Tag Archives: Northumberland

Remembering the miners who gave their lives

DAVID SIMPSON recalls the tragic loss of life in the coal mining  history of North East England where literally thousands of men lost their lives simply doing their job.

West Stanley memorial
Memorial to the West Stanley Colliery explosion of 1909.

“Bye mam”, shouted fourteen year-old John Richard Heard, as he set off for work, as he’d done so many times before.

“Bye son”, his mother replied and then, strangely, moments later, another farewell came as he briefly returned, for reasons that we will never know:

“Bye mam”.

“You’ve already said goodbye, son” came the reply, the mother not knowing that this goodbye, would be his last.

The young lad lived in Perkinsville, a little pit village near Pelton just west of Chester-le-Street. He worked at nearby Urpeth Busty Pit, a short walk from his home. How long he worked there, we don’t know. What sort of lad he was, we don’t know.

All we know is that the inquest notes for his death on that day, January 27, 1898, include the boy’s name, the name of the colliery owners, the name of the pit and the cause of death.

The mine owners were Charles Perkins and Partners, the successors to Lieutenant Colonel Edward Mosely Perkins, from whom ‘Perkins’ Ville’ was named. The Perkins family also owned the nearby iron works at Birtley where there is a prominent statue to E.M. Perkins’ memory. The pit was the Urpeth Busty Colliery, ‘busty’ being the name of the coal seam that this particular colliery worked. As for the cause of death, a short matter of fact explanation reads as follows:

“His work consisted in ‘helping-up’ the putter with his empty tubs, after which he should have returned to the siding. On this occasion, however, he did not return to his proper place, and being caught by the full tub, which the putter was bringing out, was crushed between it and the prop.”

The words “he should have” are typical of the comments found in the summaries of mine accidents at that time. Responsibility is firmly placed on the individual worker, even when the deceased worker might be as young as eleven, ten, nine or eight-years-old but this lad was fourteen, so clearly he must be considered an adult. To the modern mind the thought occurs that this is only a boy and he should not be working here at all, but these were very different times when the risk of death in the name of work and progress, even for children, was a simple and unfortunate fact of life.

Five months following John Richard’s death, his mother, Alice Heard, would also pass away. She was 41. Her death was perhaps hastened by her heart-breaking loss. Alice would share the grave with her beloved son in Pelton churchyard. She would, however, live to see the marriage of her daughter from whom my mother’s family descend. Alice was my great-great grandmother and the story of the lad – my grandma’s uncle – who came back to say that one last goodbye, has passed down to us.

Felling Colliery
Old postcard showing Felling Colliery the scene of a disaster in 1812

In our day and age no one expects to lose their life simply doing a job, simply earning a living for their family. Less do we expect to find children employed in such dangerous work. However, this was once the widely accepted reality in the coalfields of Northumberland and Durham and in other coalfields across the land. A century earlier, back in the early 1800s most people had worked as ‘agricultural labourers’. That was no doubt a relentless job and it certainly received very poor pay. It was a life of virtual servility, little better, perhaps, than that of the medieval peasants of old. For such people, mining was a very attractive proposition.

Businessmen, speculators, risk takers, entrepreneurs and men of money like Edward Mosely Perkins brought new opportunities for the impoverished. They opened mines and built new villages from scratch, offering simple home comforts and wages which though modest by the standards of today, would have been more than tempting for farm hands used to working the land.

Alice’s mother and father, were called Apperley and originated in rural Herefordshire where Apperleys had resided for centuries, presumably working the land. Mining brought new opportunities that drew people of modest means from far and wide to the North East seeking work in the coal mines. Another branch of my family came over from Ireland, also to work in the Durham mines. Mining was a comparatively lucrative trade, but of course it was also, as we have seen, potentially deadly.

Woodhorn Colliery museum
Woodhorn Colliery on the northern edge of Ashington is now a fabulous museum that celebrates and recreates the lives of miners. Photo © David Simpson 2018

The massive scale of this danger and the huge loss of life really only hit home to me some years ago when I co-authored a book about the history of Sunderland aimed at young people in that city. The book was filled with quirky facts and fun features but also the occasional poignant event.

This book was fun to do but one thing that really sticks in my mind is discovering that within the modern bounds of what is now the City of Sunderland we can find the names of around 2,700 men and boys who lost their lives working in the mines of that very area. So, that’s 2,700 just within the area covered by the present City of Sunderland. That is to say just one small part of the North East coalfield.

Now you might think there must have been some fairly major colliery disasters in the Sunderland area given that figure, but in truth that part of the region seems to have been reasonably fortunate in terms of mining deaths. The worst disaster in the area now covered by present day Sunderland was of a relatively modest scale. It was also a relatively early disaster, being an explosion at Newbottle Colliery in 1815 that claimed 57 lives.

Haswell disaster sculpture
Detail from sculpture commemorating the Haswell Colliery disaster of 1844. Photo David Simpson © 2018

However, by the time that colliery closed in 1956 it had claimed the lives of  148 men and boys over a period of time, all of whom died simply doing their job. Across the region most deaths in the mines were, sadly, an almost day to day experience. There were no major disasters at Ryhope Colliery, for example, which operated for 109 years (1857- 1966) yet it still claimed the lives of 291 men and boys during its working life. Further north, at Monkwearmouth, 297 lives were taken during that mine’s history. That is of course the colliery that once stood on the site now occupied by Sunderland Football Club’s Stadium of Light.

The intention here is not to be morbid or make a political point of some kind. It’s just important to highlight this rather sad element of our region’s history that should not be forgotten. Most towns and villages around our nation have war memorials recalling the names of those who gave their lives while bravely fighting for their country. Many were young men, of whom we should be rightly proud. In the coalfield of Northumberland and Durham many such war memorials stand in almost every town and village but those towns and villages could equally display monuments to the men and perhaps more significantly, the boys – the children – who gave their lives simply earning a living to support their families.

This is no less a tragedy than the sad losses of war and these are individuals of whom we should be no less proud, especially when we consider the part coal played in powering us towards the modern world and all the comforts we know today.

Mining tragedies weren’t just a nineteenth century phenomenon, however. In May 1951, for example, 83 men lost their lives in one single event in the colliery at Easington in County Durham. And if you find the human cost too unbearable to imagine you might consider that it was not just human lives that could be taken. In September 1880 a single disaster at Seaham Colliery claimed 164 men and boys but also killed 181 pit ponies working below ground. Mining could be a hard and cruel industry in so many respects.

Mine disaster memorial Stanley
West Stanley memorial. Photo © David Simpson 2018

If the plight of the region’s miners and their families, who faced such daily dangers is remembered at all, it is in the memorials to the major disasters. One good example is at Stanley in County Durham which recalls the disaster at the West Stanley Burns Pit in  February 1909 where 168 lives were lost. The memorial was unveiled in 1995 by the then Newcastle United football manager Kevin Keegan whose grandfather, a miner at this pit, had survived the event and had helped with the rescue effort.

There are many other memorials across the North East, some new, some old. At Haswell between Durham and Easington for example there stands alongside the 1830s remains of a colliery engine house a sculpture installed in 1996 by Michael Disley depicting the faces of miners trapped between layers of stone. It commemorates a disaster at the Haswell mine in 1844 which claimed 95 lives.

Haswell Colliery Engine House
Remains of Haswell Colliery engine house and commemorative sculpture. Photo © David Simpson 2018

One of the most important memorials and one that is contemporary with the event rather than a modern remembrance can be found in the churchyard at Heworth near Gateshead. Here a memorial to a disaster of special importance commemorates that which took place at Felling Colliery in 1812 in which 92 miners lost their lives. Their names are engraved around four sides of the monument. This disaster was of particular significance because it was the first pit tragedy to really come to the attention of the public conscience and was an event that really spurred on a determination to improve mine safety. It was the Felling disaster that ultimately brought about the development of the miners’ safety lamp.

Felling Memorial Heworth
Plaque and one side of 1812 Felling memorial at Heworth churchyard : Photo © David Simpson

Coincidentally the churchyard is also the burial place of Thomas Hepburn (c1795-1864), the Pelton-born, union leader who founded The Colliers of the United Association of Durham and Northumberland. Hepburn, who had worked in mines since the age of eight, fought hard to improve the rights and conditions of his fellow miners. He was a dignified and intelligent man, determined to fight the miners’ cause by peaceful means. He often worked against great adversity and faced much resistance from those who controlled the trade but he was an important part of the story in improving the often brutal conditions in which miners had to live and work.

Hester Pit memorial Earsdon
Memorial to Hartley Colliery disaster Earsdon churchyard. Photo © David Simpson 2018

For me the most moving memorial to a pit tragedy within our region is at the scene of the biggest North East mining tragedy of them all and one that I have only recently visited for the first time. It concerns the Hester Pit at New Hartley near Seaton Delaval in Northumberland. Here a disaster struck on the morning of Thursday, January 16, 1862 after a massive beam engine used for pumping water from the mine gave way, crashing into and destroying the mine shaft below. Deep below the number of miners was especially high as it was time for a shift change with about half the men due to end their shift and the others about to commence work.

Hester Pit Memorial Garden
Hester Pit Memorial Garden. Photo © David Simpson 2018

The men and boys were able to move to a higher seam to escape the imminent danger of flooding but the destruction of the shaft and cage meant that the only means of ventilation and escape from the build up of noxious gases had been destroyed.

Above ground men worked frantically to reach the entombed miners but the breakthrough would not come until the following Wednesday. Sadly, long before that point, the men below had succumbed to the gas. The last diary entry of one of the deceased occurred on the Friday and this suggests that it may have been on that day that most of the men had met their end.

The bodies sat in two rows, all as if they were simply sleeping. One boy’s head rested on the shoulder of his father, while two brothers embraced in a permanent affectionate slumber.

A miner involved in the attempted rescue effort was the first to encounter this scene. He climbed back to the surface and with great emotion announced the dreadful news to the waiting families and crowds above. There were no survivors below.

Two hundred and four men and boys lost their lives in what was the worst mining disaster ever recorded in the North East of England. Sadly, a third of those who died were under nineteen and included five boys aged ten or eleven years old and more than twenty were from twelve to fourteen years of age.

The dead were buried at Earsdon near Whitley Bay some four miles to the south and a continuous convoy of coffins and mourners is said to have run to there from New Hartley. A monument can still be seen in Earsdon churchyard commemorating the burials but the really moving place for me is the memorial garden at New Hartley itself that is built around the superstructure on the site of the shaft where the terrible events took place. The garden was opened in 1976 and in 2012 a memorial pathway by Russ Coleman was added recalling the names of those who lost their lives

Hester Pit Memorial Garden
Hester Pit Memorial Garden. Photo © David Simpson 2018

The one positive note that came from this tragedy was a change in the law, in 1865, which made it compulsory for mines to have more than one shaft, though some colliery owners opposed this additional expense. If there had been a second shaft at New Hartley, the miners would have been saved.

Disaster memorials like that at West Hartley are unusual and recollect only the major events. They do not record the names of the thousands of incidental deaths that occurred in North East mines over the decades which were not connected to major disasters.

Deaths such as that of John Richard Heard are perhaps only remembered, if at all, by those whose family histories feature such terrible heartbreaking episodes. There must be many a family throughout the region who share in this unfortunate legacy with their own family tales to tell of men and boys who lost their lives in our North East mines.

The memorials do help us to remember how times can change. They can provoke us to ask questions about humanity itself and how we can make our lives better for future generations.

Let’s not let the miners who gave their lives, miners like fourteen-yea- old John Richard Heard, be forgotten.

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The Durham Mining Museum (online resource)

To find out more about individual coal mines, mining disasters and pit fatalities in North East England I recommend visiting the fantastic Durham Miners Museum, an amazing online resource featuring vast amounts of information on coal mines, coal owners with extensive lists of names and information and reports about miners who were killed in the pit.  The site covers Northumberland as well as Durham and also lead and ironstone mining in places such as Cleveland and Cumberland. You can visit the site at www.dmm.org.uk/ 

Woodhorn Mining Museum

You can also find out more about the Hartley Colliery disaster and much else about the life of coal miners and coal mining in the region by visiting the fabulous Woodhorn Museum near Ashington

History Pages

About the history of the Easington area

About the history of the Stanley area

About the history of West Hartley and Seaton Delaval

Sarah creates a sense of place in colourful magical maps

We talk to 49-year old Morpeth-based artist, Sarah Farooqi in the latest in our series of interviews featuring talented artists and photographers from the North East of England. Sarah is best-known for her wonderful, colourful illustrated maps.

The Quayside by Sarah Farooqi
The Quayside by Sarah Farooqi

How would you describe your work?

I am a watercolour artist specialising in landscapes, townscapes and illustrated maps. From a pen drawing, my pictures evolve into busy, layered compositions which reflect my love of detail and colour, and hopefully a sense of fun.

Tell us how you first started out as an artist?

I began drawing when I was old enough to hold a pencil and went on to study graphic design at university. But then I took a wrong turn into corporate TV graphics and lost my enthusiasm. So I trained and worked as a primary teacher until I became a full time mum. During that time I was asked by my local school to work with their youngest children on an art project.

However, I had to stop myself grabbing the paint brushes off the children as I just wanted to do it myself! I started painting again soon after, and have never looked back. I spent a year experimenting and finding out exactly what it was I wanted to paint and how. Then once I had a couple of finished pieces I took them to show lots of galleries, shops, the National Trust etc. until I had a few places willing to sell my prints/cards. I joined Network Artists and had a group exhibition at Alnwick Garden in 2009. From there I was asked to make visitor maps for Alnwick Garden and Castle.

Detail from the Howick Hall Estate Map
Detail from Sarah Farroqi’s Howick Hall Estate Map

What work are you most proud of?

In the visitor centre at Howick Hall Gardens (near Alnwick) there is a huge map detailing the whole of the Howick estate, its rare plants/trees and wildlife. The map took the best part of a year to complete and some of it was previously unmapped so I was able to work closely with their head gardener and other members of the Howick team. The map has had a very positive reaction from visitors and I am very proud of it.

What inspires you?

Everything really. I love being outdoors and the intricacy of the natural world. But I also can’t resist a bleak northern industrial scene (see below), or something unexpected or irreverent, as I don’t like to take things too seriously. I also have a terrible sense of direction, so if someone asks me to make them a map I am inspired by that challenge.

Sarah Farooqi
Sarah Farooqi

What influence if any does North East England have in inspiring your work?

I grew up in Teesside and have fond memories of sketching at South Gare near Redcar. Home to the now ghosted blast furnace, at the time I loved peering through the railings and seeing the molten iron being poured into the trucks, and the architecture of the industrial landscape.

It was also right next to Paddy’s Hole with its fishermen’s huts and the North Sea. There is even a lighthouse at the end. Perfect!  Now I live in Northumberland I am totally spoilt by the North Northumberland coastline, with its empty windswept beaches and fabulous castles, and even more lighthouses. The fact that Northumberland is a bit of a secret to many people is also quite appealing – I like to help celebrate it.

What has been your most challenging creation?

Definitely the Howick Hall visitor map, as it involved mapping previously unchartered territory, working with a range of different groups, and the sheer scale of the project. I painted it on a series of squares which when laid out wouldn’t fit in any of the rooms in my house!

Howick Hall Estate Map
Howick Hall Estate Map by Sarah Farooqi

Do you have any tips for up and coming artists?

Never give up, and if you feel overwhelmed by the possibilities/challenges, take a deep breath, start at the beginning and just keep going. To begin with there will be set backs, and you need to go through these in order to learn how everything works. Also, if you are trying to make a living from your art, try and remember to put the customer/buyer at the centre of your marketing so that you make it as easy as possible for people to see, understand and buy your work. Also, being an artist can be a little isolating, so make sure you make connections with people and get out and about. All the other artists I know are really nice people, and happy to help.

Whch other artists or photographers inspire you?

The Cornish fisherman and artist Alfred Wallis who started painting on bits of old cardboard at the age of 68. Arthur Rackham, the Victorian artist whose work includes my favourite illustrations for the Wind in the Willows. Tove Jansson, who wrote and illustrated the Moomins. The stories, symbols and patterns in aboriginal art are fascinating. I am also amazed by the photos of Iceland by Benjamin Hardman, who I’ve just started following on Instagram.

What are your ambitions for the future?

More commissioned work, more of my own work, maybe expand my portfolio from Northumbria into Yorkshire and beyond, and one day to have a fabulous studio. I’d also like to illustrate a children’s book.

See more of Sarah’s work at www.sarahfarooqi.co.uk

Northumberland’s landscape and light make the perfect picture for David

In our latest interview featuring creative people in North East England we talk to Hexham-based landscape photographer and writer David Taylor. 

Charlies Garden. Photo David Taylor
Charlies Garden, Colywell Bay near Seaton Sluice, Northumberland. Photo by David Taylor

Where in the North East are you based?

I live in Hexham, just twenty minutes’ drive from Hadrian’s Wall Country.

How would you describe your work?

I’m a landscape and architectural photographer who lives and works in the north east of England. I’m particularly inspired by the Northumberland countryside, from the craggy landscape of Hadrian’s Wall to the wild moorlands of the Cheviot hills.

David Taylor North East photographer
David Taylor North East photographer

How did you get into photography?

I borrowed my school’s camera (and there was only one…) when I was studying A-Level art,  and was immediately hooked. There’s something compelling about making an image in a small fraction of a second without the need for pen or pencil! I’ve always liked being outdoors so landscape photography seemed the most natural fit.

What are you most proud of as a photographer?

I’ve written forty books and contributed to many others. These books have either been about photography techniques and equipment, or about Northumberland. I didn’t start out with the intention of combining writing with photography but I’m proud of the fact that I’ve achieved that.

Peel Crags, Hadrian's Wall. Photo David Taylor
Summer mist over Peel Crags, Hadrian’s Wall. Photo David Taylor

What do you most enjoy photographing and why?

Water in is a fascinating subject. How it appears in the final photo depends on a number of factors, such as how it’s illuminated to the length of exposure used. I could quite cheerfully spend all day just photographing watery subjects such as the sea.

What inspires you? 

The quality of light on a landscape. Light changes throughout the day, varying depending on where the sun is in the sky and the current weather condition. It means you can revisit the same location over and over again and still see and shoot something different each time. I find this both challenging – you can’t know precisely what will work and what won’t until you get to a location and see how it’s illuminated – and creatively inspiring.

Bamburgh Castle. Photo David Taylor
Bamburgh Castle. Photo David Taylor

What influence, if any does North East England have upon your work? 

I’m from Newcastle originally and grew up there. I spent a lot of time on the coast when I was young, as well as camping in places like Gosforth Park. That early exposure to the landscape of the North East is something that has been very influential. As much as I like travelling and visiting other parts of the world, I can’t see me wanting to stop photographing in and around the North East.

College Valley. Photo David Taylor
Looking down the College Valley, Northumberland. Photo David Taylor

What has been your most challenging photographic creation? 

I’m always a bit suspicious of photos that happen easily! They somehow don’t feel earned. It’s those images that require work or perseverance to achieve that tend to be my favourites. One shot – the view down Henhole in the College Valley in the Northumberland National Park – took six hours of trudging in rain across wet moorland to achieve. It was at the point that I was more than ready to go home that the sun finally broke out. The resulting photo took just a few minutes to set up and shoot, but this more than made up for the fact that I was soaking wet and still have a long walk ahead of me.

Do you have any tips for up and coming photographers? 

Photography has a reasonably steep learning curve but it’s not impossible to understand the basics of how an image is made. Once you’ve achieved this it’s just a question of practise to refine how and what you shoot. Be prepared to take creative risks and make mistakes; it’s often the mistakes you make that give you the greatest insight in how you can improve your photography. Don’t give up and have fun!

Footprints on Bamburgh beach. Photo David Taylor
Footprints on Bamburgh beach. Photo David Taylor

What other photographers or artists inspire you? 

Although he’s not a landscape photographer, Elliott Erwitt is one of my favourite photographers. His documentary photography is full of humanity and often wickedly funny. For me, there’s nothing better than curling up on a wet, grey day with one of his photography anthologies. I’ve tried to shoot like Erwitt and wasn’t that successful. It was a good indicator that I should stick to landscape…

What are your ambitions for the future? 

To keep on learning about photography. It’s such a big subject that’s impossible to know everything. It’s a worthwhile ambition to try though!

See more of David Taylor’s photography at: www.davidtaylorphotography.co.uk

 

Northumberland Snow. Photo David Taylor

The Beast from the East hits the Northumberland National Park. Photo David Taylor

 

 

 

Sea and Sky : Artist finds inspiration in Craster coastline

DAVID SIMPSON talks to Northumberland artist Mick Oxley about his wonderful seascapes.

As part of our continuing commitment highlighting the work of North East artists, photographers, film makers, writers, musicians and other creative people we talk to 64 year artist Mick Oxley who lives and works in Craster.

Boulmer Glory. Painted by Mick Oxley
Boulmer Glory. Painted by Mick Oxley

Describe yourself and your work:

A painter whose work is influenced by the sea and shoreline of the Northumberland coast, it’s moods and atmosphere.

How did you start out as an artist?

I started painting in 1999, after retiring from teaching and I am wheelchair bound. I began under the tutelage of Gordon Highmoor at a WEA class in Craster. I went full time in 2003 and opened my gallery in 2008. I paint and sell from Craster.

Which work are you most proud of?

To be honest, I am proud of a lot of my work, although I do have one or two favourites. While I have worked very hard to get where I am, I also consider myself fortunate I decided to give painting a go.

Mick Oxley at work
Mick Oxley at work

What inspires you?

My biggest influence is the environment that surrounds me – the coastline, the moods of the sea, the kaleidoscopic changes. This provides me with a never ending source of inspiration.

What influence if any does North East England have in inspiring your work?

I grew up in the North East, left to work elsewhere and always wanted to return. The area and its people are very much part of my DNA.

What has been your most challenging creation?

Usually very large paintings, when I can struggle to reach across the canvas. Not being able to stand can pose problems and I have to be extra creative.

Do you have any tips for up and coming artists?

Enjoy what you do, have fun, practise as much as you can and you will improve.

Which other artists inspire you?

My two biggest influences are the North Yorkshire artist Len Tabner and Norwegian Ornulf  Opdahl. Both artists had a profound influence on me when I began painting.

February Sunrise. Painted by Mick Oxley.
February Sunrise. Painted by Mick Oxley.

What are your ambitions for the future?

My aim is to carry on enjoying what I do. I like the dual role of painting and running the gallery. I enjoy meeting the customers and working from Craster.

Visit Mick website at: www.mickoxley.com

Mick is also on Twitter @mickoxley   and   @seaskycraster 

and Facebook too facebook.com/mickoxleygallery

Better still, why not pop along to Mick’s gallery in Craster and take in the wonderful Northumberland coast while you’re there?

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 ‘York’ as it was often simply known remained intact and the ‘Ridings’ remained in place up until 1974.

It was in 1974 that London’s brutal battleaxe 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 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 time. As an ancient district it was part of Yorkshire and exclusively part of Yorkshire, that is to say 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.

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 anomaly.

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.

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 town 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

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 fro many centuries.

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

The reality is of course that Tees Valley is rather a 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 a 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 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 was a reminder that the whole of the North was once the name of the ancient kingdom of everything English north of the Humber.  During the Viking era this remaining Northumbrian rump split into two parts with the land between the Tyne and Tees ultimately becoming County Durham, but the term Northumberland continued to be used north of the Tyne.

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’ as the fledgling County Durham was known was later called ‘Haliwerfolc’ (meaning Holy-man-people and certainly more northern than the ‘folc’ of Norfolk). It was recorded as Dunelmensisschira meaning Durham-Shire in 1100 but ‘shire’ or ‘folk’ never caught on as part of Durham’s name.

Durham City
Durham City – the capital of the Prince Bishops

As a County Palatine ruled by Prince Bishops, the name County Durham later came into being as the Prince Bishops’ powers depleted. We should not forget that their influence was extensive across the region. I’m always amused by road signs telling yo 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 ends about a quarter of 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 those 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 nameis 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 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 with a population straddling the banks of the three great rivers of the North East and the Durham coalfield itself stretching north to the banks of the Tyne.

County Durham of course shared the Tyne with the neighbouring county of Northumberland (and with Newcastle) 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 and Teessiders and Wearsiders all identify most closely with their riverside communities which unite each of the 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, the historic town of Bishop Auckland, the City of Durham and Chester-le-Street. The  it leaves the county without any apparent natural reason, eventually entering the sea at Sunderland in what is or was the largest and perhaps proudest of all the Durham towns – though now of course a city. It is to Sunderland to which this 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 any glance of the map shows that has become an appendage of the so-called ‘Tyne and Wear’.

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

Like ‘Tees Valley’ the Tyne and Wear makes much 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, any label given to a geographical entity that includes the doubtfully justifying 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’ never really convinces.

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

Tyneside by comparison is mostly a continuous almost homogeneous urban region (perhaps not an endearing description) straddling 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 they still fell 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 connect more closely with terms Tynesider (or Geordie), Wearsider/Mackem or Teessider.

On my travels I have certainly found an affinity with 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 very Northumbria 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

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.

 

Tyneside Pride : Who is a Geordie?

DAVID SIMPSON explores the origins of the word ‘Geordie’ and the changes in its meaning over two centuries.

The Tyne Bridge, Newcastle upon Tyne
The Tyne Bridge, Newcastle upon Tyne

Also see our Geordie Dictionary pages in our roots and dialect section.

So who or what is a ‘Geordie’?

‘Geordie’ is the name given to the natives of Tyneside or at least that’s what the term has come to mean today but what is the origin of this word?

Well to put it simply in one sentence: Geordie is a nickname for someone called George. That’s just about the only thing we can say with certainty in regard to its use in North East England.

How Geordie came to be associated with Tyneside has a number of different theories and it’s worth exploring a few of them here. Just don’t expect a definitive answer that’s all.

In the 1700s, just as today, ‘Geordie’ was the prevalent pet form of the name ‘George’ among the Scots and the people of the far north of England and since there was a succession of four ruling kings called George from 1714 to 1830, it was a very familiar name. Its use and adoption may very probably reflected the opinions and feelings of the populace towards their ruling monarch at any given time.

My personal favourite theory for why Newcastle in particular came to be the home of the ‘Geordie’ is linked to the Jacobite Rebellion of 1715 when the town closed its gates to the Jacobite army that had mustered strong support across Northumberland.

The Jacobites, named from ‘Jacobus’ a Latin form of James, wanted to place James Stuart, the Catholic ‘Old Pretender’ on the throne. Newcastle had other ideas however and declared its support for the reigning King, ‘Geordie’ : King George I, the German Protestant, who couldn’t speak a word of English.

This is a neat and very satisfying explanation perpetuated by writers and historians during the later half of the twentieth century – myself included. Even the late Bill Griffiths in his wonderful thoroughly researched ‘Dictionary of North East Dialect’ (2004) examines the origins for different definitions of ‘Geordie’ but can only point to an article in The Northern Echo newspaper (August 1997) to support the Jacobite theory.

Now, I have to confess straight away and say that I was in fact the enthusiastic young author of that particular newspaper article. I was merely repeating a theory that had more than once been thrown around by late twentieth century writers such as David Bean. In  his book ‘Tyneside : a biography’ Bean admittedly added a cautious element of doubt to his colourful explanation with the phrase: “Or so it is guessed”. He then went on to make the familiar suggestion that it came from the use of Stephenson’s Geordie lamp.

David Bean's explanation of 'Geordie' from Tyneside : A Biography (1971)
David Bean’s explanation of ‘Geordie’ from Tyneside : a biography (1971)

Go back more than half a dozen  decades earlier to the nineteenth century and you will find a legion of writers and researchers who left no stone unturned in their quest to explore and explain every facet of local culture and dialect. Not one of these – as far as I know – makes any mention of a link between George I and ‘Geordie Newcastle’. In fact as a written record it is not until the last decade of the nineteenth century that we get any reliable evidence that ‘Geordie’ was specifically associated with Tyneside. It does seem though that it was a name given by outsiders.

In 1892 Richard Oliver Heslop’s, two-volume tome entitled ‘Northumberland Words’ was published. This work formed the basis for late twentieth century Geordie publications like Cecil Geeson’s ‘Northumberland and Durham Word Book’ (1969) and Frank Graham’s ‘Geordie Dictionary’ (1974 and 1987). In one of the shortest entries in his glossary, Heslop explains that ‘Geordy’ is the name by which Tynesiders are known outside the district.

The use of the word ‘outside’ is curious because it suggests the term was not yet accepted onTyneside itself or at least not accepted by the middle class audience at which Heslop presumably aimed his work. Heslop said that ‘Geordy’ is also the term for a Tyne ship and for George Stephenson’s miners’ safety lamp. However, it is in Heslop’s accompanying cross reference to the related term ‘Cranky’ that we find a clear indication of the earlier meaning of ‘Geordie’.

Miners' safety lamps showing the inventions of Humphy Davy and George Stephenson
Miners’ safety lamps showing the inventions of Humphry Davy and George Stephenson

Heslop reveals that ‘Cranky’ or ‘Bob Cranky’ was the popular old term for a miner in the region and cites its use in a phrase from a local song dating from 1804. Heslop says the phrase was in later times replaced by ‘Geordy’.

A linguist, Katie Wales, concurred on the association between Geordies and miners and pointed to an early use of ‘Geordie’ as a reference to miners in local ballads and songs from as early as 1793. The use of the term in this respect will have been reinforced by local miners adopting George Stephenson’s safety lamp (invented 1815) which they nicknamed the ‘Geordie’ or ‘Geordy’ if we are to use Heslop’s spelling.

Explanations for 'Geordy' and 'Cranky' in Richard Heslop's 'Northumberland Words' 1892
Explanations for ‘Geordy’ and ‘Cranky’ in Richard Heslop’s ‘Northumberland Words’ 1892

Heslop, who was of course writing for a Northumberland and Tyneside readership gives an early link between the miners of Tyneside and the term ‘Geordie’ as he says “the men who went from the lower Tyneside to work at the pits in South Tynedale were always called ‘Geordies’ by the people there.” The date at which the Tyneside connection to ‘Geordie’ came into being in South Tynedale is not clear.

Almost half a century earlier, in 1847, John Brockett’s two volume ‘Glossary of North Country Words’ published in Newcastle upon Tyne opted for the spelling ‘Geordie’ which he describes “as a very common name among the pitmen” and showed that it was a form of address between them. He further confirmed that “the pitmen have given the name of ‘Geordie’ to Mr. Stephenson’s lamp in contra-diction to the Davy, or Sir Humphrey Davy’s Lamp”. Brockett made no mention of Newcastle or Tyneside in relation to the term Geordie.

From Brockett's Glossary of North Country Words 1847
From Brockett’s Glossary of North Country Words 1847

Most of the evidence from the Victorian era points to ‘Geordie’ being a widely used for term for miners in the region. However, another source, J.P Robson’s ‘Songs of the Bards of the Tyne’ (1849) said that it was used as a word for ‘rustics’.

The first occurrence of the word ‘Geordie’ in ‘The Oxford English Dictionary’ is in 1866 as ‘Jordies’  and is defined as “the sailors belonging to the ports on the north-eastern coast of England”. Of course, this may have been the south country or London understanding of the term. London, remember was constantly visited by sailors from the North East coast as part of the coal trade.

Only three years later, in 1869, John Camden Hotten, a London bibliophile and expert on ‘slang’ contradicted the Oxford Dictionary stating that Geordie was a “general term in Northumberland and Durham for a pitman or coal-miner.” He stated that that the origin was not known and that the term had been in use for more than a century. The degree of certainty in Hotten’s statement is not known but it places the origin of ‘Geordie’ when defined as a ‘miner’ back before 1769.

There is, however, an early reference linking the term ‘Geordie’ specifically to Tyneside in relation to shipping. This occurs in the Sunderland section of William Fordyce’s ‘History of County Durham’ (1857). Here Fordyce mentions that a “recent periodical supplies us with the curious information that mariners term a vessel from the Tyne a Geordie and from the Wear a Jamie.” It’s a tantalising link back to the Jacobite theory but there’s no evidence to suggest that Sunderland had been particularly pro-Jacobite.

On the same page in relation to shipbuilding, Fordyce makes the remark that “it was derisively said that the Sunderland shipbuilders could either make a ship or build one” as the quality of the workmanship was seemingly regulated by price on Wearside. This was possibly an early origin for the term ‘Mac n’ Tac’ (later ‘Mackem’), used by outsiders in reference to Sunderland that perhaps regained prominence around the 1960s but seemingly was not familiar to Wearsiders until around the 1980s when the insult was enthusiastically adopted and became a badge of honour in much the same way that the ‘Geordie’ insult was adopted on Tyneside.

The Wearmouth Bridge, Sunderland
The Wearmouth Bridge, Sunderland

On further investigation it becomes clear that ‘Geordie’ seems to have originated as an insult for a miner (and perhaps a mariner). At the very least it was a patronising term and seems to have been a byword for a fool. Frank Graham suggested that the word originally literally meant ‘fool’ and linked it to the madness of King George III who reigned from 1760-1820.

Supporting the view that Geordie meant ‘fool’, Graham cited a quote that came from the famed music hall comedian, Billy Purvis in 1823 spoken at the Newcastle Races on the Town Moor that year. Billy slated a pitman who had left his wife and sold his furniture to become a performing clown and rival to Purvis. In the quote Purvis said the pitman was a genuine fool unlike Purvis himself, who was merely acting the clown to earn a living:

“Noo, yor a fair doon reet feul, not an artificial feul like Billy Purvis! Thous a real Geordie!”

Billy Purvis, Newcastle Music Hall Comedian
Billy Purvis, Newcastle Music Hall Comedian

‘Geordie’, as a slightly patronising term for a pitman was still widely used in the late nineteenth century.

From 1887 to 1891, a popular Newcastle-based publication called ‘The Monthly Chronicle of North Country Lore and Legend’ explored the heritage and culture of Northumberland, Newcastle and occasionally County Durham with a middle class readership in mind. Generally this publication is full of wonderful informative articles and illustrations but its pages also include countless features on local ‘North Country Wit and Humour’ usually featuring ‘Geordie’ who is almost always depicted as a generic pitman and a bit of a fool. In these features the pitman or ‘Geordie’ includes miners from as far south as Castle Eden near the Durham coast.

A typical observation of a 'Geordie' miner from the Monthly Chronicle of North Country Legend, this example from March 1887
A typical observation of a ‘Geordie’ miner from the Monthly Chronicle of North Country Legend, this example from March 1887

Frank Graham held the view that the middle classes of Newcastle once feared the miners and patronised them with the term ‘Geordie’ but over time, during the twentieth century it became a more friendly accepted term that was widely adopted across the region.

Graham was himself a rather colourful character. He was the Newcastle-based author and publisher of hundreds of small scholarly books for the general reader mostly featuring Northumberland history. Born in Sunderland, he was a noted Communist who had voluntarily fought in the Spanish Civil War against the Fascists.

In addition to his Geordie Dictionary, Graham was perhaps best-known as the publisher in 1969 of the tongue-in cheek ‘Larn Yarsel’ Geordie’ written by the humour writer and art teacher Scott Dobson of Blyth. At around this time Geordie was primarily associated with Tyneside but still often widely used in a broad sense for all people across the region in Northumberland and Durham. It was, it seems only in the 1970s and 1980s, perhaps in part due to increasing football rivalry, that ‘Geordie’ became much more exclusively associated with the people of the lower Tyne.

Our online  Geordie Dictionary from our roots and dialect page

Geordie phrases poster print from Tangled Worm

Cyclist’s Paradise:  Keeping fit and enjoying the region’s landscapes

DAVID SIMPSON shares his passion for cycling as he explores old railway routes and scenery across the North East from the saddle of his trusty mountain bike

Lydgetts junction cycle hub near Consett. Photo: David Simpson
Lydgetts junction cycle hub near Consett. Photo: David Simpson

Cycling and especially mountain biking is one of the best ways to see our region. Taking in the wonderful varied scenery of our beloved North East from the cyclist’s saddle is one of life’s great pleasures.  Travel from village to village, town to town and watch the delightful changes in the region’s rolling scenery mile by mile. Head along rural riverside routes into industrial heartlands, take in lovely country roads or try out the course of a former railway route at your own leisurely pace. Simply marvellous!

Sure, you can do some of these things from the comfort of your car but can you take a break without the headache of finding a parking space and can you go ‘off road’, away from all the traffic? Cycling is great because you always feel that you’re part of the outdoors, rather than just passing through within the confines of a wheeled metal box. That feeling of being part of the scenery is something that you never quite get from inside the car, even when the window is wound right down.

Scenery near Sunderland
Scenery from a recent Durham to Sunderland cycle ride. Photo: David Simpson.

Best of all though, cycling keeps you fit, in both mind and body. Mentally, I’m at my sharpest and happiest when I’ve been doing lots of cycling and it’s really invigorating. Walking, running or team sports might work for you but it’s cycling for me. It works well with my lifestyle and interests: my love for history, for taking photographs and a passion for the region’s varied landscapes makes cycling the perfect fit.

Now let’s be clear, I’m not one of the Lycra brigade. No, no, no, when I’m out cycling, I prefer skinny, stretchy jeans, old trainers, a long-sleeved shirt plus a jumper or fleece in the backpack just in case it gets too chilly. That’s more my scene. Purists might frown on this but that doesn’t bother me, though I should say a helmet is always a must. Taking something high-viz too if you’re going to be out in the twilight could also be wise and don’t forget a spare bottle of water or squash and a snack to keep you going if you feel peckish en route.

C2C Cycle route. Photo: David Simpson
The C2C Cycle route. Photo: David Simpson

No, it’s not about the streamlined look or the speed for me. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the thrill of the racing bike fraternity whizzing through the blurry countryside constantly improving on their best times, clocking up mile after mile on twisty roads and climbing hills with endless motor cars for company. There’s plenty of great scope for that activity across the region and I am sure the exertion is exhilarating but it’s not really for me.

I’ll often ride more than thirty or forty miles a time on the mountain bike but sometimes I’ll just go for twenty or a modest ten or perhaps even six or seven miles just to get out of the house. The more miles you do though the easier the distances become. I don’t mind cycling on the road some of the time but more often than not I head off along one of those superb off-the-road cycle paths that crisscross our region.

Many of these routes are the legacy of Dr Beeching, the man who closed so many railways back in the sixties, but that was due to the burgeoning growth of the motorists. I don’t suppose Beeching ever envisaged the growth in popularity of cycling though many of the cycle ways he has unwittingly created, from old railway routes, provide ideal and relatively easy going paths that often stretch for many miles. It all makes sense: those routes were designed for steam locomotives that wanted to avoid steep hills and take the easiest routes. All good news for leisurely cyclists like me.

Former railway station at Lanchester in County Durham. Photo: David Simpson
Former railway station at Lanchester in County Durham. Photo: David Simpson

Old railway routes converted into long-distance paths are one of the great gems of our region’s countryside and are great ways to get out and about in the North East. In recent rides I’ve headed out in various directions using a village near Durham City as a base. The other week I cycled from Durham into Sunderland through lovely countryside with views of the sea along the way.

Surprisingly, much of the track through Sunderland itself encompasses fields, trees, parks and even a lake. Except for the occasional glimpse of a block of flats nearby, you barely notice you’re in an urban environment until you eventually emerge in the city centre and then after crossing a couple of main roads at pedestrian crossings you head over the Wearmouth Bridge and back into the countryside along the banks of the River Wear – though I took a brief diversion to the river mouth first just to see the sea.

Cycling by the River Wear at Sunderland. Photo: David Simpson
Cycling by the River Wear at Sunderland. Photo: David Simpson

In County Durham there are pathway ‘hubs’ that provide good centres for exploring various walking and cycle routes where railways once ran. Broompark, just west of Durham City is one such hub. There’s parking there and a picnic area too, so you can take your bike along on the car then make your way by bike along a choice of three routes. I’ve tried all three. One heads along the pretty wooded valley of the little River Deerness to Esh Winning and on towards a place called Stanley Crook and another heads north along the Browney valley to Lanchester and then on towards Consett. The third heads south to Bishop Auckland culminating in a good view of the Bishop of Durham’s home town that can be reached across the Newton Cap Viaduct.

Perhaps the major hub for cyclists in the North East is Lydgetts Junction at Consett, arguably the central hub for all North East cycle paths. Here routes head out to Newcastle and Tynemouth, south into Durham, east to Sunderland and west all the way to Cumbria via the splendid Hownsgill viaduct.

Sculpture on C2C Cycle route near Lydgetts Junction, Consett. Photo: David Simpson
Sculpture on C2C Cycle route near Lydgetts Junction, Consett. Photo: David Simpson

It’s always good to combine parts of routes and even improvise with a bit of research beforehand. Recently, I headed out from my village base east of Durham City to join the Deerness route at Broompark but then left its course at Esh Winning to make the steep climb by local roads through Quebec and Cornsay Colliery to lovely Lanchester. There, joining the Lanchester Valley route to Consett I joined  the C2C route at Lydgetts Junction –  with its impressive art installation sculptures along the way – as I continued through Leadgate, Stanley, Beamish and Pelton where I improvised in a descent into Chester-le-Street on my way back to my village base completing about 44 miles.

Souter Lighthouse
Souter Lighthouse is one of the many beautiful features on the coastal route between the Tyne and Wear. Photo: David Simpson

Many routes link in with the longer-distance coast-to-coast cycle paths like the C2C (sea to sea) route I have mentioned. This route links the coastal Cumbrian towns of Whitehaven, Workington and St Bees to Sunderland, South Shields and Tynemouth. An alternative cross-Pennine route is the W2W (Walney to Wear) route linking Walney in southern Cumbria to Sunderland, part of which we followed on our recent ride from Durham to Sunderland.

The great thing is, you don’t have to stray far from the cities to enjoy great cycle rides. There are good cycle rides around Stockton and Hartlepool into the fringes of the County Durham countryside for example and in Tyne and Wear there’s a particularly enjoyable coastal ride from the mouth of the Tyne to the mouth of the Wear – and back.

You can cycle along the bank of the River Tyne all the way to Wylam and then back along the other side of the river and once you’re back at the beginning there’s no extra charge for taking cycles across the Shields ferry to reach the other side.

Bicycles are welcome on the Shields Ferry. Photo: David Simpson
Bicycles are welcome on the Shields Ferry. Photo: David Simpson

Superb cycling can be found in Northumberland too, often with the Cheviots serving as a wonderful backdrop with some routes taking in coastal areas and castles. A cycling friend of mine recently tried out a circular route from Wooler across to Holy Island which looks appealing.

In North Yorkshire the Vale of York and Vale of Mowbray around Thirsk and Northallerton offer relatively gentle cycling with gradual climbs into the Yorkshire Dales to the west or challenging cycling in the North York Moors to the east.

Sustrans provide a useful zoomable map of all the major cycle routes in the region (see the links below) but it’s also worth checking out the region’s woods and forests that can appeal to thrill-seekers or those who just want to take a cycling stroll. Hamsterley and Kielder for example have superb mountain biking trails to explore.

Out and about. Scenery near Sunderland. Photo: David Simpson
Out and about on the bike. Scenery near Sunderland. Photo: David Simpson

Whatever kind of cycling you do, it’s always enjoyable to keep a record of your routes, speeds and distances mile by mile, to see how much you’ve ascended and descended and how many calories you’ve burned. It’s a satisfying way to round off a good cycle ride. You can post the details on social media too and it’s a good way to log your progress and share with others.

That’s all part of the fun and can be facilitated by downloading great route-tracking GPS apps like Endomondo, Strava or Mapmyride to your mobile phone. It’s always good to review your times and distances, when you get back to base, and to check your best and slowest lap, though often, I find, I’ve lost more than an hour or so stopping to take photos or admire the beautiful views along the way. I’m certainly not going to complain about that.

Tyne Bridge. Photo: David Simpson
Tyne Bridge. Photo: David Simpson

Update!

We’ve been out on the bike again (the day after this blog) this time from Consett to Newcastle and back (38 miles) taking in the Derwent valley and Tyne riverside with Lydgett’s junction as our starting base. Another lovely route. Check out our sunny day of cycling photos of the Derwent Valley here and of Newcastle-Gateshead here.

Useful links

Railway-paths in County Durham  (for cyclists, walkers, runners, horse riders and wheelchair users) with downloadable pdfs of maps and route features.

Sustrans C2C Cycle Route  and other routes throughout the North East of England.

Cycle Routes in Northumberland from Cycle Northumberland

Cycle friendly cafes: englandsnortheast.co.uk/2016/08/21/many-reasons-get-yer-bike/ a blog by Helen Gildersleeve

www.cycle-route.com Has an astonishing  choice of suggested cycle routes. Select by nation and county for an extensive list of routes with map details.

Kielder Forest Mountain Bike Trails: www.forestry.gov.uk/pdf/OverviewA0panel.pdf/$file/OverviewA0panel.pdf

Hamsterley Forest Cycle Trails: www.forestry.gov.uk/pdf/nee-hamsterley-cycle-trails.pdf/$file/nee-hamsterley-cycle-trails.pdf

Cyclists on the Shields ferry: www.nexus.org.uk/ferry/guide-ferry  Large groups of cyclists should contact the ferry in advance.

GPS Cycling apps

Endomondo: www.endomondo.com/

Strava: www.strava.com/

Mapmyride: www.mapmyride.com/app/

Archaeological passions

JONATHAN JONES meets former Northumberland County Archaeologist, Chris Burgess, and learns something about the passion and obsession that drives him and others in his speciality.

Bamburgh is as solid as a rock but it's 99% nothing: Photo, David Simpson
Northumberland is a county rich in history and archaeology

There can be few places as blessed as Northumberland when it comes to history and archaeology and it’s a place that has long attracted people with a passion in both these fields. Former Northumberland County archaeologist, Chris Burgess must feel special affection for the county with a privileged first hand – and often hands on – insight into the region’s history.

Chris Burgess
Chris Burgess

Interviewed by BBC Radio 4 in 2014 while working on a project to excavate the site of the Battle of Flodden (1513) Chris described how it is always the possibility of the next find that keeps him going.

“Sometimes you find nothing. sometimes you find everything” he explained back then, but found he was always driven on by the possibility of giving a voice to individuals and events from the distant past.

In 2013-14, in conjunction with his role as county archaeologist, Chris had been the manager of the Flodden 500 Project, working with a team of up to 80 people from both sides of the border attempting to uncover the secrets of the famous battle site near Branxton, a couple of miles to the south of the River Tweed.

More recently Chris had been working on a landscape partnership project focused on Holy Island when he experienced a life changing event, suffering a brain haemorrhage, early in 2016.

Chris has learnt a thing or two about obsession, since then. His time on Ward Four, at Walkergate Park Hospital, in Newcastle, gave him many moments to reflect on the workings of the mind of the archaeologist, and the subjects or objects that they often obsess about. It seems that for Chris his particular passions and obsessions take him far beyond the borders of the North East.

“Every heritage professional has one site they obsess about” says Chris “and I am no different. For me it is the mythical ‘Amber Room’ in Tsar Nicholas’ Winter Palace, near St Petersburg, which sadly disappeared into the fog of war in early summer of 1945.

“Often held to be the eighth wonder of the world, the room was decorated with panels of mosaics, formed of Baltic Amber and backed with gold leaf. The entire room was lit only by candles.

“More than eight tonnes of Amber were used in the building of the room, which was constructed in the Charlottenborg Palace in Berlin, by Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, before being presented as a gift to his cousin Tsar Nicholas of Russia.”

The Winter Palace, near St Petersburg
The Winter Palace, near St Petersburg in Russia

Not only is the Amber room valued for its constituent amber and gold, but as an unparalleled piece of art. Sadly it was plundered by the Nazis during World War II, when it was stripped from its St Petersburg home by the retreating German army, ahead of rapidly advancing Russian forces.

Chris said: “Eyewitness reports have it packed onto a train, or trucks, and taken to the port of Konigsberg, where it was loaded onto the hospital ship SS Wilhelm Gustaf, which sailed from the port, only to be torpedoed and sank by Russian submarines in the Baltic Sea.”

But Chris’s obsession with this old decorated room, dismantled and lost more than 40 years before he was born, is not simply an “archaeological thing”.

He said: “It wasn’t just an archaeological thing that drove Howard Carter to search relentlessly for the Valley of the Kings, in order to gaze on the face of Tutankhamun in his burial chamber, ignoring warnings and curses, until he eventually found it.

“It’s a matter of personal obsession.

“My Dad, also an archaeologist, was fascinated by Stonehenge, how it was built, and why it was built, to such an extent that he wrote several books on the subject.

Stonehenge
Stonehenge

“For Howard Carter, it was an Egyptian boy prince, for my Dad it was Stonehenge, and for me, it is the missing eight tonnes of decorative amber from the Tsar’s Winter Palace.”

He added: “The wish to look upon and understand the unseen, unique and unusual, is what drives most archaeologists, which is why most have a particular artefact or site they become obsessed with.”

“I have looked into the face of Tutankhamun’s Death Mask, seen his other treasures, and think I understand Howard Carter’s obsession, and the passion that drove it.

“I live in hope of one day standing and looking on the rediscovered Amber room, but sadly do not really expect to do so.

“I have been to the Neues Museum in Berlin, and seen Schliemann’s mythical gold from Troy, and read his interesting justification of why he took ownership of it from the Ottoman Empire.

“In the same museum I have gazed in wonderment on the face of Nefertiti.

“The one thing all these artefacts have in common, is that now, following short interruptions for conflict, they are all freely available to people from all countries to enjoy, regardless of race or ideology.”

The same is true of our own region’s artefacts and archaeological finds which are here to be shared with the world at large with each and everyone giving its own insight into humanity’s past and adding ever more knowledge to our human story.

 

Listen to Chris Burgess being interviewed in 2014 on a Radio 4 feature about the Battle of Flodden bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03mj1y4

More about the Battle of Flodden englandsnortheast.co.uk/Flodden.html

Momentum Skills’ North East (Brain Injury Rehabilitation) momentumskills.org.uk/our-services/service/north-east-england-vocational-rehabilitation based in Newcastle, offers vocational rehabilitation services for people with an acquired brain injury and or neurological condition aged 16 years old and over.

Rivers, becks, burns and linns : What’s in a (North East) Place-Name?

DAVID SIMPSON examines the ancient names of our rivers, streams and waterfalls and plots the great beck/burn divide

The River Tees at High Force waterfall. Photo: David Simpson
The River Tees at High Force waterfall. Photo: David Simpson

Alright please don’t ‘Pity Me’, but ever since I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated by place-names and especially those of the North East. I don’t know why precisely, but it’s certainly linked to my interest in history.

Across the region our place-names offer unique insights into our distant past and I find it fun to discover that a familiar place we take for granted is often not quite what it seems. Then of course we have all those strange and peculiar names: Pity Me, Witherwack, Wallish Walls, Snods Edge and Foggy Furze. How about Shiney Row, Seldom Seen, Success, Once Brewed or even No Place? These are the places that arouse much curiosity in our region  but even seemingly mundane place-names also hold unexpected secrets.

The first thing to know when studying place-names is that for a period of a little over a thousand years  – and that’s how old most of our place-names are – our language has changed an awful lot. This means spellings in old records can be notoriously inconsistent. So you can’t just look at a place-name today and guess what it means; you have to go back in time.

The North East has many fascinating and curious place-names
The North East has many fascinating and curious place-names

Place-name experts look for the earliest spellings, scouring ancient documents and interpreting the names according to the language of times past.

The experts are skilled linguists and historians, with an exceptional knowledge of how language evolved. They come with a good grasp of old languages like Latin, Old Welsh, Indo-European, Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse, Middle English and a knowledge of local dialect too. They also need a good understanding of local history and know about the local topography by familiarising themselves with the landscape. It might also help to know a few folk tales connected with the place-names they study. The experts are prepared to do much detective work to reach their final conclusions and even then they may not always be sure. In the end the fruits of their labour are often nothing more than a passing curiosity for most of us.

The fun part for me is exploring and interpreting this work and looking for patterns. I enjoy puzzling over baffling contradictions and being surprised that seemingly obvious explanations are not what I had expected. I also believe, well I’m certain of it in fact, that place-names and their local features have close links to local dialect. You see, place-names and dialect are living history and often a very old part of our heritage that we can easily overlook.

The Tyne at Newcastle Photo: David Simpson
The Tyne at Newcastle Photo: David Simpson

Since most place-names have evolved over long periods of time, it’s best to start at the beginning. If we glance at the map we find the  most ancient names are those of the rivers and larger streams. Names like Tyne, Tees, Team, Wear, Aln, Allen, Don, Derwent and Deerness go back thousands of years to the pre-Roman Celtic times or sometimes to the era when the inter-related Indo-European languages across Europe and parts of Asia were beginning to evolve.

The Tyne, for example has one such ancient name. Tyne derives from a root word ‘ti’ meaning ‘to flow’ and could simply be interpreted to mean ‘water’. One of its tributaries, the River Team, now partly culverted through Gateshead’s Team Valley has a similar root, related to river-names like the Thames in London or the Taff in Cardiff. Further east, the Don that joins the Tyne downstream at Jarrow comes from an Indo-European word ‘danu’ simply meaning ‘river’. The Don of Jarrow shares its roots with the Don at Doncaster and the Don in Russia, as well as the Danube of Austrian river fame.

The River Don entering the Tyne at Jarrow. Photo: David Simpson
The River Don entering the Tyne at Jarrow. It shares its name with a river in Russia Photo: David Simpson

The River Tees is thought to have a Celtic river-name though its roots may be earlier. It’s related to an Old Welsh word for ‘heat’ and means ‘boiling, surging river’ perhaps alluding to the waterfalls of upper Teesdale like High Force.

The name of the River Wear is thought to derive from ‘uis’, another Indo-European word for ‘flow’ but Uisiria and Uedra were later forms of the name. This was interpreted by Welsh speaking Celts (the Britons) to ‘Gweir’ which means ‘bending’. Look at a map and compare the whole course of the Wear from source to sea with the course of the Tyne or the Tees and you will see that ‘bending river’ is an apt description.

The River Wear at Sunderland. Photo: David Simpson
The River Wear at Sunderland – ‘the bending river’. Photo: David Simpson

Other river-names with ancient origins include the Derwent which forms part of the border between Northumberland and Durham. One of a number of rivers called Derwent in England, the name comes from Old Welsh and means the ‘oak tree river’. Further south, a smaller County Durham river, the Deerness combines the Welsh element ‘dwfr’ meaning river with an Indo-European element ‘nesta’ meaning , ‘roar, rush’ that is found in names such as Loch Ness and Inverness.

Some river-names came much later in Anglo-Saxon or Viking times, suggesting their earlier names were forgotten or replaced. In County Durham, for example, the little river called the Browney (occasionally called ‘the brune’) has a name dating to Anglo-Saxon times that comes from ‘brun-ea’ meaning ‘brown river’

Two little-known North Eas rivers, the Deerness and Browney merge at Langley Moor near Durham City. Photo: David Simpson
Two little-known North East rivers, the Deerness and Browney merge at Langley Moor near Durham City. Photo: David Simpson

In Northumberland the River Wansbeck at Morpeth and Ashington has a name from the same era and is thought to derive from ‘waegens-spic’, a bridge made from logs (a spic) that was crossed by wagons. The Wansbeck is not a ‘beck’ in the usual sense of the word though. The word ‘beck’ is usually from a Viking word meaning stream but that is not the case here.

For the Germanic Anglo-Saxons of Northumbria who arrived in Britain between 500 and 600 AD from southern Scandinavia and neighbouring areas of what is now the German coast ‘burn’ was one of the terms they used for a stream. As their territory extended north beyond Edinburgh into what is now Scotland the word was introduced there and has had a lasting legacy. Its roots however are Northumbrian rather than Scottish.

North East England or more particularly County Durham is the battleground between the ‘burns’ and their later Viking counterparts the ‘becks’. The Vikings arrived from across Scandinavia from around 866AD and in areas more intensely settled or shared out by the Norsemen the Viking word ‘beck’ replaced the older Anglo-Saxon word ‘burn’ in the names of streams although ‘burn’ often survives in the names of local places associated with those streams.

So we find places like Saltburn (salty stream) on the Cleveland coast and Sherburn (shiny stream) near Durham but the local streams from which they are named are now called becks on the map as well as by the locals too. The Bowburn Beck at Bowburn near Durham, for example, flows in the shape of a bow (as in bow and arrow) and was originally simply called ‘the Bow Burn’.

Many other places in the region include the word ‘Burn’ and the names of the streams from which they derive can often be self-explanatory. Take Fishburn and Seaburn for example, one would have been noted for its plentiful supply of fish, the other simply flowed into the sea.

Whitburn near Sunderland, named from a barn rather than a burn. Photo: David Simpson
Whitburn near Sunderland, named from a barn rather than a burn. Photo: David Simpson

It’s easy to be fooled though, as we find at Whitburn near Sunderland. Not a burn at all, this was originally the ‘white barn’, a white-painted barn or one built with white stone. Then we have Sockburn near Darlington  which was actually Socca’s burgh rather than a burn. It was the ‘burgh’ (a fortified place) belonging to someone called Socca. Even here further doubt is thrown on the explanation because the River Tees hereabouts quite clearly flows in a massive meander that forms the  very obvious shape of a sock offering a more popular ‘folk explanation’. The fact that Sockburn was for centuries the southernmost point of County Durham and thus at the limit of the ‘soke’ of the BIshops of Durham adds further to the confusion. Both Whitburn and Sockburn by the way have fascinating links to Lewis Carroll and his Jabberwocky poem and you can read about those links here.

So enough of the burns, what about the becks? Well, the word  ‘beck’ comes from the Old Norse ‘bekkr’ – ‘a stream’. It is the usual term for a stream in Viking settled Cumbria and Yorkshire but is missing from Northumberland where burn is used. In County Durham we get both becks and burns with burns in the north and becks in the south and the boundary between the two lies somewhere around Durham City and mid Weardale.

Durham City lies on the dividing line between becks and burns in the naming of streams across England. Photo: David Simpson
Durham City lies on the dividing line between becks and burns in the naming of streams across England. Photo: David Simpson

Streams north of Durham City are called burns all the way up to John O’ Groats in the far north of Scotland while south of the city they’re called becks all the way down to the Viking settled areas of the Norfolk coast. Meanwhile in much of southern England and even in Lancashire they prefer the later Dutch word ‘brook’ though burn in the form ‘bourne’ often occurs in place-names across the whole of England.

In Hamsterley Forest in Weardale we find a stream named from an Anglo-Saxon man called Bede (though probably not the famous Venerable Bede of Jarrow). It is called the Bedburn Beck. It seems superfluous when surely the name Bed Burn would suffice? It’s as if they couldn’t quite make up their mind whether to call it a beck or a burn.

To the south it’s remarkable to discover that every single stream that joins the River Tees directly is called a ‘beck’ while to the north every stream that joins the Tyne directly is a ‘burn’. Along the Wear it varies between beck and burn. In upper Weardale as far east as Wolsingham the word ‘burn’ is the choice but in the mid Wear valley around Bishop Auckland and Spennymoor where the river briefly sways towards the south, the preferred word is ‘beck’.

aucklandcastlebishopa
Auckland Castle, Bishop Auckland lies on the stretch of the River Wear where streams are called ‘becks’ rather than ‘burns’. Photo: David Simpson

In Durham City it changes again with the Mill Burn beneath the city’s shopping centre on the north side of the town marking the beginning of those burns again and it is the burns that continue to feed the river from Chester-le-Street all the way to the river’s end at Sunderland, or at least they do on the map. Over in East Durham locals use the term ‘beck’ and this may be the choice of word for some people in Sunderland too. It would be interesting to know.

River-names of Viking origin in the North East are not so common but include the River Skerne (it flows from Trimdon to the Tees at Darlington) but its earlier Anglo-Saxon name was something like ‘Sherne’ (the shining river). It became Skerne under Norse influence.

Historic view of Darlington and the River Skerne
Historic view of Darlington and the River Skerne

Other river names that are pure Viking include the River Greta (griota – its name means stony) that joins the Tees at Greta Bridge downstream from Barnard Castle. Upstream from ‘Barney’ the Tees is joined by the River Balder – Balder is the name of a Norse God.

At Bishop Auckland the Wear is joined by the River Gaunless, yet another Viking name. Gaunless (like gormless) means useless, but why is uncertain. Perhaps it was too short of fish to feed the hungry Vikings or too sluggish to power the workings of a mill.

Waterfalls are a bit like burns and becks in that they change their names according to where in the region you look for them. High Force and Low Force in Teesdale derive from a Viking word ‘foss’ that literally means waterfall. Forces also occur in Cumbria and Yorkshire too.

In Weardale though waterfalls are called ‘Linns’ and they go by this name in Northumberland too where there are many impressive waterfalls to see. Linn was seemingly a word used by the Anglo-Saxons of Northumbria but has Celtic roots deriving from ‘Hlynn’ a word for a pool – probably from the plunge pools found at the foot of a fall.

The River Tees, High Force Waterfall
The River Tees, High Force Waterfall

So we can see that ancient people of long ago and sometimes the slightly more recent settlers like the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings from Northern Europe have played an important part in the naming of our rivers and water features. Rivers and streams are unusual though for their ancient names. When it comes to the names  of our towns, villages, cities and topographical features, it is more often than not the Anglo-Saxon who named them.

Northern River Names, Meaning and Origin. Poster Print.

 

Presidents, Prime Ministers, people of power (and their links to North East England)

As Hillary Clinton continues her campaign to become the next President of the United States, DAVID SIMPSON examines her family connections to the North East and our region’s historic links to people of power and influence.

Washington Old Hall has ancestral links to the first President of the United States. Photo: David Simpson
Washington Old Hall has ancestral links to the first President of the United States. Photo: David Simpson

Hillary Clinton’s North East Links

It was not until relatively recent times that Hillary Rodham developed a preference for publicly using her marital surname as she pursued her high-flying political career. Despite her marriage to the man who would one day be President, Hillary would often go by the name Hillary Rodham. Whether she was aware of it or not,  she was preserving a family name that has links to North East England going back perhaps more than a thousand years.

Hillary’s father, Hugh Rodham, was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in 1911 but his father, Hugh Simpson Rodham, came from a family of coal miners and was born in the County Durham mining village of Kyo, near Annfield Plain in the year 1879.

Hillary’s grandfather was only a child when he left Durham for the United States along with his mother, Isabella Bell (a name that must surely have posed questions of amusement within the family). The young lad’s coal miner father, Jonathan Rodham originally of Wagtail Cottage, Holmside near Craghead had gone in search of new opportunities in the New World and with work secured there, he invited his spouse and child to join him.

Hillary Rodham’s paternal family tree and its associated branches show many links to coal mining in Durham and the North East, most notably around Tanfield and Chester-le-Street but also with links to Bishop Auckland and Wallsend. They were people of humble origin, although Hillary’s great-great-great grandfather, a Jonathan Rodham, married an Ann Parkinson at the fairly esteemed location of St Mary-le-Bow church, in the shadow of Durham Cathedral.

Hillary Clinton's Great-Great_Great grandparents were married in a church close to Durham Cathedral
Hillary Clinton’s Great-Great-Great grandparents were married in a church close to Durham Cathedral. Photo: David Simpson

Other County Durham family members in Hillary Clinton’s ancestry could well be descendants of Northumberland ‘Border Reiver’ stock with a smattering of Border Reiver surnames in the family tree that include Charltons, Bells and Grahams. There are no Armstrongs in this family, though, or at least as far as we can see. That would have been an interesting link as a descendant of that particular reiver family group have made their mark on American and world history in ways that take us well beyond our skies.

Many generations of the coal mining Rodhams in Hillary Clinton’s ancestry are linked to County Durham but their true roots are just to the north in the neighbouring county of Northumberland. Here, their very name stems from a place called Roddam (its name means ‘at the forest clearings’) and today it is the site of Roddam Hall. The name Roddam is the root of the Rodham surname, despite the slightly different spelling, and Rodhams and Roddams are thought to be the oldest family in Northumberland.

North East links in Hillary Clinton's family tree
North East links in Hillary Clinton’s family tree. Right click to open in new tab of window.

Roddam is near the tiny town of Wooler about eight miles – as the crow flies – from the border with Scotland though you’d have to cross the wild terrain of the Cheviot Hills to reach the border.

According to a Scot called John Major (now I’m sure I’ve heard that name before) writing some time in the 1500s, there was a man called Pole who was granted land at Roddam by King Æthelstan way back in Anglo-Saxon times. This man became the first member of the Roddam family, though over time some members of the family adopted the spelling Rodham.

It’s also interesting to note that among the Farne Islands off the Northumberland coast are rocks called Roddam and Green, though it’s not clear how or if these might relate to the family name of Roddam or the place near Wooler.

Our region’s connections to George Washington

If Hillary Clinton is successful in her quest to become US president she will find herself in esteemed company in respect to her links to North East England as the distant roots of George Washington himself can be found within our region.

George Washington
George Washington

The historic village of Washington, once in County Durham – we could perhaps call it ‘Washington CD’ – is now surrounded by the modern town of Washington and is a part of the City of Sunderland. It is the place from which the entire Washington family, everywhere in the world, take their name.

The name De Wessyngton (meaning ‘from Washington’) as the family were initially called, reflected the earlier spelling of the place that they acquired and of which they became lords around 1180. The family was originally called De Hartburn as they came from Hartburn near Stockton-on-Tees in the south of our region.

They changed their name upon moving location after purchasing Washington (Wessyngton) from Hugh Pudsey (c1125-1195), the powerful Prince Bishop of Durham.

Perhaps coincidentally, their family crest consisted of stars and stripes. In the 1400s one member of their family became a Prior of Durham Cathedral, an important and powerful political post whose influence was felt across the region. Prior Washington was second only in power to the Bishop in the North East.

Pub sign Washington village
Pub sign Washington village

Descendants of the Durham Washingtons held land here in the North East until the 1600s but during the 1300s some members of the family had moved on to Lancashire and then ultimately to Sulgrave in Northamptonshire. Nevertheless, they kept their Washington name and it was from this branch of the family that the very first President of the United States was descended. Ultimately though, it is from Washington in Sunderland that George Washington, Washington DC and the US state of Washington all take their name.

People of Power in Our Region’s Past

Aside from presidential connections, Durham and Northumberland are certainly no strangers to people of power in our history. We lay claim to figures of immense political influence and sometimes radical ones too, going right back to the earliest of times.

In the Anglo-Saxon era North Easterners like King Oswald (604-642AD) and King Oswiu (990-1035AD) became ‘Bretwaldas’ or overkings of all England. In later times, King Cnut, Viking ruler of Britain is said to have established a base on the site of Raby Castle in south Durham.

Bamburgh Castle, where the Kings of Northumbria ruled. Photo David Simpson
Bamburgh Castle, where the Kings of Northumbria ruled. Photo David Simpson

In medieval times the Neville and Percy families along with the Prince Bishops virtually ruled the north as a separate entity from their bases in Durham, Northumberland and Yorkshire. Just outside our region at Middleham Castle in Wensleydale, North Yorkshire was the primary home of both King Richard III and Warwick the Kingmaker (1428-1471), a Neville – whose name literally described the immensity of his power.

Our connections with royalty extend into modern times too. The present Queen’s ancestry has firm roots in County Durham through the Bowes family while, the Duchess of Cambridge along with her husband William and their children cement these links further through her family’s humble Durham mining connections that are not unlike those of Hillary Clinton.

PMs and  Political Giants of the North East

We have also had our notable share of Prime Ministers hailing from the region. Most recently, Tony Blair, though born in Scotland, was raised and schooled as a child in Durham and returned to represent the region in parliament. Under his influence the county of Durham became the only place in the UK outside London to be visited by President George W. Bush. The President dropped in on the home of Blair by helicopter before calling in for a meal at a local pub. Bush was the first US president to visit the region since Jimmy Carter came to  visit both Newcastle and our Washington here in the North East back in 1977.

Monument to Earl Grey, Newcastle. Photo: David Simpson
Monument to Earl Grey, Newcastle. Photo: David Simpson

In addition to Blair, earlier Prime Ministers who have have hailed from our region included Anthony Eden (1897-1977) of Windlestone, who came from a well-established Durham family and of course the great Northumberland-born reformer Charles the 2nd Earl Grey of Northumberland (1764-1845). Yes it is he of tea fame, who tops the monument at the very heart of Newcastle upon Tyne.

Much of Grey’s Great Reform Bill that brought about radical changes to British democracy was drafted with the assistance of his son-in-law John George ‘Radical Jack’ Lambton (1792-1840), the First Earl of Durham, a coal owner to whom Sunderland’s Penshaw Monument is dedicated. Lambton, a statesman who forged important international links, first as the Ambassador to Russia, would become Governor General and High Commissioner of British North America. He was the man who instigated the process of Canadian independence from Britain.

 Women of Power and Influence in the Region

The role of women may often be callously written out of  the history books but the influence of powerful females is ever present and no less so than in the North East of England.

There have been many notable female figures of power in the region going right back to Roman times when the first ever Northerner to be mentioned by name was in fact a woman, Cartimandua, who was. a formidable female opponent to the Romans in the North. When the Romans arrived she ruled over much of our region from her fort near Scotch Corner.

Then there was St Hilda, abbess of Hartlepool and Whitby in Saxon times, in her time one of the region’s most powerful figures, who shaped the religious course of Northern England in those early times and a woman by whom kings were guided.

Some of our region’s most powerful political campaigners have been females, notably Ellen Wilkinson (1891-1947), the one-time MP for Middlesbrough and MP for Jarrow who was so influential in the famed Jarrow Hunger March for jobs in 1936.

Ellen Wilkinson
Ellen Wilkinson

Then from earlier times we have Josephine Butler. Born Josephine Grey (1828-1906) at Milfield near Wooler not so many miles from the ancestral home of the Roddams, Butler was one of the most determined and influential ladies in Victorian Britain. Her campaigns against human trafficking and her work on behalf of female suffrage helped to change the lives and often appalling situations of women living in the Victorian era and beyond.

Josephine Butler
Josephine Butler

We could also mention Gertude Bell (1868-1926), the Tyne, Wear and Tees industrialist’s daughter born at Sunderland’s Washington ‘New Hall’ only metres away from the ‘Old Hall’ that was the ancestral home of the illustrious Washington family. Bell became a mountaineer, a political administrator, a spy and an archaeologist with a penchant for Middle Eastern culture and politics.

Gertrude Bell
Gertrude Bell

Her extraordinary life included her brave acts of diplomacy; meeting face to face with powerful members of often turbulent Arabian desert tribes in what was very much a male dominated culture and era, even compared to Britain of that time. Bell was of course also noted for her part in drawing up the borders of modern Iraq, working alongside T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) and she was by all accounts a very formidable person.

So it can be seen that whether or not Hillary Clinton comes to be elected as the first President of the United States, North East England is likely to take its links to her family very much in its stride. As a region we are certainly no strangers to people in positions of power.