SIX miles and 900 years of Durham’s history is on the move. All the rows of documents and records, and all the centuries of people and stories, are only shifting three miles to their new home but they will be moving into the 21st Century.

In the past, inspecting Durham’s history in the record office in County Hall has felt rather like visiting someone in jail. You needed an appointment, you needed a badge; then you were escorted down long corridors by someone with keys swinging at their hips until you reached the visiting room where the document, released from its imprisonment in a cabinet or chest by the keys, was laid out on the table for your one-on-one consultation.

But at the archive’s new home in The Story, at Mount Oswald, it will be much more open.

The Northern Echo: Carolyn Ball, the new Durham county archivist

Carolyn Ball in the archive which is on the move

“It’s going to take us five months to move three miles,” says the new county archivist Carolyn Ball, sitting in her office beneath a leather-bound set of local and personal statutes which the gold block on the spine says starts in 1798 in the reign of George III. “It is a massive job. It is going to be a five month slog but the new facility looks amazing.

The Northern Echo: The Story, Durham

“We are quite tucked away now but The Story will be much more open. You will be able to go in and browse, so some of the barriers will be removed. People will be able to dip in and out far more easily than they can now.”

And they will be able to have a cup of coffee and a piece of cake.

The Northern Echo: Pic 1 Mount Oswald late 1860s_credit Anthony Oswald Noel Wilkinson

Mount Oswald in the 1860s: it is the new home to the Durham archives and records

The Story, in a manor house dating from 1830 set in grassy grounds, will bring all the registration records from councils, coroners, churches, magistrates and hospitals together with the local studies archives and the Durham Light Infantry collection.

They are to be housed in an environmentally sensitive building that will be powered by 291 solar panels and warmed by 60 ground source heat pumps.

The Northern Echo: It was revealed by Durham County Council earlier this week that the centre, which is currently under construction and due to open to the public in 2023, is to be called The Story at Mount Oswald. Picture: DURHAM COUNTY COUNCIL.

An artist's impression of Mount Oswald with its new extension for The Story

And it should be open later this year – the archives have really been closed to the public since the pandemic struck in March 2020.

“Archives allow people to understand where they fit into the world, where they come from,” says Carolyn. “They explain and demonstrate what places were like in the past.

“They don’t try to tell an outcome of a story, they are there to give facts and information and then you make what you will of it.”

This, of course, is the joy of local history: the piecing together of all the parts to create a picture of the past that informs the present of a place.

The Northern Echo: The transformation of Mount Oswald into The Story beginning in the autumn

The transformation of Mount Oswald into The Story beginning in the autumn

To tell some of those stories, the new centre will have an exhibition space, with free entry. The first exhibition is being put together by the county youth council, looking at young people through the ages, and the second will commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Kohima, in which the DLI were instrumental in inflicting the first defeat on the Japanese in Asia and turning the tide of the Second World War.

There is an archive of archivists which says that Carolyn is the seventh county archivist, taking over from Liz Bregazzi in November. She is steeped in Durham as she comes from Lanchester, where her passion for history was fired when she was young.

“I was interested in historical facts and figures since I was small and growing up in Durham, which is very proud of its history, it is part of the psyche,” she says. “You’ve got the high visibility of the history of the cathedral, but you also have the history of the communities, where people talk about the past, so there’s an aural tradition as well.”

She knew she wanted to work with history and so volunteered at the archive in the 1980s before going to university in London to study the subject. She worked at the London Metropolitan Archives before returning to Durham in the 1990s and then, in 2002, heading to Tyne & Wear to manage their archives and the Discovery Museum. There, in 2018, she oversaw the return of Stephenson’s Rocket, which was built on the Tyne in 1829.

“The physicality of Rocket was spine tingling,” she says.

The Northern Echo: Carolyn Ball, the new Durham county archivist

Carolyn in the archive

Now she has come home to Durham, she is overseeing the move to Mount Oswald where people will be able to access documents from the past but also ensuring that the present is being captured so people in the future can look back at today and understand what went on.

“We have a document from 1122 transferring land at Ancroft near Holy Island, which was a detached part of County Durham,” she says. “It is on parchment and written in Latin but is still very accessible. We now have to make sure that digital files will still be readable in 1,000 years’ time.”

The material on a five-and-a-quarter inch computer floppy disk from the 1990s is, 30 years later, almost unretrievable whereas details on a 901-year-old piece of parchment are perfectly legible to the naked eye.

It is getting her hands on history that appeals to Carolyn about her archive work. “It is one of the joys of the job,” she says. “You are always finding new things or rediscovering old stuff, or someone gives you context on something you have already seen so you start to see the story differently.”

With that in mind, we asked her to select some items in the archive that always give her a thrill when she comes across them. Her top three is always changing, but on the day we met beneath that leather-bound set of local and personal statutes, she was persuaded to select these:

The Northern Echo: The Seaham deed with the signature of R Gloucestre on it

1. A 15th Century deed (above) concerning the sale of land in Seaham which in the top left hand margin is signed “R Gloucestre”. This is the hand of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who effectively ruled the north of England on behalf of his brother, Edward IV, in the 1470s. In 1483, following the mysterious deaths of his two cousins in the Tower of London, the duke became King Richard III, one of the most enigmatic monarchs of all time.

“Signatures on deeds in the medieval period are incredibly rare because they are usually sealed,” says Carolyn, “but Richard III signed that document – he actually touched it!”

The Northern Echo: The proposed orangery at Gibside

2. A watercolour (above) from the Strathmore collection showing the plans for an orangery that was to be built at the Gibside estate in the north of Durham. “It is beautiful and it has got so much detail in it,” says Carolyn. “There’s a little coal bunker with a spade propped up against it, and in the other corner is a little seat with someone reading a book on it.” He looks a little short-sighted, though, as he’s holding it up close to his face.

The ruined Orangery at Gibside is one of the region’s best known buildings. It was built in the early 1770s by Mary Eleanor Bowes who called it the Green House as she kept her priceless collection of plants in it.

The Northern Echo: The proposed orangery at Gibside

Close up of the man (rather short-sighted) reading a book in the proposed orangery for Gibside

3. “I love the incidental comments that you find in the older church registers,” says Carolyn. “The priests are supposed to be recording births, marriages and deaths but they write about other things that are going on in the world so you get information on the plague in Durham city, and in the St Nicholas register, the priest wrote about someone bringing a giant snake into the market place in the late 16th Century.

“But my favourite is from the register of Elwick Hall church (in Hartlepool) in the mid 17th Century, where there’s a wonderful uncomplimentary phrase about Oliver Cromwell written by an enraged parish priest (below).”

The Northern Echo: An angry cleric from Hartlepool vents his fury at Oliver Cromwell: "A monster of nature and a bloody tyrant"

Cromwell led the Parliamentarians who overthrew and executed Charles I in 1649. He then ruled as Lord Protector from 1653 to 1658. In an entry in the Hartlepool register which follows one which is dated 1653, a priest, who was clearly annoyed by what he regarded as the petty bureaucracy that Cromwell had forced upon him, wrote: “Memorandum that maryinge by Jutices election of Registers by the parishioners and the use off Ruling Elder ffirst came into ffasion in the times off Rebellion under that monster off nature & bloudy Tyrant Oliver Cromwell”.

The Northern Echo: Oliver Cromwell.

Oliver Cromwell, who enraged a priest in Hartlepool