An odd architectural feature in Barton caught the eye of one of our readers – arches that have been filled in. What were they?

JOHN WINTERBURN in Darlington writes to pose one of those questions that have been bothering Memories for many years.

“Opposite the entrance to Barton church are two stone arched doorways that have been filled in,” he says. “Could you tell me what they were for, as they are puzzling my family.”

The answer is, unfortunately, no – but can you help?

Barton is a small village, in northernmost North Yorkshire. It straddles Waterfall Beck. As Memories told in 2005, each side of the beck once had its own ancient church.

On the east side was St Mary’s, which belonged to the Benedictine monks of St Mary’s Abbey, in York.

On the west side was St Cuthbert’s, which belonged to the Premonstratensian monks of St Agatha’s Abbey, at Easby, near Richmond.

Most villages struggle to support one church financially, let alone two, so for many centuries both of Barton’s churches were in states of disrepair. In 1840, much of St Mary’s fell down – today its wonderfully overgrown, but churchless churchyard is all that remains – and so in 1841, the local people raised £900 and had Ignatius Bonomi, the great Durham architect, rebuild St Cuthbert’s.

Mr Winterburn’s arches are directly opposite St Cuthbert’s and they do have an ecclesiastical feel – could they be connected? Could they be part of the old, 13th Century St Cuthbert’s?

But the arches are part of a restraining wall that holds up an area of land known as Piper Hill. A terrace of houses – which included a fish and chip shop – once stood on Piper Hill. The houses were demolished in the late 1950s, although the demolition contractor had the inspired idea of leaving intact one of the houses’ entrance porches as a curio. This porch is known to some as “the watchtower” and to others as “the smallest free-standing dovecote in England” – this is because the roofspace of the porch was indeed once used to keep doves.

So Mr Winterburn’s arches were directly beneath the Piper Hill terrace.

Could the church be a red herring and instead they were an entrance to the old cottages?

Please let us know.

ONCE, every town had its own gasworks in which coal or coke was baked to more than 1,000 degrees so that it gave off its gas, which was then stored in a nearby circular gasholder.

The Northern Echo:
Bishop Auckland’s gas holder shortly after it was completed in 1951 – it is being demolished this summer

As Memories 119 told last year, even picturesque Richmond had its own unattractive gasworks – the bank down which the pretty falls on the River Swale are accessed is Gasworks Bank and until very recently you could see the derelict facade of the old retort house.

Bishop Auckland also had its own gasworks, established in 1835, and from 1881, based in the Fylands area. By the 1950s, it was a huge concern with railway lines bringing coal, retort houses producing the gas, cleaning plants purifying it and gasholders storing it.

But from the 1960s, as all small town gasworks were phased out, so Bishop Auckland’s was downsized until all that remained was a three million cubic feet gasholder, built in 1951 by Darlington’s famous Whessoe company.

The Northern Echo:
The Randolph Coke Ovens at Evenwood in 1955. For 25 years, they supplied south Durham with gas

But last month, Northern Gas Networks announced that it, too, was redundant and was to be demolished over the summer.

Charles Lilley, of Nunthorpe, a long time gas enthusiast, writes with details of the holder, which was originally intended to be built beside Darlington’s Valley Street gasworks.

Valley Street produced much of south-west Durham’s gas, although additional supplies came from smaller coke ovens in the Durham coalfield. For instance, in 1935, the coke ovens at Brancepeth began supplying three million cubic feet of unpurified gas a day to Darlington down a 12in diameter pipe.

The Northern Echo:
Laying the 12in pipe which took gas from Brancepeth in 1935. This work is probably happening near Crook or Spennymoor

Branches were run off this main into Crook, Willington, Spennymoor and Bishop Auckland.

The arrival of Brancepeth gas signalled the end of gas production in those towns, and their gasworks switched to cleaning the Brancepeth gas and then storing it in holders.

In 1951, when Brancepeth gas reached Bishop Auckland, the Whessoe tank was built to hold it.

The Northern Echo:
Looking down on Bishop Auckland gasworks from the gasholder in 1955. Dent Street, Brantwood Terrace and Tindale Crescent can be seen in the top left

However, the impurities in the Brancepeth gas clogged up the 12 inch pipe so that in 1955, the National Coal Board installed a purifying plant at Brancepeth, and the operations at the town gasworks were again downsized.

At the start of the 1960s, Brancepeth gas was phased out, and a new supply came from the Randolph Coke and Chemical Company at Evenwood.

It was delivered by two 15in diameter mains pipes – one went to Bishop Auckland, and the other, via Summerhouse, to Darlington, with a 6in branch going off to Barnard Castle.

The Northern Echo:
Cleaning sulphurous deposits from the Brancepeth main in 1948 with the coke ovens in the background. These pictures have been kindly supplied by Charles Lilley

Randolph gas was phased out in 1975 as “natural gas” became the fuel of the day, and now the demolition of Bishop Auckland’s gasholder means the end for one of the last survivors from the age of town and coke oven gas.