Newton News ran a seven week series on the history of Newton Aycliffe, written by Town & County Councillor, and local historian John D. Clare and covered from the ice age to present day.
During the last Ice Age an ice sheet higher than Ben Nevis slid down across Britain from Scandinavia as far as Cardiff. Whatever was there at the GPS coordinates which now mark Newton Aycliffe we do not know, because the advancing ice not only removed any surface features or archaeological remains, it literally ground down the existing landscape to slit and clay … which it then dumped in a thick layer when, eventually, it melted. Nature literally wiped the slate clean to start again.
Eventually, those huge glaciers began to melt faster than they advanced. And because this process doesn’t happen smoothly, it so happened that one glacier paused, perhaps for a century or so, at 54.61° N, 1.53° W. During that time, it ground out a shallow bowl in the place we now know as The Carrs. And it dumped a huge pile of clay and rocks – in what is called a ‘terminal moraine’ – in a great arc stretching from Brafferton in the east, round through Aycliffe and Woodham, to Windlestone in the north.
So it was therefore out of the aftermath of the last Ice Age, that the landscape which we now know emerged, completely new and waiting for humankind to shape it into Newton Aycliffe … although, of course, it is more true that that landscape has shaped our settlement than the other way round.
If you drive up Lime Lane past Wade’s Quarry, and stand on the bridge over the A1M and look north, you will appreciate the size of that terminal moraine – landscaping by Nature on a scale beyond anything we could hope to achieve. And it always used to excite my students to know that, 12,000 years ago and up at least until Roman times, a large lake – Aycliffe Lake – formed behind that moraine, stretching back as far as Sedgefield.
And one more interesting feature. The ice-cold waters gushing from that post-glacial lake quickly cut an exit through the loose clay and rubble at the point we now know as Aycliffe Village – the waterway we now call the River Skerne. But, for a while, the water also ripped out a deep valley just to the west of Woodham School.
Have you ever wondered why Woodham Burn, for no apparent reason, suddenly turns back on itself at Williamfield Way and flows north into an ever-deeper channel? How did such a small stream cut such a huge valley, **into a hillside**? The answer, of course, is that it didn’t cut the channel – a post-glacial torrent cut that valley, and little Woodham Burn simply adopted it as it struggled in that new wasteland to find its way towards the sea.
I will leave you with just one more thought. When we say ‘last’ Ice Age, of course, you will realise, we mean ‘last’ in the sense of ‘most recent’, not ‘last’ in the sense of ‘the final one’. It is highly likely that, in some century to come, the glaciers will return.
And what will remain then of all our endeavours before an advancing wall of ice a mile high?
I always used to tell my students that – after the ice retreated – nothing happened in Aycliffe until the Anglo-Saxons. It shows how wrong you can be, and there have been two discoveries recently which have completely changed my view of the area’s pre-history.
The first happened in 2013, when Hitachi excavated the Merchant Park site before building their factory. They found a Stone Age flint in a quarry-site, and Bronze Age ceremonial cremation burials. It is impossible to argue that these are just the leftovers of nomads passing through – those people lived here!
Thus we have evidence of people living here as long as maybe-5,000 years ago, which has to be mind-blowing. They settled just south of the terminal moraine, and no doubt found a living from the birds and fish which flourished in the marshy land round about, and from the nearby lake/fen which we now call the Carrs. The archaeologists even found that one of those Bronze Age residents had been cremated with his toolkit of flint knives and scrapers, so we can speculate about his lifestyle, and his beliefs, and his family relationships.
By the Iron Age, we have further revelations from the Hitachi site – the foundations of two farmsteads, and evidence of animal-herding and sheep-pens … from which we gather that our Iron Age ancestors here were more than hunter-gatherers – they were livestock farmers.
So we all know that the Hitachi factory has stimulated our local economy now and changed our immediate futures, but you may not have realised how much it has also revolutionised our ideas about Aycliffe’s past!
And what about the Romans? It seems that I was wrong about them as well. My very first act as a County Councillor was to call out an officer and complain about the state of Burn Lane. Ironically, at the same time as I was trying to get Burn Lane a decent modern surface, I was also telling people that the Romans had little or nothing to do with Aycliffe. So it is with some humility that I have to tell you now that, a year or so ago, I was contacted by Mr Tony Bennett of Safeline Taxis, who asked me whether I thought that Burn Lane was maybe a Roman Road? He even put me in his car and drove me round to prove his point. And by the time he had finished, I agreed that he was correct.
We have known for a long time, of course, about Dere Street, the Roman equivalent of our Great North Road, which ran straight as a die from Piecebridge, through West Auckland, to the Roman ruins at Binchester in Bishop Auckland.
And there has been speculation since the 18th century antiquarian John Cade first suggested it of a second Roman Road – a sort of Roman A19 – running north through Sadberge to Sedgefield and beyond. This theory was confirmed in 2002 when Channel 4’s Time Team found the road – along with evidence of a large industrial settlement – across from Hardwick Park in Sedgefield. It was, apparently, the most northerly non-military town in the Roman Empire – and it seems to have made high-end pottery for the whole of the north of England. One can’t help but wonder whether the location of that factory-town was influenced by the ready availability of clay from our alluvial moraine.
However, going back to Burn Lane, when I sat down with a map and drew straight lines from either end of Burn Lane, I found evidence which indeed suggests that there was a Roman road from Bishop Auckland, along Burn Lane, down Ricknall Lane past the Gretna, and ultimately following what is now a long straight footpath called Catkill Lane, which joined Dere Street to Cade’s Road. So if Dere Street was the Roman A1, and Cade’s Road the Roman A19, then Burn Lane was the Roman A689 joining the two, and it rather sensibly ran across the raised land of our terminal moraine, south of the fenland which is now the Carrs.
So! Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Roman Empire. Do you not find it mind-boggling to think that, across fifty centuries, there have been people working, travelling and living in the place we tend to think of as our ‘new town’, just 70 years old?
There were people living in our area before the Saxons but, to be brutal, if you blinked you would miss the evidence. It’s only after about 500ad that we begin to find substantial evidence of the area being extensively settled.
Just the place names tell us a lot about the land that the Saxons found when they invaded the area. In the middle of The Carrs we find ‘Bradbury Isle’ – a suggestion that maybe the post-glacial lake still survived, at least as a fen. And the name Brafferton – meaning ‘broad ford farm’ – tells us more about what that area was like when the Saxons arrived. Place names such as Eldon (‘hill of elder trees’), Thickley (‘clearing in a thick wood’) and ‘Acley’, now Aycliffe (meaning ‘clearing in an Oak wood’) all suggest the land west of the Skerne was heavily afforested.
The existence of a ‘Priest farm’ at Preston is intriguing, and most fascinating of all is the place-name ‘Walworth’. One of the debates in early Saxon history is whether the Saxons drove out the Ancient Britons (the people they called the ‘Welisc’) into Wales, as the Chronicles of the time suggest … or whether like most conquerors they just moved in and took over as rulers of the indigenous population. The existence of a ‘Walworth’ (meaning the ‘Welsh people’s house’) throws some light on that debate.
There is, of course, a fabulous Saxon Church in Aycliffe Village. It was extensively refurbished in Victorian times, but in Saxon times it would have looked like Escomb Church. There are a number of fragments of cross-shafts, headstones and carvings of Saxon origin, along with the remains of two Saxon crosses. In these days when Christianity was just being established in Britain, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that there were two Church Synods held at a place called Acley in 782 and 789ad, and the suggestion is that these two crosses commemorate those two synods.
If that is true, we can surmise that Saxon Aycliffe was quite a significant place, and – unlike today – the church would have been surrounded by a substantial settlement. There is a story that there is a secret tunnel from the Church to Monks’ End, down by the Skerne in the modern village, built so the monks could escape the Vikings. I am sure that story is a myth, but it reinforces the idea that Aycliffe was once an important Christian venue.
The relic of Saxon times which I find most exciting, however, is a road. If you go to Middridge Village Hall, set off southwards down Walker’s Lane and keep walking, you will eventually come out on School Aycliffe Lane. You will just have walked what I am sure was the main Saxon road north – the Saxon A167. The School Aycliffe end of the path is particularly evocative, one of those sunken pathways cut deep by the tramp of thousands of feet, with ancient hedge on either side. It is possible to trace the track also northwards from Middridge, through Kirk Merrington, to where it became the modern A167 after Croxdale.
It wasn’t until the Normans that the Carrs had dried out enough to build what we now call the A167 between Aycliffe and Rushyford, and not until 1960s technology that we were able to build the A1M across the Carrs. In Saxon times, therefore, traffic heading north through Darlington and Durham had to take a detour round the marshland, and I am sure they did so via what was still, in a 1634 document, called “the main road to Darlington”.
In 937ad, there occurred the Battle of Brunanburh – the battle which established the English nation … arguably the most important event in the whole of our history. Two Icelandic scholars have recently suggested that the battle took place at Hunwick, and that the English forces marched there from Darlington to fight. If that is the case, then they almost certainly marched up Walker’s Lane, before turning east along the Roman road to Bishop Auckland … so the road in ancient times probably bore the feet that founded England.
I find it thrilling to think of all those Saxon soldiers, traders, carts and animals passing along that road and – when I was out on field trips there with my students – I used to ask the young people to think about those people, and to realise that, just as we were wondering who was walking along that road a thousand years ago, some of those people will have been wondering who might be walking down the road in a thousand years to come. They were, of course, thinking about us, as we were thinking about them, in a moment we were sharing across a millennium.
Have you ever thought how incongruous the place-name ‘Middridge’ is? Middridge is nowhere near a ridge – it’s at the bottom of a hill looking across a flat plain. The truth is, I don’t think modern Middridge is anywhere at all near where Saxon Middridge was – I think Saxon Middridge was located a mile away near Old Towns Quarry, across the railway line from Greenfield School. That would place it, meaningfully, on the middle ridge between the higher land at School Aycliffe and Old Eldon. And in this respect the name ‘Old Towns’ Quarry is significant, especially when you realise that it was called ‘Middridge Old Towns’ in 1427.
Another medieval conundrum you may have considered is why there are no houses round St Andrew’s Church, with modern Aycliffe Village located almost a quarter of a mile away – and no, it isn’t because of the Plague, which is the common misconception.
Come to think of it, have you ever noticed that both Aycliffe Village and Middridge are planned settlements – Aycliffe designed as a square, Middridge as two parallel rows – both around a village green? Looking further, the 1847 Tithe Map of Middridge reveals that the two rows of houses were formed from plots of identical size – ten on Northside, nine on Southside.
What circumstances could have produced such a rigid, imposed settlement pattern, away moreover from the location one would have supposed to be the natural site of the village? Who moved those villages, and why?
The answer, as you may already have guessed, is William the Conqueror … or, to be probably more exact, the Prince Bishops who ruled Durham for him.
We all know that William conquered in England in 1066. What you may not know is that, in 1069, the people of the North-East rebelled against Norman rule. William, his entire kingdom at risk, came north in great wrath and did not cease slaughtering the people for the whole winter. Worse – in an age when you could not just pop down to Tesco’s if you ran out of food – William destroyed their winter food stocks. It was in effect attempted genocide, and the Chronicles of the time paint a graphic picture of too few living to bury the dead, corpses rotting openly in the streets, people giving themselves into slavery to avoid starvation, and all the villages deserted from Durham to York.
It is my belief that, when William was done, the Prince Bishops gathered up the surviving Saxons, and incarcerated them into purpose-built settlements of rows of Nissen huts, facing onto a parade ground where they could be mustered every day. Don’t tell the posh people of Middridge and Aycliffe, but their picture-perfect villages started life as Norman concentration camps.
Even a century later, in 1183, a Bishop’s survey called Boldon Book reveals that the villagers of Middridge still had a life little-better-than slavery. They were ‘villeins’ – serfs – owned by the Bishop, forbidden to leave the village without permission, made to work the Bishop’s land as well as their own, and laden with a huge burden of taxation in produce and money – 8 scotchalders of malt, and the same of meal, and the same of oats, plus 40 chalders of oat-malt, and 7½ cartloads of wood, and 30 hens and a thousand eggs … EACH household.
Just one man in Middridge was better off than the rest, who superintended the boon-works and went on the Bishop’s errands. The Victoria County History suggests that his name – spelled ‘w-e-k-e’ – should be pronounced ‘Weakman’, because he may have had a disability, but I am assured by someone who speaks Old English that a more authentic pronunciation would be ‘Wakeman’ … which would suggest that he was the Saxon quisling who acted as the Bishop’s enforcer, the man who woke the villagers for their morning roll-call.
I think we might all at this point wish to send back through the centuries a wave of loathing for Mr Wekeman.
Even after the horrors of the Norman genocide, the lot of our local people improved eventually. Counter-intuitively, one of the key milestones in this was the Black Death. The death of maybe half of the population wrecked the feudal system – and with no one to plough the fields, the great landowners had to turn over the land to sheep, and to give the villeins their freedom and the labourers a wage. I have not found any evidence whether the Black Death directly affected Aycliffe or Middridge, but I would assume it did because at nearby West Thickley, we are told, “they are all dead”.
By the Early Modern Age, therefore, we see a Middridge of free yeomen and tenants, who paid rents and taxes, and who – far from being oppressed – were very assertive and troublesome. We know, for example, that local people joined the Catholic Rebellion of the Earls in 1569, because some of them appear in the execution lists. And one 19th century history of the area claims that one of the leading Gunpowder Plotters was at one time a tenant of Middridge Grange – how thrilling is it to think that the Gunpowder Plot might have been planned here, although to be honest I can find no evidence for it whatsoever.
Forty years later, the area became mixed up in the Civil Wars. Anthony Byerley at Middridge Grange kept a regiment there for the King; it is claimed that you can still see the holes in the attic beams where the soldiers hung their hammocks. Meanwhile, just up the road at Thickley, the notoriously quarrelsome Lilburne brothers joined the Parliamentary Army. Advancing up the ranks, Colonel Robert Lilburne became one of the regicides who signed King Charles I’s execution warrant. And his brother John was even more radical – John Lilburne was a ‘Leveller’, an early advocate of ‘the people’s rights’, and one of the first people in the world to demand universal male suffrage – the right of every man to vote for his government. How weird is that – to think that our notions of democracy began with a ‘nightmare neighbours’ family from Thickley!
Also, did you know that in the 17th century there was a famous horse-racing track at Woodham – important enough for King James 1st to visit it. Perhaps connected to this is the fact that, in 1692, the owner of Middridge Grange, Robert Byerley, put his Arab Stallion the ‘Byerley Turk’ out to stud. Local stories that the stallion was nefariously ‘acquired’ from a travelling Turkish showman are untrue – sadly, it seems that instead Robert Byerley captured him from the Ottoman Army. But however it happened, the Byerley Turk transformed horse-racing. English horses at that time were heavy and powerful, and the sleek, long-legged Arab racehorses were much faster (a fact which saved Robert Byerley’s life in Ireland in 1690). So the Byerley Turk became one of three Arab stallions which revolutionised horse-racing, and their blood is in the pedigree of every modern racehorse in the world. I keep telling you that our area has changed the world, and how amazing a fact is that!
And as for the lives of the ordinary villagers? Were you taught at school that the enclosure movement happened in East Anglia in the 18th century? You were taught wrongly – the three Open Fields in Middridge were enclosed, centuries in advance of East Anglia, in 1634. It is an interesting sidelight on those litigious times that, three years later, the tenants took two of their neighbours to Durham Chancery Court, alleging that they had been deceived into signing the agreement because they could not read! The Court did not believe them, and the enclosure went ahead in 1637, followed by another – of the moorland at what we now call Cobblers Hall – in 1704. It is just another example of how our area was ‘ahead of the game’ in the 17th century.
Enclosure helped Middridge grow. I have a graph showing how, 25 years (i.e. one generation) after each of the two enclosures, there was a visible increase in the number of baptisms per year (which is a proxy for population growth). Yet it is one of the saddest pieces of evidence I possess because, although it shows how the two rounds of enclosure allowed a larger population, you can still see that there was a ceiling to growth, as natural increase continually kept pushing the population beyond the village’s resources … only to be knocked back by plague, famine, weather and war. The Early Modern Age may have been full of action and even inspiration … but we have to accept the tragic fact that, for the majority of people, their lives were, in the words of Thomas Hobbes: “poor, nasty, brutish and short”.
On 16th September 1825, a number of heavy wagons left the Stephenson Works in Newcastle and trundled 32 miles southwards down the Great North Road. When they reached Aycliffe – perhaps some 4 or 5 days later, such was the pace of transport in those pre-railway days – they turned westward up Heighington Lane, until they reached the new railway line which the Stockton & Darlington Railway Company had been building for the past three years. There, at what is now the level crossing at Heighington Station, the first public passenger steam locomotive in the world was assembled and placed onto the rails of the first public passenger steam railway in the world. At the time the locomotive was named ‘Active’ but, because the Company had ordered three more locomotives for their fleet, it soon became, simply, ‘Locomotion No.1’.
The new company quickly developed all the infrastructure to run a modern steam railway, including signals, a timetable, branch lines, the first railway suspension bridge, repair yards etc. The crossing at Heighington Lane became first a halt, then they built a tavern there for people waiting, then they started selling tickets there … and what we know as the Locomotion Pub became at least one of the first railway stations in the world. The original platform is still there, suitably hidden.
People fight about which was ‘the first railway in the world’. There certainly had been wagonways using steam locomotives in collieries, and railways with horse-pulled passenger carriages, all well before the Stockton & Darlington Railway. And the proponents of the Liverpool to Manchester Railway (1830) argue that the S&DR was in fact only ‘the last wagonway’, and that it was the L&MR which was ‘the first railway’. But, as they do new research for the bicentenary in 2025, the Friends of the Stockton & Darlington Railway are proving beyond doubt that in fact, not only was the S&DR the first company to put all the elements of a modern steam railway together into a working whole, but that they made it commercially viable … and as a result, people from all over the world copied it (including Germany and America … and, yes, the Liverpool and Manchester Railway).
At the time, I suspect the people involved in that epoch-creating event on Heighington Lane were unaware of how momentous a moment it was. Having delivered the locomotive, it was discovered that no one had a tinder-box (and of course there were no matches in those days), so no one could light the boiler. A boy was sent to the local pub for some fire, but he went and never returned. In the end, it being a sunny afternoon, one of the navigators – a man named Robert Metcalf – lit a fire with the magnifying glass he used to light his pipe. And the world steamed off into our future. I mean … it’s exciting, isn’t it!
The new railway carried freight, goods and passengers. Local farmers sent their produce to market by train. A mine at Middridge was just one of many collieries which used the S&DR, and you can still trace the wagonway which took its coal down to the line. Small villages grew up beside the railway at the bottom of Walker’s Lane – Riseburn to the south and Eden Pit to the north – and commercial quarries were established there too. A rival company built a better route from Aycliffe to Stockton but, because it still had to join onto the S&DR at Simpasture, the Stockton & Darlington Company was able to drive it into bankruptcy, and to take over the line.
I don’t know whether you imagined 19th century Aycliffe and Middridge as sleepy, Lark-Rise-to-Candleford rural villages, but they were anything but. 853 people lived in Middridge in 1890 (compared to 300 today) and the population of Aycliffe in 1879 included, stunningly, not just the expected farmers, market gardeners, cattle dealers and hay sellers etc., but also: a plasterer, 3 butchers, a coalman, 6 shopkeepers, a tanner, 3 shoemakers, a beer seller, 2 tailors, a baker, 2 joiners, 3 pubs and 2 hotels, 2 blacksmiths, a miller, a builder, a greengrocer, a cartwright, a school, the church and two Methodist Chapels, a railway station and a saw mill. 150 years ago, our area was economically-dynamic, and socially bustling. Of the 146 people over the age of 16 living in Middridge in 1851, just 33 had been born in the village.
When I was a teacher, it took an hour’s lesson and a homework to teach the students all the economic and social consequences of the railways. How amazing is it to think that it ALL started at that one point in time and place … which we now know as Heighington Station. In this series, we have heard that a man from Thickley invented our democracy, and that a stallion from Middridge Grange transformed horse-racing. But this was the moment when an event in Great Aycliffe went on to change the world.
Our area’s 19th century economic moment ended with the 19th century. In 1896, Middridge Colliery had 432 employees, in 1914, four. It is difficult nowadays to imagine the poverty of those times. Gladys Wheldon, who grew up on Greenfield Farm before the First World War, remembered a child from Riseburn walking to school one icy winter morning without shoes, wearing nothing but three summer frocks, one on top of the other, each more threadbare than the one beneath. In the Depression of the 1930s, nearby Eden Pit was so poor that it was adopted by Bedford philanthropists! Impressed by the spotlessly clean houses and patient endurance amidst the poverty, they sent hampers of food and clothes, and funded workshops and education rooms there. What could be done to help this settlement, wondered Mr Liddle, headteacher of Bedford Modern School … and he suggested “a high-powered bomb”. In a way, he was proven correct – the salvation of our area was the Second World War.
“What do you do?” I used to ask my students. “Hitler is bombing the hell out of you, and you need to make the bullets and bombs to fight back.” The government’s answer was to build a Royal Ordnance Factory here – hidden on a misty, boggy moorland, but close to the Great North Road and the railway system. The ROF employed mainly women – they came to be called the ‘Aycliffe Angels’, and you can find a memorial to those heroines of the Home Front outside St Clare’s Church.
“And how do you keep the people working for 6 years of hell in those dangerous factories, and fighting and dying in the armed forces?” The government’s solution was to ask a chap called Lord Beveridge to devise a ‘Welfare State’ for after the war ended – a promise to the people of a world worth fighting for. After the War, Beveridge was looking to prove that his Welfare State idea worked, and he saw the now-redundant Ordnance Factory as an opportunity. It was re-imaged as an Industrial Estate and, north of it, ‘Newton Aycliffe’ was built as a ‘new town’ – a place for people to live separate from where they worked, not cheek-by-jowl with dirty industry as in the old factory towns. Beveridge wanted Newton Aycliffe to be a perfect town, a classless town where the manager lived next to the mechanic in council housing – a “paradise for housewives”, with houses grouped around greens, where children could play safely. For a while, Beveridge himself moved here to guide the new community’s early development, and you can still see his house at the top of Pease Way.
The first sod was cut in 1948, and the first inhabitants moved in to ‘no gardens, few roads, no shops and surrounded by a sea of mud’. They called themselves ‘pioneers’, and they worked with pioneering spirit to build the perfect community. The occupants of the first batch of houses – 40 aluminium prefabs at Clarence Green and Travellers Green – became so fond of them that, when they were scheduled for replacement in 1964, the tenants forced Aycliffe Development Corporation to rebuild them instead.
We still have the social housing, we still value our green spaces, and I meet people every day who still exemplify that wonderful original community spirit. But I have to admit that over the years the Beveridge Vision has faded. In the eighties, Margaret Thatcher decided that the Welfare State was bad for Britain, and the Tories have been dismantling it ever since. Nevertheless, is it not a cause for pride that WE were Beveridge’s exemplar, the flag-carrier of a social model that promised ‘bread for everyone before jam for anyone’?
INDEED, as you have listened to these seven stories of Aycliffe, have you not been genuinely thrilled by how important our area has been?
12,000 years ago there was nothing here: an area scoured clean and covered with clay. For millennia there was all-but-nothing. But since then this place has played a seminal role in such as: the establishment of Christianity in Britain; the development of modern horse-racing; the first conception of British democracy; the world’s first operational steam railway; and the establishing of the Welfare State. In the meantime, we have survived genocide, plague, failed rebellion, Civil War, and economic recession. None of us are indigenous – we are all incomers, or the descendants of incomers. But we are world-changers, we find our strength in our own resources, and we have proved ourselves unbreakable.
If the amazing history of Aycliffe does not make you proud-to-bursting to live in this place, there is something wrong with you.