Chester-le-Street- County Durham

PUBLISHED: 16:05 11 January 2010 | UPDATED: 16:06 20 February 2013

Front Street

Front Street

Chester-le-Street is one of those places that is easily passed by if travelling on the East Coast railway line or along the nearby A1. Barbara Mason, stops off to discover a town steeped in history and interest

Chester-le-Street has been on the main East Coast railway line since 1871, while Front Street was at one time part of the main A1 linking the capital cities of England and Scotland. So you're almost certain to have passed through the town more times than you might care to remember.

But should Chester-le-Street be one of those places you're familiar with only because you pass it on the way to somewhere? Or does it deserve a more leisurely visit that includes time to explore? Definitely the latter.

Among its several claims to fame, Chester-le-Street is the place where the Bible was first translated into English. It's well known that St Cuthbert's remains have lain in Durham for over 1,000 years but did you realise that for more than a century before that his body lay in Chester-le-Street? The church that housed the saint isn't difficult to find - the 48m (159 ft) spire of St Mary & St Cuthbert is the highest in the Durham Palatinate and stands out against the skyline.

It was in 883 that the Lindisfarne community were given the old Roman fort of Chester-le-Street - or Concangis to give the town its Roman name - by the Viking King of York, Guthred and it was here that they founded the original wooden church, having brought the body of Cuthbert with them. For the next 100 years, Chester-le- Street became a centre of pilgrimage and a place of learning renowned throughout Europe. There is a small museum at the church that is well worth a visit, where medieval tombstones can be found.Within a few minutes, I'd located a still clearly inscribed tombstone of one Elinor Nixon from 1689. I wonder what her story was?

A Chester-le-Street character many will remember is Dainty Dinah. The toffees that bore her name from 1911 to 1967 were an institution, while the chimney stack that helped make the name famous stood just 39 feet lower than the spire at St Mary & St Cuthbert and, as it was adjacent to the railway line, couldn't be missed by those passengers for whom a glimpse of her name as they sped through made Dainty Dinah more famous even than Cuthbert. There's a bust of 'Dainty Dinah' in Chester-le-Street Civic Centre, while Cuthbert is far from consigned to history - the modern-day shopping centre is the St Cuthbert's Shopping Centre, situated on St Cuthbert's Walk. Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays are market days.

Framed by the magnificent 11-arch railway viaduct designed by architect Thomas Prosser, Chester-le- Street market has long been a thriving concern and on a sunny afternoon you can while away a leisurely hour browsing around the bric-a-brac, second hand records, clothes, foods and electrical stalls before maybe wandering off for refreshment at one of many pubs, cafes or restaurants just off the market place.

I tried the excellent Emily's, half way up Front Street, run by Lesley and Keith Sharpe, 'When we moved into the premises in 2004 we occupied the ground floor and upstairs was derelict,' explains Keith. 'We kept hearing footsteps upstairs in the late afternoons and when we took over the upper floor Lesley often spotted a chair had moved in the mornings when she knew she had straightened it the night before.

'Local residents reported seeing a figure at the window late at night when the caf was closed and we had people saying they felt a presence in the room, always in the same spot. 'A local spiritualist identified the presence as a former resident of the building in the late1800s called Emily and told Lesley that the footsteps were Emily putting the light on at 4.30pm when it got dark. Apparently she's gone now but she will be back.'

Prominently situated just opposite the market is the Bridge Hotel. Take a look at it and ask yourself, 'Where's the bridge?'Well you won't find it now but in 1820 there was a bridge outside it with three stone arches. Half a century earlier a great flood had spilled 200 yards up Front Street. This is the point where the 'Cong Burn' or River Cone crosses the old Great North Road. Although you'd never know it to stand at the edge of the market, the Burn runs through the valley of the town. It was channelled into culverts in the 1930s and cemented over in the Fifties during the development of the market place.

Study the huge picture in the window of The Bridge Hotel and imagine how Chester-le-Street has changed since the Jarrow Marchers made the church of St Mary and St Cuthbert the first stop on their celebrated march of 1936.

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