Kepier Power Station

In 1944 a coal-fired power station was proposed alongside the River Wear at Kepier. The North-Eastern Electric Supply Company (NESCo) spent some years planning for the power station and bought up the land where they wished to site it before publicly announcing their plans in 1944. These plans caused a huge public outcry and therefore the government agreed to put the issue to a public inquiry. As a result the proposal for this power station was abandoned. This is the ‘asset’ for April.

The requirements for the site were (1) access to water, (2) stable ground (i.e. not affected by mine workings), (3) good rail and road access. The site NESCo chose was the old rifle range either side of the River Wear at Kepier: 3/4 of a mile from the Market Place and 1 mile from the Cathedral. The power station would have included a turbine and power house 140 feet high, 2 chimneys 350 feet high to carry away the smoke and dust, and 3 concrete cooling towers 260 feet high. As well as the power station itself major additional works would have been required, e.g. additional railway cuttings into the hillside above Kepier (the coal would have been delivered from across the County to the goods railway station at Gilesgate – now a Travelodge) and a conveyor belt of 6 huge arches leading from the hillside to the power station on the ground below. NESCo planned to sell on the clinker and ash produced, and place the dust and soot (mixed with soil) onto a tip (14 foot high) on the west side of the river. It should be noted that the main body of the Cathedral is 80 feet high, and the tower is 218 feet high. The contemporary drawing and diagram below (Pocock, 2006, cover and p.16) show what the power station would have looked like. The photos show the proposed location nowadays: a rural landscape of fields and the Northern Powergrid training area for power line workers, next to the listed Kepier Hospital.

View of the site nowadays looking west
Kepier Hospital

NESCo stated that the power station would become a tourist attraction to rival the Cathedral: it should be noted that the architect was Giles Gilbert Scott who designed Battersea Power Station. Despite the advice of their Planning Consultant, the City Council welcomed the scheme because of the employment it would bring to the City and surrounding areas, as long as the plant blended harmoniously with the surrounding countryside and waste products were adequately controlled. Durham was suffering from the effects of the war and the urgent need to rebuild the economy, and before the war Durham had suffered from severe unemployment. Groups such as the Trade Unions, the County Council, and the Farmers Union and some local people supported the proposal. However other local people and organisations were in opposition, e.g. the Cathedral, the University, the urban planner Thomas Wilfred Sharp, and the Trust (at that time the City of Durham Preservation Society which had only been set up in 1942).

The arguments for and against this proposed development resonate with the debates about current day developments in the City: economic and social factors versus cultural and community factors, and the challenge, or even the possibility, of achieving a compromise or balance between them. Quotes from a Durham University Journal 1944 article demonstrate this:

“In short the Power Company and the supporters of the project maintain that a power station at Kepier is both necessary and desirable, that it will bring prosperity to the City, and that its social and economic benefits will be such that no other considerations should be allowed to stand in its way” p.9

The opponents argued that the power station technicians would be recruited from outside the area, and electricity for local people would be no more accessible or cheaper than if the plant was placed elsewhere in the County where there were other, more suitable locations. “The true function of the city, the opponents maintain, is as a cultural, educational, administrative and tourist centre. This function will be seriously disturbed, if not ultimately destroyed, by heavy industrialisation …” p.9

The author of the article in the Durham University Journal focussed on the detrimental effect the power station would have on views from, to and of the Cathedral and the City.

See also some contemporary letters from ‘The Evening Chronicle’, 18th July 1944, and comment in the Times, 13th July 1944:

An editorial in the Times, July 14th 1944, explores the idea of “the power of planning to reconcile utility with amenity”

The objectors appealed to the Ministry of Town and Country Planning to hold a public inquiry and this request was accepted. The public inquiry was held in December 1944. The Trust was the main objector at the inquiry and Thomas Sharp argued its case: “that it was unnecessary to choose this particular site, which would be environmentally disastrous, both in terms of visual and aerial pollution”. [Pocock, 2013, p.137). Following the inquiry a long process of legal, political and financial manoeuvrings delayed the decision until finally in June 1945 the scheme was abandoned. NESCo increased their production at their existing plants and therefore there was no need to build a new power station.

See contemporary parliamentary discussions covered in Hansard:

Fighting this proposal stretched the resources of the new City of Durham Preservation Society to the limit as this heartfelt plea for donations (published in the Times, 29thAug 1945,) shows:

The trustees. of the Durham Preservation Society, which opposed the erection of an electric power station at Kepier, have issued a statement saying: — “When we undertook to state the arguments against the Kepier Power Station we did so because we feared the case might otherwise go by default. The decision reached would seem to justify our action and to prove—as we hoped it would—that the Ministry of Town and Country Planning is a real guardian of the national interest. To present the case adequately has proved expensive: in spite of the help we have received, it will more than absorb all our small invested capital, and seriously cripple us in the work we hoped to do for the city. We do not complain, for it is the national tradition that public rights should be asserted by private citizens, and we most certainly do not regret the expenditure: but if there are any who feel that in trying to safeguard Durham we have rendered a national service, our treasurer (at the Chapter Offices, Durham) will most gratefully acknowledge any contribution they may be kind enough to send.”

Sources of information

Kepier power station [a very full account]

T.S. (1944) Some notes on the power station at Kepier, Durham. Durham University Journal, Dec 1944, 37(1): 8-11. Digitised copy available from Durham University Library

Pocock, Douglas (2006) The futures of Durham. A reflective essay. City of Durham Trust. Available for purchase

Pocock, Douglas (2013) The story of Durham. The History Press Ltd

Durham County Record Office. Ref: Q/D/P 593. North Eastern Electric Supply Company Ltd, Kepier Power Station, site plans and elevations by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, 24 November 1944. Original number 596. Including: /1 plan(s)

Relevant items can be seen on display in the Durham Museum

Note: The content of scanned newspaper clippings has been converted into text for ease of reading.

Neptune statue

The asset for March 2022 is the Neptune statue located in the Market Place. Artefacts are important heritage assets, telling historical stories and providing a sense of place and artistic value.

The Neptune statue has had a chequered history and a peripatetic life. The City of Durham Trust was instrumental in saving it for the City as a current historical and artistic artefact.

View towards the North North East
View towards the South

The lead Neptune statue was erected in 1729, in the centre of the Market Place on a contemporary stone pant [public water fountain / wellhead] by Thomas Shirley. A high-quality figure from one of the London workshops, possibly Nost or Charpentière. After crowning later pants of 1863 (by E.R. Robson) and 1902, Neptune was banished to Wharton Park in 1923, restored (1986), set on a new plinth in 1991 (by Martin Roberts of Durham City Council), then resited. Roberts, M, Pevsner N, and Williamson, E (2021), County Durham, Yale University Press, p. 345

The current location of the statue resulted from the repaving and repurposing of the Market Place to an ‘event space’ in 2011-13. Its current location exposes it to the risk of damage from traffic.

The two inscriptions on the current plinth read:

This statue was given to the City in 1729 by George Bowes M.P. of Gibside and Streatlam as a symbol of the scheme to link Durham to the sea by improved navigation of the River Wear. It stood on top of the Market Place wellheads until 1923, when it was moved to Wharton Park. It was restored in 1986 following an appeal initiated by the City of Durham Trust.

It should be noted that this navigation scheme came to nothing because of geographical constraints on the River and therefore huge financial implications to overcome these, although enabling legislation was passed in parliament.

This statue was restored to its traditional home in the Market Place by the City of Durham Council on the 16th of May 1991. It was unveiled by The Right Worshipful the Mayor of Durham, Councillor W.H. Hartwell. Present were many of the individuals and representatives of local and national organisations who had generously supported the restoration appeal and the resiting.

Neptune was severely damaged by lightning in 1979 at its location in Wharton Park and needed restoration.

As the Advertiser aptly expressed it, “the old man from the sea has been struck by a bolt from the blue”. Lightning brought about his final downfall, and he is now in storage, in pieces. Trust Bulletin Number 19, November 1980

The Trust investigated the state of the statue and was advised it was worth restoration. The Trust therefore started a Neptune Appeal in early 1983 to raise £10,000 to restore the statue and have it erected in the centre of Durham. It received support from, among others, ‘Tidy North Beautiful Britain Group’, local councillors, and the planning office. Events to raise money included a ‘Splash Out for Neptune’ dinner on 26th May 1983, a fête at Brancepeth Castle on Saturday July 11th 1983, a raffle in 1984, a Jumble Sale in July 1985, and a Grand Bazaar in the Town Hall in October 1985. Many donations from individuals were received. The ‘North of England Museum Service’ gave a grant of £2,300, and promised work worth £1,000 in connection with setting up the statue after restoration. Support was also received from the ‘Hadrian Trust’ and the ‘Pilgrim Trust’. The required total was successfully reached in November 1986. The statue was sent to the Restorer Mr A. Naylor of Telford in 1984 and once restored was displayed in the window of the gas showrooms in Claypath, later Oldfields Restaurant and now demolished when the Student Castle PBSA was built. It took many more years, and discussions and bureaucratic procedures until Neptune was finally located in the Market Place on 16th May 1991. A celebratory event was held in the Town Hall on 31st October 1991. From destruction to resurrection took 12 years! The value of an organisation like the City of Durham Trust is that it has a long-term existence and can take on long projects.

An entry in the Trust Bulletin Number 25, November 1986, describes the five times that Neptune was “faced with oblivion”:

The Neptune project demonstrates the commitment of local people to the City’s heritage. A description in the Trust Bulletin Number 22, November 1983, of the fête at Brancepeth Castle illustrates this:

The fund-raising artistic activities are particularly noteworthy:

  • a ‘Song for Neptune’ composed and performed by Gerry Caley
  • a play for Neptune, written and performed by the Gilesgate Junior School History Club, under the leadership of Miss C. Martin
  • a poem composed and donated by the versatile actor and poet, Graham Tennant. A limited number were printed and inserted inside a card for sale, showing Neptune and the Pant in the Durham Market Place of 1922

St Mary-le-Bow

St Mary-le-Bow, a redundant parish church, is our featured heritage asset for February.

St Mary-le-Bow is a Grade I listed building located on the corner of The Bailey and Bow Lane, near the Cathedral. It is now the Durham Museum, showcasing the history of Durham and the City.

St Mary-le-Bow from the Bailey

St Mary-le-Bow’s origin is in the medieval period as the parish church serving people living in the North Bailey. In that period an arch connected the church tower to the fortifications creating a gateway or ‘bow’, with a room in the tower for a chantry priest who prayed for the souls of the deceased. However, the gateway, the tower and much of the west end of the church collapsed in 1635. The church wasn’t rebuilt until towards the end of the 17th century, with most of the buildings dating from the 1670s and the tower from 1702. The church continued its religious function until it was closed in 1968.

Because the current Church is a reconstruction of an older building, it combines elements of different dates. The roof, for example, dates from the 15th century. The wooden screen before the altar dates from 1707, while the wooden panelling dates between 1731 and 1742. There are two baptismal fonts, one dating from the 18th and the other from the 19th century.It is common for community buildings, such as churches, to go through periodic refurbishment campaigns, and receive gifts from time to time. This church is no exception. World Heritage Site

St Mary-le-Bow rooftop view

The Durham Museum now occupies the building. The Museum presents the history of the people of Durham from medieval times to the present day, using objects, models, pictures and audio-visual media.

The Museum’s sculpture garden contains works by the Durham sculptor, Fenwick Lawson, ARCA. The sculpture (show below) of St Cuthbert was carved in 1984 from an elm tree that grew in front of Durham Cathedral. St Cuthbert stood in Durham Cathedral Cloisters for two decades. In 2004 a bronze was created, funded by the Northern Rock Foundation. The bronze now stands in the Priory at Lindisfarne on Holy Island. In 2005 the original wood carving was donated to Durham Museum.

St Mary-le-Bow sculpture garden, showing the Fenwick Lawson sculpture of St Cuthbert entitled ‘Cuthbert of Farne’.

The Museum is run by The Bow Trust, a registered charity “established in 1975 to maintain the redundant church of St Mary-Le-Bow in Durham City as a centre for exhibitions and activities related to the history and antiquities of both the City and County Durham, and for other educational and cultural benefits.” The heritage centre has now evolved into an Arts Council England Accredited Museum.

The City of Durham Trust was involved in the campaign to set up The Bow Trust and save the church. An entry in the Trust’s Bulletin Number 7, December 1971, discusses the necessity of saving the church and notes: “It is too long since we had a chance to see the interior – the exterior is gladly taken for granted by us all as a delightful and indispensable part of an intimate and crowded street scene.” When the original Trust was formed a number of local societies and organisations were nominated and a member elected to serve on the Bow Trust committee. These included: The City of Durham Trust, The Architectural and Archaeological Society of Durham and Northumberland, Durham Cathedral, The City of Durham (now Durham County Council) and Durham County Art and Architectural Society. The City of Durham Trust continues to actively support the Bow Trust, nominates a trustee to the Bow Trust, and pays a subscription.

Durham Museum will be open again from the Easter weekend, 11am to 4pm. This includes being open on Easter Monday 18 April for the Durham World Heritage Site Festival

Brown’s Boathouse

As one of the celebratory activities for the Trust’s 80th anniversary this year, 2022, the website will feature every month a building, or heritage or green asset, that the Trust has been involved in protecting, preserving and conserving.

Additionally, if people are interested in the website featuring a building or asset in the City that they love – or detest – please send in the information and we will feature them on the website.

For January the building is Brown’s Boathouse on the north side of the River Wear in the peninsula area, next to the footing of Elvet Bridge and below the Prince Bishop carpark.

Brown’s Boathouse – frontal view from Elvet Bridge
Brown’s Boathouse – end view from Elvet Bridge

An extract from the Durham City Conservation Area appraisal sums up the building:

The boathouse, although not a listed building nor of significant architectural value, is a landmark building within the conservation area and is of some interest. It essentially comprises of 2 elements, a 1830’s built brick built cottage with a steeply pitched slate roof which is clearly distinguishable at its north end and has ties to England’s earliest recorded regatta; and a later larger range (the original boat house) which is in use as a public house. The 3 storey building has been converted sympathetically retaining the original foot-print and exterior brickwork supplemented by timber cladding.

Durham City Conservation Area. Character Area 1: Peninsula. Sub Character Area 6 – High Street/Bishops Gate. July 2016, p.181

Brown’s Boathouse demonstrates that a building does not have to be old or grand to make an important contribution to the history and character of the City and to be worthy of preservation.

The origins of the Boathouse lie with Brown’s Boats, a boat-building company set up in the late 19th century by Joseph Brown. The company made a significant contribution to the development of rowing in the City, making and maintaining traditional, wooden rowing boats. Later a pleasure boat business was added, with rowing boats for hire and a cruise boat offering river trips. The public could therefore enjoy the spectacular views of the River Wear gorge in the Peninsula and the Cathedral and Castle.

When ownership passed to a leisure company in the late 1990s there were plans to demolish the boathouse and replace it by a large (1,000 capacity), modern, glass-fronted pub. The City of Durham Trust campaigned against the development and collected 4,000 signatures on a petition calling for the building, which is closely linked to the city’s rowing history, to be saved. The proposal for the pub was submitted to a Planning Inquiry in 2001. The Local Authority supported the proposal, the Trust and English Heritage opposed it and argued their case at the Inquiry. Unfortunately, the proposal was approved by the planning inspector. However the company found that the cost of dealing with a major water main in the area was prohibitive. They therefore amended their plans and, to the satisfaction of residents, maintained and renovated the boathouse into a a picturesque bar/restaurant ‘The Boat Club’. Additionally, the company gave a long-term commitment to keep boat hire at the site. So Browns Boats continues to offer for hire traditional, hand-built, wooden rowing boats and to run the Prince Bishop River Cruiser.

The Trust chairman at the time, Roger Cornwell, said in the Northern Echo on 30 November 2001: “It does look as if Brown’s Boathouse will live on pretty much in its current form. It is good news. The 4,000 people who signed our petition will be as pleased as we are. The way of saving it is something we put forward as possibility at the public inquiry.”

Northern Echo stories on 30th November 2001 and 22nd December 2001

A longer description of these events, from the Trust’s archives, is available below: