Washington, County Durham

PUBLISHED: 10:25 12 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:45 20 February 2013

Washington Old Hall, ancestral home of the first president of the United States, George Washington. Picture by Graeme Peacock

Washington Old Hall, ancestral home of the first president of the United States, George Washington. Picture by Graeme Peacock

It is 45 years this year since Washington was designated a 'New Town'. Barbara Mason discovers that it has grown into a mature and vibrant place with a strong sense of community

At what point does a 'New Town' cease to be new?

Designated as a 'New Town' in 1964,Washington now exceeds the planners' expectations and has recently been named as the town in the North East with the strongest sense of community.

Equidistant from Sunderland and Newcastle,Washington is part of the City of Sunderland, although has a Newcastle postcode. And yet, it has succeeded in creating a strong identity of its own.

So many new towns seem relatively soulless but, despite having a population approaching 60,000, Washington has a village feel to it, not least because having stemmed from the original Washington Village the town is made up of villages surrounding the indoor shopping centre that is its hub.

The Galleries boasts 3,000 free car parking spaces, a bus station, bowling alley, sports centre and an array of shops. Whereas in town and city centres across the country old commercial buildings have been transformed into trendy urban living spaces, in Washington there is a clear distinction between shopping and residential areas.

From Biddick to Barmston and Columbia to Concord, each part of Washington, whether based on long-established villages or post 1964 residential developments, has its own sense of community. 'I've lived in Washington since 1992 since I moved from Luton,' says shop assistant Brenda Turner.

'People always have the time of day for you and look out for you. I originally moved to Glebe and when I moved house a few years ago I decided to stay in Washington and bought a place in Harraton. You can easily get to Sunderland, Gateshead or Newcastle if you want to but there's not often a need because there's more choice available in Washington than people realise.'

Something many people don't realise is the charm of the original Washington Village, nestled away within the New Town. Washington Old Hall is, of course, the ancestral home of the first President of the United States, George Washington, and the National Trust property continues to attract visitors from across the pond, searching out a key part of their nation's history.

Indeed, when Washington's big but younger brother Washington DC signed a Friendship Agreement with Sunderland in 2006, it was the first time the capital city of the most powerful country on Earth had linked itself to a UK city.

The present hall was built in the 17th century and incorporates parts of the medieval home of George Washington's ancestors. The original building was constructed for William de Hertburn, later to become William Wessyngton, a forbear of the most famous 'Geordie' of the USA.

Washington, Tyne and Wear, is rightly proud of its connection with America and annually marks American Independence Day on July 4 with a ceremony at the Old Hall, while on the occasion of the USA's Bi-Centenary in 1977 then US President Jimmy Carter accompanied Prime Minister of the day Jim Callaghan to the Old Hall before planting a tree on the village green, famously venturing an attempt at: 'Ha'way the Lads' in a Southern drawl.

Separating Washington Old Hall with the village green and its celebrated Cross Keys and Washington Arms pubs, not to mention 'Ye Olde Cop-Shop Guest House', is Holy Trinity Church, known as 'The Church on the Hill.' Ancient records indicate a church has been on this site since the 12th century, although the present church dates from 1833.

Cosying in beside the church and the hall is one of the region's best high-class restaurants, The Blacksmith's Table. Four centuries ago the occupants of the Old Hall no doubt used it for its original purpose. 'It was a blacksmith's for 400 years until 1954' says owner Paul Cajiao. 'From 1954 it had a variety of uses ending up as a Potters' Studio until it closed in 1984 and lay empty for four years until we took it over in 1988.'

Boasting glowing reviews from the three main regional evening newspapers and many others, The Blacksmith's Table a la carte menu celebrates its heritage with numerous locally-named dishes such as Fatfield Fillet, Lambton Lamb and Hertburn Halibut. Currently taking a bite is the dreaded credit crunch as Paul explains: 'Like all restaurants a lot of our corporate trade has dried up and things are quieter than we'd like.We don't get much spin off from tourists at the Old Hall because they tend to come as coach parties but sometimes we get people who have seen us on a trip and come back especially to visit the restaurant.'

Travel a mile or so to Fatfield Bridge spanning the Wear and you'll have a choice of riverside restaurants and pubs ideal for a spring or summer evening. On the way you'll pass the Biddick Farm Arts Centre, home to galleries, theatre and dance groups and one of the North East's finest folk clubs. The Davy Lamp Folk Club.

With the North East Aircraft Museum featuring the area's premier collection of aviation history adjacent to the giant Nissan factory and a treat in store for any Fred Dibnah fans with a visit to the Victorian steam engine, engine house and headgear of the F Pit museum in Albany, it's plain to see that while Washington may be a New Town, it has succeeded in merging the new with the old to become a modern town people are proud to call home.

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