Who was here before us?

Who were the people dwelling here in remote times when the landscape was still untouched by man, the rolling hills of Herrington sheltering the low lying fields and the brook that ran in their midst? For a chief concern of all primitive peoples was the need for water and the stream running the length of Herrington, renewing its strength at the Boiling Well Spring, provided a source of life and cultivation for these early inhabitants. What kind of people were they who gathered at the source?

From evidence of burials we know a little about the inhabitants in this area since it is the richest in the country in prehistoric burials. Probably most of the surrounding hills were capped with barrows in ancient times as these were seemingly invested with special significance. Tunstall Hill, Copt Hill, Hastings Hill and Warden Law where a prehistoric urn was discovered recently, all point to the significance felt some 4,000 years ago.

The barrow that overlooks this area at Hastings Hill was first brought to attention by Dr. Greenwell, the Durham antiquarian who remembered it from riding near Offerton in younger days. In 1911 he approached Dr. C. T. Trenchmann – surely an appropriate name for an archeologist – with a plan to excavate. On seeking permission from the tenant Thomas Brown of East Herrington, they were told of a find in 1827 when a contracted skeleton had been uncovered with hair on its head, the local folk being persuaded that some murder had been committed. Because of its position, Dr. Greenwell believed it to have probably been of ancient British date and that fibrous roots of plants had grown round the skull. At any rate in early November 1911 the barrow was opened, proving to be 40 feet in diameter, nearly 3 feet high, built directly into the limestone of the hill with a top cap of earth and stones.

During the four days of digging in rather cold weather, an unusually large number of objects were found: A vessel of a beaker type and at least two other food vessels; snail shells; an urn filled with calcified bones that had been disturbed and crushed at some previous period, and a pick formed from a stag’s antler possibly used in the construction of the site.

Below was the skeleton of a man of middle age laid on its right side in a strongly contracted position with hands held before the face. He had suffered from rheumatism and a fracture of the ribs.

Here also were found a flint knife, a bone pin and flint flake, four or five shells of the common periwinkle and the vertebrae of a bony fish together with the bones of birds.

Another contracted skeleton near the eastern edge of the mound was female and unburnt but with no objects surrounding it. Human bones amidst the flint Chipping’s and pottery fragments with a cist containing the unburnt burial of a child suggested to the experts there had been a prolific number of interments – they reckoned at least six cremated and four unburnt with possibly other burials that had been disturbed long ago. But there was something about the poverty of workmanship of the meagre objects that suggested these early people did not possess much of value and had little to deposit with their burials.

Since that excavation the advent of aerial photography has allowed a new survey of Hastings Hill and in 1976 due to unusually warm weather, the crops had grown in such a way as to disclose differing colours and shady outlines that suggested some early settlement with walls and possibly even a ceremonial way leading to a place of worship.

What link we can make with these remote inhabitants, we who cling to the hamlet rather than the hill tops but who nevertheless inhabit the same countryside and find out own rituals to come to terms with the mystery of death and the after-life.

Since the village was fairly isolated it had to be self sufficient; a smith and a carpenter were available, also a pounder in Houghton who rounded up stray cattle into a pinfold. And to the Houghton rector they paid tithes in kind, received charity in times of need, attended services and gazed in wonder at the great coloured windows of the church.

Certainly the countryside would provide a different picture from today. Instead of cultivated well-ordered farms and fields, industrialised areas of mining or factory, there would have been woodland and trackless wastes swarming with game and wild animals – wolves, deer, wild boar. Perhaps in isolated places herds of native white cattle and moving stealthily, cautiously along forest trails or marshy tracks one might have caught sight of small dark primitive man, living by hunting the forest animals, catching the fish that abounded in the river or wild birds in the swamps, and eating wild fruits and berries.

Probably they lived in small tribes or extended families in the inaccessible areas or in caves, their lives dominated by the struggle with the forces that determined survival. One local writer has suggested the idea that the ancient Woodhale in West Herrington might be a survival of an association with the worship of the god Woden.

What may be more likely is the survival of the name Herrington from early British time. It suggests a man of some importance – Here or possibly Herefrit – for this was the township of tun, of Here and his folk.

There is another piece of evidence from this area in early days. It is commemorated in a carving on the tower of the Cathedral – the Story of the Dun Cow.

In the tenth century when monks from Lindisfarne were wandering with the body of St Cuthbert having become refugees, they came to a hill called Wardilawe. Setting down the coffin to rest they found it could not be lifted again and began to pray before deciding what to do. Hearing a milkmaid calling her lost cow they caught up with her and she explained that it had strayed far down the road to Dunholm, the old name for Durham. When they returned they found that the coffin would now move and held this to be a sure sign that the saint wished to be transported to Durham.

That at least is the official version of the monkish chroniclers. A more scurrilous “unofficial” version is that they were following a pretty milkmaid and being married monks at that period, when they got back to their wives they had to think up a story!

But if there is any truth in the tradition it means that the first monks of Durham were wandering in this area as early as 995AD. Wardilawe of course, became Warden Law.

It’s an attractive story, the only trouble being that there are three or four other places with the same name and claim so that it remains uncertain.

What is certain, is that all the land hereabouts was claimed from this early date by the Monks of St Cuthbert and belonged to the possessions of the Bishopric of Durham.