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.