County Durham’s Historic Past in 10 Sites

County Durham, situated on the north-east coast, is bursting with stories from its historic past; featuring everything from Romans to the first public railway to use the steam locomotives and more.

Here are 10 incredible sites from across County Durham:

1. Binchester Roman Fort, Scheduled Monument

Binchester Roman Fort ruins
Binchester Roman Fort. Courtesy of Wiki Commons

The fort and settlement (Vinovium) was estimated to have been built in around AD79 to guard the main Roman road between York, Hadrian’s Wall and Scotland. The fort was built to house troops from across the Empire, in the early years of Roman control in Northern England.

It was not just a military site but a bustling civilian settlement, containing one of the best preserved examples of underfloor heating system in the whole of Britain.

2. Escomb Church, Grade I

Side on view of Escomb Church, including graveyard
Escomb Church © Alan Marsh

This church dates from the 7th-century and is one of the oldest, remaining Anglo-Saxon churches in England.

The quoin (corner) stones are typically Saxon, with a 14th-century porch and some 13th and 19th-century windows. It was restored in 1875-80 by R J Johnson and in 1965 by Sir Albert Richardson and still looks much as it would have done in Saxon times.

3. Durham Castle and Cathedral, World Heritage Site

View of Durham Castle and Cathedral on rocky hill, surrounding my leafy green trees
Durham Castle and Durham Cathedral © Historic England, ref: PLB_N060750

Durham Cathedral was built between the late 11th and early 12th century to house the bodies of St. Cuthbert (634-687 AD), the patron saint of Northumbria, and the Venerable Bede (672/3-735 AD). The castle was built around 1072 by the Normans, intending to re-establish William the Conqueror’s control over the town after the defeat of his army.

Over the centuries it has been a stronghold and palatial residence for Durham’s prince-bishops and since 1836 has been the home of Durham University. Durham World Heritage Site was inscribed on the World Heritage List by UNESCO in 1986.

4. Derwentcote Steel Furnace, Scheduled Monument

Derwentcote steel furnace
Derwentcote Steel Furnace © Historic England Archive, ref: PLB_J910335

Built in the 1720s, Derwentcote is the earliest and most complete steel-making furnace in Britain.

The Derwent Valley in County Durham was the centre of the steel industry in the 18th century as this was where the use of a new process known as cementation enabled the production of more and better steel.

As well as being the earliest cementation steel furnace in Britain, Derwentcote is also the only intact and complete example.

5. Stockton and Darlington Railway, Grade II

Side on view of Stockton and Darlington railway carriage works
Stockton and Darlington Railway Carriage Works © Copyright Andrew Abbott

Stockton and Darlington railway was a railway company that operated in north-east England from 1825 to 1863. It was the world’s first public railway to use steam locomotives, with its first line connecting collieries near Shildon with Stockton-on-Tees and Darlington.

Much of the original route is now served by the Tees Valley Line, operated by Northern.

Historic England established the Stockton and Darlington Railway Heritage Action Zone (HAZ) to help rejuvenate and restore the 26 mile stretch of historic railway.

6. Ushaw College, Grade II

Chapel of St Aloysius, Ushaw college
Junior House and Chapel of St Aloysius, Ushaw College © Historic England, ref: DP185921

Catholic scholars established a new theological college at Ushaw in 1808, after generations of exile in France after the French Revolution.

There was a steady expansion during the nineteenth century with new buildings put up to cater for the expanding number of clerical and secular students. These were designed by Augustus Pugin and Joseph Hansom and the majority of the buildings are now listed.

Ushaw College closed as a seminary in 2011, but some buildings are now used by Durham University and it was reopened as a visitor attraction in 2014.

7. Durham’s Miners’ Hall, Grade II

Durham Miners' Hall
The Durham Miners’ Hall © Durham Miners’ Association

Opened in 1915, the Durham Miners’ Hall was the democratic hub for the 200,000 miners who were members of the union.

It is one of the finest trade union buildings in Europe, intended as a status symbol so that when negotiations went on here the strength of the union was understood.

At the building’s heart is the Pitman’s Parliament – a 298 seat debating chamber. Each numbered seat corresponds to a colliery which would send a delegate to the Pitman’s Parliament. It was here that important debates shaped the lives of whole communities in the Durham coalfield.

Read more about the Pitman’s Parliament

8. Bowes Museum, Grade I

Bowes Museum
Bowes Museum. Courtesy of Wiki Commons

The Bowes Museum was built by one of the most ancient families of County Durham. John Bowes, an illegitimate son of the 10th Earl of Strathmore, built the museum alongside his wife who he’d met in France, Josephine Benoite, an actress and Countess of Montalbo.

The couple shared a passion for art and wished to create a world-class museum back in John’s ancestral home of Teesdale to introduce the wider world of art to the local people. They had a collection of around 15,000 artworks and objects. Sadly, both John and Josephine died before the Museum opened in 1892.

The site has been in the ownership of Durham County Council since 1956 and is open to the public.

9. Harperley Prisoner of War camp, Scheduled Monument

Two huts at night at Harperely prison of war camp
Harperley POW Camp 93 © Historic England, ref: DP143,502

Harperley Camp is a very rare surviving example of a purpose-built PoW Working Camp and is the only PoW camp designated as a scheduled monument.

During World War I, Harperley Hall had been used to house a small number of German PoWs. In World War II the Harperley estate was again called upon, and a purpose-built camp was established by January 1943, initially to house Italian PoWs captured in North Africa. On 22 September 1944 the remaining Italians at Harperley Camp were dispersed to hostels and farms to make room for 716 Germans deemed to be of a low security risk.

The camp is thought to have ceased to function as a PoW camp by summer 1948 at the latest, although it may have continued to be used as a hostel for agricultural workers or displaced people waiting for new housing.

10. Apollo Pavillion, Grade II*

Apollo Pavilion
Apollo Pavilion Historic England, ref: DP101632

The Apollo Pavilion, Peterlee, both a sculpture and a bridge, is the only truly three-dimensional work by the internationally known artist Victor Pasmore. The Pavilion and lake together form a focus for the Sunny Blunts housing area.

The idea for the Apollo Pavilion was the culmination of Pasmore’s involvement with the planning of the new town of Peterlee which began in 1954. The early departure of Berthold Lubetkin had led to a deterioration in the quality of the architecture being produced at Peterlee.

Pasmore began designs for the Pavilion in 1963 and it was completed in 1969.

What have we missed? Let us know your favourite sites in County Durham in the comments below.

Further Reading

Header image – Durham Cathedral and Castle, Historic England, ref: PLB_N060750

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