THE waters of the Tees have washed, shaped and named the village of Gainford and their part in its history is celebrated next weekend when the Way of Life is launched there by the bishops of Durham and Jarrow.

It is said that more than 1,000 years ago, monks who had fled from Chester-le-Street to Ripon with St Cuthbert’s body, to escape marauding Vikings, believed the coast was clear for them to make a return.

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They forded the River Tees back into Durham but were so weary after their struggles with the water that they popped the coffin down on the riverbank, and Cuthbert miraculously uncorked a spring of healthy, healing water out of the ground with which they refreshed and renewed themselves.

The bishops will start the Way of Life pilgrimage next Sunday – Palm Sunday – from the well.

The Way of Life is one of six Northern Saints Trails that were created in 2020 for the church’s year of pilgrimage. However, the pandemic prevented a fanfare last year and so Sunday’s socially distanced outdoor service marks a new start.

The Northern Echo: An aerial view of St Mary's Church, Gainford, where on Palm Sunday an outdoor service will be held to mark the launch of the Way of Life

The ford that Cuthbert’s crew crossed was one of two. It is the one that gives the village its name: “gegyn” being an Old English word meaning direct or straight.

By contrast, the ford a little to the west crossed the river diagonally. It was known as “the barley ford”, which has been contracted to Barforth, the name of the ancient settlement (complete with dovecote) on the Yorkshire bank.

There is a nice story that tells another version of how these settlements got their names. It says that the south Durham villagers were battling over control of the fords with their north Yorkshire neighbours. The Yorkies barred the western ford to stop anyone using it, and so it became Barforth, while the Durham people gained control of the straight ford – hence Gainford.

The Northern Echo: A 1920s postcard showing the old ferry at Gainford

For those who didn’t want to get their feet wet in the fords, there were two ferryboats that crossed the river. Indeed, on the Yorkshire side of the river is a stretch known as Boat Pool, a bank known as Boat Scar, and a sunken track called Boat House Lane.

The most enduring ferry was next to the straight ford. A boatman, Bob Carr, worked the crossing until 1935, charging one penny each way. He lived on the Gainford side, in Watergate, and on the Yorkshire side was a bell for passengers to use to summon him.

The Northern Echo: The Lord Nelson in Gainford in its serving days. It was once known as the Yorkshire Stingo. What was a Yorkshire stingo?

The first mention of Gainford is in 801AD when Eda or Edwine, a Northumberland chief, was buried in a monastery “ad Gegenforda”. That wooden monastery grew into a Saxon stone church, but when William the Conqueror seized control after 1066, he gave Gainford to one of his followers, Guy Baliol.

Baliol in turn gave the church to St Mary’s Abbey of York whose monks rebuilt it in 13th Century, and so it is called St Mary’s Church and the watery spout on the edge of the churchyard is called St Mary’s Well.

Sunday’s service will start at 3pm in the churchyard and move to the well to mark the launch of the Way of Life, a 29 mile trail that heads north to West Auckland, up the Etherley Incline of the Stockton & Darlington Railway to the Saxon church at Escomb. It goes on to Bishop Auckland and Binchester before crossing the Wear at Sunderland Bridge and entering Durham from the south. Pilgrims climb the 224 Doom Steps to the top of Mountjoy where, for the first time, they get a view of the cathedral – the object of their pilgrimage.

For more information on the trails, go to, or go along to Gainford on Sunday, March 28.

KNOWING our love of roadside relics, John Hill of Darlington, draws our attention to this interesting stone which is in a wall near the “Gainford Island” – the raised plot outside the old Lord Nelson Inn which greets people arriving from the Darlington stone.

The Northern Echo: John Hill's picture of the mileage stone on the left with the Lord Nelson behind the Gainford Island

The stone gives the distances to London, Durham, Darlington, Staindrop and Barnard Castle. Can anyone tell us how old it is?

THE Lord Nelson closed about five years ago. It was built about 1748 when it was known as the Bunch of Grapes, and it became the Nelson after the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Inbetween, it was known as the Yorkshire Stingo. What was a Yorkshire stingo?