Tuesday, 19 September 2017

The Busy Gap Rogues (NY799697)

In a dip in the course of Hadrian’s Wall between Housesteads to the west and Sewingshields Crags to the east lies a tract of land known as ‘Busy Gap’. It may well refer in the present-day sense to the many thousands of walkers who pass this way every year. But, in fact, the term has a much more sinister connotation: for it was the common descriptive name for a thoroughfare of those of ill-repute – and a place to be very much avoided by those of a more peaceable nature. 

Geographically, of course, the little col, or pass, provided an easy means of passage through an otherwise awkward zone. For centuries after the Romans left, the line of their wall provided nuisance value to the general traveller, and, in time, ways, paths and drove roads wore their way through the easy bits in the landscape. And, by the medieval era, the patch of low-lying ground to the east of Broomlee Lough became rather well-trod.

Such spots attracted all sorts of attention, though, both good and bad. And so it was that during the days of the Border Reivers (16th & 17th centuries), this route through the wall became a way by which ne’er-do-wells and the like could easily come and go on their evil ways. Such was the severity of the problem that a new catchphrase came into use across the region: the ‘Busy Gap Rogues’. Even as far as Newcastle – and well into the 18th century – the expression was a by-word for anyone who was suspected of being up to no good, and a downright term of abuse for those who lived out in the sticks. Even the famous traveller, William Camden, writing in his Britannia (1599), dared not visit the troublesome place on account of the “rank robbers” thereabouts.

From the mid-17th century an extended family of Armstrongs is known to have lived at what remained of Housesteads fort and the immediate vicinity. The area around the ‘gap’ became the headquarters for protection rackets and unruly horse thieves whose grasping fingers extended as far north as Perth and south into Yorkshire. There are remains in the landscape of Busy Gap today of old stock enclosures and the like, no doubt used by the Armstrongs during the course of their nefarious dealings.

Around the turn of the 18th century things began to change, and the area around Busy Gap – Roman remains and all – sank softly back into tranquillity. Eventually, of course, society came to appreciate the area for what it once was under the Romans and preservation, tourism and leisure became the order of the day. Gone are the rogues … and here instead roam the ramblers.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

King Arthur and Hadrian’s Wall (NY805704 & thereabouts)

Around the stretch of Hadrian’s Wall known as Sewingshields, near Housesteads, are a few hundred square yards of Northumbrian countryside with strong links to Arthurian legend. It all concerns King Arthur and his court in an enchanted subterranean sleep, and, well, I’ll let John S.Stuart Glennie explain. This is taken from his Arthurian Localities tome of 1869:

… Turning now westward, and passing through the picturesquely-situated old town of Hexham, with its Moot Hall and Abbey Church, on a wooded ridge over-hanging the Tyne, we stop either at the Haydon Bridge, or the Bardon Mill station of the Carlisle and Newcastle Railway. For six or eight miles to the north of these stations, and in the neighbourhood of Housesteads, the most complete of the stations on the Roman Wall, are the principal Arthurian localities of this Northumbrian District. The scenery here is very remarkable. The green, but unwooded grazing hills – wide and wild-looking from their want of enclosures, and the infrequency of farm-houses – seem like the vast billows of a north-sweeping tide. Along one of these wave-lines runs the Roman Wall, with the stations of its garrison. In the trough, as it were, of this mighty sea, and to the north of the Wall, were, till a few years ago removed and ploughed over, the ruins of the ancient castle of Sewing Shields, referred to by Sir Walter Scott as the Castle of the Seven Shields, and by Camden as Seavenshale. Beneath it, as under the Eildons, Arthur and all his court are said to lie in an enchanted sleep. And here also tradition avers that the passage to these Subterranean Halls, having once on a time, been found, but the wrong choice having been made in the attempt to achieve the adventure, and call the Chivalry of the Table Rounde to life again, the unfortunate adventurer was cast forth with these ominous words ringing in his ears: 
O woe betide that evil day
On which this witless wight was born, 
Who drew the Sword, the Garter cut, 
But never blew the Bugle-horn.
the very opposite mistake, it will be observed, to that of which the equally luckless Eildon adventurer was guilty. 
The northern faces of three successive billows here, if I may so call them, present fine precipitous crags – whinstone and sandstone strata cropping out. These are called respectively Sewing Shields Crags, the King’s, and the Queen’s Crags. Along the crest of the first of these the Roman Wall is carried. The others take their name from having been the scene of a little domestic quarrel, or tiff, between King Arthur and Queen Quenivere [sic]. To settle the matter, the king sitting on a rock called Arthur’s Chair, threw at the queen an immense boulder which, falling somewhat short of its aim, is still to be seen on this side of the Queen’s Crags. And on the horizon of the immense sheep farm of Sewing Shields, and beyond an outlying shepherd’s hut, very appropriately named Coldknuckles, is a great stone called Cumming’s Cross, to which there is attached another rude Arthurian tradition. For here, they say, that King Arthur’s sons attacked, and murdered a northern chieftain who had been visiting their father at Sewing Shields Castle, and who was going home with too substantial proofs, as they thought, of the king’s generosity.

As mentioned in the text, Sewing Shields Castle no longer exists, having been expunged from the landscape in the mid-nineteenth century (it lay somewhere to the north of the Wall near Sewing Shields Farm). The legend of a slumbering royal court, and the failure of a visiting stranger to rouse them, is a common yarn – the author mentions a similar tale from the Eildon Hills, and there is another associated with Dunstanburgh Castle. As for Cumming’s Cross, this was the memorial supposedly placed by Arthur after he heard of the murder of his visiting dignitary, named Cumming or Comyn. And then, unmentioned above, there’s nearby Broomlea Lough, a watery expanse said to be the lair of the Lady of the Lake and the site of a great hidden treasure.

So, you see, you needn’t look any further than the North-East of England for a perfectly viable setting for all that King Arthur stuff.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

The Long Drop Netty (NY800769)

© Copyright Mike Quinn and licensed for reuse 

If you’ve ever seen one of those old castle toilets known as garderobes on a visit to one of our National Trust properties, you will know exactly what is going on at the Long Drop Netty near Stonehaugh on the edge of Wark Forest. Garderobes, you see, were castle privies which incorporated an external ‘drop’ of some several metres which deposited human waste into the castle moat. And at old Low Roses Bower a little to the east of Stonehaugh can be found just such a contraption – minus the castle, of course.

The Long Drop Netty was essentially the outdoor loo of Low Roses Bower (a bower being a sort of secluded country cottage) – which, I think, also serviced the nearby and more modern Roses Bower farmstead. Its operational details barely need describing – the little room sitting on an overhang above the Warks Burn. All very hygienic, I suppose, if a little draughty. It is believed to be the longest drop of its kind in England and dates back to the 18th century. Low Roses Bower itself may originally have been a 15th/16th century bastle, but it came to be associated with one Rosamund Dodd, who is supposed to have used the spot as a romantic hideaway for her and her lover. Amazingly, the netty itself was in use into the 1950s.

Curiously, though Low Roses Bower is no longer in use and in ruins, the Long Drop Netty itself has recently been lovingly restored.  Additionally, and fittingly, the toiletry outpourings stand opposite a geological feature shown on OS maps as ‘Windy Edge’. Brilliant.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

The Robinson Memorial (c.NY675815)

(with kind permission of Norman E Haighton/Northumbria Biker)

To the memory of
Roy Lister Robinson OBE
Baron Robinson of Kielder Forest and Adelaide
A member of the Forestry Commission from its
inception in 1919 and its chairman from 1932-1952
Born 8th March 1883 died 5th September 1952
His ashes are scattered in this forest which owes
its existence to his creative energy and vision

The Robinson Memorial stands in a fire break in a remote spot within Kielder Forest, about 3 miles south of Kielder Water. It is a fitting tribute to the life and works of Lord Robinson (otherwise known as Sir Roy Robinson), who, though born in South Australia in 1883, spent a sizeable chunk of his existence dedicated to the forestation of Britain.

Arriving in England in 1905, he followed an academic course which led him, eventually, to become the guiding light of the formation of the Forestry Commission in 1919. He spent the last 20 years of his life as its chairman, leading the charge for an extensive government plantation programme and the establishment of our National Forest Parks. He was handed an O.B.E. in 1918, knighted in 1931 and raised to the peerage in 1947.

He seems to have had a special attachment to Kielder Forest, and even returned there in 1948 to fell the first tree! He also spearheaded similar campaigns throughout the Commonwealth, and even died abroad whilst leading a delegation to Canada in 1952. The following year his ashes were scattered in Kielder Forest, and the Robinson Memorial cairn now marks the spot.

More info on this seldom-visited landmark can be found here and here.

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Kielder Water & Forest (reservoir centre at NY686876)

Kielder Water:
  • Sits astride the River North Tyne in NW Northumberland;
  • Planned in the 1960s and constructed 1975-81 at a cost of £167million;
  • Opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1982, and took a further two years to fill;
  • Largest man-made lake in the UK (by capacity of water – some 200 billion litres, or 44 billion gallons), being about seven miles long and 170ft at its deepest point;
  • Shoreline of more than 27 miles;
  • Site of England’s largest hydro-electric plant;
  • Water supply feeds the River Tyne and Tyneside, with connections to the Wear, Derwent and Tees, too, ensuring plentiful supply to the whole of North-East whatever the climate;
  • 250,000+ visitors per annum for leisure purposes;
  • The Kielder Marathon, organised by Steve Cram, runs around the reservoir’s circumference.

Kielder Forest:
  • The largest man-made woodland in England (250 square miles);
  • Planting begun by the Forestry Commission in the 1920s;
  • Approximately half a million cubic metres of timber are felled each year for a variety of uses – to be replaced by three and a half million new trees;
  • The conifer, Sitka Spruce, covers 75% of the planted area;
  • The forest’s boundary also contains England’s largest area of blanket bog;
  • Red squirrel and many birds of prey thrive in the forest, including osprey – and lynx may be released there soon.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Bell’s Chapel (NY613950)

© Copyright Andrew Curtis and licensed for 

Two miles NW of Kielder, where Bells Burn drops into the River North Tyne, lies the site of an enigmatic former religious site known as Bell’s Chapel, or Bell’s Kirk. It is very near to a curious twist in the Anglo-Scottish border – an area once deemed to be ‘in dispute’ and undoubtedly considered to be part of Scotland for various periods in its history.

For centuries the spot has been labelled ‘Bell’s Chapel (site of)’, for it is now long gone. First mentioned in the 16th century, it was believed to have occupied the spot of an old pagan shrine of some sort. A writer in 1828 described that “every vestige of it has long since been obliterated, except some graves”, and all that remains today is what may (or may not) be the old font – pictured above.

Nearby is an abandoned settlement (believed to have been called Bell, Bells or Bell’s House); and the spot was an important meeting place in the days of the Border Reivers.

Other than that, nothing else seems to be known about the old place…

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Catcleugh Reservoir and Byrness Church (NT735034 & NT771023)

Catcleugh Reservoir sits in the upper reaches of Redesdale a few miles short of the Scottish Border. It is now dwarfed by its much larger and newer neighbour, Kielder Reservoir, but at the time of its construction during 1884-1905 it was a truly major concern.

It was built for the Newcastle and Gateshead Water Company in order to feed the growing and ever-thirsty Tyneside conurbation – a series of tunnels, aqueducts and other reservoirs taking the water thus accumulated the 30-odd miles to its destination to the SE.

The River Rede feeds the sizeable body of water, but such is the remoteness of the spot in question that labour and machinery had to be brought in from far and wide to complete the mammoth task. As a consequence of this, two hutted communities grew up in the shadow of the construction site, and were christened ‘Newcastle’ and ‘Gateshead’ for obvious reasons.

A total of 40-odd huts straddled the two semi-permanent townships, housing more than 700 folk – workers, their spouses and their children. It was a tight-knit, rag-tag collection of individuals, who, nevertheless, maintained all the very basic social necessities of a village-like existence. It must have been tough, but there were dances, sports, drinking and gambling to be enjoyed, too … much of it quite illegal!

Today a single workers’ hut remains, which houses an exhibition of the history of the reservoir and its little community of yore. But, most poignantly, in nearby Byrness Church (said to be the smallest in Northumberland) can be found a commemorative plaque and splendid stained glass window – the former listing the names of the 60+ individuals who died during the construction work, and the latter featuring images of the workers themselves. It was all paid for by the community itself, the window being unique in Britain in terms of its subject matter.

An image of the church window can be found here. More info on the extraordinary Catcleugh scheme can also be found here.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Raid of the Redeswire, Carter Bar (NT698068)

High in the Cheviots, where the A68 crosses the Anglo-Scottish border, lies the landmark spot known as Carter Bar. At this lonely venue those of the touristy persuasion stop their cars and take photographs of each other near the border stone as the flags of Scotland and Northumberland, respectively, whip furiously in the gale.

Carter Bar is known for one famous historical incident: the Raid of the Redeswire. Otherwise known as the Redeswire Fray, or simply the Battle of Carter Bar, the brief encounter took place on 7th July 1575 and is recognised as the last major clash between the kingdoms of England and Scotland. The truth is, though, that it was little more than a skirmish. It all came about following a routine meeting of border officials, after which things got a little bit out of hand and a modest amount of blood was spilt (well, by battlefield standards of the day).

The day’s events began when the English Warden of the Middle March, Sir John Forster, together with Sir George Heron (Keeper of Redesdale), and a few other nobles met their Scottish counterparts, Sir John Carmichael (deputy Keeper of Liddesdale and the representative of the Scottish Warden) and George Douglas (among others). There wasn’t really any ‘raid’ as such, as the get-together was a pre-arranged affair on a day of truce, during which the opposing sides would iron out any differences peaceably – it being the responsibility of the respective wardens to avert any angry exchanges. Both parties brought with them a small body of armed men for back-up – mainly pikemen and gunmen on the Scots side and bowmen on the English side. Englishman Sir John Forster had a reputation for double-dealing and there were live rivalries across both sides, so there was a certain amount of tension in the air.

During a dispute about an English freebooter called Farnstein insults were traded between hothead Forster and the Scot Carmichael. The English bowmen got twitchy and let a few arrows fly, then all hell broke loose. The Scots were outnumbered but during the short fracas got the better of things – helped, it is rumoured, by the timely arrival of reinforcements from Jedburgh. Casualties on both sides were modest (George Heron and his brother were killed), but the victorious Scots took home with them several ‘prisoners of war’ – including the cad Forster – though they were all subsequently released without harm.

Within a few years, of course, the Crowns of the two kingdoms were united and all such incidents were cast into history. Well, until Wembley 1977, that is.

Note: Ten years later, in July 1585, there was actually another truce day ‘fray’ which took place at Windy Gyle, a border spot several miles NE of Carter Bar (NT855152). As far as I can tell, only the one fatality was suffered as a result of an unruly Scottish charge: that of Englishman Lord Francis Russell – though there was a rumour at the time that his demise was a ‘put up job’ to incriminate the opposition. Either way, it must be assumed that a single death did not qualify this as a ‘proper’ battle between the two nations! A cairn bearing his name lies near the blustery spot in question.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Kidlandlee: the Highest Mansion in England (NT911099)

Kidlandlee is now a sprinkling of old outbuildings high in the Northumberland moors 3 miles north of Alwinton – some of them having been redeveloped, others are in the process of being brought back to life. But the substantial, and now long-gone, building you see above was once the centre-point of the remote estate. It was known simply as Kidland, or Kidlandlee, and, though it looks like a mansion, it was, in fact, merely a shooting lodge.

In its Edwardian heyday, Kidlandlee was the highest ‘mansion’ in England at almost 1,300ft. It was constructed in the 1890s by Christopher J.Leyland, whose prime residence was Haggerston Castle a little south of Berwick. Leyland was an inveterate builder of big things and lavished his wealth on both his main home and this incredible recreational lodge in the foothills of the Cheviots. Some say that the construction of the lofty lodge was the result of a bet to build the highest mansion in the land!

Having bought the plot from the Hon F.W.Lambton, he set about building his little summer house – which ultimately was to consist of two halls, dining room, drawing room, smoking room, 13 bedrooms and 6 bathrooms. Externally, there were several outbuildings together with a man-made lake and a croquet lawn.

After Leyland’s passing in the mid-1920s, his son, hampered by crippling death duties, sold off much of his father’s estate, including the Kidlandlee mansion. It fell into the hands of the Lee family, but by 1950 it had become unmanageable and the decision was taken to demolish it. It was spectacularly destroyed in 1956 by explosives, leaving a few outbuildings intact. Around the same time planting began of the surrounding Kidland Forest, which now gives the spot an even remoter feel, it still only being accessible by forest tracks.

Note: Leyland made a name for himself as the man behind the Leylandii tree (see here), and also as the captain of the pioneering steam turbine, Turbinia.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

The Drake Stone (NT920043)

© Copyright Andrew Curtis and licensed for 

Less than a mile to the west of Harbottle a stone’s throw from the River Coquet, lies what is said to be the largest boulder in Northumberland. This huge object weighs in at an estimated 2,000 tons and stands 30ft in height. It has for centuries been known as The Drake Stone, though no one seems to quite know why!

The sandstone giant bears scars (striations) of the last ice age, though it is referred to as an ‘erratic rock’, which means that it was carried to and dumped at its current location by a glacier. As you can imagine, it is visible for miles around from several angles. You will not be surprised to learn that in times gone by the stone was thought to have special powers, children being passed over the boulder to cure ailments. It has vague Druidic links, too (some sources give the name in this context as the Draag Stone). Additionally, there are many tales of young chaps seeking to prove their manliness by scaling the mini mountain – only to find that, in fact, the descent is a good deal harder than the ascent!

The name ‘Drake Stone’ has puzzled historians for years. I can do little to add to the debate. For one thing, it seems unlikely to have anything to do with male ducks; though it is, perhaps, worth noting that the word ‘drake’ comes from the Latin draco, meaning ‘dragon’ (it may, I suppose, look like a fire-breathing monster with the sun setting behind it!). A recent theory suggests that the stone (in outline) bears a certain resemblance to an Elizabethan galleon – so it may be named after Queen Bess’s favourite seafarer, Sir Francis Drake.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Elsdon’s Horses’ Heads (NY936933)

© Copyright Mike Quinn and licensed for reuse 

In a cabinet in St.Cuthbert’s Church, Elsdon, can be found the skulls of three horses. The items were found in the building’s stump of a spire during restoration work in 1877 – in a specially made, sealed chamber – and no one has been able to satisfactorily explain the bizarre discovery.

It has been suggested that it may hark back to the ancient pagan ritual of sacrificing a horse, which was seen as a sanctifying action – perhaps originally during the construction of an early church on the spot. But as the church has been renovated several times over the centuries this would mean the survival of a very old tradition over a prolonged period. Elsdon, though, was a stopping off point for the body of St.Cuthbert on its wanderings in the late 9th century, so there may well be something in this story – namely, that the placing of the skulls was a sort of foundation sacrifice, which was then copied over the ages.

Horse’s skulls are surprisingly common finds in buildings of all sorts, not just churches, along with items such as shoes and dried cats. Reasons for such deposits are usually connected with fending off ill fortune or evil spirits. As for the placing of skulls in a bell tower or spire it could also be a sort of reinforcement of the original purpose of the church bells themselves, being to frighten away evil spirits. It has even been suggested that the skulls were placed where they were – directly over the bell – to enhance acoustics. So there does seem to be a sort of explanation for the Elsdon oddity…

Whatever the true story behind the horse skulls of Elsdon, we can be sure that their origins stretch back a long, long time.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Otterburn Mill’s Claim to Fame… x 2! (NY888928)

Though it is some time since Otterburn Mill was a working concern (it ceased operating in 1976), the establishment retains its fame here in the North-East as a popular tourist attraction. For the historically minded, though, it also has two rather neat claims to fame.

You’ve heard of the phrase ‘on tenterhooks’, haven’t you? Well, the idiom, which means to be in a state of suspense, comes from the textile industry. You see, after a piece of cloth had been woven it had to be washed and dried – and this was done by hanging it on a contraption called a tenter frame, which consisted of upper and lower bars studded with hooks. The lower bar was left loose – in a state of suspension – to stretch the cloth whilst it dried in order to prevent shrinkage. Hence the saying. And not only does Otterburn Mill have one of these old tenter frames, but it is actually the last surviving example of its kind in Europe. (Note: ‘tenter’ is from the Latin tendere, meaning ‘to stretch’).

Otterburn Mill’s most famous retail item these days is undoubtedly the Royal Pram Rug. It all started back in the days of Queen Elizabeth II’s grandmother, Queen Alexandra, who, when visiting the region, was presented with a hand-made travelling rug from Otterburn Mill. The royals seem to have then developed a love for the locally-produced textile goods, and in 1926 Buckingham Palace lodged an order with the mill for a pram rug for a very young Princess Elizabeth, our present queen. The resultant tweed affair was duly despatched to the royal household, with a further dozen or so sold to the public via Fenwick department store in Newcastle. You can still get present-day versions of the royal baby covering via the Otterburn Mill shop or website.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Padon Hill Monument (NY820928)

© Copyright Walter Baxter and licensed for 

Lying a few yards to the east of the Pennine Way about four miles west of Otterburn lies a large, neat stone cairn, or currick, known as Padon Hill Monument. It is a sizeable affair at around five metres high, which at first sight seems out of all proportion to the modest altitude of the peak it marks (379m).

On closer inspection you will see that it is more than just another hilltop cairn as is evidenced by the almost illegible plaque set into the stonework. And the strange thing about this landmark is that though it is a recent construction no one seems to know the full and proper story behind it.

The plaque bears the date 1903 or 1913 – though the latter is the more likely as it is supposed to have been erected in celebration of the 50th wedding anniversary of Sir Charles and Lady Morrison-Bell of Otterburn Hall (who were married in 1863). However, the cairn, meant ostensibly as a wedding anniversary marker stone for a couple of local notables, was also intended to honour the work of a prominent Presbyterian preacher called Alexander Padon. But, again, the history is all very sketchy, and we can only assume that this is the Alexander Peden who was active way back in the time of King Charles II. This seems to make sense as this chap was a very well-known Scottish covenanting minister at the time, and was so famous for his al fresco preaching in these parts that they named the hill after him (it was of course necessary to do this sort of thing in out-of-the-way places due to the laws of the day). Some sources say that there was once a chapel on the spot, which you can believe looking at the amount of loose stone lying around.

Peden (1626-1686) was an interesting chap who led an extraordinary life. Such was his infamy that he took to wearing a disguise to hide his identity from the authorities when on his preaching travels. It consisted of a cloth mask and wig, which you can check out at his Wikipedia entry.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Black Middens Bastle (NY773900)

© Copyright wfmillar and licensed for reuse 

Black Middens Bastle is one of the very best examples of its kind in the Borders region – and perhaps the most famous. Bastles were once all the rage in these parts due to the uncertain behaviour of one’s neighbours, it being necessary to construct a fortified farmhouse to protect both family and livestock from the infamous Border Reivers. The idea was that you could, given sufficient notice, stash your animals safely down at ground level with the humans occupying the upper floor. These substantial affairs were built by your slightly better-off farming families – those who had a bit of cash and ‘clout’ – and the even richer folk would have larger versions known as pele-towers. 

The example we have here at Black Middens lies on the north bank of the Tarset Burn, in the isolated depths of darkest Northumberland. It was originally constructed, it is thought, in the 16th century, with its one and only appearance in the historical records coming in 1583 when it was subjected to an attack by the Armstrong clan. Over the years it has been altered somewhat: the original door was blocked in, three more were cut and the external staircase added (originally, first floor access would have been via an internal ladder). A few yards away lies a ruinous 18th century cottage, itself built on the foundations of another bastle.

These days English Heritage maintains the site, which is open pretty much any reasonable time during daylight hours. The roof is no longer intact, but the structure is otherwise fairly complete – including a few internal features. Not surprising, really, as the building was used as a farmstead into the 20th century, with a slate roof still being in place as recently as 1970.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

St.Cuthbert’s Church, Bellingham (NY838832)

© Copyright wfmillar and licensed for reuse 

Bellingham, now a parish in its own right, was once an ancient chapelry of ‘The Great Parish’ of Simonburn (see here). It has therefore had its own place of worship, St.Cuthbert’s Church, for a very long time indeed, with roots going back to Dark Age Northumbria. And the old church is, for many reasons, a very interesting place…

(1) Firstly, of course, on account of its very name, the spot is supposed to have been one of the resting places for St. Cuthbert’s body and the fleeing monks of Lindisfarne in the 9th century;
(2) Secondly, there is the church’s strange construction. Possibly uniquely in England, Bellingham has a heavy vaulted stone roof. Externally, this is evidenced by the use of massive stone slabs as slates, and internally by a hefty barrel-like construction. It wasn’t always like this, though. For centuries it had a standard timber roof, but this was replaced with the present effort in the early 17th century when the locals tired of its repeated torching by those pesky Scots (see point 4 for one such instance);
(3) Then, in the churchyard, you will find an odd-shaped, pillow-like tombstone labelled ‘The Lang Pack.’ This is supposedly the final resting place of the victim of an infamous tale of Northumbrian folklore, when a man hiding in a ‘Lang (Long) Pack’ was killed by a manservant of nearby Lee Hall whilst trying to gain illegal entry to the same in 1723. No one quite knows what to make of either the story or the grave-marker;
(4) Next there is the display case inside the church containing cannon balls. The label tells us that they were found in the roof when the stone slabs were relaid in 1861 – and were probably launched into their location during the 1597 artillery raid by the Duke of Buccleuch.

Interesting place, then.

It would be remiss of me not to bring to your attention Northernvicar’sblog entry on the topic, which has a few more pictures for your visual consumption.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

The Wilds of Wannie (NY932833 & thereabouts)

On Tyneside, certainly, and quite possibly further afield, could once be heard the phrase ‘The Wilds of Wannie’ when referring to some remote situation or circumstance. It has been passed down through the centuries and the generations with increasingly little thought given to whence and where its roots lie. But ‘Wannie’ does exist, though it is hardly wild anymore.

In the lawless days of the border reivers and the moss troopers (c.1300-1600), the boundary between England and Scotland was not only prone to shift but the area in question was a place to generally avoid – or at least pass through very quickly. Some spots were so dangerous that they were essentially ‘out of bounds’ – and one especially dodgy tract of land centred on the very upper reaches of the River Wansbeck around Sweethope Loughs, east of the present-day A68 a few miles south of Elsdon. These were ‘The Wilds of Wannie’.

Essentially, the area is bleak, open moorland with outcrops of rock. Hereabouts, these days, you will find Great Wannie Crag, Little Wannie Crag and many more besides, peppered with the odd rock climber or two. The river’s name comes from here, of course, the Wansbeck being the ‘Wannie Beck’, and the spot represented the very edge of civilisation at one time to the folk of the North-East. Beyond lay danger and the unknown, wild men and lawlessness  … and, of course, Redesdale, one of the blackest spots in Britain for general mayhem and mischief.

With nearby A-roads skirting the moors and ramblers and climbers scrambling around, the wilds are not as forbidding as they once were – and even the good folk of Redesdale are not half as troublesome as they were half a millennium ago!

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Abel Chapman of Houxty (NY856784)

Houxty is a large-ish residence which sits on the west bank of the River North Tyne about a mile upstream from Wark. Its supreme claim to fame is that it was the home of well-known naturalist Abel Chapman for the last 30+ years of his life. Chapman, well-educated and widely travelled, was one of those great conundrums of his age: both a keen game hunter and an enthusiastic protector of the natural world.

Chapman was born in Bishopwearmouth, Sunderland, in 1851, into a fairly well-to-do family with a long and strong interest in the very areas in which Abel was to excel. He spent his early years learning field-craft in the wilds of Northumberland, where he quickly developed a love of the outdoors. He attended Rugby School, then went into his father’s brewery business (Lambton’s) which enabled him to begin his overseas travels. As the years passed, he journeyed ever more widely, to take in hunting trips to, most notably and initially, Scandinavia and Spain. He co-wrote a book entitled Wild Norway concerning the former, and helped create a nature reserve in the latter – as well as (in Spain) discovering Europe's major breeding ground for the flamingo and saving the Spanish Ibex from extinction. Two books on his Spanish adventures followed.

After the family business was sold in 1897, he moved to Houxty in the North Tyne valley where he set about creating his own little nature reserve around his new home. When he moved in in 1898 it was a dilapidated sheep farm, but Chapman loved the spot on account of it being the haunt of blackcock. He rebuilt the house and laid out and managed the gardens, plantations and moorland thereabouts to attract wildlife which he could then study – a set-up which brought many other naturalists to his little estate, as well as a troop of boy scouts who visited him as part of the very first Baden-Powell scouting camp in 1908 who were staying a few miles away (see here).

Chapman later developed an interest in South Africa, his experiences there leading him to help form the early incarnation of their still-existing Kruger National Park. He continued to travel abroad, paradoxically both hunting and preserving wherever he went, wrote many works on his subject matter, and eventually died at Houxty in 1929, aged 77. His last words were “Take care of Dash,” his favourite spaniel.

During his hunting days Chapman amassed many wildlife specimens, which now lie scattered across natural history collections in London, Newcastle and his native Sunderland.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Simonburn: The Great Parish (centred on NY871735)

© Copyright Peter Brooks and licensed for reuse 

Visitors to the little village of Simonburn in the North Tyne valley often wonder at the size of the settlement’s substantial parish church. For sure, it is a big one, and seemingly out of all proportion to its modest setting. But there is a good reason for the discrepancy, for Simonburn was once the largest parish in England.

Prior to an Act of Parliament of 1811 – which, when enacted in 1814, split the parish into several splinters – this sparsely populated ecclesiastical unit covered a whopping 260 square miles! And considering that this huge area has only ever contained around 1,000 folk, well, that is one long trudge into church every Sunday for some very lonely people. It was known, for obvious reasons, as ‘The Great Parish’, and stretched from Hadrian’s Wall in the south to Carter Bar on the Scottish Border – some 30 miles in length and 14 miles wide.

It is believed that the parish boundaries were established in 1072 by Bishop Walcher of Durham during the re-organisation of his diocese (which then included Northumberland). The 1811-14 division saw the creation of Wark, Bellingham, Greystead, Thorneyburn and Falstone out of the ancient parish – with Humshaugh & Haughton (a single entity) following in 1832. So, seven parishes out of one!

At its heart lies the mother church, St.Mungo’s, with roots stretching back, we think, to the 6th or 7th century (though the earliest stonework probably dates from the 9th century). It was then that the aforementioned St.Mungo was on his travels after having been ousted from his cell at Glasgow by the pagan King Morken. Some sources even suggest that the church’s founding may stretch back to St.Ninian, who died in the early 5th century.

The current church, obviously much altered over the years, extends over a slope and has a distinct list as a result.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Haughton Castle Paper Mill (NY921729)

Near the bank of the River North Tyne a little to the north of Humshaugh stands Haughton Castle and its associated buildings. On the riverbank itself can be found the remains of an old paper mill, built by Captain William Smith, the owner of the nearby castle, in 1788. The flow of the river here is steady and strong, which is just what you’re looking for if you’re a mill owner.

It is also rather remote, which is not always good for communications – but it is good for sneaky goings-on. And, in 1793, just five years after its construction, Haughton Castle Mill was commissioned by the British government for a rather special assignment: it was instructed to produce the paper required for the printing of counterfeit French currency.

There’d been the little matter of the French Revolution, of course, in 1789, and the new revolutionary government was struggling to find its feet. One of its most controversial measures was to introduce as a new currency the ‘Assignat’, backed by the value of property seized from the Catholic Church. Obviously, the Church wasn’t too happy about this illegal seizure and they, together with what was left of the French nobility, opposed the new currency system. To add to the new regime’s woes many foreign countries began producing forged assignats to flood the market and thus destabilise the French economy. Belgium, Switzerland and Britain were at the forefront in this regard, and one of the many paper mills chosen for the project was that on the bank of the North Tyne at Haughton. Its remoteness no doubt contributed to its selection and, for around two years during 1793-95, a good deal of the paper with which the dodgy notes were made was turned out here. The printing process was carried out elsewhere, though; then the notes were sent to Flanders with the British Army.

By the many and various anti-assignat methods thus employed across Europe, the new-fangled French revolutionary currency was indeed brought down. Introduced in 1789, it devalued steadily and was scrapped in 1796. By the time Napoleon I became emperor in 1804 it was a distant memory. So you could argue that the undercover activity at Haughton Castle Mill in the 1790s helped bring the little dictator to power.

One of the moulds for making the paper notes still survives and is in the possession of the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne. The mill itself had fallen out of use by the 1880s, though much of the fabric of the building survives.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Chesters Fort Phallic Symbol (NY912702)

Chesters Roman Fort, Bath House and Museum is one of those must-see sites of antiquity on Hadrian’s Wall. It has much of interest to offer the tourist, though, as with any ruinous historical attraction, it is as well to do a little homework beforehand to truly get the most from your visit.

Perhaps the oddest (and, well, yes, plain funny) ‘points’ of interest is the bold-as-brass phallic symbol to found in the central Headquarters building of the fort itself. There it sits in full view on a paving slab on the western side of the courtyard on a slightly raised circular boss, as if to emphasise its importance. All it does these days, of course, is to elicit a giggle or two and to be the subject of an innocent enquiry from a small child to their embarrassed parent.

It is not the only carving of its type at Chesters (there is another one, half buried, on the north wing of the bridge abutment, and a third in the Bath House), and there are plenty more elsewhere along the Wall. The fact is that these are not merely smutty items of 3D graffiti – but rather they actually mean something and were part of the Roman belief system.

Put simply, the phallic symbol represented good fortune and protection against evil spirits. Depending on its location, the meaning would be slightly different. A symbol found near a bridge or water may mean protection against flood, for example; though it is difficult to offer an explanation for the siting of what is, after all, a rather large example in the HQ block! It all no doubt stems from the quite literal representative use of the phallus, being that of fertility – the Romans celebrating Liberalia every 17th March with the phallus at the centre of proceedings and concerned (among other things) with the blessing of the year’s crops.

For the etymologically minded among you, these sorts of carvings are known as ‘phallic petrosomatoglyphs’, from the Greek words for ‘stone’, ‘body’ and ‘to carve’.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

The Battle of Heavenfield (NY937694)

Site of the Battle of Heavenfield, with 
St.Oswald’s Church in the distance.

The ‘Golden Age’ of Northumbria – the period of Dark Age cultural and military supremacy which spanned, roughly, the mid-seventh to the mid-eighth centuries – was probably the proudest phase of North-Eastern history. Out of this tumultuous century or so came the writings of Bede and the Lindisfarne Gospels (among other spectacular outpourings). And, as is so often the case with such epochs, it all came about as a direct result of a victory in the field – in this case the Battle of Heavenfield.

After the death of Edwin, king of Northumbria, in 632, the struggle was on for the overlordship of the English Heptarchy. Edwin had been the most prominent ruler of this patchwork of kingdoms which then existed in the land, and his demise very much put the cat squarely among the pigeons. Cadwallon, king of the Britons (Welsh) and Penda, a prominent Mercian prince – both of whom had scores to settle with the house of Northumbria – then unified in an alliance against the great northern kingdom. In the months following Edwin’s death, Northumbria was largely laid waste by this troublesome pair.

After months of turmoil, Oswald emerged from his long exile on Iona to seize the Northumbrian throne (his dynastic foes, Edwin and his sons, having been slain). Oswald, a son of Aethelfrith – who had ruled in Northumbria before Edwin – had grown up among the monastic community of Iona together with his younger brother, Oswy. They were both Christians of the Celtic/Irish bent, and determined that their father’s kingdom must be saved from pending collapse. Before Oswald could take the crown, though, Cadwallon and Penda would have to be swept from their old lands.

So, in late 633 (or 634), Oswald marched south with his warband – a motley collection of on-loan Pictish warriors and Irish monks, together with a few hundred Northumbrians which he was able to pick up on the journey south – until he reached the Roman Wall a little to the east of Chollerford. Cadwallon, on the other hand, moved north up Dere Street and along the Wall to the same point. It is likely that Penda did not take part in this phase of the war, though some of his forces may have been involved.

On the night before the battle, Oswald experienced a vision of St.Columba, who promised heavenly support for the young Northumbrian. A cross was erected before the battle, too, around which Oswald rallied his troops. Oswald’s subsequent attack – probably at night – proved devastating, and the Welsh were defeated with surprising ease. Using nearby Brady’s Crag and the Wall itself to their strategic benefit, the Northumbrians were able to nullify their numerical disadvantage – Cadwallon himself being slain in the rout, forever since known as the Battle of Heavenfield.

Oswald was then able to quickly stabilise the kingdom and take the throne. The threat from the Welsh and the Pagan Mercians had been put to bed, at least for the time being. Moreover, the new king dedicated his victory to God, eventually inviting Aidan to found his monastery at Lindisfarne, and thus sowing the seed of Christianity for the English nation-to-be…

… And hence laying the foundation for our ‘Golden Age’.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

First Official Boy Scout Camp (NY883694)

© Copyright Phil Thirkell and licensed for 

A few miles NW of Hexham, on the north bank of the Tyne, can be found a dot on the map labelled Carr Edge Farm. It sits a little to the north of Fourstones, but south of Hadrian’s Wall, and is famous as the venue, in 1908, of the first ever Boy Scout Camp. Common assumption places the first scout gathering at Brownsea Island, Poole Harbour, in August 1907, but this was an experimental camp attended by boys who were not properly-invested scouts. So I am pleased to say the honour of the title of the first official camp goes to the North-East of England! (In fact, the land, though near to Carr Edge Farm, actually belonged to the slightly more distant Park Shields Farm to the east).

The spot was named ‘Look Wide Camp Site’ by the organisers, headed, of course, by the famous General Baden-Powell, founder of the scout movement. The event, which ran from 22nd August to 4th September 1908, came a year after the south coast ‘dry run’, and was the culmination of a frantic period of preparation and organisation as the scouting movement got off the ground. Baden-Powell himself led the team of supervisors, who took charge of 30 boys from all corners of the UK, each of whom had been nominated by friends and relatives in a voting system (although they were joined by another six in due course). The two-week jolly included all the usual scout-like activities, in addition to visits to local sites of interest.

The event is usually described as having taken place at Humshaugh, a village which is several miles to the NE – on account of it being, I think, the name of the parish at the time – but there is no doubt about the location of the true venue.

The site is now marked by a large stone cairn (erected 1929) adorned with several commemorative plaques. The pictured slab was set in place in 1950 and nicely sums up the story. A centenary event, ‘Jamboree 2008’, was held at the Carr Edge site in, er, 2008.

See here for much more info!

P.S. The weather during the 1908 inaugural camp was, by the way, rather wet.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Stagshaw Bank Fair (NY982679)

Known variously as ‘Stagey Bank’, ‘Stagsy Bank’ or just plain old Stagshaw Bank Fair, the regular social gatherings at this now lonely spot between Corbridge and the Roman Wall were once the largest of their kind in England. They were pretty wild, too, and were eventually banned in the early twentieth century due to the often riotous behaviour which blighted the occasions.

Though it seems an unlikely spot for a get-together today, the venue was ideally placed in days of yore. Yards from the crossroads of the Roman Wall and Dere Street, it was a natural focal point for folk to meet; and meet they did – in their thousands – for several market days over the calendar year. In early May there would be a cattle and sheep market; Whitsun would be a time for horses and cattle; there would a sheep-only fair in early August; followed by another cattle and sheep fair in late September; then yet another market in late November. But the main gathering by far would be the summer event on 4th July, which would be a true national gathering – not only for agricultural animals and produce but for, well, pretty much everything else, too! 

In view of the antiquity of the site in terms of social comings and goings it is very likely that the roots of the fair go way back – perhaps as far as the days of the Romans, when trade would probably have been conducted between visitors from both sides of the Wall. Little is known of the event’s distant history, but an account from c.1850 of the 4th July gathering amounts to a description of a free-for-all, with the morning being, generally, for business of all kinds (not just agricultural), and the rest of the day – and the evening, in fact – kept aside for social revelry. There would be entertainment, gambling and much drinking … with a considerable mess being left thereabouts afterwards.

A combination of Stagshaw Bank Fair’s rowdiness and general untidiness led to the whole sorry affair being outlawed in the 1920s. But such is the memory of the main Summer fair that the phrase ‘It’s like Stagey Bank Fair in here’ is often still used by the older generation to describe, say, a messy child’s bedroom or any generally pandemonious situation.  

As a nod to the tradition of the old fair the modern-day agricultural Northumberland County Show is often held in the fields near Corbridge.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

St.John Lee Church: An Amazing Match! (NY933657)

St.John Lee is a parish church without an attached village, though the somewhat lonely house of worship serves a big enough geographical area, encompassing, as it does, the likes of Acomb, Anick, Wall, and much besides. Its delightful ‘hipped’ tower-cum-spire can be seen for miles around, poking through the trees across the Tyne valley from Hexham.

W.W.Tomlinson, in his Comprehensive Guide to the County of Northumberland (1888), gave an account of a curious marriage which took place there in 1765. The bridegroom was one Robert Scott, a famous Northumbrian piper, aged 90, and his bride was youngster Jean Middlemas, who was a mere 25. Robert had been using crutches to get around for a good quarter of a century, but on his wedding day he threw them away and walked from the village of Wall (some 3 miles to the north) to St.John Lee church.

After the service – full of life and with a renewed spring in his step – he walked back again among a group of fellow pipers, no doubt to great acclaim, and the happy couple were afterwards regaled with cakes and ale.