March 9 2014 Latest news:
For a quiet former pit town, Houghton-le-Spring has a fascinating history dating the settlement at least back to Roman times and probably into the Mesolithic period thousands of years BC
The name Houghton-le-Spring is often one that tests the North East knowledge of radio and television presenters. Broadcasters have been known to make Houghton as mangled as the miners clothes that in years gone by passed through the mangles in the back yards of the terraced homes that housed the many pit families in the town.
Its Hoton (as in the Ho-ho-ho of a Santa Claus) not How-ton or Horeton and comes from the Old English for hill - hoh and tun meaning settlement. There are several claims as to the origin of the le Spring part, including that it stems from medicinal springs of nearby limestone rocks, although and that it comes from the Le Spring family who were once Lords of Houghton.
Situated on the A690 and set half way between the city centres of Sunderland and Durham, if travelling from the coast you arrive in Houghton by passing through Houghton Cut. The cut swathes through the magnesium limestone common around Sunderland and provides passage down onto the vast plain that approaches Durham, affording a majestic view across the county with Houghton at the foot of the steep cut and the mighty cathedral of Durham visible seven miles in the distance.
Used by thousands of commuters every day, Houghton Cut was created by French prisoners in the Napoleonic war, as a route was required to transport troops from Durham to Sunderland. A small village within Houghton le Spring is Fence Houses which some claim was originally called French Houses as it was where the Gallic prisoners lived. Near the foot of the cut, a Hair & Beauty salon cleverly calls itself Houghton Cuts but youll have to visit it yourself to discover whether they specialise in French bouffant.
For a quiet small ex pit town theres a lot of history attached to Houghton, which was initially recorded as Hoctona in the Boldon Book of 1183. The magnificent Grade 1 listed St Michael and All Angels Church was possibly a place of worship in prehistoric times as far back as the Neolithic period (4000 - 2000BC). Recent work on central heating has unearthed stones thought to stem from a Roman temple believed to have dated from around 55BC to 410AD. A Roman coffin lid in the churchyard has long been known of while remnants of a wall in the nave dates from late Saxon or early Norman times. It is believed a man was killed in the belfry by Scots raiders before the church was restored in 1350 and then remodelled by the renowned Newcastle architect John Dobson in 1858 using medieval timbers from the church roof.
Timbers which are synonymous with Houghton are the Seven Sisters of the Copt Hill. Listed by English Heritage as a Scheduled Ancient Monument, this is a pre-historic burial mound first excavated in 1877 and which excavations as recently as 2004 now suggest may date from the Mesolithic period (8500 to 4000BC).
The septuplet beech trees are only a couple of minutes walk from the B1404 on Gillas Lane and you can park in the popular Copt Hill pub car park opposite. Wild flowers and wildlife are abundant here and the mound affords spectacular views. The seventh sister is much younger than the rest of her family, six fully mature trees being joined by a relatively recently-planted younger sibling, the original seventh sister having perished some years ago.
The area is a dog walkers paradise. Iris Dover and her King Charles Cavaliers Dylan and Molly can be found there every afternoon. Its a lovely walk and a favourite of mine. Woodpeckers live in one of the trees and I like to spot them. Im originally from Essex and like living here. Its a rat race down south but I like it quieter as it is here.
Successful Houghton novelist Sheila Quigley has based her best-selling books including Run for Home and Bad Moon Rising on the housing estates of Houghton and even mentioned The Peppercorn Caf in one, as owner Carol McGlinchey explains: Sheila comes in here as do her family and she is very down to earth and deserves the enormous success shes had. The Peppercorn caf is open seven days a week and, now in its 16th year is a stalwart of the Houghton-le-Spring shopping scene.
This is an integral part of Houghton, said Carol. We get all kinds of people in here. On Sundays we get a lot of people who come in on their own for a Sunday lunch. We have to be conscious of the prices we charge and you have to remember that, even though the pit has gone, this is still a pit village and you cant charge Sunderland or Durham prices. My husband Michael, who is from Donegal in Ireland, is the cook and he is most famously known for his omelettes, especially his huge breakfast omelette which has everything in it.
When we first came here 15 years ago you struggled to get a shop on the main street but now there are some where the shutters stay down and the loss of Woolworths was a blow, although theres talk of new shops opening up.
Although you have to scratch the surface of Houghton le Spring to discover the history it hides, you dont have to look far for friendly company and fascinating places to visit.
Haven for wildlife
Formerly the site of Rye Hill open cast coal mine, part of the vast Durham coalfield, Rainton Meadows has now been restored as a wetland site and is the headquarters of Durham Wildlife Trust.
Lakes and ponds have been constructed together with re-seeding of native vegetation and woodland planting to create a habitat for a rich variety of wildlife once thought to have been lost from the area.
Over 200 species of birds have been recorded visiting the site since 1996 and sightings of the rare water vole have been registered in the ponds. Dragonflies, damselflies and butterflies are seen in abundance with occasional migrant species being spotted.
One area known locally as Joes Pond was once the site of an old clay pit. This area was named after Joe Wilson, a former employee of Nicholsons Pit who leased the pond from the National Coal Board and personally carried out much of the early tree planting and island construction.
A designated Site of Special Scientific Interest, the area attracts many birds including long-eared owls, mute swans, grebes and ducks, is a popular breeding site for newts, frogs and toads. The surrounding wildflower meadows host a wide variety of plants including several species of orchids. It is also home to roe deer and foxes.
Houghton Feast takes place every October and boasts a history stretching back eight centuries. Events centre around the Parish Church of St Michaels and All Angels and there is usually a funfair, illuminations, fireworks displays, a carnival parade, exhibitions, talks and music and drama.
Everyone benefits from Houghton Feast when its on, says Carol McGlinchey of the Peppercorn caf. You have Scottish pipe bands going down the street and the pavements are crowded. Its always a busy time that everyone thoroughly enjoys.
This years feast takes place between October 8 and 17.
Tell us your memories of Houghton-le-Spring as a pit village. What was life like in the close-knit community when the men walked to work in the local pits? Does the same community spirit exist today? Click on the comments panel at the end of this feature.