Hell's Kettles - County Durham

VictorianHell's Kettles, also known as ‘Kettles of Hell’ or ‘Devil’s Kettles’ have been the subject of numerous legends and superstitions. These three, supposedly bottomless pits are located at Oxen-le-Hall, in the south of the parish of Darlington and are the subject of many tales.

Locals may tell you of their green, boiling sulphurous waters that have taken the lives of people and animals; drowned or eaten alive by the Pikes and Eels that infest them. Believed to have been created by a ferocious earthquake in 1179, the Hell’s Kettles are said to contain the souls of sinners and reports claim the bodies of the victims can be witnessed floating in the pools when clear.

It is said the water is hot as a result of reverberation; and that geese and ducks thrown in have discovered subterraneous passages to the river Tees. Harrison (1577) calls them "three little poles, which the people call the Kettles of Hell, or ye Devil's Kettles, as if he should seethe soules of sinfull men and women in them; they adde also that ye spirits have oft beene harde to cry and yell about them”

In his description of the pools, Longstaffe (1854) quoted a twelfth century annalist thus:

"In the reign of Henry II, the earth rose high at Oxendale, in the District of Darlington, (Oxendale is now Oxney flat) in the likeness of a lofty tower, and so remained from nine in the morning until evening, when it sank don with a terrible noise, to the terror of all that heard it, and being swallowed up it left behind a deep pit"

The following tale is recorded in the ‘Denham Tracts’; a series of folklores collected from 1846-1859.

"Many centuries ago the owner, or occupier, of the fields where the Hell-Kettles are situated, was going to lead his hay on the feast day of St. Barnabas (June 11), and being remonstrated with on the impiety of the act by some more pious neighbour, he used the rhymes :

'Barnaby yea! Barnaby nay! A cartload of hay, whether God will or nay"

"Instantly he, his carts and horses, were all swallowed up in the pools; where they may still be seen, on a fine day and clear water, many fathoms deep.”

The pits once aroused the curiosity of people the length and breadth of Britain and were even visited by the writer and traveller Daniel Defoe, who dismissed them as `old coal pits'. This they certainly are not, as coal has never been mined in the Darlington area. The sinkholes are fed by artesian water and have been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) for their ability to support a hard water "fen" flora.

Although Darlington is undoubtedly in the valley of the River Tees, it is its tributary, the little River Skerne that flows through the centre of the town which is truly the Darlington river. The Skerne rises in eastern County Durham to the north of Sedgefield near the former colliery village of Trimdon and flows south before joining the River Tees at Croft near Darlington, close to the site of the famous `Hell's Kettles' at Oxen-le-Field.