The tale of the famous Durham Ox


celebrating my Mum's 80th at the same pub in March this year, just a few weeks before Dad died (he's wearing Mum's 'Happy Birthday' specs!).
Celebrating my Mum’s 80th at the Durham Ox pub, Crayke, in March 2017, just a few weeks before Dad died (he’s wearing Mum’s ‘Happy Birthday’ specs!).

(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 19th July 2017, & the Malton Gazette & Herald on 17th July 2017)

When deciding what to write in my columns, I do have the feeling that Dad is guiding me, and when I delve into his archives from exactly 40 years ago, I always find topics that directly relate to my life now, which makes writing them such a pleasure.

After I’d finished last week’s piece featuring swans, I saw something that I’d never seen before, which was a lone swan flying high across the A1 as I headed north towards Darlington. I pointed it out to my son who was with me, just to be sure my eyes weren’t deceiving me, and yes, its long outstretched white neck was unmistakable. I don’t know if this is a rare sight, but I have certainly never seen a swan flying at such a height before, and so decided it was perhaps a sign of Dad’s approval of what I’ve written so far!

One of my favourite recent memories involving my dad was when we celebrated his 80th birthday at the Durham Ox pub in Crayke last year, and then when we went again with my mum to celebrate her 80th in March this year. It was just five weeks before Dad died but, thankfully, we were blissfully unaware that it would be the last family celebration with him, as apart from backache and a poor appetite, there were few other signs of how ill he actually was.

Back in 1977, Dad’s July 19th column explained where the name ‘Durham Ox’ came from. It is not an uncommon name for a pub in the north, with establishments in Northallerton, Bishop Auckland, and Beverley, as well as further afield. As Dad explained, the Durham Ox was a famous castrated bull bred in 1796 by Darlington shorthorn pioneer Charles Colling. It was originally called the Ketton Ox, as Mr Colling lived at Ketton Hall near Brafferton, but it was changed by subsequent owner Mr John Day (although I can’t find references as to why, as he was from Lincoln). By its fifth birthday, the impressive size of the bull was generating such interest that he was bought for exhibiting by a Mr Bulmer of Bedale, then quickly sold on to Mr Day for the then enormous sum of £240 (more than £14,000 in today’s money).

Mr Day recognised the bull’s fascination value, and embarked on a six-year tour, travelling all over the country with him on a specially-built cart. By 1801, the Durham Ox reportedly weighed 216 stones, but he wasn’t just admired for his size. He was also a particularly fine specimen, with a long straight back, desirable markings and a small pretty head. His temperament was also that of a domestic pet, rather than a wild bull, and he drew large crowds of curious spectators, all willing to pay a price to see this marvellous beast. He was on show for a year in London where he was making up to £97 a day in ticket sales (more than £4000 in today’s money). The animal inspired national headlines and the potters of Staffordshire were so enthused that they created a set of blue and white china featuring the bull which proved very popular. Not surprising, then, that the enterprising Mr Day turned down offers of up to £2,000 to sell him.

Unfortunately, the lovely ox met a sad end in February 1807 when he slipped descending from the cart and injured his hip. He didn’t recover, and had to be destroyed.

Incidentally, in 2016, the five most popular pub names were listed as The Red Lion, The Crown, The Royal Oak, The White Hart and The Plough.

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