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.
A little further up, at the top of Gilesgate is the village-like Gilesgate Green, known locally as ‘the Duckpond’ though there hasn’t been a pond here since the 19th century.
Further to the east, Gilesgate splits into two parts, namely the Sunderland Road and the Sherburn Road, both following historic routes. At the ‘road ends’ somewhere in the angle between the two roads once stood a reputedly ancient site called 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.
St Giles Church is set back from the street of Gilesgate with views from its graveyard of 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.
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, one William Cumin, a usurper bishop who falsely appointed himself Prince Bishop of Durham with the encouragement of King David of Scotland.
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.
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.
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.
The supporters of William St Barbara also built a castle at Thornley during this period. This was a period that might well be described as County Durham’s very own civil war. 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.
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.
The destruction of the hospital of St Giles by William Cumin’s men resulted in the relocation of the hospital by Bishop Pudsey to a new site a little further to the north by the River Wear at Kepier.
Kepier is not the only former medieval hospital in the area. In between Gilesgate and Kepier there is also another old hospital called the Chapel of St Mary Magdalene. It dates from 1451 and is now a protected ruin close to the A690 Sunderland to Durham dual carriageway road.
St Mary Magdalene lies close to a hotel that occupies the original Durham railway station of 1844. The station was the western terminus of a railway line which more or less followed the course of the A690. Heading down towards the river from here, the other hospital, Kepier Hospital remains as part of a farm and includes a vaulted arch gateway with rooms above.
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 with thongs. Naturally Kepier was important for its hospitality and in 1298 King Edward I was among those entertained here.
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 severely burned 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 ’The Apostle of the North’ who established the Kepier Grammar School at Houghton-le-Spring.
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.
A mile or so to the east of Kepier Hospital, the River Wear forms a steep gorge which is occupied on the south bank by Kepier Wood. This 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.
Some of the stone also came from the area now occupied by Quarryheads Lane a little nearer to the cathedral. It is likely that the stone from Kepier was ferried upstream for the construction of the great church.
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.
This 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 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. To the north east of the housing estate is H.M.P Frankland, Durham City’s second prison.
Claypath – site of the Clayport Gate
From the Sands a road called Providence Row leads up a bank to adjoin the ancient street of Claypath known in times past as ‘Clay Peth’ meaning Clay Hill. To the east Claypath becomes Gilesgate with their boundaries marked by a ‘vennel’ (vennel is the Durham word for an alleyway) called Tinkler’s Lane. To the west Claypath formerly joined the market place near St Nicholas Church but was cut off by modern road developments in the 1960s and 70s.
Close to here once stood the Clayport Gate, a feature of Durham’s ancient walled medieval defences that was removed in 1791. This was of importance 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 was of a ‘good size’ with a chamber above it.
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 16th 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 palace was confiscated from the Nevilles following their part in the Rising of the North in 1569, a Catholic plot to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I. In more recent times the locality of the Neville palace was remembered in the name of the Palace Cinema now also long since gone.
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.
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 is no more.