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Heritage Open Day tour executed and sold out!

Updated: Sep 21, 2022

A full compliment of 20 people including 4 children were treated to two hours of deadly history on the theme of Crime and Punishment. We started with the Market Place, created by Prince Bishop Ranulfus Flambard in the 11th century when he found walking to work from the Castle to the Cathedral a rather smelly affair as there was a small village servicing the Norman masons who were building the Cathedral. He told them to go down the hill and create a market place - the one we see today! Flambard could then enjoy a nice walk across the green. Flambard had a fantastic backstory having been thrown in the Tower of London jail by newby King Henry I. He then managed to escape by hiding a rope in a barrel of wine and once he got his jailers drunk he then made his exit through the window.

One of the major buildings here is the Town Hall and Guildhall. With some parts dating back to the 14th century but with a 19th century façade, the buildings have a unique history and a superb collection of artefacts. Of particular note are the two cells which were built by Mayor Mark Storey in 1849 and the staircase that led up to the trial room which now holds the Guildhall silver.



Entrance to the cell


Prison cell constructed by Mark Storey, Mayor of Durham


Our little party ascended the medieval city of Durham and took in the former Great North Gate off Saddler Street with its remnant Bastion Tower, discussed the provisions made by the creation of the UNESCO World Heritage Site on Palace Green and heard some gruesome stories of botched executions by breaking ropes and the appearances of ghostly visions to entice murderers to give themselves up.


We went down to Prebends Bridge with its carved poetic words of Sir Walter Scott's 'Grey towers of Durham' and learnt that his best friend, Prince Bishop Shute Barrington had twice sent in the army to break up striking miners in 1818.

Crossing the Kingsgate bridge we marvelled at the brutalist architecture of Ove Arup and pondered on King William's flight after being overcome with fever when going to see the incorrupt body of St.Cuthbert in the Priory.


We found our way to the (new) Durham County Courts and heard how it needed three architects to create them as the first two were incompetent. Ignatius Bonomi got the job done, an architect synonymous with County Durham and famous for the creation of Skirne Bridge, part of the Stockton and Darlington Railway. We heard how pubic executions were big business and drew huge crowds even leading to the development of VIP balconies on some houses to get the best views.

Some executions didn't always go according to plan such as the final public execution of Matthew Atkinson in 1865. As over 2,000 assembled for the killing of Atkinson it was a party atmosphere with drinks, gingerbread and busking jugglers in the huge throng. As the bells for 8am rang out, Atkinson was led to the gallows in front of the court. The noose was placed over his neck and as the trapdoor opened, rather than a swinging corpse, the body fell to the ground with a thud. Picking himself up and apparently unharmed, the crowd realised he had survived and a loud cheer rang out thinking he had been reprieved. But alas no, a new rope was fetched and the second time was fatal. However, the botched hanging had a disturbing effect on the crowd as they rioted in the town and it eventually led to public executions being banned. This was the last one in Durham, though executions continued behind the prison walls.


Before returning to the market place, we had stops at the County Hotel and the part played by the infamous Jacobite, the Earl of Derwentwater, in two risings of 1715 and 1745. We also went down to the river and the former House of Correction underneath Elvet Bridge where the story of gypsy king Jimmy Allen and his love of Bagpipes, women, wine and horses was relayed.

Outside Jimmy Allen's - a night club in the name of a former convict


This tour was created by David Butler, former County Durham archivist with funding from Visit County Durham as part of the national Heritage Open Day events.


If you'd like to know more about my tours or to book me for a private tour don't hesitate to contact me via the contact box. Thanks for reading!

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