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Durham: Widdershins

Where is Durham?

In our fourth and forty-fourth episodes, we referred to loads of interesting Durham-based things - and promised links and photos, so here they are:

Durham Ox

The Durham Ox (March 1796 – 15 April 1807) was a steer who became famous in the early 19th century for his shape, size and weight. He was an early example of what became the Shorthorn breed of cattle and helped establish the standards by which the breed was to be defined.

A dedication accompanying a 1802 painting of the ox by John Boultbee (1753–1812) gave details of the animal's measurements and estimated its weight as 171 stone (1,086 kg), but later estimates ran as high as 270 stone (1,715 kg), although there may be some confusion, as the stone was not a standardised weight at the time. Whilst his size and weight partially account for the admiration he attracted, he was also regarded as a particularly fine and well-proportioned example of his type, at a time when the concept of selective breeding for specific characteristics was becoming established in agriculture.

On show in Oxford during February 1807, the ox damaged his hip as he was getting out of his carriage. The injury failed to heal and on 15 April 1807 he was slaughtered. His weight after death was reported to be 189 stone (1,200 kg).

County Durham Leek Pudding

Leek pudding is a savoury suet pudding and there are two ways to make it. The first way is wrapping leeks inside a casing of suet pastry so they tumble out when you cut the pudding. The second way is to mix the leeks into the pastry, an all-in-one version. To cook both versions you need to steam the pudding in a bowl until it is ready.

As with many local recipes, there are other variations which include adding cheese or bacon into the pudding with the leeks to add a different flavour. Whatever variant you choose the common ingredients are suet pastry and leeks.  


  • 230 g (8 oz) self-raising flour

  • ¼ tsp salt

  • 100g (4oz) chopped suet

  • 450g (1lb) leeks

  • 8-10 tbsp cold water

  • Salt and pepper for seasoning

  • 1 tsp mustard (optional)

  • 100g butter


First, sift the flour into a mixing bowl. Add the suet, salt and pepper and mustard, if using and mix thoroughly. The mustard adds a slightly spicy taste which complements the leeks.

Add the water a little at a time, mixing until you get a stiff dough. You may not need to use all the water, make sure you do not add too much as the dough will become sticky.

Chop the leeks. Slice off the root and the tough dark green part at the top. Cut the leeks in half lengthwise and chop them into thin slices. Put in a sieve and rinse under a tap to remove any grit.

Melt the butter and gently toss the leeks in the butter.

Grease the pudding basin.

To make the all-in-one version knead the leeks into the pastry and then push the mixture into the pudding bowl, flattening the top. To make the version where the leeks are inside the pastry, roll out the pastry and line the pudding basin with it. Remember to keep aside a piece of pastry to make the top. When the basin has been lined pour the leeks into the middle of the pastry. Roll out a circle of pastry and put it on the top. You can push the edges of the pastry together.

To steam the pudding, cover the pastry top with greaseproof paper. Add tin foil over the top of the pudding basin and tie it with string. This will prevent the top from getting wet and going soggy. Put the pudding basin into a large pan of water, the water should come halfway up the bowl. Bring to a boil and steam the pudding for a couple of hours, keeping an eye on the water level. You may need to add more water.

When ready turn the pudding out onto a plate. It will keep its shape and smell delicious. If you made the all-in-one version, when you cut into the pudding the leeks come tumbling out, their delicate green colour a lovely contrast to the pastry. If you are not expecting them it is a surprise.

Penshaw Monument, Penshaw Hill

On top of Penshaw Hill sits the Earl of Durham's Monument.

Better known as the Penshaw Monument, this 70 foot high monument is a replica of the Temple of Hephaestus in Athens and can be seen for miles around. It is considered to be Wearside's most beloved landmark, even appearing on the badge of Sunderland Football Club.

Brawn of Brancepeth

At what time the Brawn, or Boar ceased to exist as a wild animal in Britain is uncertain but it was at one time a common inhabitant of our British forests and was protected by law in the tenth and eleventh centuries. The village of Brancepeth (which may be a corruption of Brawn's Path) is said to have derived its name from a formidable Boar of vast size, which made its lair on Brandon Hill and walked the forests in ancient times and was a terror to all the inhabitants from the Wear to the Gaunless.

"He feared not ye loute with his staffe, ne yet for ye knyghte in hys mayle, he cared no more for ye monke with his boke than ye fyendis in deep Croix Dale"

According to tradition, Hodge of Ferry after carefully marking the Boar's track near Cleves Cross, dug a pitfall slightly covered with boughs and turfs and then luring on his victim bv some bait to the treacherous spot stood armed with his good sword, across the pitfall. At - length the gallant brute came trotting on his onward path and seeing the passage barred, rushed head long on the vile pitfall to meet his death.

It is generally believed that this champion of Cleves sleeps in Merrington Churchyard, beneath a coffin shaped stone, rudely sculptured with the instruments of victory - a sword and a spade on each side of a cross.

The Brandon Hill mentioned is North West of the village of Brancepeth. Ferry Wood is South East of the golf course, Cleves Cross is also South East of the golf course near Ferryhill Station. Kirk Merrington is due South and a landmark from several parts of the course.

Hylton Castle

Hylton Castle was built by Sir William Hylton as his principal residence in about 1400. The rich Hylton family had estates in Yorkshire, Durham and Northumberland and by the 13th century had assumed the title of a barony within the Bishopric of Durham. 

Hylton Castle was intended to reflect the family’s status. Whether there were earlier buildings here is not known but the impressive gatehouse tower, the only part of the castle still standing, was almost certainly intended to be the dominant element of the new building. Other buildings were situated beyond the tower to the east, possibly arranged around a courtyard.

The Hyltons maintained their rank and wealth until the Civil War. Despite a reduction in their means, the family remained prosperous enough to refurbish the interior and add wings to the north and south side of the gatehouse in the first half of the 18th century.

The last Hylton died in 1746 and shortly afterwards the estate was sold. A century later it was bought by a local man, William Briggs, who demolished the 18th century wings, added larger windows and rebuilt the interior. The appearance of the 18th century house is, however, known from a number of antiquarian illustrations. Further deterioration in the 20th century led to only the exterior walls being saved.

St Cuthbert's Coffin

This is the coffin made for Saint Cuthbert in 698, eleven years after his death. He had been buried on Lindisfarne, and the monks planned to transfer his bones to a ‘reliquary’ or small box, to be kept in the church. However, when his grave was opened the body was discovered to be ‘incorrupt’ – no decay had taken place – which was a sign of great sainthood. A new coffin had to be quickly made.

The coffin is made from oak wood, with decoration carved using knives and a very narrow hollow chisel or gouge. The figures on it include Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, apostles and archangels.

Among the earliest surviving objects of its kind, the coffin provides a unique example of techniques used for decorating wooden items in the 600s. The coffin is also probably the earliest example of an object with inscriptions using both runes (Viking carved lettering) and Roman letters.

Most of the fragments were recovered from Cuthbert’s tomb when it was opened in 1827. In 1899 the tomb was opened again and Canon William Greenwell recovered some further fragments missed in the earlier excavation. It was Greenwell who first attempted to fit the pieces together and reconstruct the coffin as it can be seen today.

Durham Cathedral

Durham Cathedral is a Norman building constructed between 1093 and 1133 in the Romanesque style.

It was founded as a monastic cathedral built to house the shrine of St Cuthbert, replacing an earlier church constructed in his honour.

Durham’s architectural value lies in the fact that it is the oldest surviving building with a stone vaulted ceiling of such a large scale. This may not seem remarkable today, but developing the know-how to roof large buildings with stone rather than wood shaped the course of European architecture from then on.

Durham Cathedral is also valuable because its Norman architecture has survived largely intact – the addition of two chapels and a later central tower notwithstanding. Most other important Norman buildings in Britain were substantially modified, often beyond recognition. As such, it is recognised both as an exemplar of the Romanesque architecture, and as one of the world’s greatest cathedrals.

Durham Castle

William the Conqueror became the first Norman King of England following victory at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, but this shift in power was not immediately accepted in the north.

The Earl of Northumbria controlled the North, and after two Earls were murdered and the third rebelled, William appointed a Norman, Robert de Comine, who, along with 700 men in 1069, were ambushed and murdered in Durham. The response from the new King was a devastating campaign to repress northern resistance.

Known as the Harrying of the North, William’s campaign lasted 2 years. Villages and food stores were destroyed, livestock slaughtered, and crops laid to waste. It is estimated that 100,000 people were killed or died of famine during the campaign.

The order for the construction of Durham Castle was given in 1072. The new castle would protect the Norman rulers from the rebellious local population and potential invasions from Scotland.

Opposition to the Norman rule was a real threat, and even whilst the castle was being constructed, rebellion was close at hand. Waltheof, the Earl of Northumbria who was tasked with building Durham Castle, rebelled and was later executed.

The Dun Cow

Legend has it that at some point on the monks’ journey back to Chester le-Street with the body of St Cuthbert, the cart carrying the coffin suddenly stopped and could not be moved. The leader of the community, Bishop Aldhun, had a vision of St Cuthbert demanding to be taken to a place called ‘Dunholme,’ but nobody knew where it was.

The puzzled monks stood perplexed at how to find ‘Dunholme'. Then a cow girl walked by, and asked another young woman if she had seen a lost dun (brown) cow.

The young woman said she had seen the cow heading in the direction of Dunholme – and pointed out the way.

The monks, who had overheard this exchange, decided to follow the cow-girl, and found that St Cuthbert’s coffin moved readily in that direction. They continued along that road and got to Dunholme (Durham).

The story is memorialized in one of the statues on the side of Durham Cathedral:

Durham's Many Historic Sites

From city, countryside to coast, Durham is the ideal destination for group travel.

Step back in time and discover Durham’s fascinating heritage at award-winning attractions, or enjoy stunning scenery dotted with natural wonders and cultural gems – memories are waiting to be made.

The Jabberwocky

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!

The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!

Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun

The frumious Bandersnatch!”

Sockburn and The Conyers Falchion

This is what's left of Sockburn church. Sadly, a number of Anglo-Saxon relics were stolen from the church in 2016, with the police recovering them in 2019. You can read about that here.

Sockburn Hall, meanwhile, stands nearby, and was home to the Conyers family for centuries.

Then, of course, there's the Conyers Falchion. As mentioned in Martin's retelling of The Sockburn Worm, there's a special rite involving the sword.

The Conyers Falchion is presented to any incoming Bishop of Durham, and as the sword is proffered, the following words are spoken:

"My Lord Bishop, I hereby present you with the falchion wherewith the champion Conyers slew the worm, dragon or fiery serpent which destroyed man, woman and child; in memory of which the king then reigning gave him the manor of Sockburn, to hold by this tenure, that upon first entrance of every bishop into the county the falchion should be presented."

Beowulf and The Lindworm

The classic Norwegian story of the Lindworm is available here.

As for Beowulf, here is a reading of Seamus Heaney's iconic translation.


In 1665 a tailor from Eyam ordered a box of materials relating to his trade from London, that he was to make into clothes for the villagers. He unwittingly triggered a chain of events that led to 260 Eyam villagers dying from bubonic plague – more than double the mortality rate suffered by the citizens of London in the Great Plague.

Between the first death and the last, the villagers set an extraordinary and enduring example of self-sacrifice by sealing off the village from the surrounding areas to prevent the disease spreading...

The Lair of the White Worm

Bram Stoker's final (and probably worst) novel, The Lair of the White Worm was published in 1911. You can read it online for free here.

There was also a rather excellent, extremely camp film of it made by Ken Russell in 1988 starring a very young Peter Capaldi and an even younger Hugh Grant.

The Bishoprick Garland

There aren't many better repositories of Durham folk tales and ballads than this book. Who could argue with this kind of lyricism?

Sockburn — where Conyers so trusty

A huge serpent did dish up,

That had else eat the Bish-up,

But now his old faulchion's grown rusty, grown rusty...

Read the whole thing here.

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