Brandon On The Up

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!

Fit for a Prince

Though most of its citizens are doubtless unaware of this, Durham has a pretty special history.  There was probably an earlier settlement here, but the place was really put on the map when the monks of Lindisfarne arrived with the bones of St Cuthbert (hermit of the Farne Islands) 300 years after his death to keep him safe from Viking raiders.  I say bones, but one of the features of Cuthbert’s body was that is was supposedly incorruptible.

Durham was England’s greatest pilgrimage site until the murder of St Thomas a Becket gave Canterbury a claim to fame (and an easier journey from the capital for the pilgrims).  Nevertheless Durham continued to draw in the crowds until the monastery was stripped by our old friend Henry VIII.

But let’s rewind a little.  When the Normans invaded, they placed great importance on Cuthbert’s shrine and built the great cathedral that houses his bones and those of St Bede.  Two saints for the price of one and two of the figures that made Northumbria the century of European culture in the dark ages.  Given its distance from London, and the unruly nature of the north they made the bishop a very powerful man, second only to the King.  Thus Durham became the land of the Prince Bishops – a title that into the 19th Century, and a castle was built alongside the cathedral to house the potentate._pw_3843_hdr

I tend to undervalue the castle and for a couple of reasons:

  • It’s difficult to view it all in one go, therefore difficult to envisage its size unless you resort untitled-8236to a drone (or the view from the cathedral tower)
  • From the Palace Green, where the gatehouse stands,  the keep atop its hill (motte to be accurate) seems insignificant when  you have the towering mass of the great church to your back.

From the riverside it has a more imposing aspect, given greater prominence by the hill on which it stands (Durham has seven like Rome), and some streets do their bit in blocking out the larger neighbour, but from most places there’s no getting away from the fact that the castle is the junior partner in this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Which is a pity, because the building embodies some rich architectural heritage; inevitable given that it was home to a series of princes.  The original builders were Anglo-Saxon and so there are traces of Anglian styling.  Romanesque arches imported by the Normans are topped with characteristically English Gothic windows.  The courtyard beyond the gatehouse feels like an Elizabethan palace, and the Great Hall, built in the 14th century, was Britain’s largest until shortened towards the end of the 15th!

Another claim to fame; it is the only Norman castle in England not to have been breeched in combat.  A Scottish invasion in 1346 was routed at the nearby Battle of Neville’s Cross and the Scots King David II was captured, apparently after the divine intervention of Cuthbert.

When the Bishops decamped to a new home in Bishop Auckland, Durham Castle became home to students of the university, who have been in residence ever since.  Consequently access to the interior is limited and on the day I visited not allowed.  It seems the young from the around the world are the new princes.  And princesses._pw_3941


Lumley Autumnly

As I was in Birtley this morning, I followed the road into the adjoining town of Chester-le-Street, probably best known to those outside the North East as the home of Durham County Cricket Club.  Their ground has a picturesque location on the banks of the River Wear, so it was here that I headed for some pictures.

The area is dominated by the 14th Century Lumley Castle, reputedly one of the most haunted buildings in the region.  No sign of any ghosts today, just intermittent autumn sunshine enjoyed by golfers on the course below the castle, and Aydin, a young Turkish man who was enjoying the riverside park with his son.

I’ll let the pictures tell the rest of the story.


Near the bendy spring?

The village of Bywell in Northumberland was once a busy medieval market town, yet little remains of the settlement now.  I was told many years ago this was due to the plague, though I haven’t been able to confirm this by any recent research – it may have been cleared by the landowner for agricultural purposes at some point in history. What makes the place remarkable is what does remain.

The medieval market cross still stands atop a stepped plinth but where shops and houses may have crowded together behind it there is now just green fields.  A little way to the north lies the 15th Century gatehouse tower of Bywell Castle, but it is to the South and West of the cross that you may find something extraordinary for separated by no more than a few yards you will find not one, but two churches with Anglo-Saxon origins.

St Andrew’s has the more complete features of the period; the high pointing roof, defensively thick walls, and the best Anglo-Saxon tower in all of Northumberland.  It is no longer used as a church though the building is conserved.  Although improved and extended in the medieval period its origins go back to the mid ninth century.

St Peter’s was the reason for my visit today as I will be photographing a wedding there very soon.  It was probably built even earlier than its neighbour and is believed to be the site where Bishop Egbert of Lindisfarne was consecrated.  There is less evidence of the Saxon church left here, it having been substantially altered in the 13th Century.

Trying to understand the meaning of old names is often a challenge.  I grew up in a part of Sunderland (another Saxon settlement originally) called Fulwell.  Some would tell you that this means exactly what it says; that there was plentiful water there, whilst others would say that it derived from “foul well”, meaning that the water was poisoned or unclean.  Two very different interpretations!

Bywell is not quite so extreme, but good old Wikipedia states that it means “bend in the river”, which would make sense since it is situated precisely at such a location, where as others take it more literally to mean “by the spring”.  Personally I would question the latter  – why would a spring have such significance with the river so close at hand?

Anyway back to St Peter’s where I was meeting bride and groom to look at the possibilities for photography that the church provided.  This would have gone very smoothly… had we not activated the security alarm as soon as we opened the door!  There may not be many people in the area, but they all knew we had arrived!  Just as the alarm reset itself we were joined by Maddy and Joe who will be singing at the wedding.  They rehearsed a couple of songs and were doubtless glad not to be accompanied by the wailing of the alarm.

They will sound great on the day.  Maddy’s voice is as beautiful as her smile, and Joe’s guitar playing is as understated as his!  I can’t wait to hear more.