IN the week that the Covid Inquiry has begun its investigations, residents of a village near Durham are putting on an exhibition that shows how they coped with the unprecedented events that unfolded between March 23, 2020, and July 19, 2021.

The exhibition is being held this weekend at Brancepeth castle, a building that has more than 1,000 years of history of its own, involving the greatest families of the North East, rebellion against the monarch and a couple of confiscations by the crown plus a transformation from a stately home befitting grand coalowners into a regimental headquarters for the Durham Light Infantry.

The Northern Echo: A view of Brancepeth Castle before the major rebuilding in the early 19th Century

A view of Brancepeth Castle before it was rebuilt in the early 19th Century and turned into a stately home for coalowners

But even it, in all that time, never experienced anything like the unique lockdowns of the early 21st Century.

They were so new that even the word “lockdown” was a modern, American invention – the Oxford English Dictionary records that it was first used in California in 1973 to describe the state of a prison after a knife fight among convicts.

It was a bewildering and confusing time with three lockdowns, four tiers and the rule of six – no wonder someone like, say, a Prime Minister might not be a little hazy about what restrictions were in place at any specific moment.

The Northern Echo: An aerial view of the village of Brancepeth dominated by its castle: a village in lockdown

An aerial view of the village of Brancepeth dominated by its castle: a village in lockdown

The Brancepeth Archive and History Group has been gathering memories, reflections and photos from people to show how they coped, how they moved online, how they socially distanced and how they created support mechanisms.

“I've heard of another village in the south west that has been compiling a Covid record but I’m not aware of anywhere else that has undertaken a similar project to this – certainly not in this part of the world,” says Vivienne Lowe from the group. “We hope the exhibition offers a unique opportunity to see a record, gathered for future generations, of life on the Home Front in this small County Durham village during a very different type of war.


“Many of the contributions offer harrowing accounts of working on the front line of Covid, in the hospitals, schools, for the police, when contact with others could not be avoided and was barely reduced. Long shifts, colleagues taking ill around them, stress at a level they had never before experienced and which had never been so relentless and frightening.”

This meant that what was going on at home, in the village, was even more important as the community was forced to adapt to the new normal of life in plague time.

Here is a snapshot of some of the contributions:

  • “The daily commute to work was the most impactive, surreal experience of my Covid time. I vividly recall one particular drive to work in the first lockdown when I only saw one other car on the road for the full drive from Brancepeth to Chester le Street. It was as though the world had ended. I felt very alone that day.”
  • One resident was due to get married in May 2020, but the first lockdown put a halt to that. It was revised three times before finally going ahead at the fourth attempt in August 2021. “And, do you know? Despite the curtailed numbers we enjoyed one of the happiest days imaginable.”

The Northern Echo: The Brancepeth Bugle

  • With everyone locked in their own little silos, it was difficult to communicate so villagers created the Brancepeth Bugle (above), a weekly newsletter circulated to 122 email subscribers full of news, information, quizzes and recipes. It ran to 35 editions. “Information gives strength – and the creation of the weekly Brancepeth Bugle to offer a village support network, and St Brandon’s “Navigator”, together with the monthly parish newsletter, and the Community Association website did just that – providing the glue that helped to keep the village together.”
  • A big problem in lockdown was passing the time. Some people learned to bake sourdough bread, others studied for qualifications, one pergola was built and five books were published. “We even resorted to cleaning the Brancepeth 30mph signs as mildew was thickening and reducing the signs reflect ability; were we that bored?”

The Northern Echo: Walking the course was a lonely but rewarding exercise

  • In the strictest lockdowns, only one hour of outdoor exercise was allowed a day. Brancepeth Golf Course, which was closed to golfers, allowed all villagers access to the course for their daily exercise, and “walking the course” (above) became a central part of village life. “To walk around in the snow and ice, rain and shine, soaking in the glorious scenery and wildlife proved a lifesaver for many.”

The Northern Echo: One swallow doesn't make a summer, but in Brancepeth it triggered "a waterfall" of nature photos

  • Suddenly, people were more in tune with nature. A picture of a swallow (above) posted on the village website inspired “a waterfall of wonderful photos capturing the essence of spring around the village”.
  • One lockdown pastime was the great clear-out. There was time to tackle a job that had otherwise been put off, but, with council tips closed, what should you do with the stuff that was no longer needed? “I realised my garage was ideal as a collection point. Details and dates were advertised in the Bugle and regular collections by the Great North Air Ambulance Society were arranged – so everyone benefitted. There was no contact and no rules were broken!”

The Northern Echo: An illuminated Advent window as part of a Brancepeth village trail

An illuminated Advent window as part of a Brancepeth village trail

  • There was a new Thursday night phenomenon. “We ‘clapped’ the NHS weekly to thank them for their tireless efforts, and we felt an overwhelming sense of ‘village spirit’: we adorned our windows at Christmas and Easter to give the children a ‘village trail’ (and some adults too!), and we took part in the village quizzes.”
  • “Our normal letting trade for our farm cottages went to zero at the outset of the pandemic as travel restrictions were introduced. It then became apparent that we were able to let to key workers who were working in the area. They tended to stay from Monday to Friday so they did not take infections into their homes.”

The Northern Echo: Brancepeth scarecrows Picture: SARAH CALDECOTT

  • Brancepeth Alive was a series of summer holiday activities arranged by the Community Association, parish council and church for different age groups and in line with the restrictions of the moment. There were Christmas and Easter trails around the village as householders dressed up their windows, and then there were 26 entries into a scarecrow competition (above). “Some were quite intimidating – particularly if you were speeding through the village!”
  • “To mark the anniversary of the first day of lockdown on March 23, 2020. I have been making flower brooches to honour the lives lost, lives changed by Long Covid and the working lives dedicated during the pandemic. The white centre is to symbolise lives lost. The four blue heart-shaped petals (I chose NHS blue) symbolise the NHS: care workers, other front line workers, scientists and researchers and people with Long Covid. Sadly, many front line workers caught the virus at work and many lost their lives.”

The exhibition in the castle runs on Saturday, June 17, from 11am to 4pm and on Sunday, June 18, from noon to 5pm. Admission is free, there’s plenty of car parking and refreshments will be available.