Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Through the Ages: the A697

Look at your modern-day road map in the area to the east of Thrunton Woods and you will pick up the prominent red trunk road that is the A697. It curves elegantly around the contours of the moorland thereabouts, avoiding all settlements of any size for several miles north from the village of Longframlington until the traveller reaches Powburn, some 11 miles distant. This mundane stretch of road has been redirected and relain over at least three different courses during the centuries and the evidence is easy enough to make out.

First of all – or at least as far back as we are able to go – there is the Roman road, the Devil’s Causeway. Your trusty OS map will show you that this early thoroughfare danced either side of the present-day road in a characteristically straight line on its way from Tynedale in the south to Berwick in the north. For occasional stretches it actually lies under the A697 – most notably for a two-mile run north of Powburn.

In time, of course, the road faded from view and out of use for the most part. In areas where it disappeared completely, new highways and byways were cut, linking the developing towns and villages. Actually, these ‘new’ roads were more often than not ancient tracks and drove roads which were revived and developed after the Romans left. In our example, the ‘new’ route through the area took folk over the moors to skirt the eastern fringe of what is now Thrunton Woods, and onwards through Whittingham and Glanton, before dropping down onto the Roman road again near Powburn. This road still exists (for most of its route, anyway) as a minor backroad, being familiar to those of us who regularly visit Thrunton Woods for its woodland trails.

As roads became evermore important for trade and commerce, so their generally poor condition became more and more of a concern. The muddy mess that was the Whittingham-Glanton route formed part of a major link between Newcastle and Edinburgh, especially after the opening of the bridge at Coldstream in 1767. Traffic increased (including the introduction of passenger and mail stagecoaches) and the roads deteriorated rapidly. In time, Parliament stepped in to force improvement with the passing of the Turnpike Acts.

In about 1840, a decision was taken to build a new trunk road along the course with which we are familiar today. The A697, as it is now called, skirts away from Thrunton, Whittingham and Glanton, gliding unhindered through gentle moorland to the east. It then drops down through Crawley Dene to Powburn, where it meets up with its predecessors.

The A697 has been tinkered with plenty since, but mostly just a little widening and considerable resurfacing. Its ‘history’, though, is still plain for all to see on the modern-day map.

Note: this short piece was inspired by Mike Smith’s article at www.powburn.com/a-history-of-the-a697/  

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Tuesday, 21 October 2014

The Whittingham Hoard (NU089109)

In the winter of 1847 – February, to be precise – workers found a small collection of Bronze Age artefacts which provide a shadowy insight into ancient Northumbria. In a muddy field near Thrunton Farm a little to the SE of Whittingham, two bronze swords and three spearheads were found buried in the peat during drainage work – but in a strange upright, circular arrangement.

The odd and quite deliberate grouping suggests a ritualistic reason for the deposit. What must, at the time, have been very valuable objects were surrendered by their owner(s) and offered up to the gods for reasons which we will never know. They date to around 550BC – the very end of the Bronze Age – and illustrate the quality of weaponry being used at this time. A horned pommel sword (above, second from left, and known as the ‘Whittingham Sword’) is a state-of-the-art, continental-style piece of kit and indicates interaction between the locals Brits and the European mainland.

The hoard is now in the possession of the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and is housed in the city’s Great North Museum.

[image taken from the Newcastle University website]

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Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Callaly Castles (NU060098, NU052105 & NU052099)

A fair few places have a castle. A handful have two. But three? Well, the little village of Callaly on the edge of Thrunton Wood can claim just such an unlikely total of historic sites. Actually, if you count the original ancient hill fort, then the total if four. Five, in fact, if you include the 12th century pele tower which is incorporated into the current castle.

Site 1 (two castles)
The first site of interest is the lofty prominence known imaginatively as ‘Castle Hill’, the home of some earthy ramparts. This was once an Iron Age hillfort and was later adapted by the Callaly family in the 12th century. There is a school of thought which holds that this structure was never properly finished – perhaps due to a downturn in the family’s finances or an unexpected period of peace. Or, indeed, a supernatural event – see next paragraph but one.

Site 2 (one castle)
In between the Iron Age hillfort’s heyday and the 12th century refurbishment efforts of the Callaly clan, a Norman ‘motte and bailey’ castle may have been thrown up a little to the north of the village. Thereabouts can be found faint traces of earthworks and enclosures which indicate a temporary military presence, the spot once being known as Callaly Camp.

Site 3 (two castles)
Returning to Castle Hill, the Callaly family, having fiddled about on the mound for some time, seem to have eventually set up stall permanently at the current site a little to the west – essentially, the 12th century pele tower which was later incorporated into the present mansion (it may be a little younger and perhaps originally a little larger than a mere tower – theories vary). A supernatural version of events has us believe that the Lord of Callaly’s wife, unhappy at the family’s attempts to establish their stronghold on Castle Hill, resorted to having a servant constantly thwart the builders’ efforts with nightly destruction raids on the work. The cheeky chap in question, dressed as a boar, sent the staff into a superstitious frenzy – so much so that the Lord agreed to commence work at the current, more favourable spot. The substantial effort which we see today was constructed by the Claverings in the 17th century and added to periodically since.

This handsome pile – the building we now know as ‘Callaly Castle’ and more of a country house in reality – is really rather magnificent. It is not, though, open to the public.

I can’t easily provide any images without infringing copyright – but more info and some great pictures can be found here.

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Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Edlingham Church Defences (NU115091)

Parish churches were for centuries the most substantial buildings in towns and villages across the land. Unlike the present-day, when these surviving structures are frequently dwarfed by later development, the local church stood tall and proud above all around. The feeling of awe these buildings generated helped the church as an organisation dominate the lives and minds of its subjects.

But in times of unrest – especially in eternal warzones such as the English-Scottish border – these edifices frequently acted as places of refuge. Quite often, of course, God failed to save the frail and vulnerable – an extreme example being the massacre at Warkworth church in 1174 at the hands of the Scots – but, generally speaking, these stone strongholds must have come in handy at numerous, more minor, moments of danger.

The towers and spires of many of Northumberland’s places of worship seem purpose-built for defence, but none more so than the bulky effort at Edlingham. The tower of St.John’s Church is straight out of a Roman architect’s manual, though is essentially a Norman-style church from the 11th and 12th centuries – the extraordinary tower being added in the 14th century. Its narrow, slit windows, slated pyramidal roof and general no-nonsense style make it a perfect sanctuary from any trouble (viz. angry Scots) that may blow in from the hills. Furthermore, barholes on the interior of both the porch and the inside of the tower provide evidence that the structure could be heavily barricaded to prevent entry – and you may have noticed, too, that the tower has no belfry openings.

So when the Scots came to Edlingham at least the villagers had somewhere to hide – if they were quick enough to head for the cover of their squat and plain-looking church, that is. But who would care about appearances at such times of strife? And one thing’s for sure: it has fared a good deal better than the village’s distinctly wobbly castle…

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Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Longframlington: Birthplace of English Presbyterianism? (NU127015)

Amidst the complex web that is the history of British religious nonconformity lies that curious creature known as Presbyterianism. Put simply, it is essentially a Scottish creation – or it at least took root there - before spreading south and, to a certain extent, worldwide from the 16th century onwards.

In 1662, nearly two thousand ‘dissenting’ clergymen were thrown out of the Church of England, leading to the establishment of ‘proper’ dissenting places of worship – or at least gatherings or ‘congregations’ who met in private houses. One of these little assemblies had been meeting somewhat informally at Swarland Old Hall since around 1640 under the guidance of a Mr William Hesilrigge, and immediately following the ‘Great Ejectment’ of 1662 the establishment of the ‘Longframlington Presbyterian Church’ was officially announced by Hesilrigge and his followers. And it was pretty quick off the mark, too, with the construction of England’s very first Presbyterian chapel or meeting house five years later at the village’s Hole House Farm.

The Longframlington Presbyterian Meeting House, established in 1667 and probably the first of its kind in England, held regular services until a new chapel was built at the North End of the village in 1739, complete with accommodation for the presiding minister. The final (and present) incarnation – on the same site and pictured below – dates from 1854.

It is worth mentioning that after the 1689 Act of Toleration life for practising dissenters became a good deal easier. However, permanent bases for worship were rare before this date, so the original, purpose-built Longframlington meeting house, dating from the 1660s, really is an early call and a notable ‘first’ for Northumberland.

The present chapel became a United Reformed Church in 1972 when the Presbyterian and Congregational Churches united.

The present URC Church, built 1854
© Copyright Walter Baxter and licensed for reuse 

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Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Four Tales of Brinkburn (NZ115983)

Brinkburn Priory, one of Northumberland’s historical jewels, lies cosily on the banks of the River Coquet just off the A697 between Longhorsley and Longframlington. It is a quiet and secluded spot and, save for its low-key ‘dissolution’ in the time of Henry VIII, seems to have troubled the historians little, generally speaking. It does, however, tease us with several woolly tales from the distant past, briefly summarised thus:-

(1) The Battle of Brunanburh was one of the key conflicts in British history, enabling King Aethelstan of England the opportunity to establish his newly-unified nation on the world map. It took place in 937AD, pitching the ‘English’ against a combined Norse-Celtic force – the former emerging victorious. The thing is, no one has a clue as to where the battle was fought. All sorts of sites across the north of England have been mooted – one somewhat unfavoured possibility being a spot on the Great North Road a mile or two from the future Brinkburn Priory. There was (some say) an ancient place in the vicinity called Brincaburch – now long-since gone – which hints at the name of the famous old battle.

(2) At some point during the monks’ residency at Brinkburn (12th – 16th centuries – some sources hint at a date of 1419), the raiding Scots threatened to sack the priory. However, because of the thick woods thereabouts, they couldn’t find it and set off once more on their merry way. The brethren expressed their thanks with a hasty bell-peal, an act which caught the ear of the distant Scots and conveniently guided them back onto their target – whereupon they gutted the place.

(3) After the Dissolution of the Monastaries, the bells of Brinkburn were again in the news. Tradition has it that they were recycled by being taken down to Durham by horseback … but were they? Some say they were lost en route (in the River Font, apparently); others concur, but insist they were recovered thanks to a miracle; other tales have them being buried – a fragment turning up under a tree on the riverbank opposite Brinkburn. Some say that the nearby River Coquet hides the bells, having been deposited there by the pesky Scots. And if, by some chance, they did make it to Durham, where are they?

(4) In 1834 around 300 old coins were found in the grounds of the priory during the removal of a burnt-out wooden building. They were discovered under a large hollowed-out stone inside a medieval bronze pot, and amounted to what were known as Rose Nobles from the reigns of Edward III, Richard II and Henry IV. In typical Brinkburn fashion, though, the fine detail of the find seems to have largely disappeared from the history books. A few specimens made their way to the British Museum, the rest disappearing, seemingly, into private hands.

And I haven’t even mentioned the fairies buried at Brinkburn…

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Tuesday, 16 September 2014

The Birth of Be-Ro, Longhorsley (NZ148947)

© Copyright C Massey and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

We have already seen how a nondescript terraced house in Longhorsley played a small but notable role in British history (see here) – and it is scarcely believable that the very same building should have played host to another significant event in our cultural/social history. For what was until recently the Post Office building in this Northumberland village was the base from which one very enterprising local man took the first steps towards the invention of Be-Ro, the most famous of our self-raising flours.

1 South Road, which stands directly opposite the Shoulder of Mutton pub in Longhorsley, was, before it was taken over by Emily Davison’s mum, the home of the Bell family for several decades. It was a bakers and general dealers in those days and the chap who lived there with his parents, William and Ann, was one Thomas Bell. Born in 1848, his father died when he was young, leaving Ann to raise the sizeable family – and run the business – on her own.

Thomas was clearly an enquiring sort, and began experimenting with flour, baking powder and various ‘raising agents’ in an attempt to improve the family’s lot. The exact sequence of events is unclear, but he is thought to have hit upon the ‘magic formula’ around 1875, and in the 1880s left the village to set up a grocery and tea business in Newcastle. Here he sold his new self-raising creation under the name of Bell’s Royal. It may not have been the very first ‘self-raising flour’ (a chap in Bristol claimed to have beaten Bell to it), but it certainly proved to be the most successful. Forced to drop the ‘Royal’ part of the name, Bell rebranded his creation as ‘Be-Ro’ (short for Bell’s Royal – his wife’s suggestion) in around 1895, and never looked back.

Originally sited in the Groat Market, Newcastle, the business grew and moved – firstly to Low Friar Street, then Bath Lane. Thomas died in 1925, presumably a fairly wealthy man, but Be-Ro continued to grow in popularity, spreading across England and into Scotland – greatly assisted by the publication of the famous Be-Ro recipe books from 1923. In time, the firm was swallowed by Rank-Hovis, then, most recently, by Premier Foods.

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Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Cromwell at Netherwitton (NZ102904)

Love him or hate him, Oliver Cromwell certainly made his mark on British history. One of the most hotly disputed aspects of his time at the helm of British politics was how he interacted with those who crossed his path – and was he really quite as bad as is sometimes made out?

One interesting piece of evidence in his favour comes from his brief stay at Netherwitton Hall and its environs in the summer of 1651 whilst on his way north to face the Scots. He called in for an overnight stop at the little Northumberland hamlet of Netherwitton, which was watched over by the incumbents of the aforementioned mansion, namely, the Thornton family. The army, consisting of nine regiments of foot, Cromwell’s horse guards and two regiments of dragoons (as well as assorted ‘baggage’) put quite a strain on local resources and one might have feared for the general well-being of the villagers during what must have been a fraught night.

However, a rare survival from the event itself demonstrates the lengths to which the Lord Protector was prepared to go to appease those upon whom he imposed himself. On 17th July 1651, special letters of protection, signed by Cromwell, had been given to the family’s head, Lady Anne Thornton, by which ‘all Officers and soldiers under my Command, and all others whom it may concern’ were forbidden to ‘prejudice’ the said lady ‘either by offering any violence to her person, or any of her family, or by taking away any of her horses, cattle or other goods whatsoever without special order’. Despite this, of course, considerable damage was done by several thousand men and animals traipsing here, there and everywhere across and around her estate, but, soon after Cromwell had moved on, £95 5s 6d was paid to Lady Thornton as compensation for corn and grass used/destroyed by his army, as well as other random incidents such as the burning down of a barn and the consumption of sixteen sheep. What made the act of reparation especially noteworthy was that the woman in question was a known Royalist.

It is, of course, likely that Cromwell’s action was little more than a ‘keep ‘em sweet’ tactic – and it is not known if any of his compensatory instinct trickled down to the lower classes of the parish, many of whom must have suffered in one way or another.  However, the whole episode is a nice little insight into the sometimes murky world of Cromwellian diplomacy.

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Tuesday, 2 September 2014

The Morpeth Missionary (NZ195864)

Robert Morrison, the first Protestant Missionary to China and the man responsible for translating the Bible into the Chinese language, was born at Buller’s Green, Morpeth, in 1782. He was the youngest of eight children born to a Scottish father and an English mother. Little is known of his early life in the town, his family moving to Newcastle when he was three years of age.

Details of his Morpeth days may be sparse, but the Nothumberland town does receive a mention in the man’s lengthy and highly descriptive epitaph. From his memorial in the Old Protestant Cemetery in Macau, China:

the memory
Robert Morrison DD.,
The first protestant missionary to
Where after a service of twenty-seven years,
cheerfully spent in extending the kingdom of the blessed Redeemer
during which period he compiled and published
a dictionary of the Chinese language,
founded the Anglo-Chinese College at Malacca
and for several years laboured alone on a Chinese version of
The Holy Scriptures,
which he was spared to see complete and widely circulated
among those for whom it was destined,
he sweetly slept in Jesus.
He was born at Morpeth in Northumberland
5 January 1782
Was sent to China by the London Missionary Society in 1807
Was for twenty five years Chinese translator in the employ of
The East India Company
and died in Canton 1 August 1834.
Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth
Yea saith the Spirit
that they may rest from their labours,
and their works do follow them.

The house in which Morrison was born no longer stands, having been demolished and replaced in the Victorian era. A suitably engraved stone slab marks the spot over an archway in North Place.

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Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Newminster Abbey, Morpeth (NZ189857)

A little beyond the southern extremities of our region can be found a landscape riddled with the remains of abbeys and monasteries. As one creeps ever northwards they thin out noticeably, and anything north of the Tyne is a very rare specimen indeed (we can thank the Scots and their periodic raids for that). The largest such establishment in Northumberland is thought to have been that on the south bank of the Wansbeck near Morpeth, and was called Newminster Abbey.

This nigh-on forgotten religious house has now been almost completely wiped from the landscape, but it was quite a significant institution in its time. It was, in fact, one of the first daughter houses to be founded by the famous Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire – quite possibly the very first, some say. This all happened around 1137 when the Cistercians were invited north by local noble, Ranulph de Merlay, and his wife, Juliana. ‘Robert of Newminster’ from Fountains was appointed the new abbey’s first abbot, ruling the roost with considerable vigour from 1138 to 1159. A year after its founding the Scots came down and set the place abaze – and as part of the resultant peace treaty with the English pretty much everything north of the Tyne was ruled by the Scots during 1139-57. The monastery slowly recovered under Robert’s enthusiastic leadership, being properly rebuilt by 1180.

Morpeth’s wealthy residents occasionally granted land and possessions to the young institution, and it came to exercise control over much of the land from the Wansbeck to the Scottish border. No one seems to know quite how extensive its influence was, but in time it spawned daughter monasteries of its own at Pipewell (Northamptonshire) and Roche and Sawley (both in Yorkshire). By the late thirteenth century, Newminster Abbey also had two hospitals dependent upon it, at Mitford and Allerburn. This all mattered little come the Dissolution, though, when it was officially sacked in Henry VIII’s first round of plundering in 1537. The Greys came into possession and thereafter began the systematic robbing of its masonry over successive generations. In turn, the Brandlings and then the Ords assumed ownership.

Newminster Abbey was last used in 1937 for the 400th anniversary of its closure. Most of what remains today is hidden underground or under trees. However, a nice collection of photographs from the 1960s can be found here.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Emily Davison’s Northumberland Links (NZ197851 & NZ148947)

Emily Wilding Davison, the accidental martyr of the 1913 Epsom Derby, is arguably the most famous suffragette of them all. And as she is buried in Morpeth it is often assumed that she was a Northumbrian ‘made good’. The truth, though, is not quite as straightforward. So just what exactly were the woman’s North-East credentials?

Firstly, she wasn’t born up here. She barely lived here, either. And we all know how and when she died. So how is it that she is interred in Northumberland’s county town and held so close to our North-Eastern hearts?

Essentially, it’s down to her ancestry. On both her father’s and her mother’s side, Emily is rooted in England’s most northerly county. Her dad, Charles Davison, was 50 when baby Emily was born – a retired merchant who had been born in Alnwick with extensive connections in and around Morpeth. Emily’s mother, Margaret (nee Caisley), was Charles’ second wife and hailed from Longhirst, a little to the north-east of Morpeth – and was a good deal younger, too. Extended family of the couple was (and still is) scattered widely throughout the immediate area. However, shortly before Emily’s birth in 1872, the family had relocated to London – and she entered this world at Blackheath, in the south-east of the capital.

After a childhood and youth spent at a considerable distance from her parents’ homeland, a promising education was cut short on her father’s death in 1893. With funds running short, her mother moved back to the North-East, settling in Longhorsley, to the north-west of Morpeth, and opened a shop. Though Emily never permanently lived in the village or the area thereafter, she would often visit her mother and relatives in the ensuing couple of decades.

In 1906, Emily joined the Women’s Social & Political Union and became ever more involved and embroiled in the suffrage cause. Her repeated imprisonments and episodes of force-feeding often left her in a poor state of health. She would regularly retire to Longhorsley to recuperate … and to deliver the occasional provocative speech on the village green!

Her horrific death at the feet of the King’s horse at Epsom in June 1913 immortalised her name and ensured her everlasting fame. She had left her mother’s home (until recently, the Post Office building in Longhorsley) a few short days before the tragic accident in order to make the trip south. After a funeral procession and memorial service fit for a heroine in London, her coffin was brought north by train, where she was laid to rest – in front of huge crowds – in her father’s family plot in the churchyard of St.Mary the Virgin, Morpeth.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Britain’s Oldest Bell? (NZ169856)

Mitford, the ancient parish to the west of Morpeth, contains within its church an item which claims to be the oldest surviving example of its kind in Britain. As you can see, it’s a church bell; and those who know about these things state that it is more than 850 years old.

St.Mary Magdalene’s ringer is no longer in use, having been removed from the tower in 1862 – it still, however, hangs in the church, in a spot near the main entrance. Experts reckon that the curiously-shaped item was cast no later than 1150, which makes it an extraordinary survival – especially as the church itself was set ablaze on at least three occasions (once, in 1216, on the orders of King John, with many of the locals still inside).

A quick search of the internet soon brings other candidates for the UK’s ‘oldest bell’ into view, many of them (like Mitford’s) amounting to unverifiable guesses. The only one which claims to be older is that at Hardham, Sussex, which may date to c.1100. In fact, there are no obvious examples worldwide that can claim a more distant origin … so Mitford may, in fact, possess the oldest church bell in the world!

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Meg O’ Meldon (NZ108855)

The sleepy hamlet of Meldon in the Wansbeck valley a few miles west of Morpeth was once the home of one of the county’s most infamous ghosts, namely, Meg O’ Meldon. As with most such shadowy figures, the story of Meg is based loosely on fact – in this case that of a misery old woman (and suspected witch) by the name of Margaret Selby. There are spectral appearances, tales of misfortune (and good fortune), as well as, of course, hidden treasure...

Margaret was the daughter of William Selby of Newcastle, who was a well-known money lender. She married Sir William Fenwick of nearby Wallington, and brought with her to the arrangement the estate of Meldon. This all happened a long time ago – in and around the late 17th century – and well before the construction of the current John Dobson-inspired effort known today as Meldon Park. Anyway, the only facts that seem to have trickled down to us from these distant days concern the infamy of Meg’s great meanness and avarice. Any income which came her way was greedily hoarded, being stashed away in any number of places across the parish. She was understandably disliked and therefore (of course) branded a witch; and when she and her husband passed into history, stories persisted of caches buried in almost every corner of the district.

Such was her reputation, though, that the locals claimed that her spirit continued to guard over her riches after her demise, wandering from pillar to post, triggering tales of ghostly apparitions aplenty in its wake. Meg’s spirit would travel hither and thither by way of a subterraneous coach road, and she would often be seen on Meldon Bridge in the shape of a little dog – or, indeed, ‘in a thousand forms, lights and colours, flickering over the Wansbeck, or under a fine row of beeches by the river.’ She would sometimes present herself as a mysterious, beautiful woman; or sit in a stone coffin at the site of Newminster Abbey (water from this trough was used to treat warts and other ailments).

Most famously, the ghost of Meg would sit guard over a well near Meldon Tower, where she was thought to have hidden a bull’s hide full of gold. She once enticed a local man to attempt its retrieval at the dead of night, but at the point of success he shouted in triumph, thus breaking the spell and causing the treasure to be dropped and lost forever.

Understandably, any discovery of value in the neighbourhood has been attributed to the legend of Meg. Once, when the ceiling of Meldon schoolhouse gave way, a stash of gold coins issued forth from the attic, sending the pupils into a ‘rich scramble’ for their unexpected windfall. Every time a stash is thus revealed and put to some good, so the spirit of Meg rests ever more soundly. And, though Meldon Well still hides its bag of riches, the ghost of Margaret Selby has long since disappeared from the banks of the Wansbeck.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

RAF Morpeth (NZ173821)

If you’re a car boot sale enthusiast you may well know about this little bit of wartime history. For three miles SW of Morpeth, near the village of Tranwell, lie the fading remains of a short-lived World War II airfield once known as RAF Morpeth – aka Tranwell Airfield.

It existed for a few short years in the 1940s, but has now lain fallow for more than sixty years. Constructed from 1941, it was opened the following year as ‘No.4 Air Gunnery School’, and was handed a collection of ungainly Blackburn Bothas for the purposes of training up student airmen – with around 4,000 young men passing through its gates during WWII.

The Botha was essentially a failed torpedo bomber, relegated to a training role early in the war. Other, more reliable, aircraft were to be found at Tranwell, but it was the Botha which was to be most infamously linked to the site – and which was to account for several fatalities during the base’s short life.

Essentially, the Bothas were heavy and underpowered – and the airstrips at Tranwell were only just long enough to take them. Several incidents in a few short months were punctuated by two especially notable accidents – the first occurred in November 1942 when two planes collided on the same runway, resulting in one death. Then in March 1943 two Bothas collided over the base, killing ten young airmen (average age 20) – five of whom were from The Netherlands. All are buried at St.Mary’s Church, Morpeth. With its appalling safety record the Bothas were eventually replaced by Avro Ansons in July 1943.

In time, demand for air gunners dimished and RAF Morpeth/Tranwell was closed in December 1944 – the substantial numbers of staff being reassigned elsewhere. A few months later the site reopened as No.80 Operational Training Unit, pairing Free French pilots with the famous Spitfire – though this only lasted three months before the base became a Maintenance Unit. Activity diminished thereafter before it was closed for good in 1948. Many of the overseas men who spent time at Tranwell – including a large Polish contingent – settled in the region after the war.

A few relics remain, including an underground control room, but the site is today a car boor sale haven. Proposals to reactivate the airfield and/or create a museum there in recent years have come to nought.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Stannington’s Hospitals (NZ182810 & NZ188819)

Source: WellcomeLibrary blog (WI no. L0016013)

A couple of miles north-west of the Northumberland village of Stannington, pretty much in the middle of nowhere, there once stood two really quite extraordinary medical institutions. Until their closures in the 1980s and 1990s respectively, Stannington Children’s Hospital and St.Mary’s Asylum were two of the most interesting places in the North-East.

The former, known more commonly as Stannington Sanatorium, was the very first purpose-built children’s TB hospital in the UK. Opened in 1907, it was built specifically for the needs of youngsters suffering from the disease in the days before the use of antibiotics. Fresh air, exercise and good nutrition were the order of the day, as well as the use of cutting-edge medical techniques – and all done with remarkable frugality due to much voluntary support. It was originally known as ‘Philipson’s Colony’ after one Roland Philipson who had made a generous donation to the appeal for the campaign by the Poor Children’s Holiday Association for just such an institution. In the seventy-odd years of its (sometimes controversial) existence around 11,000 youngsters passed through its doors.

The nearby St.Mary’s Hospital was, somewhat strangely, Gateshead’s official lunatic asylum. Built to the designs of George Thomas Hine during 1910-14, it served as the home of the town’s mentally ill until as recently as 1995. Almost immediately after its opening it was requisitioned by the military for the duration of World War I, but was thereafter returned to Gateshead who added a nurse’s home in 1927-8 (and otherwise modified the site) – before adding yet more buildings in the late 1930s, making St.Mary’s a sizeable concern in its ‘heyday’.

The old asylum site is now disappearing fast under new (and ongoing) development – the old children’s sanatorium up the road having been obliterated several years ago.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Whalton’s Bale Fire (NZ128815)

The few of us who still celebrate Midsummer's Eve now do so at the back end of June. A handful of ancient celebrations persist throughout the British Isles, but Whalton’s ‘Bale Fire’ is a little different from the rest.

The residents of Whalton, you see, mark Midsummer’s Eve on 4th July – a fact easily explained by the change here in the UK, in 1752, from the Julian to the Gregorian Calendar, when we all made a ‘jump’ of several days. The minor furore caused by this shift was eventually overcome and, in time, almost everybody made the transition to the ‘new’ date for Midsummer. Not the villagers of Whalton, though. They would not be moved. And since 1903 it is the only village in the country to have maintained the curious ceremony on the wrong date. Or should that be the right date?

The word ‘bale’ (sometimes shown as ‘baal’) is derived from the Old English Bael or the Old Norse Bal meaning a great fire (it is possibly the name of an old sun god), and in Northumberland seems to have survived as a word used to describe a beacon fire lit on a prominent spot to warn locals when raiders were on their way from the north. These days the ‘bale’ is a modest bonfire on the green by The Beresford Arms pub, around which the local children and Morris dancers jig and twist – after which all present adjourn to the village hall for refreshments and yet more dancing.

Interestingly, during the black-out in World War II a few twigs were lit and quickly put out to preserve the tradition!

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Cale Cross, Blagdon (NZ218775)

© Copyright Stephen Richards and licensed for 

Head north on the Great North Road and, a little short of Stannington, you will stumble upon an old relic of Newcastle. The strange classical form standing near the roadside, and within the bounds of Blagdon Hall, is Cale Cross, looking more like a daft rich man’s ornament than anything else.

Unusually, though, we have here a ‘folly’ that has – or rather had – a practical use. For it once stood at the heart of old Newcastle, marking the spot where cale (cabbage)* and other foodstuffs were once sold – a sort of mini-market which gathered at the town’s Sandhill area, near the present-day Guildhall on the Quayside. It also acted as a conduit head for some time.  A commemorative plaque now marks the site, attached, as it is, to the modern-day Cale Cross House near the footings of the Tyne Bridge. But however did this old landmark find its way to the grounds of a stately home several miles away?

Well, Blagdon Hall, as you may know, has long been the home of the White Ridleys; and the Sandhill area of Newcastle has long had a ‘Cale Cross’ – at least as far back as 1309. For many years a more ancient ‘cross’ structure marked the spot, but this was replaced by a fancier design in 1783 – drawn up by architect David Stephenson and paid for by Sir Matthew White Ridley. However, nice though it was, it soon got in the way of the local traffic and a decision was made in 1807 to dismantle it.

The White Ridleys, presumably somewhat miffed at the corporation’s change of heart, ended up carrying the said structure stone-by-stone to their ancestral home and throwing it up at the side of the main road north – for no other reason than it seemed a shame to ‘hoy it oot’. And so, like a nineteenth century Angel of the North, it sits in a prominent spot near a major thoroughfare so that passers-by can have a good gawp.

And why not. It is rather splendid.

* Some think the word ‘cale’ is derived from kail wort, a herb used in making broth and which may have been sold at this spot in Newcastle.