Around Northumberland in 96 miles . . . and several thousand years

Steph and I have been Friends of the Alnwick Garden since April 2021, and being only 34 miles north of where we live in Newcastle, we try to visit the Garden every couple of months or so. It’s always nice to see how the Garden awakens in the Spring, flourishes during Summer, and closes down in the Autumn and Winter. And we always enjoy a welcome cup of Americano in the Pavilion Cafe.

However a stroll round the Garden usually takes no more than 90 minutes, so we often try to combine a visit there with somewhere else: on one of Northumberland’s glorious beaches, or deep in the county’s fabulous landscape.

And that’s just what we did last week, heading south from Alnwick to Lordenshaws Iron Age hill fort, south of Rothbury and beyond.

This is the route we took, and I have marked the various interesting sites along the way that encompass various aspects of Northumberland’s history over the millennia. We only stopped at three of these (having visited the others many times before): Lordenshaws, Mote Hills motte and bailey castle at Elsdon, and Winter’s Gibbet high on the moorland beyond Elsdon.

So without further ado, let’s explore what can be seen along this route.

(1) The Alnwick Garden Planning for the Alnwick Garden began in 1997, with the first phase opening in 2001. It was the inspiration of Jane, Duchess of Northumberland. The land was donated by her husband, Ralph Percy, 12th Duke of Northumberland, and covers 42 acres. The garden is managed by a charitable trust. The garden also includes a display of some of the world’s most poisonous plants, and there is a narrative of how they have been used for various nefarious purposes.

(2) Alnwick Castle Home of the Percy family for over 700 years, and residence of the 12th Duke of Northumberland and his family, the first parts of Alnwick Castle were erected in 1096.

Today, it’s open to the public, although we have never visited. The castle has been the filming location for several movies and television programs such as two of the Harry Potter films, and Downton Abbey.


Leaving the Alnwick Garden, we headed south towards Rothbury on the B6341, with views back towards the coast from the high, heather-covered moors, then descending towards Edlingham and magnificent views over the Upper Coquet valley all the way to the Cheviot Hills and the Scottish border.

(3) Edlingham railway viaduct The viaduct (seen in the image below, beyond Edlingham Castle) on the Alnwick to Coldstream (Cornhill) Railway, was opened in 1897.

The line was closed to passenger traffic in 1930. Freight services continued until 1965.

(4) Edlingham Castle and chapel The castle dates from the 14th century, although there was an earlier manor house on the site dating from about 1300. It was the home of Sir William Felton. The castle was abandoned as a residence in the mid-17th century.

Close by the castle is the 11th century chapel of St John the Baptist. Services are still held in the chapel.

Here is a link to a photo album.

(5) Cragside This must be one of the jewels in the National Trust crown, being the first house in the world powered by hydro-electricity. It was built by Lord William and Lady Margaret Armstrong. What is particularly striking about Cragside, in addition to the magnificent house and its location, is the fact that the Armstrongs transformed an area of high Northumberland heath into a remarkable garden with trees a hundred feet tall or more, something that they would never have seen. We’ve visited there several times, even before we moved to the Northeast in 2020.

(6) Rothbury Proudly proclaimed as the ‘Capital of Coquetdale‘, Rothbury is a small, traditional market town, and a convenient staging post for tourists wishing to explore the surrounding Northumbrian landscape. It was the birthplace, in 1970, of radio and TV celebrity Alexander Armstrong (a distant cousin of the Cragside Armstrongs). In 2010, Rothbury was also the focus of a massive police manhunt.


From Rothbury, the route climbs towards the Simonside Hills. Lordenshaws hill fort is close by. On this section of the route—as from Alnwick to Rothbury—the damage to trees caused by Storm Arwen in November 2021 was very much in evidence.

(7) Lordenshaws Iron Age hill fort and rock carvings This was our second visit to Lordenshaws. The Iron Age fort was built around 2000 years ago. There is also a Bronze Age burial mound. Close-by are the cup and ring marks etched in large boulders, and dating from the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, 6000 to 3500 years ago. Also, the views from there over Coquetdale are impressive.

Heading west from Lordenshaws, we traveled below the Simonside ridge before reaching the meandering River Coquet. Then climbing once more before descending into the village of Elsdon, a small hamlet we had visited in 1998 and which, for us, held an interesting story.

(8) Tosson Tower The tower appears in the video above around 5 minutes mark.

It is a Pele tower built in the 14th or 15th century to protect against raiders in this border region with Scotland. It had walls 2 m thick. We didn’t stop as the tower is on private land.

I’d been trying to locate some of the villages we had visited in Northumberland in 1998. And as we entered Elsdon I realized this was one of them. On that holiday we never had a set route, just ending up each day finding bed and breakfast accommodation when and where we could. In Elsdon, we had an evening meal in the local Bird in Bush pub, before retiring for an early night. You can imagine our surprise the following morning when we came down to breakfast to discover that the landlady’s husband, who we’d met the evening before, had suffered a heart attack during the night. A doctor and ambulance had been called and he was in hospital, probably in Morpeth. We slept through the whole commotion!

(9) Mote Hills motte and bailey castle, Elsdon Parking close by the village hall (where the toilets are open to the public!), we walked the short distance up a lane to Mote Hills, the earthwork remains of a late 11th/early 12th century motte and bailey castle, and one of the finest in the country. It’s very impressive, from a distance and close up.

Click on the image below to enlarge.

We had come across the Umfraville family on one of our earlier trips, in Upper Coquetdale, at Harbottle castle. And like the castle at Elsdon, Harbottle was built on a steep mound, the motte. At Elsdon the slopes must be 60° at least, and after struggling up the sides (before we found a much easier exit) I could imagine just how easy the site would have been to defend against unwanted visitors.


Having spent around 30 minutes exploring the remains of this interesting castle, we left Elsdon, and headed southeast to the last stop on that day’s tour of Northumberland: Winter’s Gibbet.

(10) Winter’s Gibbet High on the moors southeast from Elsdon, and with a magnificent 360° panorama, stands a sinister reminder of a late 18th century crime.

Winter’s Gibbet stands out clearly against the skyline. It a replica of the one first erected in 1792.

It was here that the body of one William Winter was hung in chains and left to rot following his execution (in August 1792 in Newcastle, along with two women accomplices) for the murder a year earlier of an old woman, Margaret Crozier who lived in a nearby Pele tower. It was the custom back in the day to leave the body of a murderer in a place overlooking the scene of their horrific crime. Click on the image below to enlarge.

William Winter was the only criminal to be ‘displayed’ at this gibbet.

From Winter’s Gibbet we headed home, passing on the way Wallington Hall, the village of Kirkharle, and Belsay Hall.

(11) Wallington This is a late 18th century mansion in the Palladian style, that replaced a medieval Pele tower on the estate (the cellars of which are still visible in the basement). It passed to the Trevelyan family in 1777.

We have visited Wallington on several occasions, and enjoyed not only walks in the garden and parkland, but also understanding the links of the Trevelyan family with the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of the late 19th century. I have written about our visits in three blog posts.

Capability Brown

(12) Kirkharle Just west of the A696 and about two miles south of Wallington, lies the village of Kirkharle. Birthplace in 1715/16 of the famous landscape architect, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, who I wrote about after a visit to the National Trust’s Croome in Worcestershire. Brown received one of his earliest commissions from Earl Coventry to redesign the landscape at Croome and dig a large lake, the ‘Croome river’.

(13) Belsay Hall and castle This was one of the first English Heritage properties we visited even before we moved to the Northeast. It lies about 14 miles northwest of Newcastle.

Besides the Regency style house built in the early 19th century, the Belsay estate includes an impressive garden within the quarry from which stone for the house (and castle?) was taken, and the ruins of a 14th century castle, original home of the Middleton family.

There is access to the roof of the tower with good views over the estate and the Northumbrian hills to the north.


Northumberland has something for everyone. I think we’ve hardly scratched the surface in terms of its history. And although we have traveled quite extensively already throughout the county, there is still plenty more to explore. After all, it is 1820 square miles (or 4716 km²).

 

 

 

 

Traveling back in time in Coquetdale – Nothumberland at its stunning best!

A couple of days ago, as Steph and I were driving—almost 23 years to the day since we first made this particular journey—up the narrow and twisting road to the headwaters of the River Coquet in the Cheviot Hills (that straddle the border between England and Scotland in the heart of the Northumberland National Park) I wondered aloud just how we managed to find this place so many years ago when Steph and I had a week’s holiday touring Northumberland.

We were headed to Chew Green, the site of a first century Roman encampment, alongside Dere Street, a Roman road that stretched from Eboracum (modern-day York) north into Scotland, at least as far as the abandoned Antonine Wall.

Chew Green is certainly off the beaten track. In fact it’s essentially at the end of the road, because just beyond the small parking area (///disco.bandaged.passenger) the road is closed from time to time, crossing the Otterburn Ranges military training area. And that was much in evidence as the guns boomed their presence across the hills, disturbing what otherwise would have been a completely tranquil visit.

Notwithstanding the noisy interruptions, the views along Coquetdale were breathtaking.

The River Coquet is just under 56 miles long, meandering its way east from the Cheviots to meet the North Sea at Amble.

A couple of years ago we visited Warkworth Castle that stands on a hill overlooking the tidal section of the river just short of Amble. At Rothbury, we have visited National Trust’s Cragside a couple of times, most recently last October. And just a few weeks ago, Brinkburn Priory (that stands in a loop of the Coquet, east of Rothbury) was our destination.

Besides the Chew Green encampment, our recent Coquetdale excursion took in a medieval castle with royal connections at Harbottle, the Lady’s Well at Holystone, and Lordenshaw Iron Age hill-fort with its ancient petroglyphs just south of Rothbury under the Simonside Hills. Quite a trip, some 112 miles by the time we arrived home in the late afternoon.


Chew Green
At ground level, the outlines of the Roman encampment appear as rather indistinct ramparts and ditches. Had we realized, we would have walked a short way up the other side of the valley where it’s possible to appreciate an almost aerial view of the site. The satellite image from Google Maps also helps.

There was just one other car parked, and no sign of the occupants. We did see several walkers crossing the landscape, presumably following the Pennine Way.

Below the car park, the Coquet crosses under the road, just a tiny brook in the bottom of the hollow. And, no more than 50 m from the edge of the encampment is the border with Scotland.

We climbed up to the encampment, and had a good wander about. We didn’t come across any signs of the 13th century village that is supposed to have existed here. But standing on the ramparts, it’s not hard to be impressed by a couple of things. First, the stunning beauty of these rolling hills. And second, how remote it all is. In this short video, I made a 360° panorama from the top of the encampment. If you listen carefully, you can hear the guns booming occasionally.

Which leads me to another question. Why on earth did the Romans build an encampment in such a remote location.? Admittedly it sits alongside an important line of communications, Dere Street, but since Hadrian’s Wall effectively became the northern limit of the Roman Empire in Britannia by AD165, for how long was the encampment and small forts occupied?

It’s an intriguing site, and one to which we must return before too long, with a plan to walk around the area.


Harbottle Castle
It’s remarkable how quickly the valley of the Coquet widens in such a short distance from the headwaters near Chew Green. The river itself takes on an entirely different aspect.

Instead of sheep farming, the broad valley is home to fields of cereals ripening in the intense July sunshine. And some 13 miles back down the valley stands Harbottle, with the remains of a late 12th century castle built by one of the Umfraville family (who also built Prudhoe Castle).

The castle sits atop a steep-sided mound that apparently had been used as a fortified site since ancient times. Today, there’s very little of the castle standing, but it is still possible to envisage just how impressive it would have been on its mound and surrounded by a deep ditch. The views of the surrounding countryside from the top of the mound were spectacular, especially towards to Drake Stone, that you can see on the horizon just after the beginning of this video, and in the photo immediately below.

Harbottle Castle has one particular royal claim to fame. Margaret, the mother of Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, second husband of Mary Queen of Scots (his cousin), and father to James VI and I of Scotland and England, was born at Harbottle in 1515. She was the daughter of Margaret Tudor, sister of Henry VIII and daughter of Henry VII.

The Northumberland National Park service has built an excellent small car park and picnic area (///whips.baths.luckier) on the west side of the village.


Lady’s Well, Holystone
A further 3 miles down the valley, and off a side road, lies the village of Holystone. We visited there once before in 1998 to see the Lady’s Well. On that occasion it was pouring with rain, and we got thoroughly soaked. Not so last Tuesday. It’s a short walk from the center of the village to the Well (///lung.spearhead.entire)

Lady’s Well has its origins in the Dark Ages, a place where early Christians were baptized; it is rumored to be associated with St Ninian. The village became the site of a priory of Augustinian abbesses, but no longer standing since the Reformation in the 1530s. A Roman road also passes close to the well.


Lordenshaw Iron Age hill-fort
Just a couple of miles south of Rothbury, there a car park (///daring.hazelnuts.finds) on a side road off the B6342, for access to the magnificent Simonside Hills (that are clearly seen from Cragside) and Lordenshaw Iron Age hill-fort (///woodstove.objective.flats). The site is probably around 2500 years old .

The fort is a short distance north from the car park up a gentle slope, maybe 400 m at most. At the hill-fort itself, there’s not a great deal to see, apart from a series of concentric but not very distinct ditches (rather like the situation at Chew Green).

At the main stone, the cup and ring carvings are thought to date from the Bronze Age and therefore older than the hill-fort. They can be seen quite clearly on one face of the stone (///hires.shadows.edgy).

But from that vantage point, and the hill-fort itself, the views are just stunning over the Northumberland countryside.

This really was Northumberland at its best. A full album of photos and videos can be viewed here.