Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Percy’s Cross & the Bird in Thy Bosom (NU053193 & thereabouts)


 © Copyright David Clark and licensed for reuse 

There are two monuments which go by the name of Percy’s Cross in Northumberland. One commemorates the Battle of Otterburn of 1388; the other – and the subject of this article – is situated about 4 miles north of Glanton, near to the site of the Battle of Hedgeley Moor.

The encounter resulted in an important Yorkist victory over their Lancastrian foe in April 1464 during the Wars of the Roses – the triumph enabling the Scots to safely travel south to conclude an agreement with the Yorkists. Several nobles took to the field, of course, including one Sir Ralph Percy who had thrown in his lot with the wrong side.

As his aristocratic colleagues fled the field in the midst of their ignominious defeat, Percy carved a name for himself in history by refusing to join them. He and his men fought to the death in a brave show of loyalty to the Lancastrian cause. Surrounded, his horse stumbled and he was overpowered by the enemy. His last words were said to have been: “I have saved the bird in my bosom”…

This enigmatic utterance has kept the historians guessing over the years, but is now thought to have meant that he died an honourable death by remaining loyal to his cause until the very end – “keeping safe the bird in thy bosom” being a metaphor of the time for such shows of fidelity and allegiance in the face of adversity.  Curious, then, that Percy and his family should have so regularly switched sides during the wars!

Near the spot where Sir Ralph fell was thereafter erected a stone cross in his honour carved with Percy emblems, the head of which is now missing.


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Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Glanton: Cheviot Legion HQ (NU071145)


The quiet village of Glanton is blessed with many a historical curiosity. One such fact is its prominent role in the defence of the region against the threat of French invasion during the Napoleonic Wars.

From the beginning of the French Revolutionary Wars in 1792, via Napoleon Bonaparte’s rise to power in 1799 and through to the man’s final defeat in 1815, there was constant fear around and about British shores of foreign invasion. Much of Europe buckled under France’s relentless military campaigning and many thought it only a matter of time before they had a nibble at old Blighty. It never happened of course – much like the anticipated Nazi land invasion failed to transpire more than a century later – but it didn’t prevent folk worrying a lot about it, nor from making elaborate preparations for its eventuality.

Across the whole of the nation – and especially those areas near to likely coastal invasion spots – local militias were raised and put on a state of almost permanent alert for a good two decades. Complex signalling systems were set up and chains of command established, all of which was designed to bring the locals to arms should the enemy arrive at our gates. It is a state of home affairs that is now largely missing from the histories of the era, but it all loomed very large indeed in the lives of the people of the time.

The ‘Cheviot Legion’ was one such collection of volunteers. Set up 1798, they became so prominent that they were expanded and ‘upgraded’ to the Royal Cheviot Legion in 1803 – by which time it comprised four troops of cavalry and ten troops of infantry (around 800 men). A couple of the legion’s officers were based in Glanton as well as several of its troopers, and the unit’s HQ (or, more accurately, muster point) was Glanton – sitting, as it does, on the edge of the Cheviot foothills.

The (Royal) Cheviot Legion was never called to arms in anger, of course. But there was one serious false alarm on the night of 31st January 1804, when the glow from charcoal burners’ fires to the north was mistaken for a warning beacon and the force was called out in full. Better safe than sorry, I suppose, but it did cause quite a stir: alarm drums, bugles and what must have been an almighty flurry of nocturnal activity, not to say sheer panic.

The troopers stayed on at Glanton until the following morning, though, and everyone had a big party. Silver linings and all that…


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Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Flodden: Full Muster at Little Bolton (NU105136)


© Copyright Phil Thirkell and licensed for reuse 

What exciting and worrying times they must have been. The build-up to, and preparations for, any historical battle on home soil must have been quite an experience for all concerned. The influx of fighting men into what were often small, rural backwaters, the drain on local resources, the fear of defeat and the aftermath – to say nothing of the small matter of loss of life. And in September 1513, the villagers of little Bolton, near Alnwick, braced themselves. For it was here, in the days leading up to the immense battle at Flodden Field, that the English army descended for their first full muster to the number of some 26,000 men.

The leader of the English army, Sir Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey, arrived at Bolton on 3rd September 1513, some six days before hostilities, where, the following day, “all the noblemen and gentlemen met with him with their retinues … among whom were Lords Clifford, Coniers, Ogle, Scroope and Lumley, Sir William Percy, Lionel Percy, Sir George Darcy, Sir William Bulmer of Brancepeth Castle and Richard Tempest Esq.” All of the aforementioned (and a few others besides) would have crammed into little Bolton Chapel on a number of occasions to offer up prayers for the fighting ahead.

They stayed for a couple of nights before moving further north to Wooler Haugh, and thence to Barmoor and beyond. Then, on 9th September, Surrey and his English forces inflicted a crushing defeat on the Scots in the largest ever battle between the two kingdoms … and the villagers of little Bolton thereafter picked up the pieces of their quiet existence.


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Tuesday, 4 November 2014

The Felbridge Monument(s) (NU124110)


© Copyright Andrew Curtis and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

In the middle of a field a little off the north side of the Rothbury-Alnwick B6341 road – at roughly the half-way point between the two towns – stands a curious collection of monuments which is likely to leave the casual passer-by well and truly befuddled. The centrepiece is an 80ft column crowned by what is essentially a second, truncated column. Around and about there stand a scattering of what at first appear to be gravestones.

The column was originally erected in the village of Felbridge on the Sussex-Surrey border, and was the brainchild of James Evelyn as a tribute to the memory of his parents, Edward and Julie Evelyn. It was designed by Sir John Soane and unveiled in 1785 – its simple lines and features signifying ‘birth’, ‘life’ and ‘eternity’, apparently. It has an inscription near its base bearing verses from Addison’s Hymn of Gratitude.

It came to Northumberland after the family’s Felbridge estate was sold in 1927 – the item being moved lock, stock and barrel to its present location (the grounds of Lemmington Hall) by new owner, Sir Stephen Harry Aitchison. It was transported with some difficulty (and not a little expense) by sea, road and a specially constructed railway – for no other reason, I suppose, than that he could afford to do it … so why not?

The three gravestone-like slabs nearby commemorate the births of three children of Sir Stephen’s successor, Sir Walter Aitchison, in 1923, 1925 and 1927. Nearby is another standing stone bearing the words “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills”.


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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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