STAINDROP’S heavily treelined green, long and broad, is pretty enough for an artist to use as the subject for a painting, and it has featured in the work of local people who are combining art, walking and history.

The results of their work are to be displayed at an Art For All exhibition and open day next Saturday in the Scarth Memorial Hall.

Members of the group walked around the village, investigating, sketching and photographing as they went, and they became aware that the green was for centuries a cobbled market place where you could buy anything and everything: leather, scythes, sweets, toys, animals, and perhaps even a wife.

A splendid stag at Raby Castle by Zoe Huxtable, a member of the Art for All group

Bishop Hatfield of Durham granted John de Nevill, the lord of Raby, a licence to hold a weekly market at Staindrop on January 24, 1378 – it was probably a way of encouraging the local economy to recover after a nasty bout of the Black Death.


The bishop also granted Staindrop the right to hold an annual, three-day fair, to start on St Thomas’s Day, which is on July 3.

The fair seems not to have taken off, but for centuries, Staindrop was an important market.

Staindrop, perhaps as early as 1867, looking across the market area to the building that was known as "the Shambles". The church is in the distance

The green was then cobbled and lined, on the south side, with two rows of permanent stalls.

At the front were stone stalls for selling meat. These were known as “the shambles”, from an Anglo-Saxon word, “fleshammels” which meant “flesh shelves”. This is where we get out word “shambles” from as there were often blood, guts and entrails all over the fleshammels making them look like a shambles.

A plan of Staindrop's market from John Hay's Art for All zine

Alongside the meat stalls were wooden stalls for flax, wool and hides, and behind them was a row of stalls selling goods: leather, rope, scythes and sickles, sweets and toys.

On the north side, where the Spar shop is today, there were areas for cattle, sheep and horses to be sold. Some of the tracks which criss-cross today’s green apparently at random may have started out as horse promenades where at animal was put through its paces in an attempt to persuade a prospective purchaser.

The old market place in Staindrop on April 27, 1955, from The Northern Echo archive

There was also an area known as the “hiring ground”. This was where labourers would congregate in the hope of securing work, either in a farm or as a domestic servant, but as members of the group researched the old market, they wondered whether it might also have been possible to buy a wife at the hiring ground.

Because in the early 18th Century, it was very difficult and expensive to get a divorce as each breakdown required its own Act of Parliament. A husband was also able to sue a man he caught having “criminal conversation” – a euphemism for adulterous sexual relations – with his wife for damages.

There are stories of men leading their unfaithful wives to market, shouting out her attributes – weight and character – and her starting price, and then waiting for bids. Often there was only one bidder – her lover – and the sale was a public way of announcing the end of the marriage and compensating the ex-husband for giving up his right to “crim-con” damages.

Could such a practice have happened on Staindrop market?

Because alongside the stalls there was another instrument of public humiliation: the stocks. Here local offenders would be pinioned on market day and have offal flung at them as punishment for their mis-deeds.

A lovely lilac spotted by Katherine Chicken in the grounds of the Manor House in Staindrop 

Despite all these attractions, by the 19th Century, Staindrop’s market was struggling to compete with Barnard Castle’s larger offering.

In 1857, Durham historian William Fordyce wrote: “The stalls for the use of butchers and others attending markets with their goods are miserable erections standing in the wider part of the street. Their removal is however contemplated.”

He was right because that year the weekly cattle market was transferred to Barney, which was the death knell for Staindrop.

This had quite profound consequences on the prosperous Georgian market village. For a start, the slaughterhouse closed in 1858.

The Methodist church, as painted by Sheila Wyle. Staindrop’s many pubs created a drink problem and the Anglican Vane family of Raby Castle allowed the Methodists to build on their land in a bid to tackle the drink problem

And then there were the pubs. On their well-being walks, members of the Art for All group have been surprised to spot many properties clustering around the green that still bear names of animals – Raby buck, black swan, black lion, pack horse, greyhound – that hark back to their alcohol-selling past.

Today, there is only one pub in Staindrop, the Wheatsheaf, but once there were 12 or 13 refreshing all the people who came into the village for market day.

The Queen's Head was once Staindrop's leading hotel. On the far side of Queen's Head Wynd is another former pub, the Cleveland Inn. Picture: Google StreetView

The grandest was probably the Queen’s Head, a coaching inn which had a room big enough for social gatherings and auctions, and was used every fortnight as the courtroom. It, though, closed before the First World War and is now two private residences.

On the road out to Winston, there’s another private house that was once the Waterloo Inn. This was probably one of the 45,000 “board inns” created immediately after the Duke of Wellington’s government passed the Beerhouse Act in 1830 which allowed any ratepayer to buy a licence for two guineas enabling them to brew or sell beer in their front rooms. All they needed was to display a board outside their premises with the name of the licensee on it.


This Act was intended to wean the population off strong gin and onto something softer, like beer.

The Act was extremely popular, and these “board inns” were often named after King William IV, one of whose first duties on coming to the throne was to give the Act his Royal Assent, or the Duke of Wellington or, as in the case of Staindrop, his greatest triumph.

Many of Staindrop’s old pubs can still be spotted, but most signs of the market were removed towards the end of the 19th Century.

Gorst Hall, with tethering pillars outside it from Staindrop's market days. PIcture: Google StreetView

Outside Gorst Hall, which was built in 1715, there are still stone pillars with iron rings attached which look as if they are part of an old fence. They are, though, where animals were once tethered after they’d been bought.

The market stalls, though, were replaced by a stately line of trees that were planted in 1887 to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Silver Jubilee, and the cobbles were lifted and replaced by grass – well, nearly all were, but beside a building that used to be a restaurant called “the shambles” there’s half-a-lane of cobbles that has so far escaped being covered in tarmac.

The Shambles Bistro in Staindrop in 2006: beside the building on the right is the last stretch of cobbles leftover from the market days

The Art for All project is helping to chronicle and record all these changes. Funding from the County Durham Community Foundation has enabled artist Jane Young to lead a series of events based at the Scarth Memorial Hall, from where members of the community have gone on walks looking at the heritage of their village. They then create artistic zines, or journals, responding to what they have discovered. These will be on display on Saturday, June 22, between 11am and 3pm, along with information boards about Staindrop’s history.

Staindrop church, photographed by Jill Barr

John Hay's drawing of the top of Ralph Neville's tomb in Staindrop church, which is regarded as the finest sepulchral monuments in the north. Ralph, the 1st Earl of Westmoreland, died in 1425 and he is flanked by his two wives, Margaret and Joan, who between them bore him 22 children

The idea of the project was to bring people together, to promote well-being, to develop a connection with their place, to learn new artistic skills and to have some fun.

As well as the market, participants have looked at the church, the almshouses and the old mill, and they informed one resident that they believed she was living in the village’s oldest house which was once a nunnery and she had a burial ground for nuns in her back garden.

Saturday’s event is aimed at people of all ages and will offer them the chance to drop in and try out some of the group’s artistic practices, and Sunderland artist Lyn Killeen will be running a map zine making session. Refreshments will also be available.

  • With many thanks to John Hay and Jill Young


Waterlilies, by Jenny Cathcart of the Art for All group