Monday, 27 September 2010

Nelson’s Forgotten Memorials (NU165028 & NU174029)

Yes, plural. For there are two of them, within yards of each other, in fact, just off the A1 near Swarland in Northumberland. But they take some finding, though.

Swarland Hall is one of the county’s lost houses, having been demolished in 1947. At the time of Lord Nelson’s pomp it was owned by one Alexander Davison, businessman and close personal friend of our great national hero – as well as being his agent for a short period. After the famous British victory at the Battle of the Nile in 1798, Davison redesigned his park at Swarland to reflect, in shape, that of the scene of the battle (Aboukir Bay), and planted it with trees to represent the British fleet in battle order. Not much of this creation remains today, but it is (very) faintly discernable on Google Earth.

Also, after the Battle of Trafalgar (and Nelson’s death), Davison erected a dwarf obelisk beside the old A1 (the modern road runs a little to the east) in honour of his friend. Now known as the Nelson Memorial, it is largely hidden behind a curtain of trees just off the old trunk road, though still accessible to the determined tourist.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Coquet Island (NU294045)

This small island, one mile east of Amble off the Northumberland coast, has an eventful history for such a tiny wee place. It is now an RSPB reserve, of course, and a well-protected one at that, with no members of the general public permitted to land on its rocky shores. Even the lighthouse is now fully automated.
Not that it has ever been ‘populated’ to any great extent, you understand; hermits are those most closely associated with its barren 15 acres or so. St.Cuthbert spent a little time there, famously granting an interview to Elfed, Abbess of Whitby and sister of King Ecgfrith, during which he was effectively offered the bishopric of Lindisfarne. But the island is most closely tied to the solitary life of one St.Henry of Coquet.
Henry came to Coquet Island in the early 12th century, having been guided by a vision to make good his escape from an arranged marriage in his native Denmark and dedicate his life to a one in lonely praise of God. After a quick word with the powers-that-be at Tynemouth Priory, he ensconced himself on the rocky outpost and set about his calling. He lived a severely austere existence, surviving on only three small meals a week and gave up speaking for several years. His extreme mode of living brought much criticism from the monk formally in charge of the island – a manifestation of his envy, presumably, due to what can only be described as the ‘high standards’ of his vows of poverty – and cries aplenty from his relatives back in Denmark to return to the bosom of his family and a hermitage much nearer to home. Being afflicted by a “loathsome affection” to his knee, however, he insisted upon staying put.
He was credited with ‘second sight’, of course, as most of his type were. He saw lots of things others couldn’t, made premonitions, magicked up miracles, and was considered something of a wiseman. You know, the usual sort of thing. In early 1127, though, his ulcerated knee finally sent him on his way to the other side, with his remains being buried at Tynemouth Priory.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Amble’s Footie Legend (NU268045)

Well, if you’re a Burnley fan, anyway. The chap in question being one John Angus, a ‘one-club man’ who spent his entire professional career playing for ‘The Clarets’.

Angus was born in Amble on 2nd September 1938, and was plucked out of local schoolboy football by the Lancashire outfit in 1954. A year later, on his 17th birthday, he signed his professional papers. He took some months to settle, but the day after his 18th birthday he made his first-team debut for Burnley against Everton, performing well in a 2-1 victory. He was in and out of the team for a couple of seasons; but on the arrival of new manager, Harry Potts, Angus became a regular at right-back. And there he stayed for the rest of his career.

‘Cool John Angus’ was one of the key pieces in the Burnley jigsaw which saw them win the Football League Championship in 1960. He was known for his calm and collected style of play, usually carrying the ball out of defence rather than ‘hoofing it up the park’, as was so often the norm in those days. He was rewarded with international honours at Youth and Under-23 levels; and won a single full cap for England – in a 3-1 defeat against Austria in 1961 – when he was, ironically, played out of position at left-back. With the likes of Jimmy Armfield and George Cohen ahead of him in the queue for the right-back spot, Angus never played for his country again – though England manager, Walter Winterbottom, described his performance as one of the best debuts he had ever seen.

He hung onto the No.2 shirt at Burnley through until the club's relegation from the top division in 1971, played two matches in Division 2 the following season, then retired due to injury. He played a total of 521 games for his beloved club.

Last I heard, John Angus was living in contented retirement in Warkworth.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Warkworth Hermitage (NU241059)

One of the most famous – and curious – of beauty spots in the whole of the North-East is the hermitage hewn into the sandstone bank of the River Coquet near Warkworth. This fascinating corner of the region is accessible only by boat, following a short walk westwards along the river from the castle.

Ascending a short flight of stone steps brings the visitor to the spot in question, amounting to a chapel (complete with ribbed vaulting and an altar), a sacristy and a couple of small rooms presumed to be the hermit’s old living quarters. A quick image search of the internet will bring adequate results for the curious reader, and far more information than I could by way of written description. Either way, one may wonder just how this place came to be. The answer, naturally, lies in legend. Or so we are encouraged to believe.

Sir Bertram of Bothal, one of the Earl Percy’s knights, was betrothed to Lady Isabel, the daughter of a local noble. Wounded in battle, he sent for Isabel, but was dismayed when she failed to show. When he had recovered, he made for her home, only to find that she had set off to meet him upon his original call – so must have been kidnapped. Sir Bertram and his brother then set off in different directions to search for her, and eventually the former tracked her down to her place of captivity – a tower in a remote castle. During a night-time vigil, Bertram spotted a shadowy figure helping his betrothed from her tower and down a ladder. He drew his sword and leapt to her defence, unaware that the other man was his brother. Isabel threw herself between the men in an attempt to prevent the clash, and the sword swept through them both, killing them instantly.

Wracked with guilt, Bertram returned to his Warkworth home and gave all his property and land away to the poor. He built the Hermitage with his bare hands, and there he lived in solitude for the rest of his days in self-imposed penance. Over the doorway he carved an inscription, which, translated, reads: “My tears have been my meat night and day”. The original hermitage was greatly added to by subsequent occupiers over the centuries.

It is now thought that the tale was compiled by a chancing bishop who wanted to be accepted by the Percy family as one of their own. He failed in his aim, though his yarn has survived through to the present. In all truth, the place was more likely built as a simple chantry in the fifteenth century, and was known to have been occupied by a series of clergymen in the decades leading up to the Reformation. But that’s just plain boring.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Saturday 13th July 1174: Bad News Day (NU247062)

During the eighteen month period from April 1173 to September 1174, King Henry II of England, Normandy and Anjou, spent most of his time fending off a revolt from his wife and three of their sons. And all of this at a time when he was in most people’s bad books after the murder of Thomas Becket in 1170. But he came through it all successfully, continuing his rule until his death in 1189.

The north of England suffered a fair bit during this period of upheaval, with the rebels’ alliance with both the Scots and Bishop Pudsey (the most powerful of Durham’s Prince Bishops) bringing a good deal of hassle the way of the local populace. And one day in particular stands out: Saturday 13th July 1174.

Now I’m not sure of the exact order of events on that fateful day, but as for Bishop Pudsey, well, he must have awoken that morning thinking that his plan was coming together very nicely. For that day, forty knights and 500 Flemish soldiers sailed into Hartlepool to support the rebellion, and were placed under the command of the bishop’s nephew, Hugh, Count of Bar.

Elsewhere, and at the very same time, the Scots were busy rampaging around the Northumberland countryside, as they were prone to do. And this summer Saturday morning it was the turn of Warkworth to suffer, as the ravishing hordes descended on the town. Duncan, Earl of Fife, under orders from the Scottish king, William the Lion, unleashed the full force of his army upon the hapless men, women and children of Warkworth, setting the streets ablaze. Amidst the chaos, 300 of them took refuge in the Church of St.Lawrence – but the Earl’s men broke in and butchered them all, paying no regard to age or sex.

St.Lawrence’s Church, Warkworth

But the day was not yet over. The Scottish king, William the Lion, was keen to commence his siege of Alnwick Castle before the day was out, and this he did with such enthusiasm that he ventured too close to the castle’s walls and was snatched and taken prisoner. The Scots were effectively beaten, and the rebellion thereafter crumbled. Bishop Pudsey’s Flemish mercenaries quickly turned on their heels and scarpered home, and the rebel cleric made a hasty peace with Henry II.
Astonishingly, King Henry had only just visited Canterbury the day before (12th July) to do penance for his involvement in the death of Thomas Becket in December 1170….


Friday, 10 September 2010

Alnmouth’s Wind of Change (NU247100)

The wind in question being the storm of Christmas Day 1806 – the defining moment in the history of this Northumbrian village. If most of the history books are to be believed, that is. But was it?

Many of you will be familiar with the tale. Until the fateful day a little over two centuries ago, Alnmouth was doing very nicely, thank you. It had made a good living from its spot at the estuary of the River Aln: an ample harbour offering shelter to sizeable vessels from Scotland, London and continental Europe, and plentiful trade besides. Plenty of stuff came in, but it was the export of local agricultural produce (wool and grain, mainly) and coal which kept the locals busy. At one time there were sixteen granaries on and around the quayside and room enough for more than a dozen ships at a time in the harbour. And, of course, there were the fishing boats, too. During the 1700s, the port was at its peak.

Then on Christmas Day 1806 came the wind and the rain, an act of God powerful enough to change the course of the river from its southern course around the village’s dilapidated old church to a more northerly one, separating the ruin from its flock – and pretty much destroying what was left of it, to boot.

Afterwards, Alnmouth’s fortunes slowly declined. And the change in luck was blamed on the river. It seemed as if the ships couldn’t navigate the river’s new course quite as easily and trade fell away. That’s what tradition would have us believe, anyway. The fact is, the records show that shipping ‘trends’ didn’t really change at all pre- and post-1806. The river was beginning to silk up anyway, and as ships were simply getting bigger and heavier, the Aln’s days may have been numbered regardless of the weather. Shipping activity to and from the port did not begin to seriously decline until the mid-1800s, a development accelerated by the arrival of the East Coast rail line around the same time. In 1896 the final sea-bound imports arrived – and then, nothing.

The railway, thought to have signalled the end of Alnmouth’s heyday, launched, in fact, a new era in the village’s history. For the rich Victorians discovered the town, and turned it into a fashionable holiday resort. The old granaries were turned into accommodation, the main thoroughfare (Northumberland Street) was developed and Alnmouth found a new niche in the modern world.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Tales from Two Pubs

In Narrowgate, Alnwick, sits a whitewashed public house called Ye Olde Cross (NU185134). You can’t miss it. And when you find it, take a look in the shallow bay window to the right of the entrance, and you will find a curious little display of glassware together with a note which reads:-

These bottles have been here for over 150 years.  Whilst putting them here the man collapsed and died.  It was said that if anyone tried to move them they would share the same fate.  They have never been touched since.
The man in question was the pub’s landlord, who is supposed to have cursed the bottles as he endured his death throes. It was his widow who issued the fateful warning – ignored, apparently, by some poor unfortunate several years later, who similarly perished.

The display has lain untouched since and is covered in cobwebs, giving the pub its local nickname of ‘Dirty Bottles’.

Not too far away, on Northumberland Street, Alnmouth, can be found The Schooner Hotel (NU247104), the “most haunted hotel in Great Britain.” The title, twice bestowed by the esteemed Poltergeist Society, has stuck, naturally, if for no other reason than to attract a bit of attention from passing tourists.

However, we are assured that the place has been “thoroughly investigated”, and is “listed on record as having over 60 individual ghosts”. There are many tales of accidental death, suicide, and even mass murder surrounding the hotel – though solid evidence is sadly lacking. Living TV’s Most Haunted called in in 2003, after which it was given a most favourable rating. Room 28 is the spookiest, they say, the setting of the mass murder of a French family by a gypsy for their belongings three centuries ago.

The Schooner’s reputation hasn’t deterred the famous from staying over. Charles Dickens, Douglas Bader, and King George III have all spent the night there – as well as John Wesley, who was aware of the village’s reputation for “wickedness”, though this was probably a reference to its smuggling history more than anything else.

So if you ever have the chance of staying there, well, remember, Room 28 is the one you should insist on.

Friday, 3 September 2010

Alnwick Castle: The Star of the Show (NU188137)

We’ve all wondered, haven’t we? Every time it pops up in another film – Alnwick Castle, that is. I mean, just how many films has this place featured in over the years? Well, I don’t think anyone really knows for sure, but here’s the best I can come up with. I make it fifteen…

1954 Prince Valiant
1964 Becket
1971 Mary, Queen of Scots
1977 Count Dracula
1979 The Spaceman and King Arthur
1982 Ivanhoe
1983 Robin Hood and the Sorcerer
1991 Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
1998 Monk Dawson
1998 Elizabeth
1998 A Knight in Camelot
2001 Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone
2002 Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
2009 Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
2010 Robin Hood

Some of these are, I admit, TV movies, but they still count as feature-length efforts. And in addition to the above, there have been more than twenty TV programmes or series filmed at the old place – among them, The Black Adder, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Robin of Sherwood, The Glass Virgin and Ivanhoe (the series); as well as the odd short film.

I’d be interested to know if anyone can add any more.

In Demand: Alnwick Castle