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Shadforth was a farming village from ancient times. The Old English settlers came here, around AD 600, to a heavily-wooded countryside. Within fifty or so years, they had cleared the land around the village to cultivate many strips of land in large open fields.

The village is mentioned in the Boldon Book of 1183. It is perhaps the only village in England with the name 'Shadforth' meaning 'Shallow Ford’. The oldest part of the village has maintained its medieval shape of irregular houses placed around a linear village green. Although surrounded by coal mines and industry, Shadforth is unusual as it has always remained rural, never having its own pit.

Shadforth parish lies four miles due east of Durham City and includes in its boundaries the village of Ludworth and part of Sherburn Hill. The village of Shadforth itself nestles in the valley of Shadforth Beck and is a quiet settlement with mainly white and grey houses lining a long narrow green. The 19th-century church of St Cuthbert stands on rising ground on the opposite side of the beck, near the relatively modern additions to the village of the council houses and a few private houses in front of the church.

Shadforth is known as one of the ‘green villages’ of the North-East of England, having a registered village green and being designated a conservation area.