Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Sharp’s Folly (NU058009)


© Copyright J C Ousby and licensed for reuse 

Sharp’s Folly, or Tower, is reckoned to be the oldest folly in Northumberland. It is situated near Whitton, a little to the south of Rothbury, and was built in the 1720s by Rev Dr Thomas Sharp, Rector of Rothbury during 1720-58.

When Sharp (the son of the Archbishop of York) moved to the locality he set up his household in Whitton Tower. He was something of an eccentric, for sure, but, taking pity on the unemployed men of his parish, he hit upon the idea of building the 30-odd foot high ashlar structure as a sort of job-creation scheme.

It wasn’t a folly in the purest sense, though, for the tower, after its construction, was thereafter used as an observatory for the reverend’s astronomical interests. You could see the sea from its summit, apparently, until the nearby trees grew to obscure the view.

The tower is privately owned so the visitor cannot climb its internal cantilevered stone staircase. However, as you can see from the picture, passing hikers can get close enough for a good gawp.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

David Dippie Dixon (NU057017)


Just occasionally, an individual who takes the time and trouble to record the life, times and history of their own little patch manages to attain a sort of historical standing of their own. Put simply, they become famous for being historians. In the countryside around Whittingham and Rothbury, one such character is the distinctively named David Dippie Dixon.

Dixon was born in Whittingham in 1842 and died in Rothbury in 1929. Though he was never what you might call a professional historian, he will forever be remembered for his two seminal works on the history of his homeland, namely, Whittingham Vale, Northumberland: its History, Traditions, and Folk-Lore (1895) and Upper Coquetdale, Northumberland: its History, Traditions, Folk-Lore and Scenery (1903).

His unusual middle name was actually his paternal grandmother’s maiden name, and he was born, brought up and schooled in Whittingham, a few miles north of Rothbury. From the age of 13 he worked in his father’s drapery and grocery shop in the village, then, in 1862, he entered into formal partnership with his dad when a second shop was opened in Rothbury. In 1869 he married Mary Hindhaugh and they lived above the Rothbury shop.

Always interested in local history, over the years he investigated various aspects of the landscape around and about his native land. Folklore, traditions, songs, archaeology, wildlife, culture – all of these, and more, took the interest of the young man as he threw himself into recording the past by joining a multitude of societies and organisations. Naturally, he edited the local parish magazine, and even found time to act as a guide for visitors to the area.

The couple’s only child was born in 1870, after which Dixon went into business with his brother. His many, many years of historical investigations eventually bore fruit in the publication of his two classic books either side of the turn of the century.  His brother, John, illustrated the works. Though original (and expensive) first editions can still occasionally be found, Whittingham Vale and Upper Coquetdale have since been reprinted several times and are still considered standard texts for those interested in the history of the area.

As is so often the case, the original author never profited greatly from his efforts. In fact, his business hit the rails in 1911 and he was forced into retirement. Fortunately, though, he was offered a role as live-in librarian at the nearby Cragside estate, where he and his wife saw out their days. The couple were buried in Rothbury.


Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Cragside: the Facts (NU073022)



Cragside, an extraordinary country house on the outskirts of Rothbury, is arguably the North-East’s greatest ever creation, with a history as eventful and notable as any structure of its kind worldwide. Here are some of the better known facts of its life and times:

  • Originally a sporting lodge, it was built in 1863 by local industrialist, Lord (William) Armstrong (1810-1900), and subsequently extended thereafter thanks to architect Richard Norman Shaw;
  • It was the first house in the world to be lit be hydroelectric power (in 1878);
  • It originally had arc lamp-type lighting, and then became Joseph Swan’s first major project employing his new-fangled incandescent electric lighting system in 1880;
  • As well as lighting, this early form of electricity supply powered countless labour-saving devices, such as an internal passenger lift, laundry equipment and a spit (rotisserie). There were also extraordinary Victorian luxuries such as hot and cold running water, central heating, a Turkish bath suite, a hot room, a rain shower, a plunge bath and even a fire hydrant ring main;
  • It has seven million trees and shrubs (from all over the world), five artificial lakes, and 31 miles of carriage drives – all created in Armstrong’s day;
  • It is home to the largest Scots Pine tree in the UK (131ft), planted in the late 19th century;
  • It once contained an astronomical observatory and a scientific laboratory;
  • Lord Armstrong entertained the likes of the Shah of Persia and the King of Siam at Cragside; as well as the Prince and Princess of Wales;
  • It is fronted by one of Europe’s largest rock gardens;
  • It has been in the care of the National Trust since 1977;
  • In 2014, a 17-metre long Archimedes Screw was installed which generates around 10% of the property’s power.


And, best of all, it is open to the public!


Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Woeful Wreighill (NT977019)


Of the stories concerning the many ‘lost villages’ that lie scattered across the North-East the saddest of them all is surely that of the cursed township of Wreighill in the parish of Rothbury, Coquetdale. Today only a farm bearing the ancient name clings to the lofty prominence to the north-west of Hepple; the sole reminder of the tragic little village whose name was once synonymous with death and destruction.

Its roots lie deep in the mists of antiquity.  Lying yards to the east of the Roman road which links the Devil’s Causeway to Dere Street, 5½ miles west of Rothbury, many ancient bones have been discovered high on its hill.  The Romans – invariably occupiers of settlements previously conquered – have left their own faint remains of a camp, too, in the area. For a millennium after the Romans departed its progress remains a mystery, indeed its very existence throughout the Dark and Middle Ages remains in doubt.  Suffice to say that by the late fifteenth century it was known as Wreigh- or Wreck-Hill – for reasons I will now attempt to explain.

Being situated on the western-most extremity of the Coquet valley, the few dozen inhabitants were frequent victims of the infamous Border reivers.  On countless occasions Scottish raiders descended the Cheviot foothills around the turn of the fifteenth century only to find the poor village in their way.  It became a way of life for the villagers, but they simply refused to be beaten, regularly standing up stoically to their foe.  The Scottish freebooters, though, vowed to some day make them pay for their determined resistance.  Undaunted, the villagers defiantly stood their ground as best they could over the months and years, but pay they finally would on the fateful night of 25th May 1412.

On that terrible Wednesday evening a mighty Scottish band appeared on the horizon and the troubled locals braced themselves again, fearing the worst.  A fierce encounter ensued but, overpowered by numbers and might of arms, the village was overrun.  Its inhabitants were slaughtered, many being pursued long into the night until not a soul remained, the village itself being burnt and laid waste.  Until the early years of the twentieth century the phrase “the Woeful Wednesday of the Wreck-Hill” was an oft used metaphor in those parts to all that pertained to cruel, total and mindless slaughter.  Thus, on account of its fateful existence, the village came to be known as Wreck-Hill.  “Wreigh” was a convenient enough derivative, and the reasoning for the development of the present-day place-name held good for a long while.  But this story is not the source from which the village’s name is drawn, and the truth, though quite different, remains equally as morbid.

“Wreigh” is, in fact, derived from the Old English wearg, meaning a felon or wrong-doer; and Wreigh-Hill, or Felon’s Hill, was where such offenders were put to death – not by hanging but by strangulation!  It is likely that nearby Wreigh Burn was simply named after the village, but not impossible that its meaning is identical to that of Throckley’s Wreigh Burn, i.e. the burn where undesirables were summarily drowned.

By and by, as the violent age of the Border reivers and the moss troopers passed into history, so the village recovered.  In 1665, however, came a second great calamity, as the isolated settlement was tragically and almost entirely wiped out by the Plague.  The story goes that a small parcel was opened by a Miss Handyside which had been sent to her by a young gentleman in London – where, of course, the terrible disease was then raging – whereupon the deadly pestilence sprung out and spread over the whole village, poor Miss Handyside being its first victim.  By all accounts almost everyone suffered, with only a few hardy folk surviving, who themselves interred their dead where neither plough nor spade would ever turn them up.  A century later, though, when the potato arrived in the area, the steep slopes under which the dead lay were put to use and countless brittle bones were unearthed.

Thankfully, however, little Wreighill is most recently remembered as being the birthplace of the once nationally famous mathematical genius, young George Coughran.  Born in 1752, the son of a Wreighill farmer, Coughran showed signs of his extraordinary talent in his infancy.  Thrust uncompromisingly into the fields of his father’s business as a child (where he also excelled), he continued his studies part-time at every opportunity.  He began to correspond with the Newcastle Courant, anonymously, arousing great public interest and admiration.  His identity revealed, he became the subject of great local and national acclaim, securing many awards.  He eventually became Calculator to the Astronomer Royal (a sort of human computer), rising to the height of his fame as the country’s outstanding genius of his time, before being tragically struck down at the age of 21 by smallpox in Newcastle in 1774.  He was buried in the town’s St. Andrew’s churchyard.

After the turn of the nineteenth century Wreighill’s population never topped 30.  As the Industrial Revolution gathered pace and the masses flocked to Newcastle for work, Wreighill, and villages like it, emptied.  Only the old stayed, and when they died so the villages died – and this is the real reason behind the deaths of so many hamlets and villages across the country.  Thus Wreighill went under for the third and final time, contracting to a small farm by 1900, which it remains to this day.


[this article has appeared in several forms and various publications over the years, including among the pieces contained in the still-available Aspects of North-East History, Vol.2 – see here]


Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Holystone: Lies & Legend (NT952029)


© Copyright Andrew Curtis and licensed for reuse 

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Biddlestone Chapel (NT955084)


© Copyright Les Hull and licensed for reuse 

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Ingram Oddities (NU019163)


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


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

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


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

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

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

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


Tuesday, 9 June 2015

The Ballad of Chevy Chase


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

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

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

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

So that’s that cleared up, then.


Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Robert Roddam of Roddam Hall (NU025205)



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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Ilderton & Royal Genealogies (NU017218)


There is a story – a legend, almost – concerning the little village of Ilderton in the shadow of the Cheviots and an illegitimate line of descent from Charles II. It is a nice illustration of how a family can fall so quickly and completely from grace, leaving, of course, a trail of rumours and half-truths in their disappearing wake.

One of King Charles II’s many illegitimate offspring was thought to have been a chap by the name of Charles Dartiquenave (born about 1664), though he was not officially ‘recognised’ as such. Much of the evidence for his suspected regal roots stems from the man’s blessed career path, which, it has been assumed, was guided by the royal hand. Charles loved the high life, and enjoyed his various positions to their full extent. A carefully chosen wife ensured further riches, and he died in comfort at Albury, Hertfordshire, in 1737.

His son, also called Charles, enjoyed a respectable army career, inheriting his father’s many and varied possessions, too, it seems. Charles Junior died in 1748, leaving several young children, among them Charles Peter, Anne and Dorothy. The first named succeeded to the family residence, Patmer Hall (in Albury), but eventually sold the estate in 1775 for reasons unknown. For equally obscure reasons, he (together with his two sisters) then migrated several hundred miles north to take up the tenancy of Ilderton Hall, Northumberland, in 1776. Little is known of his life there, but he was a churchwarden for most of the 1780s.

By 1792, though, Charles had managed to squander his resources, and his entire farming stock and equipment, together with all of his household items and possessions, were sold at auction. His creditors were invited to grab what they could in the ensuing melee, and Charles scarpered to Alnwick (some sources suggest a legal dispute over his tenancy agreement of Ilderton Hall contributed to the move). He lived in a plain house, but maintained a coach and the title of a ‘gentleman’ until his death in 1801, aged 58. However, the man – a great grandson of King Charles II – doesn’t seem to have left a will, which is perhaps indicative of the financial depths to which he had dragged the family line.

Note: It is worth noting, too, that Charles’ sister, Dorothy, to whom he was very close, died in suspicious circumstances at Ilderton Hall prior to them vacating the property. Her supposed violent death resulted in a hasty burial in the garden, it was said. Stains which remain on one of the staircases of the hall are reputed to have been caused by blood from the wounds inflicted on Dorothy by her attacker.


Wednesday, 20 May 2015

The Cheviot (NT909205)


The author conquers The Cheviot in 2007

The summit of the region’s highest mountain, The Cheviot, is an uninspiring affair. Its whaleback form covers a huge area – big enough, it was once said, to hold an army. Covered by a sticky peak bog, it has recently been made more accessible by the laying of large flags which guide one to the hefty trig point. Still, though, it’s worth a climb – if only to say you’ve done it.

  • Location: North Northumberland, about 1 mile from the Scottish border to the west
  • At 815m (2,674ft) it is the highest peak in the Cheviot Hills
  • Outside of Cumbria, it is England’s highest mountain (if one includes Cumbria it is No.35 on the list)
  • Most northerly major peak of the Pennine Way (via a slight detour)
  • It forms part of a long-extinct volcano, created between 360-480 million years ago
  • The present, giant summit marker is the third of of its kind – the previous two having sunk into the mire
  • It is officially designated as a ‘Marilyn’
  • Protected as part of the Northumberland National Park


Tuesday, 12 May 2015

The Cheviot Memorial (NT888252)


© Copyright Russel Wills and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

© Copyright Russel Wills and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

In the College Valley a little to the north of Cheviot summit lies a beautifully maintained WWII memorial. It is surely the most remote item of its kind in the UK, being kept company only by the sober and modest 1960s creation that is Cuddystone Hall. It was unveiled as recently as 1995 (the 50th anniversary of VE Day), being a tribute to the Allied airmen who lost their lives in the hills thereabouts during 1939-45.

The front of the polished slate monument reads:

In
Memory
of
the Allied
Airmen
who lost their
lives on the
Cheviots
1939-45
Per Ardua Ad Astra

The Latin line is the RAF’s motto and means ‘Through adversity to the stars’. It was erected in a long overdue acknowledgement of not only the loss of the men involved in the thirteen individual incidents, but also of the brave efforts of those who ventured out into the hills on rescue missions in search of survivors. A map is inscribed on the top of the monolith showing the sites of the crashes, in which 30-odd men perished.

The 1995 ceremony was conducted in the presence of the Duke of Gloucester, as well as other dignitaries and those with connections to the airmen killed. It was restored in 2005.

Note: A German aircraft also met its fate in the Cheviots during WWII.


Tuesday, 5 May 2015

The Collingwood Oaks (NT899289)


© Copyright Andrew Curtis and licensed for 

When our esteemed local hero, Cuthbert Collingwood, was elevated to the status of ‘Lord’ in the aftermath of the Battle of Trafalgar, he became ‘Baron Collingwood, of Caldburne and Hethpool, in the County of Northumberland’. And, being in possession of a fair old chunk of the lower College Valley, he determined to take advantage of the fact and do his bit for the future of the Royal Navy.

Collingwood, you see, was mad keen on planting acorns – with a view to ensuring the future supply of English Oak for the replenishing of the Fleet. When he was home on leave he would often be seen wandering the hills with his dog, Bounce, and a pocket full of acorns. He would plant and scatter them here and there as he went – and would encourage his friends and acquaintances to do likewise.

It seems he had great plans for his patch of real estate in the Cheviots; but when he died a few short years later in 1810, well, his grand design seemed destined never to leave the drawing board. However, his widow, Sarah, stepped into the breach and made quite sure that her husband’s final wish came true. For, in 1815, she oversaw the planting of 200 oak trees on the flank of The Bell, on the western bank of the College Burn, near Hethpool. One for every ship in the Royal Navy, it was said.

The great oak wood was never needed, of course, as warship technology moved on to iron-clad vessels and beyond. And so the Collingwood Oaks were allowed to mature into the 200-year-old beauties we see today.

Note: On the other side of the road which runs up the valley – directly opposite the Collingwood Oaks – was planted another wood in 2005. Called the ‘Trafalgar Wood’, it was created to mark the 200th anniversary of the famous battle. Oaks, of course.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Yeavering 2: Ad Gefrin (NT927305)


© Copyright Ken Bagnall and licensed for reuse 

In the shadow of the mighty Yeavering Bell hillfort to the south was built one of Northumbria’s ancient royal palaces, Ad Gefrin. This was around 580-600AD, a little before the dawn of the kingdom’s ‘Golden Age’. Within a century or so it had been abandoned, but enough of it remained for it to be dramatically rediscovered in the late 20th century and identified as one of England’s most significant Anglo-Saxon sites.

Yeavering had long been a centre of attraction for Northumbria’s early settlers. From the Stone Age to the end of the Iron Age, its hillfort had been the subject of reverence. We’re not quite sure what became of this lofty settlement during the Roman period (by which time it was falling out of use), but when the legions had gone and were replaced by new invaders from the continent, the Angles, the area was to make a spectacular return to prominence.

Such was the strength of the collective memory in these parts that the new palace of the Anglian royal family was given the name Ad Gefrin, a clear corruption of the old Yeavering placename. It wasn’t a permanent abode for the top brass, but more of a temporary affair – with the king travelling his kingdom non-stop, dispensing justice and favours and collecting rents as he went. It is thought that a place such as Ad Gefrin may have been utilised once or twice a year. Perhaps the most famous of these stop-overs was when King Edwin, following his marriage to a Christian princess, invited a Roman missionary up from Kent in 627AD to baptise most of the local population. At Ad Gefrin there appears to have been a huge Main, or Great, Hall, a theatre, several specialist outbuildings (some of them very large) and a ‘great enclosure’.

The writings of Bede, compiled a few years after Ad Gefrin passed into history (probably before 700AD), kept the loose story of the famous old site alive for the ensuing millennia or so. Then, with the development of aerial photography in the mid-twentieth century, traces began to be unearthed of the site and the pieces were gradually put back together. During 1953-62 extensive archaeological work brought the palace back from the dead, and it was obvious to all concerned that this was a major discovery. Bede’s famed Ad Gefrin had been found.

As well as the size of the buildings and the extent of the site, it is apparent that the royal complex was built into an existing landscape of occupation. There is even a suggestion that the Christian temple which was found had most probably been converted from a pagan equivalent. The experts reckon, too, that the site may have been destroyed by fire and rebuilt twice during its relatively short lifetime. In time, though, the rulers thought it best to move on, and the magnificent venue at Yeavering was left to rot.

See also the official website.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Yeavering 1: Yeavering Bell (NT928293)


Of all the magical, mystical locations in the entire North-East of England, many would argue that the twin-peaked hill of Yeavering Bell on the edge of the Cheviots is the most evocative of them all. It is the much heralded site of the region’s largest Iron Age hillfort – with a grand history stretching back further still.

It is not a huge hill at a modest 361m (1,182ft), but such is its situate on the very northern edge of the Cheviot range overlooking the rivers Glen and Till and the Milfield Basin that it has always loomed large over the lives of those who have lived there. From at least the late Neolithic period (around 4-5,000 years ago) man has looked up in awe and wonder at the Bell, using it to align stones and monuments – and to build a temple there, too. Among a patchwork of ancient remains a Neolithic burial cairn adorns the eastern summit.

During the Bronze Age (2000BC – 800BC), again, man made use of the hill – there is certainly plenty of evidence of burials in the immediate vicinity. But it is in the Iron Age (800BC – 50AD) that the site came into its own, and it is from this era that the encircling wall on Yeavering summit dates. It would have been a tribal stronghold of the mighty Votadini, with walls 10ft thick and 8ft high in places enclosing a spacious 12 acres.

The remains of around 130 stone and timber roundhouses, as well as the wall itself, can still be made out – the latter being still remarkably substantial. This equates to a sizeable settlement for its day, though no one has quite been able to work out why it was situated where it was (on top of an exposed hilltop). Perhaps it was a safe, defendable position, a high status location, a combination of both, or perhaps something else entirely. There are four entrances to the ‘fort’, one of which incorporates a guard-house; additionally, there is an inner, much smaller fort.

There is still much to learn about Northumberland’s premier archaeological site. No one seems to know exactly when, or why, it was abandoned (though finds there extend into the Romano-British period). However, the hill’s magnetic appeal never did fade completely, as a little after the Romans left a royal palace would spring up in the shadow of Yeavering Bell about a mile to the north.

Copyright issues prevent me from reproducing images from elsewhere, but some great pictures can be found here. The fort is open to the public – see the leaflet available here.


Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Flodden: What Happened to James IV? (NT890371)



Most history fans will know all about the Battle of Flodden of 1513. Big English victory, crushing Scottish defeat … and the Scots lost their king on the battlefield, too, of course. However, in the blood, mayhem and general confusion that followed, no one seems to quite know for sure what became of James IV’s body. If he died at all, that is.

Accounts of almost all aspects of the story vary – sometimes wildly. What is known for sure is that his army lost heavily and his reign very much ended on that fateful autumn day a little over 500 years ago. He was almost certainly slain in the field, possibly after having stripped himself of his royal regalia to prove he could and would fight as fiercely as any ordinary soldier. He was known to be fearless in the fray and such a demise would not have been out of character.

In the mess that was left after the battle it could not have been easy identifying the ex-monarch, especially if he’d removed his royal garb. Lord Dacre was supposed to have found the corpse, probably on the small hill on Branxton Ridge overlooking Branxton Church. Dacre then had the body taken to Berwick, where it was identified by two Scottish courtiers, before it was embalmed and taken, firstly, to Newcastle, then York, and afterwards onto London (Sheen Priory in Surrey). In the meantime, what was left of the late king’s royal gear found its way to Durham Cathedral.

There was a suggestion that the body be forwarded to English King Henry VIII, but this seemingly never happened. Then rumours of James’ survival began circulating. In Lucan-esque fashion, he was spotted abroad on several occasions, having slipped away at the height of the battle and thence into exile in far off lands; and there were counter-rumours that he had escaped the battlefield and was caught and killed during the Scottish retreat. Some claimed that the recovered corpse was actually that of a ‘Lord Bonhard’.

The ‘official’ body lay at Sheen Priory, London, for a good while. Henry VIII wanted to show some respect and have it interred at St.Paul’s, but as James had been excommunicated this proved difficult and it seems to have just kicked around the priory for years. After the Reformation it seems to have gone missing, though another story has it that the head was secreted away and hurriedly buried in the charnel pit of St.Michael’s Wood Street in the centre of London. This church has long since disappeared, and the site is now occupied by a pub (ironically called The Red Herring). Sheen Priory, on the other hand, is now a golf course.

But check out these, too:-
  • Two Scottish castles claim (without any evidence) to be the true burial site of James;
  • In the 18th century, the owners of Hume Castle in Berwickshire found a skeleton with an identifying chain belt down its well – which then either went missing or was whisked off for burial at Holyrood Abbey;
  • … Roxburgh Castle has made a similar claim;
  • And then there was the story of the ‘royal body’ pulled out of the ground somewhere near Kelso;
  • Oh, and there is also a tall tale involving spectral riders snatching the body from the battlefield to prevent the English getting their hands on it.

Deary me.

At last, though, a fact: if King James IV of Scotland was slain in the mud and blood of Flodden Field, which is very likely, then he achieved the notable feat of being the last Scottish – or, indeed, British – monarch to be killed in battle. But can we have such a fact without a body?


Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Branxton’s Cement Menagerie (NT894376)


© Copyright Andrew Curtis and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Until the last few decades the town of Branxton, North Northumberland, was famous for only one thing: it was the site of the Battle of Flodden. A few short yards to the south, the largest battle ever fought between England and Scotland was played out across a couple of nondescript fields in 1513. Branxton’s church, in fact, acted as a temporary mortuary to many of the thousands of dead that the encounter threw up.

Of late, though – and including through to the present – visitors to the village may well be calling in in pursuit of a very different tourist attraction: The Cement Menagerie. First conceived of in the early 1960s it quickly grew to unfeasibly large proportions and, as a crowd-pleaser, it is surely unique here in the UK, and quite possibly globally.

It’s on display in the garden of The Fountain House: around 300 ‘art brut’ statues crammed into less than an acre of space – and all open to the public, too, for free. It was created by a couple of pensioners, primarily for the entertainment of their disabled son, whom they insisted on looking after themselves at home rather than having him institutionalised. The names of the two eccentrics were John and Mary Fairnington, and that of their only child (who was born late to them), Edwin. Incredibly, the project wasn’t started until after John, who was a joiner, had retired in 1961, aged 80… and they just carried on rolling out the statues for around a decade until Edwin’s death in 1971. A former work colleague of John’s, James Beveridge, lent a considerable hand, too.

The figures were made from wire netting, stuffed with newspapers, then cemented over and painted. The garden has slowly developed around them – the ‘them’ in question being animals, in the main, but also including some local village characters and famous folk such as Churchill and Lawrence of Arabia. There is also a shrine to Robert Burns, as well as many little poems and ditties of his (and others) scattered here and there.

Old John died in 1981, aged 98, and the garden, by a circuitous route, eventually ended up back in the family’s possession – and it is now cared for by his present-day relatives.

A lovely piece of modern-day history…


Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Carham: the Battles & the Border (NT798383 & thereabouts)


The tiny village of Carham lies in the very north-west corner of Northumberland, at the point where the Anglo-Scottish border breaks away from the line of the Tweed and cuts southwards across country towards the Cheviots. It is known for not one, but two, battles, of which the consequences of the second led to the establishment of the present-day frontier between the two nations.

Battle No.1 is a shadowy affair. It took place in 833AD between the Danes and the English, at a time when the border itself didn’t really exist (the whole region forming part of the kingdom of Northumbria). The Danes, who were ‘on the up’ at the time, were flexing their muscles against a declining Northumbria and routed the defenders, killing ‘eleven bishops, two counts and a great number of people’ in the process. Within thirty or so years, Northumbria was a puppet kingdom of the new-fangled Danelaw.

Whereas the 833 battle took place probably quite near to the village (a little to the south-west, we think), the second encounter in the early eleventh century more than likely occurred two or three miles to the east in a field between Wark and Coldstream (indeed, this second battle is sometimes called the Battle of Coldstream). And we don’t even know the exact year for this one – but it was either 1016 or 1018.

By this time the Scots were trying to exercise ever greater control over Northumbria’s northern lands (Lothian and what we now know as the Border counties), and it was they who seemingly provoked the flashpoint in question. Though England existed as a united nation at the time, the defence of the attack was left to a local Northumbrian army. And the Scots, led by King Malcolm II and Owain of Strathclyde, won the day.

The victory established Scottish rule in the present-day south-east area of Scotland, being essentially the land north of the Tweed - though there is some dispute about the significance of the battle, as the Lothian region may effectively have been ceded by the English much earlier. What is not in dispute, though, is that the (second) Battle of Carham put the matter beyond doubt.

This didn’t stop the Scots trying their very best to push the border ever southwards (most notably during 1139-57 when they ‘ruled’ as far south as the Tees). However, the boundary eventually fell back to the line of the Tweed as a result of the Treaty of York in 1237, where it has stayed ever since … apart from the odd little tweak here and there!


Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Twizel: the Castle That Didn’t Quite Make it (NT883434)


© Copyright Lisa Jarvis and licensed for reuse 

Twizel Castle is a curious affair. It began life as a plain old mansion house/tower, almost became a sort of mock castle and ended up being a man-made ruin as its masonry was plundered by its owner for a new home. Essentially, it is one of our best examples of how much time and money the very rich can waste when they put their minds to it.

What is left of the building stands above a bend in the River Till, overlooking a notable medieval bridge which shares its name. Nearby can be found the scant remains of a deserted village. Originally, a tower house stood on the site, dating back to at least 1415 when a Sir John Heron ruled the roost. This structure was twice visited by the Scots: once, in 1496, to destroy it; and a few years later they passed by again on the way to their defeat at Flodden (1513). The Selbys soon afterwards took over the plot, though the tower remained a ruin, and despite substantial subsequent redevelopment a few of these original medieval remnants can still be made out.

In 1685, the Blakes bought the estate, though they spent much of their time at nearby Tillmouth Hall. From the 1770s, though, they finally decided to splash the cash, and Sir Francis Blake embarked on a ‘Gothic Revival’-type renovation job on the sad old pile of stones. The project went on and on and on – long beyond Sir Francis’ death – for nigh on half a century, until work fizzled out in the early Victorian era. In the 1880s, the family built a new mansion elsewhere on the estate, and Twizel Castle hung on as an empty, unfinished shell for ages. It appears that the structure was never even lived in.

Twizel Castle (and Bridge), probably around 1900.

If you’re thinking that the mighty-looking edifice has decayed rather speedily in a century or so, this can be explained by the fact that its owners (the Blakes) recycled stonework in their various building projects elsewhere – including their new mansion at Tillmouth Park – with bits and bobs finding their way into Norham Station, too, apparently. As a result, it went from a magnificent five storey affair to the two storey ruin we see today.


Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Norham and North Durham (NT899473)


Anyone who knows anything about the ancient history of Northumbria will be aware of the region’s strong links with early Christianity. Aidan, Cuthbert and Bede dominate the annals of our history from the former’s arrival here as a missionary in 635AD to the latter’s death exactly a century later. And the village we now know as Norham on the very edge of England overlooking the River Tweed played an important role in those formative years.

These days, of course, the castle is the great symbol of Norham’s place in history, but this fine structure didn’t appear in its earliest form until the 1120s. Unlike most other settlements in the North-East, the village had already enjoyed an eventful and quite well documented history up until this point, mainly due to its situate.

Skipping conveniently over its very earliest days, it came to prominence most notably at the dawn of Northumbria’s period of Dark Age dominance in the 630sAD. When King Oswald won the crown of the northern kingdom in 634 he invited the Celtic monks of Iona to establish Christianity in the region – and it was, of course, Aidan who made this happen. He was sent over from the little Scottish island in 635 and, by passing over the Tweed and through Norham en route, he first brought the village into the sightlines of the religious community.

Norham was then called Ubbanford (‘upper ford’), and though Lindisfarne soon became religious HQ, it has been suggested that Norham enjoyed a brief period of superiority beforehand. Even in later years it remained a regular monkish stopping-off point on their journeys to and from Iona. A grant of land was, in fact, made to create a monastery at Norham as early as 655.

The village’s religious links were reinforced during the ninth century when on at least one (and probably two) occasions, the remains of St.Cuthbert were moved there to keep them safe from Viking raids. By the mid eleventh century Ubbanford had become Norham, and was essentially the capital of the County Palatine of Durham’s lands in North Northumberland – or North Durham, as it was for centuries known. So, yes, Norham (or Norhamshire) and a good deal more of the northern reaches of Northumberland weren’t in Northumberland at all, really, from the medieval period to the Victorian era, but rather they were part of County Durham – a curious state of affairs brought on by the enduring religious heritage of these stretches of land. Amazingly, it wasn’t until 1844 that the common sense switch was made by handing North Durham to Northumberland. 

When the castle came along in the 1120s, it was a Bishop of Durham who commissioned it. Built to keep the incursions of the increasingly boisterous Scots at bay, it encouraged the development, in time, of the the village proper. Then another very different phase in Norham’s history began… as a military outpost.

But that’s another story.