Clay puffers, drowned girls and forgotten railroads: memories of Durham

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“WHEN I was about nine or ten in the late 1940s,” says Clive Madgin, starting a Durham story that includes Puffs of Clay and Old Vesty, “we were going to Nevilles Cross and walking along Relly Peth, who led to a dense forest on a very steep slope.

“At the end of the trees there was a vast landslide about 60 meters wide, falling hundreds of feet to the Browney River below.

“We used to crawl over it, scared, scaling rocks, mud, tree trunks and other debris. We were frightened by the constant rumors of an evil person – the older kids were screaming “Bear in mind old Vesty doesn’t understand you!” – but he never appeared.

“We looked for slabs of gray mud that we brought home where we made flat slabs, and by wetting the edges we would make a small box with a lid and holes in the sides. They were about six or seven inches long.

Clive’s drawing of a clay puffer

“We would persuade our mothers to hard-cook them in their ovens, and the more creative among us would paint colorful designs on them.

“Then we went to the ‘bog tree’ – an ancient willow that had fallen into a bog, and although it still had living branches, the main trunk had turned rotten to pale yellow wood, which we called ‘ touching wood ”or simply“ suceptible ”.

“We would take delicates home, strike a few matches, put the delicates in the boxes and set them on fire. It just brooded and you held it down by blowing through the air holes – that’s why we called them “clay eaters”!

“We could run them for hours.

“Why, you may ask?” We would use them as a hand warmer or as a way to start a small fire, or we would pinch a few roasting potatoes – delicious.

Was it just a Durham affair, or did other areas with access to clay create hand warmers or bouffants?

“I would like to know when this landslide happened?” Clive asks. “Has anyone been hurt? Was the river blocked? It had to be, because there would be hundreds of tons of debris falling into it.

“Today it is overgrown with new vegetation, although there is still a large groove in the ground, so you can see where it was.”

Clive’s childhood exploits were carried out west of Durham, where Relly Path led from Neville’s Cross to an area on the banks of the Browney known as Relly (or Relley). There is still a mill and a farm there with the name “Relly”, and when the railroads crossed, the Relly Junction was a very busy place.

“I’m still intrigued by the early history of this region, but there isn’t a lot of information and a lot would have been erased by subsequent industrial development,” says Durham historian David Simpson. “There was here a medieval site surrounded by a moat and a medieval hospital, but information is scarce – it was destroyed by the development of the Broompark coal mine near the railway line.

“The landslide that Clive refers to at the end of Relly Peth in the woods is clearly marked on the late 19th century Ordnance Survey map, but earlier maps don’t tell us much.”

Maps show that the curves from Browney to Relly were once heavily exploited. Apparently the stone for the cathedral and the castle came from here.

On the north bank of the Browney, on the road – called Tollhouse Road – to Bearpark, there was a pub called the Pot and Glass, which suggests that Clive was not the only person shaping clay in this area. In 1938 the Pot and Glass license was transferred to the new Pot and Glass on the A167 at Neville’s Cross. It, however, has recently become a Sainsbury’s.

The Northern Echo: The Pot and Glass on Tollhouse Road closed in 1938 and was demolished in 1950. The name of the last landord, Alfred Southern, can be seen above the gate.  Image courtesy of Michael Richardson's Gilesgate Archives

The Pot and Glass on Tollhouse Road closed in 1938 and was demolished in 1950. The name of the last owner, Alfred Southern, can be seen above the door. Image courtesy of Michael Richardson’s Gilesgate Archives

The forest in this region is called Baxter Woods. “This name goes back to medieval times,” says David, “and it refers to the baking stones used in ovens – there were flat stones in the river bed suitable for baking bread.”

And then, thrown into the mix, we have a complex railway node. In fact, there are three junctions at Relly – Baxterwood Junction No 1, Baxterwood Junction No 2, and Relly Mill Junction – and then a little south there is Deerness Valley Junction.

The first railway to pass through this area was the Bishop Auckland-Durham Line of 1857, which started from Bishop via the splendid 11-arch viaduct and entered Durham via an even more splendid 11-arch viaduct, both built by the North Eastern Railway engineer Thomas Harrison.

The Northern Echo: A stunning photo, possibly from 1856 and showing the chief engineer of the North Eastern Railway Thomas Harrison standing under his newly opened 11-arch viaduct in Bishop Auckland, which led the railway to Durham via Relly Mill.  In the background is the

A stunning photo, possibly from 1856 and showing the chief engineer of the North Eastern Railway, Thomas Harrison, standing under his newly opened 11-arch viaduct in Bishop Auckland, which led the railway to Durham via Relly Mill. In the background is the 14th century Newton Cap road bridge

In 1858, the Pease family of Darlington ensured that the eight mile Deerness Valley Railway was opened, going southwest from Relly to service their coal mines around Waterhouse. There appears to have been some confusion over the name of the river, and therefore the line was called the Dearness Valley Railway, and its junction was controlled by the Valley Signal Post. Dearness.

In 1862 the Lanchester Valley Railway was built to run northwest of Relly to service the coal mines to Consett.

And finally, in 1865, the North Eastern built a line from Tursdale, near Ferryhill, to Relly which became the East Coast Main Line.

So in Relly, where all these lines gracefully brace, embrace and caress, the series of crossroads was created, and until the 1950s, it was a lively place.

Now the Bishop Auckland and Lanchester Valley lines have been converted into a cycle path, and the Deerness Valley Walk occupies another track, but the main line still arrives at Relly Mill from Ferryhill and enters Durham via the splendid 1856 Thomas Harrison Viaduct. , which offers a breathtaking view of the cathedral and castle.

The Northern Echo: The confusion of the tracks in Relly, west of Durham, under the Deerness Valley Junction signal post.  We think this train might be heading to Bishop Auckland, but we could be wrong

Confused rail lines at Relly, west of Durham, under the Deerness Valley Junction signal post. We think this train might be heading to Bishop Auckland, but we could be wrong

The Northern Echo: Passenger train waits under Deerness Valley junction box

A passenger train waits under the Deerness Valley junction box

The Northern Echo: a train to Deerness Valley Junction

The Northern Echo: We believe this is a coal train coming out of the Broompark Coal Mine on the Deerness Valley Line

We believe this is a coal train coming out of the Broompark Coal Mine on the Deerness Valley Line

A LITTLE south of the Relly railway junctions, the River Deerness passes under the Langley Bridge and joins the River Browney.

“As you approach the confluence,” Clive explains, “there is a very worn old stone wall, and on one stone there is a chiseled inscription on top in the cursive style used in the 1930s and 1940s.

L'écho du Nord: The stone carving near the confluence of the rivers: Was ELL a girl who drowned in the river?

“It says ‘ELL’, and maybe once there may have been more (above).

“My parents told me it was the initials of a girl who drowned in the river. Is there a trace of this event? When did this happen and who was the unhappy soul that perished?

Sadly, neither David Simpson nor Echo Memories can tell what is written on the stone, although David adds: lived in a house near the Meeting of the Waters called Langley Grove.

So if you can do better and tell us something about the Relly Shores or the carved stone near the meeting of the waters, we would love to hear from you. And if you can help us with our captions on the railroad photos, we would appreciate it. Please email chris.lloyd@nne.co.uk


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