The Merringtons: Westerton and Middlestone
The village of Westerton between Kirk Merrington and Spennymoor was one of three villages known as Merrington in times past. It is best known as the site of an eighteenth century observatory, sometimes known as Wright’s Folly.
The observatory was named from Thomas Wright (1711-1786) the famed astronomer of Byers Green (see Spennymoor) who began the construction of the observatory on this prominent hilltop as a project following his retirement.
It was first planned around 1744 but sadly it was not completed until after his death in 1786. The observatory subsequently came to be known as Wright’s Folly and still stands today on the village green of Westerton, looking like some kind of medieval tower house.
Westerton the ‘westernmost settlement’ of the three Merringtons was also called West Merrington in historic times. Middlestone, its neighbour to the east, was called Middle Merrington and the next village to the east is Kirk Merrington ‘the Merrington with the church’ also known in times past as Great Merrington or East Merrington.
Middlestone village should not be confused with Middlestone Moor, a former colliery village to the north that was absorbed by the town of Spennymoor.
Kirk Merrington church on its prominent hill top is visible for miles around but the churchyard wall and nearby houses block much of the expected view of the surrounding area that you might hope to find from the church itself. However, a short walk a quarter of a mile along the road to the east, in the direction of Ferryhill, offers a rare, almost panoramic view of County Durham.
This extraordinary, and on sunny days, glorious view includes Penshaw Monument, Durham Cathedral, parts of Gateshead and Newcastle, Brancepeth Castle and Brancepeth church. You can also see the nearby town of Spennymoor including its town hall and its two Victorian churches. You can see the Burnhope TV mast and villages such as Burnhope, Witton Gilbert and Brandon and to the north west we see the Pennine hills. All of this is just looking north.
To the immediate west we see the church of Kirk Merrington and then to the south west the Pennines towards Teesdale and the Yorkshire Dales. To the south we see the factories of Newton Aycliffe and the broad beautiful Vale of the River Tees dominating much of this view. The North York Moors and Cleveland Hills provide the backdrop on the horizon, including a view of the prominent rose-thorn-shaped hill of Roseberry Topping.
To the south east we see the distinct cooling towers of the distant chemical works of Billingham and then further south east still the cliffs of Saltburn and the Cleveland coast. We also see the distant Wilton chemical works near the mouth of the Tees. Only to the east does the treeline of the rising hill towards Ferryhill obscure the view.
Kirk Merrington church is dedicated to St John the Evangelist and dated from Norman times but the original church was dismantled and replaced by the present Victorian copy in 1850.
In 1143 the original building witnessed an unusual siege involving William Cumin, a notorious usurper Bishop of Durham. Cumin, encouraged by King David of Scotland, seized the bishopric of Durham and proclaimed himself Prince Bishop before the appointment of the newly elected bishop, William of St Barbara. This was during a period of anarchy in which King Stephen and Matilda were battling it out for control of the English Crown. King David, who coveted control in the old Kingdom of Northumbria wanted Cumin to act in his interests. At this time David was in virtual control of the land north of the Tyne, where his son David was the Earl of Northumberland.
Cumin recognised the commanding position of Kirk Merrington and seized the church which he began to convert into a castle, constructing a defensive fosse around it. Such action in a holy place was seen as an extreme act of sacrilege and Cumin and his band of retainers came under siege from three powerful barons of Durham – Roger Conyers, Bertram Bulmer and Gaufred Escolland. A battle ensued in which the barons besieged this would-be fortress with firebrands and eventually ousted Cumin and his men, who escaped from the site. It was said that two of Cumin’s men were driven insane in the days following the siege, a result of desecrating such a holy spot.
The meaning of the name Merrington is uncertain but is thought to have been a major medieval estate – perhaps called Merringtonshire – with roots going back to Anglo-Saxon or perhaps Celtic tribal times. One theory is that the first part of the name comes from an old word ‘maering’ meaning conspicuous, so Merrington would be ‘the conspicuous place’.
Windlestone and the Eden family
Just south off the A689 south of the Merringtons towards Rushyford is Windlestone Hall with grounds stretching south towards Woodham and Newton Aycliffe. The name is first recorded in the late twelfth century as Windlesden and was either the hill (dun) or valley (dene) belonging to someone called Windel. Part of the land here later belonged to the Prioress of Neasham Abbey near Darlington and other owners in the past have included the Ogles and Lumleys.
The Eden family became the owners of Windlestone during the reign of Elizabeth I and gradually took possession of much of the neighbouring land. They also owned land at West Auckland, so in 1565 a Robert Eden was styled ‘of Windlestone and West Auckland’.
The family supported the Royalist cause during the Civil War of the 1640s. In the later 1600s and early 1700s a Sir Robert Eden was elected an MP for County Durham on six occasions. His son, Sir John Eden, also ventured into politics and was elected in 1713, 1714 and 1722. On one occasion, during a parliamentary debate on equalising the land tax Sir John produced a loaf of bread and some clogs and proclaimed:
“when the south eats and wears
what we do in the north,
then mak us like and like”
Sir John Eden’s grandsons included Sir Robert Eden (1741-1784) who became the last Royal Governor of Maryland (1769-1776) in the United States and William Eden, the first Lord Auckland (1745-1814), a noted politician and diplomat.
The best-known member of the family was, however, Sir Anthony Eden (died 1977), born at Windlestone in 1897, who was the Prime Minister of Great Britain from 1955 to 1957. Sir Anthony, who was titled First Earl of Avon and Fifth Baronet Maryland was simply Captain Eden when he ventured into politics as a Conservative candidate for Spennymoor in 1922.
He was encouraged and supported by a local coal owner, the seventh Marquess of Londonderry. Eden was not successful but the following year he stood for Warwick and Leamington and served as MP for that constituency up until his resignation in 1957.
Eden’s political career rapidly progressed, He served in cabinet roles from the 1930s and during the Second World War, was Secretary of State for War in 1940 and Leader of the Commons and Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs throughout much of the remaining war years.
He became Deputy Prime Minister to Sir Winston Churchill from 1951 to 1955 and succeeded him in April of that year. Eden’s time as Prime Minister was short-lived and the damage to his reputation and his judgement during the Suez Crisis of 1956 forced his resignation in early January of the following year. He holds the legacy of being remembered as one of the least successful Prime Ministers.
Windlestone Hall is also associated with Sir Timothy Eden, Sir Anthony’s brother, who was the author of a charming and concise, two-volume popular history of Durham, published in the 1950s.
The hall itself was constructed in 1834 for Sir Robert Johnson Eden, reputedly by the Durham architect, Ignatius Bonomi. The house and its grounds were used as a prisoner of par camp during the Second World War and this perhaps protected the house from bombing.
From 1957 to 2006 Windlestone Hall served as a residential special school owned by Durham County Council. The council sold the hall and its estate to a private investor in 2011. The investor, William Davenport, bought the hall for just under quarter of a million pounds then put it up for sale in 2015 for £2.5 million. However it was discovered that the investor had forged documents during the purchase from the council and he was imprisoned in 2016 for six years. The hall was subsequently sold to a new owner, legally, in July 2017.
Rushyford is a small village on a roundabout on the Great North Road (A167) to the north of Newton Aycliffe and links the old road to its modern counterpart, the A1 (M) motorway, at Bradbury to the east.
The Eden connection continues at Rushyford, as it is the home to the very large, former seventeenth century coaching inn and posting house called the Eden Arms, which is now a hotel. Rushyford was once part of Windlestone township and belonged to the Edens. The channel of the Rushyford Beck, a tributary of the River Skerne can be seen near the hotel and passes beneath the road. In times distant the Great North Road crossed this stream by a ford which was seemingly overgrown with rushes. Rushyford is first mentioned as early as 1242.
In times past the Great North Road was often the haunt of highwaymen and robbers and the problem seemingly went back to medieval times. In 1317 the newly appointed Prince Bishop of Durham, Lewis Beamont (1317-1333) was on his way north when he was attacked and kidnapped at Rushyford along with his brother Henry Beaumont. A cardinal that accompanied the bishop who was also robbed was allowed to continue onward to Durham. The troop of robber-horsemen who carried out the kidnap was led by two barons from Northumberland who had become lawless freebooters.
The culprits, Gilbert De Middleton and Walter De Selby imprisoned the bishop and his brother at Mitford Castle near Morpeth and demanded a payment for ransom. The church of Durham paid up and secured the bishop’s release. Middleton was later captured, then hung drawn and quartered. The castle at Mitford was left to the mercy of raiding Scots who attacked it the following year.
Chilton or at least the Chilton we know today is on the Great North Road (A167) just north of Rushyford on the way to Ferryhill. In fact this Chilton is a former mining village which was originally called Chilton Buildings. The local mines here were Windlestone Colliery, where Chilton Primary School and its playing fields now stand and Chilton Colliery itself, where we now find the Chilton Industrial Estate just across the A167 to the north west.
The Chilton of more historic times consisted of two places called Great Chilton and Little Chilton which can still be seen to the north east. Great Chilton is an isolated farming settlement in the fields to the east of Chilton and is a settlement consisting of ‘Great Chilton Farm Cottages’. It features narrow country lanes bordered by high stone walls.
Historically Great Chilton belonged in medieval times to the Herons, then later to the Bowes family of Dalden, then the Blakistons and later the Halls of Newsham. An old hall amongst the farmhouses at Great Chilton stands on the site of the earlier manor house but was rebuilt in the sixteenth century with restructuring in later eras.
Great and Little Chilton are first distinguished in historical records in the 1350s when they are respectively called ‘Chilton Magna’ and ‘Chilton Parva’. In earlier times, with records going back to 1090, the area was simply called Chilton and derives from the word ‘child’. It perhaps belonged to a young knight, but more likely was an estate from which the revenue supported the education of a young noble or young monk. Little Chilton is a farm to the north and is said to have once belonged to the De La Pole family in medieval times.
Ferryhill Station and The Carrs
Little Chilton is situated close to the most southerly parts of Ferryhill called Feryhill Station and Chilton Lane which developed alongside the East Coast Main Line in Victorian times. The actual Ferryhill station, on this line, opened to freight in 1834 and then to passengers in 1840. It closed in 1967 and was subsequently demolished following a fire of 1969.
The railway village of Ferryhill Station grew up around the station at a place called Rudd Hill and was once quite separate to the village of Ferryhill, to the north west, though the two places virtually merge today.
Ferryhill Station stands alongside a valley formed by the old, wooded, marshlands called ‘the Carrs’ which must have been lakes in the days before improvements to drainage. The historian Fordyce writing around 1857 calls this valley ‘the North Skerne’ and describes the Skerne’s source as being in the marsh between the woods of Ferryhill and Thrislington to the east. Today modern maps plot the upper course of the Skerne as being the stream which rises close to Hurworth Burn Reservoir near Trimdon, much further to the east, so it seems there are perhaps two branches of the upper Skerne.
The railway follows the course of this valley avoiding the hills to the west but the poor drainage of the valley would have created a challenge for the engineers who built the line. Whether this is the Skerne or not, a drainage channel stream along the eastern edge of the Carrs follows the valley to join the actual River Skerne near Bradbury to the south. Ultimately, the Skerne, which eventually passes through the town of Darlington, is a tributary of the River Tees.
In medieval times the church of Durham owned a wood-marsh, a swannery and a fish pond in this area as well as a court house and a chapel dedicated to St Ebbe and St Nicholas, so it was evidently a place of importance. A farm called Swan House once stood in the nearby Thrislington area and was perhaps the site of the swannery. The nearby village of Cornforth to the north means ‘Crane’s Ford’, from a water bird (perhaps a heron) and it seems that this village may also have a watery connection to the area through its name.
Several springs in the Ferryhill and neighbouring Thrislington area were marked on old maps and to the north the valley hosts the course of the Tursdale Beck, a tributary of the Croxdale Beck that flows into the Wear. The valley at Ferryhill can therefore be said to host tributaries of both the Tees and the Wear almost linking the two rivers together. Additional lakes were created by the quarrying of magnesian limestone over the years.
From all the mentions of water it might be supposed that Ferryhill offered some kind of ferry service across the marshland of the neighbouring carrs. In fact in early times Ferryhill was simply known as Ferry and the earliest recorded spelling ‘Feregenne’ in the late tenth century points to an Anglo-Saxon word ‘fergen’ (the ‘g’ was pronounced like a ‘y’) which simply means ‘hill’ to which, after its original meaning was later forgotten, the word ‘hill’ was added.
The old village of Ferry, now Ferryhill does indeed stand on a hill top and consisted of a long broad village green bordered by two rows of houses that is so typical of older Durham villages. The Ferryhill of times past was once noted for its great panoramic views from the hill top and there is still a good view looking north from the end of a narrow lane almost opposite the old manor house.
Market Street and the facing part of North Street which run parallel to each other mark the extent of the original village of Ferryhill. Opposite Manor Court at what was once the east end of the old village is Ferryhill’s former manor house of the seventeenth century and now a hotel. There are some other older buildings along the two streets that date to the eighteenth century but most have been altered and have more of a small-town main street appearance.
Of course Ferryhill is a small town and has been regarded as such since the nineteenth century. It has a town council and its own town hall which is a charming building at the centre of the town dating from 1867, with a prominent clock that makes a pleasant Westminster chime on the hour.
The town hall occupies part of what was once the village green but the only hint of a green today is a tiny, walled war memorial garden just outside the front door. Much of the old village green was a thoroughfare by the nineteenth century and today most of it is now occupied by a car park that is also utilised by the stalls of Ferryhill’s Friday market.
On the eastern edge of Ferryhill is an area called Cleves Cross. Here, near a bus stop on the road along the edge of present day Ferryhill is the stump of the medieval Cleves Cross itself.
Originally placed in a pile of limestone it is reputedly the site at which Hodge of Ferry captured and slayed a notorious brawn – the brawn of Brancepeth – a wild boar that terrorised the County Durham countryside. The brawn story may have been embelished by the famed Durham historian, Robert Surtees who lived at Mainsforth just east of Ferryhill. Surtees was the first to record the story.
Cleves Cross is more likely a medieval boundary marker of some kind or of some religious significance and although what remains is unremarkable to look at, is certainly intriguing. The Cleves Cross name perhaps derives from ‘cliff’ or ‘cleave’ and the view here (from a gap in the hedgerow) looks out towards the sudden cleft of the valley of ‘The Carrs’ (or North Skerne) to the east, where we can see the dolomite (magnesian limestone) quarry works of Thrislington to the east, the Cleveland Hills to the south and to the north Quarrington Hill and Penshaw Monument.
Mining at Ferryhill
The Collieries of Ferryhill were situated at Mainsforth to the east and at East Howle along the road north from Cleves Cross. Mainsforth Colliery operated from 1873 to 1968 and its owners included the Mainsforth Coal Company, the Carlton Iron Company and Dorman Long. East Howle Colliery operated from 1872 to 1905 and its owners also included the Carlton Iron Company.
Ferryhill’s most recent and best known colliery was the Dean and Chapter Colliery named from being on lands belonging to Durham Cathedral which were worked from 1905 to 1966. The colliery was initially owned by Bolckow and Vaughan, later by Dorman Long and then in 1947 along with all other British collieries was nationalised and came under the ownership of the National Coal Board.
There were never any major disasters at the Dean and Chapter Colliery as there were at many other collieries throughout the region but it still managed to claim the lives of 177 men during its 61 year working life. The colliery site is now marked by the Dean and Chapter Industrial Estate on the north side of Ferryhill.
Brass Farm Murders
In the open countryside between Ferryhill’s Dean and Chapter Industrial Estate and Spennymoor’s Merrington Lane Industrial Estate to the west, is High Hill House Farm, the scene of a famous seventeenth century murder. Back in those days the farm was called Brass Farm from the family that owned it and it was members of this family who were the victims of a particularly violent and gruesome murder.
The intended victim was possibly Jane Brass aged about 20, who was seemingly very beautiful and attracted much attention from the lads in the neighbourhood. One such lad seems to have been a farm hand, Andrew Mills, who was Jane’s age but perhaps had the mental age of a younger boy, as he had been a close play-friend of Jane’s younger, 10-year-old sister, Elizabeth.
In January 1683 while the parents of the household were away, events unknown unfolded, that culminated in Mills chasing Jane and her brother John who both took refuge in her room and bolted the door. Mills broke the door with an axe, breaking Jane’s arm in the process and then, gaining access, grappled with the 17-year-old brother, striking him with an axe on the head, fracturing his skull, then cutting his throat before killing Jane in a similar fashion.
According to Mills’ account, little Elizabeth was screaming and attempted to spare her own life by offering Mills food and toys to appease him. It worked at first but as he departed, leaving her alive he claimed to hear the voices of demons commanding him to kill her too and unfortunately she too, would lose her life.
Mills initially pleaded his innocence but subsequently confessed and was executed at Dryburn near Durham in August 1683. His tarred body was then gibbeted – hung in a cage and left to rot – about a mile north of Ferryhill within sight of the murders. The victims were buried in the churchyard at Kirk Merrington where for some reason, shortly afterward, the word ‘murdered’ describing the nature of their deaths, was scratched off the tombstone and replaced with the word ‘executed’.