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!