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.


Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Quaker Activity at Wheelbirks (NZ052586 & thereabouts)


When a Quaker eccentric named David Richardson purchased the farmhouse known as Wheelbirks a couple of miles SW of Stocksfield in the 1880s, he set about stamping his mark on the landscape around his new home with some verve. He died in 1913, and managed to leave several points of interest for us to enjoy today.

The proud new owner of a small estate, he first of all carried out significant improvements to his new pad – and followed that up by building six new estate cottages. Then came the slightly strange stuff…

Richardson’s newly-purchased domain sat astride Dere Street, the ancient Roman thoroughfare which angled through the North-East from York in the south to Corbridge (and beyond) in the north. The stretch which crossed the Wheelbirks estate dipped rather clumsily over the valley cut by the Stocksfield Burn, so Richardson decided to oversee the construction of a new bridge there in 1890 – and marked it thus:

© Copyright Clive Nicholson and licensed for reuse 

And on the other side of the bridge can be found…

© Copyright Clive Nicholson and licensed for reuse 

The latter, I think, is a metaphor for life, in typically Quaker-ish style you may say. But Richardson left loads of these little inscriptions all over the place – in his estate cottages, on roadside walls and on seats in the woods. I have no idea how many more, if any, of these can still be found today, but a decent list of those which once existed can be found here (and scroll down a bit).

Strangest of all, though, was the sanatorium he built – a most curious affair (see here). It was intended for use by TB sufferers from his Elswick leatherworks factory on Tyneside, but remained unfinished on his death and was probably never put to use. Well, other than as a farm storage depot, that is…



Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Who or What was Stobb? (NY861541 & NY869588)


High on the moors to the east of Allendale Town can be found not one, but two little landmarks by the name of Stobs or Stobb Cross. The most northerly of the two seems to be the oldest of the pair, represented, as it is, on OS maps in ‘Old English’ style text, and the other appears to be a more modern creation. So who, or what, exactly was the mysterious ‘Stobb’?

Stobs Cross at NY869588… (though I think it’s collapsed a bit more lately)
© Copyright Mike Quinn and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

… and Stobb Cross 3 miles to the south.
© Copyright Oliver Dixon and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

One would at first assume it was the name of a historical person, but it seems not. For one thing, there is no apostrophe in “Stobs” and, well, if you think about it, the name ‘Stob(s)/Stobb(s)’ does seem to pop up quite a lot in placenames – mainly out-of-the-way, lofty spots, to be precise. ‘Stob’ is, in fact, a Middle English word meaning ‘stub’, ‘post’ or ‘stump’. This could mean that as an originally substantial stone cross or column deteriorated over time it came to resemble a stump, and was labelled thus by the locals – hence ‘Stobb’ Cross. Just to confuse matters, though, in Gaelic, ‘Stob’ means a small peak – so there’s another possibility for you.

The northerly effort (top picture) – being, we think, the oldest – is no more than a medieval waymarker for wandering folk, possibly starting life as a boundary stone. The fact that it seems to have traces of two cup-and-ring marks in the stubby shaft probably means that it was harvested from some other prehistoric monument. As for the other more substantial structure, there is no evidence that it was once a prehistoric burial cairn, as has been suggested, and is probably just another wayside marker. For the record, both are shown on the 1865 Ordnance Survey map, with exactly the same spellings.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Muggleswick Grange (NZ044500)


© Copyright Oliver Dixon and licensed for reuse 

A surprisingly substantial ruin lies in the grounds of the present-day Priory Farm on the northern edge of the hamlet of Muggleswick, Co.Durham, very near to the Northumberland border. It is in one very real sense a bit of a rarity, yet in another quite frustrating way an almost complete mystery.

It has come to be known as Muggleswick Grange, though that in itself is a bit of a guess – and, hey, we have to call it something. But the fact is that this feature in the landscape has been called many things over the years: a monastery, a grange, a hunting lodge and the curiously named ‘prior’s camera’. Now, I suppose, it is a farmyard folly.

Unlike its modest status today, Muggleswick was clearly once a very important place indeed. Its place-name suggests an ancient founding, certainly; and it is mentioned in the 1183 Boldon Book. It had been owned by the Bishop of Durham, but by 1183 was the property of the Prior of Durham – though the Bishop still retained local hunting rights, as well as much of the surrounding countryside.

Brother William of the priory built a ‘large house’ (possibly of timber) sometime before 1229; then Prior Hugh de Derlington erected what was described as a ‘camera’ (a large vaulted stone building) either next to or on the site of William’s house in the1250s/60s. It is the remains of this construction that we see today. The prior’s influence seems to have grown over the years, and the burgeoning estate would have been managed from this building – essentially amounting to a sprawling animal ranch to support the Prior of Durham, as well as providing a hunting ground, of course, for various high-ranking officials.

A 1464 document lists a hall, chapel, grange and dairy at Muggleswick, though they seem to have been in a state of decay. And so the decline, we assume, continued until the Dissolution, and thereafter through the reuse of much of the masonry for nearby stone buildings. There is little in the way of documentary evidence to enable us to accurately chart its long and gradual decline into what we see today – but it remains a very rare example of its kind: a substantial ruin of a monastic grange from the medieval period. It is Grade I Listed.


Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Edmundbyers’ Troughs (NZ016501)


© Copyright Mike Quinn and licensed for 

On the edge of Edmundbyers’ village green at the very heart of the old settlement can be found a curious fragment of our past: a neat little set of water troughs and milk-stands.

They sit, protected by a stone wall, facing the main thoroughfare, and hark back to the simpler times of our distant, pre-motorised past. The troughs – possibly fed by pipe –were, I suppose, the ‘petrol stations’ of their day for passing horse traffic; and the milk-stands enabled the local dairy farmers to place their churns out for collection.



Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Lord Crewe Arms, Blanchland (NY966503)


The Lord Crewe Arms, taken by the
 author in 1991. Other than the cars, 
not a great deal has changed.

One of the North-East’s most picturesque villages, Blanchland sits quietly in a fold in the moorland landscape near the head of the Derwent Reservoir. It is situated on the Northumberland side of the nearby border with County Durham and gets its name from the order of ‘White Canons’ – the Premonstratensians – who settled there in the twelfth century.

The religious order obviously had its abbey, and, though there isn’t a great deal of this left today, a sizeable chunk of the complex forms the present-day Lord Crewe Arms, one of the most famous inns in the region. Essentially, the former abbot’s guest house is understood to have occupied the building utilised by the paying public today; and the pub’s garden was once the abbey’s cloisters.

The abbey was dissolved in 1539, and the old buildings found themselves in the hands of, firstly, the Radcliffe and then the Forster families – it essentially becoming a manor house, used regularly to host upper class hunting parties. When the Forsters fell from grace thanks to their Jacobite tendencies, Lord Crewe, Bishop of Durham, took over the reins. And this is, of course, where the establishment’s name comes from. And though he died within a few years of his takeover (1721), he left the estate to the Lord Crewe Trustees – in essence, leaving it to charity.

Then came the leadminers, and the general growth and prosperity of the village. The old manor house then became a pub, pretty much out of necessity, and, in time, the site developed into the impressive inn we see today.

And though it doesn’t openly boast about it, the Lord Crewe Arms has quite an interesting history – much of it surprisingly recent. Quite apart from being able to hark back to the days of the White Canons and their abbey, ex-owners the Forsters brought infamy upon the place when ‘General’ Tom Forster hid in the establishment’s giant fireplace during the Jacobite rising of 1715. The Blanchland days of this infamous family are also recalled in Walter Besant’s historical novel, Dorothy Forster.

Then there is the rather well-known W. H. Auden, who stayed at the Lord Crewe Arms at Easter 1930, remarking that “no place held sweeter memories.” Auden and Christopher Isherwood’s play The Dog Beneath the Skin (1935) may have been partially set in the village, too.

Poet Philip Larkin is also known to have dined at the Lord Crewe Arms; and in 1969 Benjamin Britten and tenor Peter Pears stayed at the inn.

Needless to say, that due to its timeless beauty, TV and film cameras have made regular use of Blanchland’s byways – from Catherine Cookson dramas to recent children’s fantasy effort Wolfblood – so you may well have seen the old pub pop up on the small or silver screen from time to time.

And to add to all of this, the inn is, of course, haunted – by not one but three ghosts (at the last count, that is). See here for a full account of the spooky goings-on at this fantastic old place.



Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Hunstanworth: the Thankful Village (NY950490)


The village of Hunstanworth, a little to the SW of Blanchland overlooking the valley of the River Derwent, holds a unique status among all the settlements of County Durham. It is the county’s only ‘Thankful Village’ – being the only community that did not lose a single serviceman during World War I.

There are only 50-odd Thankful Villages in the whole of Britain, which, when you consider how many such settlements there are across the nation, is a very small total indeed. Hunstanworth only sent five men to war during 1914-18, of which four of them, the Jamesons, were brothers. And they all made it back safely to their families.

In the village’s church of St.James’ can be found a carved alabaster memorial panel commemorating this blessed event, inscribed simply thus:
We thank thee
LORD
for bringing back
our soldiers
safely home
1914-1918
Note: Northumberland has only the one Thankful Village, too: Meldon.



Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Rookhope Arch (NY924429)


© Copyright Peter McDermott and licensed for 

A mile to the west of the remote village of Rookhope, Co.Durham, there lies an eye-catching relic of our industrial heritage in the form of a rugged stone archway. It sits quietly by the roadside and must leave the uninitiated passer-by somewhat nonplussed. It is known as the Rookhope Arch.

It is more accurately the Lintzgarth Arch, really, sited, as it is, a few yards away from the site of the former smelting mill complex of that name, a little above the Rookhope Burn. Lead being once mined hereabouts, smelting mills were scattered across the Northern Pennines to turn the lead ore into a purer form of the metal (bars, or ‘pigs’). One such mill was that at Lintzgarth.

Working with lead was a dangerous process, of course, and the fumes from the blast furnace needed to be funnelled away to a distant hilltop. At Lintzgarth this was done by constructing a six-arch, raised horizontal flue leading from the works and over the nearby Rookhope Burn and road, then a 1½ mile-long underground section to a hilltop chimney. In the picture above you can get an idea of the series of archways, the road/burn and the lower reaches of the underground tunnel.

The method of channelling the poisonous fumes out through a long chimney had the added bonus of allowing tiny fragments of lead (and silver) to stick to the inside of the structure – and these would of course be periodically scraped off for recycling by working boys. Nasty job – but, you know, waste not, want not.


Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Heathery Burn Hoard (c.NY988413)


One of the most notable archaeological sites ever discovered here in the North-East of England no longer exists. It is (or rather was) the Heathery Burn Cave, a mile or so north of Stanhope, near the said burn’s confluence with the Stanhope Burn. Strangely, and somewhat appropriately, its discovery, its gradual unearthing and eventual destruction were all down to man’s quarrying activity.

The Heathery Burn Hoard was one of the most important discoveries of Bronze Age artefacts ever made in this country. Though bits and bobs had turned up at the location since the 1750s, the story began in earnest in 1843 when, during construction work for a tramway for the nearby limestone quarry, the entrance to an existing cave was destroyed. Initially, eight bronze rings were found, and items continually turned up during quarrying (and some archaeological work) until the worksite’s abandonment in 1872. The assemblage essentially represents the complete household collection of a Late Bronze Age family, which seems to have taken refuge in the cave before being overwhelmed by flooding around 1150-800 BC.

Highlight of the collected goods are six bronze cylinders of 4 inch diameter, which were probably nave-bands of a four-wheeled vehicle – the earliest evidence of a wheeled cart/chariot in Britain. There are some beautifully made spearheads, an assortment of knives and a score of axes. Amazingly, coppersmith’s tongs and axe moulds were also found, indicating that nearby copper ore was being processed. There were razors, gouges and chisels, too; and, for the women, a gold armlet, a bronze ring, plus bronze pins and bracelets, together with tooth and shell necklaces. There was also a large bronze cauldron/bucket, together with crockery and remains of food found thereabouts, as well as many more mundane domestic items fashioned from animal bones. In all, over 200 items were discovered – and, yes, there were some human remains, too.

The Victorian quarrying work soon obliterated the site, and the relics scattered to several collecting houses – most notably the British Museum.

More info and some nice illustrations can be found here.



Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Fossil Tree, Stanhope (NY997392)


© Copyright Paul Buckingham and licensed for 

Stanhope’s famous fossil tree can be found built into the town’s churchyard wall, being one of the region’s most eye-catching oddities. A nearby plaque reads:

Fossil Tree – Sigillaria SP 
This great tree grew in a forest of the middle carboniferous period (about 250 million years ago) near Edmundbyers Cross now 1,550 feet above sea-level. As its vegetable matter decayed this was replaced by sand which has formed a perfect cast in hard ganister. The roots (stigmaria) show their characteristic form. The tree was brought to Stanhope and erected here in 1962 by Mr J.G.Beaston.

Edmundbyers Cross is a little fragment of antiquity to be found by the roadside of the B6278 about three miles north of Stanhope – and the quarry in which the fossil was found (along with a couple of other specimens, apparently) is still marked on OS maps. The finds, which were made in 1905 (some sources say 1915), lay goodness-knows-where until one of them was deposited on the edge of the churchyard several decades later by the said Mr Beaston. The chap in question was a local quarrying entrepreneur with a particular penchant for ganister stone.

Some consider the placement of the tree somewhat ironic given the church’s belief that the age of the Earth is around 6,000 years old!


Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Weardale Cement Works (NY947385 & thereabouts)


© Copyright Helen Wilkinson and licensed for 

Anyone familiar with the upper reaches of the Wear Valley during the late 20th century will remember the blot on the landscape that was the Weardale Cement Works. As well as, of course, being the area’s chief employer for the best part of four decades, the factory’s lofty tower served as a useful landmark for disoriented ramblers.

The main ingredient of cement is ground limestone, and limestone quarrying has been a popular pastime in these parts since at least the 1840s. So when cement was ‘invented’ and its production encouraged in the early 20th century, the existing activity in the Wear Valley made it a likely spot for the manufacture of the new-fangled construction material. It wasn’t until the 1960s, though, that the industry set up shop at the location in question, a little to the west of Eastgate.

The whole complex was spread over a large area. On the valley side to the south was the quarry itself; a little above this was sited the plant which crushed the stone; and a long conveyor belt took the spewed out material down and across the valley to the north bank where the rest of the cement production was, via a series of complex chemical processes, completed. The conveniently located Weardale Railway then took the finished product eastwards towards civilisation, though a good deal of it left the works in the familiar bright yellow livery of the Blue Circle lorries.  

The large chimney formed part of the latter works, being the smokestack of the kiln. Beginning life in 1965, the works themselves, though, enjoyed a relatively short-lived existence. The famous Blue Circle brand was taken over by French firm Lafarge in 2001, and operations ceased the following year when the company decided to concentrate its efforts on plants elsewhere in the country. By 2006 the whole plant had been demolished – and ramblers now wander lost among the fells with no guiding light to steer them home.

The photo above shows the demolition process taking place, with, it seems, the famous tower being the last element to fall.


Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Holy Well, Wolsingham (NZ077379)


© Copyright Andrew Curtis and licensed for 

Of all the ‘holy wells’ we have here in the North-East, the one near the town of Wolsingham in Weardale is both one of our most remarkable and, on the other hand, perhaps our most under-whelming.

As natural springs go it is nothing to write home about – at least not these days. It amounts to a tiny trickle of water rising up into a small puddle, and it has little in the way of local legend attached to its existence other than the purity of its offerings. But what makes it special is, of course, the substantial edifice which surrounds it: an apparently unnecessary small stone building, lovingly maintained over the years and guarded by an ornate iron gate. It is the largest structure built over a well in County Durham.

© Copyright Andrew Curtis and licensed for 

The said gate offers the names of two saints, Aelric and Godric, by way of elaboration, but no one seems to be able to pin down any definite link between the watery spot and the esteemed individuals. The best we can come up with is that the former, a local hermit, was visited by the latter, a wandering pilgrim/pedlar, in the early 12th century, and the two of them spent a couple of years in the vicinity of the village doing whatever such men do.

At the time there was thought to have been a small chapel operating near the well which utilised the waters issuing forth. But quite why the spot has been maintained for so long and in such an elaborate manner is a mystery.




Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Escomb Saxon Church (NZ189302)


[please note this article was originally written in 1994 so may be a little out of date – though, in view of the subject matter, probably not too much!]


It is distinctive of Escomb that it has no history. It is just a little, obscure church – probably preserved by its lack of importance.
[ a former Bishop of Durham ]

Well, maybe so.  Nevertheless, this “little, obscure church” of ours, nestling somewhat embarrassingly in the midst of a 1960s housing estate three miles west of Bishop Auckland, is arguably the finest example of its kind in Britain. Of the three surviving, intact Anglo-Saxon churches nationwide, our very own at Escomb is the pick of the bunch many say. Having been thus preserved by its “lack of importance”, it is now, ironically, perhaps our most treasured relic of Northumbria’s ‘Golden Age’.

The monument’s – and indeed the village’s – early history are shrouded in mystery. Scarcely mentioned in our early written histories, even the source of its name is disputed. Undoubtedly Old English in origin, it may mean Edi, Eda or Ida’s combe (combe meaning a hollow enclosed with hills, or a valley); or, alternatively, may be a derivative of the O.E. edisc (park), Ediscum therefore meaning ‘a place where there are parks’. It seems likely, however, that there has been almost continual habitation in the area since Anglo-Saxon times. The site is certainly typically Anglo-Saxon in nature.

Although similar to its more famous and near contemporaries at Jarrow and Monkwearmouth (built 675-84AD), Escomb Church does, however, exhibit features of an earlier generation. It is, if you like, more ‘Celtic-like’. Prior to the 664AD Synod of Whitby, Celtic Christianity very much held sway over the Roman version in the North.  Escomb, with its circular graveyard, pyramidal construction and Celtic artifacts, hints at a pre-664AD founding. It has unmistakable Celtic dimensions, too.  Its official date of construction of c.675 is probably therefore a little conservative. The locals, once converted in the 640s or 650s, would have soon set to work on their place of worship – it is fortunate indeed for us that they chose stone rather than wood. The choice, though, was an easy one – the crumbling nearby Roman station of Vinovia (Binchester) provided ample pickings.

Earliest documentary records dating from c.990-95AD concern the mortgaging or pledging of the estate (church included) to a Danish Earl, Northman, who, it seems, quickly sold it back to the See of Durham. It then fell under the administration of the parish of Auckland St.Andrew in the late thirteenth century, and its somewhat undefined role remained largely unchanged with its post-Reformation appointment as chapel-of-ease to its big brother.

Come the nineteenth century and Escomb itself was finally made into an ecclesiastical parish in its own right. A vicarage was built in 1848 (priests had previously been non-resident) and all looked rosy. The tiny churchyard soon filled, however, and a new church was built and burial ground created as early as 1863 half a mile away. The old church was thus abandoned and left to decay.

Thanks largely to the efforts of a certain Dr.Hoopell, however, the old building was rescued from imminent demise. Funds were raised throughout the late 1870s, local support rallied by the caring and much-loved incumbent, T.E.Lord, and tasteful refurbishment work carried out. Bishop Lightfoot did the honours on 4th October 1880 as the chapel was re-opened to the public.

By all accounts Victorian village life was pleasant enough thereafter under the watchful guidance of the Revd Lord. The ‘new’ church remained the parish church; its ancient neighbour being used periodically when the fancy arose. Twentieth century life took its toll, however, and the village gradually declined until clearance work in the 1960s preceded the construction of the present housing estate.

During the 1960s, too, it was decided to demolish the Victorian church (due to upkeep problems) – an act finally carried out in 1971. In the meantime the old Saxon church was overhauled again (including the installation of heating and lighting) in preparation for its restoration, once again, to the status of parish church proper in 1970.

So, a “little, obscure church” with a fascinating story… and a happy ending!

***

Don’t miss the chance to visit the place today; for if you’re ever in the area a quick diversion to take in the ‘Church of St.John the Evangelist, Escomb’ is well worth the effort. By reading the notice on the gate you’ll find the key to the same hanging on the wall of a nearby house (just take it without knocking). The church is open 9.00am-8.00pm during the summer and 9.00am-4.00pm in the winter.

Mention should be made of some of its features. Internally, the building measures 43ft x 14ft (nave) – the chancel being some 10ft square. The walls are an impressive 2ft 5in thick, and the building stands some 34ft to the point of the roof.

The southern porch and bell-cot were added during the twelfth or thirteenth century and, originally, there was an additional building to the west (the chancel is on the east wall) – though only traces of the foundations of this remain. Many extra windows have been added over the years. The site was, incidentally, excavated in 1968.

Note the narrowing or pyramidal form of all the vertical features of the church, including the building itself. Curiously, the upper courses of stone are much smaller than the rest (though still the originals).

Inside, there are medieval grave-covers lining the porch, an odd-shaped font and some original Anglo-Saxon pebbled flooring to the west of the nave. But most interesting of all is the cross fragment behind the altar and the complete Roman arch which now frames the entrance to the chancel – undoubtedly from the Binchester ruins. The fading artwork on the underside of the arch is some 800 years old.

Roman markings adorn the building inside and out. Indeed, many of the stones have clearly been fashioned by Roman masons. High on the exterior of the north wall is the legionary inscription “LEG VI”, though another legend on the inside of the same wall was not spotted until 1969 by an eagle-eyed schoolboy!

Evidence of an earlier age comes in the form of the Celtic cross over the porch entrance. What is probably the oldest Saxon sundial in the country sits high on the south wall, whilst a seventeenth century version adorns the porch.

Today the church is whitewashed within, but most probably would have also been brightly plastered without, too, in the Middle Ages. Those twelfth century paintings would also have adorned a good deal of the interior. By sitting alone on the back pew in complete and utter silence it is easy, even today, to picture the ancient scene of yesteryear. Simple, austere, reverent beauty.

And most moving.


[ This article has appeared in various publications over the years, including in my Aspects of North-East History, Vol.1 – see here ]


Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Hamsterley Forest (NZ050290 & thereabouts)


The large expanse of greenery which coats the valley of Bedburn Beck and its tributaries in County Durham is now a popular area of recreation for locals. It is, of course, known to all as Hamsterley Forest, and though it is the largest forest in the county it is a surprisingly modern creation.

Ancient woodland it may not be, but at 2,000 hectares (that’s around 5,000 acres), this popular family venue was, rather pleasingly, created during a very bleak period in our recent social history. Until it was purchased by the Forestry Commission in 1927, the huge tract of land belonged to the Surtees family and was dedicated to agriculture and shooting; but very soon after it changed hands – in 1934 – it was utilised by the Ministry of Labour as a work camp for the unemployed (of which there were a fair few around at the time). Tracks were laid out and trees planted over an intense four year period as part of a nationwide attempt to avert any possible future timber shortages. During this brief, and very tough, time, a network of ‘Instructional Centres’ were built across the country and workmen lived on-site in wooden huts. The unemployed fellows in question were required to carry out set periods of work (typically six weeks) in return for free clothing and a little pocket money.

In the run-up to war, the unemployment situation eased and the forestry work ceased. World War II hardly brought a break in usage for Hamsterley Forest, though, as German and Italian PoWs were incarcerated there in the existing barrack blocks – which must have been quite nice for them (in the circumstances).

In time the trees matured, and today the forest is run primarily as a commercial enterprise by the Forestry Commission. On the face of it, though, it seems to exist for the recreational benefit of the general public – including a rather nice four-mile Forest Drive.