AFTER the Second World War, architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, who had fled the Nazis in his native Germany, toured England looking at buildings and creating an extraordinary, 46-volume guide to the architecture of each county.

Now the Durham volume has been updated and enlarged by Martin Roberts who, for 50 years, has been conserving and enthusing over historic buildings in the North-East, as the Conservation Officer at the City of Durham Council and then as the Historic Buildings Inspector at English Heritage’s North-East office.

He has spent the last couple of years driving around the town centres and back-roads of the county inspecting the great treasures and also the curious corners.

Everyone knows about the brilliance of Durham Cathedral or Auckland Castle or even the Angel of the North, so we’ve asked Martin to select his favourite, quirkier buildings that haven’t grabbed the limelight, and the visitor numbers, of the big hitters.

Here are his 10 grassroots treasures of County Durham…


The Northern Echo: Legs Cross. Picture: Will Roberts

1. Legs Cross, Bolam

LEGS CROSS is small, behind a hedge, and easily missed. But park up, nip into the field and there on a low mound is the 9th Century boundary marker, its interlace carving blown away. It stands at the corner of one of County Durham’s Anglo-Saxon shires, set in the angle between a geological step in the landscape and a Roman road that drops you down onto the Darlington plain, to Piercebridge and the Tees. Placed with an acupuncturist’s precision, it resonates powerfully, commanding the view.

The Northern Echo: St Helen's cross, Kelloe. Will Roberts

2. St Helena’s Cross, St Helen’s church, Kelloe

IN the chancel of the little Norman church of St Helen at Kelloe, which is between Coxhoe and Trimdon Grange, stands one of the most important pieces of Romanesque sculpture in the North-East: a reliquary cross of the later 12th Century. The rich carving depicts the story of St Helena and the discovery of the True Cross – Helena was the mother of Roman emperor Constantine and in AD130 she discovered the real cross on which Jesus was crucified.

Kelloe’s cross may have been one of a pair of crosses, studded with crystals or semi-precious stones, and possibly containing a piece of the cross.

Why is it in Kelloe? Possibly it came from Durham Cathedral at the Dissolution of the Monasteries – the cathedral is known to have had a relic of the True Cross.

The Northern Echo: Staindrop church. Will Roberts

3. Tombs of the earls of Westmorland, St Mary’s church, Staindrop

AS you enter St Mary’s church in Staindrop, the earls of Westmorland and their wives greet you, side by side, as if in a hospital ward. The magnificent alabaster effigies of Ralph Neville, 1st Earl, and his two wives, made around 1400, steal the show.

But spare a glance for the first tomb you see, the rare wooden monument to the 5th Earl, Henry Neville, also with two of his three wives. It was made in 1560, by John Tarbotons (of whom we know nothing) and has probably the earliest Renaissance decoration in the North-East, with much of the detail too, but classical dolphins swim beside gothic ogee arches and carved balusters replace pinnacles.

The Northern Echo: Gainford Hall. Will Roberts

4. Gainford Hall

FOR the best view of Gainford Hall, you must leave the historic county altogether. Cross the river and from Barforth on the Yorkshire side, look back at the magnificent position of Durham’s own Elizabethan “prodigy house” of 1600-3 ¬– one of the large and showy English country houses built by courtiers and wealthy families to attract the attention of the queen on one of her tours.

It stands high above the Tees, a sophisticated house with an early double pile plan, beautifully massed and modelled by a highly competent but unknown designer.

Its interior plasterwork carried out by a peripatetic family of North Yorkshire craftsmen whose work can be seen elsewhere in the county at Westholme Hall, Hilton Hall, West Auckland Manor House and in Saddler Street, Durham.

The Northern Echo: Hartlepool headland. Will Roberts

5. The Headland, Hartlepool

THE monastery out on the Headland at Hartlepool was founded in the mid-7th Century, and was later developed under St Hild. What followed was one of the most extraordinary palimpsest landscapes in the North East: a magnificent medieval church and walled town, some Georgian elegance, a working port of cranes, wharfs and shipping, and a handsome seaside resort. Then came destruction, initially by German cruisers in the First World War and then by a later tragic grubbing out of most of the old town. The result, though hard on the eye at times, is never dull; no easy, chocolate-box heritage, yet still one of the most important historic landscapes in the county.

The Northern Echo: Spartalee House, weardale. Will Roberts

6. Spartalee House, Eastgate

TEESDALE may be prettier, but Weardale surely has the edge on interest? Teesdale is similarly austere but generally well-kept, because in the past, when farms became redundant, careful Raby Estate management chose renovation or demolition. Gradual decay was rarely an option.

In Weardale, a far more complex land ownership pattern has led to a valley of even greater richness, its valley sides dotted with the abandoned farmsteads of the miner-farmers, 18th and 19th century lead workers whose families also tended a smallholding.

Spartalee House is one such, an excellent example of a rare building type, the house-over-byre, where winter cattle warmed their keepers in the little house above.

The Northern Echo: Elephant tea room, Sunderland. Will Roberts

7. Elephant Tea Rooms, Sunderland

SOMETIMES you just need a building to make you stop and smile. If so, then Fawcett Street in Sunderland, and Victorian architect Frank Caws in particular, will raise your spirits. Halfway down the street Caws designed two busy and energetic buildings side by side, Sydenham House and Corder House, both in beautiful Ruabon terracotta brickwork.

But his masterpiece sits on the corner with High Street West, the Elephant Tea Rooms, a wild eclectic concoction of 1873-7, in a style Caws called “Hindoo-Gothic”, with elephants high up in the stonework.

The Northern Echo: Seaton Carew bus station. Will Roberts

8. Bus Station, Seaton Carew

THOUGH Caws can teach us that excess can sometimes be fun, I think there is so much more merit in the simple and elegant line of a well-designed building, stripped of unnecessary embellishment and decoration.

In the superb Bus Station at Seaton Carew, designed in 1938 by Alfred Golding of the Borough Surveyor’s Department, the decorative elements of Art Deco are relatively restrained while its Modernist credentials are very evident.

Seaton Carew, like all seaside resorts, has its share of tacky, ‘kiss-me-quick’ commercialism, but it also has delightful areas of late Georgian gentility, and an admirable sea front promenade of just grass-wall-sea, and no nonsense.

The Northern Echo: Cummins, Darlington. Will Roberts

9. Cummins Engine Factory, Darlington

THE belief that ‘less-is-more’ finds perfect expression in the second Cummins Engine Factory on Yarm Road, Darlington. The first was built in 1963-4 and only a year later, on an adjacent site, American architects Roche, Dinkerloo and Associates designed this perfect minimalist glass box.

The glazing sits behind a beautifully articulated steel frame, its services cleverly fitted into the roof void, freeing up the floor space.

It was the first building in Britain to use Cor-ten steel and the first large scale use of neoprene gaskets to set the window frames. It is probably one of the finest 20th Century industrial buildings in the country.

The Northern Echo: Apollo Pavilion, Peterlee. Will Roberts

10. Apollo Pavilion, Peterlee

NAMED after the moon landing that coincided with its completion in 1969, this monumental design by Victor Pasmore, brings together two rare bedfellows – the Constructivism and Brutalism of the 20th Century, with the traditions of the English Landscape Garden.

The view across a grass-banked, meandering lake is closed by a huge sculpture-cum-bridge of cast in-situ concrete. Crossing the bridge deck, your passage is framed and controlled by abstract shapes and striking shadows, creating internal spaces and external panoramas.

Loved, then hated, and loved again and magnificently restored, it makes the Angel of the North look surprisingly conventional.

It is an extraordinary sight to end with, if you can find it – signage please, Durham County Council!

The Northern Echo: The Buildings of England: County Durham, by Martin Roberts, Nikolaus Pevsner and Elizabeth Williamson has just been published in hardback by Yale Books for £45

The Buildings of England: County Durham, by Martin Roberts, Nikolaus Pevsner and Elizabeth Williamson has just been published in hardback by Yale Books for £45. To order the book with free p&p to UK addresses, please visit