Aycliffe in County Durham

A thesis written approximately twenty five years ago by Mrs Burgoyne who now lives on the Isle of Bute.



Great Aycliffe is quite a large and ancient village, situated on the main north road, five miles from Darlington , a popular and central market town. Darlington was famous for its woollen manufacturers, dyers, leather workers and locomotive shops, also, its fine pastures for cattle and sheep. Aycliffe is situated in an important position and it might be the envy of many villages tucked away off the beaten track.

It is an extensive parish and lies on the banks of the River Skerne. It has a spacious green, which is its main claim to the title of a village. The River Skerne passes the village on the east and used to help to put in motion two corn mills which gave employment to a few of the villagers. There is still evidence of these mills and their mill races. There was also a windmill – the shell of which is still standing. The names of the local inns bear witness to their connection with stage coaches. These inns were in fact coaching inns and one can imagine the hurry and bustle as the sound of the horn heralded the approach of the stage coach.

The village used to contain five public houses. One was named the Coach and Horses and stood opposite to the vicarage. Another, the North Briton, situated a little further along the road. The Royal Telegraph and the Ram Inn which stood next to it were nearer the centre of the village green. The County was on the village green. The meadows on the east of the Skerne were frequently overflowing as the banks were low for a considerable distance.

Aycliffe has had a frequent mention in history and like most ancient places its name has been written in a variety of ways. Acle, Aclea, Aclif, Auliffe and Aykley being a few of them. The country people pronounced it "Yackley". It is in the Deanery of Darlington and consisted of four small townships or constabularies, Aycliffe, Brafferton, Preston and Woodham. The name Aycliffe is supposed to be derived from Oakwood of which once in the neighbourhood there was much [2,134 acres of land] – now there is none. This was some of the best land in the county for farming. In a letter dated 1606 King James I accuses the Dean and Chapter of having wasted and spoiled the old oak wood at Aycliffe. Fordyce, in his history of the area says that its total demolition does not appear to have occurred until the time of the Civil War, when Cromwell sent an order to John Eden, the owner of the land, to cut down the great oak trees in order to mend the roads for his cannon to pass over.

If the village is now to be known for anything it will be its large quarries of magnesium limestone. There were three limekilns in the vicinity of Aycliffe which employed a number of the village men. Stone also has been quarried at Aycliffe, enabling houses to be built of stone rather than brick. The quarry to the south of Aycliffe is still being worked, but is gradually eating its way back into the land. There are evidences of first quarry workings all round the village. One quarry is buried in a place called "Kiln Field", another one in the "Quarry Hole", another at "The Banks". Years ago they burnt the limestone in the ground. At the bottom they would build a fire of wood and coke, put limestone on the top, repeat this in layers until the limestone was well and truly fired.

In regard to the population of Aycliffe – in 1801 it was 640, then in 1831 owing to the extensive working of the limestone quarries it increased to 937. There was always employment in agriculture.

Round about 1850, the parish contained 198 inhabited and 23 uninhabited houses, plus 14 farms. Nearly the whole of the parish was owned by the Dean and Chapter who let the land on twenty-one year leases, renewable every seven years. Occupations of the male inhabitants of the village aged 20 years and over were as follows – 10 masons, 7 butchers, 3 carpenters, 4 wheelwrights, 3 dyers, 3 stone cutters, 2 millers, 8 publicans and retailers of beer, 9 shoe and boot makers, 5 shop keepers, 5 tailors, 23 weavers, 2 potters, and 1 wool comber. The names of the crafts themselves bring back a breath of the past and its preponderance of weavers testifies to the thriving linen weaving mill which was carried on until 1837.

Concerning the constabularies, a census of 1891 will give some idea of the size of each place. Great Aycliffe 697. Brafferton 157. Preston-le-Skerne 6. Woodham 122.

The Constabularies.

Brafferton is a village a mile to the south of Aycliffe and on the east of the Skerne. There was once a family who bore the name Brafferton, supposedly giving their name to the place. They had a large estate and to uphold it had to pay eighteen shillings rent, twelve pence to the manor at Coatham and three and a half bushels of wheat, the same of salt and seven bushels of oats, all to be delivered to the Bishop of Durham. Thomas de Brafferton held half of the village. Also there were many small fee-holdings scattered around. There is evidence of a burial ground which is supposed to have belonged to a monastery in which nuns lived. The largest house at Brafferton was Hall Garth owned by the Summerson family. A few years ago while alterations were taking place at the house, a wall was pulled down and remains of bones were found. They were presumed to be those of a nun who had been buried alive in the wall ! I often wondered if there was any connection between those nuns and various names in Aycliffe – ie. Monks End. Is it possible that monks lived at Aycliffe.

Preston is to the north-east of Aycliffe. It was a similar type of village to Brafferton – smaller and again held by a lord of the manor.

Woodham – another small village on the Great North Road . It used to have a bridge across the Skerne. Thomas de Ackley, the lord of Woodham, owned most of the land. Woodham Moor appears to have been the usual place for the County Races in the reign of James I. This village is said at some time to have been burned by the Scots. The King came to the races on April 21 st 1617 . A gold purse was the prize for the race. During this time the King stayed at Durham Castle and travelled to Woodham Moor from here. He evidently made six Knights at Durham during this particular time.

Another part of Aycliffe is Ricknall Grange. It had a mill on the Skerne near to Preston . Years ago there were twelve tenants in this part, each owning nine acres of land. They worked for the Bishop three days a week and paid him two hens and twenty eggs for the lease.

Another place on the Great North Road was the Travellers Rest. It used to contain a blacksmith’s shop and a cartwright’s shop plus two public houses. The name means exactly what it was – a coaching place. In the old coaching days, coaches would stop here. – it was on a direct route north. Many distinguished visitors called here and as far as we gather had not been impressed with Darlington – they remarked on its dirt. The old pub or coaching house was pulled down just before the 1939/45 war. Outside of it were stone steps onto which riders would climb to mount their horses. The inside was low ceilinged, oak beamed, and had shining horse brasses.

Schools .

A school house was built in Aycliffe by voluntary subscriptions about the year 1745 on land which was owned by the Dean and Chapter of Durham. The local village men built it of limestone hewed from the local mines. It was enlarged in 1814. This school was conducted on Dr Bell’s system under the superintendence of a resident minister.

A man called William Bell left £100 in 1809 which was to be invested and an annual dividend was to be paid to the schoolmaster. The master instructed eight children, nominated by the vicar and churchwardens, in reading, writing and accounts. The parents had to subscribe 3d each week towards the cost. The schoolmaster was paid £10 per year.

Another charity endowed to the village was ‘Gibson’s Charity. This was bequeathed in 1702 and included loaves of white bread to be distributed every Sunday morning to those selected persons who were regular attenders at Divine Service. This bread would be baked in the mass bakery. A building was set apart for baking the bread. One person looked after it and each housewife would take ingredients and bake her bread at this place.

In those days, not everyone could afford to go to school, so they just didn’t bother. Education was not considered very important to the villagers. In a memorandum of the school dated 1811 there was this – ‘Day School £22.4s.0d’. For this sum 45 children were educated at half price, their parents paying 3d per week. Of these children, six were educated gratis in consideration of £3 per annum which was subscribed by a gentleman in the neighbourhood.

£10 per annum was subscribed by the parish for the upkeep of the Sunday School. It appears that in the 19 th century, Sunday School and a Day School were carried on in the same building, and was managed by a co-opted committee of subscribers.

There was another school at Aycliffe. This was the Diamond Jubilee School which everyone used to call ‘the top school’ [the old school on the village green was ‘the bottom school’ – juniors]. Pupils from the ‘bottom school’ would go up the ‘top school’ at 11 years old. On the 22 nd September 1900 , the Charity Commissioners granted a piece of land to Aycliffe on which was to be built the new school. It was to be under the management and control of a committee of managers.

Vicars in the village appear to have acted as sole managers down to 1870. Even today, the vicar has the sole right of giving his permission for the buildings usage – money charged goes to the church funds.

Methodism in the Village.

From reliable sources there is reason to believe that the first seeds of Methodism were sown in Aycliffe village by John Wesley himself on his journey from Newcastle to Darlington , when he preached on Aycliffe Green on June 1 st 1780 . This was his second visit to the village.

It was shortly after this that ‘cottage meetings’ were held and these continued until the numbers attending warranted a larger meeting place. The Aycliffe Friends therefore rented [later purchased in 1829] a large barn for this purpose. After renovation they installed a pulpit, proper seating accommodation and a gallery which itself gave seating for 40 worshippers. The barn was officially recognised as a chapel with a full seating capacity of 200 people.

During the period following the year 1879, the cottage meetings of the members of the Primitive Methodist movement were being held. Here again membership soon warranted a new and more modern chapel that was built and officially opened in the year 1887.

The two societies however carried on as a separate body until the year 1930 when it was decided to start a Methodist Union in the village and consequently ‘the 1829’ chapel, which was by this time showing considerable signs of wear and tear, was closed. From that time all services were held in ‘the 1887’ chapel built by the Primitive Methodists.

Prominent members of the chapel were descendents and relations of the very earliest members. Names such as Hutchinson, Searle, Marshall, Robinson, and Garthwaite occur throughout the history of the local church. New names are being added – Horton, Johnson, McCormack, Brown, Darley, Richardson, Bowman, Vallis and many more.

The 1887 chapel with its adjoining Sunday School was now proving too small for its well attended Sunday School. The Methodist movement in the village grew due to the labour of those in the village who wanted to keep John Wesley’s cause alive.

In the ‘Good old Days’.

What glorious traditions Aycliffe has in the cricket field – what tales of their proudness with bat and ball. Cricket in Aycliffe reached its zenith in 1888 – when the village team captured the Darlington and District League Cup by defeating Pease’s Gardeners in the final of the competition. The victorious team consisted of Messrs. G. Pallister [Capt.], T. Buckton, G. Chambers, G. Scott, Chas. Kent, W. Kent, J .Haugh, RW.Blenkinsopp, T. Kent, and G.Walker with T. York as scorer and Mr Grd. Robinson as umpire.

Mr Tom Kent reminisces about the cricketing days – “Aycliffe boys used to play cricket as soon as they could toddle. Cricket matches used to be played on the village green for £5 a side and when the village team were playing away, villagers would follow them en masse travelling in farmer’s rollies, double horse brakes or pony traps”.

The pitch for playing in those days was on the church field which has since been taken over by Aycliffe Limestone Quarry Company.

Mr Kent again remembered when one player – a big fellow called Thomas from Etherley – knocked a ball over some 40ft high trees right into the churchyard.

Villagers would joyously celebrate any event. Often farmers held ‘mell suppers’ in their barns - very lively affairs where everyone could dance and sing. Barns used to be the granary which would be decorated for entertainment on various occasions. A villager who was popular with his banjo would play for the dancers and accompany the songs. They would decorate the barn with corn, small branches and leaves. Lighting would come from huge lanterns.

Usually the supper came first and was laid on a long wooden table running the whole length of the barn. There would be a large joint of beef and one of pork, pies, cakes, blancmanges and some home made ginger beer – strong and good. Then came the toasts. First, one to the lord and lady of the village – like Thomas de Aykley, and all his family. After each toast would be loud cheering. When all the eating was finished, everyone helped to clear away and quickly made room for the dancers and songs to begin. One can only imagine the type of floor a barn had – very rough – but they still managed to dance and enjoy themselves.

The ladies often had a fine time sneezing during the evening, for these village ‘gentlemen’, who did not dress up much, kept their best suits wrapped in pepper from one year to the next.

There would be a rare old sing-song led by the banjo player. Someone would stand up and say a few words about what a splendid evening it had been, then everyone would go home in the dark, walking across the fields still singing.

Other forms of entertainment were the fetes and parties given by the vicar, proceeds of which went towards the church. These were considered the most refined of the social events, if not THE social events of the village.

There were also maypole and country dancing in the field next to the vicarage – all were well attended.