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Heart of the city
The Saxon word “aelfet-ee”, meaning “swan island”, has become corrupted over the years until it is now “Elvet”, and refers to the area of land across the River Wear, due west of the peninsula, on which Durhams cathedral and castle stand. There are two principal thoroughfares in the area – Old Elvet and New Elvet. The former was once regarded as the finest street in the city, along which horses used to be run by their owners to show them off when fairs were held there.
THE oldest river crossing between Durham market place and Elvet is Elvet Bridge, across which countless numbers of people have travelled since it was built by Bishop Hugh Pudsey in about 1160.
Repaired in 1228 and 1495, it originally had 14 arches, although only ten can now be seen.
Its width was doubled between 1805 and 1806.
One of the most interesting buildings in Old Elvet is the Royal County Hotel, on the left beyond the road that leads along to New Elvet bridge.
The present establishment, formerly 57-60 Old Elvet, is an amalgam of several buildings of various dates and has a fascinating history.
The famous balcony across the hotel’s central front, on which miners’ leaders and politicians used to stand on Durham Miners’ Gala Day, the third Saturday in July, was created in two parts, the stone balustrade early in the 19th Century, the ironwork at its end.
For a short time in the late 18th Century, part of the building was used as a boarding school.
The remains of the original properties on this site, although now much changed, date from about 1630 at which time one was the home of Lady Mary Radcliffe, a member of the famous Derwentwater family of Dilston Castle.
Her half-sister was Lady Mary Tudor, a natural daughter of King Charles II.
Another house was occupied from 1758 by Elizabeth Bowes, the aunt of the Earl of Strathmore’s wife, Mary Eleanor Bowes.
When the combined proper- The Saxon word “aelfet-ee”, meaning “swan island”, has become corrupted over the years until it is now “Elvet”, and refers to the area of land across the River Wear, due west of the peninsula, on which Durhams cathedral and castle stand. There are two principal thoroughfares in the area – Old Elvet and New Elvet. The former was once regarded as the finest street in the city, along which horses used to be run by their owners to show them off when fairs were held there.
ty first became a hostelry, it was known as the Dunelm Hotel and a look at the present building from the new main entrance shows how houses on the site have been brought together at various times.
For many years, there appear to have been neighbouring inns that were both known as the Waterloo, named after the great British victory over Napoleon in 1815.
The now-demolished Waterloo Hotel, formerly 61 Old Elvet, seems to have been known in its earliest days as the Green Dragon Inn.
It is difficult to know when either property first became licensed premises, but it is certain that that the present Royal County was called the Waterloo Hotel in 1820 because in that year, the owner, William Ward, was advertising his property by that name in a local gazetteer.
By 1827, it was advertised as the Waterloo Hotel and Posting House. By 1834, the property had passed to Elizabeth Ward and was again known simply as the Waterloo Hotel.
In 1846, 61 Old Elvet, run by victualler John Thwaites, was advertising itself as the Waterloo Hotel.
Before moving to the Waterloo Hotel, since 1827 Thwaites had run the Queen’s Head Inn and Posting House in the North Bailey. On old maps of Durham, the two Old Elvet properties are shown distinctly as Ward’s Waterloo Hotel and Thwaites’ Waterloo Hotel.
Elizabeth Ward was succeeded in 1850 by the Ward brothers, and the named proprietor a year later was W Thomas Ward.
By 1864, the Thwaites’ property, No 61, became the Waterloo Inn, while No 60 passed into the hands of a former Darlington hotelier, Thomas Turner, who changed his new property’s name to the County Hotel.
At some stage before 1901, the future King Edward VII is believed to have visited the County, after which time it used the prefix Royal.
In the 19th and early 20th Century, the present hotel car park site was used by a variety of trades – livery stables, a brewery and a farrier’s.
In 1867, John Wilkie was advertising his services as an omnibus driver from 57 Old Elvet and in 1874, William Wilkie was the proprietor of the County Hotel livery stables on Elvet Waterside.
Three years later, he was in business as a cab proprietor.
Also in the car park area was Durham’s second Methodist chapel, built in 1808 and demolished in 1968.
Remnants of its stone walls can still be seen. Its predecessor had been a converted house in nearby Court Lane.
Behind the hotel is Elvet Waterside, now with some new housing, which was from 1855 the home of the city’s swimming baths, designed by John Augustus Cory.
Passage across the River Wear at this point was via Baths footbridge, of which there have been several, the first, made of wood, also erected some time before 1855.
In 1898, it was replaced by an iron one, followed in 1962 by the bridge used today, which is still a useful direct link between Old Elvet and Gilesgate.
Just beyond the archway that gives access to the hotel car park is a building numbered 53 to 55.
In front of it are two small cannon which always excite considerable interest, especially from children.
These guns are actually carronades which, dating from the very early 19th Century, were manufactured at the Carronbridge Iron Foundry, in Scotland, hence their name.
They were brought here from Tynemouth in the Fifties.
Across the road from these weapons is the stone-built Elvet Methodist church of 1906, regarded as an unwelcome intrusion into Old Elvet when it opened, as was its neighbour, the red brick Old Shire Hall, as it is now popularly known.
Built between 1895 and 1898 and enlarged in 1905, the building was designed by Harry Barnes and Frederick Coates, both local men, and has much to recommend it, notably its copper-coloured dome, which is a useful landmark.
Its entrance hall is a masterpiece of the tiler’s art, while the council chamber is acoustically superb.
There is a great deal of Weardale marble in the building, fine woodwork from Newcastle and stained glass from Glasgow, all-in-all a superb example of high Victoriana.
Its hall has an important place in the story of the British Labour movement because it was here in 1909 that the first all-Labour county council in Britain was created with Peter Lee, a former Durham coal miner, as its chairman.
His name was given to the new town of Peterlee.
In 1963, when Durham County Council moved its headquarters from here to the new county hall at Aykley Heads, Durham University took over the premises as its administrative centre.
In 2008, the university sold Old Shire Hall and 14 and 15 Old Elvet to the regional development agency One North East, but is leasing the buildings back until other accommodation is ready.
Once that happens, the properties will be used by the public, Old Shire Hall possibly destined to become a “boutique hotel”.
No 46 Old Elvet was once the office of Victorian architect Ignatius Bonomi.
There is still a small ballroom in 32 Old Elvet, while on the north side of the street is the masonic hall designed in 1869 by another local architect, Thomas Ebdy.
At the head of the street was Elvet railway station, opened in 1893 by the North Eastern Railway, served by a new line branching off the old Shincliffe one at Sherburn House.
Never a great success, Elvet Station was closed to passengers in 1931, but was kept open for use one day a year when trains were run from pit villages to take people, bands and banners to Durham Miners’ Gala.
One of the station’s last duties before it closed in 1954 was to welcome a circus that arrived there by train the previous year.
Also at the top of Old Elvet is the new part of Durham Prison, while a short distance away across the green can be seen the facade of the old prison and assize courts.
Begun in 1809 by Francis Sandys, who was soon dismissed for incompetence, the building of the courts was continued by George Moneypenny, but finally completed by Ignatius Bonomi to his own design.
Bonomi also finished the prison between 1815 and 1819, that section that he built for female inmates eventually becoming known as the highsecurity E-Wing.
The road linking Old and New Elvet is Court Lane, originally known as Ratenraw, which translates as Robbers’ Row.
The building in New Elvet that merits the greatest notice is the former coaching inn, the Three Tuns Hotel.
At the junction of New Elvet and Hallgarth Street is Dunelm House, designed by William Powers, another university building that has been described as a collection of stacked concrete boxes and kerb stones, but it has won both Royal Institute of British Architects and Civic Trust awards.
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