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Portfolio > North East England 4 > Historic Durham 3                                                                 Click on an image below to reveal enlarged version

Historic Durham, England, UK


County Durham is a ceremonial county in North East England. The county town is the city of Durham. The ceremonial county spawned from the historic County Palatine of Durham in 1853. The largest settlement is Darlington, followed by Hartlepool and Stockton-on-Tees. The county borders are shared with multiple counties: Northumberland as well as Tyne and Wear to the north, North Yorkshire to the south and Cumbria to the west.

Boundaries initially aligned to the historic county, stretching between the rivers Tyne and Tees. The County Borough of Teesside formed in 1968, the ceremonial boundaries adjusted while the historic boundaries remained. The Local Government Act 1972 in 1974 further separated the boundaries. In 1996, the area gained part of the abolished ceremonial county of Cleveland. 


In AD 995, St Cuthbert's community, who had been transporting Cuthbert's remains around, partly in an attempt to avoid them falling into the hands of Viking raiders, settled at Dunholm (Durham) on a site that was defensively favourable due to the horseshoe-like path of the River Wear.[16] St Cuthbert's remains were placed in a shrine in the White Church, which was originally a wooden structure but was eventually fortified into a stone building.


Once the City of Durham had been founded, the Bishops of Durham gradually acquired the lands that would become County Durham. Bishop Aldhun began this process by procuring land in the Tees and Wear valleys, including Norton, Stockton, Escomb and Aucklandshire in 1018. In 1031, King Canute gave Staindrop to the Bishops. This territory continued to expand, and was eventually given the status of a liberty. Under the control of the Bishops of Durham, the land had various names: the "Liberty of Durham", "Liberty of St Cuthbert's Land" "the lands of St Cuthbert,  

between Tyne and Tees" or "the Liberty of Haliwerfolc" (holy Wear folk). The bishops' special jurisdiction rested on claims that King Ecgfrith of Northumbria had granted a substantial territory to St Cuthbert on his election to the see of Lindisfarne in 684. In about 883 a cathedral housing the saint's remains was established at Chester-le-Street and Guthfrith, King of York granted the community of St Cuthbert the area between the Tyne and the Wear, before the community reached its final destination in 995, in Durham. Following the Norman invasion, the administrative machinery of government extended only slowly into northern England. Northumberland's first recorded Sheriff was Gilebert from 1076 until 1080 and a 12th-century record records Durham regarded as within the shire.[18] However the bishops disputed the authority of the sheriff of Northumberland and his officials, despite the second sheriff for example being the reputed slayer of Malcolm Canmore, King of Scots. The crown regarded Durham as falling within Northumberland until the late thirteenth century.

The county contains a sizeable area of the North Pennines, designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, primarily west of Tow Law and Barnard Castle. The highest point (county top) of historic County Durham is the trig point (not the summit) of Burnhope Seat, height 746 metres (2,448 ft), between Weardale and Teesdale on the border with historic Cumberland in the far west of the county. The local government reorganisation of 1974 placed the higher Mickle Fell south of Teesdale (the county top of Yorkshire) within the administrative borders of Durham (where it remains within the ceremonial county), although it is not generally recognised as the highest point of Durham. The two main dales of County Durham (Teesdale and Weardale) and the surrounding fells, many of which exceed 2,000 feet (610 m) in height, are excellent hillwalking country, although not nearly as popular as the nearby Yorkshire Dales and Lake District national parks. The scenery is rugged and remote, and the high fells have a landscape typical of the Pennines with extensive areas of tussock grass and blanket peat bog in the west, with heather moorland on the lower slopes descending to the east. Hamsterley Forest near Crook is a popular recreational area for local residents.

On the 1 April 1996, the county of Cleveland was abolished with its boroughs of Hartlepool and Stockton-on-Tees (north of the River Tees) becoming a part of the ceremonial county.

The non-metropolitan county was reconstituted on 1 April 2009: the stratigic services-providing Durham County Council was re-organised into a single district of the same name, merging with the seven local facility-providing districts in the non-metropolitan county and became structured as a unitary authority. It has 126 councillors. The three pre-existing unitary authorities were unaffected.

Within England, only County Durham contains the word "county" in its title (in the way many Irish counties do), because the powerful Norman "Prince Bishops" of Durham ruled it as a palatinate separate from the rest of England's counties. Originally it covered all the territory between the River Tees and the River Tyne, but over the centuries, and especially with modern changes to local government, it's been whittled down and continually re-organised. The name no longer precisely corresponds to a unit of local government, and probably the only two people who can say exactly where County Durham lies are the High Sheriff and Her Majesty's Lord-Lieutenant, whose ceremonial duties relate to an older map of the world.

None of this is of the slightest concern to any traveller not gussied up in alderman's ermine or dress military uniform. For present purposes, "County Durham" on this page includes the post-2009 districts of Durham County (sic), Darlington, Hartlepool and Stockton-on-Tees. It doesn't include Sunderland to the north or Middlesbrough, Redcar or Yarm to the south.

Listen very carefully to the local language: you'll need to. First, believe it or not, it is English you're hearing. The minority populations and languages in this area are small: during the 20th C the county was shedding labour from mining and ship-building in an era when others (eg the textile towns) were drawing it in from UK and abroad. The only significant minority language is Polish, spoken by 1%.

The local English dialect is "Geordie", spoken in Durham, Newcastle and Northumbria; the word also means a resident of those areas. "Geordie" probably simply derives from "George", a very common name for a local coal-miner, and there used to be a miners' patois called "Pitmatic" or "Yakka" but it's almost died out. If you learn only one Geordie word, learn "Howay!", an all-purpose greeting, exclamation or warning.

But what makes Geordie a thing of fascination and wonder is that it is probably very close to English as spoken over thousand years ago, as it evolved from Anglo-Saxon. Read Beowulf and try to make sense of it - then have a local read it aloud in a heavy Geordie accent for a "Eureka!" moment. And attempts to translate the works of the Venerable Bede (8th C AD), who wrote in Latin, reveal that what he thought and dreamed in was Geordie. Howay, indeed!


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