Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Haltwhistle Uncertainties

Quite apart from the misconception about the derivation of its place-name (no, it has nothing to do with trains, stations and whistles), the town of Haltwhistle has several historical and geographical ambiguities which have yet to be put to bed. Here are a few of them:

(1) The locals claim with absolute certainty that their little town is located at the geographical centre of Great Britain. The thing is, it depends on what method of calculation you use to work out such things; and, because of this, several locations across the land make the same claim. It’s complicated, but Haltwhistle’s case is based on the fact that it is on the midpoint of the longest north–south meridian running the length of the country and is also approximately at the midpoint of each of the lines through it across Great Britain along the 16 main compass directions. The claim is in some ways ‘stretching it’ a bit, but in others really quite convincing – the Wikipedia entry here may be of some interest to those of you keen to take the matter further.

(2) The parish church of Holy Cross, Haltwhistle (NY708640), contains an ancient relic known as the ‘old water stoup’. It is a roughly-shaped stone bowl on a stone column and is distinctly unimpressive, if the truth be known. The great Christian missionary, Paulinus – who is known to have been in Northumbria during 625-32AD doing his thing – is said to have used the stoup as a font for baptismal purposes. Possibly. As for its origins, the old font/stoup may well have begun life as a Roman altar. Possibly.
© Copyright Mike Quinn and licensed for reuse 

(3) There is an old disused railway viaduct to the south of Haltwhistle called Alston Arches (NY709638). It spans the River South Tyne before the line it used to carry curled away towards Alston to the south. It is a remarkable and quite beautiful survival, but is especially notable for the conspicuous archways it has running through each of its supporting piers. No one quite knows why they are there. It was once assumed that there was a plan to drive a footway/bridge through the gaps for pedestrian use, which is a lovely (and surely unique) concept; but it is more likely that they were built into the bridge’s construction to lighten the structure’s weight, which is built on timber piles. How boring.
© Copyright Mike Quinn and licensed for reuse 

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

The Hoard that Helped Date the Roman Wall (NY782666)

If you’ve read one of those old histories of the region you may have come across mention of the Roman Wall as Severus’ Wall, rather than that of Emperor Hadrian. The process of change of the origin of the famous structure from the former (c.200AD) to that of the latter (c.120AD) was a gradual, 19th century evolution; and one of the clinching pieces of evidence in favour of Hadrian was the discovery of the Thorngrafton Hoard, which originally saw the light of day in 1837.

The treasure in question was found by a group of workmen who were re-working an old Roman quarry on Barcombe Hill a mile south of the Wall near Bardon Mill (they were mining stone for the construction of the Newcastle-Carlisle railway). The hoard consisted of a bronze arm-purse packed full of coins lodged in a cleft in the rock – seemingly left there by an absent-minded labourer during the Wall’s construction. The majority of the 63 coins were silver, but three were gold. One of the men, Thomas Pattison, was entrusted by the gang with the profitable dispersal of the goods as best he could by hawking them around local markets and pubs.

The Thorngrafton arm-purse 
(from The Monthly Chronicle of North-Country 
Lore & Legend, Nov.1888)

Though he couldn’t quickly move them on, interest in the find did gradually grow – and with it Pattison’s own self-evaluation of the items. The collection was properly scrutinised by ever more expert eyes, until, inevitably, the agents of the Duke of Northumberland tried to enforce the law of treasure trove. To cut a long story short, Pattison then embarked on a prolonged period of cat-and-mouse with the authorities, who, despite obtaining a court order in favour of the Duke, were unable to secure either the coins or Pattison himself, who scarpered to Wales.

The coins had, in fact, been left with Pattison’s brother, William, before his escape south. But the law soon caught up with Thomas and he spent a year in jail in Denbighshire as a debtor (to the extent of the value of the coins, being £18). Returning home a broken man, he lodged with his brother until his early death – after which his sibling continued to guard the hoard against all interested parties. Eventually, though, William gave in, and the hoard was, in 1858, purchased from him by the famous antiquarian, John Clayton of Chesters – who, in turn, was able to obtain the permission of the Duke of Northumberland to retain the treasure.

But what of the coins’ link to the dating of the Wall? Well, it all boiled down to the dates of the coins themselves. Being found in so close a proximity to the Wall, and in a quarry known to have been used for the Wall’s construction, their original ‘loss’ could without doubt be dated to the era in which the great monument was raised. The 63 coins bore the heads of several Roman emperors from Claudius through to Hadrian, but nothing beyond the latter’s reign. Moreover, the Hadrianic coins were in mint condition, and few in number … thus placing their loss – and, therefore, the Wall’s construction – to c.120AD.

Despite the happy ending to the story, the coins were mysteriously lost after the sale of the Clayton estates in 1929, with only drawings made from sealing-wax impressions of them surviving. However, the bronze receptacle in which they were found can still be seen in the museum housing old John Clayton’s collection at Chesters Roman Fort.

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

The Wooing of Mrs Walter Scott (NY639679)

To a Lady, with Flowers from a Roman Wall
By Sir Walter Scott

Take these flowers which, purple waving,
On the ruin’d rampart grew,
Where, the sons of freedom braving
Rome's imperial standards flew.

Warriors from the breach of danger
Pluck no longer laurels there;
They but yield the passing stranger
Wild-flower wreaths for Beauty’s hair.

Astride the Northumberland-Cumbria border, where the River Irthing swings down from the north before turning westward, can be found the little town of Gilsland (on the Northumberland side) and Gilsland Spa (on the Cumbrian). Opposite the latter, across the little valley, can be found Wardrew House, now a private residence but once a hotel. During 1797, the famous Scottish novelist and poet, Sir Walter Scott, stayed there for a three month break whilst taking the waters of the nearby spa.

Wardrew House
© Copyright Karl and Ali and licensed for reuse 

Inspired by the flora of the district, Scott composed the above piece – his efforts fuelled, too, no doubt by the whirlwind romance he enjoyed during his stay in the area with his future wife, Charlotte Genevieve Charpentier (or Carpenter). Miss Carpenter, an √©migr√© from the French Revolution, was at the same time staying at The Shaws Hotel (which formerly stood on the site of the Gilsland Spa Hotel over the river from Wardrew), and Scott supposedly proposed to the young woman at the famous ‘Popping Stone’ a little upstream from their respective hotels. They were married in December 1797 in Carlisle.

Coincidentally, Scott’s compatriot, Robert Burns, also stayed at Wardrew House a decade before, in 1787. The house was originally built in 1752, but was much modified after a period of dilapidation in the 19th century.

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Great Chesters Roman Aqueduct (NY741688 to NY703668)

One of the neatest feats of Roman engineering in the region is one of the least known. It is the 9.5km line of the Roman aqueduct leading into the old fort of Great Chesters from the NE, a little to the north of Haltwhistle.

Only very faint traces of it remain today, but the logistics of the little water supply project are impressive. Basically, when Great Chesters fort was built on the Wall it didn’t have a nearby water supply, so it had to be piped in from the Caw Burn, about 4km to the NE (more specifically, Saughy Rigg Washpool near Fond Tom’s Pool). However, as the engineers had to rely purely on gravity, the path of the aqueduct took a long and curling route through a 9km+ course to pick up every tiny inch of downhill along the way.

The result was a remarkable bendy, twisting affair taking the channel on a constantly downward trajectory at the almost unbelievably gentle gradient of about 1m drop for every 1,000m travelled. And, once more, the flow of water was eased along a simple, unlined water-course about ½ m wide by ¼ m deep, with the occasional small wooden bridge inserted to take it over minor valleys and streams.

The course of the aqueduct is clearly shown on modern-day OS maps (there’s a decent representation here – and scroll down a bit), though it is not so easy to pick out on the ground. Partial earthworks survive, and in other places cropmarks provide the circumstantial evidence.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

The Busy Gap Rogues (NY799697)

In a dip in the course of Hadrian’s Wall between Housesteads to the west and Sewingshields Crags to the east lies a tract of land known as ‘Busy Gap’. It may well refer in the present-day sense to the many thousands of walkers who pass this way every year. But, in fact, the term has a much more sinister connotation: for it was the common descriptive name for a thoroughfare of those of ill-repute – and a place to be very much avoided by those of a more peaceable nature. 

Geographically, of course, the little col, or pass, provided an easy means of passage through an otherwise awkward zone. For centuries after the Romans left, the line of their wall provided nuisance value to the general traveller, and, in time, ways, paths and drove roads wore their way through the easy bits in the landscape. And, by the medieval era, the patch of low-lying ground to the east of Broomlee Lough became rather well-trod.

Such spots attracted all sorts of attention, though, both good and bad. And so it was that during the days of the Border Reivers (16th & 17th centuries), this route through the wall became a way by which ne’er-do-wells and the like could easily come and go on their evil ways. Such was the severity of the problem that a new catchphrase came into use across the region: the ‘Busy Gap Rogues’. Even as far as Newcastle – and well into the 18th century – the expression was a by-word for anyone who was suspected of being up to no good, and a downright term of abuse for those who lived out in the sticks. Even the famous traveller, William Camden, writing in his Britannia (1599), dared not visit the troublesome place on account of the “rank robbers” thereabouts.

From the mid-17th century an extended family of Armstrongs is known to have lived at what remained of Housesteads fort and the immediate vicinity. The area around the ‘gap’ became the headquarters for protection rackets and unruly horse thieves whose grasping fingers extended as far north as Perth and south into Yorkshire. There are remains in the landscape of Busy Gap today of old stock enclosures and the like, no doubt used by the Armstrongs during the course of their nefarious dealings.

Around the turn of the 18th century things began to change, and the area around Busy Gap – Roman remains and all – sank softly back into tranquillity. Eventually, of course, society came to appreciate the area for what it once was under the Romans and preservation, tourism and leisure became the order of the day. Gone are the rogues … and here instead roam the ramblers.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

King Arthur and Hadrian’s Wall (NY805704 & thereabouts)

Around the stretch of Hadrian’s Wall known as Sewingshields, near Housesteads, are a few hundred square yards of Northumbrian countryside with strong links to Arthurian legend. It all concerns King Arthur and his court in an enchanted subterranean sleep, and, well, I’ll let John S.Stuart Glennie explain. This is taken from his Arthurian Localities tome of 1869:

… Turning now westward, and passing through the picturesquely-situated old town of Hexham, with its Moot Hall and Abbey Church, on a wooded ridge over-hanging the Tyne, we stop either at the Haydon Bridge, or the Bardon Mill station of the Carlisle and Newcastle Railway. For six or eight miles to the north of these stations, and in the neighbourhood of Housesteads, the most complete of the stations on the Roman Wall, are the principal Arthurian localities of this Northumbrian District. The scenery here is very remarkable. The green, but unwooded grazing hills – wide and wild-looking from their want of enclosures, and the infrequency of farm-houses – seem like the vast billows of a north-sweeping tide. Along one of these wave-lines runs the Roman Wall, with the stations of its garrison. In the trough, as it were, of this mighty sea, and to the north of the Wall, were, till a few years ago removed and ploughed over, the ruins of the ancient castle of Sewing Shields, referred to by Sir Walter Scott as the Castle of the Seven Shields, and by Camden as Seavenshale. Beneath it, as under the Eildons, Arthur and all his court are said to lie in an enchanted sleep. And here also tradition avers that the passage to these Subterranean Halls, having once on a time, been found, but the wrong choice having been made in the attempt to achieve the adventure, and call the Chivalry of the Table Rounde to life again, the unfortunate adventurer was cast forth with these ominous words ringing in his ears: 
O woe betide that evil day
On which this witless wight was born, 
Who drew the Sword, the Garter cut, 
But never blew the Bugle-horn.
the very opposite mistake, it will be observed, to that of which the equally luckless Eildon adventurer was guilty. 
The northern faces of three successive billows here, if I may so call them, present fine precipitous crags – whinstone and sandstone strata cropping out. These are called respectively Sewing Shields Crags, the King’s, and the Queen’s Crags. Along the crest of the first of these the Roman Wall is carried. The others take their name from having been the scene of a little domestic quarrel, or tiff, between King Arthur and Queen Quenivere [sic]. To settle the matter, the king sitting on a rock called Arthur’s Chair, threw at the queen an immense boulder which, falling somewhat short of its aim, is still to be seen on this side of the Queen’s Crags. And on the horizon of the immense sheep farm of Sewing Shields, and beyond an outlying shepherd’s hut, very appropriately named Coldknuckles, is a great stone called Cumming’s Cross, to which there is attached another rude Arthurian tradition. For here, they say, that King Arthur’s sons attacked, and murdered a northern chieftain who had been visiting their father at Sewing Shields Castle, and who was going home with too substantial proofs, as they thought, of the king’s generosity.

As mentioned in the text, Sewing Shields Castle no longer exists, having been expunged from the landscape in the mid-nineteenth century (it lay somewhere to the north of the Wall near Sewing Shields Farm). The legend of a slumbering royal court, and the failure of a visiting stranger to rouse them, is a common yarn – the author mentions a similar tale from the Eildon Hills, and there is another associated with Dunstanburgh Castle. As for Cumming’s Cross, this was the memorial supposedly placed by Arthur after he heard of the murder of his visiting dignitary, named Cumming or Comyn. And then, unmentioned above, there’s nearby Broomlea Lough, a watery expanse said to be the lair of the Lady of the Lake and the site of a great hidden treasure.

So, you see, you needn’t look any further than the North-East of England for a perfectly viable setting for all that King Arthur stuff.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

The Long Drop Netty (NY800769)

© Copyright Mike Quinn and licensed for reuse 

If you’ve ever seen one of those old castle toilets known as garderobes on a visit to one of our National Trust properties, you will know exactly what is going on at the Long Drop Netty near Stonehaugh on the edge of Wark Forest. Garderobes, you see, were castle privies which incorporated an external ‘drop’ of some several metres which deposited human waste into the castle moat. And at old Low Roses Bower a little to the east of Stonehaugh can be found just such a contraption – minus the castle, of course.

The Long Drop Netty was essentially the outdoor loo of Low Roses Bower (a bower being a sort of secluded country cottage) – which, I think, also serviced the nearby and more modern Roses Bower farmstead. Its operational details barely need describing – the little room sitting on an overhang above the Warks Burn. All very hygienic, I suppose, if a little draughty. It is believed to be the longest drop of its kind in England and dates back to the 18th century. Low Roses Bower itself may originally have been a 15th/16th century bastle, but it came to be associated with one Rosamund Dodd, who is supposed to have used the spot as a romantic hideaway for her and her lover. Amazingly, the netty itself was in use into the 1950s.

Curiously, though Low Roses Bower is no longer in use and in ruins, the Long Drop Netty itself has recently been lovingly restored.  Additionally, and fittingly, the toiletry outpourings stand opposite a geological feature shown on OS maps as ‘Windy Edge’. Brilliant.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

The Robinson Memorial (c.NY675815)

(with kind permission of Norman E Haighton/Northumbria Biker)

To the memory of
Roy Lister Robinson OBE
Baron Robinson of Kielder Forest and Adelaide
A member of the Forestry Commission from its
inception in 1919 and its chairman from 1932-1952
Born 8th March 1883 died 5th September 1952
His ashes are scattered in this forest which owes
its existence to his creative energy and vision

The Robinson Memorial stands in a fire break in a remote spot within Kielder Forest, about 3 miles south of Kielder Water. It is a fitting tribute to the life and works of Lord Robinson (otherwise known as Sir Roy Robinson), who, though born in South Australia in 1883, spent a sizeable chunk of his existence dedicated to the forestation of Britain.

Arriving in England in 1905, he followed an academic course which led him, eventually, to become the guiding light of the formation of the Forestry Commission in 1919. He spent the last 20 years of his life as its chairman, leading the charge for an extensive government plantation programme and the establishment of our National Forest Parks. He was handed an O.B.E. in 1918, knighted in 1931 and raised to the peerage in 1947.

He seems to have had a special attachment to Kielder Forest, and even returned there in 1948 to fell the first tree! He also spearheaded similar campaigns throughout the Commonwealth, and even died abroad whilst leading a delegation to Canada in 1952. The following year his ashes were scattered in Kielder Forest, and the Robinson Memorial cairn now marks the spot.

More info on this seldom-visited landmark can be found here and here.

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Kielder Water & Forest (reservoir centre at NY686876)

Kielder Water:
  • Sits astride the River North Tyne in NW Northumberland;
  • Planned in the 1960s and constructed 1975-81 at a cost of £167million;
  • Opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1982, and took a further two years to fill;
  • Largest man-made lake in the UK (by capacity of water – some 200 billion litres, or 44 billion gallons), being about seven miles long and 170ft at its deepest point;
  • Shoreline of more than 27 miles;
  • Site of England’s largest hydro-electric plant;
  • Water supply feeds the River Tyne and Tyneside, with connections to the Wear, Derwent and Tees, too, ensuring plentiful supply to the whole of North-East whatever the climate;
  • 250,000+ visitors per annum for leisure purposes;
  • The Kielder Marathon, organised by Steve Cram, runs around the reservoir’s circumference.

Kielder Forest:
  • The largest man-made woodland in England (250 square miles);
  • Planting begun by the Forestry Commission in the 1920s;
  • Approximately half a million cubic metres of timber are felled each year for a variety of uses – to be replaced by three and a half million new trees;
  • The conifer, Sitka Spruce, covers 75% of the planted area;
  • The forest’s boundary also contains England’s largest area of blanket bog;
  • Red squirrel and many birds of prey thrive in the forest, including osprey – and lynx may be released there soon.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Bell’s Chapel (NY613950)

© Copyright Andrew Curtis and licensed for 

Two miles NW of Kielder, where Bells Burn drops into the River North Tyne, lies the site of an enigmatic former religious site known as Bell’s Chapel, or Bell’s Kirk. It is very near to a curious twist in the Anglo-Scottish border – an area once deemed to be ‘in dispute’ and undoubtedly considered to be part of Scotland for various periods in its history.

For centuries the spot has been labelled ‘Bell’s Chapel (site of)’, for it is now long gone. First mentioned in the 16th century, it was believed to have occupied the spot of an old pagan shrine of some sort. A writer in 1828 described that “every vestige of it has long since been obliterated, except some graves”, and all that remains today is what may (or may not) be the old font – pictured above.

Nearby is an abandoned settlement (believed to have been called Bell, Bells or Bell’s House); and the spot was an important meeting place in the days of the Border Reivers.

Other than that, nothing else seems to be known about the old place…

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Catcleugh Reservoir and Byrness Church (NT735034 & NT771023)

Catcleugh Reservoir sits in the upper reaches of Redesdale a few miles short of the Scottish Border. It is now dwarfed by its much larger and newer neighbour, Kielder Reservoir, but at the time of its construction during 1884-1905 it was a truly major concern.

It was built for the Newcastle and Gateshead Water Company in order to feed the growing and ever-thirsty Tyneside conurbation – a series of tunnels, aqueducts and other reservoirs taking the water thus accumulated the 30-odd miles to its destination to the SE.

The River Rede feeds the sizeable body of water, but such is the remoteness of the spot in question that labour and machinery had to be brought in from far and wide to complete the mammoth task. As a consequence of this, two hutted communities grew up in the shadow of the construction site, and were christened ‘Newcastle’ and ‘Gateshead’ for obvious reasons.

A total of 40-odd huts straddled the two semi-permanent townships, housing more than 700 folk – workers, their spouses and their children. It was a tight-knit, rag-tag collection of individuals, who, nevertheless, maintained all the very basic social necessities of a village-like existence. It must have been tough, but there were dances, sports, drinking and gambling to be enjoyed, too … much of it quite illegal!

Today a single workers’ hut remains, which houses an exhibition of the history of the reservoir and its little community of yore. But, most poignantly, in nearby Byrness Church (said to be the smallest in Northumberland) can be found a commemorative plaque and splendid stained glass window – the former listing the names of the 60+ individuals who died during the construction work, and the latter featuring images of the workers themselves. It was all paid for by the community itself, the window being unique in Britain in terms of its subject matter.

An image of the church window can be found here. More info on the extraordinary Catcleugh scheme can also be found here.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Raid of the Redeswire, Carter Bar (NT698068)

High in the Cheviots, where the A68 crosses the Anglo-Scottish border, lies the landmark spot known as Carter Bar. At this lonely venue those of the touristy persuasion stop their cars and take photographs of each other near the border stone as the flags of Scotland and Northumberland, respectively, whip furiously in the gale.

Carter Bar is known for one famous historical incident: the Raid of the Redeswire. Otherwise known as the Redeswire Fray, or simply the Battle of Carter Bar, the brief encounter took place on 7th July 1575 and is recognised as the last major clash between the kingdoms of England and Scotland. The truth is, though, that it was little more than a skirmish. It all came about following a routine meeting of border officials, after which things got a little bit out of hand and a modest amount of blood was spilt (well, by battlefield standards of the day).

The day’s events began when the English Warden of the Middle March, Sir John Forster, together with Sir George Heron (Keeper of Redesdale), and a few other nobles met their Scottish counterparts, Sir John Carmichael (deputy Keeper of Liddesdale and the representative of the Scottish Warden) and George Douglas (among others). There wasn’t really any ‘raid’ as such, as the get-together was a pre-arranged affair on a day of truce, during which the opposing sides would iron out any differences peaceably – it being the responsibility of the respective wardens to avert any angry exchanges. Both parties brought with them a small body of armed men for back-up – mainly pikemen and gunmen on the Scots side and bowmen on the English side. Englishman Sir John Forster had a reputation for double-dealing and there were live rivalries across both sides, so there was a certain amount of tension in the air.

During a dispute about an English freebooter called Farnstein insults were traded between hothead Forster and the Scot Carmichael. The English bowmen got twitchy and let a few arrows fly, then all hell broke loose. The Scots were outnumbered but during the short fracas got the better of things – helped, it is rumoured, by the timely arrival of reinforcements from Jedburgh. Casualties on both sides were modest (George Heron and his brother were killed), but the victorious Scots took home with them several ‘prisoners of war’ – including the cad Forster – though they were all subsequently released without harm.

Within a few years, of course, the Crowns of the two kingdoms were united and all such incidents were cast into history. Well, until Wembley 1977, that is.

Note: Ten years later, in July 1585, there was actually another truce day ‘fray’ which took place at Windy Gyle, a border spot several miles NE of Carter Bar (NT855152). As far as I can tell, only the one fatality was suffered as a result of an unruly Scottish charge: that of Englishman Lord Francis Russell – though there was a rumour at the time that his demise was a ‘put up job’ to incriminate the opposition. Either way, it must be assumed that a single death did not qualify this as a ‘proper’ battle between the two nations! A cairn bearing his name lies near the blustery spot in question.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Kidlandlee: the Highest Mansion in England (NT911099)

Kidlandlee is now a sprinkling of old outbuildings high in the Northumberland moors 3 miles north of Alwinton – some of them having been redeveloped, others are in the process of being brought back to life. But the substantial, and now long-gone, building you see above was once the centre-point of the remote estate. It was known simply as Kidland, or Kidlandlee, and, though it looks like a mansion, it was, in fact, merely a shooting lodge.

In its Edwardian heyday, Kidlandlee was the highest ‘mansion’ in England at almost 1,300ft. It was constructed in the 1890s by Christopher J.Leyland, whose prime residence was Haggerston Castle a little south of Berwick. Leyland was an inveterate builder of big things and lavished his wealth on both his main home and this incredible recreational lodge in the foothills of the Cheviots. Some say that the construction of the lofty lodge was the result of a bet to build the highest mansion in the land!

Having bought the plot from the Hon F.W.Lambton, he set about building his little summer house – which ultimately was to consist of two halls, dining room, drawing room, smoking room, 13 bedrooms and 6 bathrooms. Externally, there were several outbuildings together with a man-made lake and a croquet lawn.

After Leyland’s passing in the mid-1920s, his son, hampered by crippling death duties, sold off much of his father’s estate, including the Kidlandlee mansion. It fell into the hands of the Lee family, but by 1950 it had become unmanageable and the decision was taken to demolish it. It was spectacularly destroyed in 1956 by explosives, leaving a few outbuildings intact. Around the same time planting began of the surrounding Kidland Forest, which now gives the spot an even remoter feel, it still only being accessible by forest tracks.

Note: Leyland made a name for himself as the man behind the Leylandii tree (see here), and also as the captain of the pioneering steam turbine, Turbinia.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

The Drake Stone (NT920043)

© Copyright Andrew Curtis and licensed for 

Less than a mile to the west of Harbottle a stone’s throw from the River Coquet, lies what is said to be the largest boulder in Northumberland. This huge object weighs in at an estimated 2,000 tons and stands 30ft in height. It has for centuries been known as The Drake Stone, though no one seems to quite know why!

The sandstone giant bears scars (striations) of the last ice age, though it is referred to as an ‘erratic rock’, which means that it was carried to and dumped at its current location by a glacier. As you can imagine, it is visible for miles around from several angles. You will not be surprised to learn that in times gone by the stone was thought to have special powers, children being passed over the boulder to cure ailments. It has vague Druidic links, too (some sources give the name in this context as the Draag Stone). Additionally, there are many tales of young chaps seeking to prove their manliness by scaling the mini mountain – only to find that, in fact, the descent is a good deal harder than the ascent!

The name ‘Drake Stone’ has puzzled historians for years. I can do little to add to the debate. For one thing, it seems unlikely to have anything to do with male ducks; though it is, perhaps, worth noting that the word ‘drake’ comes from the Latin draco, meaning ‘dragon’ (it may, I suppose, look like a fire-breathing monster with the sun setting behind it!). A recent theory suggests that the stone (in outline) bears a certain resemblance to an Elizabethan galleon – so it may be named after Queen Bess’s favourite seafarer, Sir Francis Drake.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Elsdon’s Horses’ Heads (NY936933)

© Copyright Mike Quinn and licensed for reuse 

In a cabinet in St.Cuthbert’s Church, Elsdon, can be found the skulls of three horses. The items were found in the building’s stump of a spire during restoration work in 1877 – in a specially made, sealed chamber – and no one has been able to satisfactorily explain the bizarre discovery.

It has been suggested that it may hark back to the ancient pagan ritual of sacrificing a horse, which was seen as a sanctifying action – perhaps originally during the construction of an early church on the spot. But as the church has been renovated several times over the centuries this would mean the survival of a very old tradition over a prolonged period. Elsdon, though, was a stopping off point for the body of St.Cuthbert on its wanderings in the late 9th century, so there may well be something in this story – namely, that the placing of the skulls was a sort of foundation sacrifice, which was then copied over the ages.

Horse’s skulls are surprisingly common finds in buildings of all sorts, not just churches, along with items such as shoes and dried cats. Reasons for such deposits are usually connected with fending off ill fortune or evil spirits. As for the placing of skulls in a bell tower or spire it could also be a sort of reinforcement of the original purpose of the church bells themselves, being to frighten away evil spirits. It has even been suggested that the skulls were placed where they were – directly over the bell – to enhance acoustics. So there does seem to be a sort of explanation for the Elsdon oddity…

Whatever the true story behind the horse skulls of Elsdon, we can be sure that their origins stretch back a long, long time.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Otterburn Mill’s Claim to Fame… x 2! (NY888928)

Though it is some time since Otterburn Mill was a working concern (it ceased operating in 1976), the establishment retains its fame here in the North-East as a popular tourist attraction. For the historically minded, though, it also has two rather neat claims to fame.

You’ve heard of the phrase ‘on tenterhooks’, haven’t you? Well, the idiom, which means to be in a state of suspense, comes from the textile industry. You see, after a piece of cloth had been woven it had to be washed and dried – and this was done by hanging it on a contraption called a tenter frame, which consisted of upper and lower bars studded with hooks. The lower bar was left loose – in a state of suspension – to stretch the cloth whilst it dried in order to prevent shrinkage. Hence the saying. And not only does Otterburn Mill have one of these old tenter frames, but it is actually the last surviving example of its kind in Europe. (Note: ‘tenter’ is from the Latin tendere, meaning ‘to stretch’).

Otterburn Mill’s most famous retail item these days is undoubtedly the Royal Pram Rug. It all started back in the days of Queen Elizabeth II’s grandmother, Queen Alexandra, who, when visiting the region, was presented with a hand-made travelling rug from Otterburn Mill. The royals seem to have then developed a love for the locally-produced textile goods, and in 1926 Buckingham Palace lodged an order with the mill for a pram rug for a very young Princess Elizabeth, our present queen. The resultant tweed affair was duly despatched to the royal household, with a further dozen or so sold to the public via Fenwick department store in Newcastle. You can still get present-day versions of the royal baby covering via the Otterburn Mill shop or website.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Padon Hill Monument (NY820928)

© Copyright Walter Baxter and licensed for 

Lying a few yards to the east of the Pennine Way about four miles west of Otterburn lies a large, neat stone cairn, or currick, known as Padon Hill Monument. It is a sizeable affair at around five metres high, which at first sight seems out of all proportion to the modest altitude of the peak it marks (379m).

On closer inspection you will see that it is more than just another hilltop cairn as is evidenced by the almost illegible plaque set into the stonework. And the strange thing about this landmark is that though it is a recent construction no one seems to know the full and proper story behind it.

The plaque bears the date 1903 or 1913 – though the latter is the more likely as it is supposed to have been erected in celebration of the 50th wedding anniversary of Sir Charles and Lady Morrison-Bell of Otterburn Hall (who were married in 1863). However, the cairn, meant ostensibly as a wedding anniversary marker stone for a couple of local notables, was also intended to honour the work of a prominent Presbyterian preacher called Alexander Padon. But, again, the history is all very sketchy, and we can only assume that this is the Alexander Peden who was active way back in the time of King Charles II. This seems to make sense as this chap was a very well-known Scottish covenanting minister at the time, and was so famous for his al fresco preaching in these parts that they named the hill after him (it was of course necessary to do this sort of thing in out-of-the-way places due to the laws of the day). Some sources say that there was once a chapel on the spot, which you can believe looking at the amount of loose stone lying around.

Peden (1626-1686) was an interesting chap who led an extraordinary life. Such was his infamy that he took to wearing a disguise to hide his identity from the authorities when on his preaching travels. It consisted of a cloth mask and wig, which you can check out at his Wikipedia entry.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Black Middens Bastle (NY773900)

© Copyright wfmillar and licensed for reuse 

Black Middens Bastle is one of the very best examples of its kind in the Borders region – and perhaps the most famous. Bastles were once all the rage in these parts due to the uncertain behaviour of one’s neighbours, it being necessary to construct a fortified farmhouse to protect both family and livestock from the infamous Border Reivers. The idea was that you could, given sufficient notice, stash your animals safely down at ground level with the humans occupying the upper floor. These substantial affairs were built by your slightly better-off farming families – those who had a bit of cash and ‘clout’ – and the even richer folk would have larger versions known as pele-towers. 

The example we have here at Black Middens lies on the north bank of the Tarset Burn, in the isolated depths of darkest Northumberland. It was originally constructed, it is thought, in the 16th century, with its one and only appearance in the historical records coming in 1583 when it was subjected to an attack by the Armstrong clan. Over the years it has been altered somewhat: the original door was blocked in, three more were cut and the external staircase added (originally, first floor access would have been via an internal ladder). A few yards away lies a ruinous 18th century cottage, itself built on the foundations of another bastle.

These days English Heritage maintains the site, which is open pretty much any reasonable time during daylight hours. The roof is no longer intact, but the structure is otherwise fairly complete – including a few internal features. Not surprising, really, as the building was used as a farmstead into the 20th century, with a slate roof still being in place as recently as 1970.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

St.Cuthbert’s Church, Bellingham (NY838832)

© Copyright wfmillar and licensed for reuse 

Bellingham, now a parish in its own right, was once an ancient chapelry of ‘The Great Parish’ of Simonburn (see here). It has therefore had its own place of worship, St.Cuthbert’s Church, for a very long time indeed, with roots going back to Dark Age Northumbria. And the old church is, for many reasons, a very interesting place…

(1) Firstly, of course, on account of its very name, the spot is supposed to have been one of the resting places for St. Cuthbert’s body and the fleeing monks of Lindisfarne in the 9th century;
(2) Secondly, there is the church’s strange construction. Possibly uniquely in England, Bellingham has a heavy vaulted stone roof. Externally, this is evidenced by the use of massive stone slabs as slates, and internally by a hefty barrel-like construction. It wasn’t always like this, though. For centuries it had a standard timber roof, but this was replaced with the present effort in the early 17th century when the locals tired of its repeated torching by those pesky Scots (see point 4 for one such instance);
(3) Then, in the churchyard, you will find an odd-shaped, pillow-like tombstone labelled ‘The Lang Pack.’ This is supposedly the final resting place of the victim of an infamous tale of Northumbrian folklore, when a man hiding in a ‘Lang (Long) Pack’ was killed by a manservant of nearby Lee Hall whilst trying to gain illegal entry to the same in 1723. No one quite knows what to make of either the story or the grave-marker;
(4) Next there is the display case inside the church containing cannon balls. The label tells us that they were found in the roof when the stone slabs were relaid in 1861 – and were probably launched into their location during the 1597 artillery raid by the Duke of Buccleuch.

Interesting place, then.

It would be remiss of me not to bring to your attention Northernvicar’sblog entry on the topic, which has a few more pictures for your visual consumption.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

The Wilds of Wannie (NY932833 & thereabouts)

On Tyneside, certainly, and quite possibly further afield, could once be heard the phrase ‘The Wilds of Wannie’ when referring to some remote situation or circumstance. It has been passed down through the centuries and the generations with increasingly little thought given to whence and where its roots lie. But ‘Wannie’ does exist, though it is hardly wild anymore.

In the lawless days of the border reivers and the moss troopers (c.1300-1600), the boundary between England and Scotland was not only prone to shift but the area in question was a place to generally avoid – or at least pass through very quickly. Some spots were so dangerous that they were essentially ‘out of bounds’ – and one especially dodgy tract of land centred on the very upper reaches of the River Wansbeck around Sweethope Loughs, east of the present-day A68 a few miles south of Elsdon. These were ‘The Wilds of Wannie’.

Essentially, the area is bleak, open moorland with outcrops of rock. Hereabouts, these days, you will find Great Wannie Crag, Little Wannie Crag and many more besides, peppered with the odd rock climber or two. The river’s name comes from here, of course, the Wansbeck being the ‘Wannie Beck’, and the spot represented the very edge of civilisation at one time to the folk of the North-East. Beyond lay danger and the unknown, wild men and lawlessness  … and, of course, Redesdale, one of the blackest spots in Britain for general mayhem and mischief.

With nearby A-roads skirting the moors and ramblers and climbers scrambling around, the wilds are not as forbidding as they once were – and even the good folk of Redesdale are not half as troublesome as they were half a millennium ago!