Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Hepburn Bastle (NU071249)

© Copyright Russel Wills and licensed for reuse 

You don’t have to meander through the history of Northumberland for very long before you stumble over the terms bastle, pele tower and fortified house. The raiding Scots and the fraught inter-family feuding saw to it that anyone who had anything worth stealing would do their best to keep out the wandering baddies with the construction of these stone-built strongholds.

Hepburn Bastle, though, is a curious affair. Situated at the southern end of Chillingham Park, it has defied accurate categorisation since its (probable) late 14th century creation. Described now as a ‘bastle’, it is more accurately a ‘fortified medieval tower house’. Though ‘tower’ is stretching it a bit, fortified it most certainly is. To complicate matters, buildings were added to it in the 16th and early 17th centuries – extensions which have since disappeared. Though it may have been built in the 1300s, it first appears in the records in 1509 as, simply, a ‘hold’, then pops up as a ‘tower’ in 1542, and by 1564 it is described as a ‘mansion house’.

Its dimensions are impressive. It measures 16.6m by 10.8m, is still three levels high despite being a ruin for an awfully long time and sports walls which are 2.7m thick at basement level. The ground floor comprises a barrel-vaulted basement with a later fireplace in the north wall – almost as if it was originally used (as in a bastle) to protect livestock, then later converted for human use – and at the east end a doorway leads to a mural chamber. The first floor has/had three rooms, each with a fireplace. The attic level, now minus its roof, has traces of fireplaces, windows and a window seat. Both the upper floors had their windows added after the Border region had quietened down somewhat – and were connected by a spiral staircase.

Though it is now known as Hepburn Bastle the original name was almost certainly Hebburn or Heburn – as is evidenced by its description in a 1715 survey as “a handsome house bellonging to Robert Heburn, esq.” (the ‘p’ was, we think, somewhat mysteriously introduced by the Ordnance Survey). The structure appears to have fallen from use around 250 years ago after the last Hebburn male heir died.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Mysteries of the Hurl Stone (NU039247)

 © Copyright Russel Wills and licensed for reuse 

In the middle of a farmer’s field a couple of miles to the SW of Chillingham stands the Hurl Stone, a ten-foot high rough-hewn obelisk of unknown origin yet steeped in myth and legend. Hard facts are difficult to come by, but who needs ‘em?

First of all there is its name. Some speculate that it is derived from the ‘Earl’s Stone’ – though the identity of the gentleman in question is not known. It may have been an ancient standing stone (or cross) at one point, possibly relocated to its present spot by someone or other. Everyone’s  favourite theory, though, is that it was literally ‘hurled’ there by the Devil himself, who, when perched high upon the Cheviot, saw pesky St.Cuthbert going about his pious wanderings in the distance and threw the stone at him in anger.

The Hurl Stone is supposed to be the haunt of fairies, too. An underground passage some sixteen miles in length is supposed to pass under the stone (linking Cateran Hole in the east to Henhole in the west), which, when it was once explored in times of old, revealed evidence of underground fairy-like activity immediately beneath the stone. The adventurers didn’t hang around long enough to investigate further and scarpered sharp-ish.

Sorry to disappoint, but chances are that the Hurl Stone was once a medieval Christian cross which lost its top and was then recycled as a folly (of sorts) by someone with nothing better to do. Some attribute the act to a Mr Jobson, a local farmer, and that a bolt of lightning accounted for the missing couple of foot or so. 

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Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Old Bewick & its Cup & Ring Marks (NU075215 & thereabouts)

© Copyright John Haddington and licensed for 

There is so much ancient history lying in the landscape among the western extremes of Bewick Moor that it is difficult to know where to start. So we’ll begin with the biggest feature: namely, Bewick Hill, which stands out like a sore thumb from pretty much any direction you care to view it from.

Traces of human activity go back more than 5,000 years in these parts; and Bewick Hill is the site of one of the area’s more recent features – an unusual hillfort known as Old Bewick, which dates from the Iron Age. It consists of two small, semi-circular enclosures sitting next to each other, with their open sides set against a cliff edge. A larger rampart then surrounds these enclosures, with traces of further embankments nearby. The western fort contains a collection of hut circles, with its partner holding some less well-defined stonework. The site may well have been occupied into the Roman period.

 © Copyright Andrew Curtis and licensed for 

A little to the east lie an important collection of ‘cup & ring’ rock art panels – one of which, Old Bewick 1a (pictured), is one of the best examples of its kind in the UK. These extraordinary relics of our past date (it is thought) from around 4,000 years ago, and it was here at Old Bewick that such carvings were first recognised as a man-made phenomenon. Despite extensive study, no one has been able to work out with any degree of certainty what they mean and why they were created, and similar examples are scattered all across this corner of Northumberland.

In between, chronologically, the formation of the cup & ring etchings and the later Iron Age hillfort, the Bronze Age burial cairn was laid down at nearby Blawearie, a little to the north. First discovered in the 19th century, it is a substantial affair containing at least four stone-lined burials, along with pottery, a flint knife and a jet and shale necklace. More investigations were carried out in the 1980s, all of which raised more questions than answers.

Other stuff lies close by. A second hillfort can be found a little further east, the odd Iron Age farmstead has been revealed by cropmarks and there is evidence of activity through the Roman period and into the Anglo-Saxon era. There are even a couple of World War II pill-boxes built into Bewick Hill – all of which adds a little extra depth and interest to the atmospheric landscape hereabouts.

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Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Henry Ogle: Not to be Messed With (NU104195)

Eglingham Hall, like most buildings of its type, started small and has been added to considerably over the years. It began as a pele tower and today looks like this:

© Copyright Stephen Richards and licensed for 

When its development was somewhere in between, one Henry Ogle lived there for a time prior to his death in c.1669. He was a staunch Parliamentarian, and was at his most boisterous – nay, cocky – during the days of Cromwell. Around 1649-50 he was involved in two instances for which we have precious little information, but which nevertheless provide a neat little window into what was, at the time, a pretty crazy world.

The first occurred in the wake of the famous Newcastle Witch Trials of 1649. From Thomas Oliver’s A New Picture of Newcastle-upon-Tyne of 1831:

1649 – The Magistrates of Newcastle sent to Scotland for a man who pretended to discover who were witches: on his arrival the bellman went through the town, crying “all persons who would bring in any complaint against any woman for a witch, they should be sent for and tried by the person appointed.” Thirty women were brought into the town-hall, stripped there, and had pins thrust into their bodies, and most of them condemned for witches!

As a result, fourteen witches and one wizard were executed. The account continues…

The witch-finder went from Newcastle to Northumberland, when [magistrate] Henry Ogle, Esq. laid hold of him and required bond to answer at the sessions, he escaped into Scotland, where he was apprehended, cast into prison, and condemned; when on the scaffold he confessed that he had been the death of 220 women in England and Scotland, for the gain of 20 shillings each!

No one knows for sure who this notorious witch-finder was, but it may have been the infamous John Kincaid (however, Kincaid was not collared and executed until 1662, so there may be some confusion here).

Henry Ogle of Eglingham Hall may have played a prominent role in the casting out from the region of the pesky witch-hunters, but a year later he had a run-in with his ‘hero’ Oliver Cromwell, who, on the way to the Battle of Dunbar in 1650, stayed over at Henry’s house. Legend has it that the next morning the two of them quarrelled (over exactly what we don’t know), and that they may even have duelled over the disagreement.

I should think that their differences were soon patched up, though, as Henry was elected MP for the county in 1653 and 1654. But the story of the little dispute lived on, and inspired the poem Cromwell’s Visit: An Eglingham Legend by James Hall … and if anyone out there has the text of the said ditty I’d like to hear from them!

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Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Eglingham’s Wandering Cleric (NU106195)

Canon Henry Baker Tristram was an English clergyman, naturalist, Biblical scholar and traveller. Somewhat controversially for his time, he was an early convert to Darwinism, and spent many years attempting to reconcile the theory with his religious beliefs.

Tristram was born at Eglingham vicarage in 1822 – the eldest son of the vicar – and studied at Oxford. He was ordained a priest in 1846, but his fragile health (TB included) forced him to live abroad. He travelled widely, including a stint as secretary to the governor of Bermuda from 1847 to 1849, where an interest in birds blossomed – but on returning to UK shores found the winters too much for him. Several expeditions to Algeria followed, including exploration of the Saraha desert and yet more ornithological adventures – and wrote a book entitled The Great Sahara. He first visited Palestine in 1858, returning there several times, where he expanded his collection of birds and identified possible Bible sites. Amidst all of this he became canon of Durham Cathedral in 1873, though his travels continued, including the Middle East and also Japan where his daughter spent decades working as a leading light at the Church Missionary Society’s School for Girls.

His infamous link with Darwinism began in the late 1850s when he was seduced by the writings of the great evolutionist. Looking at his own collections of birds, he became convinced of the validity of the new-fangled theory, and penned articles in support of the same.

Tristram, who was a Fellow of the Royal Society, wrote books, papers and articles of all his various adventures, concerned mainly with naturalism and the topography of the Bible lands. His sizeable collections of birds and eggs ended up in Liverpool’s World Museum and the Natural History Museum, London. And as any ornithologist will know, a number of birds are now named after him … as well as a breed of gerbil!

He died in 1906 and has a window dedicated to his memory in the north aisle of Eglingham Church.

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