Tuesday, 27 January 2015

The Battle of Humbleton Hill (NT969294)

© Copyright Lisa Jarvis and licensed for reuse 

The Battle of Humbleton (or Homildon) Hill took place on 14th September 1402 on a site a couple of miles NW of Wooler. It pitched the Scots against the English, and was famously mentioned by William Shakespeare in his historical epic, Henry IV, Pt1. It resulted in a resounding victory for the English, but was not effectively followed up, suggesting that the loss of life was largely in vain.

The Scots were getting particularly ambitious at the time due to Henry IV’s preoccupation with the troublesome Welsh further south. An initial set-to at Nesbit Moor in Berwickshire in June 1402 had seen the Scots defeated, but they continued snapping away at the English heels. In August the Earl of Douglas led a 10,000-strong army south, devastating Northumberland as far as Newcastle. Turning back north laden with plunder, they set up camp at Milfield north of Wooler. The English, though, weren’t prepared to let them get away, and the Earl of Northumberland, assisted by his son, Harry Hotspur, cut them off and forced them into battle.

As the two armies circled one another, the Scots settled on the rising ground north of Humbleton Hill in the foot of the Cheviots. They moved into their ‘Schiltron’ formations – thus providing the deadly English archers with mightily easy targets. The victorious bowmen struck most probably from the high land around Harehope Hill, with most of the Scottish casualties finding their final resting places in the plain to the north and east as they sped for safety – and into the arms of the main body of their foe. Many thousands of Scots perished, with only a handful of English dead – and all in the space of an hour or so.

The English, though, didn’t push ahead with a full-scale invasion of Scotland, preferring instead to concentrate on their Welsh problem. The Percy family – Harry Hotspur and his father amongst them – wasn’t best pleased with the tame aftermath and eventually turned against Henry IV. Both father and son ultimately lost their lives in failed rebellions against the English monarch in the ensuing years.

The Bendor ‘Battle Stone’ has traditionally marked the spot of the 1402 conflict – though it is most likely a Bronze Age standing stone, ancient cists having been found thereabouts.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Wooler and the New World (NT993283)

The town of Wooler may now be known as the ‘Gateway to the Cheviots’, but for one brief moment in time during the nineteenth century it offered locals a portal to a very different wilderness: the open expanses of the Canadian eastern provinces.

Whereas many folk were encouraged to move to or visit the town for its renowned health benefits (including famous names such as Grace Darling, Virginia Woolf and Sir Walter Scott), in the 1830s townsfolk were actively urged to make the long journey to New Brunswick, Canada, in an attempt to better themselves. A publicity drive by the New Brunswick Land Company in both North Northumberland and the Scottish Lowlands was launched “for the purpose of engaging families to settle on the company’s lands.”

The organisation was operating under British colonial rule which was encouraging such companies to open up large tracts of land for the purpose of “the profit of their colonial shareholders”. By chance, it seems, the residents of the Border area were targeted and information sessions were held at Ford Castle. In May 1836 the D’Arcy sailed from Berwick with its first batch of settlers – 110 in number – which had been drawn mainly from Lowland Scotland, plus a few from the Wooler area. They arrived safely and settled in Stanley in New Brunswick

Almost exactly a year later a further 137 followed them aboard the Cornelius, the majority of which this time came from Wooler and its environs. This second tranche again headed for New Brunswick, but instead (and after a dispute with the authorities) made for a virgin patch of ground and founded the little town of Harvey.

The emigrants were primarily farm labourers and their families, but included a sprinkling of tradesmen – just the sort needed in the New World. Of the Wooler contingent of the second party, two-thirds were labourers, one a teacher and eight were tradesmen: 2 millers, 2 carpenters, plus a mason, blacksmith, tailor and shopkeeper.

That was all a very long time ago, but, yes, both places still exist today. Stanley is a little to the north of Fredericton in the central area of New Brunswick, and Harvey is a few miles to the SW of the said town. As for the Wooler ‘stronghold’ of Harvey, well, it was a struggle initially, but in the decade or so after 1837 many friends and relatives arrived from Northumberland to join the first arrivals – and there are now thousands of descendants of these pioneers spread across North America. And in 2007, more than 100 of these descendants gathered at Ford Castle for the ‘Harvey Settler Reunion’ event.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Messerschmitt Over Chatton (NU055287)

On the 10th May 1941, with World War II occupying the hearts and minds of every Briton, Billy Green, who was Head Observer for the Royal Observer Corps in Chatton, was off duty and at a loose end. Billy lived at West Lyham, which lies on the road leading north from Chatton, and as night fell he thought he’d have a wander off along the said road (Sandy Lonnen) to visit his pals on duty at the ROC post.

Hearing a disturbing noise from the heavens, he looked upwards into the gloaming and spotted the distinctive outline of a Messerschmitt ME110 flying overhead at great speed and at extremely low altitude (50ft). He did the right thing and reported it to ROC HQ in Durham, who reported it on further. The response, however, was a firm rebuttal, with the experts insisting this was impossible due to the aircraft’s fuel range. Billy firmly insisted in no uncertain terms that it was, indeed, a Messerschmitt, heading fast inland from the North Sea – and they presumably agreed to disagree.

But Billy was right. The aeroplane was again picked up at Milfield and several other posts besides, until it was reported as having crashed in Lanarkshire. The pilot, though, had ejected and was soon captured. He gave a false name and insisted on speaking to the Duke of Hamilton, for whom he had an important message. His mission was to discuss peace terms with the British.

His name was Rudolf Hess.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

The Slaying of the Chillingham Bull (NU075255)

The wild white cattle which roam the huge expanse of Chillingham Park are perhaps the region’s most treasured natural curiosity. But they are not to be messed with, for they really are genuinely wild. Of ancient descent (no one knows quite how old), they have remained hemmed in and protected, yes, but you wouldn’t want to casually wander across the park amongst them… for there’s a pretty good chance they’d have a go at you.

Though they are undomesticated and quite often aggressive, they are very, very special specimens. Numbering around 100, they are rarer than pandas and genetically identical to one another, such is the depth of their inbreeding. They are the purest of pure-breds, and are therefore very carefully looked after and highly prized by us North-Easterners.

However, despite their importance they have not always been as well protected as they are today. Amazingly, as recently as October 1872, the prize Chillingham Bull was slain in the name of sport by Edward, Prince of Wales.

His Royal Highness was at the time being entertained at Chillingham Castle by The Earl of Tankerville, when it was announced that to mark the occasion he would shoot the ‘noblest specimen of the herd.’ So on the morning of 17th October 1872 he set out across the nearby park hidden in the hay cart that was carrying the poor animals their breakfast. As the herd congregated for their feed, it wasn’t especially difficult for the royal rifle to pick out the unsuspecting male in question, and the magnificent beast was soon exterminated:

His Royal Highness brought down the king of the herd by a single rifle shot, his bullet entering the neck and severing the spinal cord. It was a fine bull, seven years old, and weighing 70st.
[The Illustrated London News, Nov 16 1872]

It was, as was later reported, “scarcely a feat to warrant any unusual jubilation”, yet the ‘achievement’ was captured for posterity by a photographer when the beast was shoved under the royal foot on the castle lawn later that day. The sketch shown above was copied from the said snap and published in The Monthly Chronicle of North-Country Lore & Legend in March 1889.

The bull’s head was mounted and found its way to the hall at Sandringham in Norfolk. Is it, I wonder, still there?

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Hepburn Bastle (NU071249)

© Copyright Russel Wills and licensed for reuse 

You don’t have to meander through the history of Northumberland for very long before you stumble over the terms bastle, pele tower and fortified house. The raiding Scots and the fraught inter-family feuding saw to it that anyone who had anything worth stealing would do their best to keep out the wandering baddies with the construction of these stone-built strongholds.

Hepburn Bastle, though, is a curious affair. Situated at the southern end of Chillingham Park, it has defied accurate categorisation since its (probable) late 14th century creation. Described now as a ‘bastle’, it is more accurately a ‘fortified medieval tower house’. Though ‘tower’ is stretching it a bit, fortified it most certainly is. To complicate matters, buildings were added to it in the 16th and early 17th centuries – extensions which have since disappeared. Though it may have been built in the 1300s, it first appears in the records in 1509 as, simply, a ‘hold’, then pops up as a ‘tower’ in 1542, and by 1564 it is described as a ‘mansion house’.

Its dimensions are impressive. It measures 16.6m by 10.8m, is still three levels high despite being a ruin for an awfully long time and sports walls which are 2.7m thick at basement level. The ground floor comprises a barrel-vaulted basement with a later fireplace in the north wall – almost as if it was originally used (as in a bastle) to protect livestock, then later converted for human use – and at the east end a doorway leads to a mural chamber. The first floor has/had three rooms, each with a fireplace. The attic level, now minus its roof, has traces of fireplaces, windows and a window seat. Both the upper floors had their windows added after the Border region had quietened down somewhat – and were connected by a spiral staircase.

Though it is now known as Hepburn Bastle the original name was almost certainly Hebburn or Heburn – as is evidenced by its description in a 1715 survey as “a handsome house bellonging to Robert Heburn, esq.” (the ‘p’ was, we think, somewhat mysteriously introduced by the Ordnance Survey). The structure appears to have fallen from use around 250 years ago after the last Hebburn male heir died.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Mysteries of the Hurl Stone (NU039247)

 © Copyright Russel Wills and licensed for reuse 

In the middle of a farmer’s field a couple of miles to the SW of Chillingham stands the Hurl Stone, a ten-foot high rough-hewn obelisk of unknown origin yet steeped in myth and legend. Hard facts are difficult to come by, but who needs ‘em?

First of all there is its name. Some speculate that it is derived from the ‘Earl’s Stone’ – though the identity of the gentleman in question is not known. It may have been an ancient standing stone (or cross) at one point, possibly relocated to its present spot by someone or other. Everyone’s  favourite theory, though, is that it was literally ‘hurled’ there by the Devil himself, who, when perched high upon the Cheviot, saw pesky St.Cuthbert going about his pious wanderings in the distance and threw the stone at him in anger.

The Hurl Stone is supposed to be the haunt of fairies, too. An underground passage some sixteen miles in length is supposed to pass under the stone (linking Cateran Hole in the east to Henhole in the west), which, when it was once explored in times of old, revealed evidence of underground fairy-like activity immediately beneath the stone. The adventurers didn’t hang around long enough to investigate further and scarpered sharp-ish.

Sorry to disappoint, but chances are that the Hurl Stone was once a medieval Christian cross which lost its top and was then recycled as a folly (of sorts) by someone with nothing better to do. Some attribute the act to a Mr Jobson, a local farmer, and that a bolt of lightning accounted for the missing couple of foot or so. 

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Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Old Bewick & its Cup & Ring Marks (NU075215 & thereabouts)

© Copyright John Haddington and licensed for 

There is so much ancient history lying in the landscape among the western extremes of Bewick Moor that it is difficult to know where to start. So we’ll begin with the biggest feature: namely, Bewick Hill, which stands out like a sore thumb from pretty much any direction you care to view it from.

Traces of human activity go back more than 5,000 years in these parts; and Bewick Hill is the site of one of the area’s more recent features – an unusual hillfort known as Old Bewick, which dates from the Iron Age. It consists of two small, semi-circular enclosures sitting next to each other, with their open sides set against a cliff edge. A larger rampart then surrounds these enclosures, with traces of further embankments nearby. The western fort contains a collection of hut circles, with its partner holding some less well-defined stonework. The site may well have been occupied into the Roman period.

 © Copyright Andrew Curtis and licensed for 

A little to the east lie an important collection of ‘cup & ring’ rock art panels – one of which, Old Bewick 1a (pictured), is one of the best examples of its kind in the UK. These extraordinary relics of our past date (it is thought) from around 4,000 years ago, and it was here at Old Bewick that such carvings were first recognised as a man-made phenomenon. Despite extensive study, no one has been able to work out with any degree of certainty what they mean and why they were created, and similar examples are scattered all across this corner of Northumberland.

In between, chronologically, the formation of the cup & ring etchings and the later Iron Age hillfort, the Bronze Age burial cairn was laid down at nearby Blawearie, a little to the north. First discovered in the 19th century, it is a substantial affair containing at least four stone-lined burials, along with pottery, a flint knife and a jet and shale necklace. More investigations were carried out in the 1980s, all of which raised more questions than answers.

Other stuff lies close by. A second hillfort can be found a little further east, the odd Iron Age farmstead has been revealed by cropmarks and there is evidence of activity through the Roman period and into the Anglo-Saxon era. There are even a couple of World War II pill-boxes built into Bewick Hill – all of which adds a little extra depth and interest to the atmospheric landscape hereabouts.

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Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Henry Ogle: Not to be Messed With (NU104195)

Eglingham Hall, like most buildings of its type, started small and has been added to considerably over the years. It began as a pele tower and today looks like this:

© Copyright Stephen Richards and licensed for 

When its development was somewhere in between, one Henry Ogle lived there for a time prior to his death in c.1669. He was a staunch Parliamentarian, and was at his most boisterous – nay, cocky – during the days of Cromwell. Around 1649-50 he was involved in two instances for which we have precious little information, but which nevertheless provide a neat little window into what was, at the time, a pretty crazy world.

The first occurred in the wake of the famous Newcastle Witch Trials of 1649. From Thomas Oliver’s A New Picture of Newcastle-upon-Tyne of 1831:

1649 – The Magistrates of Newcastle sent to Scotland for a man who pretended to discover who were witches: on his arrival the bellman went through the town, crying “all persons who would bring in any complaint against any woman for a witch, they should be sent for and tried by the person appointed.” Thirty women were brought into the town-hall, stripped there, and had pins thrust into their bodies, and most of them condemned for witches!

As a result, fourteen witches and one wizard were executed. The account continues…

The witch-finder went from Newcastle to Northumberland, when [magistrate] Henry Ogle, Esq. laid hold of him and required bond to answer at the sessions, he escaped into Scotland, where he was apprehended, cast into prison, and condemned; when on the scaffold he confessed that he had been the death of 220 women in England and Scotland, for the gain of 20 shillings each!

No one knows for sure who this notorious witch-finder was, but it may have been the infamous John Kincaid (however, Kincaid was not collared and executed until 1662, so there may be some confusion here).

Henry Ogle of Eglingham Hall may have played a prominent role in the casting out from the region of the pesky witch-hunters, but a year later he had a run-in with his ‘hero’ Oliver Cromwell, who, on the way to the Battle of Dunbar in 1650, stayed over at Henry’s house. Legend has it that the next morning the two of them quarrelled (over exactly what we don’t know), and that they may even have duelled over the disagreement.

I should think that their differences were soon patched up, though, as Henry was elected MP for the county in 1653 and 1654. But the story of the little dispute lived on, and inspired the poem Cromwell’s Visit: An Eglingham Legend by James Hall … and if anyone out there has the text of the said ditty I’d like to hear from them!

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Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Eglingham’s Wandering Cleric (NU106195)

Canon Henry Baker Tristram was an English clergyman, naturalist, Biblical scholar and traveller. Somewhat controversially for his time, he was an early convert to Darwinism, and spent many years attempting to reconcile the theory with his religious beliefs.

Tristram was born at Eglingham vicarage in 1822 – the eldest son of the vicar – and studied at Oxford. He was ordained a priest in 1846, but his fragile health (TB included) forced him to live abroad. He travelled widely, including a stint as secretary to the governor of Bermuda from 1847 to 1849, where an interest in birds blossomed – but on returning to UK shores found the winters too much for him. Several expeditions to Algeria followed, including exploration of the Saraha desert and yet more ornithological adventures – and wrote a book entitled The Great Sahara. He first visited Palestine in 1858, returning there several times, where he expanded his collection of birds and identified possible Bible sites. Amidst all of this he became canon of Durham Cathedral in 1873, though his travels continued, including the Middle East and also Japan where his daughter spent decades working as a leading light at the Church Missionary Society’s School for Girls.

His infamous link with Darwinism began in the late 1850s when he was seduced by the writings of the great evolutionist. Looking at his own collections of birds, he became convinced of the validity of the new-fangled theory, and penned articles in support of the same.

Tristram, who was a Fellow of the Royal Society, wrote books, papers and articles of all his various adventures, concerned mainly with naturalism and the topography of the Bible lands. His sizeable collections of birds and eggs ended up in Liverpool’s World Museum and the Natural History Museum, London. And as any ornithologist will know, a number of birds are now named after him … as well as a breed of gerbil!

He died in 1906 and has a window dedicated to his memory in the north aisle of Eglingham Church.

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Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Percy’s Cross & the Bird in Thy Bosom (NU053193 & thereabouts)

 © Copyright David Clark and licensed for reuse 

There are two monuments which go by the name of Percy’s Cross in Northumberland. One commemorates the Battle of Otterburn of 1388; the other – and the subject of this article – is situated about 4 miles north of Glanton, near to the site of the Battle of Hedgeley Moor.

The encounter resulted in an important Yorkist victory over their Lancastrian foe in April 1464 during the Wars of the Roses – the triumph enabling the Scots to safely travel south to conclude an agreement with the Yorkists. Several nobles took to the field, of course, including one Sir Ralph Percy who had thrown in his lot with the wrong side.

As his aristocratic colleagues fled the field in the midst of their ignominious defeat, Percy carved a name for himself in history by refusing to join them. He and his men fought to the death in a brave show of loyalty to the Lancastrian cause. Surrounded, his horse stumbled and he was overpowered by the enemy. His last words were said to have been: “I have saved the bird in my bosom”…

This enigmatic utterance has kept the historians guessing over the years, but is now thought to have meant that he died an honourable death by remaining loyal to his cause until the very end – “keeping safe the bird in thy bosom” being a metaphor of the time for such shows of fidelity and allegiance in the face of adversity.  Curious, then, that Percy and his family should have so regularly switched sides during the wars!

Near the spot where Sir Ralph fell was thereafter erected a stone cross in his honour carved with Percy emblems, the head of which is now missing.

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Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Glanton: Cheviot Legion HQ (NU071145)

The quiet village of Glanton is blessed with many a historical curiosity. One such fact is its prominent role in the defence of the region against the threat of French invasion during the Napoleonic Wars.

From the beginning of the French Revolutionary Wars in 1792, via Napoleon Bonaparte’s rise to power in 1799 and through to the man’s final defeat in 1815, there was constant fear around and about British shores of foreign invasion. Much of Europe buckled under France’s relentless military campaigning and many thought it only a matter of time before they had a nibble at old Blighty. It never happened of course – much like the anticipated Nazi land invasion failed to transpire more than a century later – but it didn’t prevent folk worrying a lot about it, nor from making elaborate preparations for its eventuality.

Across the whole of the nation – and especially those areas near to likely coastal invasion spots – local militias were raised and put on a state of almost permanent alert for a good two decades. Complex signalling systems were set up and chains of command established, all of which was designed to bring the locals to arms should the enemy arrive at our gates. It is a state of home affairs that is now largely missing from the histories of the era, but it all loomed very large indeed in the lives of the people of the time.

The ‘Cheviot Legion’ was one such collection of volunteers. Set up 1798, they became so prominent that they were expanded and ‘upgraded’ to the Royal Cheviot Legion in 1803 – by which time it comprised four troops of cavalry and ten troops of infantry (around 800 men). A couple of the legion’s officers were based in Glanton as well as several of its troopers, and the unit’s HQ (or, more accurately, muster point) was Glanton – sitting, as it does, on the edge of the Cheviot foothills.

The (Royal) Cheviot Legion was never called to arms in anger, of course. But there was one serious false alarm on the night of 31st January 1804, when the glow from charcoal burners’ fires to the north was mistaken for a warning beacon and the force was called out in full. Better safe than sorry, I suppose, but it did cause quite a stir: alarm drums, bugles and what must have been an almighty flurry of nocturnal activity, not to say sheer panic.

The troopers stayed on at Glanton until the following morning, though, and everyone had a big party. Silver linings and all that…

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Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Flodden: Full Muster at Little Bolton (NU105136)

© Copyright Phil Thirkell and licensed for reuse 

What exciting and worrying times they must have been. The build-up to, and preparations for, any historical battle on home soil must have been quite an experience for all concerned. The influx of fighting men into what were often small, rural backwaters, the drain on local resources, the fear of defeat and the aftermath – to say nothing of the small matter of loss of life. And in September 1513, the villagers of little Bolton, near Alnwick, braced themselves. For it was here, in the days leading up to the immense battle at Flodden Field, that the English army descended for their first full muster to the number of some 26,000 men.

The leader of the English army, Sir Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey, arrived at Bolton on 3rd September 1513, some six days before hostilities, where, the following day, “all the noblemen and gentlemen met with him with their retinues … among whom were Lords Clifford, Coniers, Ogle, Scroope and Lumley, Sir William Percy, Lionel Percy, Sir George Darcy, Sir William Bulmer of Brancepeth Castle and Richard Tempest Esq.” All of the aforementioned (and a few others besides) would have crammed into little Bolton Chapel on a number of occasions to offer up prayers for the fighting ahead.

They stayed for a couple of nights before moving further north to Wooler Haugh, and thence to Barmoor and beyond. Then, on 9th September, Surrey and his English forces inflicted a crushing defeat on the Scots in the largest ever battle between the two kingdoms … and the villagers of little Bolton thereafter picked up the pieces of their quiet existence.

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