Durham City: Gilesgate, Claypath, Kepier

Gilesgate and Gilesgate Moor

The long, steeply-banked street of Gilesgate is still occasionally known to older residents by its medieval name of ‘GIllygate’, (with a soft G) and is the ‘street of St Giles’. It is named from the nearby St Giles Church, an attractive little edifice that claims to be the second oldest church in Durham City after Durham Cathedral.

Gilesgate, Durham
Gilesgate, Durham. Photo © David Simpson 2018

To the east of Gilesgate are Gilesgate Moor and Dragonville. Now a Durham suburb, Gilesgate Moor was once unenclosed common land between the Sherburn Road and Sunderland Road, two streets that come together to form Gilesgate.

Gilesgate Moor lies at the heart of the eastern suburbs of Durham that stretch from the housing of the Sherburn Road area overlooking Old Durham to the south, northward to the A690 (a former railway line). The suburbs then stretch east to Dragonville (named from a  long-gone nineteenth century pub) and then further east across the motorway into Carrville and Belmont.

Much of this area first developed in the nineteenth century when there were a number of collieries hereabouts, notably Kepier Colliery; Old Durham Colliery; the Grange Colliery and Belmont Colliery. A mining settlement called ‘New Durham’ developed on the north side of the Sherburn Road in the nineteenth century but was largely abandoned and demolished by the end of that century and only a stone house (now a newsagent) remains.

Early nineteenth century colliery streets such as Adolphus Place and Ernest Place (now the name of a modern block of University accommodation) recall family members of the coal-owning Marquess of Londonderry who owned land hereabouts, most notably at Old Durham. A statue of the 3rd Marquess of Londonderry riding a horse can of course be seen in Durham Market Place.

Old Launderette, former cinema, Durham
Old Launderette, former cinema of 1927, Gilesgate, Durham © David Simpson 2021

A former cinema which opened in 1927 is now the ‘Old Cinema Launderette’ on the Sunderland Road that serves as a launderette and intimate music venue. The Sunderland and Sherburn Roads were situated either side of what was once the common land of Gilesgate Moor. This and the surrounding area built-up area with the modern retail developments around Dragon Lane mark out a distinct community on the east side of Durham City.

On the north side of the Sunderland Road a red-brick housing estate built just after the Second World War commemorates local war heroes. They include Bradford Crescent named from the Victoria Cross awarded Bradford Brothers of Witton Park; Donnini Place named from a 19 year old Easington lad who was the youngest recipient of the Victoria Cross (his father was Italian). Annand Road; Heaviside Place; Cooper Square; McNally Place; Wakenshaw Road; Gort Place; Kenny Place; Cunningham Place; Montgomery Road; Churchill Avenue and Roosevelt Road all named from heroes and prominent figures connected with the war.

Within the apex of the meeting of the Sunderland and Sherburn Roads (both ancient routes) is an area known as the ‘road ends’ which was once the ancient site of the Maiden’s Bower, where a signalling station or beacon is said to have existed, perhaps associated with Old Durham or the nearby fort of Maiden Castle.

Vane Tempest Hall, Durham
Vane Tempest hall, Durham © David Simpson 2021

Close to this junction, hidden away to the rear of Gilesgate near the Queen’s Head pub is Vane Tempest Hall, a former military drill hall built in 1863 for the Second Durham Militia. Vane Tempest was of course the family name of the Marquess of Londonderry.

Gilesgate Green ‘The Duckpond’, Durham
Gilesgate Green ‘The Duckpond’, Durham. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Gilesgate

The upper part of Gilesgate, which begins at the ‘road ends’ includes the village-like Gilesgate Green, known locally as ‘the Duckpond’ though there hasn’t been a pond here since the nineteenth century.

Gilesgate Green, better known as 'the Duckpond'
Gilesgate Green, better known as ‘the Duckpond’ © David Simpson 2022

There are some neat looking houses nearby, including one featuring the letter ‘L’ indicating that although we have left the former mining area, there was still a Londonderry presence.

The house with the 'L' Gilesgate
The house with the ‘L’ Gilesgate © David Simpson 2021

A little further down Gilesgate is St Giles Church set back from the street on its south side with views from its graveyard of the beautiful Pelaw Wood, Maiden Castle and Old Durham. Built in 1112 by Bishop Ranulf Flambard, the church was constructed as a chapel for a hospital dedicated to St Giles.

River bank, Pelaw Wood, Durham
River bank, near Pelaw Wood, Durham © David Simpson 2021

Before it was moved to nearby Kepier, the hospital stood close to the church but was burned down in the 1140s. The trouble that led to the burning of St Giles Hospital was caused by one of the most notorious characters in the history of the Bishopric of Durham, William Cumin, a usurper bishop who falsely appointed himself Prince Bishop of Durham with the encouragement of King David of Scotland.

St Giles church, Gilesgate, Durham © David Simpson 2018

As the supposed bishop, William Cumin took up residence at Durham Castle where for three years he abused his falsely claimed powers and terrorised local people with the assistance of his band of armed retainers. It is thought that Cumin was the son of Robert De Comines, the Norman Earl of Northumbria who was killed in the bloodbath massacre of 700 Norman soldiers in Durham City on January 30th 1069. If so, then Cumin may have had a particular grudge against Durham. Cumin and Comines are thought to be early forms of surnames such as Cummings and Cummins.

St Giles Church, Durham
St Giles Church, Durham. Photo David Simpson

In March 1143, when William De St Barbara was elected as the true Bishop of Durham, Cumin still had to be removed. William St Barbara’s supporters had expected Cumin, the usurper, to stand down. Unfortunately he did not and what is more Cumin would not allow St Barbara anywhere near Durham Castle. The real bishop was forced to take refuge at St Giles church for the night.

The following morning Cumin broke down the doors of St Giles Church and a pitched sword battle broke out between the supporters of the real bishop and the usurper. Terrified monks caught up in the fight prayed desperately for peace but one was nearly killed by a huge stone thrown by one of the usurper’s men.

St Giles church,
St Giles church, Gilesgate, Durham © David Simpson 2021

On this occasion William St Barbara was forced to accept defeat and had to leave Durham for a time until a second unsuccessful attempt was made to oust Cumin at a later date.

During his ruthless rule, Cumin gained the support of many of the barons in Durham and his main opponents in the County Palatine seem to have been the Escolland, Bulmer and Conyers families. Of these, the most prominent supporter of the real bishop was Roger Conyers.

Conyers was the Constable of Durham Castle but the castle had been seized by Cumin around 1141. Conyers took refuge at his own manor house at Bishopton near Stockton-on-Tees, which he converted into an impressive castle, of which extensive earthworks can still be seen just outside that village.

Durham Cathedral and castle from Leazes Road, Gilesgate
Durham Cathedral and castle from Leazes Road, Gilesgate. Photo © David Simpson

The supporters of William St Barbara also built a castle at Thornley during this period. This was a time that might well be described as County Durham’s very own civil war and indeed took place at a period in English history known as ‘the anarchy’. A notable flash point in this ‘war’ was the besieging of Kirk Merrington church near Ferryhill which Cumin had fortified in an act that was considered sacrilege.

Durham Cathedral above the rooftops of Hild and Bede
Durham Cathedral above the rooftops of Hild and Bede College. © David Simpson

In August 1144, St Barbara tried once again to evict Cumin from Durham, this time enlisting the help of the Earl of Northumberland’s army. On this occasion they were successful. Cumin’s men fled the scene and the usurper relinquished his claim to the bishopric, though it seems that the hospital of St Giles may have suffered a burning at the hands of Cumin’s men at around this time.

Gilesgate to Claypath

From St Giles church the upper part of Gilesgate called Gilesgate Bank continues to descend towards the centre of the city and today terminates at a roundabout near to which there are a number of features of note.

Belvedere House, Gilesgate
Belvedere House, Gilesgate, Durham © David Simpson 2021

First of all we find a large eighteenth century house called ‘Belvedere’ with its flat roof. Below the roundabout is the College of St Hild and St Bede, known as ‘Hild and Bede’ for short.

Part of Durham University since 1979, Hild and Bede started as two separate teacher training colleges. The college of St Bede, was established in 1839 in Leazes Lane off Gilesgate. This lane is now partly the course of the A690 Leazes Road into the city. Until 1933 there was a ‘model school’, connected with the college, used for training teachers, further down the lane. The adjoining College of St Hild was established in 1845, with its buildings clustered in St Hild’s Lane and to the rear of Gilesgate.

Former railway station, Gilesgate, Durham
Former railway station, Gilesgate, Durham © David Simpson 2021

Across the other side of the roundabout, the approaching A690 mostly follows the course of a former railway line (a branch of the Leamside line) that terminated here at what was the first station in Durham City (though there was an earlier one at nearby Shincliffe). The railway station building, now a hotel, can still be seen next to the roundabout and dates from 1844. The line closed in the 1960s and was replaced by the present dual carriageway road.

Nearby Station Lane was the birthplace of Michael Heaviside (1880-1939) who later became a miner at Craghead Colliery near Stanley.  He was awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery in the Second World War and is commemorated in a memorial at St Giles Church.

Mural, Gilesgate, Durham
Mural, Gilesgate, Durham © David Simpson 2021

Close by, the end of the last house in this upper part of Gilesgate, on the north side of the street has a painted mural created to commemorate 900 years of Durham Cathedral in 1993.

The roundabout, which seems to form the terminus of Gilesgate here, actually splits Gilesgate in two. Gilesgate continues across the other side of the roundabout running parallel to Leazes Road.

The lower part of Gilesgate is sometimes mistakenly thought to be part of Claypath
The lower part of Gilesgate is sometimes mistakenly thought to be part of Claypath © David Simpson 2022

Even some locals mistakenly think that the part of Gilesgate, beyond the roundabout, is Claypath, though it isn’t surprising given that it is home to the Claypath Medical Centre.

The street in fact continues as Gilesgate until it reaches a narrow alley or ‘vennel’ called Tinklers Lane on the south side, which marked the historic parish boundary between St Giles in Gilesgate and St Nicholas in the Market Place. It is here that Gilesgate becomes Claypath.

Tinklers Lane, Durham
Tinklers Lane, Durham © David Simpson 2021

Claypath to Providence Row

Just beyond Tinklers Lane, Claypath is joined on its south side by the attractive Leazes Place built in 1836 in Regency Style. Hidden away further along this street is Leazes House, the nineteenth century home (built in 1848) of the influential Hendersons, who were carpet manufacturers in Durham.

From 1910 to 1968 the house served as Durham High School for Girls. The name ‘Leazes’ which is also recalled in the busy Leazes Road (on the site of Leazes Lane) down towards the river is either from ‘leas’ meaning a river meadow or from an old word for freehold land of medieval times.

Leazes Place, Durham
Leazes Place, Durham © David Simpson 2021

Claypath runs along a ridge to the east of Durham City with the valley of the River Wear situated parallel on both sides of the street to the south and to the north.

On the south side of Claypath, the descent to the westward flowing river via Tinklers lane is interrupted by the modern Leazes Road but on the north side it is possible to descend to the eastward-flowing part of the river on foot via Bakehouse Lane or by road along Providence Row to ‘the Sands’.

Providence Row was one of the childhood homes of former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, whose family moved to Durham when he was five years old. Later, the family moved to High Shincliffe on the south side of the city where the young Blair was raised until heading off to University.

Kepier Hospital
Kepier Hospital, Durham. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Kepier Hospital

Providence Row descends from Claypath towards the riverside area called ‘The Sands’, a flat meadow land that traditionally belongs to the Freemen of the city. Here the road continues along to the riverside to the medieval archway of the former Kepier Hospital.

Kepier Hospital, Durham
Kepier Hospital, Durham © 2017 David Simpson

The destruction of the hospital of St Giles near St Giles Church by William Cumin’s men in 1141 resulted in the relocation of the hospital by Bishop Pudsey to this new site a little further to the north by the River Wear.

Kepier is not the only former medieval hospital in the Gilesgate area. Situated between Gilesgate and Kepier we find the remains of another medieval hospital called the Chapel of St Mary Magdalene. It dates from 1451 and is now a protected ruin alongside the A690 Sunderland to Durham road not far from the former railway station that is now a hotel.

Back on the riverside, Kepier Hospital remains as a building with a vaulted, arched gateway and rooms above. Now part of Kepier Farm, the hospital was built to relieve the poor and to welcome pilgrims visiting Durham. It was constructed by Bishop Pudsey some time after 1153 and was presided over by a master and thirteen brethren of which six were chaplains.

Records show that the chaplains were entitled to new boots twice each year while the remaining brethren were only allowed simple leather shoes as well as thongs. Naturally Kepier was important for its hospitality and in 1298 King Edward I was among those entertained here.

Kepier Hospital
Kepier Hospital. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Not many years later, in 1306 the visit of Robert the Bruce was not so warmly welcomed. On June the 15th of that year Bruce’s Scottish army swarmed towards Kepier and torched the building. It is likely that much of the hospital was then rebuilt as the existing gatehouse dates from the fourteenth century.

In later centuries following the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Kepier passed out of the hands of the church and in 1568 it was bought by a Londoner called John Heath who was a close friend of Bernard Gilpin. Bernard Gilpin was the so-called ’Apostle of the North’ who established the Kepier Grammar School at Houghton-le-Spring. The name of the school recalls the connection between the two men. A restored Elizabethan effigy of John Heath can be seen in St Giles Church in Gilesgate.

John Heath Elizabethan effigy, St Giles, Durham
John Heath Elizabethan effigy, St Giles, Durham © David Simpson 2021

The Kepier Estate in Durham that had been purchased by Heath was quite extensive and stretched as far to the east as the “farm or grange” called Ramside, now the site of a hotel to the east of Durham.

The remains of Heath’s Elizabethan manor house at Kepier can be seen near the Kepier Hospital site. In the 1820s the manor house became an inn called the White Bear but only the arches of its basement remain. Heath also owned a manor house at Old Durham.

Kepier Hospital, Durham and remains of John Heath's manor house to the right.
Kepier Hospital, Durham and the remains of John Heath’s manor house to the right. © 2017 David Simpson

Kepier Wood

A mile or so to the east of Kepier Hospital and approachable on foot, the River Wear forms a steep gorge that is occupied on the south bank by Kepier Wood and on the north side by Frankland Wood. Kepier wood is the site of the former Kepier Quarries, one of the locations where sandstone used in the building of Durham Cathedral is thought to have been quarried centuries ago.

Kepier Wood Durham
Kepier Wood Durham. © David Simpson 2022

Within this beautiful wood there are some remains of drift mines and paths that follow the course of associated tubways (little colliery railroads) and similar features can be found in the woodland over on the Frankland side of the river too.

Kepier Wood Durham
Kepier Wood Durham © David Simpson 2022

As suggested, some of the stone for Durham Cathedral was thought to be excavated here but  stone for the cathedral (and castle) also came from the area now occupied by Quarryheads Lane, a little nearer to the cathedral.

Sandstone rocks: remnants of quarrying, Kepier woods,
Sandstone rocks: remnants of quarrying, Kepier woods, Durham © 2017

It is possible that the stone from Kepier was ferried upstream for the construction of the great church. An impressive feature of the woodland gorge is the Brasside-Belmont viaduct (also known as Kepier Viaduct) which dates from the 1850s.

Kepier Wood Durham
Kepier Wood Durham © David Simpson 2022

From around 1857 the viaduct linked the Bishop Auckland branch of the North Eastern Railway to the growing network of railways and joined the NER’s Leamside line (then the main line north to Gateshead and Newcastle) to the east of the woods at a site which is now just to the north of the A1(M) motorway junction.

This was the main route north from the present Durham station to Newcastle until the 1870s when a new line branched off it in the Newton Hall area heading directly north towards Chester-le-Street following a course entirely to the west of the River Wear.  Crossing of the viaduct is not currently accessible to the public.

Berlmont viaduct, Kepier Wood and the River Wear
Berlmont viaduct, Kepier Wood and the River Wear, Durham © 2017 David Simpson

Straying across the river from the Gilesgate area for a moment, we find Frankland Wood and further west Frankland Farm on the opposite river bank to Kepier and nearby the Brasside Ponds formed from the former clay pits of a neighbouring brickworks.

The Frankland area was the site of Frankland Park, an old deer park belonging to the Bishops of Durham. Today a large part of this area at the top of the hill, overlooking the valley, is occupied by the Newton Hall Housing Estate, one of the largest private housing estates in Europe. It takes its name from the original Newton Hall, a Georgian mansion demolished in 1926. It was once a home to William Russell of Brancepeth.

Sign Claypath, Durham
Sign Claypath, Durham © David Simpson 2021

Clayport and Walkergate

Returning to Claypath, the street terminates at Durham Market Place in the Walkergate area near the modern Gala Theatre and Millennium Square and adjacent to Millburngate Bridge.

Gala Theatre, Millennium Square, Durham
Gala Theatre, Millennium Square, Durham © David Simpson 2021

Millennium Square includes the Walkergate complex and Clayport Library which take their name from the nearby former medieval street of Walkergate and the site of the medieval Clayport Gate on the edge of the nearby Market Place.

Claypath was known in times past as ‘Clay Peth’ meaning Clay Hill-Way. In the North East a ‘peth’ is often an ascending routeway, usually from a valley.

Clayport Gate, was a feature of Durham’s ancient medieval walled defences, where Claypath joined the Market Place, but the gate was removed in 1791. This gate, though not as imposing or as formidable as the Great North Gate was significant because it controlled the movement of people in and out of the city from the east. It guarded the only part of central Durham that could be approached without crossing the river. The gate had a chamber above it.

Claypath
Claypath © David Simpson 2022

Adjoining the gate were walls which extended south towards Elvet Bridge and north along the back of St Nicholas church towards the river. Behind St Nicholas church the city walls ran adjacent to a sixteenth century house called New Place or New Palace which lay somewhere behind the Town Hall in the market place.

The Palace was a town house belonging to the Neville family of Raby Castle and Brancepeth Castle who were the most powerful barons in the County of Durham. The powerful Nevilles also had a town house in Newcastle (in what is now the Neville Street and Westmorland Road area).

The palace of the Nevilles in Durham was confiscated following their part in the Rising of the North in 1569, which was a Catholic plot to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I. In more recent times the locality of the Neville palace in Durham was remembered in the name of the Palace Cinema which is now also long since gone.

Walkergate, Clayport Gate site, Durham
Walkergate, and plaque marking the site of the Clayport Gate site, Durham © David Simpson 2021

Carpets and Cloth Workers

From St Nicholas Church the old walls of Durham City ran south down to the River Wear where a ford once crossed to Framwellgate. Here, a road called Walkergate passed though the wall by a small gateway called the Walkergate Postern. Walkergate anciently meant the Cloth worker’s street and their trade seems to have traditionally existed in this area.

For a time in the early seventeenth century the old house called New Place was used as a woollen factory. Unfortunately the business failed, as did a second attempt to establish the trade a little later.

The Durham carpet factory as it appeared in the 1880s
The Durham carpet factory as it appeared in the 1880s

Eventually in 1814 a weaver form Merrington called Gilbert Henderson successfully met the challenge of establishing a business on the site and by the later nineteenth century Henderson’s Durham carpets were famed throughout the world.

Later, the carpet factory building was bought by Mr Hugh MacKay, the Henderson’s manager who started another successful Durham business. The factory moved later to Dragonville on the eastern outskirts of Gilesgate Moor but the business, sadly, is no more.

Durham City Origins | Durham Cathedral 

Durham Castle and The Baileys | Durham Market Place

Durham : Elvet 

Durham : Framwellgate to Finchale

Rainton, Sherburn and Pittington

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