Durham City: Elvet and Shincliffe

Aelfet-ee Elvet – the 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 flat riverside land. 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 Bridge
Elvet Bridge. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Aelfet ee is recorded in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles as the place where a certain Peotwine was consecrated as the Bishop of Whithorn in the year 762 AD. This consecration took place two hundred and thirty three years before the founding of Durham, as at this time the Dun Holm is thought to have been a densely wooded mostly uninhabited area.

Elvet, flatter and more accessible may have been settled and cultivated. It is 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.

Pudsey’s Bridge

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.

Elvet Bridge, Durham
Elvet Bridge, Durham. Photo © David Simpson 2018

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, Durham
Elvet Bridge, Durham. Photo © David Simpson 2018

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!

Old Elvet and the Shire Hall

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 brick 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.

Old Elvet, Durham
Old Elvet, Durham. Photo © David Simpson 2018

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 Miner’s 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.

Gala on the Racecourse

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 many decades.

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.

Durham Miners' Gala
Scene from the Durham Miners’ Gala. Photo © John Simpson 2015

Traditionally held on the third Saturday in July. The coal miners who flocked to the gala (pronounced ‘gayla’) went to demonstrate their unity and claim their rights to fair pay and safe working conditions. These men had little sympathy for those with right wing 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.

Durham Prison

One of Durham’s best known buildings is of course the prison which was built at Elvet in 1810 to replace the earlier gaol situated in the now long since destroyed Great North Gate. 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.

Durham Gaol has been the long-term home to many notorious criminals and a 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

When ye gan te Dorham Jail
They’ll find ye wi emploi,
They’ll dress ye up se dandy
In a suit o cordy roy;
They’ll fetch a cap wi’oot a peak
En nivvor axe yer size
En like yer suite its cordy roy
En cums doon ower yer eyes

The Forst month is th’ worst of aal
Yor feelins’ they will try
There’s nowt but two greet lumps e wood,
On which ye hae to lie
Then eftor that ye gans te bed,
But it is ard as stoanes
It neet ye daresn’t make a torn
In case ye break some bones”

Tommy’s song finishes with a spoken passage about life in the Jail:

“That’s the place te gan if yer matched te fight; Thorl fetch ye doon te yor weight if yer ower heavy. They feed ye on the floor broth ivory meal en thee put it doon at the front for e’ th’ hoose yer livin’ in. When the tornkey opens the door, upt yer hand oot an ye’l get a had iv a shot box we bee lid, an vary little inside it; its grand stuff for the women folks te paper their wall with. It sticks te yor ribs, but its not made for a man that hes te hew coals. Bide away if they’ll let ye.”

New Elvet Bridge, Kingsgate and Hallgarth Street

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 Dunelm House which is Durham University’s Student Union building (1961-65), and the former Three Tuns Hotel. In days gone 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 Swan and Three Cygnets, the name of which reminds us that Elvet was once a ‘Swan Island’, on the opposite side of the bridge we can see an historic house built on the dry arch of Elvet Bridge.

At Dunelm House New Elvet splits into two streets called Hallgarth Street and Church Street near the latter of which a lane leads the walker across the River Wear via Kingsgate footbridge. Used mainly by students, the bridge was built by the great Civil Engineer Ove Arup (1895-1988).

Arup was responsible for many great projects including the Sydney Opera House but he always considered the Kingsgate Bridge his favourite work. The bridge dates from 1963 and is built of Shap granite aggregate. The road on the left fork from New Elvet signposted to Stockton is Hallgarth Street. It takes its name from the site of a hall belonging to the priors of Durham called Hallgarth. Associated with this hall was the Hallgarth tithe barn, a medieval structure that can still be seen near Durham prison. It was used to house the portion of the local harvest that the prior’s tenants owed to the monastery of Durham.

St Oswald's church and Kingsgate Bridge, Durham
St Oswald’s church and Kingsgate Bridge, Durham. Photo © John Simpson

St Oswald’s church

The road on the right fork leading from New Elvet is called Church Street and takes its name from the nearby Church of St. Oswald. The earliest part of this church dates from the twelfth century but the site is thought to be older as a number of Anglo-Saxon finds have been discovered here. The finds consisted 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 that 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. It seems likely that Elvet was a place of importance in King Oswald’s time.

St Oswald’s Church, Durham
St Oswald’s Church, Durham. Photo © David Simpson 2018


In the churchyard across the road from St Oswald’s Church we can 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 Oswalds from 1864 until his death in 1876.

Mount Joy and Maiden Castle

From New Elvet, Hallgarth Street leads out of the city by the A177 (the Shincliffe Peth) into the surrounding countryside. The road leads past two very historic sites which lie just beyond the outskirts of Elvet on either side of the road. On the right to the west is the small hill called Mount Joy near to the Houghall Wood and to the left of the road on a hill to the east is the site of Maiden Castle which is completely surrounded by a beautiful old oak woodland.

Mount Joy is of course 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 also be connected with an old French term. In France ‘Mont Joie’ was the place where pilgrims heaped stones when they gained sight of their destination. Mount Joy, Durham was perhaps the place where Norman pilgrims to the shrine of St Cuthbert carried out a similar practice.

Maiden Castle may be an Iron Age fortress belonging to the ancient British tribe called the Brigantes who were strongly associated with the southern part of County Durham. The name Maiden Castle does seem to originate from ancient times and may derive from ‘Moe Din’, Moe meaning grassy plain Din meaning fort.

There are a number of other Maiden Castles in England including a gigantic promontory fort in Dorset and a similar example near Reeth in the northern part of Yorkshire. Another suggestion regarding the origin of Maiden Castle is that it is the site of an ancient fortress called Caer Weir. This is referred to by Welsh chroniclers as a place held by the Anglo-Saxons during their early battles against the Welsh speaking Ancient Britons who once inhabited the north.

In reality the exact origins of Maiden Castle are unknown but its situation on a hill called Maiden Scaur or Nab End would certainly have provided good protection from attack. This is particularly so on the eastern side where there is a steep climb up an escarpment near the River Wear.

It is perhaps not as well defended as it may have been in Iron Age times as by natural processes the River Wear which afforded it extra protection has gradually moved its course away from the site. There is very little to be seen of the ancient fort of Maiden Castle today as over the years the traces of its rampart ditch have slowly been eroded away. Maiden Castle is located close to a part of Durham called Old Durham which was inhabited in Roman times.


The pretty little village of Shinclife, just south of the Elvet area of Durham City has a name that intriguingly derives from the Anglo-Saxon ‘Scinna Cliffe’ meaning ‘the hill of the ghost or demon’ although it is a pleasant old village that seems an unlikely setting for demonic activities.

In medieval times Shincliffe belonged to the priors of Durham Cathedral monastery who seemed to have got 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. The priors park lay just to the north of Shincliffe.

Shincliffe. © David Simpson

The neighbouring village of High Shincliffe lies just to the south of Shincliffe itself. It is now a modern estate but occupies the site of an old mining settlement called Bank Top. The miners who once lived here came from all parts of Northumberland and Durham but surprisingly none actually originated from Shincliffe.

The pit had been sunk around 1837 and one of its later owners was Joseph Love, a former miner who married into wealth and became a coal owner.

Despite his charitable donations to the church he had a reputation for undue harshness in his behaviour towards the miners. Love is said to have made a fortune from fining miners who in his opinion were not working hard enough and would also occasionally stop credit to miners at the local shops which 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.

Durham City Origins | Durham Cathedral 

Durham Castle and The Baileys | Durham Market Place

Durham : Gilesgate 

Durham : Framwellgate to Finchale

Spennymoor and Croxdale

Deerness Valley | Lanchester and the Browney valley


North East Regional Hub and Portal