Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Uses for Chopwell Wood (NZ136580)

It may now be the area’s prime source of Christmas trees, but the famous Chopwell Wood overlooking the Derwent Valley has had a good few more uses over the years – and, dare I say it, rather more important ones, too. The little patch of green in question has been there for a very long time indeed, once forming part of the original Wild-Wood which blanketed most of Britain in ancient times. It has, however, not changed a great deal size-wise since the days of the Romans.

Most notably, timber taken from Chopwell Wood has been used to build several important ships over the centuries. The first recorded use of this type was in 1294 when wood was gathered for a galley ship being built at Newcastle for King Edward I’s navy. And then, in 1635, King Charles I tapped the wood for timber for the construction of his fanciful Sovereign of the Seas – his new flagship, which included more than 2,000 oak trees from Chopwell (as well as other woods, too). The tax levied by the monarch to build this showcase ship was one of the major causes of the English Civil War.

Castle builders have also made use of Chopwell Wood’s resources. In 1538, timber for Dunstanburgh Castle’s new roof and floor were sourced there – and soon afterwards Bamburgh’s roofers put out a similar call. In 1593, the constructors of Berwick’s new pier put in an order for 40 tons; and more than twice that was later sent to Norham Castle for general repairs. Berwick was back again in 1620 with a request for 250 tons of timber for bridge work. It is also known that Newcastle’s old Tyne Bridge, in need of urgent post-Civil War repairs, was patched up with Chopwell timber in 1647.

The Napoleonic Wars brought demand for timber to something of a crisis point, too – with Chopwell Wood being reduced to a few hundred specimens come 1820. After that, more careful management of the wood secured its future. In the 20th century it was used for the training of foresters; and pine grown there was used for pit props down the mines. World War II saw demand for timber rise again, and the wood was heavily utilised. The Forestry Commission’s North-East base was stationed there from 1923 to 1947, and a District office replaced it in 1955. Since then it has been used increasingly for recreational purposes.

Quite apart from all of this, Chopwell Wood has been regularly plundered for the construction and repair of dwellings, bridges and the like by the locals. And Christmas trees, of course.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Who Was Rowland? (NZ167587)

Rowlands Gill, now a town of some substance in the Derwent Valley, was, until around a century or so ago, little more than an open expanse of countryside with a building or two surrounding the railway station established there in the 1860s. As you might expect, its name came from a rivulet which ran through the area before dropping into the Derwent – but who exactly was the ‘Rowland’ in question?

The answer is that, well, no one knows. Not for sure, anyway. For, new though the former village and present-day town may be, the name of the little beck seems to go back quite some time – to at least the early 1700s. So no wonder we’re having trouble pinning down the original Rowland.

An 1896 history of the area (History of the Parish of Ryton by William Bourn) states that Rowlands Gill (once a part of Ryton parish) derived its name from a 17th century landowner, Robert Rowland. However, a recent archival discovery and subsequent research* indicate otherwise. This tells us that the earliest reference to the name of the stream in these parts dates to 1728 and a ‘Rowland Richardsons Gill’ – and there is no evidence of a landowner by the name of Robert Rowland to be found.

That, however, is about as far as we can go – with any degree of certainty, anyway. The aforementioned research has brought us three possibilities as to the precise identity of this mysterious Rowland Richardson, but we cannot say for sure which is our man. There were certainly Richardson landowners in the vicinity at the right time, but there are several Rowlands among folk who bear this name. The three so far unearthed were plucked from the Ryton parish registers of the 17th century.

So that’s the best we can do…

* see here.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

An Unwelcome Winlaton First (NZ175619)

Hannah Greener, a 15 year-old girl from Winlaton, can claim for both herself and her home town a most undesirable of medical firsts. For this unfortunate young lady was the first person in the world to die after having received a chloroform anaesthetic – for the removal, would you believe, of a toenail.

At the time of her death in January 1848, chloroform was new to the scene as regards anaesthetics – previously, ether would have been the norm. In fact, when Miss Greener stepped forward somewhat gingerly with her seriously in-growing toenails, it was precisely during this ‘changeover period’. In late 1847, ether was used on her to remove the nail of her left big toe (at Newcastle Infirmary); then a few weeks later she was back under the knife – this time at her home in Winlaton – to have the less serious right big toenail detached.

And so Dr Meggison and Dr Lloyd set about the operation. A teaspoon of chloroform was poured onto a handkerchief which was then held to her mouth. An incision was made, and she flinched – so a little more chloroform was administered. The patient then turned a funny colour, spluttered and expired. All attempts at resuscitation failed – the whole process taking little more than two minutes.

The resultant inquest (at the New Inn, Winlaton), concluded that death had most probably been caused by congestion of the lungs – a known side effect of the use of chloroform. The doctors were thus exonerated and young Hannah Greener was laid to rest in Winlaton churchyard.

In 1911, however, medical experiments suggested that the death was most probably due to fatal cardiac arrhythmia (ventricular fibrillation). This would place the point of death at the moment the incision was made, which would have caused a fatal hormonal surge to the chloroform-affected heart.

Debate over which was the best and safest anaesthetic on the market raged for many years after Hannah Greener’s death. Chloroform was very popular in many countries for a very long time, though – until the discovery of barbiturate-based concoctions in the 1940s.

More information on the Hannah Greener case can be found here and here.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

The Garibaldi Statue, Blaydon (NZ175636)

If you studied Italian unification at school, then you’ll know all about Giuseppe Garibaldi, the famous general and politician who had rather a lot to do with the creation of the present-day Mediterranean state. But his fame extended well beyond the borders of his own corner of the world – and he was especially popular on Tyneside.

The enthusiasm among the North-East’s working classes for Garibaldi was largely down to Blaydon’s very own Joseph Cowen Jnr, the industrialist and Radical politician who was very prominent in Tyneside affairs in the Victorian era. He championed the cause of many a European revolutionary movement, and entertained several prominent figures from the continent at his home, Stella Hall, in Blaydon (now demolished). And, in 1854, it was Giuseppe’s turn to answer Cowen’s call.

As it happened, Garibaldi was in the middle of his travels anyway, and needed to pop into the Tyne to pick up some coal. As for his North-East stay, he arrived on 21st March 1854 and left in late April. Spending most of his time in Tynemouth, he popped up river to Blaydon at the behest of Cowen for a very brief sojourn. Whipping the locals up into a frenzy, the eager host eked every last bit of positive propaganda out of the visit – with memories of the occasion surviving comfortably into the modern era.

Anyway, Cowen gave his guest ‘the tour’, presented him with a gift or two, then off he went back to Italy where he eventually carried through with his unification process during the 1850s and 60s. Back in Blighty, Cowen mused over the experience for a few years, before eventually erecting a statue of the great man in the grounds of his Stella Hall estate. It was created by sculptor George Burn and erected in 1868 a little to the north of the present-day remains of the ‘Summerhouse’ which still overlooks Blaydon.

Cowen died in 1900, and very soon afterwards the statue disappeared. Fingers were pointed at Cowen employees, who had had to pay a penny towards its construction; but a more likely story is that it was sent into the undergrowth at the base of the hill by playful youths. Shattered into several pieces, all but the head were then lost forever – with Garibaldi’s bearded bonce finding its way into a builder’s garden by the 1940s, then eventually, in 1977, into a glass case in Blaydon Library. It’s still there today.

Garibaldi made a second visit to the UK in 1864, but the somewhat nervous authorities sent him packing almost immediately – and before he could so much as contemplate a return to Tyneside. It may have been this rebuffal that prompted Cowen’s statue a few years later.

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Clarence of Prudhoe (NZ096630)

The scene illustrated above will be instantly recognisable to most of a certain age – especially those with so much as a passing interest in movies. It is, of course, a still from the film It’s A Wonderful Life, featuring James Stewart (right) and his guardian angel, Clarence Odbody, played by Henry Travers. And what hardly anyone knows about the latter is that Mr Travers was born on the banks of the Tyne at Prudhoe in 1874.

There is much confusion over the origins of our Henry, though, with biographies having him born in various places. He spent many years in Berwick, so most claim he was born there; others say Ireland. But his birth was certainly registered in Hexham registration district (which, in 1874, included Prudhoe), so that would seem to clinch it for the good folk of our Tynedale town.

He was born ‘Travers John Heagerty’, but would barely have known the place of his birth. At a very early age (around 2) his family moved to the aforementioned Border town (Tweedmouth, actually), and he spent his childhood there, before training as an architect. He enjoyed amateur musical/dramatical roles from the 1890s onwards, briefly visiting Broadway in 1901. He returned to England thereafter to enjoy many successful years on the stage.

In 1917, he returned to the States, where he trod the boards prolifically for the next two decades on Broadway. In 1933, he appeared in his first movie, Reunion in Vienna; and in the years that followed cornered the market in roles very similar to that for which, ultimately, he would be best remembered: bumbling but loveable old men. His career seemed to peak in 1942 when he was nominated for an Oscar in Mrs Miniver.

However, he will be remembered and loved by most as the kindly, confused and ultimately life-saving guardian angel to Jimmy Stewart’s character, George Bailey, in that 1946 classic. So when it comes around again next Christmas, see if you can spot a hint of a North-East accent…

You see, George, you've really had a wonderful life. Don't you see what a mistake it would be to throw it away?

He retired in 1949 and died in 1965, aged 91.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

The Venerable Charles Thorp (NZ151648)

When you hear the name Charles Thorp muttered in and around the parish of Ryton these days, it is almost always in connection with the secondary school bearing his name in the heart of the town. The recent renaming process of the said institution has helped, if nothing else, to bring back to the fore the distant memory of a man who led a quite extraordinary life – and most certainly put Ryton well and truly on the map in his day.

Born in Gateshead in 1783, Thorp led an admittedly privileged life. The son of an archdeacon of Northumberland, he was educated at Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School and Durham School, before spells at both Cambridge and Oxford Universities. He became a tutor at Oxford, before eventually returning to Tyneside as Rector of Ryton in 1807. He remained in the post for 55 years.

Rising through the ranks, he was also created Canon (1829), and then Archdeacon (1831) at Durham, before becoming the very first Warden of the University of Durham in 1832 – playing a major role in the founding of the institution. He also became, simultaneously, the university’s first Master. As if that wasn’t enough, he became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1839.

Even that, in fact, wasn’t anywhere near enough. He was years ahead of his time in many other spheres of society. Firstly, of course, there was education, where he set up a free school in Ryton; then there was the establishment in the town of the country’s very first ‘penny bank’ (enabling those on low incomes to save and borrow at reasonable rates); and he was also a bit of an environmentalist, planting trees in the churchyard as well as purchasing the Farne Islands and appointing a wildlife warden.

Just as notable were his activities on the international front where he campaigned tirelessly against slavery. In Sierra Leone his efforts were especially worthy – to the extent of setting up a university for freed slaves in the country’s capital, Freetown.

He was married twice, and died in Durham in 1862. He was buried in Ryton churchyard.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Lemington Glass Cone (NZ183645)

© Copyright HelenWilkinson and licensed for 

Situated where it is – a few miles upstream from Newcastle on the north bank of the Tyne – the settlement of Lemington was ideally placed to contribute significantly to the economy of Tyneside in its own special way. It was for centuries the point where many local collieries offloaded their coal onto waiting boats for export, and the make-up of the terrain thereabouts triggered the establishment of many other industries. One such speciality was glass-making, and the one remaining glass cone – a famous local landmark – is in itself rather special, being one of only four of its kind left in the UK.

Originally, in 1787, four glasshouses were built on the spot, and four cones were quickly added – the pride and joy of the newly-established Northumberland Glass Company, who had leased the site from the Duke of Northumberland. The chimneys’ striking form was designed to draw air up through underground tunnels to heat the glass to 2000°C. Glass production – originally flat glass – continued there until 1882, when the site was taken over for a short while by an ironworks. A depression in the glass industry had led to the decline, and in fact three of the four cones were demolished in 1837. Only by chance, it seems, did a single specimen survive into the Victorian era.

The industry picked up again in the 1890s and famous glassmaker, George Sowerby, reinstated operations at the ‘cone site’ in 1898. In 1906, the General Electric Company purchased the establishment from the Duke of Northumberland and the site was expanded and refitted for the production of light bulbs and tubes. Another refit/expansion took place in 1920, and the manufacture of light bulbs and related lampware (mainly industrial and technological items) limped on through the 20th century. The last glass was produced there in 1997.

Lemington glass cone was the last operational glassworks of its kind, and upon closure all but the giant cone was demolished. A little prior to this, the structure – the largest of the set at 120ft and said to contain 1.75 million bricks – was restored and given protected status. It has since been home to a variety of businesses.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Stephenson’s Cottage (NZ127651)

© Copyright Ken Brown and licensed for reuse 

On a quiet byway on the north bank of the River Tyne a few hundred yards east of Wylam, lies a lucky survival of North-East history. For, sitting sedately on a former waggonway out of the reach of motorised vehicles, can be found a modest cottage whose claim to fame is that it is the birthplace and childhood home of the ‘Father of the Railways’, George Stephenson.

It is nothing much to look at, made to seem all the more modest due to the fact that four families lived here at the time of the famous man’s birth – each crammed into a small apartment in the tiny two-storey abode. Humble beginnings indeed for the the little chap with the big future, who entered this world on 9th June 1781.

At the time of his birth, railways, of course, did not exist. But waggonways did, and young George must have been used to the horse-drawn affairs rumbling slowly past his window. In later years much larger and noisier items would have trundled before the family home – though George, by this time, was long gone, of course. Interesting, though, that it was largely due to his own efforts that the transformation was made possible…

We are told in an 1857 account that… The lower room in the west end of this house was the home of the Stephenson family, and there George Stephenson was born, the second of a family of six children ... The apartment is now, what it was then, an ordinary labourer’s dwelling; its walls are unplastered, its floor is of clay, and the bare rafters are exposed overhead.

Bizarrely, the cottage is now painted white. Until around the turn of the millennium it bore its original bare stone walls. Institutionalised vandalism?

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Frenchman’s Row (NZ145669)

On the north side of the B6318 midway between Throckley and Heddon-on-the-Wall stands a terrace of houses known as Frenchman’s Row. They aren’t the original buildings (being replaced in the 1960s), but the name is a strange survival from a former age. Moreover, the more substantial eastern-most structure was for years the famous Royal French (or Frenchman’s) Arms pub. But where, one might wonder, does the strange name come from?

It all dates back to 1796, when the lessees of Heddon Colliery built a row of flats on the spot for their workmen. They were stone-built, and had an outer flight of steps and a gallery. However, before so much as a single collier had moved in, three ships full of French refugees arrived – being Huguenot clergymen fleeing the shenanigans on the continent – and the new accommodation was used instead to house 38 of these individuals. The Frenchmen stayed until 1802, when they were able to return to their homeland – leaving a sundial as a parting gift (still to be seen today on the rebuild terrace).

Despite their short stay, though, the name ‘Frenchman’s Row’ stuck. The buildings were used as a poor house for a time, but were renovated and relaunched as accommodation proper in 1883. The more substantial building at the eastern end was not added until 1897 and became the Royal French Arms (a small beer-house had originally been housed in the end house of the ‘row’).

The original row was eventually demolished in 1960, to be replaced by the current affair in 1962 – but the name was retained. And the Victorian pub has now been converted into apartments, but is still known as ‘Royal French Court’.

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

The Varied History of Ouston Airfield (NZ081700)

The little patch of Northumberland to the south of Stamfordham has gone by a few names over the past half century or so. Since the start of World War II it has been almost exclusively a military affair, and remains so as modern-day Albemarle Barracks. But it began life in 1939 as one of many hastily-built aerodromes, and was commonly known as Ouston Airfield or RAF Ouston.

Though it has not seen an aeroplane for several decades, the rather odd arrangement of runways can still be clearly made out on modern day maps: three long strips criss-crossing one another, with an outer ring-road enclosing the site. Its aviation history is a standard affair: opened in 1941, hosting Hurricanes and Spitfires initially, to be followed by all sorts of warplanes, from Defiants to American Mustangs and Typhoons to Wellingtons. Post-war, it continued in use in a ‘reserve’ role into the late 1950s, and some aircraft maintenance work was carried out there into the 60s.

Just when its useful life seemed to be coming to an end, it suddenly burst back onto the scene as a car and motorcycle racetrack in the early to mid-60s. Racing may well have taken place there as early as 1961, but what is known for certain is that the Newcastle and District Motor Club organised meetings at Ouston Airfield in consecutive Junes in 1962, 1963 and 1964. Jackie Stewart is known to have blown the field away at one race at Ouston in his Jaguar E-type in one of his earliest wins (1962 or 1963, reports differ); and the great Jim Clark was paraded there in 1964 and presented the prizes. In 1965, apparently, a crowd on 20,000 watched a motorcycle race meet at Ouston.

Two years later, in 1967, the site was reopened as an airfield for a short duration, acting as the North-East Regional Airport for five months whilst Newcastle Airport’s runway was extended.

Then, in the early 1970s, it was handed over to the army and renamed Albemarle Barracks, and aeroplanes have never left its surface since (though Apache helicopters are still to be seen there). Recently it has found yet another use: as a secure compound for the transport of nuclear material and/or warheads – or so the rumours go…

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Matfen Hall’s Relic of War (NZ032717)

Before the present-day Matfen Hall was built (around 1828) there existed on the spot an old manor house which once belonged to Admiral Lord Collingwood’s father-in-law. John Erasmus Blackett was to die in 1814, but his name lives on in Newcastle’s Blackett Street.

Rewinding a few years to 1797, our hero, Cuthbert Collingwood, was engaging the Spanish in the famous Battle of Cape St.Vincent, off the coast of Portugal – an encounter which the Brits were to win. And during this skirmish, Collingwood, aboard his ship, Excellent, scraped alongside many enemy vessels, not least the largest warship of its time, Santisima Trinidad. The Spanish flagship was a major target of the British Fleet and, though she was not captured, she was badly damaged and hobbled home to Cadiz for repairs after the battle.

During Collingwood’s exchange of fire with the ship he laid his hands upon a 50lb double-headed Spanish bar-shot, which he pocketed and took back home on a rare visit to Blighty. He thought it a rather neat idea to give it to his father-in-law as a gift, whereupon it was put on proud display in both Blackett’s old manor house in Matfen and the later hall which replaced it. The relic is suitably engraved with the ship’s name and the date of the battle (Valentine’s Day) – and, as far as I know, it is still there to this day.

Strangely enough, the Santisima Trinidad would pop up again in Collingwood’s sight-lines in a slightly more famous naval encounter in 1805, where the Spanish giant was to meet its fate.

[image taken from author Max Adams’ website at 

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Water to Newcastle (NY968763 & thereabouts)

When we think of the water supply provided to the region, the mighty Kielder Water springs instantly to mind. However, a number of other reservoirs form part of the intricate network of watery connections that keep the North-East quenched – with three of the most important crowded into a few square miles of the Northumbrian countryside about eight miles north of Hexham.

Colt Crag, Little Swinburne and Hallington Reservoirs were all built a long time before the 1970s creation that is Kielder Water, being completed, as they were, in 1871 (East Hallington), 1884 (Colt Crag), 1886 (Little Swinburne) and 1889 (West Hallington). Their construction finally brought to an end centuries of struggle to feed an ever-thirsty Tyneside, all but banishing the threat, finally, of typhus – to say nothing of the needs of fire-fighting. Prior to this, glorified ponds on the Town Moor, Arthur’s Hill and at Carr Hill, Gateshead, struggled manfully against the booming populations either side of the Tyne.

Between the ‘heyday’ of the aforementioned ‘ponds’ and the new complex of 1871-89, Whittle Dene Reservoirs (completed 1848), a little to the SE, carried the responsibility of water supply for the area. And, when it was ready, the Hallington/Swinburne/Colt Crag supply was bolted onto the Whittle Dene system before being piped to Newcastle and Gateshead. The network was further extended in 1904 when Catcleugh Reservoir near the Scottish border was brought into use. And then, seventy years later, there was Kielder.

The really quite amazing (and largely hidden) system of tunnels, pipes and aqueducts that connect these large expanses of fresh water both to each other and their points of service was the result of the work of the Newcastle and Gateshead Water Company… and is one of the hidden wonders of the Great North-East.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Belsay Castle (NZ084785)

© Copyright Brian Norman and licensed for 

The grounds of Belsay estate a few miles NW of Ponteland present one of the region’s most attractive and curious touristy days out. Firstly there is the classical hall, built by actual Grecian builders who were dancing to the tune of landowner, Sir Charles Monck, in the 1810s; then there is the unusual quarry garden, developed in and around the hole left in the ground following the construction of the Hall; and finally there is the best of the lot – the medieval castle-cum-tower house, which now lies beautifully abandoned, superseded, as it was, by the 19th century hall.

Belsay Castle has been described as the “finest English tower-house in the north”, and even this is surely an understatement. On a fine, summer’s day it presents as handsome a prospect as any in the land. For centuries in the possession of the Middletons, the castle began as a three-storey pele tower built in the late 14th century (though this may have replaced an earlier effort). In 1614, the family added a Jacobean range, which can still be seen today. Another wing, added in 1711, has since been demolished.

When, in the early 19th century, the new hall was built nearby, the old place was gutted and left, deliberately, as a folly. It was later renovated by the family, but still left largely unused. Since its take-up by English Heritage, the castle and its Jacobean annex has continued to receive the appropriate care and attention to maintain its stunning demeanour.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

The Dissenting Madam Babington (NZ073804)

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

The Loraine Monument (NZ011824)

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

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

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

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

The Wallington Dragons (NZ030842)

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

The Flag of Northumberland

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Hartburn Grotto (NZ087864)

© Copyright Andrew Curtis and licensed for 

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Codger Fort (NZ044901)

© Copyright Andrew Curtis and licensed for 

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Winter’s Gibbet (NY962908)

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

The Dwarves of Simonside (NZ025985)

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway, I just thought I’d warn you.

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

The Coquet Stop Line (NT977000, etc)

© Copyright Richard Webb and licensed for reuse 

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Sharp’s Folly (NU058009)

© Copyright J C Ousby and licensed for reuse 

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

David Dippie Dixon (NU057017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Cragside: the Facts (NU073022)

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

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

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