Warden Law and the Legend of the Dun Cow, the story of Durham’s Origin


Warden Law is a village in the City of Sunderland. Situated to the immediate south of the core settlement, it is surrounded by the A19, the A690 and Houghton Le Spring. If you mention Warden Law to most locals, they will probably mention its where you go for Karting North East, a Go-Kart arena.

But Warden Law is a mysterious place, with an ancient history. The name is derived from old English, with the word “law” referring to a hill. Hence Gilley Law, Warden Law, just to name a couple of places, have this origin. Warden, however, literally means what it implies, a “Warden”. In other words, the proper meaning of “Warden Law” is the “Watch hill”- a place of security or vision.

The area has been settled since ancient times, as next to Salters Lane on each side, sits two circular mounds which are Neolithic era burial grounds, or barrows. To the north and to the south, there are what appears to be two smaller ones too. However, it was not these burials in particular, but something in the Middle Ages which gave the area religious and mythical significance.

In the 10th century, the Community of St. Cuthbert had based itself in Chester-Le-Street, following attacks on their previous dominion in Lindisfarne by Vikings. However, the era of Viking attacks was now coming to an end as the Anglo-Saxon King Æthelred II had secured a peace treaty with the Danes. Bishop of Durham, Aldhun, seen the peace as an opportunity and felt inspired to relocate the diocese back to Lindisfarne.

However, Aldhun claimed en route that he received a vision that the remains of Cuthbert should be relocated to the area of Durham, and they turned back. The community began wandering the area for a new location. However, on reaching the area of Warden Law, the cart carrying Cuthbert’s remains suddenly stopped and refused to move, this was interpreted as a religious sign.

Bishop Aldhun, then received a new vision that the remains should be taken to a place known as “Dunholme” or “Dunelm”, but nobody knew the location. They prayed and fasted for three days, until suddenly they overheard a young milk maid asking a local about a “Dun Cow” (Brown Cow) she had lost. The local told her that the cow went to the place of Dunholme, and the community decided to follow her. Suddenly, the cart was able to move again.

The Community was subsequently led to the area which is now the city of Durham, and it was here that the remains of St. Cuthbert would be interned in their final resting place, which would become the glorious Cathedral we know today.