Brown’s Boathouse – January Asset of the Month

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. (See List of Assets of the Month.)

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: