Neville’s Cross, Crossgate, Framwellgate and Finchale
Here we explore the western and northern parts of Durham City from Framwellgate Bridge, along North Road and into Neville’s Cross, Crossgate Moor, Framwellgate Moor and then out towards Finchale Priory.
Framwellgate Bridge links Silver Street to the ‘Old Borough’ of Framwellgate on the western side of the river and was known for many years as ‘Old Bridge’ as it was built more than forty years before Elvet Bridge. Originally the Silver Street end of the bridge was surmounted with a tower containing a gateway, though both of these were demolished in 1760.
The bridge owes its origins to Bishop Ranulf Flambard (1099-1128) and was the first permanent crossing of the river in the city. It was, however rebuilt in the early fifteenth century under Bishop Langley. Most of what you see is Langley’s bridge though it was widened on the upstream side by just under 2.4 metres in the early nineteenth century.
In 1318 Framwellgate Bridge was the site of the murder of the Bishop of Durham’s Steward, Richard Fitzmarmaduke at the hands of his cousin, Ralph Neville who was known as ‘The Peacock of the North’. The murder took place on the bridge itself and was the final result of a long-standing quarrel between these two powerful men.
Until the 1970s nearly all the city centre traffic including buses and lorries had to pass over Framwellgate Bridge and then through the narrow Silver Street to get from one part of the city to the other.
This was a terrible inconvenience to pedestrians and eventually led to the construction of the nearby Millburngate Bridge. All except occasional service vehicles are now banned from Framwellgate Bridge. The peculiar little manned police box with its closed circuit television that controlled the city traffic from the market place has now long since gone.
Millburngate and Framwellgate
Framwellgate Bridge was linked to the neighbouring streets of Millburngate, Framwellgate and Crossgate on the west side of the river all forming major medieval routes northward. North Road is a later nineteenth century addition.
Millburngate was the road or gate near the Mill Burn, a stream that now flows through a culvert beneath North Road to join the River Wear via an outlet pipe nearby.
A curious fact is that streams to the north of Durham City (Mill Burn, Dryburn and so on) are called ‘burns’ as they are in northern County Durham, Northumberland and Scotland. South and east of the city, they are called ‘becks’ (in Viking style as in Yorkshire, Cumbria and as far south as Norfolk). Thus we have Old Durham Beck, Sherburn House Beck, Croxdale Beck and others to the south of the city. See our map of burns and becks in the Durham City area.
Framwellgate takes its name from an old well and it has been suggested that Framwellgate means ‘gate from well’. Part of the Fram Well Head, a superstructure that once covered the Fram Well is situated just above Sidegate on Framwellgate Peth.
The well superstructure is not in its original location, as the well itself was a little further to the east close to where the railway now runs.
The old streets of Millburngate and Framwellgate which formed the district of Durham called the ‘Old Borough’ were demolished in the 1930s because of their poor condition and their residents were removed to a new estate at Sherburn Road near Gilesgate. Millburngate and Framwellgate Streets included some very historic buildings which had once belonged to wealthy traders but the traders gradually moved out and over the years the two streets developed into slums.
Sadly most of the historic buildings were beyond worthwhile preservation. Only one building survives from the old street called Millburngate. It is a much restored fourteenth century building, timber framed above with a fifteenth to sixteenth century rear wing. Formerly 129 Millburngate, it lies just inside the entrance to the modern development called The Riverwalk which is a home to eating and leisure facilities including an Odeon Cinema.
The Riverwalk is linked to another new development called Millburngate (still under construction in early 2022) to which it will be connected beneath the Millburngate Bridge of 1967.
Further along the riverside, here called Framwellgate Waterside, we encounter the Pennyferry Bridge, a footbridge that links the Waterside to Freeman’s Place and the Sands just across the river. It is named from a little ferry that long ago operated a service here that cost a penny to cross. Continuing along the Framwellgate Riverside we pass the Radisson Blu Hotel and reach Crook Hall and the eastern end of Sidegate.
Crook Hall was historically part of the manor of Sidegate (or Sidgate) which was literally a side entrance into the city. There was also incidentally, a medieval Sidegate in Newcastle that was likewise called Sidgate.
Durham’s Sidgate was first mentioned in 1217 when it belonged to Gilbert De Aikes of Aykley Heads, who sold it to Aimeric the son of the Archdeacon of Durham. Aimeric’s descendants are thought to be called Emerson or Emmerson. In the 1200s Peter Del Croke (Crook) acquired Sidegate but it’s not certain whether he hailed from Crook in Weardale or if the name Crook Hall derives from the bend in the river near Sidegate. The oldest parts of Crook Hall, a medieval house date from around his time.
Later owners of Crook Hall included the Coxhow family and the Couplands including the Northumbrian knight, Sir John Coupland who captured King David of Scotland at the Battle of Neville’s Cross. From the 1370s until the 1650s Crook Hall belonged to the Billingham family who provided water from the well on their land to the market place and city centre of Durham. In 1631 one of their number, Cuthbert Billingham, cut off the city’s water supply following a disagreement but was ordered to reconnect the supply.
For several years now Crook Hall and its gardens have formed a visitor attraction and wedding venue under private ownership. It suffered economically during the Covid pandemic which resulted in the announcement of its permanent closure in the summer of 2020. Happily, after eighteen months of being closed to the public, it was announced in March 2022 that the National Trust had taken over the property and that it would reopen in the summer of that year.
Continuing along the waterside east from Crook Hall, the riverside route becomes Frankland Lane which heads up through the riverside farmland of Frankland Farm and Frankland Park and ascends towards the Newton Hall housing estate.
North Road and Castle Chare
Returning to Millburngate Bridge which carries the A690 across the river. Here at the Millburngate and Framwellgate end of the bridge the prominent Roman Catholic church of St Godric in the Castle Chare area comes into view.
Little remains of Castle Chare but it was a minor medieval road through this northern part of the old city. A ‘chare’ is usually a ninety degree offshoot of some kind (angled like a chair) but why it is called Castle Chare is intriguing.
Was there some kind of fortification nearby, maybe in what is now the railway station area? Was it named because it led down to the river peninsula (the entire peninsula was called ‘the castle’ in medieval times) but of course the peninsula is on the opposite side of the river to Castle Chare. Was it simply because there was a good view of the castle across the river?
Castle Chare became the Catholic quarter of the city in Victorian times. St Godric’s Roman Catholic church dates from 1864 and was built by E.W Pugin. The impetus was probably the significant number of Irish immigrants (presumably Catholic) who lived in neighbouring Framwellgate and Millburngate in the Victorian age.
Below the church is a large red brick Victorian building and a prominent Georgian house, which both now house apartments. The Georgian house was once an inn, but in the 1860s it became a Catholic convent and served that purpose for most of its history.
The red-brick building was built as the Roman Catholic School of St Godric but the school relocated to Newton Hall in the 1960s, to the north of the city. To the rear of Castle Chare alongside St Godric’s church is a street called Tenter Terrace on a site called the Tenter Fields named from the tenter hooks where cloth workers once stretched their fabrics. At the end of the terrace with views of the cathedral beyond is the white-painted Tenter House which was the former presbytery or home of the priest.
A footbridge of 2004 called Highgate Bridge crosses the A690 from Castle Chare into an area called Highgate, near the railway station and consists of seemingly typical Durham ‘town houses’. Highgate is in fact a 21st century development from the early 2000s but has captured the typical style of traditional Durham town houses. Part of Highgate occupies the area in which the medieval street of Framwellgate was once situated.
Close by near the railway station the A690 and neighbouring North Road come together at a roundabout that splits North Road into two parts. Once called King Street, North Road was built in 1831 and heads down towards Framwellgate Bridge.
The part of North Road between Framwellgate Bridge and the roundabout is a city centre shopping street and consists of a mix of nineteenth century and relatively featureless modern buildings. The most prominent Victorian building here is the one with the green-domed clock tower. This was once a cinema and previous to that had originally been the Durham Miners’ Hall before its relocation to nearby Redhills.
Another building of interest, close to the roundabout is the Bethel Chapel of 1861 built by the colliery owner Joseph Love, a seemingly ruthless character who was no friend of the Durham miners’ movement.
Flass Vale and Redhills
Beyond the roundabout, North Road leaves the shopping area and continues north beneath the viaduct. Durham viaduct dates from 1857 and was built by the North Eastern Railway architect T.E. Harrison. Today it carries the East Coast Main Line from London to Edinburgh but the viaduct once linked Durham to Bishop Auckland.
The streets around the viaduct area consist of several nineteenth century terraces associated with developments of the railway age. Industries in the area included Hauxwell’s iron foundry in Atherton Street; Ainsley’s mustard manufactory in Waddington Street and an organ factory in Hawthorn Terrace.
Just beyond the roundabout and viaduct, North Road is joined by Sutton Street to the west which becomes Flass Street then Redhills Lane and all run parallel to the viaduct with Redhills ascending to Crossgate Moor and the site of the Battle of Neville’s Cross.
At the bottom of Redhills Lane is the Durham Miners’ Hall which along with other neighbouring streets occupies the south end of the thickly wooded Flass Vale. Flass is a Scandinavian word for boggy land and it is now a nature reserve. Flass is a term that also occurs in the name of Flass Hall near Ushaw Moor in the Deerness Valley.
The miners’ hall, built as the home to the Durham Miners’ Association and often simply called ‘Redhills’ dates from 1915 and is a red brick Edwardian Baroque style building. Outside are the statues of Macdonald, Crawford, Patterson and Forman, figures from the mining and Labour movement that were relocated here from the earlier miners’ hall in North Road.
Redhills is currently undergoing a restoration and renewal project supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and has become a vibrant centre for culture, heritage and education for the Durham coalfield area.
Inside, the hall is noted for its beautiful debating chamber which has earned the hall the title of the Pitmens’ Parliament. Nearby are a number of former villas that were associated with prominent businessmen in Durham City.
North Road to Aykley Heads
Returning to North Road, buildings worth noting along the section of the road to the north beyond the viaduct and roundabout include the Grey Tower which is reputedly a haunted house.
Occasionally, a ghostly face is said to appear at the upper window but the legend is thought to arise from the 1880s when the tower was the setting for a story called The Waif of the Wear, written by one of its residents, Mrs Linneaus Banks, wife of the editor of the Durham Chronicle who lived here. Another later resident was Frank Rushford, local historian and Editor of the Durham Advertiser.
The tower, a private house, is near the edge of Wharton Park which lies between the North Road and Framwellgate Peth (A691). The building is a little bit of a mystery, being late eighteenth or nineteenth century in origin but thought to incorporate a much earlier building. In the 1851 census it was called ‘Wharton’s Tower’.
The Victorian antiquarian Canon William Greenwell believed the building to be part medieval and built to protect against a band of brigands who supposedly lived in a cave opposite.
Nearly opposite the tower across North Road is Obelisk Lane where the prominent obelisk of 1840 was once a marker point for Durham University’s observatory which lies a mile to the south near Durham School.
William Lloyd Wharton, from whom the Wharton Park is named, was a Director of the North Eastern Railway and a coal owner at Coundon. The nearby Durham Railway station was built in part of his grounds in 1857. It was Wharton who built the castle-like mock battery in the park which offers fine views of Durham Castle and Cathedral.
A medieval hospital dedicated to St Leonard once stood somewhere near the Grey Tower and the name of St Leonard is recalled at the nearby St Leonard’s Roman Catholic School, just a little to the north, part of which was formerly called Springwell Hall, the nineteenth century residence of coal-owner Joseph Love. The hall can still be seen as can the former lodge house for the hall near the school entrance.
Also in this northerly part of North Road is the Anglican church of St Cuthbert which was built by E.R. Robson in 1863. It is modelled on a church in Normandy that was destroyed during the Second World War.
To the north of St Cuthbert’s church at St Leonard’s School, North Road merges with Framwellgate Peth, (the A691) as it approaches the Aykley Heads area and heads onward north towards Framwellgate Moor. Framwellgate Peth is the upper part of the old medieval street called Framwellgate.
The Dryburn Gallows
St Leonard’s school (Springwell Hall) stands on a site that was called ‘The Gallows Field’ on old tithe maps. It lies on or near one of the sites where hangings took place in Dryburn.
‘Dryburn’ was the name given to much of this wider area in times past but is now best remembered in the name of Dryburn Hospital (the prevailing local name for the University Hospital of North Durham) which is situated a little to the north.
The hospital occupies the site of a Victorian house called Dryburn Hall. Dryburn served as an emergency hospital for servicemen during World War Two when its patients included German prisoners.
It was in the Dryburn area that people were once hanged by the neck for crimes such as murder, horse stealing, house breaking, robbery, treason and even witchcraft. Public Hangings took place in the area up until 1816 after which they took place outside the Durham prison and courthouse in Elvet.
Justice could be very rough in days gone by and on one occasion during the reign of Queen Elizabeth five traders were hanged at Dryburn on suspicion they might be gypsies. Their names were Fenwick, Arrington, Featherstone, Lancaster and Simpson.
On another, earlier occasion someone was hanged in this area for being a Jesuit priest and there is a legend that after his death a local stream or burn mysteriously dried up never to flow again. Hence the name Dryburn. The name of Dryburn or its place as the chosen location for hangings may have been influenced by the name of Tyburn, the place at which criminals were hanged in London.
Returning to the city centre, at the western end of Framwellgate Bridge, North Road is joined on its south side by South Street and Crossgate which are amongst the city’s older streets of medieval origin.
South Street runs southward parallel to the river but high above the bank and offers unusual views of the castle and cathedral with its western towers viewed face on.
With its cobbled course, fantastic views and proximity to the city centre it is perhaps one of the most sought-after and most expensive streets in the city of Durham. It is unusual amongst Durham’s oldest streets for simply being called a ‘street’ rather than a ‘gate’ (gate is in fact an old word for a road or way).
The name has led to speculation that South Street could be a Roman road or ‘via strata’ – a ‘stone way’ from which we get the term street. The word ‘street’ in old names can sometimes point to a Roman connection such as at Chester-le-Street.
There were certainly Roman roads passing through the central area of Durham somewhere in or near the city centre as three Roman roads point in the direction of the city, one from Chester-le-Street, one from Shincliffe via Bowburn and Coxhoe and one offshoot from Dere Street via Willington. The course of any Roman roads in the central area of Durham is, however, unknown.
At the bottom of the river bank on the riverside that runs parallel to South Street is the South Street mill, situated at the end of a weir and across the river at the other end of the weir, is the famous fulling mill which features in so many photographs of Durham.
Crossgate to Neville’s Cross
Crossgate was the main medieval route westward towards Neville’s Cross and plays host to the medieval church of St Margaret.
Crossgate is a fine cobbled street with a number of Georgian houses, good views towards the castle and cathedral, a couple of old pubs and a neighbouring tiny little street of modern houses that is of medieval origin called Grape Lane.
The parish of Crossgate, centred on St Margaret’s church was one of the main medieval divisions of Durham City.
Crossgate is joined on its north side by another former medieval street called Allergate, though the origin of this name is not altogether clear and seems to be connected with Allerton (Northallerton in Yorkshire) which was once a possession of the Prince Bishops of Durham. Between Crossgate and Allergate we find Durham’s former Victorian Union Workhouse.
Up the bank, Crossgate becomes Crossgate Peth, the road leading to the medieval Neville’s Cross, which presumably explains the street-name. Between Crossgate Peth and Redhills there are several streets which reflect the Victorian expansion of the city, most notably the Avenue and Hawthorn Terrace which both more or less run parallel to Crossgate Peth.
Several of the houses in The Avenue were the villas of business people including the turreted Farnley Tower of the 1870s which was built by a Durham architect called John Forster who built much of the street.
A prominent red-coloured building, now apartments, in Hawthorn Terrace was formerly the organ manufacturing works of Harrison and Harrison who operated here from 1872 to 1996. They were encouraged to relocate to Durham from Rochdale by the hymn-writer John Bacchus Dykes who resided in Hollingside Lane in the Elvet area of the city.
The western end of The Avenue joins Crossgate Peth and around a hundred metres further west, just opposite St John’s church is the stump of the medieval Neville’s Cross itself. Now caged in, this was one of the medieval crosses that once surrounded the city of Durham as symbols of the city’s right of sanctuary.
The cross is most closely associated with the Battle of Neville’s Cross of 1346 but was already in existence before the time of the battle. In fact it does not mark the site of the battle as this took place a little further to the north in the Crossgate Moor area, but for centuries it would have been the most prominent landmark in the area.
To the west of the Neville’s Cross and Crossgate Moor areas is the valley of the little River Browney, a tributary of the River Wear which skirts these western suburbs of Durham. In the Durham city area it was the home to several mills employed in the manufacture of paper and powered by mill races connected to the Browney. The mills, which operated in the nineteenth century were located at Langley Moor, Stonebridge, Relly and at Moorsley banks near Crossgate Moor.
Stonebridge, where a bridge crosses the River Browney at the west end of Neville’s Cross seems to be part of a Roman Road that branched off from Dere Street at Willington and headed north east through Brancepeth and Langley Moor. Its course through Durham City beyond Stonebridge is not known. At Langley Moor the River Browney is joined by the River Deerness.
The Battle of Neville’s Cross
The Browney Valley at Crossgate Moor was the setting for the Battle of Neville’s Cross. In 1346 the greater part of the English army of Edward III were away at war fighting against the French with the assistance of among others Thomas Hatfield, the Bishop of Durham who took along his own private army. The French were desperate for the English to be diverted and called upon King David II of Scotland to attack the English northern border.
King David gladly obliged invaded England with 20,000 men who wrecked and plundered parts of Cumberland and Northumberland before entering Durham where they made camp at Bearpark to the west of the city. The Scots were comprised of three factions under the respective commands of King David, the Earl of Moray and Sir William Douglas.
On the 17th October the men of Sir William Douglas went on a rampage throughout Durham straying as far south as Ferryhill where to their surprise they encountered part of an English army of some 15,000 which pursued them north. Under the leadership of Sir Ralph Neville and supported by the men of Thomas Rokeby and Lord Percy, the English were successful in this initial encounter and a number of Scots lost their lives.
Moving north, the real battle took place on the Red Hills in the vicinity of a stone cross called Neville’s Cross, which in fact existed before the battle. Arrows were fired, axes began hacking, swords were thrust and as the bloodbath continued the indication was that the Scots were going to lose. David, the Scottish king fled from the scene.
In the distance praying monks spectated from Durham Cathedral’s central tower while nearby on a hill called the Maiden’s Bower at Crossgate Moor other monks watched at closer quarters. Here they held high the holy cloth of St Cuthbert, which was a call for the support of God in this battle. The call seemed on this occasion to be answered as the Scots were easily defeated.
Meanwhile in the vicinity of Aldin Grange where the road from Crossgate to Bearpark crosses the River Browney, a Northumbrian soldier by the name of Copeland came across a rather momentous discovery, for there beneath the arch of Aldin Grange Bridge lay hiding none other than David King of the Scots. The present bridge at Aldin Grange today dates to the fifteenth century and replaced an earlier one so it is not the bridge of King David’s time.
The king’s hiding place had apparently been given away by his reflection in the river. He was badly injured from two spears that had pierced his body but he put up a good fight and knocked out two of Copeland’s teeth. However, Copeland captured the Scottish monarch and for a time the English held on to him for ransom.
Eventually a fee was agreed for the return of King David to Scotland and he was released. The canny Scots never paid the fee. The victory at Neville’s Cross was long commemorated in Durham City folklore by local children. Children of the city traditionally claimed that if you walked nine times around the Neville’s Cross and then put your head to the ground you could hear the sound of battle and the clash of arms.
Whitesmocks to Framwellgate Moor
To the north of Crossgate Moor the Great North Road (A167) passes the Durham Johnston School on its east side near the top of Redhills Lane and continues north into the suburbs of Whitesmocks, Western Lodge and Durham Moor in the Dryburn area at the roundabout north of the University Hospital of North Durham. Whitesmocks was the site of an inn on the great road and apparently named from the attire of the coachmen or waggoners who came this way.
North and east of Durham Moor and Dryburn we enter Framwellgate Moor, now a suburb of Durham City but originally a separate pit village to the north of the city. The Framwellgate Moor Colliery known as ‘Old Pit’ opened in 1838 and operated until 1924. Traces of earlier houses associated with the pit village can be seen, notably in the area called The Carrs and in Old Pit Lane, but the main part of the pit village was in the area around the Marquis of Granby pub and St Aidan’s, the Victorian church of the Framwellgate Moor pit village.
Like Gilesgate Moor, another Durham suburb, Framwellgate Moor takes its name from a Durham street and from open uncultivated, common land (the moor) land that escaped enclosure until a relatively late period. Framwellgate, the street was however in the centre of the town and linked to Framwellgate Moor by the Framwellgate Peth (A691). The actual moor at Framwellgate Moor was not enclosed for farming until 1802.
Pity Me, Stank Lane and Plawsworth
Pity Me is Framwellgate Moor’s neighbour to the north and the two places merge together. A former pit village, Pity Me served both Framwellgate Moor Colliery and Kimblesworth Colliery towards Chester-le-Street to the north. In medieval times this area was once noted for fish stews just to the north called the ‘Vivarium de Kimblesworth’.
These were huge fishing ponds belonging to the monks of Durham in the Plawsorth and Kimblesworth area. The ponds are recalled in the name of Pity Me’s Stank Lane (a’ Stank’ being an old name for a pond or pool). The lane is on the west side of the main street near the Pity Me garden centre nursery. The impressive embankments of the medieval vivarium can be seen on the east side of the Great North Road on the way to Plawsworth.
This is an area of Durham that seems to have been a centre for leisure pursuits in times past as the name Plawsworth derives from the Anglo-Saxon ‘Plaws-Worth’ meaning ‘enclosure for games, sports or amusements’. The name may in fact be at least in part a reference to the vivarium. Kimblesworth means the enclosure belonging to someone called Cymel. Nearby Nettlesworth (where there was once a nineteenth century colliery settlement called Broadmires) was the ‘enclosure overgrown with nettles’. It is the home to the intriguingly named ‘Ugly Lane’. To the west of Kimblesworth, Plawsworth and Nettlesworth are the villages of Sacriston and Witton Gilbert.
The name Pity Me creates quite a lot of interest with many theories ranging from the French ‘Petite Mere’ meaning ‘a small lake’ or even ‘small sea’, to the pitiful chants of wandering monks. Some say the monks accidentally dropped St Cuthbert’s coffin here and his ghost cried “Pity Me”.
The cry of the Peewit (Lapwing) has also been suggested and a nearby farm that once existed at nearby Framwellgate Moor called Pewit Mires (and later ‘Tewit Mires’) could support this idea but there are plenty of other theories. How about the idea that it comes from the chant ‘misere me’ used by pilgrims as they walked towards Durham?
In fact there are other places called Pity Me in the North East and at one time there were at least five in the region – two in Northumberland, one in Newcastle and two in County Durham. All seem to be located in areas where there was poor soil or waterlogged conditions. The name is most likely a wry reference to difficult farming conditions. The Pity Me near Durham City tends to get noticed because unlike the others it grew from being a farm into a hamlet and then into a prominent village as a result of mining developments.
Newton Hall and Frankland
Newton Hall is now the name of a housing estate and takes its name from a Georgian hall that once stood here. The house was demolished in 1926 and was once the home – in the eighteenth century – of William Russell, a powerful and very wealthy coal owner, who would go on to purchase Brancepeth Castle.
Russell constructed avenues on the land to create viewpoints of the cathedral. Despite the ‘new’ of Newton Hall’s name ‘Newton’ was first mentioned in the 1180s in Durham’s Boldon Buke.
In its later years the hall served as a psychiatric hospital and as a barracks for soldiers in the First World War. When it was demolished in 1926 a tragic accident occurred in which a workman called Littlefair accidentally dropped a joist which killed a 14-year-old boy called John Arnison, who was working in his first job having only left school three days earlier. Years later, in 1988 as the result of a competition. Arnison’s name was chosen as the name of the nearby out of town retail centre in the Pity Me area.
To the North East of Newton Hall estate is Frankland Prison and Brasside. Historically, the wider Frankland area was a hunting park for the Bishops of Durham and its lands stretched all the way down towards the centre of the city.
A farm called Frankland Park near sloping fields above the River Wear still recalls this. It has a lovely setting with views across the fields to Durham Cathedral below the Newton Hall estate. It was perhaps once farmed by a franklin, a tenant of free but not noble birth.
Brasside, close to Frankland Prison was the home to collieries belonging to the Earl of Durham (Lambton) in the nineteenth century but by the end of that century was primarily a site for brickworks. The clay deposits here were extensively excavated and resulted in the creation of the lovely Brasside Ponds which are a haven for waterfowl in this part of Durham.
The ponds lie close to the twisting and turning River Wear in the Frankland and Kepier Wood areas and an impressive nineteenth century viaduct called the Belmont or Kepier Viaduct crosses the River Wear. It is disused but not accessible to the public.
To the east of Brasside (the name means brae -side) and Frankland Prison is Adventure Valley, a children’s adventure park in a riverside setting. To the north as the river twists northwards on its way towards Chester-le-Street is a Second World War ammunition dump with several bunkered huts and nearby in a nick of the River Wear is the beautiful Finchale Priory.
The ruins of Finchale Priory (pronounced Finkle) stand in a beautiful spot by the River Wear to the north of Newton Hall on the outskirts of Durham City.
Finchale is mentioned as early as AD 792 when it was the site of a synod for the Northumbrian Church held to discuss church discipline. The meeting was followed by another two in AD 798 and in AD 810, which suggest that Finchale was a place of considerable importance.
The name of Finchale is Anglo-Saxon meaning either ‘dale frequented by finches’ or a ‘halh’ or heal of land frequented by the bird. Despite its spelling, Finchale is pronounced Finkle and is a reminder that the word finch has changed in its pronunciation. It originally described the ‘Fink-Fink’ sound made by these birds.
All these theories are made all the more confusing by the fact that ‘finkle’ usually means dog-leg in other places around the region – for example Finkle Streets in Bishop Auckland, Stockton, Alnwick (Fenkle Street) and several streets in historic towns in Yorkshire. The description ‘dog leg’ certainly fits the course of the River Wear at Finchale which makes a sudden bend of exactly that shape.
In about 1104 Finchale became the site of a hermitage belonging to St. Godric who lived here for sixty years. Godric was born in Norfolk in the year 1065 and in his early years lived the life of a pedlar but later became a pirate and sea captain and travelled extensively throughout Europe. In the middle part of his life he went on a pilgrimage to Compostella in Spain where he made the decision to return home to England to live the life of a hermit.
For a time he established a hermitage at Carlisle before moving on to Wolsingham in Weardale where he lived in a cave. Following the death of a close friend Godric witnessed a vision in which he was instructed to go to a place called Finchale. He knew of the site and got the permission of the Bishop of Durham, Ranulf Flambard to establish a hermitage there. Here he built a wooden hut as a simple place of residence and committed himself to a life of prayer.
During his time at Finchale, Godric is said to have been troubled by fiends and demons who took various shapes and forms, most often appearing in the form of a damsel. Visited by ‘evil concupiscence’ he would do anything to rid himself of such trouble such as rolling naked in thorns and then pouring salt into his wounds.
On other occasions Godric would stand naked in the river for a whole night with the water up to his neck, although it is said that often the devil would make a sneaky appearance at the river bank and make off with his clothes. Godric’s activities, however eccentric they may appear to our modern eyes, do not seem to have done the saint any harm as he lived to the grand old age of one hundred and five. His burial place lies among the ruins of Finchale priory.
Following Godric’s death Finchale passed into the hands of the priors of Durham Cathedral Monastery and a Benedictine priory was built here around 1196 by Henry Pudsey son of Hugh, Bishop of Durham.
From the fourteenth century the priory had four resident monks but the monks of Durham Cathedral made regular visits to Finchale which they used as a kind of holiday retreat. Visiting in groups of four, the monks took it in turns to holiday at Finchale.
It is most likely that the monks travelled to Finchale above ground but there is a legend that a secret passage runs underground from Durham Castle to Finchale.
Legend has it that in the eighteenth century the passage was discovered by a blind fiddle player who with his dog walked along the passage while playing the fiddle. The sounds of the fiddle could be heard above ground and this enabled the listeners to follow his course as far as Framwellgate Bridge where the passage was said to pass underneath the River Wear.
Mysteriously upon reaching this point the music stopped and the fiddler was never seen or heard of again. His little dog is said to have turned up later with a ghostly look upon its face but Finchale’s secret passage has never been found.
Cocken over on the north side of the Wear from Finchale lies to the west of Rainton and derives its name from ‘Cocca’s Ea’ meaning island or loop of land where perhaps the rights to fish belonged to someone called Cocca. There is still a distinct loop of the river here within which once stood Cocken Hall.
Who Cocca was is not known as the first mention of Cocken comes in 1133 when it was owned by a priest called Ellafus who gave it to the monks of Durham. It later belonged to Finchale Priory.
From the 1640s Cocken belonged to the Carrs of Newcastle, whose family members included Ralph Carr, a three times mayor of Newcastle and also that town’s MP. From 1804 Carr’s hall at Cocken was used as a convent by Carmelite nuns. These were seemingly nuns on the run as they had been expelled from England during the Reformation. They fled to the Continent but then came back to escape the French Revolution settling for a time at St Helen’s Hall in St Helen’s Auckland (another Carr home) before the Carrs moved them into Cocken Hall. Later in the 1830s the nuns relocated to Darlington.
Around 1812 the Carrs of Cocken took the peculiar name Standish Standish after inheriting land in Cheshire. One William Standish Standish who resided at Cocken until his death in 1856 was buried in a quarry at Houghton-le-Spring. Later residents of Cocken Hall included the nineteenth century pugilist and coal owner John Gully (he owned mines at Rainton and Wingate) who later retired to the Bailey in Durham City and Samuel Austin, the Sunderland shipbuilder who resided here at the end of the nineteenth century. Sadly, the hall seemed to fall into neglect in the following century.
In 1915 the suffragettes attempted to burn the hall down with large quantities of oil and a timed fuse attached to an alarm clock but failed after the caretaker discovered the plot he raised the alarm, though presumably not the one attached to the fuse. Later that year the hall would serve as a Durham Light Infantry barracks but sadly after the war the hall was knocked down and today Cocken consists of only a handful of farmhouses.
A footbridge links the Cocken side of the River Wear to Finchale Priory but Cocken Bridge itself which dates from 1886 is about a mile to the west within one of the numerous island-like loops of the River Wear. It is the only road bridge across the River Wear between Durham City and Chester-le-Street and links the country roads in the flat riverside farmland from Plawsworth to the farmland of Cocken and onward to Leamside and West Rainton to the east or Great Lumley to the north.