Tuesday, 27 January 2015

The Battle of Humbleton Hill (NT969294)

© Copyright Lisa Jarvis and licensed for reuse 

The Battle of Humbleton (or Homildon) Hill took place on 14th September 1402 on a site a couple of miles NW of Wooler. It pitched the Scots against the English, and was famously mentioned by William Shakespeare in his historical epic, Henry IV, Pt1. It resulted in a resounding victory for the English, but was not effectively followed up, suggesting that the loss of life was largely in vain.

The Scots were getting particularly ambitious at the time due to Henry IV’s preoccupation with the troublesome Welsh further south. An initial set-to at Nesbit Moor in Berwickshire in June 1402 had seen the Scots defeated, but they continued snapping away at the English heels. In August the Earl of Douglas led a 10,000-strong army south, devastating Northumberland as far as Newcastle. Turning back north laden with plunder, they set up camp at Milfield north of Wooler. The English, though, weren’t prepared to let them get away, and the Earl of Northumberland, assisted by his son, Harry Hotspur, cut them off and forced them into battle.

As the two armies circled one another, the Scots settled on the rising ground north of Humbleton Hill in the foot of the Cheviots. They moved into their ‘Schiltron’ formations – thus providing the deadly English archers with mightily easy targets. The victorious bowmen struck most probably from the high land around Harehope Hill, with most of the Scottish casualties finding their final resting places in the plain to the north and east as they sped for safety – and into the arms of the main body of their foe. Many thousands of Scots perished, with only a handful of English dead – and all in the space of an hour or so.

The English, though, didn’t push ahead with a full-scale invasion of Scotland, preferring instead to concentrate on their Welsh problem. The Percy family – Harry Hotspur and his father amongst them – wasn’t best pleased with the tame aftermath and eventually turned against Henry IV. Both father and son ultimately lost their lives in failed rebellions against the English monarch in the ensuing years.

The Bendor ‘Battle Stone’ has traditionally marked the spot of the 1402 conflict – though it is most likely a Bronze Age standing stone, ancient cists having been found thereabouts.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Wooler and the New World (NT993283)

The town of Wooler may now be known as the ‘Gateway to the Cheviots’, but for one brief moment in time during the nineteenth century it offered locals a portal to a very different wilderness: the open expanses of the Canadian eastern provinces.

Whereas many folk were encouraged to move to or visit the town for its renowned health benefits (including famous names such as Grace Darling, Virginia Woolf and Sir Walter Scott), in the 1830s townsfolk were actively urged to make the long journey to New Brunswick, Canada, in an attempt to better themselves. A publicity drive by the New Brunswick Land Company in both North Northumberland and the Scottish Lowlands was launched “for the purpose of engaging families to settle on the company’s lands.”

The organisation was operating under British colonial rule which was encouraging such companies to open up large tracts of land for the purpose of “the profit of their colonial shareholders”. By chance, it seems, the residents of the Border area were targeted and information sessions were held at Ford Castle. In May 1836 the D’Arcy sailed from Berwick with its first batch of settlers – 110 in number – which had been drawn mainly from Lowland Scotland, plus a few from the Wooler area. They arrived safely and settled in Stanley in New Brunswick

Almost exactly a year later a further 137 followed them aboard the Cornelius, the majority of which this time came from Wooler and its environs. This second tranche again headed for New Brunswick, but instead (and after a dispute with the authorities) made for a virgin patch of ground and founded the little town of Harvey.

The emigrants were primarily farm labourers and their families, but included a sprinkling of tradesmen – just the sort needed in the New World. Of the Wooler contingent of the second party, two-thirds were labourers, one a teacher and eight were tradesmen: 2 millers, 2 carpenters, plus a mason, blacksmith, tailor and shopkeeper.

That was all a very long time ago, but, yes, both places still exist today. Stanley is a little to the north of Fredericton in the central area of New Brunswick, and Harvey is a few miles to the SW of the said town. As for the Wooler ‘stronghold’ of Harvey, well, it was a struggle initially, but in the decade or so after 1837 many friends and relatives arrived from Northumberland to join the first arrivals – and there are now thousands of descendants of these pioneers spread across North America. And in 2007, more than 100 of these descendants gathered at Ford Castle for the ‘Harvey Settler Reunion’ event.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Messerschmitt Over Chatton (NU055287)

On the 10th May 1941, with World War II occupying the hearts and minds of every Briton, Billy Green, who was Head Observer for the Royal Observer Corps in Chatton, was off duty and at a loose end. Billy lived at West Lyham, which lies on the road leading north from Chatton, and as night fell he thought he’d have a wander off along the said road (Sandy Lonnen) to visit his pals on duty at the ROC post.

Hearing a disturbing noise from the heavens, he looked upwards into the gloaming and spotted the distinctive outline of a Messerschmitt ME110 flying overhead at great speed and at extremely low altitude (50ft). He did the right thing and reported it to ROC HQ in Durham, who reported it on further. The response, however, was a firm rebuttal, with the experts insisting this was impossible due to the aircraft’s fuel range. Billy firmly insisted in no uncertain terms that it was, indeed, a Messerschmitt, heading fast inland from the North Sea – and they presumably agreed to disagree.

But Billy was right. The aeroplane was again picked up at Milfield and several other posts besides, until it was reported as having crashed in Lanarkshire. The pilot, though, had ejected and was soon captured. He gave a false name and insisted on speaking to the Duke of Hamilton, for whom he had an important message. His mission was to discuss peace terms with the British.

His name was Rudolf Hess.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

The Slaying of the Chillingham Bull (NU075255)

The wild white cattle which roam the huge expanse of Chillingham Park are perhaps the region’s most treasured natural curiosity. But they are not to be messed with, for they really are genuinely wild. Of ancient descent (no one knows quite how old), they have remained hemmed in and protected, yes, but you wouldn’t want to casually wander across the park amongst them… for there’s a pretty good chance they’d have a go at you.

Though they are undomesticated and quite often aggressive, they are very, very special specimens. Numbering around 100, they are rarer than pandas and genetically identical to one another, such is the depth of their inbreeding. They are the purest of pure-breds, and are therefore very carefully looked after and highly prized by us North-Easterners.

However, despite their importance they have not always been as well protected as they are today. Amazingly, as recently as October 1872, the prize Chillingham Bull was slain in the name of sport by Edward, Prince of Wales.

His Royal Highness was at the time being entertained at Chillingham Castle by The Earl of Tankerville, when it was announced that to mark the occasion he would shoot the ‘noblest specimen of the herd.’ So on the morning of 17th October 1872 he set out across the nearby park hidden in the hay cart that was carrying the poor animals their breakfast. As the herd congregated for their feed, it wasn’t especially difficult for the royal rifle to pick out the unsuspecting male in question, and the magnificent beast was soon exterminated:

His Royal Highness brought down the king of the herd by a single rifle shot, his bullet entering the neck and severing the spinal cord. It was a fine bull, seven years old, and weighing 70st.
[The Illustrated London News, Nov 16 1872]

It was, as was later reported, “scarcely a feat to warrant any unusual jubilation”, yet the ‘achievement’ was captured for posterity by a photographer when the beast was shoved under the royal foot on the castle lawn later that day. The sketch shown above was copied from the said snap and published in The Monthly Chronicle of North-Country Lore & Legend in March 1889.

The bull’s head was mounted and found its way to the hall at Sandringham in Norfolk. Is it, I wonder, still there?