This year marks the 750th anniversary of the largest parish church in County Durham, and the people of St Andrew Auckland are planning an extensive programme of celebratory events, starting next weekend with a Rock Choir concert.

It is a fabulous building, with centuries of stories echoing around its stonework – stories of Saxon crosses, of lost tunnels and of a mythical creature slain by a brave, brave knight who still sleeps in aged oak in the church. But let’s start at the beginning with some of those earliest stories…

Darlington and Stockton Times: South Church, Maddison archiveThe Church of St Andrew Auckland in the 1880s

Where is it?

ST ANDREW AUCKLAND, to use its Sunday name, is about a mile south of Bishop Auckland. It was probably the original Auckland – Bishop Auckland came about later when the Bishop of Durham built his palace there. However, the importance of the bishop meant the new town eclipsed St Andrew in terms of prominence. When a mining community grew up around St Andrew Auckland more than 150 years ago, the miners gave it a nickname, South Church, because it is the church south of the more prominent Bishop Auckland. Now it is most widely known as South Church.

Darlington and Stockton Times: Pieces of one of the most important Saxon crosses in Northumbria were found in the church in 1881 and pieced together in 1931Pieces of one of the most important Saxon crosses in Northumbria were found in the church in 1881 and pieced together in 1931

In the beginning

THERE must have been an ecclesiastical building, or two, on the high ground above the Gaunless in Saxon times, but no proof survives. However, during a restoration of the church in 1881, four large pieces of an intricately carved Saxon cross were rediscovered built into a wall. They are among the most important Saxon carvings in Northumbria, with the apostles shown around the base, with big hands and long fingers, and with an archer firing an arrow at a bird while other animals look on – is he the devil attacking the human mind, or is he God firing his love into the human soul?

Darlington and Stockton Times: An 1845 engraving of St Andrew AucklandAn 1845 engraving of St Andrew Auckland


BISHOP William St Calais expelled the secular canons, and their wives and children, from Durham cathedral and replaced them with celibate monks from Jarrow and Wearmouth. The canons were fired off to outposts of the diocese – some people speculate that this was an elaborate PR exercise by the bishop to get the cathedral, and St Cuthbert’s message, out into the community. Some canons were sent to St Andrew Auckland where it is likely that they acted as tour guides – the village was the last resting place for pilgrims from the north-west after they’d crossed the Pennines on their way to pay homage to St Cuthbert in Durham. The canons would have greeted the travellers and set them on their last day’s walk to the cathedral.

Darlington and Stockton Times: Crown Yard in the mining village of South Church had just been cleared in November 1971 opening up this view of the church


AFTER more than 40 years of construction, the current church was completed, with a wooden spire, and consecrated 750 years ago. It was a “collegiate” church – practically a cathedral but without a bishop. Instead, it had a dean, who lived over the river in the Deanery, and 12 canons and 12 vicars. The Deanery, which dates from about 1292, is Durham’s oldest, continuously occupied house – Memories 633 told how it was on the market for £650,000. It is said that there is a tunnel from the Deanery under the Gaunless which pops up beneath the church pulpit so the dean didn’t have to get wet on his walk to work if it was raining.

Darlington and Stockton Times: An Edwardian postcard of South Church, with the Gaunless in the foreground and St Andrew's Church behind. This picture must have been taken from near the Deanery on the south bank of the GaunlessLooking from the Deanery across the Gaunless to the church - did a tunnel really go all that way?

Darlington and Stockton Times: The effigy of Richard Pollard, cross-legged with his feet on a wild boar, dates from 1340 and is made of oak which is so old it has gone black with ageThe effigy of Richard Pollard, cross-legged with his feet on a wild boar, dates from 1340 and is made of oak which is so old it has gone black with age


ONE of the church’s greatest treasures is the effigy of Richard Pollard – he may have been a sir or a lord – who sleeps in oak so old it has gone black with age. He has his legs crossed and his feet rest on a wild boar.

Indeed, a wild boar once terrorised Bishop Auckland. It made its lair in Etherley Dene, and it gored to death all who attempted to tackle it. The Bishop of Durham offered a large reward to anyone who could kill it, but no one succeeded.

Until young Richard Pollard tried his hand. To keep out of the terrible creature’s way, he cannily climbed a beech tree in the dene, and, knowing of the boar’s appalling gluttony, shook all the beech nuts to the ground.

The boar rushed over and noisily gorged itself on the nuts until it had eaten so many, it could barely move and it fell into a post prandial sleep. Richard quietly climbed down the tree and then attacked the snoozy boar with his sword.

The fearsome animal awoke, and the pair battled it out all night. Only when the sun began to rise, was Richard able to claim victory. He slew the boar with his falchion and slashed out its tongue as a keepsake and put it in his wallet.

But exhausted from his 12-hour struggle, he fell asleep.

Now, the lord of Mitford Castle, near Morpeth, just happened to be passing – no doubt alerted by the noise of the dreadful scuffle. He stole the boar's giant carcase from under the snores of the sleeping knight and dashed off to the bishop to claim his reward.

Richard awoke, and found himself bereft of the body.

But in his wallet, of course, he had the tongue. He went to the castle, presented the bishop with the evidence and beseeched his lordship to look inside the boar's mouth.

Seeing the tongueless boar, the bishop accepted Richard's word but was unable to give him the money because the Northumbrian blaggard had made off with it. Instead, he offered to give him all the land he could ride around while the bishop ate his lunch.

It was a medieval version of Supermarket Sweep, and the bishop expected Richard to dash off madly to ride around the largest area of countryside possible in the allotted time.

But Richard was a canny fellow. He calmly mounted his horse, and they slowly walked around Auckland Castle, thus claiming all the bishop's wealth as his own.

The bishop immediately reneged on the deal, but being a man of the cloth, offered Richard land to the south-west of Bishop Auckland.

To this day the Pollards Inn in Etherley Lane celebrates the story, while Richard lies in St Andrew’s Church, his feet resting on a boar. (Some wags say that the reason that his legs are crossed is that for centuries the church did not have a toilet.)

His falchion used to be presented to a new bishop of Durham when he arrived for the first time at Auckland Castle, but this custom died out after 1406.

Darlington and Stockton Times: A 1907 postcard of the church and the villageA 1907 postcard of the church and the village


JOHN de BELLASIS felt a calling from God to go on a crusade to the Holy Land but he couldn’t answer it because he was so deeply attached to the estate at Billingham that his ancestors had tended ever since they came over with William the Conqueror. He did a deal with the Bishop of Durham who took over the Billingham estate and promised to look after it, and in return gave John land at Henknowle near Bishop Auckland.

John happily went crusading and amazed everyone by returning alive.

But when he saw Henknowle, he wanted to return to his ancestral home at Billingham – but the bishop refused to undo the deal.

So the Bellasis family became established at Bishop Auckland. The church has a stone effigy from the late 14th Century which is dedicated to a lady Bellasis, and it used to have a stained glass window that mocked John for doing a deal with the bishop. The window, which was smashed during the 1540s, contained a rhyme:

Bellysis, Bellysis, daft was they sowell
When thee exchanged Bellysis for Henknowell

Darlington and Stockton Times: South Church with St Andrew Auckand in the background. Picture: Derek Ward


THOMAS LANGLEY became Bishop of Durham in 1403. He was one of the most influential, and wealthy, men in the kingdom, despite being excommunicated by the pope for a while. He was chancellor to Henry IV and effectively England’s first foreign secretary under Henry V.

It is estimated that he earned £4,000-a-year from his estates in the North East, which made him one of the top five earners in the country. He lavished money on his cathedral, his castles and several of his churches, including St Andrew Auckland where, for £6 13s 6d, he had the tower raised and a belfry put in place. The church, therefore, gained the appearance that it has to this day, and a celebration of the bells, which have recently been recast, is going to be a major part of this year’s commemorations.

Darlington and Stockton Times: Looking across the old mining village of South Church, beside the Gaunless, to the church in the late 1950sLooking across the old mining village of South Church, beside the Gaunless, to the church in the late 1950s

Darlington and Stockton Times: Rock Choir Image: Newsquest


THE first of this year’s St Andrews 750 events is on Friday, February 2, when Rock Choir (above) – the country’s largest community singing organisation – creates “a magical night filled with music, history, and community spirit”. Doors open at 6.30pm, the concert starts at 7pm with 70 voices putting new energy into popular hits. Tickets are £7.50 are can be booked through

Darlington and Stockton Times: St Andrew Auckland in December 1955St Andrew Auckland in December 1955, above, and November 2008, below

Darlington and Stockton Times: At your service at Saint Andrew's Church in South Church, Bishop Aukland.

Picture by Tom Banks 30-11-08. See story by Mike Amos.