The Dun Cow in the Old Kent Road

Following a talk by Stephen Humphrey on 5 October, 2010

by Sue Mann

Does the legend of the dun cow properly belong to the founding of Durham Cathedral or was it the derring-do of mediaeval knight Guy of Warwick that led to its place in English history and name on a pub sign or two?

Well, it seems there is more than one tale about the dun cow, Stephen Humphrey mentioned a pub called The Dun Cow, which once stood on the Old Kent Road, but didn't have time to go into the myths and legends associated with the name.

According to the website in 995AD a group of Lindisfarne monks were travelling north carrying the body of St Cuthbert to their holy island. The bier carrying the saint's body came to halt on a hill at Warden Law and the monks couldn't move it any further. A holy fast was called and the ghost of St Cuthbert appeared to one of the monks and told him that his coffin must be taken to Dun Holm.

None of the monks had heard of the place but by chance they met a milkmaid searching for her lost dun cow. She offered to show them the way to Dun Holm and when the monks arrived they laid the foundations for Durham Cathedral and the city that has built up around it.

Further south, the fable of the dun cow at Dunsmore Heath near Rugby tells the tale of a savage beast with a huge tusk that was slain by Guy of Warwick, himself a legendary English hero of romance in England and France from the 13th to the 17th Century. According to this legend, the cow belonged to a giant and its milk was inexhaustible. One day the cow broke lose from its Shropshire field and wandered to Dunsmore Heath where it was slain by Guy. Its tusk is apparently on display at Warwick Castle, although it is believed to be an elephant's tusk.

Then again, there is a dun cow pub in Dunchurch, near Rugby, which claims that the pub name derived from a tale of "a monstrous beast four yards high and six yards long". A witch made the poor cow go on a murderous rampage until, once again, Guy, Earl of Warwick, stepped in and saved the day.

After the legends, two small facts...

The Durham Cow Cheese Company claims the Lindisfarne legend is behind the naming of its company, which makes blue cheese. In 2009 it was a winner in the Tesco Cheese Challenge. The cheese does not appear to be widely distributed although it is available in the Undercroft Restaurant at Durham Cathedral.

In 2003, the then Prime Minister Tony Blair took President George W Bush to the Dun Cow pub in his Sedgefield constituency, in County Durham.

This page was added by Brian Bending on 16/12/2010.

If you're already a registered user of this site, please login using the form on the left-hand side of this page.