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).

 

 

 

 

Almost as rare as hen’s teeth . . .

For about a two week period each Spring, around the end of April, The Alnwick Garden comes alive with an abundance of Japanese cherry blossoms, just as the rest of the garden is beginning to emerge from its winter slumber. We made a return visit there last Thursday only a week after we had been there, which I wrote about at the time. We noted then that the orchard was about to bloom, and didn’t want to miss the opportunity to see this wonder of Nature.

In 2008, this orchard of more than 320 great white cherry trees (Prunus ‘Taihaku’) was planted in the east-southeast section of the garden. Now 20 feet tall or more, words are insufficient to describe the wonder of this cherry orchard in full bloom.

The orchard is touted as the largest in the world of ‘Taihaku’ cherries. And this particular variety has an interesting history linking Japan, an Englishman, and a Sussex garden.

Cherry trees are central to Japanese culture, but tastes in different varieties have changed over the centuries. ‘Taihaku’ cherries apparently went extinct in Japan in the late 19th century. Move on a few decades, and up steps a very interesting Englishman, Captain Collingwood Ingram (1880-1981) who, after an early career interest in ornithology, became one of the world’s authorities on cherries. Indeed he was often referred to as ‘Cherry’ Ingram, a colossus, introducing many different Prunus species and varieties to the UK.

And it was through his passion for cherries that, in the 1920s, he came across a single, rather decrepit tree of Prunus ‘Taihaku’ in a Sussex garden. He successfully took cuttings, returning some to Japan. The trees at Alnwick (and indeed all ‘Taihaku’ trees worldwide) derive from that single Sussex tree.

In 2016, Japanese author Naoko Abe published an account about Ingram’s contribution to the survival of Japanese cherries. Here is a 2019 review of that book published by the Irish Garden Plant Society.

Abe herself also wrote an article for the Literary Hub, which is well worth the time to delve into. It gives some interesting background about Japanese cherry culture, why varieties became extinct, and of course, how Ingram turned this situation around.


Since all ‘Taihaku’ trees are derived from a single individual following vegetative propagation, there is zero genetic diversity worldwide for this variety. It’s an extreme example of genetic vulnerability, but that’s not a situation unique to Prunus ‘Taihaku’. The danger is that a pest or disease may emerge to which the trees have limited or no resistance, and there are no opportunities for selection of genetically-different individuals that might withstand such challenges.

Another example is the potato in Ireland. During the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s which decimated the Irish population, potato crops (predominantly of the variety ‘Irish Lumper’ or ‘Lumper’) were wiped out by the late bight pathogen Phytophthora infestans, all plants equally susceptible to the disease. Unfortunately there are too many examples of crops with a narrow genetic base that are under threat.

Let’s look at the situation in rice, a crop I am familiar with. It’s the world’s most important staple crop, providing sustenance daily (and indeed often several times a day) to half the world’s population. Since time immemorial farmers have cultivated tens of thousands of varieties. But over the past half century, new varieties such as IR36 and IR72 (from the breeding program at the International Rice Research Institute, IRRI, in the Philippines where I worked from 1991-2010) have been adopted across across millions of hectares in Asia, replacing many of those farmer varieties, and effectively becoming genetic monocultures.

In the world of genetic resources conservation, which was the focus of much of my professional life over many decades, scientists are continually concerned about losing different varieties, and genetic diversity overall. However, this loss of diversity, or genetic erosion as it’s known, has been occurring forever, as farmers swap varieties and adopt new ones, the sorts of choices that farmers make all the time. There’s nothing strange or concerning about that as such.

Let me elaborate with an example from the Philippines. In the mid-1990s, a major typhoon swept across the north of the main island of Luzon, destroying in its path much of the local rice agriculture. Since we had been carrying out fieldwork in that region prior to the typhoon and, with permission from the farmers, taken small samples of their varieties for genetic analysis, we were able (after seed increase at IRRI) to return to farmers the varieties they had been growing before the catastrophe. Some willingly took them back. Others decided that this was an opportunity to make changes to their farming systems and adopt new varieties. But that was their choice, not ours (Pham et al., 2002).

Varieties may be lost, but is the actual genetic diversity itself totally lost? We have some evidence from rice (Ford-Lloyd et al., 2008) that’s not the case:

. . . where germplasm and genetic data have been collected throughout South and Southeast Asia over many decades, contrary to popular opinion, we have been unable to detect a significant reduction of available genetic diversity in our study material. This absence of a decline may be viewed positively; over the 33-year timescale of our study, genetic diversity amongst landraces grown in traditional agricultural systems was still sufficiently abundant to be collected for ex situ conservation.

However, the authors go on to raise concerns about future threats to diversity caused by climate changes or different agricultural practices. While landrace varieties are grown they can continue to adapt to environmental changes.

Overall, however, with thousands of different varieties of rice (and a multitude of other crops and their wild relatives) safely conserved in genebanks around the world, genetic diversity has not been lost. It’s available to dip into by breeders who incorporate traits from the landraces into new varieties (just look at the example of IR72 below that has 22 landrace varieties and one wild species in its pedigree), or as we showed in the Philippines example above, returned to farmers so they can continue to benefit in different ways from these old varieties.

Just recently I’ve been involved in an online discussion among old friends and colleagues about the loss of genetic diversity over the decades, and how much has actually been lost. As Brian Ford-Lloyd and I wrote in our 1986 introduction to genetic conservation:

Hard facts relating to genetic erosion are not easy to come by; what has been lost already can no longer be accounted. One therefore has to resort mainly to personal impressions and subjective accounts.

What is important is that over the past half century, efforts have been stepped up to safely conserve old varieties and wild species in a network of genebanks across the globe. And, in recent years, that effort has been backstopped financially and technically by the Crop Trust with grants in perpetuity to major world genebanks (such as those managed by eleven CGIAR centers) and the opening of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in the permafrost high above the Arctic Circle.

However, even as these initiatives gain traction and deliver on their promises, we cannot remain complacent. Situations such as the ‘Taihaku’ cherry will continue to emerge (although perhaps not so extreme), and crops, wild species—and rare breed animals—will remain under threat. With habitat loss, and the threat of climate change that is gaining pace, never has genetic conservation (and use) been so important. ‘Taihaku’ can teach us a lesson if we take our eye off the ball.