Keys to the Past

Local History

Gainford (County Durham)

Gainford is a small town between Barnard Castle and Darlington on the River Tees. It was once the centre of a huge parish running for nearly 18 miles along the northern bank of the Tees between Piercebridge in the south-east and High Shipley in the north-west.

The earliest remains from the village, however date back to prehistory. Unusually for a lowland area, a cup and ring marked stone was found when building the stables of Gainford House. It probably dates to the late Neolithic or early Bronze Age (c, 2800BC to 2300BC). Another Neolithic discovery is a stone axe found across the river from the village. This object may have been used to clear trees from the surrounding land to prepare it for ploughing.

Sadly no remains of prehistoric settlements have survived, though there must have certainly been settlers in the area. Equally, there is little evidence for inhabitation in the Roman period, though the Roman fort of Piercebridge lies not far to the east. However, even if the remains of actual Roman buildings have not been found, it is certain that there was some kind of activity in the area. A Roman altar to the god Jupiter Dolichenus has been built into the church tower- this suggests there may have been a Roman temple nearby. A fragment of {Roman pottery D948} has also been found in the area.

Following the end of Roman rule in the area in the early 5th century, Gainford appears to have come into its own as an important settlement. The name of the village itself comes from the Old English for 'direct/straight ford'. This gives an indication of why the settlement grew up here; it was on a good river crossing point. In the early 9th century Gainford became the site of an Anglo-Saxon monastery. The remains of many Anglo-Saxon carved stone crosses can still be seen in the church- the site remained an important monastery throughout the 9th and 10th century. Viking carved stones of this date are also still to be seen in the church. In the 19th century a small group of silver coins dating from 871-900 were found in the north-west corner of the chancel at the church. The large parish of Gainford properly grew up at this period, and was also probably the bounds of the large estate attached to the church. Its size shows how important the monastery was. As well as having a large parish, the size of the churchyard itself was probably much larger, as it would have contained the buildings of the monastery itself. A number of human bones were found beneath the village green in the 18th century- this may be an indicator of the originally size of the churchyard.

Gainford appears to have declined in importance in the 11th and 12th centuries, as the monastery became less influential. The present church was mainly built in the 12th or early 13th century. In this period, Gainford was not the only settlement in the immediate surrounding area. There was probably a small village at Dyance, where a number of earthworks are still visible. There were also probably other settlements at Balmer Hill, where there was once a chapel and a hermitage.

In the post-medieval period the village became a centre and a market for the surrounding area, and the settlement became increasing wealthy. Large houses, such as Gainford Hall, were built. A small school was constructed at the same period in the churchyard.

Although the town has shrunk since its heyday in the 18th and 19th century, it is still a picturesque village. There is a large village green close to the church, with many large attractive houses built around it. In the 19th century it was a prosperous town, and around 1850 it had five boot and shoe makers, three blacksmiths, two tailors and two butchers, as well as ironmongers, chemists, grocers, drapers and spirit merchants. All for a settlement with a population of less than 1,000.

There village war memorial cross is located in the churchyard of St. Mary's Church and commemorates the sacrifices made by those of the parish who went to serve in the First World War and WW2.

Reference number:D6798
Event(s):Heart of Teesdale Project Heritage Audit; North of England Civic Trust

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Please note that this information has been compiled from a number of different sources. Durham County Council and Northumberland County Council can accept no responsibility for any inaccuracy contained therein. If you wish to use/copy any of the images, please ensure that you read the Copyright information provided.