructed the early parts of the college around a quadrangle in Georgian style but this was only the beginning.

As the century passed, the college and its land continued to expand. In 1817 John Gillow, the college president built a 70ft windmill to provide ‘unadulterated’ flour for college consumption. It remained in use until the morning of New Years Day 1853 when a gale force decapitated the mill and sent its sails crashing to the ground.

The remains of the windmill can still be seen today in a little row of houses just north west of the college. It was intended that the college should be agriculturally self-sufficient and in 1852, a year before the unfortunate gale, a model Home Farm was built for the college 200 metres downhill from the mill. This enormous and rather unusual farm, built in Gothic style, encompassed everything needed in the way of farm buildings all under one roof.

College farm at Ushaw
College farm at Ushaw. Photo © David Simpson

Gothic developments also took place around the Georgian core of the college. Several buildings were erected by successive generations of the architecturally talented Pugin family, with others built by Joseph and Charles Hansom of Hansom cab fame.

Buildings erected in the period 1839 to 1893 included a library, infirmary, museum, kitchens, swimming pool, cloisters, oratory, playground and a number of chapels.

The college library, modelled on Oxford and Cambridge was built to house 45,000 books of a mostly historical and theological nature while the college museum housed Ushaw’s cherished collection of relics. Many relics were purchased from a private individual in Naples, Italy and in May 1860 they were delivered in a large wagon under the supervision of a priest. The wagon’s load included 20 relics of Jesus, 3 of the Virgin Mary and 860 relics relating to various saints.

Other relics in the college possession included those of the English martyrs (Catholics) who had been executed for their faith. Also amongst the relics was an Anglo-Saxon fabric from St Cuthbert’s tomb in Durham Cathedral and a ring acquired from some Parisian nuns. It was allegedly recovered from St Cuthbert’s tomb many centuries before.

Racket court at Ushaw.
Racket court at Ushaw. Photo © David Simpson

At the eastern end of the college, the massive walls of the racket court remind us of the unique ball game called Cat or Katt that is undoubtedly one of this college’s most fascinating features. This game incorporates aspects of baseball, squash and golf and originated in the college of Douai where it was played from at least as early as 1760.

It is a seven-a-side game played with a hard ball that is smaller than a tennis ball and larger than a golf ball. Each bat, made of ash, has a shaft like a golf club and a flattened bottle-shaped head 4 inches long and 2 inches in diameter. The game is played on a wide-open field with a circular track 80 yards in circumference with seven holes, around which the batting team assembles.

When the ball is struck, members of the striking team run as far around the circular track as they can. Fielders in the opposing team attempt to return the ball into a hole before a member of the batting team touches the said hole.

When batters progress around the track two times, plus five additional holes, the batsman attempts to achieve what is called a ‘cross’. Upon striking the ball, members of the batting team run to the centre of the pitch cross their bats and return to the holes before the fielders can pot the ball. It is these crosses that gain the points and if a striker fails on three attempts to achieve a cross the team is out.

Cat was an annual event played from St Cuthbert’s Day (March 20th) to the end of May, but because of dwindling numbers at the college it is rarely played today except by former students who occasionally return to the college to indulge. This unique ball game is not the only aspect of college life affected by a fall in the number of students wishing to take up the vocation.

In recent decades, facing an uncertain future Ushaw has found new roles providing a conference or wedding reception venue, a venue for concerts and developing its beautiful gardens and park as a visitor attraction.

Broompark and Relly

The little village of Broompark lies to the east of Ushaw Moor with which it almost merges. Once known as Old Broom (broom means gorse) it was historically associated with Broom Hall, a farm on the northern edge of Ushaw Moor village that once belonged to the Batmanson family of the 16th century.

Relly. Photo © David Simpson 2017

Mining took place in the Broom area as early as the 1300s when its coal was sold to the Prior of Bearpark but a colliery opened around 1870 and closed in 1904. It was to the east of the farming village called Old Broom or Broompark as the village came to be known.

The area to the east was called Relly and was the site of a medieval moat. Here a spur of land formed by the junction of the Browney and Deerness rivers in the Broom, Relly and Langley Moor areas would have made this area attractive as a defended site and this may explain the presence of the moat. Relly is known to have belonged to Richard, a clerk of Barnard Castle in the 14th century.

In early spellings Relly or Relley is called Rilley and it may have something to do with the meeting of the rivers or rills. The history of the moat here at what was once known as Brunespittle is however uncertain. Relly was in later times the site of a busy railway junction which was just to the south. Here a number of railway lines met but only the East Coast Main line, which passes close by, remains today.

Three railway paths at Broompark.
Three railway paths meet at Broompark. Photo © David Simpson 2017

The Broompark colliery site is now the focus for a cycle and footpath hub where three footpaths following former railway routes converge. They are the Brandon to Bishop Auckland Walk, Deerness Valley Walk and Lanchester Valley Walk which can be followed north to Consett.

Most of the colliery village of Broompark has gone, replaced by modern houses but some farm buildings associated with Old Broom remain. Another notable feature of Broompark is the Loves public house. Originally called Love’s Hotel it is named after a Durham coal owner who owned a brick foundry and was built with bricks inscribed with the word ‘Love’.

Langley Moor

The River Deerness joins the River Browney at the northern edge of the former mining village of Langley Moor in the tiny Holliday Park. The park is named from Martin Holliday a one-time manager of Boyne colliery who lived nearby. Here the A690 crosses the River Deerness close to a spot where an unnamed Roman road from Willington to Durham once crossed the Deerness before crossing the Browney at nearby Stonebridge. The Browney hereabouts was once noted for its paper mills.

Browney and Deerness
Meeting of the Browney and Deerness, Langley Moor. Photo © David Simpson

Langley Moor developed as a mining settlement near the older farming hamlet called Langley or Old Langley. Part of the present mining village was once a separate village called ‘Boyne’ or ‘North Brancepeth’. It was named Boyne from Viscount Boyne who owned the Brancepeth Castle estate upon which the villages of Boyne, Brandon, Meadowfield and Langley Moor were all built.

Littleburn Farm near Langley Moor dates in part from the early 1600s and includes the remains of a moat. It was once the seat of the Calverley family. In medieval times it was called Burn Parva (Little Burn) to distinguish it from Burn Magna (Great Burn) which is now the site of the very impressive nineteenth mansion called Burn Hall to the north of Croxdale. It is near Burn Hall that the River Browney joins the River Wear.

Burn Hall, the Browney valley
Burn Hall, the Browney valley and the East Coast main line. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Nearby, to the west of Burn Hall is the former mining village of Browney itself, on the southern edge of Brandon. It came into being with the establishment of Browney Colliery in 1871 and was opened by Bell Brothers of Middlesbrough. Bell Brothers was later taken over by another Middlesbrough steel company called Dorman Long, famed for building the Tyne Bridge and the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Browney Colliery closed in 1938.

A Littleburn Colliery also operated in the area until closure in December 1950. It was situated north of Littleburn Farm, in the area now occupied by Meadowfield Industrial Estate.

Lanchester and the Browney valley

Chester-le-Street | Stanley | Consett

Brancepeth, Willington, Crook | Weardale

Spennymoor and Croxdale

Durham Elvet | Durham Framwellgate and Neville’s Cross

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