Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Holystone: Lies & Legend (NT952029)

© Copyright Andrew Curtis and licensed for reuse 

Scarcely can an ancient site have attracted so much in the way of historical speculation than that of the Lady’s Well, a little to the north of Holystone, Northumberland. For such a well-known site, incredibly little is known of the origins of its fame, save that it has been there for a very long time and that folk never tire of making up tales about the place.

Essentially, of course, it is a natural feature of the landscape: a spring. And it is an abundant one at that, issuing forth an astonishing 560 gallons per minute. Clean, fresh water being such a precious commodity in the old days, these sorts of places were very important to our ancestors. This particular spot has gone by a number of names in its time: St.Ninian’s Well, Paulinus’ Well and (Old) Lady’s Well being the best known. It has given rise to all sorts of stories over the centuries, too, the most famous being that the early Christian missionary, Paulinus, baptised King Edwin and 3,000 of his followers there in 627AD. A flat stone which once lay near the spring was even said to have been the platform upon which the mass ceremony was conducted.

Nobody even seems to know the sequence of events which took the originally natural site through to its present look. Circumstantial evidence would suggest that it was revered from the earliest days of human habitation of the region. The Roman road that passes almost over the spot would suggest that the invaders made much use of the watery facilities, too, in the early centuries AD (the NE-SW orientation of the pool matches the course of the ancient road). It may well have been the Romans who tidied and paved the area, and it probably acted as a shrine of some sort, too, to the passing legions.

There can be no doubt that the early Christian leaders thereafter made use of the spring, though any links to the likes of Paulinus and St.Ninian are purely speculative. However, when the nearby nunnery (originally Benedictine, then Augustinian) was built at Holystone around 1124 the legends came crawling out of the woodwork – an attempt, of course, to attract attention and funds to the impoverished institution. In all likelihood, the legend of Paulinus and the baptising of the 3,000 probably took place in York, in fact.

By the time the nunnery was dissolved in the days of Henry VIII the lies and legend surrounding Holystone’s Lady’s Well had become well established ‘fact’. The local catholic gentry in particular latched on to the stories and propagated them in the ensuing centuries. Then, at some point in the 1780s, the site was restructured along the lines we see today, supplemented by a little Victorian tinkering during 1861-2 (when the statue of St.Paulinus was moved and the cross erected to replace it).

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Biddlestone Chapel (NT955084)

© Copyright Les Hull and licensed for reuse 

The odd little edifice that is Biddlestone Hall Chapel has quite a history, but, remote though it is, it is bang in line with modern day life – for it is a remarkable example of architectural recycling. It is, of course, not at all odd that a building should be restructured and reused over the years, but Biddlestone Chapel is a nice little survival all the same, with an interesting story to tell.

First mention of a building on the site is in the shape of a fortified manor, or tower, house in 1415. By the 1600s, the original building was incorporated into a larger manor house, which was itself upgraded to a Georgian house c.1800 by the ruling Selby family. In about 1820, the Catholic-leaning family employed the famous architect John Dobson to convert the upper floors of one corner of their mansion into a chapel. The building we see today was the result of Dobson’s dabblings: a lofty and rather odd-shaped affair, with the bottom bits looking a good deal different than the upper extremities. Then, in typical Victorian fashion, the chapel’s interior was much altered in 1862.

The Selbys had been around this remote spot since, it is said, the early 14th century, but finally vacated Biddlestone in 1914, leaving their large Georgian house with chapel annex to fall into disrepair. During World War II the chapel’s tunnel-vaulted basement was converted into an air-raid shelter – though for what reason it is difficult to deduce. By the 1950s the ruin had become too much for anyone to take on as a viable concern and the decision was taken to demolish the main building – leaving the chapel standing tall and proud in its rather lonely situate. Shame, really, for the old mansion was believed to have been the model for Sir Walter Scott’s Osbaldistone Hall in Rob Roy.

Despite its periodic restructuring, the tower-cum-chapel-cum-air-raid shelter retains much of its medieval masonry and other ancient features, and is rather beautiful from whatever angle the visitor casts their gaze. The building has recently been re-vamped and still holds the occasional service and event.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Ingram Oddities (NU019163)

You never know what you’re going to find when you poke around an old graveyard. And if you look closely enough you’re sure to find an oddity or two in almost any such site. Take St.Michael & All Angels Church at Ingram which lies at the eastern gateway to the Cheviots – for it has two such curiosities.

The first is a gravestone to James & Isabella Armstrong, residents of High Bleakhope (a remote farm higher up the Breamish valley) – James, according to one source, being a “well known and much esteemed Border Yeoman.” They died in 1914 and 1951, respectively. The beautifully rounded stones were taken from the River Breamish near their farmstead. Apparently, Isabella’s sister, Elizabeth, has a similar headstone at Eglingham.

[thanks to Skida’s image and info at http://www.panoramio.com/photo/14739820#comments ]

In the same churchyard can be found a simple cross atop a rough, unhewn boulder. The inscription says it all:

in this grave lie
Isabella Allgood aged 42
James Charles Allgood aged 13
David Williamson Allgood aged 11
the beloved wife and sons of
James Allgood rector of Ingram
who were killed in an accident
on the Great Northern Railway
at Abbot’s Ripton January 21 1876

They were lovely and pleasant in
their lives and in their deaths
they were not divided

[thanks to Northernvicar at https://northernvicar.wordpress.com/2012/09/26/ingram-st-michael-and-all-angels/ for the info and image]

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

The Ballad of Chevy Chase

The Ballad of Chevy Chase is arguably the most famous poem to come out of Northumberland. It seems by its very nature to be based on an actual historical incident, yet like much that is churned and ploughed over by bards across the ages the source of reference of the work has become lost in myth and legend.

The poem has been reworked many times over the years – in both oral and written traditions – and survives in two generally accepted versions today. Many have linked the composition to the Battle of Otterburn of 1388, others to a scrap between the Scots and English resulting from a dispute over a day’s hunting upon ‘Cheviot Chase’ (‘chase’ being a tract of hunting land).

The Battle of Otterburn essentially amounted to a teasing out of Northumbrian forces (under Harry Hotspur) from Newcastle into the hills around Otterburn by a Scottish army under the Earl of Douglas. The resultant face-off led to the capture of the former, the death of the latter and a victory for the Scots. In the skirmish in the Cheviots a Northumbrian Percy led a large illegal hunting party across lands over which the Earl of Douglas had a protective eye – and in the fight that followed a disproportionately large number of men were slain with only 110 surviving.

There doesn’t seem to be a set date for the latter incident, and it is reckoned that there was already a ‘Ballad of the Battle of Otterburn’ in existence before either version of the Chevy Chase poem surfaced (the first was probably written around 1430 and the second as much as a couple of centuries later).  So what we have here with The Ballad of Chevy Chase is undoubtedly an amalgam of at least two, and probably more, historical events … suitably spiced up with a dash of poetic licence, too, of course.

So that’s that cleared up, then.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Robert Roddam of Roddam Hall (NU025205)

Roddam Hall is a modest country mansion a little to the north of the village of the same name in the eastern foothills of the Cheviots. Much of what can be seen today of the privately owned edifice was built during the eighteenth century. The man at the centre of our story, Robert Roddam, came into ownership of the property on the death of his brother in 1776.

By this time, Robert was in his mid-50s and was most probably in need of a rest – retirement, in fact – after a long and varied naval career. He spent pretty much his entire adult life chasing around the globe in the service of his country, a great deal of it with enormous success and with, certainly, a renowned reputation for ‘giving it a go’, no matter what the odds.

Our man was born at Roddam Hall in 1719, the second of three sons of Edward and Jane. He entered the navy in 1735, initially serving in the West Indies for several years, then working his way up through the ranks, notably during the War of the Austrian Succession of 1740-48. Gaining his first command in 1746, he impressed his superiors by many a daring raid on enemy lines – a feature of his long career at sea.

He spent much time in and around North America and the Caribbean during the Seven Years’ War of 1756-63 – a conflict which did much to bolster British interests abroad. He was acquitted during a court martial after his ship was captured by the French early on in the war, but soon returned to active service with his usual dash.

In 1770 he was called back to the fray during one of our periodic disputes over the Falklands, then found himself thrust into the American War of Independence of 1775-83. Much of this period, though, was spent as Commander-in-Chief at the Nore – a post giving him responsibility for the defence of the south-east corner of the UK. His final phase of service came as Commander-in-Chief at Portsmouth during 1789-92, which involved a brief crisis with the French that was averted thanks in no small measure to Roddam’s thorough preparations for the possible conflict.

During the Napoleonic Wars he was promoted as far as ‘admiral of the red’, but these were essentially symbolic appointments. He was, in effect, able to at last spend some time at Roddam Hall in Northumberland, to which he was able to make several important structural additions (as well as in the grounds) before his death in 1808, aged 88. He was buried in the family mausoleum in Roddam village churchyard. Despite three marriages he had no children.