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.


Tuesday, 10 March 2015

The River Tweed


The River Tweed near Norham
(© Copyright David Chatterton and licensed for 

  •  At 97 miles, it is the fourth longest river in Scotland (behind the Tay, Spey & Clyde);
  • Its name comes from the Gaelic for ‘north’;
  • Otherwise known as Tweed Water;
  • Its source is at Tweed’s Well in the Lowther Hills;
  • Its upper 74 miles are in Scotland, it then forms the border between England and Scotland for 19 miles, and its final 4 miles flow through England;
  • Has a catchment area estimated at 1,500-1,800 square miles;
  • It is the UK’s premier river for salmon fishing, catching more Atlantic salmon than anywhere else in the EU;
  • Produces more fish caught to the fly than anywhere else in Britain;
  • The Tweed’s famous autumn salmon run can produce catches approaching 30lb;
  • At certain times of the year and in certain places, it can cost several thousand pounds per rod per week to fish the Tweed;
  • Fishing for salmon (and sea trout) is strictly prohibited on Sundays;
  • And, yes, Tweed cloth derives its name from its association with the river.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Union Chain Bridge: A World First (NT934510)


© Copyright Walter Baxter and licensed for 

Spanning the River Tweed about a mile downstream from the border village of Horncliffe lies a little known piece of European engineering history in the shape of the Union Chain Bridge. When opened in 1820 it was the longest iron suspension bridge in the world and the first of its type to carry vehicles.

It stretches for a mightily impressive 449ft, linking England and Scotland, and does so quite majestically. It was built because there was a need for a river crossing at this point – primarily for the transportation of coal and lime (the latter for agricultural use). Financed by the local Turnpike Trusts, the commission for its design and construction was handed to retired naval officer, Captain Samuel Brown, who reckoned he knew enough about iron chains and links and such like to suspend a roadway across the considerable gap. And, at a knock-down price of £6,500 and an eleven month schedule, he delivered as promised.

When it opened on 26th July 1820, it was quite an occasion. Some of the most important civil engineers of the day were present (including Robert Stevenson and John Rennie, who both had some input into the scheme), and its strength was proven with the crossing of several loaded curricles and carts as well as 600+ pedestrians. The lengths of chain hung from two giant towers, and the bed of the bridge was made of wood.

The bridge’s upkeep was financed by tolls – until 1883, that is, when tolls were abolished. The essentially sound bridge has, of course, been patched up over the years – most notably in 1871, 1902 and 1974 – but it is now in need of around £5million’s worth of repairs to restore it to tip-top condition. And the campaign is on to do just that in time for its bicentenary in 2020 – see here.


Tuesday, 24 February 2015

How Many Stones at Duddo? (NT930437)


© Copyright Andrew Curtis and licensed for reuse 

Originally there were seven (we think), then six, five and, inevitably, four. Then five again. And they are now known as ‘Duddo Five Stones’ – Northumberland’s equivalent of the mighty Stonehenge, you might say.

As has often been remarked, the ancient monument is one of Britain’s finest and enjoys a spectacular setting. The Cheviot and Eildon Hills loom to the south-west and west, respectively, with the stones themselves enjoying an elevated and isolated position to the north-west of the village after which they are named.

Until recently, no one knew quite how old the little stone circle is. It is a modest affair at around ten yards across with none of its components more than eight feet in height, and early speculation suggested a Druidical origin. In time, the locals assumed it to be a memorial laid down after a victory over the Scots in 1558 in which the Percies chased off a party of plundering invaders. Quite where and why this tradition arose no one knows, for the truth is that the landmark is, indeed, ancient, with investigations in 1890 revealing remnants of a cremation burial. In 2008, an archaeological dig at the site unearthed charcoal remains which were radiocarbon dated to around 2000BC. Furthermore, faint traces of man-made cup-and-ring marks have been found carved on the large east facing stone which seem to confirm its Bronze Age origins.

There were at least seven stones to begin with, six surviving into the nineteenth century. Two more seem to have disappeared or toppled over during the ensuing decades, after which they became known as the ‘Four Stones’. Then, in 1903, a fifth was re-erected to ‘improve the skyline’.

The Duddo Standing Stones are certainly a curious lot. They have been known in the past as ‘The Ladies’ (due to their tapering shape) and ‘The Singing Stones’ (perhaps a reference to the wind whistling through their weathered grooves). And, once more, they can be easily and freely visited by the casual passer-by.


Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Lady Waterford Hall (NT947375)


© Copyright Martin Dawes and licensed for reuse 

The village of Ford has many historical items of interest, the most unusual of which is perhaps Lady Waterford Hall. And it all came to be following the transference of the ownership of the Ford Estate (on the death of her husband) to one Lady Louisa Waterford in 1859, when she set about the re-design and rebuilding of the entire village.

Lady Waterford was a talented artist and a great philanthropist, and it was her intention to carry out her ambitious project distinctly for the benefit of her tenants. In fact, she favoured the latter over the former to the detriment of her artistic career. Part of the scheme was the construction of a new school, a lovely little affair which is now known as Lady Waterford Hall. 

As useful as the public building was (it had as many as 134 children on its books in its heyday and remained in use until 1957), it provided her ladyship with a nice outlet for her watercolouring skills. For the interior of the hall is adorned with Biblical scenes for the education of her young attendees – painted over a twenty-two year period during 1862-1883. And the really fascinating fact about the whole thing is that the children themselves and many of the local villagers were used as models in the scenes depicted. Moreover, the names of these humble individuals are recorded for posterity – a great boon for any of their descendants who may be into family history!

It is now used as the village hall – and is surely one of the very best buildings of its type in the country! More info here (including a little video). 

© Copyright Martin Dawes and licensed for reuse 


Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Cuthbert’s Foster Mum (NU010347)


A little off the B6525 to the NE of Doddington lies the hamlet of Wrangham. One may not immediately associate this rural backwater – now largely a collection of farm outbuildings – with anything too drastic, history-wise, but this lonely spot has a strong link with one of our most famous individuals.

St.Cuthbert needs little in the way of introduction to anyone with even the slightest interest in the history of our region, but biographical detail of his early life is scanty. Born in the Scottish Borders, he is believed to have come from a noble family – if for no other reason than he was raised by a foster mother (a common upbringing for such offspring). Amazingly, we know the woman’s name, Kenswith, and that she lived at a place called Hruringaham – reckoned to be the Wrangham in question.

At age eight, it seems, he was placed in her care, and became a shepherd boy in the surrounding hills. He was something of a gymnast, he and his friends impressing one another with feats of agility and stamina in their spare time. Then, aged 17, he began his religious training and moved away.

He briefly saw military service with the early Northumbrian armies before settling down to his well-known career path – initially via the newly-established monastery at Melrose. As his responsibilities and reputation grew we are told that he still found time to visit Kenswith ‘often’ from ‘the monastery’ – though we do not know which monastery! There used to be a Wrangham near Smailholm in the Borders quite near to Melrose, but the Northumberland option seems to be favoured by most historians.

And, besides, there is a ‘Cuddy’s Well’ and a ‘Cuddy’s Cave’ nearby, which seems to clinch it for the North-East, thank you very much!


Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Josephine Butler (NT929344 & NT913302)



In net miles she may not have travelled very far – from her birthplace near Milfield to her grave in Kirknewton – but Josephine Butler (née Grey) was a North-Easterner whose influence stretched into the hearts and minds of millions of folk worldwide as both a pioneering feminist and social reformer par excellence.

Josephine Elizabeth Grey was born in 1828 at Milfield Hill House, a mansion which once stood a little to the north of Milfield, Northumberland. A cousin of the famous Earl Grey (Reform Act, Abolition of Slavery and, yes, tea), she was the seventh child of John Grey, from whom she inherited a belief in social justice and reform. In 1852 she married like-minded George Butler, an Oxford lecturer, and so began a husband-and-wife campaign against the wrongs of the world – slavery, social injustice and the rights of women.

Moving first to Cheltenham and then Liverpool, the Butlers championed their cause at every opportunity, often to the detriment of George’s career! After her husband’s death in 1890, Josephine moved to London – and even campaigned abroad for much of the time. Feeding off her own periodic bouts of depression and grief, she constantly sought out causes more desperate than her own. She was a staunch believer in education for women and campaigned ceaselessly for the rights of the female sex in this area – helping found Cambridge University’s first college for women, Newnham. Moreover, her campaigns on the taboo subjects of prostitution and sexual morality led to law changes in women’s favour across Europe – all from a devout Christian who didn’t baulk at upsetting anyone.

In her latter years the grand old woman returned to her North-East roots, settling near her son in Wooler. She died in 1906, aged 78, and was buried in Kirknewton Churchyard, three miles SW of her birthplace.


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?