Tuesday, 20 February 2018

The Pennine Way & the Great North-East (NY897067)

At a desolate spot high upon the backbone of England, where the modern-day counties of Cumbria, North Yorkshire and County Durham meet, can be found Tan Hill. Famous for it’s desperately isolated inn, it is also the point where the magnificent Pennine Way trail both enters and exits our region. Almost half of its 268-mile long route winds its way through Northumberland and County Durham, providing the fit and healthy among us with some of the most spectacular and historically interesting scenery in Europe.

Running north-south from Kirk Yetholm, a little over the Scottish Border, to Edale in Derbyshire, the trail was devised by keen walker Tom Stephenson, inspired, it is said, by the American Appalachian Trail. A journalist by profession, Stephenson first presented the concept in an article for the Daily Herald as long ago as 1935, and campaigned for an incredible 30 years before the very last section of the path was officially opened on 24th April 1965. Prior to its being thrown before the feet of the British public a comprehensive feasibility study was carried out - including, astonishingly, an on-the-ground hiking test by the British Army conducted by several separate patrols in a single day. In the 50-odd years since, the path has proved to be an outstanding success with around 12,000 long-distance and 250,000 day-users accessing the route per year.

Starting at the top, the UK’s most famous long-distance path begins at the Scottish border town of Kirk Yetholm, quickly angling SE to pick up the border itself and the Cheviot Hills. Clipping the top of the College valley, one is presented with an optional leg to the summit of the Cheviot, before swinging SW (with the border) over heights such as Windy Gyle, Mozie Law and the tasty-sounding hills of Beefstand and Lamb. Skirting the upper reaches of the Coquet basin, it drops down onto Chew Green Roman Camp, away from the line of the border, and thence southwards, eventually, into Redesdale, a little downstream from Catcleugh Reservoir. Easing around the western banks of the Rede, the path ascends Padon Hill, and then drops down directly into Bellingham - and over the River North Tyne.

A mixture of moor and coniferous woodland next, as the trail heads further south towards Hadrian’s Wall country - and almost too much history to bear! Crashing into the Roman Wall itself a little to the west of Housesteads, it staggers over the most dramatic section of the World Heritage Site in a westerly direction. Steel Rigg, Winshield Crags (the Wall’s highest point), Cawfield Crags, Great Chesters Fort - then it strikes across to Thirlwall Castle just north of Greenhead. Finally, the path turns south again, away from the Roman Wall, over Blenkinsopp Common, and into a landscape pockmarked with disused quarries and mining shafts - relics of a different, industrial, age.

Next the route arrows between the Cumbrian border to the west and the River South Tyne to the east, picking up the Maiden Way Roman road for a while, then chasing the River South Tyne valley through Slaggyford and Kirkhaugh - calling in at Whitley Castle Roman Fort, before disappearing into Cumbria.

In Cumbria it snakes through Alston and Garrigill - prime leadmining country - before heading to the top of Cross Fell, which, at 893m, is the highest point on the Pennine Way. After a loop around to Dufton, the walk heads sharply eastwards and back over the North-East border - this time into County Durham, at a point directly under the dam of Cow Green Reservoir.

It’s along the River Tees for a stretch now, as the spectacular Cauldron Snout and High Force waterfalls are taken in. Then, just before Middleton-in-Teesdale, the trail turns west and south, into lands once part of Yorkshire’s North Riding but now, since 1974, belonging to County Durham. Piercing Selset and Grassholme Reservoirs and ditto Balderhead and Blackton Reservoirs, we move thus into Baldersdale and then over Cotherstone Moor. Here the path splits, presenting one with options via Bowes (to the east) or God’s Bridge (to the west) - both of which cross the A66 - before we are directed southwestward up the Sleightholme Beck.

Climbing up and over the moors, Tan Hill finally beckons as the Pennine Way prepares to take us into the foreign land that is North Yorkshire. But there will always be time to drop in at the famous Tan Hill Inn, Britain’s highest pub at 528m.

But, whoa there! Just a minute. North Yorkshire? We’ve come a little too far.

And so ends the Great North-East History Tour, via 500-odd historical stop-offs…

… With occasional updates to (hopefully) follow.

Thanks for tagging along.

If you have enjoyed the ‘tour’ then you may wish to consider a little 'thank you' by way of a PayPal donation via the button in the right-hand column. Enough for a pint would be rather nice. Cheers!

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Wedding Present: Scargill Castle (NZ053107)

© Copyright Stanley Howe and licensed for reuse

Overlooking the River Greta in the deepest depths of Co.Durham (formerly the North Riding of  Yorkshire), sits the scattered - and partly restored - remains of Scargill Castle. Somewhat bizarrely for a historical relic, the most notable period in its long history probably belongs to the last couple of decades... when it was bought and given as a wedding present by one archaeologist to another!

As is so often the case, this castle was never really a castle at all, but rather a fortified manor house. It was founded in the late 12th century by one Warren de Scargill, and would have amounted to a strong stone house (and a few other sundry outbuildings) within a small walled courtyard. As well as offering protection to Warren and his descendants, the local villagers could also be brought within the walls in time of trouble.

By the early 14th century the Scargills had moved on and the ‘castle’ eventually found its way into the hands of the Tunstalls in 1531, around which time it was strengthened, including giving it its now distinctive three-storey gatehouse. However, the castle was abandoned again in the late 1600s, and, other than acting as a home for farm workers and being used as target practice during WWII, nothing notable seems to have happened to it until 1999 when…

… It was purchased by Niall Hardie-Hammond, the county archaeologist for County Durham, to be given by him as a wedding present to his wife, Caroline, who just happened to be the county archaeologist for Northumberland. It only cost him £100, but the substantial and prolonged period of renovation which followed cost them both a fair bit more. To cut a very long story short, the site was stabilised and made structurally safe, before eventually being properly restored - in medieval style - and opened as a holiday let in 2012.

Scargill Castle does have a couple of ‘nearly’ claims to fame. For years stories have circulated about an underground passage leading from the castle to Egglestone Abbey about three miles to the north (unsubstantiated); and for just as long it was thought that King Edward II had stayed there on his way north in 1323… but it turns out that he almost certainly hadn’t.

Readers may remember that the castle featured on Channel 4’s Time Team in January 2009.

Further info here.

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Old Spital, Stainmore (NY910121)

© Copyright N Chadwick and licensed for reuse

These days, the Old Spital equates to the farmhouse building of a roadside farmstead on the infamously desolate A66. It was once an old inn; and previous to that - a very long time ago - a medieval hospital, hence the name. Over the years it has invariably featured in the history books as the venue of a tale of folklore-ish proportions known as the ‘Hand of Glory’.

But, starting at the beginning, the medieval hospital was originally set up in the 12th century by the Abbot of Marrick (Richmondshire). Nearby we can find other similarly named place-names such as Spital Grange, Spital Park and Spital Farm. Over the years the Old Spital has been known by a variety of names: The Spittle-on-Stainmore, Spittle House, then, by the turn of the 19th century, the Spittle Inn (having been rebuilt in the late 18th century).

The ‘Hand of Glory’ incident dates to around this time, c.1800, when George Alderson and his family ran what was described as a ‘homely hostelry’. Helping them out - and central to the story - was a maid called Bella. In those days the ground floor of the building was occupied by stables and the like, and the upper stories were reached by stairs from the road. The story goes that on a stormy October evening, after the inn had been locked up for the night, the occupants were roused by a knock on the door. Alderson had been to Brough Hill Fair that day and had in his possession a large sum of money, so was wary of any unexpected visitors. Anyway, the door was answered and what appeared to be a bent old woman in a cloak and hood was admitted. She refused bed or food, insisting instead that she be allowed to rest by the fire as she had to resume her journey early the next morning. A little suspicious of the strange looking character, Bella the maid was instructed to stay in the room with the old lady and she curled herself up in a blanket feigning sleep.

In time, the mystery visitor stood up, revealing themselves to be a tall man disguised in woman’s clothes. From his cloak he took out a withered human hand - the Hand of Glory - and placed in it a candle. He bent over the maid and muttered: Let all who sleep, sleep on; let those who are awake, be awake.
The candle brightened, and the stranger opened the door, stepped outside onto the stairway and called for his companions. But Bella, still awake, rushed to the door, pushed the man down the stairs, and bolted the door behind him. The family, though, could not be woken - until, that is, she doused the candle with a cup of milk. George Alderson, suitably stirred, then rushed into the room and fired his blunderbuss from a window. After some time there was a shout from the darkness: Give up the Hand of Glory and we'll not harm you.

Another shot was fired ... and no more was heard. The withered old hand was, apparently, kept by the Aldersons for some time before being buried beneath the local gibbet.
In case you’re wondering (and I’m sure you are) a ‘Hand of Glory’ is the dried and pickled hand of a hanged man; and the accompanying candle is made from the fat of a hanged man. The two in combination are supposed to have magical powers, including keeping still a sleeping person to whom they are shown. And milk is the only thing that can dowse such a cursed light.

True story (ahem).