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.