The voice of archaeology in Britain and beyond

Cover of British Archaeology 96

Issue 96

September/October 2007



Ambassador sees peace message in museum

Archaeologist who fought for history's underdogs dies

Roman fort found in Cornwall

Full scale of ancient Welsh stone quarry revealed

In Brief & Phase 2


More travels - This is not just a walk, this is an archaeological walk
John Cannon considers places to see in County Durham

Green treasures from the magic mountains
Alison Sheridan describes exciting new French project on Jade Axes

Fading star: Star Carr
Fieldwork at the iconic mesolithic site reveals new fears


Let Lucy sparkle

on the web

Recommended websites
Who's blogging? And the Society of Antiquaries of London


Views and responses

CBA correspondent

Campaigns, comment and communications from the CBA
Mike Heyworth wonders what lies ahead for archaeology


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


More travels: discovering County Durham

In the first of a regular series that looks beyond Mick's theme, Jon Cannon opens the door to the lost landscapes of north-east England.

County Durham is a place more traversed than explored. The seeker of the past tends to imitate the Romans, moving between the urbane grandeur of Yorkshire and the riches of modern Northumberland, perhaps faintly confused even as to the county's historic boundaries, recently eroded by the clipping of its north- and south-eastern corners to create Tyne and Wear and Cleveland. Yet the county confounds expectations in several ways; and its one unmissable attraction – Durham itself – defines and explains the very existence of this "county of the people of the saint".

County Durham's spiritual borders – the Tyne to the north, the Tees to the south – are emphatic enough. Indeed for the Romans the Tyne, to which Hadrian's Wall is parallel on the northern side, was the edge of an entire empire. Yet these two rivers are also part of a wider pattern. Like Northumberland, and (with important qualifications) Yorkshire, County Durham is a land of three halves: a bare spine of hard limestones to the west; a strip of rolling farmland, often on deeply reddish sandstones or coal-covering limestones, in the middle; and a coastline split by the swift, east-to-west rivers that run off the highlands and carve deep valleys in the rural hinterland.

Here, immediately, the county begins to assert its identity. The western highlands are surprisingly bare of visible archaeology; while the post-industrial bleakness of the eastern coast masks – or complements, depending on taste – a historic landscape of unexpected richness. And the central hinterland offers a feeding frenzy for the medievalist. It is here, with Durham city itself, that the seeker-of-the-past should begin their exploration – before heading to the east, leaving the far west for a briefer exploration.

It was in 995 that the Community of St Cuthbert, displaced first from Northumbrian Lindisfarne and then from Chester-le-Street by Scandinavian invasion and colonisation, established itself on a sheer-sided peninsula of rock in a loop of the River Wear; an unassailable location that quickly became Durham: a key focus of Anglo-Saxon power in north-eastern England. This was no wandering band of pious churchmen; it was the community of one of England's mightiest bishops. They carried with them some of the most breathtaking and expensive artefacts in British history: the Lindisfarne Gospels (now in the British Library); the talismanic body of Cuthbert himself, accompanied in its coffin by textiles (some from as far afield as Constantinople) that are now on display in the Treasures of St Cuthbert Museum in Durham Cathedral. Just as significantly, they were sustained by an extraordinary endowment of lands: and among their vast estates in northern England was the block of land that we now call County Durham, but which was more often referred to in the early medieval period as "Haliwerfolk": the county of the people of the saint. For medieval people, it seems, County Durham was anything but a place-on-the-way-to-elsewhere.

The cathedral close was in effect the base of two conjoined institutions, bisected by the cathedral itself: to the north of the church, the city-within-a-city that was the cathedral's in-house Benedictine monastery, itself one of the greatest in the land; to the south, the castle of the bishop and his administration. No other medieval bishop's palace is more frankly the stronghold of a great secular lord; no other bishop – especially during the 14th century – was more completely lord, secular and spiritual, over the territory at the core of his see.

The Normans reinvented community, saint and cathedral alike, replacing the married priests who made up the Community of St Cuthbert with Benedictine monks and from 1093 creating one of Europe's great romanesque churches on the site of the Anglo-Saxon cathedral. Yet it was not until the 14th century Scottish wars that Durham truly became the "Land of prince bishops" so proudly proclaimed on its tourist signage; the cathedral is often portrayed as a monument to such men, but is in fact better understood as a muscular melding of Anglian and Norman traditions under the patronage of a great saint: much about its architecture, such as the famous spiral columns, are colossal architectural evocations of a shrine. (Cathedral and monastic buildings: open seven days a week, restricted access during services; donation requested onentry. Treasures of St Cuthbert: Mon–Sat, 10am–2.30pm; Sun 2pm–4.30pm; additional charge; Durham castle: accessible through guided tours several times a week; memorable bed-and-breakfast offered outside the academic term).

To get to grips with the settlement's extraordinary setting, follow one of the vertiginous paths that lead from city to the riverside on the west side of the church and then around the Wear gorge, stopping off at the Durham Museum of Archaeology in the much-photographed riverside Fulling Mill (Mon–Fri 11am–4pm; hours slightly restricted off-season; small charge for admission).

In a sense, all County Durham's other medieval monuments are subsets of the cathedral priory. There are no other great religious houses, for example, but there is a remarkable collection of castles and churches, and almost every village seems to have been laid out by 12th century planners, with regular settlement plots around a narrow green; a vivid testimony to "regeneration" after William the Conqueror's violent harrowing of the north in 1069–70. Church highlights (access variable) include Pittington (off the A690 4 miles/6.5km north-east of Durham); Finchale priory (3 miles/5km north-east off the A167; English Heritage, open weekends and bank holidays Apr–Sep; admission charged); and Escomb (just north of Bishop Auckland; usually open), the best-preserved pre-Viking era church in Britain. Even an exploration of the county's castles – conveniently strung out along the A688 – starts with those of the bishop, at Durham and Bishop Auckland (restricted opening, summer months only; admission charged), the latter still the bishop's palace. But equally impressive are Raby castle, fortified stronghold of the Nevilles (at Staindrop on the A688; opening days vary but cover most of the summer) and ruined Barnard castle on its crag above the Tees (English Heritage: closed Tue and Wed in winter; admission charged). Durham's lack of rich monastic houses (outside the cathedral) meant that its aristocracy were not enriched as dramatically at the Dissolution as were those of other counties; and this in turn has left many of these buildings with unusual amounts of medieval fabric intact.

All in all one could spend a joyous few days exploring the county's hinterland and the traces of its medieval roots, simultaneously mopping up the Roman sites discussed by Mick. More surprising is the richness of its eastern seaboard and the limestone plateau, site of the Durham coalfields, that leads up to it.

Here, in one of the most economically troubled areas of England, are medieval sites almost the equal of those further west, standing cheek-by-jowl with the county's best prehistoric monuments and the extraordinary traces of its industrial heritage. Efforts to get coal off and wood (for fuel and construction) onto the plateau explain many of the county's most remarkable industrial sites, perhaps embodied – taking a loop east on the way north-east from Durham to the coast - by the Causey Arch (on the footpath to Tanfield from the south west of Causey Burn). This 32m stone bridge was built across a steep gorge in 1727 to carry the rails along which wagons of coal were pulled by horses heading from the east Durham plateau to the harbours of the Tyne. It is thus the earliest railway bridge in the world.

Once reached the eastern coast is a landscape of ripped concrete, shattered estates, distribution centres and colossal pylons. Yet here – touring north-to-south, with the A184, A19 and A179 one's lodestones – lies Jarrow, where the architecture of Bede's World (open daily, admission charged) rather overshadows its collection, but the recreated Anglo-Saxon farmstead is one of the best in the country. Worryingly easy to miss, but just next door, lie the remains of Jarrow monastery itself: another Anglo-Saxon church (usually open) with the excavated ruins of the monastery in which Bede wrote his irreplaceable account of early English Church history – though most upstanding remains are 11th century (English Heritage: open any reasonable time).

More unexpectedly, it is here, in modern Tyne and Wear that one can visit Copt Hill, an enormous tree-covered neolithic round barrow (NZ353492 towards the west end of a golf course south of the B1404 west of Houghton-le-Spring); more comprehensively ploughed out is the causewayed enclosure-and-cursus complex at Hastings Hill near Offerton. Further south, and in modern County Durham proper, one passes such towns as Seaham, Easington and Hartlepool, where the contrasts come thick and fast. Seaham harbour, faced by a crescent of houses and offices, was developed by the third Marquess of Londonderry from 1828. The parish church contains yet more Anglo-Saxon work and a fine 13th century choir. The colossal colliery at Easington has been flattened: the terraces that grew up around it are with us still; yet the village has a 12th century planned settlement at its core. Nearby Peterlee is a planned town of the 20th century, with on its southern fringe Castle Eden Dene – one of the finest of the steep-sided valleys that characterise the approach of many of the county's rivers to the coast.

Hartlepool offers even more vertiginous depth-in-time. Here is another grand church, as well as traces of the seventh century cemetery of the monastery founded here by St Aidan; fragments of a town wall that extend memorably across the beach, guarding against 14th century Scots invasions; more recent traces of attempts to create an 18th century resort at Seaton Carew; and finally the new town of West Hartlepool, promoted from 1854, whose acreage of docks was soon exceeded only by Liverpool and London. Hartlepool also has the rare distinction of having been bombed by the German navy in 1914.

The riches of this coast are heritage raw in tooth and claw: the kind of heritage I like, as vital and challenging as history itself; thick with the experience of a past as it was lived, rather than gazed at doe-eyed from afar. One can only regret that it has been so completely cleaned of the traces of heavy industry: this was once one of the most polluted coastlines in Britain, and while the clean-up was necessary it sometimes seems to have thrown the industrial baby out with its rather mucky bathwater. To see the enormous staiths, for example, wooden piers by which goods were transferred from rail to boat, one has to backtrack to Dunston, near Gateshead, on the Tyne.

In any case, at Hartlepool we are in modern Cleveland, but heading back west for the final leg of our digest-a-county tour we run close to County Durham's most epoch-making invention: the very first railway in the world, much of whose line, incorporating several surviving structures of the 1820s, still runs from Stockton to Darlington; Stephenson's original rocket is on display at Locomotion, the National Railway Museum at Shildon (open all week Apr–Oct, Wed–Sun off-season; admission free).

After these exhausting locations, the uplands on the county's western fringe are something of a letdown for the seeker of the past in the present. These bare hills do not drip with visible archaeology in the way that, say, the Cheviots or North York Moors do; but there are things to be seen by following any of the great routes that traverse the Pennines, such as Weardale, followed by the A689, its landscape split by centuries of lead mining, much of the remains of which are in dangerous condition but on open land (check for access). The Killhope Lead Mining Museum (Apr–Oct, admission charged) is a good place to start. Or the Stainmore Pass, where the A66 tears its way along one of the oldest east-west routes in England; here are 12th century Bowes Castle (English Heritage: open any reasonable time) in the village of the same name, built on the site of Roman Lavatris; and further east the earthworks of Roman signal stations and marching camps, such as that split by the dual carriageway at NY900124 (layby on westbound carriageway; road extremely busy). This location, 100m from the Cumbrian border, is also the site of a barely-visible stone circle and the enigmatic, early medieval Rey Cross. Here, high in the Pennines and suitably on the way somewhere else, we can (literally) look back at one of England's more underappreciated counties.

Jon Cannon's The English Cathedrals & the World that Made Them (Constable) is out in October.

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