Houghton le Spring, Durham, England

Houghton le Spring sits in a natural hollow on what was once an ancient pre-historic, then Roman and later Anglo-Saxon settlement half way between the modern cities of Sunderland and Durham in northeast England.

Taken from road by Over the Hill Farm, The Steadings
Photo: Michael Otterson
St Michael's and All Saints, Houghton le Spring
Photo: Michael Otterson

Top: The countryside surrounding Houghton le Spring today. The photograph is taken from Over the Hill Farm, The Steadings.

Above: The church of the ancient parish of St Michael and All Angels, Houghton le Spring. The church has been the center of the village for centuries. The limestone christening font to the right is 600 years old.

Location of Houghton le Spring in British Isles
Image: Michael Otterson
St Michael's and All Saints, Houghton le Spring
Photo: Michael Otterson
Inside Houghton le Spring parish church of St Michael's and All Saints
Photo: Michael Otterson
Stained glass Gilpin window, Houghton le Spring
Photo: Michael Otterson

THE STRANGE-SOUNDING name of Houghton le Spring is of Anglo-Saxon origin - from "hogh," meaning a ridge of land, and "tun" meaning a camp or enclosure. Various suggestions have been made for the relevance of "le Spring," including naming the locality after the medicinal springs from limestone rocks in the area, or a connection with an ancient family of that surname that owned the village in the 1300s.

Houghton is specifically named in the Boldon Book of 1183:

"In Houghton are thirteen cottagers, whose tenures, works and payments are like those of Newbotill; and three other half cottagers, who also work like the three half cottagers of Newbotill. Henry the greeve, holds two oxgangs of 24 acres [10 hectares] for his service. The smith – 12 acres [5 ha] for his service. The carpenter holds a toft and 4 acres [2 ha] for his service. The punder (one who impounds straying animals) has 20 acres [8 ha] and the thraves of Houghton, Wardon and Morton; he renders 60 hens and 300 eggs. The mills of Newbotill and Bidic, with half of Raynton Mill, pay XV marks. The demesne, consisting of four carucates and the sheep pastures are in the hands of the lord."

The parish church of St. Michael and All Angels was for centuries one of the the most significant entities in the area, and the history of the village is really the history of the church until modern times.

In the church, there is a stained glass window commemorating Bernard Gilpin, the rector of St. Michael's from 1558 to 1583. Gilpin was a scholar and philanthropist whose generosity to the poor earned him the titles of  “Apostle of the North” or “Father of the Poor." Each year, the festival of Houghton Feast today commemorates Gilpin's tradition of annually feeding the local poor with a roasted ox. Gilpin's tomb now lies in the church.

Not until the coming of the Industrial Revolution and the discovery of rich coal seams in County Durham did the village expand significantly. The Houghton coal mine started to sink its first shaft in 1823, and the mine continued in production until 1981. Virtually the entire local economy was sustained by the 2,000 people employed by the mine at its peak. A detailed timeline of Houghton Colliery can be found on the website of the Houghton le Spring Heritage Society.

Houghton Colliery
Photo: Credit Wearsideonline.com
Houghton le Spring town center
Photo: Michael Otterson
Gillas Lane, Houghton le Spring
Photo: Michael Otterson

Above: Houghton Colliery - in its day by far the town's biggest employer.

Left: Houghton le Spring town center on a quiet Saturday afternoon in 2018.

Left, bottom: Gillas Lane, known previously when it was a quiet tree-lined street as Lover's Lane, but thought by some to have been associated with Gallows Lane, along which doomed criminals were taken to face the rope on Hangman's Lane.