Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Black Middens Bastle (NY773900)


© Copyright wfmillar and licensed for reuse 

Black Middens Bastle is one of the very best examples of its kind in the Borders region – and perhaps the most famous. Bastles were once all the rage in these parts due to the uncertain behaviour of one’s neighbours, it being necessary to construct a fortified farmhouse to protect both family and livestock from the infamous Border Reivers. The idea was that you could, given sufficient notice, stash your animals safely down at ground level with the humans occupying the upper floor. These substantial affairs were built by your slightly better-off farming families – those who had a bit of cash and ‘clout’ – and the even richer folk would have larger versions known as pele-towers. 

The example we have here at Black Middens lies on the north bank of the Tarset Burn, in the isolated depths of darkest Northumberland. It was originally constructed, it is thought, in the 16th century, with its one and only appearance in the historical records coming in 1583 when it was subjected to an attack by the Armstrong clan. Over the years it has been altered somewhat: the original door was blocked in, three more were cut and the external staircase added (originally, first floor access would have been via an internal ladder). A few yards away lies a ruinous 18th century cottage, itself built on the foundations of another bastle.

These days English Heritage maintains the site, which is open pretty much any reasonable time during daylight hours. The roof is no longer intact, but the structure is otherwise fairly complete – including a few internal features. Not surprising, really, as the building was used as a farmstead into the 20th century, with a slate roof still being in place as recently as 1970.


Tuesday, 13 June 2017

St.Cuthbert’s Church, Bellingham (NY838832)


© Copyright wfmillar and licensed for reuse 

Bellingham, now a parish in its own right, was once an ancient chapelry of ‘The Great Parish’ of Simonburn (see here). It has therefore had its own place of worship, St.Cuthbert’s Church, for a very long time indeed, with roots going back to Dark Age Northumbria. And the old church is, for many reasons, a very interesting place…

(1) Firstly, of course, on account of its very name, the spot is supposed to have been one of the resting places for St. Cuthbert’s body and the fleeing monks of Lindisfarne in the 9th century;
(2) Secondly, there is the church’s strange construction. Possibly uniquely in England, Bellingham has a heavy vaulted stone roof. Externally, this is evidenced by the use of massive stone slabs as slates, and internally by a hefty barrel-like construction. It wasn’t always like this, though. For centuries it had a standard timber roof, but this was replaced with the present effort in the early 17th century when the locals tired of its repeated torching by those pesky Scots (see point 4 for one such instance);
(3) Then, in the churchyard, you will find an odd-shaped, pillow-like tombstone labelled ‘The Lang Pack.’ This is supposedly the final resting place of the victim of an infamous tale of Northumbrian folklore, when a man hiding in a ‘Lang (Long) Pack’ was killed by a manservant of nearby Lee Hall whilst trying to gain illegal entry to the same in 1723. No one quite knows what to make of either the story or the grave-marker;
(4) Next there is the display case inside the church containing cannon balls. The label tells us that they were found in the roof when the stone slabs were relaid in 1861 – and were probably launched into their location during the 1597 artillery raid by the Duke of Buccleuch.

Interesting place, then.

It would be remiss of me not to bring to your attention Northernvicar’sblog entry on the topic, which has a few more pictures for your visual consumption.


Tuesday, 6 June 2017

The Wilds of Wannie (NY932833 & thereabouts)


On Tyneside, certainly, and quite possibly further afield, could once be heard the phrase ‘The Wilds of Wannie’ when referring to some remote situation or circumstance. It has been passed down through the centuries and the generations with increasingly little thought given to whence and where its roots lie. But ‘Wannie’ does exist, though it is hardly wild anymore.

In the lawless days of the border reivers and the moss troopers (c.1300-1600), the boundary between England and Scotland was not only prone to shift but the area in question was a place to generally avoid – or at least pass through very quickly. Some spots were so dangerous that they were essentially ‘out of bounds’ – and one especially dodgy tract of land centred on the very upper reaches of the River Wansbeck around Sweethope Loughs, east of the present-day A68 a few miles south of Elsdon. These were ‘The Wilds of Wannie’.

Essentially, the area is bleak, open moorland with outcrops of rock. Hereabouts, these days, you will find Great Wannie Crag, Little Wannie Crag and many more besides, peppered with the odd rock climber or two. The river’s name comes from here, of course, the Wansbeck being the ‘Wannie Beck’, and the spot represented the very edge of civilisation at one time to the folk of the North-East. Beyond lay danger and the unknown, wild men and lawlessness  … and, of course, Redesdale, one of the blackest spots in Britain for general mayhem and mischief.

With nearby A-roads skirting the moors and ramblers and climbers scrambling around, the wilds are not as forbidding as they once were – and even the good folk of Redesdale are not half as troublesome as they were half a millennium ago!


Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Abel Chapman of Houxty (NY856784)



Houxty is a large-ish residence which sits on the west bank of the River North Tyne about a mile upstream from Wark. Its supreme claim to fame is that it was the home of well-known naturalist Abel Chapman for the last 30+ years of his life. Chapman, well-educated and widely travelled, was one of those great conundrums of his age: both a keen game hunter and an enthusiastic protector of the natural world.

Chapman was born in Bishopwearmouth, Sunderland, in 1851, into a fairly well-to-do family with a long and strong interest in the very areas in which Abel was to excel. He spent his early years learning field-craft in the wilds of Northumberland, where he quickly developed a love of the outdoors. He attended Rugby School, then went into his father’s brewery business (Lambton’s) which enabled him to begin his overseas travels. As the years passed, he journeyed ever more widely, to take in hunting trips to, most notably and initially, Scandinavia and Spain. He co-wrote a book entitled Wild Norway concerning the former, and helped create a nature reserve in the latter – as well as (in Spain) discovering Europe's major breeding ground for the flamingo and saving the Spanish Ibex from extinction. Two books on his Spanish adventures followed.

After the family business was sold in 1897, he moved to Houxty in the North Tyne valley where he set about creating his own little nature reserve around his new home. When he moved in in 1898 it was a dilapidated sheep farm, but Chapman loved the spot on account of it being the haunt of blackcock. He rebuilt the house and laid out and managed the gardens, plantations and moorland thereabouts to attract wildlife which he could then study – a set-up which brought many other naturalists to his little estate, as well as a troop of boy scouts who visited him as part of the very first Baden-Powell scouting camp in 1908 who were staying a few miles away (see here).

Chapman later developed an interest in South Africa, his experiences there leading him to help form the early incarnation of their still-existing Kruger National Park. He continued to travel abroad, paradoxically both hunting and preserving wherever he went, wrote many works on his subject matter, and eventually died at Houxty in 1929, aged 77. His last words were “Take care of Dash,” his favourite spaniel.

During his hunting days Chapman amassed many wildlife specimens, which now lie scattered across natural history collections in London, Newcastle and his native Sunderland.



Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Simonburn: The Great Parish (centred on NY871735)


© Copyright Peter Brooks and licensed for reuse 

Visitors to the little village of Simonburn in the North Tyne valley often wonder at the size of the settlement’s substantial parish church. For sure, it is a big one, and seemingly out of all proportion to its modest setting. But there is a good reason for the discrepancy, for Simonburn was once the largest parish in England.

Prior to an Act of Parliament of 1811 – which, when enacted in 1814, split the parish into several splinters – this sparsely populated ecclesiastical unit covered a whopping 260 square miles! And considering that this huge area has only ever contained around 1,000 folk, well, that is one long trudge into church every Sunday for some very lonely people. It was known, for obvious reasons, as ‘The Great Parish’, and stretched from Hadrian’s Wall in the south to Carter Bar on the Scottish Border – some 30 miles in length and 14 miles wide.

It is believed that the parish boundaries were established in 1072 by Bishop Walcher of Durham during the re-organisation of his diocese (which then included Northumberland). The 1811-14 division saw the creation of Wark, Bellingham, Greystead, Thorneyburn and Falstone out of the ancient parish – with Humshaugh & Haughton (a single entity) following in 1832. So, seven parishes out of one!

At its heart lies the mother church, St.Mungo’s, with roots stretching back, we think, to the 6th or 7th century (though the earliest stonework probably dates from the 9th century). It was then that the aforementioned St.Mungo was on his travels after having been ousted from his cell at Glasgow by the pagan King Morken. Some sources even suggest that the church’s founding may stretch back to St.Ninian, who died in the early 5th century.

The current church, obviously much altered over the years, extends over a slope and has a distinct list as a result.


Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Haughton Castle Paper Mill (NY921729)


Near the bank of the River North Tyne a little to the north of Humshaugh stands Haughton Castle and its associated buildings. On the riverbank itself can be found the remains of an old paper mill, built by Captain William Smith, the owner of the nearby castle, in 1788. The flow of the river here is steady and strong, which is just what you’re looking for if you’re a mill owner.

It is also rather remote, which is not always good for communications – but it is good for sneaky goings-on. And, in 1793, just five years after its construction, Haughton Castle Mill was commissioned by the British government for a rather special assignment: it was instructed to produce the paper required for the printing of counterfeit French currency.

There’d been the little matter of the French Revolution, of course, in 1789, and the new revolutionary government was struggling to find its feet. One of its most controversial measures was to introduce as a new currency the ‘Assignat’, backed by the value of property seized from the Catholic Church. Obviously, the Church wasn’t too happy about this illegal seizure and they, together with what was left of the French nobility, opposed the new currency system. To add to the new regime’s woes many foreign countries began producing forged assignats to flood the market and thus destabilise the French economy. Belgium, Switzerland and Britain were at the forefront in this regard, and one of the many paper mills chosen for the project was that on the bank of the North Tyne at Haughton. Its remoteness no doubt contributed to its selection and, for around two years during 1793-95, a good deal of the paper with which the dodgy notes were made was turned out here. The printing process was carried out elsewhere, though; then the notes were sent to Flanders with the British Army.

By the many and various anti-assignat methods thus employed across Europe, the new-fangled French revolutionary currency was indeed brought down. Introduced in 1789, it devalued steadily and was scrapped in 1796. By the time Napoleon I became emperor in 1804 it was a distant memory. So you could argue that the undercover activity at Haughton Castle Mill in the 1790s helped bring the little dictator to power.

One of the moulds for making the paper notes still survives and is in the possession of the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne. The mill itself had fallen out of use by the 1880s, though much of the fabric of the building survives.



Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Chesters Fort Phallic Symbol (NY912702)



Chesters Roman Fort, Bath House and Museum is one of those must-see sites of antiquity on Hadrian’s Wall. It has much of interest to offer the tourist, though, as with any ruinous historical attraction, it is as well to do a little homework beforehand to truly get the most from your visit.

Perhaps the oddest (and, well, yes, plain funny) ‘points’ of interest is the bold-as-brass phallic symbol to found in the central Headquarters building of the fort itself. There it sits in full view on a paving slab on the western side of the courtyard on a slightly raised circular boss, as if to emphasise its importance. All it does these days, of course, is to elicit a giggle or two and to be the subject of an innocent enquiry from a small child to their embarrassed parent.

It is not the only carving of its type at Chesters (there is another one, half buried, on the north wing of the bridge abutment, and a third in the Bath House), and there are plenty more elsewhere along the Wall. The fact is that these are not merely smutty items of 3D graffiti – but rather they actually mean something and were part of the Roman belief system.

Put simply, the phallic symbol represented good fortune and protection against evil spirits. Depending on its location, the meaning would be slightly different. A symbol found near a bridge or water may mean protection against flood, for example; though it is difficult to offer an explanation for the siting of what is, after all, a rather large example in the HQ block! It all no doubt stems from the quite literal representative use of the phallus, being that of fertility – the Romans celebrating Liberalia every 17th March with the phallus at the centre of proceedings and concerned (among other things) with the blessing of the year’s crops.

For the etymologically minded among you, these sorts of carvings are known as ‘phallic petrosomatoglyphs’, from the Greek words for ‘stone’, ‘body’ and ‘to carve’.



Tuesday, 2 May 2017

The Battle of Heavenfield (NY937694)


Site of the Battle of Heavenfield, with 
St.Oswald’s Church in the distance.

The ‘Golden Age’ of Northumbria – the period of Dark Age cultural and military supremacy which spanned, roughly, the mid-seventh to the mid-eighth centuries – was probably the proudest phase of North-Eastern history. Out of this tumultuous century or so came the writings of Bede and the Lindisfarne Gospels (among other spectacular outpourings). And, as is so often the case with such epochs, it all came about as a direct result of a victory in the field – in this case the Battle of Heavenfield.

After the death of Edwin, king of Northumbria, in 632, the struggle was on for the overlordship of the English Heptarchy. Edwin had been the most prominent ruler of this patchwork of kingdoms which then existed in the land, and his demise very much put the cat squarely among the pigeons. Cadwallon, king of the Britons (Welsh) and Penda, a prominent Mercian prince – both of whom had scores to settle with the house of Northumbria – then unified in an alliance against the great northern kingdom. In the months following Edwin’s death, Northumbria was largely laid waste by this troublesome pair.

After months of turmoil, Oswald emerged from his long exile on Iona to seize the Northumbrian throne (his dynastic foes, Edwin and his sons, having been slain). Oswald, a son of Aethelfrith – who had ruled in Northumbria before Edwin – had grown up among the monastic community of Iona together with his younger brother, Oswy. They were both Christians of the Celtic/Irish bent, and determined that their father’s kingdom must be saved from pending collapse. Before Oswald could take the crown, though, Cadwallon and Penda would have to be swept from their old lands.

So, in late 633 (or 634), Oswald marched south with his warband – a motley collection of on-loan Pictish warriors and Irish monks, together with a few hundred Northumbrians which he was able to pick up on the journey south – until he reached the Roman Wall a little to the east of Chollerford. Cadwallon, on the other hand, moved north up Dere Street and along the Wall to the same point. It is likely that Penda did not take part in this phase of the war, though some of his forces may have been involved.

On the night before the battle, Oswald experienced a vision of St.Columba, who promised heavenly support for the young Northumbrian. A cross was erected before the battle, too, around which Oswald rallied his troops. Oswald’s subsequent attack – probably at night – proved devastating, and the Welsh were defeated with surprising ease. Using nearby Brady’s Crag and the Wall itself to their strategic benefit, the Northumbrians were able to nullify their numerical disadvantage – Cadwallon himself being slain in the rout, forever since known as the Battle of Heavenfield.

Oswald was then able to quickly stabilise the kingdom and take the throne. The threat from the Welsh and the Pagan Mercians had been put to bed, at least for the time being. Moreover, the new king dedicated his victory to God, eventually inviting Aidan to found his monastery at Lindisfarne, and thus sowing the seed of Christianity for the English nation-to-be…

… And hence laying the foundation for our ‘Golden Age’.


Tuesday, 25 April 2017

First Official Boy Scout Camp (NY883694)


© Copyright Phil Thirkell and licensed for 

A few miles NW of Hexham, on the north bank of the Tyne, can be found a dot on the map labelled Carr Edge Farm. It sits a little to the north of Fourstones, but south of Hadrian’s Wall, and is famous as the venue, in 1908, of the first ever Boy Scout Camp. Common assumption places the first scout gathering at Brownsea Island, Poole Harbour, in August 1907, but this was an experimental camp attended by boys who were not properly-invested scouts. So I am pleased to say the honour of the title of the first official camp goes to the North-East of England! (In fact, the land, though near to Carr Edge Farm, actually belonged to the slightly more distant Park Shields Farm to the east).

The spot was named ‘Look Wide Camp Site’ by the organisers, headed, of course, by the famous General Baden-Powell, founder of the scout movement. The event, which ran from 22nd August to 4th September 1908, came a year after the south coast ‘dry run’, and was the culmination of a frantic period of preparation and organisation as the scouting movement got off the ground. Baden-Powell himself led the team of supervisors, who took charge of 30 boys from all corners of the UK, each of whom had been nominated by friends and relatives in a voting system (although they were joined by another six in due course). The two-week jolly included all the usual scout-like activities, in addition to visits to local sites of interest.

The event is usually described as having taken place at Humshaugh, a village which is several miles to the NE – on account of it being, I think, the name of the parish at the time – but there is no doubt about the location of the true venue.

The site is now marked by a large stone cairn (erected 1929) adorned with several commemorative plaques. The pictured slab was set in place in 1950 and nicely sums up the story. A centenary event, ‘Jamboree 2008’, was held at the Carr Edge site in, er, 2008.

See here for much more info!

P.S. The weather during the 1908 inaugural camp was, by the way, rather wet.


Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Stagshaw Bank Fair (NY982679)


Known variously as ‘Stagey Bank’, ‘Stagsy Bank’ or just plain old Stagshaw Bank Fair, the regular social gatherings at this now lonely spot between Corbridge and the Roman Wall were once the largest of their kind in England. They were pretty wild, too, and were eventually banned in the early twentieth century due to the often riotous behaviour which blighted the occasions.

Though it seems an unlikely spot for a get-together today, the venue was ideally placed in days of yore. Yards from the crossroads of the Roman Wall and Dere Street, it was a natural focal point for folk to meet; and meet they did – in their thousands – for several market days over the calendar year. In early May there would be a cattle and sheep market; Whitsun would be a time for horses and cattle; there would a sheep-only fair in early August; followed by another cattle and sheep fair in late September; then yet another market in late November. But the main gathering by far would be the summer event on 4th July, which would be a true national gathering – not only for agricultural animals and produce but for, well, pretty much everything else, too! 

In view of the antiquity of the site in terms of social comings and goings it is very likely that the roots of the fair go way back – perhaps as far as the days of the Romans, when trade would probably have been conducted between visitors from both sides of the Wall. Little is known of the event’s distant history, but an account from c.1850 of the 4th July gathering amounts to a description of a free-for-all, with the morning being, generally, for business of all kinds (not just agricultural), and the rest of the day – and the evening, in fact – kept aside for social revelry. There would be entertainment, gambling and much drinking … with a considerable mess being left thereabouts afterwards.

A combination of Stagshaw Bank Fair’s rowdiness and general untidiness led to the whole sorry affair being outlawed in the 1920s. But such is the memory of the main Summer fair that the phrase ‘It’s like Stagey Bank Fair in here’ is often still used by the older generation to describe, say, a messy child’s bedroom or any generally pandemonious situation.  

As a nod to the tradition of the old fair the modern-day agricultural Northumberland County Show is often held in the fields near Corbridge.



Tuesday, 11 April 2017

St.John Lee Church: An Amazing Match! (NY933657)


St.John Lee is a parish church without an attached village, though the somewhat lonely house of worship serves a big enough geographical area, encompassing, as it does, the likes of Acomb, Anick, Wall, and much besides. Its delightful ‘hipped’ tower-cum-spire can be seen for miles around, poking through the trees across the Tyne valley from Hexham.

W.W.Tomlinson, in his Comprehensive Guide to the County of Northumberland (1888), gave an account of a curious marriage which took place there in 1765. The bridegroom was one Robert Scott, a famous Northumbrian piper, aged 90, and his bride was youngster Jean Middlemas, who was a mere 25. Robert had been using crutches to get around for a good quarter of a century, but on his wedding day he threw them away and walked from the village of Wall (some 3 miles to the north) to St.John Lee church.

After the service – full of life and with a renewed spring in his step – he walked back again among a group of fellow pipers, no doubt to great acclaim, and the happy couple were afterwards regaled with cakes and ale.



Tuesday, 4 April 2017

The Corbridge Lanx (c.NY982648)



One of the best Roman finds ever made in Britain, the Corbridge Lanx, was discovered on the banks of the Tyne by a nine-year-old girl nearly three centuries ago. Corbridge was a major Roman garrison town, of course, and there is an English Heritage archaeological site and museum there today. The item was, and still is, in remarkably good condition, and, despite the passage of time, still cannot be properly explained…

The extraordinary silver artefact was found in February 1735 by Isabel Cutter, the daughter of a local cobbler, who stumbled upon it whilst playing on the banks of the Tyne near the town. Eager to cash in, her father sold it on to a Newcastle silversmith – but the lord of the manor of Corbridge, the Duke of Somerset, recovered it soon afterwards as treasure trove. It then found its way to the Duke of Northumberland, and eventually, in 1993, into the care of the British Museum, where it remains today.  It measures 50cm by 38cm and comes in at a weighty 4.6kg. ‘Lanx’ is Latin for ‘dish’ or ‘tray’, so what we have here is a Roman serving platter.

Other than that, though, we know little else. For one thing, no one has been able to definitively explain its adornments. It is probably 4th century and is likely to have been imported from the Mediterranean … or Asia Minor … or North Africa. The figures upon it are mythological, showing the god Apollo (naked) at the entrance to a shrine. Artemis (Diana), his sister, is entering from the left, and she is being greeted by Athena (Minerva). The other two figures have not been properly identified, but could be Leto (sitting) and Ephesos. Or even Juno. Or perhaps Vesta.

There used to be (and I assume there still is) a replica of the lanx at Corbridge Roman Town Museum.



Tuesday, 28 March 2017

The Amazing Ned Coulson (NY844643)


Edward ‘Ned’ Coulson was born at Broadstone Cottages, near The Anchor Hotel, Haydon Bridge, in 1754. Ned was an eccentric character – and a supremely talented one at that. He was a superb athlete on the one hand … and as daft as a brush on the other.

Ned was marked out as odd from his earliest years. He didn’t utter a word until he was five and was skitted by his schoolfriends for this ‘backwardness’. He soon caught up, though, and followed his father into joinery and watchmaking; and on reaching maturity he was tall, wiry and very strong.

His most obvious talent was his running, for which he became famous. He competed successfully in races across the North-East, and kept in shape by running around the countryside from job to job pulling a cart behind him. He played the fiddle, too – and could do so behind his back whilst running. Another trick was overtaking horse and carriages, hiding to let them pass, then overtaking them again, to the astonishment of the travellers. On several occasions he ran up to Haydon Bridge old church at the dead of night, mounted the pulpit and read aloud to himself from the Bible.

His athletic ability would take him on extraordinary journeys. Once he was tasked with taking a message on a 50-mile return trip to Stanhope, which he achieved over the course of one winter’s night and the following morning – surprising his taskmaster by presenting him with his return message in an almost impossible timeframe. On another occasion, after walking 65 miles he reached home in time to take a successful part in some athletic sports. But his most famous feat was beating a horse and rider in a race from Brampton to Glenwhelt – a distance of more than ten miles.

Ned was odd in all sorts of ways – far too many to mention here. He would collect strange things, including herbs which he kept in his bedroom, and hoarded bad (damaged) half-crowns. He also had an irrational dislike of pigs.

One source states that Coulson was of Kenyan descent, which would certainly explain his talent for long distance running. He died in 1807 after fording the Tyne when the bridge was out and catching a cold – after which he bizarrely removed himself to Bellingham where he soon died and was buried.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

The Hermitage, Hexham (NY937651)



To the immediate SW of the Hexham roundabout of the A69, on the north bank of the River Tyne, stands a small mansion by the name of The Hermitage. Its size and the extent of its grounds belie its humble-sounding name, yet its recent placement on the market for sale revealed it as perhaps the biggest time capsule in the North-East.

Whilst thousands of us speed by in our cars on the busy A69, or ignore its presence whilst turning into Hexham town centre for a day’s shopping, The Hermitage has for decades slept on undisturbed in a sleepy time warp. When its last surviving tenant passed away in 2013 and the property reverted into the possession of its owners, investigations revealed an untouched world of inter-war Britain, unspoilt by the modern world.

The estate itself once belonged to the Priory of Hexham – the land being the reputed site of the 7th century hermitage of St. John of Beverley (a building called the ‘Armytage’ is recorded in 1496). The mansion itself – an 18th century creation with later alterations – belonged to John Hunter Esq., High Sheriff of Northumberland. He died in 1821 leaving two daughters, one of which, Elizabeth, married Robert Lancelot Allgood – the couple taking over the property. It has been in the Allgood family ever since, but in 1922 it was rented out to the Morant family, who remained in residence until 2013. Set in 18 acres with a River Tyne frontage, stable block and outbuildings, it has remained in splendid isolation for the past century.

When its original tenant, Brigadier General Hubert Horatio Morant, died, the property was left to his three children, the last of which, Doreen, died in 2013 – and with there being no succeeding generation the property passed back to the Allgoods. Only then, when the auctioneers moved in to sell the house’s contents, was the amazing ‘frozen world’ uncovered.

The little stately home hadn’t been modernised in decades. There were unopened bottles of wine and champagne from the First World War era, cosmetics and medication from the 1920s and magazines from the 1930s. Little had been thrown out in 90+ years of occupation – some seemingly mundane items being carefully wrapped in newspaper and stashed away in the house’s acres of cupboard and loft space. There were photographs, furniture, paintings, WWI diaries, toys, as well as the estate’s records and accounts. It was an inter-war ephemeral extravaganza – and the whole collection (around 1,500 lots) raised an astonishing £300,000 at auction.

As far as I am aware, though, the house itself remains unsold at a little shy of £2million.



Tuesday, 14 March 2017

St.Acca of Hexham (NY936641)


When it comes to early Christianity in the North-East – and Hexham in particular – most casual history enthusiasts look no further than the likes of Cuthbert, Aidan and Bede. The hard-nosed, super-industrious Wilfrid also comes into the frame, too, of course, being the chap who founded Hexham Abbey and a great many other religious houses in the late 7th century AD. But every great man needs his lieutenants, and Wilfrid’s was a man by the name of Acca.

Acca was born in the ancient kingdom of Northumbria around 660, and initially seems to have served in the household of Bosa, the future Bishop of York; but he soon found himself under Wilfrid, probably by the time he was 20. From the late 670s through to Wilfrid’s death in 709, Acca accompanied the great man on his continental travels and served as first his protégé, then his fully-fledged right-hand man during his many high-ranking incumbencies.

In 692 Acca was appointed abbot of St.Andrew’s monastery, part of the Hexham Abbey/Priory set-up. Then in the later years of Wilfrid’s life he acted as the old man’s loyal and closest companion, eventually being named by Wilfrid himself as his successor as Bishop of Hexham in 709.

Acca threw himself into the running of the diocese with gusto, and completed the construction work begun by his mentor. He was a great theologian and rather keen on music, too, once bringing the great cantor, Maban, north for a visit. He was a great friend of Bede, who dedicated many of his works to him – such was his reputation as a cleric and all-round good egg. In short, he brought to completion all of Wilfrid’s Christian plans for both Hexham (including improving and ornamenting the church) and Northumbria (founding many churches, among other things), thus helping cement his predecessor’s legacy.

Acca presided as bishop for 23 years until, in 732, during a period of dynastic upheaval, he was forced to leave. It is not known for sure why he was obliged to flee, but it may have been due to his familial links with the exiting ruling family. Sources vary as to his destination – some say Whithorn or St.Andrew’s in Scotland, others say Ireland – but he eventually returned to Hexham when circumstances permitted, where he was warmly and reverently received. He died in the town at some point during 737-42, was interred near the abbey’s east wall and, in time, was raised to the sainthood. A remnant of one of the two crosses which marked his grave can be found inside the abbey today.



Tuesday, 7 March 2017

The Frith Stool, Hexham Abbey (NY936641)


© Copyright Mike Quinn and licensed for reuse
 under this Creative Commons Licence.

When we think in terms of historical relics, especially religious ones, we often look towards the big, the beautiful, the imposing or the imperial. Seldom do we thing of a slightly lop-sided lump of misshapen rock as anything more than quarry fodder. But not so Hexham’s enigmatic Frith Stool.

Unimpressive it may be, but the tiny throne that sits in the middle of the Choir of the town’s mighty abbey has captured the imaginations of visitors for generations. It is made of sandstone and is also known as St.Wilfrid’s Throne (after the 7th century founder of the abbey) and the ‘Chair of Peace’ (frith meaning ‘peace’, as in being a place of sanctuary). So, yes, this was the spot where, during the Middle Ages, wrongdoers made for as their little area of sanctuary when in flight from authority.

It is generally thought that originally the Frith Stool was made and used by Bishop Wilfrid himself, based, as it was, on similar items of furniture he had seen in cathedrals on his continental tours. It was, quite literally, a throne from which he and succeeding bishops would preside during religious ceremonies. Remember, Hexham Abbey was a cathedral from 678 to around 821, which would have made the Frith Stool an official cathedra and an item of supreme importance.

It’s likely the stool originally stood on legs and was set against a wall; but since its construction the original building in which it was housed has long since gone. The present-day Hexham Abbey is a Norman creation, but it is interesting that the stool has survived many centuries of upheaval – it was clearly a treasured relic.

In more recent centuries, though, the stool has been moved here and there around the abbey with a little less respect. It was during one of these moves that someone seems to have dropped it and it broke into several pieces. It was rather clumsily patched up, until, eventually, it rose once again to reverential status and was placed in its current location in 1910.


Tuesday, 28 February 2017

The Hexham Heads (NY940637)


Image from Archaeologia Aeliana 5th Series, Vol. 1, 1973

In the garden of 3 Rede Avenue, Hexham, in 1971, two small stone heads were dug up by brothers Colin and Leslie Robson. The boys and their two 6cm high artefacts were to cause quite a stir in the months and years ahead, and the whole kerfuffle has still not been adequately explained to this day.

The assumption was that the items were ancient and, after a series of mysterious happenings in the boys’ family home, quite possibly evil. The Robsons said that the heads would change position when left alone in a room, as well as experiencing other poltergeist-like activity. Even their neighbours, the Dodds, began seeing strange apparitions such as a half-man, half-sheep creature.

The items were given to Hexham Priory, then Newcastle’s Museum of Antiquities, and eventually found their way to Celtic expert Dr Anne Ross, who herself reported strange goings-on. She said she saw a half-man, half-animal figure stalking around her Southampton home (among other incidents), whilst her daughter allegedly saw a werewolf-like creature on the stairs. Anyway, she soon got rid of the heads and the paranormal activity ceased.

A few years later, though, a Hexham man by the name of Des Craigie claimed he had fashioned the heads in his lunchbreak for the amusement of his daughter back in the mid-1950s. The Craigies had been previous occupants of the Robson’s house and the chap in question went to the trouble of making another replica head to prove his point.

In the meantime, the original heads were examined by various experts who didn’t quite know what to make of them – though the assumption was, originally at least, that they were ancient.

The mysterious heads were passed from pillar to post during the late 1970s, until, in around 1978, they were lost. And that was the end of that.



Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Bob Stokoe of Mickley (c.NZ075621)



Mickley, Northumberland, is not a very large village. It is known, historically, as the birthplace of the famous engraver, Thomas Bewick (at nearby Cherryburn Farm); but should, perhaps, be even better known for spawning one of the most celebrated football figures the region has ever produced: Bob Stokoe.

The man is a Sunderland legend, of course, having managed the Wearsiders to that most unexpected FA Cup Final victory over the then mighty Leeds United in 1973. But he is closely linked with Newcastle United, too, having won the cup with the black ‘n’ whites as a player in 1955. In between these two momentous occasions he managed a string of lower league clubs with a varying degree of success.

Robert Stokoe was born at Mickley on 21st September 1930 into a typical North-East mining community – in fact he was the son of a miner. He joined Newcastle United in 1947 as an apprentice, scored on his debut in 1950, and went on to play 288 matches for the club – mainly at centre-half, and punctuated by that 3-1 Cup Final win over Man City in 1955. He left for Bury in 1960, joining initially as player-manager, then concentrating on management.

He remained at Bury for five years – famously refusing a bribe, he claimed, from Leeds manager Don Revie to ‘throw’ a match. He then managed Charlton, Rochdale, Carlisle and Blackpool, before quietly taking charge at Sunderland in 1972. Then a second tier club, they shocked the football world by beating the imperious Leeds United 1-0 in the ’73 Cup Final – and a stunned nation watched Stokoe dash across the Wembley turf on the final whistle adorned in raincoat and trilby to embrace match hero, ‘keeper Jim Montgomery.

After he left Sunderland in 1976, he moved in and out of various posts over the following decade – and, astonishingly, was never sacked at any of the twelve clubs he managed. He retired in 1987 – ironically overseeing Sunderland’s only ever relegation to the third tier of English football.

He died in Hartlepool in 2004, aged 73.


Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Stories of Bywell (NZ047614 & thereabouts)


Situated in a loop on the north bank of the River Tyne, the settlement of Bywell is an odd little place. Now strangely vacant, yet still possessing two parish churches (don’t ask, look it up), it remains one of the North-East’s most pleasant spots. It has some peculiar tales to tell of its sporadic existence, of which we shall examine two…

The first explains to a certain extent why there is nothing much to see on the ground these days – for it was not always thus. During most of its history Bywell was a busy place, famed for its skilled metalworkers who produced horse equipment and fittings. However, come 1852 and the then owner of Bywell Hall, Wentworth Blackett Beaumont, decided to clear the village in order to improve the view from his mansion. And though the two churches survived, the respective vicarages were very much in the firing line. One of them (that of St.Andrew’s) went the way of the rest of the village, though St.Peter’s vicarage survived – but only just…

The incumbent, Rev Dwarris, who was a very influential man, simply refused to accept the sale of his home to Messr Blackett Beaumont and, well, just stayed put. The lord of the manor, keen to press on with his landscaping project regardless, was forced to build a large wall to both block out his view of the vicarage and to prevent the reverend poking his nose in. The ‘spite wall’ can still be seen today.

Another major event in the village’s history was, of course, the Great Flood of November 1771. With Bywell still very much a working concern at the time, the watery influx had a calamitous effect on the lives of a great many people. Somewhat alarmingly, in the mayhem caused by the flood-waters ‘dead bodies and coffins were torn out of churchyards and the living and the dead promiscuously clashed in the torrent’ – and poor Bywell suffered more than most. The water rose eight feet up the walls of the recently built hall, and St.Peter’s Church was greatly damaged (and the parish records destroyed). At least ten houses were swept away, six folk drowned and farmers lost their cattle, corn and hay.

Amidst the chaos, the lord’s valuable stud horses were safely got into St.Peter’s Church, before the building was itself overcome. In what must have been a bizarre scene, the poor beasts only managed to save themselves by hanging onto the tops of the pews with their teeth. It is said that the father-in-law of the great Thomas Bewick was present in the village at the time – and his horse ended up atop the altar table of the same church.

Though much was lost or damaged during the 1771 disaster it is interesting to note that the then vicar of Bywell St.Peter’s, Rev Robert Simon, made a claim on the hardship fund for “lost communion wine and brandy” that had been stored in the cellars of his vicarage …



Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Riding Mill Witch-Hunt (NZ019614)


One of Riding Mill’s most prominent landmarks these days is The Wellington Hotel public house, sitting, as it does, on the north side of the main thoroughfare of the village. It is a popular stopping off point for travellers, but few will be aware of the establishment’s grisly past.

The building began life as a private residence in the mid 17th century, and was known originally as Riding House. Not long after its construction, though, it became embroiled in an extraordinary tale of alleged witchcraft and an unfortunate suicide.

The story goes that in 1672 a young servant girl called Anne Armstrong had several of those episodes all too common at the time and began randomly accusing various individuals of dabbling in witchcraft. Anne lived at Birches Nook, Stocksfield, and after a minor argument with an old woman over some eggs she descended into a series of hysterical trances. Among her many rantings she accused three local women – Ann Forster of Stocksfield, Anne Dryden of Prudhoe and Lucy Thompson of Mickley – of dancing with the Devil and other shenanigans (including shape-shifting into various beasts) at Riding House.

The case rumbled on until it was finally heard at Morpeth Quarter Sessions in 1673, whereupon the magistrates considered young Anne’s account far too fanciful and dismissed it. The three defendants were therefore acquitted, and the matter was considered to be at an end.

However, Anne Armstrong, the deluded accuser, was to have the last, horrid word. For, shortly after the case was concluded, she was found hanged in the Riding House scullery. And (of course) her ghost is said to haunt the pub to this day…

Note: The case of the Riding Mill witch-hunt is considered to be unique in English witch trials, the various witchly goings-on having a distinctly ‘continental’ feel to them. Quite how a young North-East servant girl came to recount such stories has, however, never been properly explained.