By Luke Payne
Significant sites, part of Durham’s rich history, are at risk of being forgotten and falling further into decay. A pair of historical wells, hundreds of years old and other remnants of this city’s past are part of a trove of historical sites around Durham city centre in an abysmal abandoned state.
Dated 1690, St Cuthbert’s Well sits atop a set of dilapidated concrete stairs on the western bank of the Bailey just outside the World Heritage Site zone. The sandstone construct, engraved with “FONS CUTHBERT”, still functions as a source of water but has been blighted by litter, spray-paint and neglect. Despite being a listed structure, safe access to the site has not been maintained and the public can be forgiven for being oblivious to its existence.
A trove of historical sites around Durham city centre in an abysmal abandoned state
A few years ago Jon Williams, the then land agent for the cathedral stated there were “no plans to restore the well” because of a subsidence issue affecting the access steps. The quoted cost to rectify the issue was £1-2m with no guarantee of prolonged success. Further, it was claimed the well was kept unkempt “in order to persuade people not to clamber into the unstable area”. Despite this, given the state of litter and graffiti at the well, this is not a sufficient disincentive to those who wish to spoil the city’s heritage.
Similarly forgotten is the well behind the river path at the back of St Oswald’s Church. St Oswald’s Well was once a site of beautiful arches and basins. Unfortunately, these were destroyed by vandals in the 19th century, although what remains today is still impressive. The well consists of a large cavern hewn into a sandstone outcrop part-way down the steep banks of the River Wear. It is roughly three metres deep and one-and-a-half metres wide and high. The cavern is filled with water which flows out down the slopes to the Wear. Access is extremely precarious as one must go off the footpath to descend the steep river bank in order to view it.
Many will be familiar with the Count’s House, which is a small Greek-style summer house on the southern point of the Bailey near the river. However, few will be aware of the secrets lurking in the trees behind the house, the remains of the stone staircases and other masonry once part of long forgotten and overgrown gardens that stretched all the way to the river from the townhouses on the Bailey can be found here. The real gemstone though is the ice house. Dated circa 1800, the listed ice house is a stone tunnel leading four meters into the bank where ice could be stowed during the winter months for use around the year.
Few will be aware of the secrets lurking in the trees behind the Count’s House
Many other sites can be named such as South Street Well near Prebend’s bridge or Charley’s Cross at the New Inn crossroads. Many of these sites are mere metres from popular footpaths around the Bailey, but the general public are unlikely to be aware of them because access has dissipated over the years and no public information signs exist within their vicinity (Charley’s cross used to have a plaque but it has been missing for years). In most cases, modern maps do not contain any mention of these sites and one must acquire old Ordinance Survey maps to ascertain their location.
There may have been some hope for some of these sites in recent years; a Durham City Conservation Area document from Durham County Council dated July 2016 suggested reopening St Cuthbert’s well. Unfortunately when the council was contacted, Stuart Timmiss, Durham County Council’s head of planning and assets, said: “We do not own any of these locations and whilst we are not aware of any plans for them at the moment we are always happy to work with the owners of sites like these to encourage and facilitate improvement.”
Photograph: Luke Payne