Wednesday, 30 September 2015

The Dissenting Madam Babington (NZ073804)

Situated between the villages of Belsay and Bolam, not far off the main road to Newcastle, is the hamlet of Harnham. The little settlement was once home to the famous Babington family who resided in Harnham Hall – little more than a glorified farmhouse, which still exists to this day. In the mid-1600s, it was the home of Katherine Babington, daughter of Sir Arthur Hesilrige, the great Parliamentarian, and the wife of Major Babington, Governor of Berwick.

Katherine was regarded as something of a beauty, but with this came a stormy temperament – making her something of a celebrity in her day. People would go out of their way to catch a glimpse of this petulant character, such was her ability to attract the wrong sort of attention (she was once reputedly banned by the authorities from ‘eating pies in public’!). Most infamously, this most notorious of nonconformists cocked a snook at the local clergy by bribing a butcher-boy to drag the local parson from his pulpit. Later she was prosecuted for contempt, and even imprisoned in her own home by her husband to keep her from causing chaos. Amidst all of this she was, of course, excommunicated – so when, in 1670, she died, the vicar refused to allow her to be buried in the parish churchyard.

Her well-to-do widower soon came up with an answer, though. In a move with which the stroppy Madam Babington would most surely have approved, he buried her in the back garden – in a cave hewn out of a rocky outcrop. Years later, the tomb was robbed and her remains scattered.

Her bones may have been interfered with but her tomb and vault remain, complete with stone coffin and accompanying inscription and poem…

My time is past, as you may see,
I viewed the dead as you do me;
Or long you’ll lie as low as I,
And some will look on thee.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

The Loraine Monument (NZ011824)

In the shadow of Kirkharle’s small but rather famous church of St.Wilfrid’s (baptism of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, et al) sits a curious monument dedicated to the memory of one Robert Loraine. This prominent local landowner and dignitary lived in the troubled days of the Border Reivers, and was known as ‘a zealous Prosecutor of Robbers, Thieves & Moss-Troopers’. He lived in Kirkharle Tower, and maintained a number of alliances with other families (notably the Fenwicks) as well as a large stock of arms and horses to help maintain law and order as best he could.

On day in 1483, however, Robert Loraine let his defences slip and was killed by a party of Scots who ‘lay in ambush between his house and the church… & in his return home, suddenly surprised and dragged him into an adjacent Close’. The attackers, determined to make an example of Loraine, cut his corpse up into tiny pieces, stuffed them into his horse’s saddlebags and set it loose to wander home.

The monument we see today to the chap known locally as ‘the unfortunate gentleman’ was erected in 1728 by a descendant, Sir William Loraine (the first employer of Capability Brown, actually), and replaced an earlier stone which had fallen into disrepair.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

The Wallington Dragons (NZ030842)

Sitting by the roadside in the grounds of the stately home from which they take their name lie one of the region’s most unusual little landmarks: the Wallington Dragons. In a site filled with interest, both inside the hall and without, the dismembered heads are perhaps the biggest oddity of them all.

They sit by the B6342 at the end of a long lawn which rides up to the east face of the hall, but are invariably missed by those unaware of their presence; which is a shame, as they are a delightful ‘find’ for youngsters, whilst leaving us adults flummoxed. 

Though they seem utterly out-of-place, their presence is actually very easily explained. Among Wallington Hall’s many esteemed owners was the Blackett family (late 17th – late 18th centuries), during which time Sir Walter Blackett (there were a few of these, but this was the one who lived 1707-77) substantially restructured the hall. The Blacketts were big players in the coal trade and it is said that the stone heads were brought north from London in 1760 as ballast in one of Sir Walter’s coal ships. Sources vary slightly as to their exact place of origin, with Bishopsgate or nearby Aldersgate being the likeliest spots, and they probably date to the 16th century.

Quite what the dragon heads’ original purpose was down in London we can only guess. They look suspiciously like gargoyles, of course, but who knows? However, as dragons adorn the City of London’s coat of arms it is, perhaps, no surprise that oddments of this type were to be found lying around the streets when ballast was being sought out in days of old.

Anyway, after their journey north to Wallington a use was eventually found for them. More than a century after their arrival, the slightly oriental-looking affairs were dug out of storage and placed in their present location in 1928, and are now Grade II* Listed.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

The Flag of Northumberland

The Northumberland flag is based on an ancient design, the origin of which is buried deep in the Dark Ages – making it, most probably, the oldest flag design in Britain.

The Venerabale Bede, in his famous Ecclesiastical History of the English People, states that a banner of gold and purple hung over the tomb of Northumbria’s 7th century king, Oswald. During one of several moves of the saint’s remains, they were taken to Bardney Abbey in present-day Lincolnshire in 697AD:

… There is a noble monastery in the province of Lindsey, called Beardeneu, which that queen [Osthrida, queen of the Mercians] and her husband Ethelred much loved, and conferred upon it many honours and ornaments. It was here that she was desirous to lay the venerable bones of her uncle. When the wagon in which those bones were carried arrived towards evening at the aforesaid monastery, they that were in it refused to admit them, because, though they knew him to be a holy man, yet, as he was originally of another province, and had reigned over them as a foreign king, they retained their ancient aversion to him, even after death. Thus it came to pass that the relics were left in the open air all that night, with only a large tent spread over them; but the appearance of a heavenly miracle showed with how much reverence they ought to be received by all the faithful; for during that whole night, a pillar of light, reaching from the wagon up to heaven, was seen by almost all the inhabitants of the province of Lindsey. Hereupon, in the morning, the brethren who had refused it the day before, began themselves earnestly to pray that those holy relics, so beloved by God, might be deposited among them. Accordingly, the bones, being washed, were put into a shrine which they had made for that purpose, and placed in the church, with due honour; and that there might be a perpetual memorial of the royal person of this holy man, they hung up over the monument his banner made of gold and purple; and poured out the water in which they had washed the bones, in a corner of the sacred place. From that time, the very earth which received that holy water, had the virtue of expelling devils from the bodies of persons possessed.

Moreover, Wilfrid and other prominent Northumbrian clerics were known to have worn vestments of gold and purple.

In medieval times, the colours and the flag were adopted by the Earl of Northumberland. The flag is now officially registered as shown above, with eight alternate stripes of red and gold; and by official decrees in 1951 and 1995 was properly adopted by Northumberland County Council as their emblem.

Anyone in the county can fly it – but make sure you get it the right way up, with the gold panel at the top nearest the flagpole!

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Hartburn Grotto (NZ087864)

© Copyright Andrew Curtis and licensed for 

Carved out of the sandstone cliff overlooking the Hart Burn, a little upstream from the village of the same name, can be found a curious manmade cavern – created, rather daftly, for use as a changing room for those mad enough to want to bathe in the nearby river. It is known as Hartburn Grotto.

Dr John Sharp was vicar of Hartburn for forty-odd years from 1749, and it was he, with the help of his parishioners (who must have laboured with some puzzlement), who built the said structure in around 1760. It has a high, slit-like entrance, with two niches for statues above; and an internal gothic arch, which separates the inner and outer chambers – one of which contains a fireplace. The said niches used to hold statues of Adam and Eve. And, best of all, there is a 15m-long underground tunnel from the grotto down to the river, allowing bathers discrete access to the watery facilities.

Many believe that the monument’s likeness to a rough-cut chapel may hint at an earlier manmade origin for this strange fold in the landscape – almost certainly expanding upon what would have originally been a natural cave or cleft in the cliff face. Its closeness to the Devil’s Causeway could well mean that a Roman temple may have occupied the site – and if not, then there may well be some other distant spiritual connection to an earlier age.

Coincidentally, the grotto lies a few yards away from the site of a former Roman river crossing of the Hart Burn, where the aforementioned Devil’s Causeway spanned the wooded valley. Faint traces of Roman engineering can still be found in the river, rocks and landscape thereabouts.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Codger Fort (NZ044901)

© Copyright Andrew Curtis and licensed for 

If you’re looking for examples of the useless excesses of the upper classes, then you can do little better than run your eye over the rocky outcrops around Rothley, Northumberland. For, hereabouts, you will find several pointless indulgences of the very rich Sir Walter Blackett (1707-77) of nearby Wallington Hall.

Firstly, there is Rothley Castle, a mock medieval stronghold designed by Daniel Garrett and built in 1755. Then there are the Rothley Lakes: man-made creations, and again built by the above mentioned Sir Walter. Several eminent architects and landscapers are rumoured to have been involved in their planning and execution – among then, notably, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown.

Finally, there is Sir Walter’s daftest effort, Codger Fort. Sitting on a rocky eminence by the roadside of the B6342, it looks very much like it has been hurriedly put together by a giant toddler – and may just as easily, perhaps, be accidentally knocked over by a clumsy playmate. Having sped past it numerous times, I was never quite sure what to make of it.

It transpires than no one else has been able to make head nor tail of it either, in fact. It certainly seems to have been erected by the aforementioned Blackett; local legend holding that it was built as a genuine defensive structure against the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. However, thanks to documentary evidence unearthed at Wallington Hall, it is now accepted that it was no more than another of Blackett’s pointless follies, and probably thrown up on his orders around 1769-70 by a certain Thomas Wright. And, as it is sits so neatly above a fold in the aforementioned Rothley Lakes, this seems as likely an explanation as any.

But why ‘Codger’? Well, they say it used to be known as ‘Cadger’s Fort/Castle’. But other than that, I can’t help you.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Winter’s Gibbet (NY962908)

Winter’s Gibbet, or Stob, at Steng Cross, near Elsdon, is one of the region’s most infamous landmarks. It stands, somewhat eerily, in an isolated spot high in the midst of the bleak Northumberland Moors – a reminder of the hanging of one William Winter in 1792.

Winter was a highwayman and a wanderer who, one night in late 1791, sought shelter from an old woman by the name of Margaret Crozier (some sources give her name as Elizabeth) in her cottage near The Raw Farm on the Rothbury-Elsdon road. During the night Winter and his accomplices robbed and killed the woman – but they were tracked down, tried and executed at Westgate, Newcastle. After sentence had been passed, the judge ordered Winter’s body to be hung in chains until it rotted in the hills above Elsdon.

The original gibbet has been replaced on at least one occasion with a replica, and a concrete head now hangs from the noose rather than the morbid remains of Mr Winter! Slivers from the original gibbet were sought by nearby villagers as they were reputed to be a cure for toothache.

Near the site can be found the base stone of an Anglo-Saxon cross – the original ‘Steng Cross’, a boundary stone which marked the highest point on this former drove road.

The illustration is taken from the Monthly Chronicle of North Country Lore & Legend of March 1890 (artist Robert Wood), which shows the spot a few years after the original gibbet had been replaced. It looks pretty much the same today.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

The Dwarves of Simonside (NZ025985)

Hundreds, possibly thousands, of innocent, decent folk wander across the Simonside Hills every year. The upland trails to the south of Rothbury carry the rambler through a varied landscape rich in ancient history (cup and ring marks, et al), but what most don’t realise is that they are trespassing on the land of the Duergar, a breed of malicious dwarf which roam thereabouts with the sole aim, it seems, of leading the likes of us astray and, possibly, to our doom. You don’t hear much of them nowadays, but until Victorian times the annals are scattered with references to these pesky little critters – and none of the stories are especially happy affairs.

The word ‘Duergar’ comes from the the old Norse word Dvergar, meaning dwarf. And the particular breed which inhabit the Simonside Hills are a troublesome lot. At about half the height of a human, they pop up at night, or in the gloaming, when a hiker is beginning to tire and may possibly be lost. They are dressed in earthy colours – brown and/or green – and always seem to be in a distinctly grumpy mood, as if the unsuspecting human is trespassing on their land. There will then be an awkward encounter, during which the victim will be variously teased and lured into danger, before some distraction (or the returning daylight) causes them to evaporate into thin air, leaving the traveller nonplussed.

One tale has two hunters encountering just such a creature whilst resting near a brook. A red-eyed, angry little personage popped up on the opposite bank and berated them for encroaching upon his patch. When offered the fruits of their hunt as recompense, the dwarf became yet more incensed as he never fed on living creatures. In time, the little man tried to entice one of them home, but on the call of his colleague a few yards distant, the duergar vanished.

Another yarn has a weary traveller struggling home over the moors when he comes upon a little campfire and decides to sit next to it to warm his bones. Up springs another of those pesky duergars who grumpily plays the role of reluctant host across the flickering flames. In time, the dwarf gestures to the man as if to urge him to throw a nearby log onto the fire, but he resists and stays put.  They sit opposite one another, somewhat uncomfortably, until dawn begins to break. A cock crows in the distance… and the ugly little host suddenly disappears, along with the rest of the cosy scene. Then the man sees that if he’d leant over to retrieve the log he’d have toppled over the side of a ravine…

Occasionally, a gang of duergars would emerge from the shadows and set about some poor individual, sending them running and flailing for their lives. Shepherds of old would regularly bear witness to their comings and goings, too. A common feature is the presence of alluring lights – the duergar appearing as will-o’-the-wisp-like characters, but always disappearing as dawn breaks, or when the ‘spell’ is broken by some other sudden event.

Anyway, I just thought I’d warn you.

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

The Coquet Stop Line (NT977000, etc)

© Copyright Richard Webb and licensed for reuse 

In the early months of World War II the threat of German invasion was very real and widely feared, even in the far north of England. The wide expanses of open beaches seemed ready-made for an amphibious landing by the Nazi hordes – hence the proliferation of concrete pillboxes on the North-East coast. But, as you have probably noticed on your inland travels, these gruesome structures are to be found scattered seemingly liberally almost everywhere.

There was nothing random about the pillbox network, though. It was remarkably well-planned, with lines of defence arranged at strategic points across the landscape. One such ‘barrier’ was the Coquet Stop Line, which ran along the course of the River Coquet from the coast at Amble to a little above Hepple in the upper reaches of the valley.

The pillbox illustrated above is that situated a little to the SW of Hepple where the B6341 runs close to the river. It is a typical ‘lozenge-shaped’ affair, and faces north, with open expanses in front and an easy escape route to the rear. The line as a whole was designed to slow any German advance from the north towards the precious strongpoints of Tyneside further south. There was another line, the Tyne Stop Line, 30 miles to the south, where it was hoped a large field army could be assembled if sufficient time could be bought.

The pillboxes were, of course, never needed and are now stubbornly melting into the landscape some 70 years after their construction. Around twenty of these wartime relics have been identified as part of the Coquet Stop Line, with a handful having been lost completely to nature and modern development.

They may not be pretty to look at but the World War II pillbox is certainly a thought-provoking feature of our modern-day landscape.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Sharp’s Folly (NU058009)

© Copyright J C Ousby and licensed for reuse 

Sharp’s Folly, or Tower, is reckoned to be the oldest folly in Northumberland. It is situated near Whitton, a little to the south of Rothbury, and was built in the 1720s by Rev Dr Thomas Sharp, Rector of Rothbury during 1720-58.

When Sharp (the son of the Archbishop of York) moved to the locality he set up his household in Whitton Tower. He was something of an eccentric, for sure, but, taking pity on the unemployed men of his parish, he hit upon the idea of building the 30-odd foot high ashlar structure as a sort of job-creation scheme.

It wasn’t a folly in the purest sense, though, for the tower, after its construction, was thereafter used as an observatory for the reverend’s astronomical interests. You could see the sea from its summit, apparently, until the nearby trees grew to obscure the view.

The tower is privately owned so the visitor cannot climb its internal cantilevered stone staircase. However, as you can see from the picture, passing hikers can get close enough for a good gawp.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

David Dippie Dixon (NU057017)

Just occasionally, an individual who takes the time and trouble to record the life, times and history of their own little patch manages to attain a sort of historical standing of their own. Put simply, they become famous for being historians. In the countryside around Whittingham and Rothbury, one such character is the distinctively named David Dippie Dixon.

Dixon was born in Whittingham in 1842 and died in Rothbury in 1929. Though he was never what you might call a professional historian, he will forever be remembered for his two seminal works on the history of his homeland, namely, Whittingham Vale, Northumberland: its History, Traditions, and Folk-Lore (1895) and Upper Coquetdale, Northumberland: its History, Traditions, Folk-Lore and Scenery (1903).

His unusual middle name was actually his paternal grandmother’s maiden name, and he was born, brought up and schooled in Whittingham, a few miles north of Rothbury. From the age of 13 he worked in his father’s drapery and grocery shop in the village, then, in 1862, he entered into formal partnership with his dad when a second shop was opened in Rothbury. In 1869 he married Mary Hindhaugh and they lived above the Rothbury shop.

Always interested in local history, over the years he investigated various aspects of the landscape around and about his native land. Folklore, traditions, songs, archaeology, wildlife, culture – all of these, and more, took the interest of the young man as he threw himself into recording the past by joining a multitude of societies and organisations. Naturally, he edited the local parish magazine, and even found time to act as a guide for visitors to the area.

The couple’s only child was born in 1870, after which Dixon went into business with his brother. His many, many years of historical investigations eventually bore fruit in the publication of his two classic books either side of the turn of the century.  His brother, John, illustrated the works. Though original (and expensive) first editions can still occasionally be found, Whittingham Vale and Upper Coquetdale have since been reprinted several times and are still considered standard texts for those interested in the history of the area.

As is so often the case, the original author never profited greatly from his efforts. In fact, his business hit the rails in 1911 and he was forced into retirement. Fortunately, though, he was offered a role as live-in librarian at the nearby Cragside estate, where he and his wife saw out their days. The couple were buried in Rothbury.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Cragside: the Facts (NU073022)

Cragside, an extraordinary country house on the outskirts of Rothbury, is arguably the North-East’s greatest ever creation, with a history as eventful and notable as any structure of its kind worldwide. Here are some of the better known facts of its life and times:

  • Originally a sporting lodge, it was built in 1863 by local industrialist, Lord (William) Armstrong (1810-1900), and subsequently extended thereafter thanks to architect Richard Norman Shaw;
  • It was the first house in the world to be lit be hydroelectric power (in 1878);
  • It originally had arc lamp-type lighting, and then became Joseph Swan’s first major project employing his new-fangled incandescent electric lighting system in 1880;
  • As well as lighting, this early form of electricity supply powered countless labour-saving devices, such as an internal passenger lift, laundry equipment and a spit (rotisserie). There were also extraordinary Victorian luxuries such as hot and cold running water, central heating, a Turkish bath suite, a hot room, a rain shower, a plunge bath and even a fire hydrant ring main;
  • It has seven million trees and shrubs (from all over the world), five artificial lakes, and 31 miles of carriage drives – all created in Armstrong’s day;
  • It is home to the largest Scots Pine tree in the UK (131ft), planted in the late 19th century;
  • It once contained an astronomical observatory and a scientific laboratory;
  • Lord Armstrong entertained the likes of the Shah of Persia and the King of Siam at Cragside; as well as the Prince and Princess of Wales;
  • It is fronted by one of Europe’s largest rock gardens;
  • It has been in the care of the National Trust since 1977;
  • In 2014, a 17-metre long Archimedes Screw was installed which generates around 10% of the property’s power.

And, best of all, it is open to the public!

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Woeful Wreighill (NT977019)

Of the stories concerning the many ‘lost villages’ that lie scattered across the North-East the saddest of them all is surely that of the cursed township of Wreighill in the parish of Rothbury, Coquetdale. Today only a farm bearing the ancient name clings to the lofty prominence to the north-west of Hepple; the sole reminder of the tragic little village whose name was once synonymous with death and destruction.

Its roots lie deep in the mists of antiquity.  Lying yards to the east of the Roman road which links the Devil’s Causeway to Dere Street, 5½ miles west of Rothbury, many ancient bones have been discovered high on its hill.  The Romans – invariably occupiers of settlements previously conquered – have left their own faint remains of a camp, too, in the area. For a millennium after the Romans departed its progress remains a mystery, indeed its very existence throughout the Dark and Middle Ages remains in doubt.  Suffice to say that by the late fifteenth century it was known as Wreigh- or Wreck-Hill – for reasons I will now attempt to explain.

Being situated on the western-most extremity of the Coquet valley, the few dozen inhabitants were frequent victims of the infamous Border reivers.  On countless occasions Scottish raiders descended the Cheviot foothills around the turn of the fifteenth century only to find the poor village in their way.  It became a way of life for the villagers, but they simply refused to be beaten, regularly standing up stoically to their foe.  The Scottish freebooters, though, vowed to some day make them pay for their determined resistance.  Undaunted, the villagers defiantly stood their ground as best they could over the months and years, but pay they finally would on the fateful night of 25th May 1412.

On that terrible Wednesday evening a mighty Scottish band appeared on the horizon and the troubled locals braced themselves again, fearing the worst.  A fierce encounter ensued but, overpowered by numbers and might of arms, the village was overrun.  Its inhabitants were slaughtered, many being pursued long into the night until not a soul remained, the village itself being burnt and laid waste.  Until the early years of the twentieth century the phrase “the Woeful Wednesday of the Wreck-Hill” was an oft used metaphor in those parts to all that pertained to cruel, total and mindless slaughter.  Thus, on account of its fateful existence, the village came to be known as Wreck-Hill.  “Wreigh” was a convenient enough derivative, and the reasoning for the development of the present-day place-name held good for a long while.  But this story is not the source from which the village’s name is drawn, and the truth, though quite different, remains equally as morbid.

“Wreigh” is, in fact, derived from the Old English wearg, meaning a felon or wrong-doer; and Wreigh-Hill, or Felon’s Hill, was where such offenders were put to death – not by hanging but by strangulation!  It is likely that nearby Wreigh Burn was simply named after the village, but not impossible that its meaning is identical to that of Throckley’s Wreigh Burn, i.e. the burn where undesirables were summarily drowned.

By and by, as the violent age of the Border reivers and the moss troopers passed into history, so the village recovered.  In 1665, however, came a second great calamity, as the isolated settlement was tragically and almost entirely wiped out by the Plague.  The story goes that a small parcel was opened by a Miss Handyside which had been sent to her by a young gentleman in London – where, of course, the terrible disease was then raging – whereupon the deadly pestilence sprung out and spread over the whole village, poor Miss Handyside being its first victim.  By all accounts almost everyone suffered, with only a few hardy folk surviving, who themselves interred their dead where neither plough nor spade would ever turn them up.  A century later, though, when the potato arrived in the area, the steep slopes under which the dead lay were put to use and countless brittle bones were unearthed.

Thankfully, however, little Wreighill is most recently remembered as being the birthplace of the once nationally famous mathematical genius, young George Coughran.  Born in 1752, the son of a Wreighill farmer, Coughran showed signs of his extraordinary talent in his infancy.  Thrust uncompromisingly into the fields of his father’s business as a child (where he also excelled), he continued his studies part-time at every opportunity.  He began to correspond with the Newcastle Courant, anonymously, arousing great public interest and admiration.  His identity revealed, he became the subject of great local and national acclaim, securing many awards.  He eventually became Calculator to the Astronomer Royal (a sort of human computer), rising to the height of his fame as the country’s outstanding genius of his time, before being tragically struck down at the age of 21 by smallpox in Newcastle in 1774.  He was buried in the town’s St. Andrew’s churchyard.

After the turn of the nineteenth century Wreighill’s population never topped 30.  As the Industrial Revolution gathered pace and the masses flocked to Newcastle for work, Wreighill, and villages like it, emptied.  Only the old stayed, and when they died so the villages died – and this is the real reason behind the deaths of so many hamlets and villages across the country.  Thus Wreighill went under for the third and final time, contracting to a small farm by 1900, which it remains to this day.

[this article has appeared in several forms and various publications over the years, including among the pieces contained in the still-available Aspects of North-East History, Vol.2 – see here]

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Holystone: Lies & Legend (NT952029)

© Copyright Andrew Curtis and licensed for reuse 

Scarcely can an ancient site have attracted so much in the way of historical speculation than that of the Lady’s Well, a little to the north of Holystone, Northumberland. For such a well-known site, incredibly little is known of the origins of its fame, save that it has been there for a very long time and that folk never tire of making up tales about the place.

Essentially, of course, it is a natural feature of the landscape: a spring. And it is an abundant one at that, issuing forth an astonishing 560 gallons per minute. Clean, fresh water being such a precious commodity in the old days, these sorts of places were very important to our ancestors. This particular spot has gone by a number of names in its time: St.Ninian’s Well, Paulinus’ Well and (Old) Lady’s Well being the best known. It has given rise to all sorts of stories over the centuries, too, the most famous being that the early Christian missionary, Paulinus, baptised King Edwin and 3,000 of his followers there in 627AD. A flat stone which once lay near the spring was even said to have been the platform upon which the mass ceremony was conducted.

Nobody even seems to know the sequence of events which took the originally natural site through to its present look. Circumstantial evidence would suggest that it was revered from the earliest days of human habitation of the region. The Roman road that passes almost over the spot would suggest that the invaders made much use of the watery facilities, too, in the early centuries AD (the NE-SW orientation of the pool matches the course of the ancient road). It may well have been the Romans who tidied and paved the area, and it probably acted as a shrine of some sort, too, to the passing legions.

There can be no doubt that the early Christian leaders thereafter made use of the spring, though any links to the likes of Paulinus and St.Ninian are purely speculative. However, when the nearby nunnery (originally Benedictine, then Augustinian) was built at Holystone around 1124 the legends came crawling out of the woodwork – an attempt, of course, to attract attention and funds to the impoverished institution. In all likelihood, the legend of Paulinus and the baptising of the 3,000 probably took place in York, in fact.

By the time the nunnery was dissolved in the days of Henry VIII the lies and legend surrounding Holystone’s Lady’s Well had become well established ‘fact’. The local catholic gentry in particular latched on to the stories and propagated them in the ensuing centuries. Then, at some point in the 1780s, the site was restructured along the lines we see today, supplemented by a little Victorian tinkering during 1861-2 (when the statue of St.Paulinus was moved and the cross erected to replace it).

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Biddlestone Chapel (NT955084)

© Copyright Les Hull and licensed for reuse 

The odd little edifice that is Biddlestone Hall Chapel has quite a history, but, remote though it is, it is bang in line with modern day life – for it is a remarkable example of architectural recycling. It is, of course, not at all odd that a building should be restructured and reused over the years, but Biddlestone Chapel is a nice little survival all the same, with an interesting story to tell.

First mention of a building on the site is in the shape of a fortified manor, or tower, house in 1415. By the 1600s, the original building was incorporated into a larger manor house, which was itself upgraded to a Georgian house c.1800 by the ruling Selby family. In about 1820, the Catholic-leaning family employed the famous architect John Dobson to convert the upper floors of one corner of their mansion into a chapel. The building we see today was the result of Dobson’s dabblings: a lofty and rather odd-shaped affair, with the bottom bits looking a good deal different than the upper extremities. Then, in typical Victorian fashion, the chapel’s interior was much altered in 1862.

The Selbys had been around this remote spot since, it is said, the early 14th century, but finally vacated Biddlestone in 1914, leaving their large Georgian house with chapel annex to fall into disrepair. During World War II the chapel’s tunnel-vaulted basement was converted into an air-raid shelter – though for what reason it is difficult to deduce. By the 1950s the ruin had become too much for anyone to take on as a viable concern and the decision was taken to demolish the main building – leaving the chapel standing tall and proud in its rather lonely situate. Shame, really, for the old mansion was believed to have been the model for Sir Walter Scott’s Osbaldistone Hall in Rob Roy.

Despite its periodic restructuring, the tower-cum-chapel-cum-air-raid shelter retains much of its medieval masonry and other ancient features, and is rather beautiful from whatever angle the visitor casts their gaze. The building has recently been re-vamped and still holds the occasional service and event.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Ingram Oddities (NU019163)

You never know what you’re going to find when you poke around an old graveyard. And if you look closely enough you’re sure to find an oddity or two in almost any such site. Take St.Michael & All Angels Church at Ingram which lies at the eastern gateway to the Cheviots – for it has two such curiosities.

The first is a gravestone to James & Isabella Armstrong, residents of High Bleakhope (a remote farm higher up the Breamish valley) – James, according to one source, being a “well known and much esteemed Border Yeoman.” They died in 1914 and 1951, respectively. The beautifully rounded stones were taken from the River Breamish near their farmstead. Apparently, Isabella’s sister, Elizabeth, has a similar headstone at Eglingham.

[thanks to Skida’s image and info at ]

In the same churchyard can be found a simple cross atop a rough, unhewn boulder. The inscription says it all:

in this grave lie
Isabella Allgood aged 42
James Charles Allgood aged 13
David Williamson Allgood aged 11
the beloved wife and sons of
James Allgood rector of Ingram
who were killed in an accident
on the Great Northern Railway
at Abbot’s Ripton January 21 1876

They were lovely and pleasant in
their lives and in their deaths
they were not divided

[thanks to Northernvicar at for the info and image]

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

The Ballad of Chevy Chase

The Ballad of Chevy Chase is arguably the most famous poem to come out of Northumberland. It seems by its very nature to be based on an actual historical incident, yet like much that is churned and ploughed over by bards across the ages the source of reference of the work has become lost in myth and legend.

The poem has been reworked many times over the years – in both oral and written traditions – and survives in two generally accepted versions today. Many have linked the composition to the Battle of Otterburn of 1388, others to a scrap between the Scots and English resulting from a dispute over a day’s hunting upon ‘Cheviot Chase’ (‘chase’ being a tract of hunting land).

The Battle of Otterburn essentially amounted to a teasing out of Northumbrian forces (under Harry Hotspur) from Newcastle into the hills around Otterburn by a Scottish army under the Earl of Douglas. The resultant face-off led to the capture of the former, the death of the latter and a victory for the Scots. In the skirmish in the Cheviots a Northumbrian Percy led a large illegal hunting party across lands over which the Earl of Douglas had a protective eye – and in the fight that followed a disproportionately large number of men were slain with only 110 surviving.

There doesn’t seem to be a set date for the latter incident, and it is reckoned that there was already a ‘Ballad of the Battle of Otterburn’ in existence before either version of the Chevy Chase poem surfaced (the first was probably written around 1430 and the second as much as a couple of centuries later).  So what we have here with The Ballad of Chevy Chase is undoubtedly an amalgam of at least two, and probably more, historical events … suitably spiced up with a dash of poetic licence, too, of course.

So that’s that cleared up, then.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Robert Roddam of Roddam Hall (NU025205)

Roddam Hall is a modest country mansion a little to the north of the village of the same name in the eastern foothills of the Cheviots. Much of what can be seen today of the privately owned edifice was built during the eighteenth century. The man at the centre of our story, Robert Roddam, came into ownership of the property on the death of his brother in 1776.

By this time, Robert was in his mid-50s and was most probably in need of a rest – retirement, in fact – after a long and varied naval career. He spent pretty much his entire adult life chasing around the globe in the service of his country, a great deal of it with enormous success and with, certainly, a renowned reputation for ‘giving it a go’, no matter what the odds.

Our man was born at Roddam Hall in 1719, the second of three sons of Edward and Jane. He entered the navy in 1735, initially serving in the West Indies for several years, then working his way up through the ranks, notably during the War of the Austrian Succession of 1740-48. Gaining his first command in 1746, he impressed his superiors by many a daring raid on enemy lines – a feature of his long career at sea.

He spent much time in and around North America and the Caribbean during the Seven Years’ War of 1756-63 – a conflict which did much to bolster British interests abroad. He was acquitted during a court martial after his ship was captured by the French early on in the war, but soon returned to active service with his usual dash.

In 1770 he was called back to the fray during one of our periodic disputes over the Falklands, then found himself thrust into the American War of Independence of 1775-83. Much of this period, though, was spent as Commander-in-Chief at the Nore – a post giving him responsibility for the defence of the south-east corner of the UK. His final phase of service came as Commander-in-Chief at Portsmouth during 1789-92, which involved a brief crisis with the French that was averted thanks in no small measure to Roddam’s thorough preparations for the possible conflict.

During the Napoleonic Wars he was promoted as far as ‘admiral of the red’, but these were essentially symbolic appointments. He was, in effect, able to at last spend some time at Roddam Hall in Northumberland, to which he was able to make several important structural additions (as well as in the grounds) before his death in 1808, aged 88. He was buried in the family mausoleum in Roddam village churchyard. Despite three marriages he had no children.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Ilderton & Royal Genealogies (NU017218)

There is a story – a legend, almost – concerning the little village of Ilderton in the shadow of the Cheviots and an illegitimate line of descent from Charles II. It is a nice illustration of how a family can fall so quickly and completely from grace, leaving, of course, a trail of rumours and half-truths in their disappearing wake.

One of King Charles II’s many illegitimate offspring was thought to have been a chap by the name of Charles Dartiquenave (born about 1664), though he was not officially ‘recognised’ as such. Much of the evidence for his suspected regal roots stems from the man’s blessed career path, which, it has been assumed, was guided by the royal hand. Charles loved the high life, and enjoyed his various positions to their full extent. A carefully chosen wife ensured further riches, and he died in comfort at Albury, Hertfordshire, in 1737.

His son, also called Charles, enjoyed a respectable army career, inheriting his father’s many and varied possessions, too, it seems. Charles Junior died in 1748, leaving several young children, among them Charles Peter, Anne and Dorothy. The first named succeeded to the family residence, Patmer Hall (in Albury), but eventually sold the estate in 1775 for reasons unknown. For equally obscure reasons, he (together with his two sisters) then migrated several hundred miles north to take up the tenancy of Ilderton Hall, Northumberland, in 1776. Little is known of his life there, but he was a churchwarden for most of the 1780s.

By 1792, though, Charles had managed to squander his resources, and his entire farming stock and equipment, together with all of his household items and possessions, were sold at auction. His creditors were invited to grab what they could in the ensuing melee, and Charles scarpered to Alnwick (some sources suggest a legal dispute over his tenancy agreement of Ilderton Hall contributed to the move). He lived in a plain house, but maintained a coach and the title of a ‘gentleman’ until his death in 1801, aged 58. However, the man – a great grandson of King Charles II – doesn’t seem to have left a will, which is perhaps indicative of the financial depths to which he had dragged the family line.

Note: It is worth noting, too, that Charles’ sister, Dorothy, to whom he was very close, died in suspicious circumstances at Ilderton Hall prior to them vacating the property. Her supposed violent death resulted in a hasty burial in the garden, it was said. Stains which remain on one of the staircases of the hall are reputed to have been caused by blood from the wounds inflicted on Dorothy by her attacker.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

The Cheviot (NT909205)

The author conquers The Cheviot in 2007

The summit of the region’s highest mountain, The Cheviot, is an uninspiring affair. Its whaleback form covers a huge area – big enough, it was once said, to hold an army. Covered by a sticky peak bog, it has recently been made more accessible by the laying of large flags which guide one to the hefty trig point. Still, though, it’s worth a climb – if only to say you’ve done it.

  • Location: North Northumberland, about 1 mile from the Scottish border to the west
  • At 815m (2,674ft) it is the highest peak in the Cheviot Hills
  • Outside of Cumbria, it is England’s highest mountain (if one includes Cumbria it is No.35 on the list)
  • Most northerly major peak of the Pennine Way (via a slight detour)
  • It forms part of a long-extinct volcano, created between 360-480 million years ago
  • The present, giant summit marker is the third of of its kind – the previous two having sunk into the mire
  • It is officially designated as a ‘Marilyn’
  • Protected as part of the Northumberland National Park