Aelfet-ee Elvet : Swan Island
Elvet, across the River Wear to the east of the Durham peninsula is bounded by the river on its western, northern and eastern sides so that like the ‘Dun Holm’ it forms an island of sorts, although unlike the hilly peninsula, Elvet is mostly flat riverside land in the centre of the city, though the broader area of Elvet encompasses Mount Joy, Whinney Hill, Maiden Castle and some hills beyond.
Records of Elvet’s existence actually predate the settlement of Dunholm in 995 AD so it may have been a place of importance. Anciently Elvet was called Aelfet ee which in a very old tongue meant ‘Swan Island’ .
Elvet, flatter and more accessible may have been settled and cultivated. It may be worth noting that Simeon of Durham, an eleventh century historian with access to ancient documents, suggested the existence of an earlier settlement in the vicinity of Durham.
Simeon described the densely wooded Durham peninsula as containing a small cultivated plain which was regularly ploughed and sown by farmers before the settlement of St Cuthbert’s carriers in 995 AD. Perhaps the farmers came from a small agricultural settlement at Elvet.
The first mention of Elvet in Norman times was during the episcopacy of Bishop William St Carileph who granted the area to the Prior and Convent of Durham as a ‘free borough’ with licence to maintain forty merchant’s houses free from secular service.
Elvet was seemingly a suburb of considerable size. In the twelfth century during the time of Bishop Pudsey (1153-1195) the growth of the borough of Elvet was further stimulated by the construction of Elvet Bridge linking Elvet to Saddler Street on the Durham peninsula.
Repairs were carried out around 1500 by Bishop Fox and in 1771 further reconstructions were undertaken after three arches were destroyed in a great flood that wrecked most of the bridges on the Wear, Tyne and Tees. Elvet Bridge has seven arches of which three are dry land arches. Two of the arches are hidden by buildings.
In medieval times a number of buildings were situated upon this bridge including two chapels which stood at either end. One building still exists on the bridge today above a dry arch and can be identified by its Dutch gabled exterior.
It is situated at the Elvet end of the bridge on the site of the medieval chapel of St. Andrew. Elvet Bridge is one of only three bridges in England with houses situated upon them.
Elvet Bridge is a pedestrianised bridge, free of traffic apart from service vehicles. It was not always the case as motor cars were once a major hazard on this narrow medieval bridge until it was relieved by new through roads that bypassed the market place and old bridge via New Elvet Bridge (1975) just east of the old Elvet Bridge and Millburngate Bridge (1967) which provided similar traffic-free relief for Framwellgate Bridge.
Ghost of a Gypsy piper
At the Saddler Street end of Elvet Bridge stood St James’s chapel which was replaced by a House of Correction in 1632. Two prison cells associated with the long since demolished Great North Gate in Saddler Street can be seen beneath the western land arch of Elvet Bridge. The cells are reputed to be haunted by the ghost of Jimmy Allan, a gypsy piper who was one of the most notorious and colourful characters in the history of Northumbria.
Jimmy was an adopted member of the Faas, a famous gypsy clan who inhabited the Cheviot Hills on the border between England and Scotland. Jimmy’s father, Wull Faa, had taught him to play the Northumbrian pipes at a very young age and the young man’s musical talents caught the attention of people far and wide until he eventually succeeded in becoming the official piper to the Duchess of Northumberland, a post he held for two years.
Unfortunately Jimmy was a man of many diversions with a great love of drinking and gambling and an eye for pretty women, many of whom he conned out of purse. Cattle stealing was another of Jimmy’s vices but his favourite pastime seems to have been enlisting and deserting from British and Foreign armies, presumably for money.
On the run for most of his life, Jimmy was pursued far and wide for desertion and other crimes. He was locked up twice and escaped twice, running off to Edinburgh and Dublin where he impressed the residents of those cities with his musical abilities. His journeys took him much further still to the Dutch East Indies via India and to the Baltic “without any passport but his pipes”.
In 1803 Jimmy was finally arrested at Jedburgh in the Scottish Borders for stealing a horse from Gateshead in the County of Durham. From Jedburgh he was taken to Durham where he was tried and sentenced to death. Luckily for him someone intervened and his sentence was reduced to life imprisonment.
Jimmy remained locked up in the cell beneath Durham’s Elvet Bridge for seven years where he eventually died in the year 1810 aged seventy seven. He was rather unfortunate because a pardon had been granted which arrived only a few days after his death. As for the cells underneath Elvet Bridge, it is said that if you listen carefully you may still be able to hear the eerie, haunting musical sounds of Jimmy’s Northumbrian pipes – it is Jimmy’s ghost of course!
Elvet Bridge leads directly from Saddler Street on the peninsula into the wide street called Old Elvet which was once the site of the city’s horse fair.
Many of the buildings in Old Elvet are of eighteenth century origin with one of the obvious exceptions being the Old Shire Hall, a Victorian red terracotta building topped with a green copper dome.
The Old Shire Hall, built in 1895 was originally the County Hall for Durham before it was replaced by the modern County Hall to the north of the city in the 1960s. The old Shire Hall was opened by the then council leader, Samuel Storey (1841-1925).
Born in Sherburn village just to the east of Durham City, Storey was the MP for Sunderland 1881-1895 and the founder of Sunderland’s newspaper The Sunderland Echo in 1873.
In 2018 the Shire Hall became Durham’s Hotel Indigo and inside it preserves many of the splendid features of the hall. From 1963, the Old Shire Hall had served as the administrative headquarters for the University of Durham.
Historically the hall has an important place in the history of the British Labour movement, as it was here in 1909 that the first all Labour County Council in Britain assembled.
The first chairman of this council was Mr Peter Lee (1864-1935) a former miner’s leader who had started his working life at Littletown Colliery to the west of Durham City at the age of only ten. Today, Peter Lee is commemorated in the name of Peterlee in the eastern part of County Durham, a new town that was designated in 1943.
The other prominent building in Old Elvet after the Shire Hall is the Royal County Hotel, created from four existing buildings in the 1970s, one of which was already known as the Royal County. Further extensions have been made in more recent times but parts of the building date from the eighteenth century.
The exterior of the hotel is noted for its balcony on which prominent members of the Labour movement view the passing crowds on Miners’ Gala Day. Inside, the hotel is notable for its impressive staircase dating from 1660. It is said to have been brought from Loch Leven Castle.
Old Elvet leads towards the riverside sports grounds on the area of land once known as the ‘Smithy Haughs’, which means ‘the smooth meadow’ or ‘smith’s meadow’. In Durham this is commonly known as the ‘Racecourse’ being the former site of a racecourse though races have not been held here for more than a hundred years.
Dating from at least the seventeenth century, the Durham race meetings were very popular with people from throughout the region and on one occasion on April 14, 1873 a crowd of 80,000 people attended. The crowd stunned the people of Durham and brought the little city to a stand still.
To add to the problem a second meeting was to be held the next day and there was a desperate shortage of accommodation so that many of the townsfolk offered their homes as lodgings for the night. This crowd may have been huge for a small city, but in later years it was completely eclipsed by the massive attendances at the Durham Miners’ Gala which was also held on the Racecourse.
Traditionally held on the third Saturday in July, the coal miners who flocked to the gala (pronounced ‘gayla’ but most popularly known as ‘The Big Meeting’) went to demonstrate their unity and claim their rights to fair pay and safe working conditions.
These men had little sympathy for those who opposed their views and this was demonstrated by an amusing incident which occurred at the gala in 1925. In that year unemployment was particularly high in the County Durham coalfield at a time when a certain Hensley Henson was Bishop of Durham.
Henson had become bishop in 1920 during a miner’s strike and strongly criticised the use of strike action which he argued should become obsolete. This won Henson few friends among the miners and at the gala of 1925 when a group of miners spotted the bishop, he was lifted from his feet and escorted to the river where it is said they attempted to throw him in.
Fortunately the man fell into a boat, losing his hat and umbrella in the process. Lucky for him, because it turned out that this was not the Bishop at all but the Dean of Durham, Dr J Weldon, who was at the gala to give a speech about the evils of drink.
Alongside the river in the racecourse area is a sculpture called the Durham Cow by Andrew Burton (1997) which recalls the link to the legend of the Dun Cow that forms part of the foundation story of Durham (see Durham Cathedral).
On the south side of the old racecourse where Whinney Hill meets Old Elvet and Green Lane was once situated Elvet Railway Station. It stood where Durham County Court can now be found (not to be confused with Durham Crown Court outside the nearby prison). The station opened in 1893 on a new branch of the Durham and Sunderland Railway.
The Durham and Sunderland Railway included the first railway station in the Durham City area, at Shincliffe village (see below), however the Elvet branch was connected to this railway at Sherburn House near Sherburn Hospital. The railway crossed the Old Durham Beck near Old Durham Gardens by a bridge that can still be seen before crossing the River Wear by a long-gone bridge.
It then passed near Hollow Drift rugby ground towards Elvet Station. The station did not prove to be a particular success and closed in 1931, however it would reopen one day every year (except the war years) until 1953 to serve the Durham Miners’ Gala.
One of Durham’s best known buildings is of course the prison which was built at Elvet in 1810 to replace the earlier gaol (jail) situated in the now long since destroyed Great North Gate. and its associated cells such as that which held the piper, Jimmy Allan.
The new prison was constructed with the assistance of Bishop Shute Barrington who was keen to see the destruction of the old gaol which caused a great inconvenience to traffic. Barrington pledged £2,000 towards the construction of the new building and on 31 July 1809 the foundation stones were laid by Sir Henry Vane Tempest.
The building was initially constructed by a Mr Sandys who also built the nearby courts but his work was criticised and he was dismissed before its completion. Most of the work of Sandys was removed and a new architect was employed by the name of Moneypenny but he died during its construction and the work was completed by the Durham architect Ignatius Bonomi.
The prisoners were not transferred to the Elvet prison until 1819 but the execution of a murderer by the name of John Grieg took place here in 1816. Conditions in the new gaol were probably better than those in the Great North Gate but it is interesting to note that in 1827 the prisoner diet was confined to two helpings of oatmeal porridge and a pound of bread on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. On other days they were treated to potatoes and fish.
Durham prison has about 600 cells and at least one ghost who reputedly haunts a cell on the ground floor of the main wing which had to be converted into a storeroom following complaints from prisoners who claimed to witness a ghostly murder in the cell during the night. It is said that a former occupant of the cell was stabbed to death by another inmate.
From 1816 public executions (hangings) which had previously taken place at Dryburn to the north of the city were transferred to the new court house at Elvet. Executions continued to be held in public until 1868 and there was certainly an appetite for spectators as evidenced by the iron balcony at a nearby house in Old Elvet which overlooks the execution site. It was rented out to the wealthier spectators who could afford to pay to see the macabre spectacle.
Public executions ceased in 1868 after which they were held within the prison itself (including the hanging of the notorious multi-murdering Mary Ann Cotton). Executions seem to have been particularly prolific during the twentieth century as there were 55 hangings between 1900 and 1958 at Durham and 36 between 1816 and 1899.
Durham Prison has been the long-term home to many notorious criminals over the years with guests of recent times including Myra Hindley, Harold Shipman, Rose West, John McVicar (who escaped and was then recaptured) and ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser. Frankland Prison on the north eastern outskirts of the city has likewise housed some of the most dangerous prisoners of more recent times.
Durham Prison has also been the short-term home to many lesser offenders such as Tommy Armstrong, a bow-legged miner from Tanfield who was known as the ‘Pitman Poet’ because of his talent for composing songs about life in the Durham coalfield. Tommy had a fondness for the drink and it was during a period of drunkenness that the incident occurred which resulted in his imprisonment at Durham.
According to his plea he had stumbled, drunkenly, into the Co-operative store in the town of Stanley and pinched a pair of stockings which had a bow legged appearance that would have fitted him perfectly.
During his time in prison Tommy Armstrong composed one of his best known songs entitled ‘Nee Gud Luck in Dorham Jail’ which gives an unusual insight into life in the prison, here are a some of the verses:
“Ye’l awl hev ard o’ Dorham
But it wad ye much sorprise
To see the prisoners in the yard,
When they’re on exorcise
The yard is built eroond wi’ walls,
Se’ noabil and se’ strang,
Whe ivor gans there heh te bide
Thor time be it short or lang
There’s nee gud luck in Dorham Jail
Theres nee gud luck at awl
Whats the breed en skilly for
But just te make ye small
Just opposite the prison and court house, off Old Elvet is St Cuthbert’s Roman Catholic church. It was built in 1826-27 by Ignatius Bonomi. This was at a time before the number of adherents of the Catholic faith in Durham began to rapidly rise with the arrival of Irish immigrants.
The influx of new Irish Catholics necessitated the building of St Godric’s church in the Framwellgate area, however long before Irish immigration the City and County of Durham had an important Catholic population even after Catholicism was suppressed in the Tudor era. Elvet was noted for being particularly ‘Popish’.
New Elvet and Kingsgate Bridge
The street of New Elvet joins Old Elvet from the west and until the 1930s when new buildings were constructed it was of a very similar appearance to Old Elvet.
Today, the most imposing buildings in New Elvet are the concrete Brutalist style Dunelm House which is Durham University’s Student Union building (1961-65), and the former Three Tuns Hotel.
In days gone by the Three Tuns was noted for Mrs Brown’s Cherry Brandy which was presented with the compliments of the landlady to any traveller who resided here for the night. This was an old English custom which had survived at the Three Tuns longer than anywhere else along the Great North Road.
Other notable houses of refreshment in the vicinity include the Half Moon Inn and the City Hotel and on the corner of New Elvet Bridge and Elvet Bridge is The Swan and Three Cygnets. The name of this last pub reminds us that Elvet was once a ‘Swan Island’, on the opposite side of the bridge we can see the old houses built on the dry arch of Elvet Bridge.
At Dunelm House (the student union building) New Elvet splits into two streets called Hallgarth Street on the left and Church Street to the right.
Just before we enter Church Street there is a path that takes the pedestrian across the River Wear via Kingsgate footbridge to Bow Lane and the North Bailey area near the cathedral.
The bridge is used mainly by students and was built by the Newcastle-based Civil Engineer Ove Arup (1895-1988) whose face can be seen on Dunelm House close to the bridge as a commemoration of his work.
Arup was responsible for many projects including the Sydney Opera House but he always considered Kingsgate Bridge his favourite work. The bridge dates from 1963.
Church Street and St Oswald’s Church
Church Street takes its name from the nearby Church of St. Oswald. The earliest part of this church dates from the twelfth century but may be older as a number of Anglo-Saxon finds have been discovered here.
The finds consist of five pre-Norman Conquest sculptures incorporated into the wall of the church which were removed in the later part of the nineteenth century. Studies show that the sculptures may date from some time before the settlement on the peninsula of Durham called Dun Holm.
It seems likely this area was the place where Bishop Peotwine was consecrated in 762 AD. The fact that the church is dedicated to St Oswald may also be of significance as this is the only ancient church in Northumberland or Durham dedicated to him.
St Oswald was in fact a king of Northumbria (634-641 A.D) who converted the people of his kingdom to Christianity with the assistance of St Aidan, a predecessor of St Cuthbert. Elvet was perhaps a place of importance in King Oswald’s time.
In the churchyard (across the road) from St Oswald’s Church we find the grave of Dr John Bacchus Dykes, founder of Cambridge University Musical Society. Principally famous for composing the hymns Jesu Lover of My Soul and Nearer my God to thee, he was the Vicar at St Oswald from 1864 until his death in 1876.
Durham University : Stockton Road, South Road
At the south end of Church Street we find a pub called the White Church, formerly the New Inn, on a site where there has long been an inn. It stands at the junction of Quarrryheads Lane, Stockton Road and South Road. Here we are approaching the modern heartland of Durham University.
Quarryheads Lane heads west and skirts the outer south-western edge of Durham’s wooded peninsula towards Durham School, Pimlico and South Street.
Hatfield College, St John’ College and St Chad’s occupy the Durham peninsula in the North and South Bailey along with University College in Durham Castle and form the historic core of the University but today most of the colleges and university departments lie in an area to the south of the city.
Stockton Road links the south end of Church Street to the south end of Hallgarth Street and is a home to a significant enclave of stunning modern buildings that form part of Durham University. They include the Bill Bryson Library and Palatine Centre which both partly occupy the site of Elvet Colliery.
Most of Durham University’s buildings and colleges stretch out along the course of the South Road and neighbouring areas almost forming a separate town that covers an area perhaps larger than the heart of the medieval city.
At the southern end of South Road the university’s most southerly college in the city is Josephine Butler College. To the south of this we find the Durham Crematorium and Durham High School before South Road terminates at the ‘Cock of the North roundabout’ (there was once a pub of that name here) near the car park for the Low Burnhall Woodland Trust area.
Modern colleges of the University in the area around the South Road include the colleges of St Mary’s; Van Mildert; Collingwood; Trevelyan; Grey; St Aidan’s; Jon Snow; and Josephine Butler College as well as Durham University Business School.
Also in this area we find the Botanic Gardens and Oriental Museum. Some older buildings can be found amongst the modern colleges of the area, including Hollingside Cottage in Hollingside Lane that was once the home of the hymn-writer John Bacchus Dykes.
Another notable old building is Elvet Hill, a house of 1827 built by the Durham architect Ignatius Bonomi as his own home where he resided for a short time before it became the home of North Eastern Railway Director, John Fogg Elliot.
Now part of Durham University, it is the home to the School of Oriental Studies and adjoins the entrance to the University’s Oriental Museum. The wonderful museum features collections from China, Korea, Egypt, Sudan, South Asia, South East Asia, Central Asia, the Himalayas, Japan and West Asia.
The School of Oriental Studies was established in 1951 and from the beginning cultural material items from the countries of study were collected to help students gain a greater understanding of their field of study. Eventually, a museum was proposed and established in 1960. It was initially called the Gulbenkian Museum of Oriental Art and Archaeology. Close by is the Teikyo University of Japan at Durham.
Durham Business School is just to the west of here and just across Elvet Hill Road to the east are Trevelyan College and St Mary’s College. Elvet Hill Road leads north to Potters Bank which stretches east to west from Quarryheads Lane to the Great North Road (A167).
Beyond Potters Bank to the north is Observatory Hill, home to the Durham University’s observatory built by Salvin in 1840. It utilised the Obeslisk in the north of the city (which marked the Meridian) donated by William Lloyd Wharton at Western Hill. There are fine views of Durham Cathedral from Observatory Hill.
The Elvet Hill area extends west, towards the Great North Road (A167) and the western end of Potters Bank terminates at the A167 near the Duke of Wellington pub in Lowe’s Barn. North of here we enter Neville’s Cross where we find the former Neville’s Cross College, now Durham University’s Ustinov College. Neville’s Cross College began life in 1922 as a teacher training college. Later it became part of New College (at Framwellgate Moor) but was sold in 2000 and subsequently bought by Durham University.
Return to the city centre and New Elvet, if we take the left fork southward from New Elvet, signposted to Stockton we enter Hallgarth Street which takes its name from the site of an enclosed hall belonging to the priors of Durham. This was Elvethall Manor, a farming complex belonging to the Priory of Durham Cathedral.
Situated near the south western corner of Durham’s prison (which of course has Victorian origins) are a number of surviving medieval buildings associated with Elvethall Manor. The most notable is a timber-framed building of the 1450s incorporating the doors of a cart-shed below. It is in fact a former granary though it includes a plaque erroneously describing it as a tithe barn.
Alongside the former granary at right angles are a row of two former medieval barns of the same century which together formed part of the complex that is now used as the prison officers’ club. At right angles to these barns at the eastern end of a car park is a stone wall which is all that remains of another barn with the prison behind. On Hallgarth Street itself is yet another stone building that is believed to be another former barn of the Elvethall manor complex.
Mount Joy and Maiden Castle
From New Elvet, Hallgarth Street leads to the A177 ‘Shincliffe Peth’ into the surrounding countryside at Houghall. Nearby is a small hill called Mount Joy near Houghall Wood and to the left of the road on a hill to the east is Maiden Castle, a site dominated by woodland.
Mount Joy is the place associated with the legendary sighting of the Dun Cow by the carriers of St Cuthbert’s coffin in 995 AD but its name may be an old French term. ‘Mont Joie’ refers to places where pilgrims heaped stones on gaining sight of their destination.
Beneath Mount Joy overlooking the roundabout is Mountjoy Crescent on the Stockton Road which forms one of the first streets encountered by motorists entering the city from the south via Shincliffe. Its constructor was a builder called Thomas Coates whose builder’s business was situated behind the crescent.
Established in Claypath in the 1880s, Coates relocated his business here in the early twentieth century. The crescent was reputedly built using stones from Durham’s racecourse grandstand. Coates seems to have been a resourceful enterprising chap, as he was also an undertaker.
Nearby Whinney Hill is perhaps imaginatively said to be a place where pilgrims and travellers tethered their horses (from the whinny sound of a horse) though whin might also refer to gorse. Palmers Garth near the prison means enclosure of the pilgrims.
Maiden Castle is an Iron Age hillfort probably associated with one of the affiliated tribes of the Brigantes, though there is evidence that it was also occupied in the post medieval era which raises some intriguing questions.
The climb to the top from the south and east above the river is very steep and it can only really be accessed from the footpath to its west with the gentle climb offering rewarding views at the top through the trees of the river valley below. The fort was defended by two ramparts on its western side.
Maiden Castle is a name that is said to derive from Brythonic meaning ‘Great Hill’ or ‘grassy plain fort’ or perhaps from being a ‘maiden’ fort that was perceived as one that never fought a battle.
There are several ‘Maiden Castles’ in England including the gigantic promontory fort in Dorset and a similar example near Reeth, North Yorkshire. Durham’s Maiden Castle is very modest by comparison though it may have also encompassed the Great High Wood.
It could be an ancient fortress called ‘Caer Weir’ referred to ‘by Welsh chroniclers as a place held by the Anglo-Saxons during their battles against the northern Britons.
In truth Maiden Castle’s origins are unknown but its situation on the hill called Maiden Scaur or Nab End could have provided good protection from attack especially on the eastern side where there is a steep climb up an escarpment near the River Wear.
Intriguingly Maiden Castle lies directly across the river from the site called Old Durham inhabited in Roman times. In fact the whole area stretching from the cathedral peninsula, Maiden Castle and Mount Joy stretching south to the hills of Shincliffe is a particularly interesting area of Durham. Crossed by the river and bordered by the wooded hills of Houghall and Hollinside to the west and the ridge of Gilesgate to the east it forms a bowl of land that speaks of a place that was surely familiar to ancient man.
Shincliffe and High Shincliffe
The pretty little village of Shincliffe, just south of the Elvet and Houghall areas of Durham City has a name that intriguingly derives from the Anglo-Saxon ‘Scinna Cliffe’ meaning ‘the hill of the ghost or demon’.
Shincliffe is a pleasant old village that seems an unlikely setting for demonic activity, although the nearby Shincliffe Wood was described in the thirteenth century as the wood extending from Shincliffe to ‘Trollesden’ though this seems to be a reference to the place called Tursdale rather than a place dwelt in by trolls.
Much of the land in the Shincliffe area in medieval times formed Shincliffe Park which belonged to the Priors of Durham, though the park was not enclosed until 1355. Shincliffe Park is now the name for a small wooded area on the north east side of the village.
There are a number of lovely cottages of seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth century origin in Shincliffe and a pub at its south end called The Seven Stars.
To the north of the village near the River Wear is the Rose Tree public house alongside the A177, the road crossing the River Wear at Shincliffe Bridge.
Shincliffe’s church of St Mary dates from 1851 with the parish created from part of the parish of St Oswald in Elvet with which it is still closely linked.
There were once two railway stations in Shincliffe, though now there are none. The first was in Shincliffe village itself. Opened in 1839 it was the first railway station to serve the Durham City area and was linked to a colliery railway from Sunderland.
The old station buildings, later used as a council depot are now converted into housing called the Mews. Another, later railway station – a building that can still be seen – was opened in 1844 on the Leamside line near Moor House Farm to the south between High Shincliffe and Bowburn.
Close to the 1844 station was once located Shincliffe racecourse where race meetings were held from 1895 to 1914. The old Shincliffe grandstand survived for many decades beyond, utilised as a barn for a time. It has now long since demolished but some may remember it as a derelict, stepped concrete structure with a tree growing from it.
In medieval times Shincliffe belonged to the priors of Durham Cathedral monastery who seem to have been involved in several quarrels with the bishop in this area.
It is recorded that in 1300 the prior was attacked by the bishop’s retainers on Shincliffe Bridge and five years later the same prior complained that one of the bishop’s servants had stolen a horse from him at Shincliffe and taken it off to Durham Castle.
Over on the east side of the River Wear from Shincliffe near the Old Durham Beck is the site of Old Durham, a Roman-British farmstead or villa. A Roman bathhouse was discovered there in the 1930s, though the site was subsequently obliterated and lost without trace through the quarrying of sand.
A medieval bridge across the River Wear at Shincliffe was in existence by at least 1200 with repairs undertaken in the 1300s but it was in a ruinous state by the end of the fourteenth century.
Enquiries by Bishop Hatfield in 1370 and 1385 seemed to conclude that the disrepair of the bridge was due to revenue set aside for its maintenance being misapplied or embezzled. Eventually it was Bishop Walter Skirlaw that rebuilt the bridge at his own cost around 1400. He had also been responsible for building new bridges at Yarm and at Croft, both on the River Tees.
The present bridge across the Wear, built by the Durham architect Ignatius Bonomi in 1826 replaced the earlier medieval bridge slightly upstream near the former Houghall water works. This older bridge had been damaged and subsequently repaired after flooding in 1752 but was proving too narrow to be useful by Bonomi’s time and was removed.
Neighbouring High Shincliffe village to the south of Shincliffe is a village of modern houses occupying the site of an old mining settlement called Bank Top. Miners who once lived here came from all parts of Northumberland and Durham but surprisingly none from old Shincliffe. The pit was sunk around 1837 and owned by William Bell.
A later owner, in the 1860s was Joseph Love, a former miner who married into wealth and became a coal owner. Despite charitable donations to the Methodist church he had a reputation for a ruthless treatment of miners.
He is said to have made a fortune fining miners he thought were not working hard enough and occasionally stopped credit to miners at local shops he owned. Love’s colliery village at Shincliffe Bank Top had a population of around 3,000 but in 1874 the seams had been worked, the pit closed and the residents moved on.
Houghall and Butterby
Heading back into Shincliffe village we now cross the bridge over the River Wear near the Rose Tree pub and head slightly north towards the sylvan outskirts of Durham City.
Here we find, on the east side of the A177 the extensive sporting facilities of Durham University’s Graham Sports Centre, with the deeply wooded promontory of Maiden Castle serving as a backdrop.
Just along the river not far from the bridge is the former Houghall waterworks or pump house, now an Indian restaurant in a lovely setting. The waterworks building or ‘pump house’ dates from 1840 and provided the first tap water for Durham City but had fallen out of use by the end of the nineteenth century.
On the west side of the A177 is the Houghall campus of East Durham College, originally Houghall College, an agricultural college founded in 1938 and absorbed by East Durham College in 1999. The backdrop to Houghall College is the extensive hill-top woodland of Houghall’s Great High Wood.
A small, seemingly natural gap, between Maiden Castle Wood and Great High Wood provides a cut for the A177, here called ‘Shincliffe Peth’ that climbs into the Elvet area of Durham.
The Great High Wood, noted for its beautiful carpet of Bluebell flowers in early spring extends south-westward along the crest of a hill and becomes Hollinside Wood at its south end. Hollinside Lane on the woodland’s western flank leads northward into the South Road area of Durham City where we find many of the colleges of Durham University.
It is Hollinside Wood that forms a backdrop to the Houghall farm area to the south west of the college. Here near the farm once stood the moated medieval manor house of Houghall. The manor of Houghall originally belonged to the Prince Bishops of Durham but passed to the Durham priors in the thirteenth century.
The name Houghall means ‘Heugh-Haugh’, the term ‘haugh’ meaning riverside meadowland. ‘Haugh’ is sometimes rendered as ‘halh’ in North East place-names. The term ‘heugh’ (or ‘hough’) signifies a promontory or hill spur which presumably refers to the hill spur of Hollinside and Great High Wood.
The Houghall area was known to ancient man as evidenced by a Bronze Age sword found at Houghall that can be seen on display at Durham University’s museum of archaeology on Palace Green.
Along with nearby Burn Hall (or Burnhall) the Houghall area historically formed part of the ‘Barony of Elvet’ as distinct from the built-up city area of Elvet in Durham City called the ‘Borough of Elvet’.
Much of the land around this area of Houghall and nearby Butterby across the river forms low-lying riverside land that was vulnerable to flooding in times past. It is also an area where there is much evidence of past changes in the course of the river. The Durham monks built flood defences hereabouts and used redundant river meanders as ponds for fish farming.
Across the river at Low Butterby there is a very distinct oxbow lake formed by a former meander on the old course of the River Wear. Low Butterby (a farm on private land) just south of the river was once, like Houghall, a moated site with the additional defence of being in a naturally defended loop of the river.
Butterby once belonged to a Norman family called D’Audre who named the site ‘Beau-trove’ (beautiful find) but this name was somehow later corrupted to Butterby. Later owners were the Lumleys, Chaytors, Doubledays, Wards and then the Salvins of Croxdale. In the 1600s Butterby was noted for being the site of one a number of sulphurous spring in the area with the one at Butterby serving as a spa of some kind.
Back across the river on the Houghall side, a short distance from the Houghall Pump House is a small square-shaped woodland near Houghall stables. This small woodland area conceals the remnants of Cross Street that formed a pit terrace in the tiny Houghall colliery village. Here you can make out the course of the street and occasional doorsteps of houses that have long since gone.
You can also see drainage channels of the street and some nearby pit shafts. The last remnants of the village, which once had its own school and church, were demolished in the 1950s. There are a number of information boards in the area forming part of the Houghall Discovery Trail which explain the history of the area.
Houghall colliery was sunk in 1840 and operated for 44 years and was once, like Shincliffe Colliery, under the ownership of Joseph Love working in collaboration with a Mr Bell. Manufactured bricks associated with the colliery may sometimes be found inscribed with the word ‘Love’ or ‘L & B’ for Love and Bell.
Although the colliery opened in 1840 the brick houses of the colliery village were not built until the 1860s, replacing earlier houses that were probably built of timber. Improvements were made to Cross Street by the National Coal Board in the 1940s including the introduction of electricity, bathrooms and indoor toilets but the street was demolished in the 1950s and the village lost forever.
Another remnant of colliery activity is the raised course of the Houghall Colliery Wagonway, now a beautiful wooded avenue that forms a footpath. There was once a railway bridge across the river near Shincliffe that took this wagonway onward to Sunderland.
To the west, the climbing wagonway passed through a tunnel at the south end of the hill at Hollingside Wood beyond which it was linked to a stationary haulage engine and nearby Croxdale Pit of 1845 that was situated at Low Burnhall. This short-lived pit should not be confused with the later Croxdale Colliery of 1876, just under two miles to the south.
At the south end of Hollinside Wood the wood merges with a strip of woodland that descends along the valley of the Saltwell Gill to the River Wear with the open country of Houghall to its east. On the west side of the gill and stretching along the western bank of the River Wear is an extensive area of open country and developing woodland close to the south western outskirts of Durham City.
Here we are still in the area that was historically part of the parish of St Oswald and Elvet. Centred upon Low Burnhall near the western bank of the River Wear, this area consists of 168 acres (68 hectares) of land that has been under the ownership of the Woodland Trust since 2008.
The Low Burnhall Woodland Trust site has numerous marked walkways including one following the old colliery wagonway and there are some public art features too. The site is flanked to the west by the old Great North Road (A167) beyond which we find the grand mansion of Burn Hall.
To the south, the Woodland Trust area stretches towards Croxdale and the bridge across the River Browney near the Honest Lawyer pub. Here we are near the confluence of the River Browney and River Wear. To the east across the Wear are further woodland walks at Butterby Wood that are accessible via Croxdale Hall or from Shincliffe.
At the north end of the Woodland Trust area on the outskirts of Durham City is the ‘Cock of the North’ roundabout, named from a public house that once stood hereabouts and nearby a farmhouse called Farewell Hall. Here from the roundabout the Great North Road (A167) heads north into Elvet Hill and Neville’s Cross while the South Road heads north east past Durham High School and the numerous Durham University colleges into the Elvet area of the city.
The car park for Burnhall Woodland Trust can be found near the roundabout just off South Road. Myriad footpaths criss-cross the trust lands where new trees have been planted. Paths link to riverside areas and there are some pleasing views from higher points on the pathways with other walks leading to the neighbouring Great High Wood.
Public art features include a stone spiral and stone circle to help you find your bearings and there is a notable viewpoint where we find the seated figure called the ‘Wicker Man’. In fact he is officially called the Willow Miner, (his name is apparently George), being a 15 ft long creation of 2012 by artists Ruth Thompson and Anna Turnbull, constructed from oak strips supported by a metal frame.
A later addition nearby are the miner’s children playing with boolers (hoops). The views from the Wicker Man are pleasing as too are the riverside areas of the Woodland Trust site.
Joining the River Wear on its north side and marking the boundary of the Woodland Trust area with Houghall to the east is the Saltwell Gill which rises between Hollinside Lane and the South Road and joins the River Wear opposite Butterby. There were a number of salt wells and sulphur springs in the area at one time.
A particularly serene aspect of the Woodland Trust area is the tranquil River Wear which is joined over on the eastern bank by the Croxdale Beck and almost diagonally opposite, here on the western bank, the Wear is joined by the River Browney that forms the southern limit of the Woodland Trust land.
The River Browney or ‘Brune’ as it was often historically known begins life in the Pennine foothills near Satley before passing close to Lanchester, Langley Park and Bearpark. It flows along the western outskirts of Durham City to Langley Moor where it is joined by the River Deerness. The Browney then passes close to Burn Hall. The area around the hall was historically Burnhall – the ‘halh’ or haugh of the River Brune – rather than being named from the site of the later hall.
Finally the Browney ends its course just north of Croxdale near the Browney Bridge and Honest Lawyer pub. Close to the confluence of the Browney and Wear you can find the Wicker Woman, the miner’s wife, feeding her hens.