Derwent Valley: Whickham, Swalwell and Gibside

Whickham lies half way between the valleys of the Derwent and Team : © David Simpson

The River Derwent and Derwenthaugh

Western Gateshead Borough is focused in and around the valley of the River Derwent that lies at the heart of one of the most varied parts of the borough. Here the scenery ranges from open country in the Pennine foothills to extensive woodland. There are also scattered former pit villages, Tyne and Derwent riverside settlements with industrial history and attractive towns and villages like Whickham.

Derwent is a Celtic name meaning ‘oak-river’ and is one of several of this name in England. It begins life west of Blanchland in Northumberland and feeds the Derwent Reservoir nearby. During its route to Gateshead it passes the western edges of Consett, Ebchester and Hamsterley – all places in Durham. For most of its course the Derwent was the historic border between Northumberland and Durham and still serves this role up to the border with Gateshead.

From Consett to Swalwell the valley hosts the beautiful Derwent Walk Country Park which follows the former track-bed of the Derwent Valley Railway. Linked to the park is another called Derwenthaugh Park, on the west side of the river between Winlaton Mill and Blaydon.

Derwenthaugh Park occupies the site of Derwenthaugh coke works which opened in 1928 and were demolished in 1986. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century one of Ambrose Crowley’s iron works was located here.

Derwenthaugh is also the name of the riverside land where the Derwent enters the Tyne near Blaydon to the north. Here the nineteenth century Derwenthaugh Staithes were once used by the Consett Iron Company. Though not as impressive as Dunston Staithes, they are an important relic of North East industry.

The mouth of the Derwent and Derwenthaugh Staithes (behind). In the distance are the Scotswood Bridge and Armstron factory at Elswick in Newcastle. Photo © David Simpson 2017
The mouth of the Derwent with Derwenthaugh Staithes (behind). In the distance are the Scotswood Bridge and ‘Armstrong’s factory’. Photo © David Simpson 2017

Swalwell and the Metrocentre

Swalwell lies on the east bank of the Derwent where it is crossed by the A1 as the river broadens to become the Derwent Gut before entering the Tyne to the north. Historically the Derwent at Swalwell was infested with sand, tidal mud banks and islands.

Swalwell’s name means water inhabited by swallows and was first mentioned in Durham’s Boldon Book in 1183. From the 1620s it belonged to the powerful Claverings of Newcastle and in 1700 Ambrose Crowley established an iron works here as a follow up to that established at Winlaton a decade before.

‘Crowley’s Crew’ at Swalwell, were a particularly rough bunch, especially during the annual Swalwell Hoppings, held each Whit Sunday during the eighteenth century. Entertainments at the Hoppings included grinning for tobacco (girning) and rather gruesomely a man who ate a live cockerel, feathers and all.

Entertainment of a different kind came to Swalwell in 1986 with the opening of the MetroCentre to the north east. It is Europe’s largest shopping mall and opened on April 28 that year (the official opening was October 14). Built on previously undeveloped land belonging to the Church of England it was the brainchild of developer Sir John Hall and his firm, Cameron Hall Developments.

The talented composer and musician William Shield (1748-1829) was born in Swalwell. He went on to become the principal violinist at Covent Garden in London and Master of the King’s Musick.

Often credited with inventing the modern musical, Shield wrote the opera Rosina in 1781. He sometimes took inspiration from Northumbrian folk tunes and there is evidence to suggest he may have composed the tune to ‘Auld Lang Syne’. He is buried in Westminster Abbey’s Poets Corner.


Whickham means ‘homestead with the quickset hedge’ and was mentioned in Durham’s equivalent of the Domesday Book, the Boldon Book in 1183. By the 1300s it was an important coal mining area shipping many thousands of tonnes per year by the late 1600s.

Described as a large and respectable village in the 1850s, the original Whickham occupied the brow of a hill overlooking the valley of the Tyne to the north and the valley of the Team to the east. The lovely stone houses of the 1700s around Church Chare, Front Street and Rectory Lane, are reminders of Whickham’s rural roots. The church, dedicated to St Mary is partly Norman-medieval but was largely rebuilt in the 1860s by the architect Anthony Salvin.

On the south side of Front Street off Rectory Lane, the local general practitioners’ centre occupies a building of 1713 that was formerly a rectory and then a cottage hospital. The arch above the door is decorated with the arms of Lord Crewe, an eighteenth century Bishop of Durham with the date 1713. The arch is topped with a bishop’s mitre.

Also of interest is a windmill tower of about 1720 on a small hill in Chase Park. It replaced an earlier mill mentioned in 1576. Modern Whickham has grown beyond the original village and stretches east towards Dunston Hill, north towards the MetroCentre and west towards the valley of the Derwent.

Whickham church
Whickham church. Photo © David Simpson

Whickham Coal and Wagonways

Although there are no coal mines in this area today, the Whickham district has played a very important part in the mining history of North Eastern England being a mining district at least as far back as the fourteenth century. At this time the local mines belonged to the bishop of Durham and were reputedly the largest in Europe.

During the time of Bishop Bury (1333-1345) the bishop granted a 12 year lease of mines in the manors of Whickham and Gateshead to Sir Thomas Grey and to a rector of Whickham called John Pulhore and this was renewed by Bishop Hatfield in 1356 though Hatfield appointed a Nicholas Cole (an appropriate name) of Newcastle as the ‘Kepper and Vender’ of his coals in the two manors in 1367. In the 1550s mining rights were leased by the Bishop to John and Stephen Sotheran and in the 1570s to Bartram Anderson, a Merchant Adventurer of Newcastle.

In 1582 Queen Elizabeth I ‘extorted’ the coal mines in the Whickham area from the Bishop of Durham in a ‘Grand Lease’ which lasted for ninety nine years. The Queen passed the mining rights to the Earl of Leicester and it then passed into the hands of a group of wealthy Newcastle merchants known as the Hostmen. Initially in 1583 the lease was under the possession of Newcastle aldermen called Henry Anderson and William Selby. They sold it to the corporation of Newcastle under the control of 13 wealthy burgesses who held the lease until it expired in 1681.

It then reverted back to the Bishops of Durham and Bishop John Cosin granted the rights to his son-in-law Sir Gilbert Gerard and a subsequent Bishop of Durham called Lord Crewe sold it to Colonel Liddell. As Lords of Ravensworth the Liddells and their partners owned the rights to mining as part of a powerful cartel of coal owners called the ‘Grand Allies’.

Later in the eighteenth and part of nineteenth century most of the coal mines in the Tyneside area were owned by this wealthy group of allies who included the Bowes family who lived near Whickham. Originally from Teesdale, this family came to be associated with the area after Sir William Bowes of Streatlam married Elizabeth Blakiston of Gibside. The Gibside estate is in the Derwent Valley near Whickham.

Many of the mines in the Whickham area owned by the Bowes family were linked together by what is now the world’s oldest existing railway at Tanfield. The Tanfield wagonway crossed what is now the world’s oldest railway bridge at Causey Arch near Beamish. The wagonway was linked to the coal staithes at Dunston on the River Tyne.

Sporting Hero

In the cemetery of St Mary’s, Whickham a memorial stands to one of Tyneside’s most popular sporting heroes. Today the sporting greats of Tyneside tend to be footballers, but in Victorian times rowing was the great cult sport of the area and Harry Clasper (1812-1870), a pitman from Dunston on Tyne was one of the greatest British oarsman. Harry who constructed his own boats was a regular champion of all the major regattas in the country and competed as a sculler or in fours and pairs with his equally talented brothers.

Born in Dunston, Harry began life as a pitman at Jarrow, aged 15, but changed career to work for a boat-builder. Clasper went on to become a pioneering boat designer but it was as an oarsman that he really made his name.

In 1845 Harry constructed a boat called The Lord Ravensworth to compete against the best British oarsman in the coxed fours of the Thames Regatta. Accompanied by his three brothers (one as coxswain) and his uncle, Ned Hawks, Harry’s team were victorious by one and a half boat lengths to claim the championship of the world.

When Harry died in 1870 his loss was lamented by all Tyneside and his funeral procession was attended by an incredible 130,000 people who crammed the Tyne bridges and the banks of the river to watch as his coffin was carried on board a steam tug to Derwenthaugh near Blaydon from where it was taken ashore for burial at Whickham.

Sunniside and Hollinside

Sunniside on Whickham Fell immediately south of Whickham literally means sunny hillside and was first recorded in 1322 as Sonnyside. Street Gate, its immediate neighbour to the west on Blackburn Fell, recalls a Roman Road. The peculiarly named Fugarfield Wood further to the west is named from a family of French origin called De Feuger who owned land hereabouts in the 1200s.

The ruins of a fortified medieval manor house called Hollinside can be seen in a beautiful setting above the River Derwent between Whickham and Gibside to the south. For centuries it was the home of a family called the Hardings who were said to resemble giants.

Gibside pictured around 1819


The beautiful parkland of Gibside has belonged to the National Trust since 1965 and is one of Gateshead Borough’s most popular out of town locations. First mentioned in the 1200s and possibly named from association with someone called Gilbert, it belonged to the Marleys but passed to the Blakistons in the 1540s.

Gibside Hall was built in 1603-20 by William Blakiston but was partly demolished in 1958 and is now a roofless shell. In 1713 this house passed through marriage to the Bowes family of Streatlam in Teesdale who became the Bowes Lyon family 1767. Their descendants include Queen Elizabeth II. In 1725 George Bowes, increasingly wealthy from Durham coal, moved to Bowes from Streatlam near Barnard Castle and landscaped the Gibside grounds. See simplified Bowes family tree.

By 1746 impressive stables were built and a banqueting house, a gem of Gothic revival, was erected in 1751. The stables and Banqueting Hall survive as does the ‘Column of British Liberty’ completed by architect James Paine in 1757. It stands higher than Nelson’s column.

Gibside’s grounds include acres of walking space and a play park for children but the real star of Gibside is the magnificent Palladian style Gibside Chapel, a building that would not look out of place in Rome. It was commissioned by George Bowes for his mausoleum and commenced by James Paine in 1760.

In 1767 Mary Eleanor Bowes, heiress of Gibside married the Earl of Strathmore, whose surname was Lyon. He adopted the surname Lyon-Bowes (later Bowes-Lyon). The couple had five children, but sadly, Strathmore died in 1776.

Mary Eleanor attracted new admirers and was tricked into marriage by a former Irish Lieutenant, Andrew Robinson Stoney, later called ‘Stoney Bowes’. His treatment of Mary was a national scandal and she divorced him in 1789. Stoney, who tried to become MP for Newcastle was always in debt. His name gave rise to the phrase ‘stoney broke’.

Blackhall Mill and Rowlands Gill

Blackhall Mill, a village south of Chopwell near the border with County Durham is situated in the rural Derwent Valley in Gateshead borough’s south west corner. It grew in the 1700s when steel making was developed by the Bertram family. The watermill operated here by the Bertrams served to power a forge and a paper mill.

Rowlands Gill is on the north side of the Derwent between Blackhall Mill and Winlaton Mill. It is named from a little ravine called Rowland Richardson’s Gill. At least three Rowland Richardsons were associated with this area in the 1600s. The village itself only came into being in the 1890s when it developed around a railway station near the Gibside estate which lies across the river.

Chopwell ‘Little Moscow’

Chopwell, further along the valley to the west of the extensive Chopwell Wood is named from the Anglo-Saxon ‘ceap-well’ meaning ‘the spring where trading took place’. From 1150 Chopwell belonged to the monks of Newminster Abbey near Morpeth after it was given to them by the Bishop of Durham in exchange for the settlement of Washington.

Chopwell, however remained in the hands of Newminster until 1536 when Henry VIII closed the abbey. There was already mining at Chopwell by this time but its significance increased after 1756 when a new mine opened.

In the 1920s Chopwell was known as Little Moscow because of significant support for the Communist party in the village, a legacy still recalled in the street called ‘Marx & Lenin Terrace’. During the 1926 General Strike the local council offices raised the Soviet flag in place of the Union Jack. At Whickham, there was also once a Marx Crescent and a Lenin Drive but these were renamed and are now simply called ‘The Crescent’ and ‘The Drive’.

Chopwell Colliery ceased operating in the early 1960s and in 1964 the government declared Chopwell a Category D village meaning that it was officially allowed to decline without investment. The village lived on however and is noted for its lovely rural setting on the outskirts of Gateshead close to the extensive Chopwell Woods.

High Spen north of Chopwell, developed as a mining settlement in the early nineteenth century from a collection of farms. Spen is thought to be an Anglo-Saxon word meaning fence or hedge.

Gateshead Quay and Town Centre | Medieval Gateshead

Felling and Heworth | Angel of the North, Low Fell and Birtley

The Team Valley | Blaydon and Ryton | Newcastle 

Shotley Bridge, Ebchester and Hamsterley | Consett

Blanchland and Derwentdale

 Washington | Chester-le-Street | Stanley and Beamish


North East England History and Culture