Tuesday, 26 December 2017

Wynch Bridge, Teesdale (NY904279)

Near the sequence of waterfalls known as Low Force in Teesdale can be found the present-day incarnation of Wynch (or Winch) Bridge – a shaky-looking suspension affair over a particularly ravinous stretch of the River Tees.

The wobbly crossing of today is at least the third version of its kind to have occupied the site. When the first such contraption was thrown across the gorge it was said to have been England’s first chain suspension bridge – and the second in Europe. This was in 1741, and was built to facilitate the movement of the Holwick leadminers from south of the river (old Yorkshire) to their place of work at Little Eggleshope in County Durham on the north bank. Apparently, it only had one handrail and was suspended on hand-forged wrought iron chains – and at 70ft in length and 20ft above the raging torrent, it must have been something of a leap of faith for the individuals concerned. This first bridge was washed away in the Great Flood of 1771, but was replaced by an only slightly more robust-looking second bridge (this time with two handrails). You’ll not be surprised to learn that this one, too, fell apart in 1802, imperilling the lives of several poor souls who happened to be on board at the time. It was a miracle that only one of them was killed.

It was patched up and eventually rebuilt again (a little further upstream) in 1830 to pretty much its current design and appearance, with the double handrails and timber platform suspended from iron chains secured to the banks over cast iron columns. It was strengthened further in 1992 … but still wobbles a lot.

Note: The old image above greatly exaggerates the height of the bridge above the river.

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

'Weardale Men and Manners'

A curious work concerning the life and times of the residents of Upper Weardale appeared in print in 1840. Entitled Weardale Men and Manners, it was authored by a local resident by the name of Jacob Ralph Featherston. It contains observations of the folk in and around the little settlements of St John’s Chapel, Ireshopeburn, Wearhead, Westgate and Daddryshield. Here are a few extracts…

The lead mines in the county of Durham can equal any part of England for a fine and athletic race of men. Removed from scenes of gross licentiousness, and unacquainted with the pernicious practices too generally prevailing in large towns, they inherit sound constitutions, and their bodily frames are strangers to loathsome disease. Their diet is plain and wholesome; but with a sad want of animal food. Frank and free in their manners, kind and hospitable at their homes, remarkable for helping and assisting each other, it is not to be wondered they are strongly knit to their native hills. 

The average life of a miner is about fifty years. Most of them are subscribers to Westgate and Wearhead libraries; a debating club has also been established, and an instrumental band, lately formed, is a pleasant pastime for those who are skilled in music.

The schools, conducted on the old system, are at Ireshopeburn and Burtreeford.

The masters in general are respectable and qualified for their situations, though it is highly desirable that more attention should be devoted to an improvement in the manners of the scholars. In this instance, their conduct is shamefully negligent, and it cannot be too severely reprehended. Surely it could not be any hard task to teach and enforce the boys to bow their heads, and the girls to make a modest courtesy, with good morning or evening, to their benefactors or any respectable stranger who may happen to meet them. Could this be accomplished – and there is no apparent difficulty, if laziness could be overcome – it would redound to the credit of the masters, the children, and the dale. It would stamp civility on the character of the rising generation, as what is learnt in childhood is rarely forgotten in after days.

A foolish and unseemly custom prevails of inviting to funerals five and six score of mourners. To mention nothing of the expense, it is impossible to prevent hurry, bustle, and confusion. It would be a great boon to Weardale, if some person, more courageous than his neighbours, would set the example and abandon this custom, which is condemned by everyone, and of the folly of which all are convinced. A hearse having now been provided, no plea or justification can be advanced for such a waste of money, or continuance of a custom so ill-befitting the melancholy occasion.

There cannot be a more interesting sight than a Weardale wedding.

It is customary for the bridegroom’s man to seek the bridegroom and conduct him to the house of the bride. Each young man arrives with a fair partner, and from ten to twenty couple, gaily dressed, assemble on this happy occasion.

The older people assist to wait upon them, and they breakfast first, so that they may be at the altar ere the clock strikes twelve. The priest having performed the ceremony, and all being duly signed, the party make to an inn, the landlord or landlady of which has had previous notice to provide cake.

Four or five hours are spent in drinking wine and punch; a fiddle is in attendance, and many a merry joke and airy jig have they. The gloves and expenses at the public house are paid by the young men – the bridegroom being exempted according to usage. They then set off arm-in-arm to the groom’s house, where a substantial supper is provided, and ale and spirits are handed round till all are satisfied. Then away they go again to the nearest tavern, where most part of the night is past in carousing, dancing, and merriment.

Ale and spirit drinking is the cardinal failing of the men of Weardale.

This cannot be disputed – as witness the waste of money – the frequent fightings – the loss of work – the disordered body – the remorse of conscience – torn clothes and bloody shirts – late hours and distressed friends – with a number of other ills.

Of all the vices which belong to us, this is the first we should try to overcome. Into this error, I confess, I have too frequently fallen, without any plea to offer in justification. Unfortunately there are too many of the same description. Even if country life, particularly in winter, be gloomy and solitary, and company be oftentime to be sought for in the tavern, it is a paltry excuse, and will not bear the test of next morning’s reflection. It is my firm and decided, because well considered, opinion that, be the yearly pays ever so good, Weardale will never be in a reasonably prosperous state till this foolish and expensive practice be considerably diminished. We drink and spend in days as much as would serve some people, in other countries, weeks; though let it be mentioned and borne in mind that there is no systematic tippling among us as there is in towns.


The full text can be found here.

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Cowhorse Hush, Killhope (NY824422)

© Copyright Andrew Curtis and licensed for 

Cowhorse, or Cowhaust, Hush is a substantial manmade gash in the landscape above and to the south of the Killhope Lead Mine complex in Weardale. It measures some 3,000+ feet in length and is around 90 feet deep. The damage was caused by a crude method of mineral prospecting known as ‘hushing’.

In this corner of the country, hushes were made as an environmentally unfriendly way to aid lead-mining. By the use of manmade channels (leats), water was collected behind dams and then released in an almighty torrent to wash away topsoil and loose rock to reveal the much sought after veins beneath the surface.

Hushing was mainly an eighteenth century pastime, after which the landscape would be hand hewn with picks and shovels, aided by explosives where necessary. By around 1800 this method of gaining access to ore was not considered economically viable and underground mining became the norm.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Allenheads Hydraulic Engine (NY859452)

© Copyright Helen Wilkinson and licensed for 

The chief attraction of Allenheads Heritage Centre is the recently restored Armstrong Hydraulic Engine, pictured above – or, to give it its full title, the ‘W.G.Armstrong twin cylinder, double acting hydraulic engine’. It was made and supplied by the famous industrialist for his friend, the almost as well-known Thomas Sopwith, who at the time was agent of the town’s lead mine.

The water-powered mechanism was one of several that ran machinery in the mine’s yard, primarily the saw-mill and the ore crusher. Installed in the 1840s*, it was fed by Spring House and East End reservoirs high in the hills above the town – and remained in service, remarkably, until 1960. After lying unused and then derelict for a couple of decades, it was rediscovered in 1986 and subsequently restored to full working order.

It is believed to be the last remaining engine of its kind in the world.

* The installation date of the engine does not seem to be precisely known. Some sources give this as early as 1846, but as Armstrong’s mighty Elswick Works in Newcastle were not founded until 1847, this seems unlikely. Sopwith’s diary entries for 1856 indicate that Armstrong’s ‘hydraulic machines’ had by then been up and running for some time.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Whitley Castle: a Very Special Roman Fort (NY695487)

Whitley Castle, as drawn by Thomas Sopwith in 
The Roman Wall by John Collingwood
Bruce, (1853). North is to the right!

Whitley Castle Roman Fort – or, more properly, Epiacum – lies on the Northumberland side of the county border with Cumbria a couple of miles NW of Alston. It is, of course, one of many such Roman remains scattered across the North-East, but this one is rather special in two ways.

Firstly, it is lozenge-shaped, as opposed to the standard playing-card set-up. This is due to the lie of the land hereabouts – a 1,050-ft high remote spot in the foothills of the Pennines – and the distorted ground plan is accentuated by the similarly skewed layout of the internal buildings. Its potted history is a familiar one: Iron Age site, followed by a Roman camp, then a full-blown fort c.120AD. There appear to have been rebuilds in c.200AD, then again around 300AD.

Its shape is, we think, unique in the Roman world. Additionally, it has the most complex system of defensive earthworks of any known fort in the Empire – an astonishing claim to fame. There are multiple banks, ditches and folds in the landscape outside the stone ramparts of the fort itself – it being suggested that the main purpose of the stronghold was to control and protect lead and silver mining in the area.

Despite its rather special features the fort has never been fully excavated and to this day lies largely undisturbed under permanent pasture. It is perhaps the greatest archaeological monument in the north of England yet to be uncovered.

Oh, and one other (quite) special thing: it is the highest stone-built Roman fort in Britain…

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

‘Disgraceful Doggerel’ at Knarsdale (NY678542)

Though now obliterated from sight, a curious epitaph to one Robert Baxter was once to be found near the porch of St.Jude’s Church, Knarsdale, in the valley of the South Tyne. The famous historian, John Hodgson, in his early 19th century History of Northumberland, took great offence at the tone of the inscription, terming it ‘disgraceful doggerel’…

In memory of Robert Baxter, of Far-house, who died Oct 4 1796, aged 50*.
All you who please these lines to read, 
It will cause a tender heart to bleed;
I murdered was upon the fell, 
And by the man I knew full well; 
By bread and butter which he’d laid, 
I, being harmless, was betrayed. 
I hope he will remembered** be 
That laid that poison there for me.

[*or ‘56’, depending on your sources; **some sources give this as ‘rewarded’]

The story goes that Mr Baxter, during the course of his shepherding duties on the fell, came across some bread and butter neatly folded up in paper. Being peckish, he ate it, but was soon seized with violent convulsions, and eventually expired – but not before pointing the finger at a malicious neighbour with whom he had recently quarrelled. The bait, he said, had been laid deliberately to kill him. It seems that the accusation was widely believed, but no inquest was held on the man’s body, so the suspect (whoever he was) was never charged.

Quite how this monumental inscription got past the eye of the incumbent vicar we shall never know. Eventually, though, someone saw fit to chip off the offending verse – and I believe the stone itself is now broken (can anyone confirm this?).

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Isaac’s Well, Allendale Town (NY838558)

© Copyright Mike Quinn and licensed for reuse 

Isaac’s Well sits quietly by the roadside of the main thoroughfare of Allendale Town in the valley of the River East Allen. It is one of several relics in the area with direct links back to a famed local eccentric and philanthropist by the name of Isaac Holden. But what makes the story of this particular do-gooder so extraordinary is that despite his prolific fundraising he himself had barely two pennies to rub together.

Holden began his working life as a lead miner, but when his local mine closed he and his family were threatened with destitution. So, whilst his wife, Ann, ran a little grocery shop in Allendale, he decided to start a modest venture of his own as an itinerant tea seller. And so he began his wanderings over the moors surrounding the town eking out a living as best he could for the rest of his working life.

The man himself

But Holden was a philanthropist at heart, and despite his lack of education and finances, determined to do his bit for the local community. Fired by not a little Methodist zeal, he set about his charity fundraising as best he could among the sparsely populated highways and byways of his working catchment area. Thanks to his drive Allendale would come to be blessed with, among other things, a savings bank and two chapels. And then, of course, there was the little well. As the nearby plaque tells us:

Isaac's Well is named after Isaac Holden (c.1805-1857), a local tea seller who raised the funds for its construction. Fresh, clean drinking water not only helped overcome the threat of cholera and typhoid but also made better tasting tea. Although no longer safe to drink from, the well now lies on the route of ‘Isaac's Tea Trail’, a walk that follows the tea seller’s footsteps through the North Pennines.

(originally, the well was located across the road but was moved when piped water was introduced to the town in the 1870s)

Isaac’s most famous ‘scheme’ was his last, raising money by selling photographs of himself for a ‘mystery’ cause. Turns out it was for the purchase of a hearse for use by the folk of the West Allen area for the princely sum of £25. It was quite a gesture, as dignity in the face of one’s death and funeral was of the utmost importance at the time, of course – no matter how poor you were.

When the humble Holden himself died in 1857 a substantial monument was erected in Allendale churchyard in his honour, with money donated by local residents, naturally. The epitaph reads:

In memory of
Isaac Holden
a native of this parish,
who died November 12th 1857
aged 51 years.
He gained the esteem
and respect of the public
by his untiring diligence
in originating works of charity
and public usefulness.
Upwards of 600 persons
subscribed to erect
this monument.

Now there’s a life well lived.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Whitfield Hall & Waterloo (NY777564)

Whitfield Hall is a private mansion on the banks of the River West Allen, set against the rugged backdrop of the Pennine Hills. The estate has been in the hands of the Blackett and Ord (and Blackett-Ord!) families since the 12th century, and sprawls over a not inconsiderable 18,000 acres or so. The current (and very difficult to see) house was erected in 1785.

The old place is these days best remembered, perhaps, as the location of a rather special historical find made in 1900 when a cache of documentation was found stashed away in its attic: namely, the papers of one Thomas Creevey. Among the large collection of almost indecipherable paperwork was found a pointed account of the Battle of Waterloo by none other than the Duke of Wellington himself…

Creevey (1768-1838) was a Whig politician, and though not a wealthy man, was able to maintain an extraordinary network of high-flying contacts through the sheer force of his personality. Crucially, he kept journals, diaries and all of his correspondence – all of which was written in an open and wittily honest style. Though not all seem to have survived his death, enough found their way into the upper reaches of Whitfield Hall (via his step-daughter, Elizabeth Ord) to give us a fascinating glimpse into the political and social life of the late Georgian era – and all in a most outspoken manner!

Quite apart from his use of offensive nicknames for the leading figures of the day, his greatest ‘scoop’ was being the very first civilian to interview the Duke of Wellington after his famous victory at Waterloo. Creevey, finding himself quite by accident to be living on the doorstep of hostilities in what is now a corner of Belgium in June 1815, mixed with the gathering throng following the Iron Duke’s finest moment. ‘I saw the Duke alone at his window,’ wrote Creevey, ‘Upon his recognizing me, he immediately beckoned me to come up’ – where the great commander poured his heart out to his acquaintance:

It has been a damned serious business... Blucher and I have lost 30,000 men. It has been a damned nice* thing – the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life. … By God! I don't think it would have been done if I had not been there.

(*use of the word ‘nice’ is in the older sense of the word, meaning “uncertain or delicately balanced”, and has sometimes been paraphrased as “a damn close-run thing.”)

It wasn’t the only thing he said to him, but it has become the most oft-quoted – and wouldn’t have made it into the light of day at all but for an accidental find at Whitfield Hall a little over a century ago. The Creevey Papers, as they became known, were part-published in 1903, and the original collection is now held by Northumberland Archives.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Coanwood Friends’ Meeting House (NY709589)

© Copyright Andrew Curtis and licensed for 

Quaker meeting houses are thin on the ground here in the North-East, but the one to be found at a remote spot a couple of miles east of Coanwood, Northumberland, is really rather special. For it is one of the best examples of its kind anywhere of a Society of Friends’ meeting house which has remained unaltered, internally, since its 18th century construction.

As a general rule these sorts of places were almost all remodelled in the Victorian era, but not so that at Coanwood – its remoteness no doubt helping it out in this respect. It was built in 1760 under the directions of Cuthbert Wigham, a local landowner and long-time Quaker, who had previously held meetings in his own house. Externally, the building is of sturdy stone construction, with a roof of Welsh slate – though it is thought this may have originally been heather thatched. Inside, however, little has changed in over two-and-a-half centuries.

© Copyright Mike Quinn and licensed for 

Within its robust outer shell can be found the simplest of layouts. Plain, open-backed pews face onto a raised area at the front where Elders’ benches are situated facing out over the congregation. At the rear is a movable screen designed to create a second room if required (which is heated by a small fireplace) and the whole of the interior is stone-flagged. Outside there is a small graveyard with the characteristically small, rounded headstones of the Quaker type – including that of Cuthbert Wigham, the house’s founder.

The meeting house ceased operating as a Quaker chapel in 1960, but can usually be found open to the passing public.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Wydon Eals Coffins (NY682624)

(image from Archaeologia Aeliana, 1st series, vol 44, 1870)

A little to the north of Featherstone Castle there sits Wydon Eals Farm. Many of the fields hereabouts are rather soggy, low-lying affairs, sitting, as they do, near the River South Tyne. Two centuries ago, a few yards to the NE of the farm, workmen digging drains made an extraordinary discovery in the shape of several ancient log coffins.

The oaken caskets, uncovered in 1825, had been preserved by the swampy conditions, though what few bodily remains still contained within soon turned to dust when exposed to the air. In time, more were discovered – in 1859, 1863 and 1869 – and it is likely that still more remain underground. The most substantial body part found intact across all the finds was that of a skull fragment.

As can be seen from the illustrations, the primitive coffins have the appearance of hollowed-out canoes held together by pegs. For decades they were thought to date from the Bronze Age (c.2500BC – c.800BC), but scientific examination of one of the artefacts in 2011 placed them squarely in the Dark Ages at around the late 7th – early 8th centuries. Obviously, the site must have been a small cemetery of sorts, though there is no other evidence around and about to support the theory.

Some of the coffins found their way into the hands of the Society of Antiquaries in Newcastle, and others were kept at nearby Featherstone Castle – with one possibly ending up in Durham Cathedral. No one will perhaps ever know anything of the people who planted these relics (whether, for example, they were Christian or Pagan), although the land hereabouts is recorded as ‘Temple Land’ in 1223, and was at one time owned by the Dean and Chapter of Carlisle.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Haltwhistle Uncertainties

Quite apart from the misconception about the derivation of its place-name (no, it has nothing to do with trains, stations and whistles), the town of Haltwhistle has several historical and geographical ambiguities which have yet to be put to bed. Here are a few of them:

(1) The locals claim with absolute certainty that their little town is located at the geographical centre of Great Britain. The thing is, it depends on what method of calculation you use to work out such things; and, because of this, several locations across the land make the same claim. It’s complicated, but Haltwhistle’s case is based on the fact that it is on the midpoint of the longest north–south meridian running the length of the country and is also approximately at the midpoint of each of the lines through it across Great Britain along the 16 main compass directions. The claim is in some ways ‘stretching it’ a bit, but in others really quite convincing – the Wikipedia entry here may be of some interest to those of you keen to take the matter further.

(2) The parish church of Holy Cross, Haltwhistle (NY708640), contains an ancient relic known as the ‘old water stoup’. It is a roughly-shaped stone bowl on a stone column and is distinctly unimpressive, if the truth be known. The great Christian missionary, Paulinus – who is known to have been in Northumbria during 625-32AD doing his thing – is said to have used the stoup as a font for baptismal purposes. Possibly. As for its origins, the old font/stoup may well have begun life as a Roman altar. Possibly.
© Copyright Mike Quinn and licensed for reuse 

(3) There is an old disused railway viaduct to the south of Haltwhistle called Alston Arches (NY709638). It spans the River South Tyne before the line it used to carry curled away towards Alston to the south. It is a remarkable and quite beautiful survival, but is especially notable for the conspicuous archways it has running through each of its supporting piers. No one quite knows why they are there. It was once assumed that there was a plan to drive a footway/bridge through the gaps for pedestrian use, which is a lovely (and surely unique) concept; but it is more likely that they were built into the bridge’s construction to lighten the structure’s weight, which is built on timber piles. How boring.
© Copyright Mike Quinn and licensed for reuse 

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

The Hoard that Helped Date the Roman Wall (NY782666)

If you’ve read one of those old histories of the region you may have come across mention of the Roman Wall as Severus’ Wall, rather than that of Emperor Hadrian. The process of change of the origin of the famous structure from the former (c.200AD) to that of the latter (c.120AD) was a gradual, 19th century evolution; and one of the clinching pieces of evidence in favour of Hadrian was the discovery of the Thorngrafton Hoard, which originally saw the light of day in 1837.

The treasure in question was found by a group of workmen who were re-working an old Roman quarry on Barcombe Hill a mile south of the Wall near Bardon Mill (they were mining stone for the construction of the Newcastle-Carlisle railway). The hoard consisted of a bronze arm-purse packed full of coins lodged in a cleft in the rock – seemingly left there by an absent-minded labourer during the Wall’s construction. The majority of the 63 coins were silver, but three were gold. One of the men, Thomas Pattison, was entrusted by the gang with the profitable dispersal of the goods as best he could by hawking them around local markets and pubs.

The Thorngrafton arm-purse 
(from The Monthly Chronicle of North-Country 
Lore & Legend, Nov.1888)

Though he couldn’t quickly move them on, interest in the find did gradually grow – and with it Pattison’s own self-evaluation of the items. The collection was properly scrutinised by ever more expert eyes, until, inevitably, the agents of the Duke of Northumberland tried to enforce the law of treasure trove. To cut a long story short, Pattison then embarked on a prolonged period of cat-and-mouse with the authorities, who, despite obtaining a court order in favour of the Duke, were unable to secure either the coins or Pattison himself, who scarpered to Wales.

The coins had, in fact, been left with Pattison’s brother, William, before his escape south. But the law soon caught up with Thomas and he spent a year in jail in Denbighshire as a debtor (to the extent of the value of the coins, being £18). Returning home a broken man, he lodged with his brother until his early death – after which his sibling continued to guard the hoard against all interested parties. Eventually, though, William gave in, and the hoard was, in 1858, purchased from him by the famous antiquarian, John Clayton of Chesters – who, in turn, was able to obtain the permission of the Duke of Northumberland to retain the treasure.

But what of the coins’ link to the dating of the Wall? Well, it all boiled down to the dates of the coins themselves. Being found in so close a proximity to the Wall, and in a quarry known to have been used for the Wall’s construction, their original ‘loss’ could without doubt be dated to the era in which the great monument was raised. The 63 coins bore the heads of several Roman emperors from Claudius through to Hadrian, but nothing beyond the latter’s reign. Moreover, the Hadrianic coins were in mint condition, and few in number … thus placing their loss – and, therefore, the Wall’s construction – to c.120AD.

Despite the happy ending to the story, the coins were mysteriously lost after the sale of the Clayton estates in 1929, with only drawings made from sealing-wax impressions of them surviving. However, the bronze receptacle in which they were found can still be seen in the museum housing old John Clayton’s collection at Chesters Roman Fort.