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Another Twenty North East villages

DAVID SIMPSON explores another twenty villages in the North East of England, stretching across the historic counties of Durham and Northumberland from the River Tees to the River Tweed. What’s your favourite North East village?

Thatched cottage, Etal village
Thatched cottage, Etal village, Northumberland Photo © David Simpson 2018

A few years ago we explored a selection of twenty villages of different kinds across the North East of England. You can read our blog on the original twenty featured villages here: twenty North East villages.

We weren’t necessarily claiming these were the most beautiful ones (though there were some strong candidates) or even saying they were the most interesting villages. We did find that there are a great variety of North East villages and that they can be found in some interesting locations, sometimes completely swallowed up by neighbouring towns.

In this blog we thought we’d visit some more North East villages focusing on a further twenty places. It’s still not an exhaustive list of course, and it’s a relatively random selection but we’d like to know what’s your personal favourite?

Etal Post Office.
Etal village Post Office. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Norham

Northumberland

Norham is sitauted near the banks of the River Tweed in north Northumberland. It was once the capital of Norhamshire, an outlying part of the County Palatine of Durham and belonged to Durham’s Prince Bishops. In Anglo-Saxon times it had been one of the most important posthumous resting places for St Cuthbert, who was carried under the protection of the wandering monks who fled the Viking raids on Lindisfarne. The impressive Norham Castle was built by the Prince Bishop, Ranulf Flambard and strengthened as a formidable fortress by a successor called Bishop Pudsey. It played an important role in defending the north from the Scots. Norham is a place of notable history. It was here that the Scottish king John De Balliol paid homage to King Edward I of England.

Norham village and castle
Norham village and castle Photo © David Simpson 2018

Read about Norham-on-Tweed

Sadberge

Near Darlington

Here’s another place that was once a ‘capital’ in its own right. Situated just off the busy A66 between Stockton and Darlington Sadberge seems to have a Norse name meaning ‘flat-topped hill’, which describes its location overlooking the Tees Valley. Sadberge was the capital of the only Viking ‘wapentake’ in North East England, north of the River Tees. Wapentakes were assembly places where Vikings discussed the affairs of their local district – taking their weapons with them.

Comemorative stone Sadberge
Comemorative stone Sadberge Photo © David Simpson

The Wapentake of Sadberge included numerous parishes stretching from Hartlepool to Teesdale. After the Norman Conquest the district formed an outlying part of Northumberland but was acquired by Hugh Pudsey, Prince Bishop of Durham in 1189. Although it became part of Durham, Sadberge retained some independence, administered as an almost separate county until 1576. There were still references to ‘the Counties of Durham and Sadberge’ as late as the 19th century.  A plaque attached to a large  stone on the village green recalls the historic status of Sadberge.

Read about Sadberge

Whittingham

Northumberland

“Are you going to Whittingham Fair?
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.”

The familiar lyrics associated with the better-known  ‘Scarborough Fair’ song might well have originated from the almost identical verses of the Northumberland folk song: ‘Whittingham Fair’. Situated in the upper part of the River Aln Valley in what is known  as ‘Whittingham Vale’, the village of Whittingham was indeed once the site of a fair. The village is home to a medieval church and a defensive pele tower, though both were extensively restored and rebuilt by the Tyneside architect John Dobson in the 1840s.

Whittingham village
Whittingham village and tower. Photo: ©David Simpson 2018

Read about Whittingham, the Aln and Alnwick

Castle Eden

County Durham

Popular with commuters working on Tyneside, Wearside and Teesside due to its proximity to the A19, this village lies close to the new town of Peterlee and the beautiful wooded valley of Castle Eden Dene, a site of Special Scientific Interest. The village itself is pretty, yet tiny, with a charming eighteenth century church dedicated to St James. Associated outlying hamlets feature the Castle Eden Inn and a former brewery building with an attached stable block. There’s also a neat terrace of 1792 known as ‘The Factory’ that once formed part of a spinning mill. The ‘castle’ of Castle Eden is in fact an 18th century castellated mansion house built by the Newcastle architect William Newton for local industrialist Rowland Burdon.

The village, Castle Eden
The village, Castle Eden. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Read about Castle Eden

Corbridge

Northumberland

Often styled a ‘village’ Corbridge is in many respects a small town and one of the most historic places in the region. Gloriously situated in the Tyne valley and in the heart of the Roman Wall Country, Corbridge was once the site of a Roman town that was later, for a time, one of the capitals of the Kingdom of Northumbria. Village or not, it is indisputably a very charming place with lots of interesting stone buildings including a vicar’s pele and old houses such as Low Hall and Monksholme.

Corbridge scenes © David Simpson 2020

Read about Corbridge

Elsdon

Northumberland

Hae ye ivver been at Elsdon ?
The world’s unfinished neuk
It stands amang the hungry hills,
An’ wears a frozen leuk.

The old rhyme relating to the Redesdale village of Elsdon doesn’t exactly make Elsdon sound like an appealing prospect, but it no doubt dates from the distant days of  Border raids and reiving. In truth Eldson is a delightful village with an enormous village green, a friendly pub and charming church. A most interesting feature is the medieval fortified vicar’s pele designed to keep the local clergy protected during the Border troubles. The nearby gallows known as ‘Winter’s Gibbet’ serve to remind of darker days in history.

Vicar's Pele, Elsdon
The village of Elsdon in Redesdale showing the vicar’s pele Photo © David Simpson 2019

Read about Elsdon

Earsdon

North Tyneside

An attractive village of neat Georgian houses near Whitley Bay, Earsdon once belonged to Tynemouth Priory. The original medieval church in the village was replaced by the architects John and Benjamin Green in the 1830s. The churchyard includes a memorial to the 204 men and boys who lost their lives in the Hartley Colliery disaster of 1862.

Earsdon
Earsdon. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Read about Earsdon

Seaton Sluice

Northumberland

The picturesque little Northumberland coastal village of Seaton Sluice is situated on the Seaton Burn a little to the north of Whitley Bay. It was developed as a coastal coal port from the 1660s by members of the Delaval family who built sluice gates to control the level of water in their haven. In the 18th century a 900 feet long cut was created to improve access from the sea. An intriguing octagonal building of the 18th century once served as a customs house. It was perhaps the idea of the architect John Vanbrugh who built the nearby Seaton Delaval Hall.

Seaton Sluice
Seaton Sluice, showing the natural outlet to the left and new cut to the right. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Read about Seaton Sluice 

Cleadon

South Tyneside

Charles Dickens once stayed in Cleadon with his friend George Cooper Abbs. Abbs may have shared the story of a local groom jilted by his bride. The man had organised a pre-wedding party in his dining room. Heartbroken, he ordered that the room should be left as it was then laid out, for the rest of his days. It may have provided Dickens with inspiration for the Miss Haversham story in Great Expectations. A particularly interesting feature of the village is a castellated tower house known as Cleadon Tower, which dates back to the 1490s. Nearby towers of a quite different kind are a disused windmill and a waterworks tower that are landmarks for miles around.

Cleadon village
Cleadon village : Photo © David Simpson

Read about Cleadon

Romaldkirk

County Durham

A little bit controversial this one, because although it is administratively in County Durham and most definitely  in Teesdale Romaldkirk is actually south of the River Tees, so it was historically a Yorkshire village annexed by County Durham in 1974 during a local government shakeup. It’s a pretty place nevertheless, situated on the south side of the river about half way between the valleys of the River Lune and River Balder which both join the River Tees on the south bank. The village is named from its local church, dedicated to a Northumbrian saint called  Romald about whom very little is known.

Romaldkirk.
Romaldkirk. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Read about Romaldkirk

Ford and Etal

Northumberland

Two very pretty villages here but quite close together and its impossible to resist visiting one without seeing the other, along with the lovely Heatherslaw Mill that lies between the two. Ford and Etal come as a complete package and are a must for any visit to the far north of Northumberland. Ford features a medieval castle that was once the stronghold of the Heron family. However, the beautiful village of Ford that we see today was laid out by the Marchioness of Waterford in the 19th century.

Ford village main street
Ford village main street Photo © David Simpson 2018

Etal village to the north also has a medieval castle but is principally noted for its thatched cottages, which are an unusual feature for a Northumberland village. Most of the houses in the village date from the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Etal village
Etal village, Photo © David Simpson 2018

Read about Ford and Etal

Witton-le-Wear

County Durham

Situated more or less at the point where the ‘Wear Valley’ becomes Weardale, Witton-le-Wear is a pretty village of stone houses. It was part of the historic district of County Durham known as Aucklandshire. A notable building in the village is Witton Tower, a fortified tower house of medieval origin (it’s a private residence).  The tower should not be confused with the nearby Witton Castle which partly dates back to 1410. Close to Witton-le-Wear are the extensive wetlands of the Low Barnes nature reserve. Witton-le-Wear is quite separate from the neighbouring village of Witton Park which has important historic links to the Stockton and Darlington Railway.

Witton Castle.
Witton Castle. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Read about Witton-le-Wear

Alnmouth

Northumberland

In its quiet, splendid seaside setting at the mouth of the River Aln it is hard to imagine why the eighteenth century preacher, John Wesley, should have described Alnmouth as “a small sea port town famous for all kinds of wickedness.” It’s certainly a place of great beauty with a  lovely river mouth harbour, quaint main street and a beautiful beach to wander along. Our favourite fact about Alnmouth is that during the American War of Independence Alnmouth was fired at from offshore with cannon balls by the American privateer John Paul Jones.

Alnmouth.
Alnmouth. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Read about Alnmouth

Shincliffe

County Durham

Situated near the southern outskirts of Durham City, Shincliffe has an intriguing name that means ‘hill of the ghost or spectre’. A quiet little place of charming houses and a little village pub, Shincliffe belonged to the Priors of Durham Cathedral in medieval times. There was often rivalry between the bishops and priors of Durham and in 1300 it is recorded that the bishop’s men attacked the Prior on Shincliffe Bridge, which crosses the River Wear here.

Shincliffe
Shincliffe. © David Simpson

Read about Shincliffe and the Elvet area of Durham

Beadnell

Northumberland

Situated on the stupendous shore of the rocky Beadnell Bay, the name Beadnell derives from ‘Bede’s halh’, the spur of land belonging to Bede but probably not named from the famed venerable saint of that name. The main streets in Beadnell are the Wynding and the Haven and the main focal point of the village is the church dedicated to St Ebba.

Beadnell
Beadnell © David Simpson 2020

Read about Beadnell

Shotley Bridge

County Durham

A large and extensive ‘village’ – in truth much more of a town – on the banks of the River Derwent in County Durham. The old stone bridge links the county to Northumberland just across the river where there is a much smaller settlement simply called ‘Shotley’. Once a popular spa, Shotley Bridge has some interesting ‘Swiss-style’ houses associated with this heyday. The place also has strong links to the former iron industry of neighbouring Consett and from the late 1600s was associated with a sword making industry brought here by German artisans escaping religious persecution.

Cutlers hall Shotley Bridge
Cutlers hall Shotley Bridge. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Read about Shotley Bridge

Piercebridge

Darlington, County Durham

Situated at the point where the Roman road called Dere Street crossed the River Tees, most of the village is situated around a village green on the north (Durham) side of the river. To the rear of the houses on the east side of the green are the extensive remains of a Roman fort which guarded the river crossing. Part of the village on the Yorkshire side features the sadly recently closed George Hotel with its links to the famous ‘My Grandfather’s Clock’ song by Henry C Work.

Roman Piercebridge
Remains of the Roman fort at Piercebridge. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Read about Piercebridge

Boulmer

Northumberland

Once a focal point for Northumbrian and Scottish smugglers such as Blind Wull Bawmer o’ Jethart, Boulmer is a rugged coastal village that nestles above a beach.  The focal point for the village is the Fishing Boat Inn. Fishing nets and fishing boats all add to the serenity of the setting.

Boulmer
Boulmer © David Simpson 2020

Read about Boulmer

Tynemouth

Tynemouth, technically a town, is cherished and beloved as ‘the village’ by numerous visitors from Newcastle and big-town Tyneside. It certainly has something of a village charm about it in places and the focal point for its western end is ‘the green’. Of course Tynemouth is so easily accessible by Metro and the real draw is the splendid beach, overlooked by the magnificent setting of castle and priory on the deeply historic headland at the beautiful mouth of the Tyne.

The Green, Tynemouth
The Green, Tynemouth : David Simpson 2015

Read about Tynemouth

What’s your favourite North East village?

  • Do let us know in the comments below what your favourite village is and why. If you’re on Twitter why not tweet  your favourite village especially if you’ve got some great photos to show it off. Details below:

In our original feature on Twenty North East villages we featured the following villages:

  • Bamburgh
  • Norton
  • Craster
  • Brancepeth
  • Bellingham
  • Billingham
  • Wallsend Green
  • Holy Island Village
  • Whitburn
  • Blanchland
  • Sedgefield
  • Gainford
  • New York
  • West Auckland
  • Heighington
  • Beamish
  • Whickham
  • Hart
  • Staindrop
  • Backworth

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Twenty North East villages

DAVID SIMPSON explores twenty different villages across the region including some hidden away inside our North East towns.

The bridge at Blanchland
Blanchland Photo © David Simpson 2018

There are hundreds of fascinating and often beautiful villages of all kinds, scattered around the North East of England from the Tweed to the Tees Valley. Most people live in the cities and towns of course and there are some spectacular towns too, but we shouldn’t forget our villages. There are villages in every corner of our region, all the way from the upland country to the coast. They’re not just out in the country though, you’ll, even find some old villages hidden away within our towns and cities.

Piercebridge
Piercebridge village, on the Durham (Darlington) side of the Tees. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Old cottages, medieval churches, a village green and perhaps a duck pond are features often associated with older villages and of course for many the focal point is the village pub. Here we thought we’d pick out twenty unusual, interesting and sometimes surprising villages, some of which you may be familiar with and others which you may not know. We are not saying these are the best ones or even necessarily the twenty most interesting ones but they give some impression of the great variety of villages that we have across our region.

Bamburgh

Northumberland

Okay, there will be very few who haven’t heard of this one, but to some extent Bamburgh is a little overlooked. It’s overlooked by Bamburgh Castle and so spectacular is that castle that it’s easy to forget how  beautiful the little village is too. Lovely little shops, pubs, people playing cricket or flying kites on the huge green below the steep craggy whin stone rocks of the castle. Not to mention the beach and the view. Views everywhere. Bamburgh is simply Britain at its best.

Bamburgh Castle and village
Bamburgh Castle and village Photo © 2018 David Simpson

Read about Bamburgh

Norton-on-Tees

Teesside

Norton-on-Tees is a very substantial and beautiful village absorbed by neighbouring Stockton. It has a huge village green and a big duck pond. There are lots of old houses surrounding it and as if that wasn’t enough there’s Norton’s splendid Georgian High Street leading up to the green with its smart Georgian houses, pleasant shops and restaurants. Given its size and picturesque qualities Norton is surprisingly little known outside of Teesside. If it were part of London it would probably be rivalling the likes of Kew or Richmond and everyone would want to know about it. Oh and Norton also has a splendid Saxon church.

Norton High Street.
Norton High Street. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Read about Norton

Craster

Northumberland

The ‘crow chester’ of old is a fabulous fishing village. Here rugged whinstone rocks form cosy coastal cottages in this delightful place famed for its kippers. For those who don’t know, the kippers are smoked on oak chippings to give them their distinct traditional flavour.

Craster © David Simpson 2020

The big surprise at Craster is of course the neighbouring Dunstanburgh Castle – a magnificent and huge romantic ruin best approached by the walk from the village where visitors might follow in the footsteps of the legendary Sir Guy the Seeker.

Dunstanburgh Castle
Dunstanburgh Castle near Craster Photo © 2017 David Simpson

Read about the Craster area

Brancepeth

County Durham

Small, but with picturesque rows of houses in what what was once the estate village for Brancepeth Castle. There’s no pub or village green here, so this is a place for people who like their villages tiny, secluded and quiet, though there is a busy road that passes straight through. The great medieval castle is still there alongside a charming medieval church though the castle has seen much restoration.

Brancepeth village.
Brancepeth Village, the north side. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Read about Brancepeth

Bellingham

Northumberland

Bellingham, pronounced ‘Bellingum’ is the capital of North Tynedale in Northumberland and a great centre for exploring the area including the nearby Kielder Forest and reservoir. This is a relatively peaceful place with pleasant walks along the river. Nearby a walking route takes you to the lovely Hareshaw Linn waterfall. It’s so serene that it’s easy to forget that Bellingham was once entangled in the violence and bloodshed of the border wars in times gone by and was at the heart of ‘Border Reiver country’ with the dale being the lair of troublesome reivers like the Milburns, Robsons and Charltons of Tudor times.

Bellingham
Bellingham, North Tynedale Photo © 2015 David Simpson

Read about Bellingham

Billingham

Teesside

Yes, Billingham. People have preconceptions about certain places and when we think Billingham we inevitably think of the vast chemical works with cooling towers and clouds of steam. Billingham has much earlier origins though and on the hill top at Billingham Green we find a few (and there are admittedly only a few) old cottages of the original village of Billingham dating back to times long past. The biggest surprise here, however, is a Saxon church dating to around 1000D. It’s about a hundred years older than Durham Cathedral.

Old houses in the village, Billingham Green.
Old houses in the village, Billingham Green. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Near the edge of Billingham another little-known village is Cowpen Bewley near the estuarine industries of Teesside. Old cottages are set around a village green and you could easily be led to believe you were in an isolated rural spot miles away from any town or city if it were not for a sudden glimpse of the Middlesbrough Transporter Bridge in a gap between two cottages. It’s pronounced ‘Coopen’ by the way!

Ivy Cottage, Cowpen Bewley.
Cowpen Bewley. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Read about Billingham and Cowpen Bewley

Wallsend

North Tyneside

Another one of those surprising villages hidden away within a town. Think Wallsend and you think of shipyards on the Tyne or the nearby Roman fort at the end of Hadrian’s Wall. Further north from the river though we find the old village of Wallsend Green and there’s quite an extensive green with old houses plus the nearby Wallsend Hall, a mansion of the late Georgian era. Wallsend has two old churches of note but these were built at a distance from the village. Wallsend’s medieval church of Holy Cross fell out of use with the Wallsend natives who used the local school for marriages for many years. It was only when the Bishop of Durham pointed out that the school was not consecrated and that their marriages and baptisms were not valid that they hastily built a new church dedicated to St Peter to the south towards Willington Quay.

Wallsend Village
Wallsend Green. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Read about Wallsend

Holy Island Village

Northumberland

Holy Island Village on the island of Lindisfarne is something quite special, in fact ‘magical’ is perhaps the word. Charming houses and little shops with views of the rugged castle on Beblowe rock and the romantic ruins of Lindisfarne Priory. Given all the natural and historical charms of the island it’s easy to forget that it’s also the home to a rather picturesque little village too.

Holy Island Village
Holy Island Village : Photo © 2015 David Simpson

Read about Holy Island 

Whitburn

South Tyneside

Whitburn in South Tyneside close to the coast and near the northern fringe of Sunderland is a fabulous village with all kinds of interesting old buildings and the overall impression is delightful to the eye. The architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner described it as “uncommonly attractive” in his famous guide books to the Buildings of England.

Whitburn village scenes
Whitburn village scenes photos: Photo © David Simpson

Whitburn has a thirteenth century church, some wonderful Georgian and Victorian houses, a curious cottage of red brick, a beautiful village green and even a windmill complete with sails. There are also literary links to Lewis Carroll who had relatives that resided here. The nearby village of Cleadon is also rather attractive and has links to Charles Dickens.

Read about Whitburn

Blanchland

Northumberland

Blanchland is situated in the Pennine dale of the Derwent in the south western area of Northumberland and is just over the border from County Durham. It is a rather exceptional and beautiful village constructed within the ruins of a medieval monastery. In Georgian times the charitable trust of Lord Crewe, a Bishop of Durham used stones from the abbey of Blanchland to construct a model village and the result is simply sublime. Highlights of the village are the L-shaped piazza,  the old monastery gatehouse, the abbey church and the lovely Lord Crewe Arms. Picturesque, it is almost a Hollywood producer’s vision of what an old English village should look like but very rustic, elegant and real.

Blanchland
Blanchland. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Read about Blanchland

Sedgefield

Though it is arguably and technically a town, the large village green and Georgian cottages and village-type pubs that cluster around the green give Sedgefield an undoubtable village-like feel. There are some wonderful old Georgian houses and narrow lanes,  grander houses and interesting nooks clustered around the green. Our favourite story concerning Sedgefield concerns the ‘Pickled Parson’, a deceased vicar who was preserved in either salt or brandy by his good lady wife so she could avoid paying a particular tax.

Sedgefield
Sedgefield Photo © David Simpson 2018

Read about Sedgefield

Gainford

County Durham

Gainford is a very attractive former spa village near Darlington with a fine Jacobean hall. Situated on the River Tees its neighbours further downstream include High Coniscliffe, the ‘cliff of King Edwin’ and Piercebridge the site of a Roman fort and bridge that was once the home to a clock that inspired a famous song.

Gainford.
Gainford. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Read about Gainford

New York

North Tyneside

I love the name of this one. There’s a New York Post Office and a New York Convenience Store. Several of the old mining villages across the region have some fabulous names: Pity Me, Quebec, Toronto, Philadelphia, Coronation, No Place. Many are tight knit neighbourly friendly communities often with fabulous scenery right on their doorstep. I live in a former mining village, so I know this for a fact.

New York, North Tyneside
New York, North Tyneside. Photos © David Simpson 2018

Read about New York and North Tyneside

West Auckland

County Durham

Centred around a fine village green West Auckland is a former mining village that developed from an older village centre. Most people may know that West Auckland’s local football club won the world cup – twice. It’s commemorated by a sculpture at the centre of the green. There’s some interesting buildings of note here too. West Auckland’s Old Hall and the Manor House are both substantial buildings dating from the 1600s.

West Auckland Old Hall.
West Auckland Old Hall. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Read about West Auckland

Heighington

Near Darlington

Once the capital of a district called Heighingtonshire in south Durham, Heighington near Darlington is a rather lovely village with a broad undulating green, a medieval church and lots of old interesting houses.

Heighington
Heighington. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Read about Heighington

Beamish

County Durham

A small village, this is the original Beamish, near to the famous museum. We love the eye-catching figures on the Shepherd and Shepherdess pub and the former almshouses nearby. A fairly small village but still bigger than ‘Beamish Town’  that is found within the museum grounds.

Figures, Shepherd and Shepherdess Beamish village.
Figures, Shepherd and Shepherdess Beamish village. Photo © John Simpson

Read about Beamish

Whickham

Borough of Gateshead

Whickham village near Gateshead on Tyneside was at the heart of a major mining area from as early as the 1600s. The lovely stone houses of the 1700s around Church Chare, Front Street and Rectory Lane, are reminders of Whickham’s rural roots.

Whickham church
Whickham church. Photo © David Simpson

Read about Whickham

Hart

Situated on the magnesian limestone hills just outside Hartlepool with great views out to sea little Hart village was closely tied to Hartlepool and perhaps the capital of the ancient district called Hartness. There’s a beautiful little Saxon church, a windmill, an interesting couple of pubs and the scant remains of a medieval hall that belonged to the powerful De Brus (Bruce) family.

Hart village.
Hart village. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Read about villages near Hartlepool

Staindrop

A substantial old village and a place of significance in medieval times, being the estate village of Raby Castle, the ancient stronghold of the Nevilles that is just along the road. The church of St Mary at Staindrop (once dedicated to St Gregory) is a sizeable and impressive medieval edifice with a core dating back to before the Norman Conquest.

Staindrop. Photo © David Simpson 2018
Staindrop. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Read about Staindrop

Backworth

Backworth mining village was perhaps made famous by the fictional character ‘Geordie Broon of Backworth’. There are some interesting old houses in the village but perhaps the biggest surprise is the Miners’ Welfare building in a beautiful stately hall that was purchased by the local mining community in the 1930s.

Backworth Hall.
Backworth Hall. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Read about Backworth, North Tyneside

What’s your favourite North East village?

This is just a selection of North East villages and a bit of a random one at that. What’s your favourite village in the North East? How about Cambo or Lanchester, Norham on Tweed, Alnmouth, Elsdon, Ford and Etal or Longframlington? Maybe Castle Eden or Westoe, Rennington, Ellingham, Matfen, Shincliffe, Frosterley, Romaldkirk or perhaps the old village at Ponteland.

Let us know in the comments below what your favourite village is and why. If you’re on Twitter why not tweet  your favourite village especially if you’ve got some great photos to show it off. Tag us in on your tweet or visit our Facebook page. Details below:

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The ancient ‘broken’ counties of Tyne, Wear and Tees

Why is the Wear an appendage of the Tyne? Why is the ‘North Humber Land’ of Northumberland so far north of the Humber? Why is so much of the River Tees not even part of the ‘Tees Valley’?

In this blog, historian DAVID SIMPSON laments the loss of the straightforward, traditional, easy to understand historic counties of the North East and Yorkshire.

traditional counties
The flags of Northumberland, Durham and Yorkshire

Yorkshire, Durham and Northumberland are ancient counties with roots going back a thousand years or more but something changed in the 1970s that left communities confused and disembodied in a legacy that continues to this day. It was during that decade that those long-lived county regions were broken into little pieces, redefined for economic or political purposes and given artificial names that were in some cases little more than marketing brands.

Take Yorkshire for instance. It was recorded as ‘Eoferwicscire’ as far back as 1055, though its roots are much older than that. It developed from the Viking Kingdom of York and its three ancient ‘Ridings’. Indeed it was the Vikings who divided Yorkshire into the three parts called ‘Ridings’ (North, West and East) from the Norse word ‘thrithing’ or ‘þriðjungr’ meaning ‘third part’.

Despite this ancient division, the Vikings didn’t re-brand the three individual bits with cumbersome names. They kept things clear. Yorkshire or even just ‘York’ as it was often simply known remained intact and the ‘Ridings’ stayed in place right up until 1974.

It was in 1974 that London’s brutal battle-axe of bureaucratic boundary changes hit Yorkshire as it did many other places in Britain. A new county called ‘Humberside’ was hacked out of Yorkshire’s south eastern corner and it annexed rather a lot of Lincolnshire too. People from Hull, wherever they might venture, now had to justify that they were still in fact Yorkshiremen, maintaining their centuries old right.

In 1996 Humberside was of course ultimately abolished and quite rightly too. It was then that the East Riding of Yorkshire re-merged (now the only ‘official’ Riding) and although Hull’s separate city status was acknowledged, its place in Yorkshire is clear.

It was in 1974 that Cleveland was created too.

Now, as a name Cleveland was not without precedent. Even the Vikings knew of it, calling it ‘Cliffland’ in their sagas. As an ancient district it was part of Yorkshire and exclusively part of Yorkshire, that is to say a part of that giant historic county south of the Tees. This Cleveland – the real Cleveland – stretched as far west as the little town of Yarm, encompassed Middlesbrough (a monastic cell in medieval times) and stretched right down to the River Esk at Whitby taking in the Cleveland Hills and the beautiful Cleveland coast.

The Yorkshire town of Yarm lies within a loop of the River Tees
The Yorkshire town of Yarm lies within a loop of the River Tees. It was part of the Cleveland district of Yorkshire. It is part of Stockton-on-Tees Borough. Unlike Yarm, Stockton was historically a County Durham town. © David Simpson 2018

However, the new 1974 County of Cleveland was something quite different to the old Cleveland district of Yorkshire. The new Cleveland still included Middlesbrough and Yarm and some of the Cleveland coastal towns but this county of Cleveland was, in historic terms, an awful inaccuracy.

For a start, Hartlepool, the ancient sea port of County Durham was annexed to Cleveland’s expanded realm along with the historic Durham towns of Stockton and Billingham and pretty villages like Egglescliffe and Norton. Yet south of the Tees much of the real, historic Cleveland was not included in the new county. So, bizarrely, most of the Cleveland Hills and the village of Carlton-in-Cleveland were not included in the new County of Cleveland. Hilariously, to add to this confusion a County Durham village called Carlton near Stockton did become part of the new county, so that we now had a Carlton in Cleveland county (but not ‘in-Cleveland’) and a ‘Carlton-in-Cleveland’ that was not in Cleveland County!

The nonsense of ‘Cleveland the county’ eventually ended (as it did with Humberside) in 1996 after an existence of only 22 years but it was only to be replaced by a new kind of nonsense some twenty years later.

The so-called ‘Tees Valley Combined Authority’ (an awful mouthful it has to be said) began life as a ‘local enterprise partnership’ in 2011 but then became a combined authority in 2016. The new authority was more or less identical to the county of Cleveland, but now also included the historic County Durham town of Darlington which had long been the focal point for South Durham.

There was apparently much support for this new combined authority across that region with 65 per cent of people voting in its favour. In fact, on closer examination (according to Wikipedia) there were only over 1,900 responses to this question – that’s not very many when we consider the Tees Valley region has a population of 700,000.

The town of Barnard Castle remains in County Durham
The town of Barnard Castle stands on the banks of the Tees but remains in County Durham. ©David Simpson 2018

What makes the term ‘Tees Valley’ really confusing is its geographical scope. For example, you can walk along the south bank of the River Tees opposite Darlington Borough and you are firmly in Yorkshire but for some reason you’re definitely not in the ‘Tees Valley’. Similarly up in the Dales you find that Barnard Castle and the surrounding countryside of Teesdale isn’t part of the ‘Tees Valley’ either.*

‘Barney’ as it is known to locals is the capital of Teesdale, on the north bank of the river and still in County Durham as it has been for many centuries.

Then we have Hartlepool, an historic town with an extraordinary history that was once one of Britain’s major sea ports. Old Hartlepool is situated on a coastal headland on the North Sea coast. Hartlepool was never a port on the River Tees but today it is included as part of the Tees Valley.

The reality is of course that Tees Valley is an economic partnership and a rather nice marketing term for Teesside with Hartlepool and Darlington thrown in for good measure. It has no real historic meaning beyond that. If you think about it though, ‘Tees Valley’ has quite a nice ring to it and it is a much more pleasing name than the now deeply ingrained and for some reason widely accepted term ‘Tyne and Wear’ which the American writer Paul Theroux compared to ‘Time and Wear’ (as in sadly worn by time) but we’ll come to that ‘county’ in a moment.

North of the Tees (and yes we do mean the Tees) the name Northumberland (or in Latin style ‘Northumbria’) survived the Viking annexation of Yorkshire. It is a reminder that ‘Northumberland’ or ‘Northumbria’ was once the name for the whole of the North being the term for the ancient kingdom that encompassed everything English north of the Humber. During the Viking era the remaining Northumbrian rump north of the Tees split into two parts with the land between the Tyne and Tees ultimately becoming County Durham, while the term ‘Northumberland’ continued in use north of the Tyne and Derwent.

Durham developed as a kind of buffer state between Viking Yorkshire and the rest of Northumberland. Centred initially on Chester-le-Street (Conecaster) and then later Durham City it was focused on the revered shrine of St Cuthbert. ‘St Cuthbert’s Land’, the fledgling County of Durham was also called the ‘Haliwerfolc’ meaning land of the ‘Holy-man-people’. The ‘wer’ of this name means ‘man’ – the same word we find in ‘werewolf’ but in Durham’s case was perhaps a play on words because its heartland was focused on the Wear. The ‘Haliwerfolc’ were far more northern than those ‘North Folc’ of Norfolk. County Durham was also recorded as ‘Dunelmensisschira’ meaning Durham-Shire, around 1100, but ‘shire’ or ‘folk’ never caught on as part of Durham’s name.

Durham City
Durham City – the capital of the Prince Bishops. © David Simpson 2018

The ‘County Palatine of Durham’ ruled by political Prince Bishops, came to be County Durham as the Prince Bishops’ powers depleted. We should not forget that the influence of the bishops was extensive across the whole region. There were even remote exclaves of their Palatine in what is now Northumberland, namely: ‘Norhamshire’ on the Tweed, sharing a border with Scotland; ‘Bedlingtonshire’ between the Rivers Wansbeck and Blyth; and Islandshire encompassing Lindisfarne and the Farnes. Along with the parish and castle of Crayke near Thirsk in North Yorkshire, they were all part of County Durham until 1844. Similarly the Yorkshire districts of ‘Allertonshire’ around Northallerton and ‘Howdenshire’ near Selby were part of the Durham bishops’ ecclesiastical – though not political – realm.

However, the Durham heartland was always that bordered by the Tyne and Derwent to the north and the Tees to the south. I’m always amused by road signs telling you that you’re entering the ‘Land of the Prince Bishops’ on the A19 near Sheraton just north of Hartlepool or on the A1(M) south of Washington. The ‘Land of the Prince Bishops’ in fact begins at the Tees and ends at the Tyne not according to some modern make-shift administrative boundary. In fact it officially ended about a quarter of the way across the Tyne on the Gateshead side.

The boroughs of Sunderland and Gateshead were founded by the Prince Bishops, marking the very beginning of these places as towns. Hartlepool was the Prince Bishop’s port, Stockton the site of one of their major castles. The Priors of Durham founded the port of South Shields. And of course the links between Washington (Washingon CD for County Durham) and the beginnings of the esteemed family of that name are also directly linked to the Prince Bishops. Agreed that all of these events are a very long time ago but these places are still linked to the unique history of County Durham. It’s part of what makes them special and interesting and different and part of their historic identity.

The seal of Prince Bishop Hugh Pudsey who established the boroughs of Sunderland and Gateshead
The seal of Prince Bishop Hugh Pudsey who established the boroughs of Sunderland and Gateshead

Durham continued to act as a kind of buffer state in post Conquest times with its defensive focus now, like that of Northumberland, directed towards the constant inroads of invading Scots. In later times Durham’s rich medieval roots were eclipsed by a new era of industrialisation. It became an industrial powerhouse of shipbuilding and engineering and above all coal mining. County Durham’s population nestled along the banks of the three great industrialised rivers of the North East and the Durham coalfield itself stretched north to the banks of the Tyne.

County Durham of course shared the lower Tyne with the neighbouring county of Northumberland (and with Newcastle too) and shared the Tees with Yorkshire. It’s true that some of the strongest regional identities developed in the riverside communities where the allegiance can be more to the river rather than the county but this isn’t adequately reflected in terms like ‘Tees Valley’ or ‘Tyne and Wear’.

Tynesiders, Teessiders and Wearsiders all identify most closely with their riverside communities which unite each of the three groups of people in each of the three areas. I think it’s unlikely you’ll ever hear anyone identify themselves with Tyne and Wear or Tees Valley – unless they’re a politician.

The Wear is odd man out as far as the three great rivers go as it was never a shared river in terms of county allegiance. It was and undoubtedly still is the County Durham river, rising in the Durham fells before flowing through Weardale, and then through historic Bishop Auckland; the City of Durham and then Chester-le-Street.

Today, the River Wear makes an administrative exit from County Durham, for no apparent natural geographical reason, just beyond Chester-le-Street. Here it enters ‘Tyne and Wear’ and the political jurisdiction of the City of Sunderland, eventually entering the sea at Sunderland itself in what is or once was the largest and perhaps proudest of all the Durham towns – now of course a proud city. It is to Sunderland to which the County Durham river is now most closely linked yet for the entire course of County Durham’s history up until 1974 it was entirely a County Durham river.

Historic view of Sunderland harbour at the mouth of the Wear in County Durham
Historic view of Sunderland harbour at the mouth of the Wear in County Durham

Today Sunderland is no longer in County Durham and while some Sunderland folk may proudly cherish this independence any glance of the map shows that the city has become an appendage or afterthought in the so-called ‘Tyne and Wear’.

Like Cleveland and Humberside ‘Tyne and Wear’ was established as a county in 1974 and despite its now let’s be honest, ugly name, is still somehow going strong today, now as a unified partnership of individual boroughs and cities linked by economic interests and an admittedly excellent integrated transport system.

Like ‘Tees Valley’, Tyne and Wear makes some sense on an economic and business level but culturally and geographically there is something highly contrived about the term ‘Tyne and Wear’. In my view, a label given to a geographical entity that includes the doubtfully qualifying word ‘and’ in its title must clearly have some kind of inherent disunity at some level. It might work for a business partnership but for political geography the term ‘and’ in Tyne ‘and’ Wear never really convinces.

Wearside, the City of Sunderland has a population of around 270,000 that includes several large, neighbouring towns and villages, but in reality places like Washington and Houghton-le-Spring which may well have close relationships with Sunderland are still separate entities.

Tyneside by comparison is mostly a continuous almost homogeneous urban region (perhaps not an endearing description) that straddles two sides of the Tyne. Tyneside has a much larger population than Wearside with around one million people – a point, incidentally, rarely taken into account when comparing the relative size of support for the rival Tyne-Wear football teams.

It would be interesting to know what people think of the old counties and if people still feel an affiliation to them within the Tyne and Wear and Tees Valley regions. I suspect older people, particularly in outlying towns and villages in boroughs and cities like Gateshead, Sunderland and Newcastle may still have a closer affiliation to traditional counties rather than the modern ones and those in the larger towns may connect more closely with the terms Tynesider (or ‘Geordie’); Wearsider (‘Mackem’) and Teessider.

On my travels I have certainly found there’s affinity amongst older people to the traditional counties such as County Durham in places like Houghton-le-Spring and Hetton-le-Hole. North of the Tyne, Newcastle, Gosforth and particularly North Tyneside – Whitley Bay, Tynemouth and North Shields in particular – certainly seem to me to have something particularly Northumbrian in their nature and personality as much as they are ‘Geordie’ when compared to say Gateshead or South Shields to the south of the river.

Of course the Tyne (like the Tees) despite its different communities unites as much as it divides, whether it be in the form of the wider ‘Geordie’ culture or in sporting terms where Tyneside is mostly ‘United’ in Newcastle as its focal centre.

Bridges on the Tyne between Newcastle and Gateshead traditionally linked the counties of Northumberland and Durham
Bridges on the Tyne between Newcastle and Gateshead traditionally linked the counties of Northumberland and Durham. © David Simpson 2018

Yet in 2016 a vote on a region-wide North East devolution deal suggested that in another sense the traditional county divisions may still be strong. Durham County, Sunderland, Gateshead and South Tyneside all voted against the devolution plan for a North East combined authority. In other words all the places in the old County of Durham. **

However places north of the Tyne: Newcastle, North Tyneside and Northumberland all voted in favour. Subsequently a new deal was formulated solely focused on the region north of the Tyne – the Northumberland of old.

Historic identities dating back thousands of years are perhaps harder to shift than we realise despite the brutal machinations and manoeuvrings of London bureaucrats and local marketing men.

 

*Note, confusingly, 1974 also saw the annexation of that part of Teesdale south of the River Tees from Yorkshire into County Durham, moving places such as Romaldkirk and Mickleton into Durham. The administration of Teesdale is of course focused on Barnard Castle, historically a County Durham town on the north side of the river.

** The ‘Tees Valley’ counties were not included in the North East combined authority vote as they already had their own version of this.