The Architectural Face
The present architectural face of the county is a palimpsest: the visible record of the victorious, the powerful and the wealthy. Military and ecclesiastical contributions were to the fore initially; later came civil and industrial elements, followed by widespread residential growth. During this story the Union of the crowns of England and Scotland in 1603 was a significant landmark, for the freedom from border warfare heralded the possibility of a prosperous eonomy and confidence in architectural expression. The county itself possessed a variety of materials with which the appearance might be fashioned, and it was only after the advent of rail transport that the traditional correspondence between appearance and underlying geology was loosened.
All the major geological divisions within the county have provided local building stone – from the grey-white Carboniferous Limestone of the west, succeeded eastwards by the dull grey of the Millstone Grit, the buff or golden brown of the Coal Measure sandstones to the creamy Magnesian Limestone which extends to the coast. Red Triassic sandstone offers further variety in the extreme south-east of the county (see Map 1). Colour apart, the texture of the architectural face is determined by whether the stone has been laid as uncoursed, coursed or squared rubble or in ashlar blocks. The first two are the most common, the last reserved for the more important constructions. Weathering also plays its part. The Triassic sandstone is very soft and weathers easily. The ancient churches of Billingham and Norton bear witness to this fact, but even the extensively used Coal Measure sandstone, depending on quarry and cut of stone, may suffer badly from weathering. Even Durham Castle and Cathedral are not immune in this respect; the mere passage of air can honeycomb stone protected from obvious assault of outside elements, as the castle crypt chapel and cathedral cloister reveal.
In view of the abundance of stone, the use of wood for timber-framed constructions remained relatively unimportant. Brickmaking on any scale was a late feature for the same reason. Roofing slates or flags – at least on the most important buildings – were also provided by the same geology. Gritstone was common in the west, sandstone in the east. On some buildings only the lowest courses were in flagstone, the bulk 94 of the roof being covered with straw or heather thatch, but most roofs were originally covered entirely in thatch. This, though prone to fire and vermin, was nevertheless more thermally effective than flags – or clay pantiles, which became widespread in the east of the county during the 18th century. These various materials laid the foundation for the present scene.
The earliest architecture in the county must be attributed to the Romans, although its appreciation today has to be largely archaeological. The excavations at Binchester and South Shields, the latter with a reconstructed West gate, enable one to begin to acknowledge the building expertise of the invading civilisation. The quality of their stonework is also visible in a few later Anglo-Saxon buildings where Roman sites were used as quarries for the later constructions. This is most clearly seen at Escomb, where the large stones – some five ft. long – constituting the walls of the seventh-century church were brought from the nearby fort at Binchester. The characteristic Roman diamond broaching, or crosshatching, is widely visible; on one stone there is a Roman inscription referring to the Sixth Legion. Stones forming the present nave of St Mary’s church, Seaham, are similarly thought to have come from a nearby signal station.
Escomb church is the least altered of the surviving Anglo-Saxon churches in the county. In consequence, it best illustrates their compact form, narrowly rectangular, with tall walls punctuated by a few small : windows high up, and with a steeply pitched roof. The same proportions can be appreciated at St Paul’s, Jarrow, where the present chancel formed the nave of the original church. The walls also illustrate what contemporary stonemasons could achieve without the advantage of Roman pre-cut stone. Later Saxon churches, such as those at Hart and Heighington, were broader in relation to length, but Norton is the only example of a cruciform plan. The Saxon tower is best illustrated at the twin monasteries ofJarrow and Monkwearmouth and, in the south of the county, at Billingham and Staindrop.
Several churches illustrate aspects of the solidity of the succeeding Norman Romanesque – the west tower at Kelloe, chancel at Lanchester, nave pillar and arcading at Pittington. Others appear equally illustrative, but are in fact 19th-century rebuildings. Croxdaie, Sherburn Hospital and St Mary-the-Less in Durham are the most complete examples. The purest and most authentic Norman ecclesiastical architecture is, of course, in the castle crypt chapel and the cathedral in Durham. Although separated by a mere 300 yards, they are greatly contrasted buildings. The chapel is early (1072) and embedded in the castle mound. Its six circular. pillars with grotesquely carved capitals support low vaulting over narrow central and side aisles. The 95 cathedral rises majestically skywards and reveals a change in scale and detail from the chancel and nave (1093-1133) to the Galilee chapel (1175) at the west end. Its architectural pre-eminence stems from it containing the three main elements that announced the dawn of the Gothic era – flying buttresses, supporting ribbed vaulting and pointed arches. It was at Durham that the thrust problem was resolved and a large building was completely vaulted in stone – one of the great discoveries of European civilisation.
Norman ecclesiastical architecture hardly extended to monastic houses because of the tight Benedictine rule from Durham, which priory, however, established county seats at Muggleswick, Bearpark, Pittington and at Finchale. Enough of the last-named’s walls remain to appreciate its mid-13th-century character.
It is not surprising that evidence of military architecture is present in this former border one. Although there are few remains of pele towers, unlike Northumberland, a line of seven castles was strung diagonally across the lowland part of the county. Others at Stockton, Bishop Middleham and Bishopton have completely disappeared. The seven can be broadly divided into curtain-walled military strongholds and fortified houses. The division is attributable to age. The earliest two, Durham and Barnard Castle, defended major routeways through the Wear lowlands and Teesdale, respectively, and both are prominently sited on rocky promontories above major rivers. Durham was rebuilt in stone from 1072 on the orders of William I as his northern stronghold. The motte and bailey and series of enclosing walls can be traced today, while the original Norman imprint is gloriously visible in the northern range, despite its subsequent subdivision.
Barnard Castle was begun soon after Durham by Guy de Baliol on land given by William II, but rebuilt in the middle of the 12th century by his nephew, Bernard Baliol, after whom castle and town are named. Much of the walling, which encloses 6 acres, dates from this period; the 50-ft. high keep was reconstructed in 1 300 on its Norman foundation. The present ruinous shell dates from the early 17th century, when Sir Henry Vane purchased the castle and partially dismantled it in order to restore his second purchase, Raby Castle. Both had belonged to the Neville family for some four centuries, but were forfeited to the Crown as a result of their stand during the Rising of the North.
Raby Castle, first mentioned in the 1 11th century and reputedly the palace of Canute, is substantially a 14th-century structure, with a notable pillared Lower Hall (1325). With its numerous towers, an appearance of antiquity has been maintained throughout subsequent alterations by John Carr and James Paine in the 18th century and 96 William Burns in the 19th. Extensive landscaped grounds and a large deer herd contribute to its present picturesque quality.
Brancepeth is first mentioned in the early 13th century when it came into the Neville family, but little of the Neville building remains. It too was forfeited in the 1569 Rising, and in the late 18th century was bought by a Sunderland banker and coal owner. The castle was entirely rebuilt by John Paterson after 1817 on a grand, if forbidding scale, with distinctive ‘chessmen’ gate towers.
Lumley Castle was constructed in the 14th century to a compact plan around a central courtyard, with massive towers at the four corners. The display of heraldic shields over the gatehouse denotes the pride of its owners, the ancient Lumley family. It is the most complete late castle in the county, the basic plan surviving the gracious 18th-century transformations by Sir John Vanbrugh. Hylton and Witton castles were both fortified about the middle of the 15th century. The former’s rectangular construction was relatively modest and referred to as a gatehouse. Witton presents a traditional curtain wall, but the present buildings were much enlarged and altered in the 18th and 19th centuries.
In general the castles were extended as their owners grew in importance, and were transformed increasingly into comfortable country houses as their military role waned. The latter fact, sealed by the 1603 Union, and accompanied by growing prosperity in the 17th century, heralded the first significant strand of domestic architecture. (Crook Hall, Durham, with its 14th-century hall and kitchen, is the only substantially complete manor house from an earlier period.) The 17th century saw the construction of many moderate-sized stone manor houses and farmhouses. Gainford Hall (1603), the earliest, set a happy precedent with its formal symmetry and elegance. Its builder was the vicar of Gainford, the Rev. John Cradock, who was obviously alert to Renaissance design. Of the other manor houses, Washington Old Hall is of interest. ‘Old’ because it was superseded by another in the 19th century, the Old Hall itself had incorporated part of the original medieval house. Some thick walling is the clue to the original house, which for two centuries was home to the ancestors of George Washington.
Bishop James had been responsible for the building of Washington Old Hall. Another bishop, Cosin, was responsible for the internal refurbishment of numerous churches. His exuberant woodwork is a distinctive feature of the county’s architecture. From the 1630s, when he was rector of Brancepeth, and then, after interruption, as the first Restoration bishop in the 1660s, there was an active programme to replace in vigorous Renaissance style the woodwork lost in the Reformation – screens, stalls, pews, pulpits, panelling, ceilings, font covers, and so on. Of the parish churches enriched, Brancepeth, Sedgefield,
Houghton le Skerne (Darlington) and Egglescliffe are particularly fine. His chapel at Bishop Auckland and the cathedral were embellished on a grand scale. His Black Staircase in Durham Castle is a remarkable construction. Nearby, in quieter vein, his Library conveys a dignified charm. In the city of Durham itself there was a blossoming of woodworking. Although actual timber-framed constructions were few – but not as rare as generally believed – Francis Johnson has dated nearly three dozen extant wooden staircases of late Stuart type. Although varying in elegance, they are characterised by a spaciousness in contrast with the early, defensively-designed newel stair.
An increasing emphasis on elegance, both internal and external, signified – in Ronald Brunskill’s terms – an architecture that is polite rather than vernacular. Its hallmarks are professional designers, incorporation of national or international rules and use of materials for stylistic effect as well as utility. Most buildings, however, continued to be vernacular in origin, using local materials in a traditional manner, and were designed and erected by architects and builders who were perhaps untaught and whose names have been forgotten. The less accessible western half of the county was naturally the area where such a mode lasted longest. Among farm buildings, Brunskill has shown that the typical longhouse of the North Pennines did not cross Stainmore into Durham. Here, although the common farmhouse was a simple elongated one with byre attached, there was no interconnection. Cottages for labourers in field or in mine remained essentially one-room dwellings until well into the 18th century.
The increasing prosperity of the 18th century brought embellishment of existing castles and the appearance of few new mansions, often with extensively landscaped grounds, in which other buildings might be set. Classicism was the prevailing style for much of the century, with the Palladian architecture of Axwell Park by James Paine considered perhaps the finest example. Paine also built Bradley Hall, as well as garden buildings and the chapel at Gibside. The last-named was begun in 1 760 to the plan of Greek cross with projecting arms, the remarkable quality of the stone matching its perfect proportions. Other notable halls are those at Croxdale, Elemore and Biddick. The taste for Gothick – the ‘k’, as it were, denoting the light-heartedness of the decorative style – which began during the second half ofthe 18th century, brought fashion merely to parts of the great houses. Other buildings on their estates might be wholly essays in the new Gothick – a gatehouse at Auckland, for instance, a pavilion (at Raby), a bridge (Hardwick), or a deerhouse (Auckland).
The second half of the 18th century was an era of landscape gardening. Grounds of great houses were designed, increasingly on principles of the
picturesque, with water, hills, trees and buildings arranged to provide many pleasing prospects. At Hardwick Hall, John Burden spent so much on landscaping his 300-acre park with lake, serpentine canal and seven buildings that there was no money left to erect the centre-piece, a mansion designed for him by James Paine. The most complete land‑ scaped parkland was at Gibside, laid out to the design of its owner, George Bowes, a coal magnate. Here, apart from banqueting hall, orangery and stables, the eye-catching components at either end of a long tree-lined avenue are the 140-ft. high Column of British Liberty and the chapel. In Durham City the river gorge assumed its park function at this time.
Among 18th-century gardeners, James Paine was the most active in the county. Capability Brown, although born in neighbouring Northum‑ berland, apparently did no work in Durham. On the other hand, Thomas Wright (1711-86) from Byers Green near Bishop Auckland, whom historians view as a director of public taste in the interlude between William Kent and Brown, and who was involved in some dozen gardens in the south and midlands, designed merely a ‘concatonation of cataracts’ for the grounds at Raby in his own county. Apart, that is, from his own garden and villa at Byers Green, so aligned to frame views of the river Wear and distant Durham Cathedral. Sadly, neither villa nor garden remain, although nearby the gates at the entrance to Auckland Park at Park Head are to his design. At Westerton Hill his round Gothick observatory tower is a reminder that he won fame as an astronomer as well as being gardener and architect.
Certain towns still reflect in their architecture the expansion of 18th‑ century prosperity. Barnard Castle in particular, an important market and woollen textile centre at this time, is lined with stone-built, three‑ storey weavers’ houses and handsome town houses, which focus on the market cross and octagonal town hall of 1747 . Town houses for county families also appeared in Durham City during this period, while brick rather than stone became the fashion, a trend that had been growing for nearly a century. The earliest extant brickwork in the county – in Durham Castle, dated 1499 – was considerably in advance of any general use. Stockton parish church, built in 1712, was the first substantial civic building in brick. Together with a new Town House (1735), Market Cross (1765) and Customs House (1730, demolished 1969), it reflected Stockton’s prosperity as a port and market centre. In the north of the county, the industrial and port trade of South Shields was captured in its Town Hall (1768) and St Hilda’s church (1764). The county’s fastest growing centre, Sunderland, has left only its parish church, Holy Trinity (1719), as a legacy. The most remarkable symbol of its advance, an iron bridge (1796) over the incised mouth of the Wear, was dismantled in 1929. Designed by Rowland Burdon of Castle Eden, the elegant cast-iron single span was double the length, but significantly lighter, than the world’s first at Ironbridge 17 years earlier.
Town halls are a good indicator of economic success during the 19th century when railways often provided the vital stimulant. Civic pride in the town’s success is shown in Durham (1851), Darlington (1864), Gateshead (1868), Bishop Auckland (1869), Sunderland (1887, now demolished), West Hartlepool (1893), followed by Jarrow (1902) and South Shields (1905). Appropriately, Durham, the earliest, and the town least stimulated by rail transport, was built in modest Perpendicular; the remainder were more notable piles, largely in Victorian Gothic.
As channels of economic life, railways focused activity at ports. At Seaham Harbour and West Hartlepool the arrival of the railway called forth plans for new towns. At the former, John Dobson’s imaginative classical design of the 1820s for Lord Londonderry’s town was unfortunately delayed and then largely neglected as resources were diverted towards construction and expansion of the harbour for the export of coal. At West Hartlepool, the grid pattern of central streets and prominent buildings (customs house and dock offices, warehouse, church, masonic lodge, athenaeum and hotel) still speak strongly of the mid-Victorian prosperity promoted by Ralph Wood Jackson.
Railways themselves brought their own contribution to the architectural mosaic of the county. Darlington, appropriately, has the most imposing monument, where its Bank Top Station (1887) is enclosed by high tunnel-vaulting; outside, its clock tower rivals that of a town hall. A few hundred yards from Bank Top, on the old North Eastern Railway, is North Road Station (1842), which was on the Stockton and Darlington Railway. The simple Georgian building is now a museum. Some of the county’s viaducts also combine architectural elegance with engineering skill, most noticeably in the stone and brick structure at Houns Gill (1858, Sir Thomas Bouch) and in Durham City (1857, Robert Stephenson).
Nineteenth-century success is expressed in the few great country mansions, most notably in Wynyard Park and Lambton Castle, homes of the two leading coal magnates, the Londonderry and Lambton families, respectively. The classical grandeur of Wynyard stems from the fact that it was built in the 1820s to the design of a palace intended for the Duke of Wellington, who was a close friend of the third marquis. The design was borrowed, and executed by Philip Wyatt. When fire gutted most of the building in 1841, it was reconstructed on original lines by Ignatius Bonomi.
At the same time that Wynyard was arising, the family home of the Lambtons was being partially encased, mightily extended and generally given the appearance of a castle, by Bonomi. Here, mining subsidence brought about a partial rebuilding to plans by John Dobson in 1862. Much of this rebuilding was pulled down in the 1930s. The extensive grounds of both houses were laid out with customary verve, and with contents that befitted the owners.
Two other notable 19th-century mansions, Burn Hall and Windlestone Hall, were both designed by Bonomi. Born in London of Italian descent, and working for forty years from his Durham office, Ignatius Bonomi (1789-1870) was unrivalled as an architect within the county. His better-known contemporary classicist, John Dobson (1787-1865), while supreme north of the Tyne, was less successful in County Durham, where no complete major project remains. Bonomi was County Bridge Surveyor from 1813 and Architect to the Cathedral from 1828. Although best known for his Greek Classical designs, he was adept at building in his client’s desired style, and Bonomi’s versatility was illustrated by his varied output – churches, mansions, artisan housing, assize courts, institutes and bridges.
Gothic revival, as opposed to classicism, characterised a second architect with strong Durham connections, named Anthony Salvin (1799- 188 1). Although born in the south, and practising from his London office, he was a member of the ancient Salvin family of Sunderland Bridge, two miles south of Durham City. He spent most of his youth in the county, with relatives at Wiilington and attending Durham School. It was at nearby Brancepeth that he was engaged as a pupil by John Paterson during the massive rebuilding of the castle. Salvin’s interest in medieval architecture was confirmed, and at the age of 25 he was elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, by which time he was in London and had just embarked on the first of his commissions to restore castles and churches. In Durham City restoration was carried out at cathedral, castle (including rebuilding the keep) and university library. Nearby he built Hatfield College, an observatory and obelisk and a master’s house for his old school; beyond, he built churches in South Shields, Darlington and Shildon.
Quite the most remarkable piece of grand architecture of 19th-century Durham – Bowes Museum, on the outskirts of Barnard Castle – was designed by a Frenchman, Jules Pellechet. Its use is not a subsequent conversion, for this enormous French Renaissance chateau, complete with formal gardens and fountains, was intended from the beginning to be a museum and art gallery for the Bowes -John and his French wife, Josephine. England rather than France was chosen for their project because of the political unrest in the latter country; Barnard Castle was 102
chosen as the site since the estate was near the family home at Streatlam.
The chateau was begun in 1869 and took 23 years to complete.
A second remarkable enterprise that owed its origin to events in France is the Roman Catholic seminary of Ushaw College, a prominent Gothic complex situated high on the crest between the Deerness and Browney valleys, four miles west of Durham. Refugees from the French Revolution settled here at the beginning of the century. The Pugins, senior and junior., designed much of the earlier part, including the chapel, while a much taller and larger chapel for the expanding college was built by Dunn and Hansom in 1884.
The 19th century brought an explosion of urban residential architecture, most of it terraced and much subsequently replaced this century. Streets of generously-proportioned classical terraces remain in the larger towns, however, especially Sunderland. The Esplanade and adjoining terraces, now part of the Ashbrooke Conservation Area, illustrate their elegance. Sunderland was also unusual for its central streets of single-storey terraced cottages, some of which have withstood the advances of modern developers. Darlington provides the clearest example of classical villa development, where early Quakers and subsequent imitators created a distinctive western quarter.
Outside towns the most widespread feature was the replication of mean urban designs in dozens of pit villages. Housing in the earliest was sometimes built of stone, but soon brick became universal. The bricks for the cottages in the parallel colliery rows were often made on site from shale and clay procured from the mine itself. Each individual brick might therefore bear the imprint of the colliery company, indicating a thousand-fold the all-pervasiveness of the tied housing.
The 20th century has seen more building than all the previous centuries put together; much of it is residential and much in materials and styles found throughout the country. From the time of the First World War until the 1950s, however, the depressed economy severely curtailed building and any architectural expression. Some of the physical repercussions accompanying the economic fall and rise have been mentioned in previous chapters, so attention will be focused here on the major features.
During the inter-war period the chemical industry of Billingham added a new and even more dramatic skyline to the county with its maze of steel cylinders, pipes and chimneys. In contrast, conventional brick and garden city densities were incorporated in William Holford’s design for the Team Valley Trading Estate in 1936, with factories lining a long tree-lined avenue. Industrial estates of the post-war county have often adopted the warehouse model: curtain walling in metal. The recent extensive Nissan car-assembly plant, alongside the A19 between Wash‑ 103 ington and Sunderland, has adopted this same functional design. A similar appearance is presented by recent trading estates, which, again, are located and laid out for the car-borne. Nationally-recognised logos and colourful facades hardly conceal their basic construction. ‘Retail World’ on the Team Valley Estate is the clearest example. Retailing is to the fore in the MetroCentre, which is the biggest single project in the county. it was designed to be experienced from the air-conditioned interior, where eclectic stylistic borrowing and modern finishes have conjured a complete and amazing illusion. The new world within, however, has been created at the expense of the real world without, which is devoted to an extensive surrounding tarmac apron for car parking.
More conventional architecture is found in at least two of the county’s three New Towns, Newton Aycliffe and Peterlee, although the latter retains hints of the briefly promised spectacular architecture. Grenfell Bains and Hargreaves drew up the Master Plan for both towns, based on strict land use zoning and residential neighbourhoods. The Master Plan of Washington New Town, produced by Llewelyn-Davies, Weeks and Partners, two decades later, was much more flexible in layout and use, and more reliant on a car-owning population to use its highway network. All three New Town Corporations, having completed their work, have been superseded by a New Town Commission.
Among towns with a longer – and particularly active 19th-century – history, the texture and townscape of the inner areas has often been destroyed since the 1950s, to be replaced by the sweep of new roads and studded with systems-built tower blocks. The centres of Sunderland and Gateshead especially have suffered in this way. Distinctive individual buildings in central positions have been built for administration and leisure. Billingham Forum (Elder Lester and Partners, 1958) and the Crowtree Leisure Centre, Sunderland (Gillingson, Barnett and Partners, 1978) are both fun palaces beneath space-frame roofs. Three civic centres – no longer merely town halls – at Darlington (1970), Sunderland (1970) and Chester-le-Street (1982) are each quite different in concept. Contrast, for instance, the heavy hexagonal design in brick by Sir Basil Spence at Sunderland, with the light spinal, barrel-vaulted arcade in glass and aluminium by Faulkner Brown and Partners at Chester-le-Street.
The most varied collection of modern architecture, much of it highly creditable, is in Durham City. Apart from a new County Hall, appropriately designed by the county architects in municipal idiom in 1963, the expanding university has been patron for 10 award-winning constructions – colleges, library, lecture theatres, union building and its own bridge. In the centre of the city, respect for the historic setting shown by 104
a large shopping centre (Building Design Partnership, 1976) won it a Europa Nostra Award. Moreover, there can be few cities in the country where a multi-storey carpark (William Whitfield, 1975) is faced with high-quality brick and even some natural stone. But then, Durham City is unique. It is appropriate, therefore, to turn to the county town to conclude our history.