Tides of change in the land of Canute
by Chris Lloyd
Echo Memories visits the Aucklands, or 'Alclit' where plans
are afoot to create an oasis of calm in an area historically under
siege by traffic
|Street scene: Above, a late 19th Century picture
of Front Street, West Auckland, with the Rose and Crown pub
on the left and Mary Ann Cotton's taller home next door. Below,
the view today
West Auckland is whizzed through. St Helen Auckland is sped past.
Crossing the green, a pantechnicon slows down, changes gear, clatters
the kerb with a couple of its 16 wheels and then accelerates throatily
through Toadpool and smokily up Etherley Bank.
Behind it are a pair of blackleathered bikers, their shiny helmets
obscuring their faces as if they were middle-aged hoodies. They
angrily buzz the lorry's tailights, desperate for both a way past
and a noisy, thrilling chase up hill and down Durham dale to Corbridge.
Weaving a way across their path is light traffic, the Barnard Castle
to Bishop Auckland school run, hospital run, shopping run, delivery
run, business run, home run. . .
They stop-start past West's two ancient halls which stare at each
other across the large village green, separated only by the village
They stop-start past where Mary Ann Cotton - as notorious as Harold
Shipman in her day - committed the last of her 20-ish murders, and
crawl round the sharp bend into St Helen, crossing the Gaunless
and queuing for the lights with a third old hall hidden behind an
impenetrable screen of trees.
Tonight, plans for an oasis of calm amid this rush-and-go of traffic
will be discussed at the Manor House Hotel in West Auckland. It
is a historical evening, to which local people are encouraged to
take along pictures of the past so that they can be incorporated
into the "oasis".
Echo Memories will be telling what it knows, and the Environment
Agency will be explaining its plans for a wetland area between Spring
Gardens and Ramshaw.
The wetlands are making a virtue out of the necessity of a flood
alleviation scheme. The agency is creating an area where the Gaunless
can back up to its heart's content without inundating the homes
of West Auckland.
Running through the wetlands is the trackbed of the Haggerleases
branchline - the second branchline in the history of the world.
It opened, as Echo Memories told a couple of years ago, in 1830,
wending its way quite beautifully alongside the Gaunless through
Ramshaw and around Cockfield Fell to the bottom of Butterknowle.
But the Haggerleases brought with it noise and pollution. It created
mines - deep and drift - which needed ropeways, wagonways, aerial
runways and spoilheaps. And it created employment, which in turn
created the settlements we know today as West and St Helen Auckland.
So for all of the past 175 years, the Aucklands have been filled
with traffic of one design or another. But once, in the beginning,
there was a quieter time, an emptier time, a more rural time.
THERE are many and various theories about the beginning of the
name "Auckland", but most agree that it was originally
What "Alclit" means is where the variation comes in.
Could it be Celtic, referring to its position overlooking the River
Cluit - the pure, cleansing river which we know as the Gaunless?
Or could it translate as "additional land"? Because in
about 1018, the fledgling Bishop of Durham was given some additional
land by the new King of England, Canute.
Canute had acquired the throne in bloody fashion, with the church
taking a severe bashing. Once crowned, Canute became much less violent
and tried to make amends. His gifts to Bishop Aldhun of Durham included
Staindropshire - Staindrop, Evenwood and Wackerfield - and "alclit",
the additional land of Escomb and Newton Cap, plus Alclit West and
Alclit North obviously caught the clergy's fancy as a palace was
built there and it became Bishop Auckland. Alclit West remained
as West Auckland, its farming serfs tied to the bishop.
It had to provide men to work on the bishop's land, and when he
went hunting in his great forest of Weardale, they had to go with
In fact, the Aucklandshire men's specific job was to build him
a temporary hall in the forest. It had to be 60ft by 15ft with a
butlery, a chamber, a privy and a chapel which had to be 50ft by
15ft. In return, they were allowed a barrel of leftover beer.
As this rural community grew, it split into two, probably when
in 1235 the Forester family gave a plot of land for a chapel to
be built on. It was to be a satellite to the main parish church
of St Andrew Auckland at South Church, but it quickly grew and was
dedicated to St Helen.
So the village of St Helen Auckland is to be found to the east
of the River Gaunless, with West Auckland to the west. Even though
they appear to merge seamlessly into one, they are separate entities
and each separate lords of the manor.
Among St Helen's earlies was the Conyers family of Sockburn, to
the south of Darlington, who went round slaying giant worms and
The Carr family of merchant adventurers bought the manor in 1610
and built St Helen's Hall next to the church - it is this hall that
is hidden behind the impenetrable screen of trees.
William Carr, the MP for Newcastle, enlarged the hall in the early
18th Century, but by 1742 he was deeply in debt:
£8,364 18s 31/2d in debt, to be precise (roughly three-quarters
of a million in today's money).
A clue to a source of his debt may be found in this description
of him by a Victorian historian: "He was a man of fine taste
of unbounded hospitality and who supported the character of a country
gentleman with a splendour almost unparalleled."
The splendour cost him dear, and he sold the hall to the Musgrave
family from Penrith (the most notable architectural feature in Penrith
centre is a clocktower erected in 1861 in memory of 26-year-old
Philip Musgrave, who died in battle).
The knighted Musgraves began boring for coal in their back garden
in 1828, and having found it, sold the hall and the mine to Sir
Joseph Whitwell Pease of the famous Darlington family.
Meanwhile, back over the Gaunless, the lords of West Auckland manor
were the Eden family - even though they tried their hardest to lose
everything by backing the wrong side in a battle.
In 1589, Robert Eden joined the Rising of the North in which the
nobility of Northumberland tried to retain the traditional Roman
ceremonies in the face of the new-fangled Protestant religion. Mass
was celebrated in St Helen's church when Mistress Jayn Eden was
Queen Elizabeth's troops crushed the rising and they arrested 278
men from southwest Durham. The ringleaders were executed along with
a salutary percentage of the footsoldiers: two of the 12 St Helen's
men who were arrested were beheaded, as was one of the three from
Robert Eden, though, was spared. He was neither naughty enough
to deserve death nor poor enough to be killed without cost. The
Queen gained far more by fining him heavily.
One hundred years later, Robert's grandson realised that in times
of national strife, it was expensive to disobey the monarch and
so he sided with King Charles I during the Civil War. On December
27, 1643, Charles asked Robert's eldest son, 27-year-old John, to
raise a regiment of 1,000 soldiers from Durham.
But alas, the Edens once again found themselves on the wrong side
and, once again, they were fined heavily, this time by Oliver Cromwell.
Yet all was not lost - even when Cromwell's men defeated Charles
II at the Battle of Worcester in 1651.
The king crept from the battlefield and hid from the Roundheads
from noon to dusk in a mighty oak tree.
In 1660, when Charles II was restored to the throne, he declared
that his birthday, May 29, should be celebrated as Royal Oak Day.
To reward his 687 closest noble supporters, he made them Knights
of the Royal Oak.
One of those knights was John Eden of West Auckland, and in his
honour, a pub on the outskirts of his estate was named Royal Oak.
A hamlet on the A68 grew up around the pub, and although the pub
closed some 60 years ago, the hamlet is still Royal Oak.
The Edens moved out of West Auckland in the late 1830s.
They tired of their medieval manor house with 1429 over the door,
and had just built a sparkling mansion at Windlestone, near Rushyford.
They even built a sparkling mausoleum in the Windlestone grounds,
and removed all of their dead from St Helen's churchyard (in 1984,
all of their dead were returned to St Helen's because vandals plagued
It is no coincidence that both the Musgraves and the Edens moved
from their manors at A NOTE on the Gaunless. Its name is said to
come from the Old Norse word "gaghenles" which means something
like gormless, gainless or useless.
This is probably because the Gaunless can be a mean trickle that
doesn't sustain fish and hasn't created many fertile meadows along