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.


 

Brinkburn: a medieval priory on the banks of the River Coquet in Northumberland

Brinkburn Priory, an early 12th century Augustinian ‘transitional’ priory (architecturally between Norman and Gothic), nestles in a deep bend of the River Coquet in central Northumberland. All that remains today is the priory church, which was restored in the 19th century with the completion of a new roof, and installation of beautiful stained glass windows.

The site is owned and managed by English Heritage.

The free car park is located about 400 m from the priory itself, but from experience I can say just how enjoyable that stroll was, high above the fast-flowing Coquet, the trees, shrubs and understorey plants coming into flower, and a multitude of birds singing all around, trying to out-compete one another.

Brinkburn was dissolved in 1536. It was considered a ‘Lesser Monastery’ with a value of only £69, so was spared the fate of most monasteries. The church continued to be used until the late 16th century when it fell into disrepair and the roof collapsed. A manor house was built alongside the priory church in the late 16th century, incorporating parts of the other monastery buildings that had been destroyed. This manor house was refurbished by the Cadogan family who also undertook the restoration of the priory church from 1858. It took just a year to replace the roof, and the windows were installed by 1864.

Just click on the image below to open the album of the photos I took during our visit yesterday.

Access to the manor house is limited to just the ground floor and basement, where the ancient stonework from the former priory buildings is exposed, and how the undercroft from the old monastery was used as a foundation for the house.

As we sat on a bench, eating a picnic lunch and facing the west end of the priory church, I couldn’t help reflecting on the other ruined monasteries and the like that we have visited over the years: Fountains Abbey, Rievaulx Abbey, Mount Grace Priory, Lilleshall Abbey, Wenlock Priory, White Ladies Priory, and Hailes Abbey. And they all have one thing in common. The monks knew how to choose just the right location to build their communities. Such peaceful places to think, take pause. The bench we sat on was dedicated to the memory of a couple who had visited Brinkburn frequently, simply because they found it such a peaceful place. I know how they felt, sitting there beside the church and the babbling River Coquet.