I don’t know whether it was the clarification of the meaning of “gate” in my recent Ripon post but I found myself musing on another place-name that is common in the Durham area, where we have  Framwellgate Peth,  Crossgate Peth, and Peth Lane in the vicinity of the city, and just a little further afield the village of Brancepeth.

If you’re familiar with the accent in the North East of England you wouldn’t expend much effort in guessing that “peth” means path, but you’d only be half right; it also implies that it’s a steep path.  Given that Durham, like Rome, is a city on seven hills the frequency of the word is explained.

And so on one of the recent uncharacteristically sunny spring days I set out for Brancepeth with camera bag and trusty copy of Pevsner (the book is older than I am!).  I’ve passed through the village many times but never stopped.  Time to put that right.

On those earlier trips I used to enjoy the glimpses of the castle visible in the distance, yet no such reward awaited me this time.  Had I just missed it?  Had the road been slightly rerouted? New properties built to obscure what Pevsner referred to as “one of the greatest thrills one can experience in the county”?  He is less complimentary about the castle itself (which being largely 19th century he describes as “operatic scenery” than he is about that view.  Consequently I was relatively unconcerned that the stronghold is in private hands and closed to the public.  (Nice tea room in the barbican though!)

My object was much smaller; the nearby church of St Brandon.  “Aha” I thought; “Brandon’s Path – Brancepeth”.  Maybe, but a local legend tell of an enormous “brawn” (wild boar) that terrorised the area in 1208.  A stone was placed to commemorate the slaying of the beast, so there could be some truth in it, but as the church predates this I’m sticking with my preferred view.  The church tower is 12th century but there’s evidence of Anglo-Saxon origins.

With my new liking for all things carpentry I was looking forward to discovering “the glorious woodwork” in a Gothic Revival style.  Installed mid 17th century, Pevsner states that there is no better place to study the style than here in Brancepeth, which is where the age of my copy becomes a problem.

On September 16th 1998 fire swept through the church, doubtless fuelled by that glorious woodwork, and temperatures reached 1200°.  Estimates suggest that the church was 20 minutes away from complete destruction when the fire was brought under control.

Astonishingly in these days of falling attendances the building has been restored, and with craftsmanship worthy of the structure’s history.

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There has even been a silver lining.  Medieval decoration has been revealed by the loss of plaster coverings and a multitude of medieval grave slabs that had been repurposed as window lintels were discovered in the debris and now displayed prominently on the church walls.

The imagery of these slabs used to cover graves is interesting.  All bear a central cross running the length of the slab, though some of these crosses are elaborately decorated, perhaps to resemble a “tree of life”.

The additional engraving of a sword to one side of the cross is clear indication that the man beneath the slab was a warrior, but several also bore a smaller symbol on the opposite side.

At first I thought these were mason’s compasses, but I later learned they were shears symbolic of a woman being buried beneath the slab.  Men as protectors, women as providers of clothing.

Sexual stereotypes of the middle ages!


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