By Luke Payne
A short walk north of the Gilesgate roundabout lies a dirt track branching off from Orchard Drive. This track leads to an ancient gatehouse that forms part of the ruins of Kepier Hospital, an establishment with nearly a thousand years of history.
The story of Kepier Hospital begins around the year 1112 with the consecration of St Giles Church in Gilesgate. Then known as The Hospital of St Giles, Durham, it was one of about 32 hospitals in England and the first to be built in County Durham. Standing 200 yards east of the stone church, the original hospital comprised of mostly wattle and daub buildings. The hospital was essentially an almshouse for old men who were no longer capable of working.
Kepier Hospital became embroiled in the Anglo-Scottish conflicts of the 1100s due to Durham’s proximity to the Scottish border and the hospital’s strategic position overlooking the city. This included a violent dispute regarding the successor to the late Bishop of Durham between William Cumin (the Lord Chancellor of Scotland) and William of St Barbara (Dean of York). This led to Cumin burning the hospital in an attempt to prevent the advancing forces of William of St Barbara using it as a refuge. Cumin eventually surrendered the Bishopdom and the city on the 18th October 1144.
Kepier Hospital became embroiled in the Anglo-Scottish conflicts of the 1100s
Around 1180, the hospital was re-founded at a new location on the river Wear known as Kepier. ‘Kepier’ was a word formed from two Old English words meaning ‘weir with a fish trap’. The new hospital became known as The Hospital of St Giles of Kepier or simply Kepier Hospital. Rebuilt on a significant scale, the institution now included an infirmary, hall, church, dormitory and court, as well as facilities for a tannery, bakery, mill and farm complete with crops and livestock.
For several centuries the hospital acted as a guest house for pilgrims to Durham and its patrons, in addition to providing care for its permanent elderly male residents. On June 17th 1298, King Edward I of England stayed the night at Kepier following his invasion of Scotland. After the Scottish wars, when the hospital was frequently attacked, it underwent a period of rebuilding. The gatehouse that survives today was built during this time in the 1300s by Bishop Richard of Bury.
By the 16th century Kepier had become the wealthiest hospital in the Diocese of Durham. However, an uprising, known as the Pilgrimage of Grace, lead to King Henry VIII taking the greater monasteries into his possession. By early 1538 St Cuthbert’s Shrine at Durham Cathedral was pulled down and its treasures removed. After this, no more pilgrims came to Durham. The Act that legalised the dissolution of the monasteries also allowed the Crown to take possession of colleges and hospitals.
The Act that legalised the dissolution of the monasteries also allowed the Crown to take possession of colleges and hospitals
After a brief period, when Kepier was possessed by a close advisor to the King, it was sold to the Crown in the mid 1540s. Edward VI, King Henry’s son, leased out the Kepier estate in 1547. From this point on, Kepier would remain in private possession and cease to function as a hospital.
A successful merchant, John Heath, bought the estate in 1555 as an investment and an attempt to climb the social ladder. His son, another John, built a grand mansion at Kepier where it was believed the infirmary and chapel once stood. He also founded gardens at Kepier that would become a public attraction in the decades and centuries to come.
By 1827, the mansion house had become an inn called the White Bear. In 1841, descendants of the Heath family visited the inn as part of a tour of ancestral properties and were recorded as being happy with its position as a popular summer resort. The gardens continued to prosper throughout the nineteenth century; the Durham Chronicle referred to the gardens as ‘a favourite resort for the citizens of Durham and visitors from a distance’.
Decline in the prosperity of the area led to the inn closing by 1891. Despite a plea in The County Durham Advertiser that year lamenting the neglect of the building, the inn was ordered dismantled by its current owner Sir Richard Musgrave.
The ruins of the White Bear Inn, formerly Heath Mansion, lay exposed in a beautiful orchard beyond the gatehouse. Its sandstone columns are being slowly eroded by the relentless weathering of time. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the ruin is on the English Heritage’s Buildings At Risk register. The farmhouse and the gatehouse are the only intact remnants of the Kepier from its hospital days.
Photographs: Sam Bailey