Roman and Saxon Seaham
Seaham, as distinct from the 19th century town of Seaham Harbour to its south dates back to Anglo-Saxon times and is the most north-easterly place (by definition of modern boundaries) in the County of Durham. Ryhope village across Ryhope Dene to the north is within the City of Sunderland, now a separate county.
Seaham simply means ‘homestead by the sea’ and its Anglo-Saxon credentials are confirmed by the lovely little cliff-top church of St Mary which has a nave dating back to the seventh century. It has been compared to the Anglo-Saxon church at Escomb near Bishop Auckland and like Escomb was possibly built using Roman stones.
A Roman signal station is thought to have stood hereabouts as one of a series along the Durham coast and Roman coins have been found in the vicinity that seem to support this view. In 1997 a cemetery was excavated close to the church which proved to be an Anglo-Saxon burial ground. In fact the first actual mention of Seaham was during the Anglo-Saxon era in 933AD when it was given to the Community of St Cuthbert at Chester-le-Steet only two years before that community moved to Durham.
The village of Seaham itself has disappeared and lay just west of the church close to Seaham Hall. Both the hall and church are on the north side of the wooded Seaham Dene which separates this ancient part of Seaham from Seaham Harbour to the south.
Seaham Hall began life as Seaham House which now forms the western half of the hall and was owned by the Milbanke family. The hall was bought by the third Marquess of Londonderry in 1821 and extended in the 1850s. Today it is a beautiful luxury spa hotel. In 1815 the famed poet Lord Byron (1770-1845) was married at Seaham and resided at this hall, his bride being Lady Ann Isabella Milbanke whose father was the owner.
The marriage was not a happy one and the unfortunate bride was later ridiculed in one of Byron’s poems as ‘Lady Millpond’. The ever-gloomy Byron, who was one of the biggest celebrities of the era, does not always seem to have enjoyed his time at Seaham; in a letter to his friend Moore, he complained:
“Upon this dreary coast we have nothing but county meetings and shipwrecks; and I have this day dined upon fish, which probably dined upon the crews of several colliers lost in the late gales”.
About half a mile along the dene to the west of the hall, the coastal railway line crosses the road (called Lord Byrons Walk) at a level crossing. Alongside is a private white-coloured house dated ‘1875’ that was part of a former private railway station that once belonged to the Londonderrys.
Shipwrecks involving colliers may have been a very common feature of the North East coast in Bryron’s day but Seaham itself was then a bystander to the busy North East sea coal trade. Coal in the eastern part of Durham lay deep underground, beneath the rolling magnesian limestone escarpment and was yet to be exploited. In fact until a test sinking at Haswell in 1811 proved its existence, many actually doubted if there was any coal in East Durham at all.
The first deep mine beneath the limestone was opened at Hetton in 1821 and a ‘coal rush’ soon followed in East Durham that brought mines and industry and rapidly expanding villages. All of this was spurred on with the help of railways and the newly developed locomotives that facilitated the rapid and efficient movement of the ‘black gold’.
Coal was big business and made the coal owners – usually already wealthy landowners – ever more wealthy still. When the Marquess of Londonderry purchased the Seaham estate it had been his intention to exploit coal and develop a new coal port. To own coal mines was one thing; to own the port that controlled its shipment took things to a new level.
Londonderry had initially entered into negotiations with the Commissioners of the River Wear at Sunderland to obtain exclusive rights to the river for exporting coal there. He was refused. He angrily claimed that when his new town was built he would “see grass grow in the streets of Sunderland” but although he would successfully build his town at Seaham, Sunderland would also continue to prosper.
Nevertheless, the Marquess of Londonderry’s immense wealth continued to grow and his newly built palace-like hall of Wynyard (commenced near Stockton in 1822) was a testament to his power and riches.
It was in the early 1820s that the plans for developing the port and harbour at Seaham were drawn up by the engineer William Chapman (with some later input from the architect John Dobson) and the first stone was laid by Londonderry on November 28, 1828. A new industrial town was built around the harbour and by 1831 the first coal was being shipped. The collier brig that held the honour of shipping the first coal was called The Lord Seaham, named of course from Londonderry himself.
Coal was brought into the harbour from neighbouring collieries but in 1849 Seaham Colliery was opened (it was known locally as ‘the Knack’) by Londonderry. Disaster struck here on 25 October, 1871 when 26 miners were killed in an underground explosion and then on September 8, 1880 an even greater tragedy occurred, when again an explosion claimed lives, this time sending 164 men to their deaths along with 181 pit ponies.
Seaham colliery stood in the area to the west of Seaham railway station and a colliery village called New Seaham was built nearby (so that there were three Seahams) but New Seaham was later absorbed by the growth of the town of Seaham Harbour .
Further extensions were made to the harbour at Seaham Harbour in 1905 by the Sixth Marquess of Londonderry and two further collieries were opened. The first, to the south, was Dawdon Colliery in 1907 and the second, to the north, was Vane Tempest Colliery (from the Londonderry family surname) which opened in 1926.
Even for east Durham these were relative late comers in County Durham’s mining history and the three deep pits of Seaham were also amongst the last to close. Seaham closed in 1988, Dawdon in 1991 and Vane Tempest in 1993. Vane Tempest closed a year before the last colliery in the Durham Coalfield closed which was of course the Monkwearmouth Colliery at Sunderland, now the site of the Sunderland Stadium of Light.
In and around the harbour
The colliery closures at Seaham and elsewhere hit East Durham very hard and the miners’ strike of 1984-1985 which preceded them was a particularly painful point in Seaham’s history.
In recent decades Seaham has seen a revival. Smart-looking eating establishments and other pleasing shops now look out upon the sea front above the pleasant little beach just north of the harbour. Since 2014 the green above the beach has become the home to the famous, nearly 10 feet tall sculpture called ‘Tommy’, a photogenic figure made from corten steel by artist Ray Lonsdale commemorating the soldiers of the First World War.
Nearby, from an earlier time are the smart looking former Londonderry Offices of the late 1850s with a bronze statue of the Marquess of Londonderry outside.
This is the sixth marquess, the one who extended the harbour in the early 1900s. If you want to see a statue of the third marquess, the man who actually built the town and harbour, then head for Durham City where you’ll find him sitting on his horse in full military regalia in the city’s market square.
The harbour itself at Seaham consists of a north and south pier with the northern pier culminating in the pretty Seaham lighthouse. Enclosed within the harbour piers are further smaller piers or jetties; a marina (the North Dock); a larger southern dock (which was the part extended in the early 1900s) and there’s even a small beach. Close to the marina is a small lifeboat and heritage centre while overlooking the harbour is Seaham’s little shopping centre, named ‘Byron Place’ after that moody poet.
Blast Beach and Chemical Beach
Durham’s beautiful coast is only just being discovered by many people, even by those who live only a matter of miles from its shore. There is probably no other comparative length of coastline in England that has seen such a transformation in recent decades having suffered in times past from so much industrial blight and the dumping of industrial waste.
A major continuous clean-up operation called ‘Turning the Tide’ has brought the beauty of the coastline back to life for people to enjoy and for nature to once again thrive in a way that had not been seen for perhaps a century and a half. It is an important coastline too, designated a ‘Heritage Coast’ with a unique meeting of the sea and the magnesian limestone producing a landscape of both international and regional geological importance, that is also very significant for its wildlife.
The industrial waste-piled beaches and blighted cliffs of the Durham coast are now a thing of the past. Durham’s beaches stretch from Sunderland in the north to Hartlepool in the south and the entire length has seen a transformation.
Along its whole length the Durham coast features the cream-coloured, magnesian limestone cliffs that are the unique meeting place for this particular rock and the sea.
The coast is also characterised by rocky cliffs of modest height, by limestone sea stacks, occasional caves and every few miles or so, the mouths of little wooded ravines called ‘denes’ where streams cut their way through the limestone before entering the sea at Ryhope, Seaham, Dawdon, Hawthorn, Castle Eden and Crimdon. These were formed by huge torrents of water caused by melting glaciers at the end of the distant Ice Age.
A little south of the harbour at Seaham in the Dawdon area of Seaham and under the care of the National Trust are Chemical Beach and Blast Beach. Chemical Beach is the one north of the headland called Nose’s Point and its neighbour beyond Noses Point to the south is called Blast Beach. Both beaches are great places for a stroll and to explore. As their names suggest they both have an industrial past that stretched back into the nineteenth century but are now very pleasing to explore.
Yet, only as recently as 1992 so alien was the landscape of Blast Beach that it featured in the opening sequence to the movie Alien 3. In times past before the onset of industry all or a part of Blast Beach was known as Frenchmen’s Cove and was possibly connected with smuggling in some way. Illicit brandy was often dropped off – particularly in the 18th century – at particular points around the English coast by French ships as part of the smuggling trade and it is possible that this was one such location.
At Nose’s Point once stood the Seaham Iron Works in the 19th century which included blast furnaces built in 1862. The slag from the furnaces often ended up on the nearby beaches and it was these furnaces that apparently gave their name to Blast Beach just to the south of Nose’s Point.
Between 1907 and 1991 Dawdon Colliery operated in this area but the iron works had already ceased to be when the colliery opened. Dawdon colliery was located roughly where we now find Seaham’s Spectrum Business Park close to the sea. Coal mining waste or slag from Dawdon Colliery was dumped directly into the sea over Noses Point using a conveyor. Much waste from this and other industries was washed out and then back onto shore accumulating on the beach to a depth of several feet.
To the north of Nose’s Point where we now find the large white warehouses of the Seaham Harbour Dock Company and other industries was once located a 19th century chemical works and a bottle works nearer to the harbour to its north. The site of the chemical works explains the name of the nearby Chemical Beach. The works was established in the late 1860s but did not survive into the twentieth century.
Just to their north the Seaham Glass Works were again roughly within the area occupied by the white warehouse buildings of today. The glass works was founded by John Candlish in 1853 and it later merged with the adjoining Londonderry Glassworks on its south side. The works was, until 1921, the largest glass bottle works in Britain. Seaham was an ideal location for such an industry with sand and coal in such plentiful supply.
Bottles were shipped to London and Europe from here and much glass waste of several differing colours was thrown into the sea and after decades enduring the constant weathering work of waves the glass waste is regularly washed ashore in jewel-like beads of different sizes and colours, some of which are used by local jewellery designers.
On November 17, 1962 Chemical Beach was the scene of the culmination of a tragedy involving a Seaham lifeboat called The George Elmy. The boat and its five-man crew was called out in very stormy seas just after 4pm that evening to rescue the crew of a fishing coble.
The coble was eventually reached and four men and a boy were rescued, however at twenty past five the lifeboat capsized after it was struck by a ferocious wave. It was swept ashore on Chemical Beach and only one man had survived, a fisherman from the coble who had clung to the underside of the boat.
Warden Law and Salters Lane
The busy A19 marks the western edge of Seaham. To the west is hilly open country with a few scattered farms and no towns or villages until you reach Houghton-le-Spring and Hetton-le-Hole about three miles to the west. The highest hill in the neighbourhood is Warden Law, where supposedly in 995 AD the wandering carriers of St Cuthbert’s coffin came to rest before they were guided in a vision to the saint’s final resting place at Durham.
Perhaps the monks took the route of Salters Lane, the name of an old road that runs north to south through this area. Called Hangman’s Lane north of Warden Law, Salters Lane stretches southward and can be traced through the outskirts of South Hetton, to Haswell (six miles east of Durham), through Shotton Colliery and then on to Wingate. Here, even on old maps its course becomes unclear but a mile and half to the east of Wingate Salters Lane (or perhaps a different Salters Lane) can be traced south through the Trimdons, Fishburn all the way down into the village of Sedgefield.
Salters Lane is a name that also crops in Stockton and Darlington but these are probably quite different lanes. The salt trade was an important industry on the coast in times past and is an industry that goes back to medieval times. Places like South Shields, Sunderland and Greatham near Hartlepool were all important salt making centres at one time or another. Salters Lane would have been a route used by salt traders as it was once a highly sort after commodity, particularly important for the preservation of meat for consumption in the winter months.
Seaham is home to three wooded denes called Seaham Dene, Dawden Dene and Hazel Dene. Seaham Dene, near Seaham Hall and church is the most northerly of the denes and is formed by the Seaton Burn.
The burn is named from Seaton, a little village just across the A19 to the west. Seaham dene forms part of Seaham’s town park. This dene also has branches once named Scawpie Dene and Ice House Dene.
Seaham’s central dene is Dawdon Dene (formed by the merger of the Dalton and Murton Denes to its west). Dawdon dene meets the sea near Featherbed Rocks just north of the harbour. The name Dawdon was historically Dawden and seems to have arisen from confusion with or from a shortened form of Dalton Dene.
In terms of place-names it’s all about denes and dales here. Dalton-le-Dale is a quiet little village with a handful of old houses and a few modern homes its attraction being its secluded wooded setting and convenient access to the A19.
Dalton means ‘dale settlement’ (a place in a valley) but ‘le-dale’ was added by Norman French administrators to distinguish it from another Dalton within the realm of the Prince Bishops called Dalton Piercy near Hartlepool (named from the originally French Percy family). Dalton-le-Dale was also called ‘Dalton in Valle’ and ‘Dalton in le Dale’ in medieval times and in even later times as ‘Dawton in le Hole’ around 1609.
The little church at Dalton next to the dene is dedicated to St Andrew and dates to at least 1154 but possibly stands on the site of an earlier Anglo-Saxon building. Dalton (which the Venerable Bede called Daldun) was mentioned in Anglo-Saxon times when it was given to the monastery at Monkwearmouth in the early 8th century by a man called Witmer.
It is known that in 918 AD land between the Eden Burn (Castle Eden) and the River Wear was seized by a Viking called Olaf Ball as a gift from Ragnald, the king of Dublin and York. Dalton was presumably part of this land as it was given back to the Monkwearmouth monastery (as part of the extensive South Wearmouth estate) by King Athelstan of England in 934.
Further down the dene from Dalton-le-Dale are the remains of a medieval fortified tower called Dalden Tower – its name being yet another variation in the spellings of Dalton. This was part of a medieval hall that was the seat of the Escolland family though they later took the surname ‘De Dalton’. Their house was crenellated (fortified as a castle) during the reign of Edward II by Sir Jordan de Dalton and included a bailey.
Later, the little castle came into the hands of the Bowes family through marriage. The alabaster tomb of Sir William Bowes who married the heir of Dalton can be seen in St Andrew’s church in Dalton-le-Dale. For a time the Bowes family came to favour Dalden Tower to their residence at Streatlam near Barnard Castle.
Also owning the castle at Hylton, the Bowes family had considerable influence in the affairs and industrial activity at Sunderland particularly in relation to the making of salt. In the sixteenth century Dalton passed to the Collingwoods, again through marriage and then in the early 1800s it was acquired by the Londonderry family.
In the seventeenth century a new ‘Daldon Hall’ was built that later came to be called Dawden Hall. It superseded the earlier medieval hall and may have plundered it for building material. However this later hall was demolished in 1960 and today only the ruinous remains of the earlier medieval tower can be seen.
The most southerly of Seaham’s three denes is Hazel Dene which meets the coast near Blast Beach. Inland it gives its name to Cold Hesledon, the site of a deserted medieval village. The term ‘cold’ in old place names usually refers to an abandoned place while Hesledon literally means ‘Dene where hazel trees grow’.
There are traces of the deserted village near Cold Hesledon West Farm. The main feature of interest here is however a Gothic-style former Victorian water pumping to the north. It once belonged to the Sunderland and South Shields Water Company.
Across the busy A 19 just west of Cold Hesledon is the Dalton Park retail outlet park which now includes a cinema as well as a selection of high street shops. Nearby is the substantial former mining village of Murton.
The name Murton means ‘Moor Farm’ and was first recorded in 1200, as ‘Morton’. Around 1277 it was called ‘Morton Daudre’ from the D’Audrey family who then owned the manor. It first occurs as Murton in the 1360s with the new spelling apparently due to the influence of the local ‘Northumbrian’ dialect – Northumbrian in its broadest geographical sense.
Later owners of Murton were the Lumleys but in the 1600s it belonged to the Shipperdsons and was known during that century as ‘Murton-on-the-Moor’ or ‘Murton-le-Whins’. It was later called ‘Murton-in-the-Whins’ during the early 19th century though the new mining village was called Murton Colliery.
The tiny core of the original agricultural village of Murton lies towards the west of the present village and can be seen around the Village Inn. It is a reminder of what much of once sleepy East Durham must have looked like before the colonisation of mining activity from the third decade of the nineteenth century onward.
The old farming village was initially separate from the colliery village to the west but now it is all one, though most of the original houses and terraces of the colliery village have gone, replaced by later streets and houses as is typical with most County Durham pit villages.
Murton Colliery, also known as Dalton Winning Colliery, was opened in 1838 and according to Whellan’s 1894 Directory of Durham ‘the winning’ of this colliery was one of the most difficult and expensive undertakings of the kind on record.
In the 19th century Murton’s mine had the usual influx of miners from neighbouring parts of the region as well as men from Ireland but Murton was unusal for being home to a significant influx of miners from the far south west, from Devon and Cornwall.
Murton Colliery continued to be a major mine in the County Durham coalfield during the twentieth century, taking on miners from neighbouring South Hetton when that mine closed in 1982. Murton was one of the small group of Durham Collieries to survive into the 1990s and finally closed on November 29, 1991.
Hawthorn Village, Dene and Hive
Hawthorn is an attractive little village near Hawthorn Dene, half way between Seaham and Easington. Although there are new houses surrounding the historic core, that core is a shrunken medieval village and traces of medieval tofts associated with the abandoned parts of the medieval settlement have been found.
Holders of the manor of Hawthorn in early times included the Lumleys, Herringtons, and Merleys and later, the Menvilles, Claxtons and Radcliffes. Hawthorn village and its dene were barely touched by industrial activities even during East Durham’s mining heyday and were something of a rural oasis.
The deeply-wooded Hawthorn Dene formed by the Hawthorn Burn meets the sea at a pretty little bay called Hawthorn Hive (or formerly ‘hythe’) where it is now part of the coastal land owned by the National Trust. The hive is situated south of Blast Beach from which it is separated by Chourdon Point with Hive Point to the south.
Hawthorn Hive was overlooked by a tower house called Hawthorn Tower, a house built by John Dobson for Major George Anderson of Newcastle in 1821 but the house was mostly demolished around 1969 and there are now no traces.
Anderson witnessed tragic events immediately offshore from Hawthorn Hive on November 5th 1824 when nearly fifty vessels perished here in severe storms along with their crews. One ship called Dido was more fortunate, it became wrecked between two rocks about 30 yards from the shore. The crew of 14, unsuccessfully attempted to throw a rope ashore where Major Anderson and his servants were making every effort to come to their aid.
Eventually the major’s trusty Newfoundland dog, after much encouragement and after several attempts and in very dangerous conditions caught the rope and brought it ashore. The ship was then hauled to safety where the crew gratefully enjoyed the major’s hospitality. The following day the tearful wife of the ship’s captain visited to give her thanks and fell to her knees to kiss the major’s dog.
Major George Anderson, incidentally was also the owner of Anderson Place in Newcastle where he died in 1831. Following his death, Anderson Place and its estate were bought by the builder Richard Grainger and there John Dobson would build the streets of the ‘Grainger Town’ development which included the magnificent Grey Street.