Heighington Scouts have been challenged to bring together 100 people of all ages for an event. On Saturday, April 20, they are holding a history exhibition in their village hall, and asked for some pointers…

HEIGHINGTON sits on a hill which is 500ft (about 150 metres) above sea level. It appears to be a planned village from the 12th Century with a large square of houses looking onto a big village green – a defensive formation which allowed the villagers’ animals to graze safely. Access to the village was by four narrow gates.

The only building on the green is the 12th Century church (oh, and a 21st Century takeaway) which was built on the site of an earlier, Saxon place of worship. The church boasts the oldest pulpit, dating from 1530, in the county.

Heighington’s name could mean that it was the settlement of someone called Haecca, or it could come from its elevation: “heah” was an Old English word for a “high place”.

And Heighington is high. From the top of the church tower you can (apparently) see Kirk Merrington church from where you can see Durham cathedral; looking south, you can see over lowly Darlington to Barton – the suggestion is that these were once signalling stations.

ASIDE from comedian and Dr Who writer Mark Gattiss, the most famous Heighingtonian is probably Captain William Pryce Cumby, whose mother, Eleanor Jepson, came from a long-standing Heighington family. She married a naval lieutenant and gave birth to William in Dover on March 20, 1771.

She died on April 4, 1771, aged 24, and the baby was sent back to Heighington to be brought up by his aunt and uncle, who sent him to school in Richmond.

When he was 11, William went to sea as an officer’s servant, and he began learning the nautical ropes and rising up through the ranks. On October 21, 1805, he was first lieutenant on HMS Bellerophon, a 74-gun ship of the line with a crew of 540, off Cape Trafalgar on the south-west coast of Spain.

As the French and Spanish navies engaged with the British at about 11am. The Bellerophon was in the thickest of the fighting from the get-go – at 12.30, she fired deep into the Spanish vessel Monarca and then collided with the French warship Aigle. Close range fighting began, with Aigle assisted by three other warships, and just as Cumby advised Captain John Cooke to remove his stripes because the French gunmen appeared to be targeting officers, Cooke was killed by two musketballs to his chest.

Cumby was catapulted into command. The French were lobbing hand grenades onto his deck.

“Some of these exploded and dreadfully scorched several of our men,” he later told his son. “One of them I took up myself from the gangway where the fuse was burning and threw it overboard."

It was touch-and-go for half-an-hour, but Cumby managed to repel boarders, smashing the French hands as they clung onto Bellerophon’s rails, and at 1.40pm, Aigle retreated.

Although Trafalgar is remembered for the heroics of Admiral Horatio Nelson, Cumby had truly secured the British victory and, having captured two warships, he sailed Bellerophon home in triumph. He was promoted and given his own command. He sailed to the Americas to tackle the pirates, and privateers, of the Caribbean. On one raid, he rescued a cargo of black slaves.

In 1815, Cumby retired and in 1827, inherited the Old Hall in Heighington, where he lived, assisted by his servant, John Peters, who was one of those rescued slaves.

With his Trafalgar prize money, Cumby bought three local farms and, in 1833, built Heighington House (also known as Trafalgar House) which his descendants lived in until 1980.

Cumby died in 1837 on board a ship at Pembroke Dock in Wales, where he is buried, but his officers collected money for a handsome memorial to him which is near the altar in Heighington church.

A DISTINCTIVE Heighington curio is the Reverend Samuel Gamlen’s stone pant on the green.

In ancient times, villagers had to walk several hundred yards east of the village – down Water Lane – to St John’s Well to collect bucketfuls of water.

Gamlen was vicar from 1815 to 1836 and he paid for the water to be piped from the well onto the green, where he dug out a 10,000 gallon cistern over which he built the pant, or pumphead. Any overflow from the cistern was channelled to the lowest part of the green where a pond was created.

A more orthodox water supply arrived in the village in the 1930s (it was connected to the electricity grid in 1929), and the pant was disconnected and the pond filled in.

The pumphead survives beside another curio: a sturdy wooden bus shelter. It was created in 1924 at a cost of £40, half of which was paid for by the United bus company and the half was raised by the village WI.

THE Scouts’ event next Saturday is being held in the village hall, which traces its history back to 1601 when Elizabeth Jenison, of Walworth Castle, set up a trust fund to pay £11-a-year for a grammar school to be established outside the west gate of Heighington church.

In 1788, the school was still thatched, and it might remain so to this day if it wasn’t for the Reverend Robert Blacklin. He became schoolmaster and curate in 1770, and from the 1780s, he allowed the school to go to rack and ruin, despite taking every penny owed to him as schoolmaster.

He was sacked as curate, there was local outrage, his family deserted him, the Bishop of Durham descended in 1808 and demanded an improvement. But the school building fell down and still he took the money.

He only agreed to give up the post of schoolmaster, and the income that went with it, in 1829 when the charity commissioners offered him a lump sum of £100 and £20-a-year for life. As Sir Timothy Eden of West Auckland noted, it was a brazen – and successful – example of blackmail by the clergyman.

Villagers rebuilt their school, with a tiled roof, and in the 1870s enlarged it further.

Older children were sent to Shildon in 1951 and it became a primary, and when it moved to its new premises in 1966, the old building in the shadow of the church tower became the village hall.

IN February 1944, Heighington gained international notoriety when its MP, John Leslie, raised in the House of Commons that the village – with a population of more than 1,000 – had lost its fish and chip shop when its takeaway owner had died in 1940.

The village’s fish allocation had been redirected to Darlington.

Now a new fish-frier was wanting to set up in the village but he couldn’t get his hands on any fish, said Mr Leslie, the Sedgefield MP. The Women’s Institute were up in arms about it, and the MP asked the Minister of Food: “Why should the people of this village have to go to Darlington and other places for fish?”

The minister, Colonel JJ Llewellin, invited Mr Leslie to discuss the great Heighington fish outage, saying: “If there really is a good case for opening a fish shop in this village, which will mean depriving other traders of some of their supplies, I will look into it.”

However, Lord Haw Haw, the notorious turncoat broadcaster, was listening in on the debate and twisted it for German propaganda purposes.

He crackled over the airwaves to tell the people of Europe on medium wave, and on short wave in the US, that the war was hitting the villagers of Heighington so badly that they were suffering starvation as they had gone four years without fish.

Lord Haw Haw will be disappointed to learn that in the 21st Century, Heighington once again has its own takeaway that not only does fish and chips but a wide range of exotic dishes such as pizzas, parmos and even the Heighington Special Wrap, which is strips of chicken parmo in a BBQ sauce.

FROM Shackleton Beacon to the west, which is County Durham’s best preserved Iron Age hillfort, to Heighington station to the east, where Locomotion No 1 was first placed onto the rails in 1825, there is plenty of Heighington history for the Scouts to go at.

Indeed, in 2006, a BBC4 programme fronted by historian Ptolemy Dean declared Heighington to be Britain’s most perfect village due to the combination of history, architecture and community which is to be found around its glorious village green.

The Scouts’ exhibition runs in Heighington village hall from 12 to 2pm on Saturday, April 20, 2019. It begins with a short talk by Chris Lloyd, who compiles these notes, and there will be sandwiches, cakes and refreshments for sale, with money being raised for a defibrillator. Can we get 100 there so the Scouts fulfil their challenge?