Corbridge and the Tyne Valley
Two miles east of Hexham, on the northern bank of the River Tyne, is the village of Corbridge, which in Roman times, was the site of Corisostopitum, a fort built around A.D 80, by the Roman Governor of Britain, Julius Agricola. The remains of the fort can still be seen, half a mile to the west of Corbridge village.
Coriostopitum guarded an important crossing of the River Tyne, located at the junction of the two important Roman roads known as Dere Street and the Stanegate. The fort played an important strategic role in Agricola’s attempted conquest of Caledonia, but when this proved to be an unprofitable use of resources, Hadrian’s Wall was built and Coriostopitum fell into temporary decline. Coriostopitum is not located on the Roman Wall.
About A.D 160 Coriostopitum regained importance, when it developed into a military supply base serving the whole eastern half of Hadrian’s Wall. A large civilian settlement, with tradesmen and merchants grew up around this base and Coriostopitum developed into one of the most important Roman towns in the wall country.
The Excavations on Coriostopitum, which began in 1906, have uncovered a number of interesting features, including temples dedicated to a number of different gods, (a reflection on the cosmopolitan nature of the settlement). The base of a Roman fountain can also be seen at Coriostopitum, it was originally decorated with statues and was fed by a small aqueduct.
Like a number of other sites along the Roman frontier, Coriostopitum now has a museum with displays of Roman glass, pottery, tools, military equipment and even Roman Board games. The ‘Corbridge Lion’ is one of the museum’s best known exhibits. It is a sculpture of a lion devouring a stag and was probably used to decorate a Roman officer’s tomb at Coriostopitum.
To the north of Corbridge at a place called Port Gate, the Roman Dere Street crossed Hadrian’s Wall, as it continued north into Redesdale on its way to Caledonia. Another Roman road known as the `Devil’s Causeway, joined Dere Street at Portgate, it can be traced north eastwards across Northumberland, to the mouth of the River Tweed at Berwick.
Corbridge in Anglo-Saxon times
In the centuries following the Roman departure from Britain, the importance of Corbridge continued and in Anglo-Saxon times it was a capital of Northumbria. In the later Dark Ages, Corbridge was the scene of two important battles in 914 and 918 A.D in which Northumbria’s Anglo-Saxons, with help from the Scots, fought against the invading Norsemen. These particular Viking invaders did not come, as might be expected from the eastern coast, or from the new Scandinavian kingdom in Yorkshire but came from the west, via Cumbria, from the Norse setled kingdom of Dublin.
In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Corbridge became one of the wealthiest towns in Northumberland and as a result suffered greatly from Scottish raids. It was occupied by David I, of Scotland in 1138, burnt by William Wallace in 1296, by Robert the Bruce in 1312 and also by David II in 1346.
The Vicar’s Pele tower at Corbridge, a fortified ecclesiastical residence is a strong reminder of this violent history. It was built around 1300 using Roman stones taken from the ruins of Corstopitum.
At Mickley on the south bank of the River Tyne four miles east of Corbridge we find the the birthplace of the famous wood engraver and naturalist, Thomas Bewick (1753-1828).
Bewick began his trade as an engraver, apprenticed from 1767 to the Newcastle engraver Ralph Beilby with whom he later formed a partnership. In 1784 he published a number of his beautiful woodcuts in hisSelect Fables and many of his pictures, often designed for the entertainment of children have their own story to tell.
As a naturalist, Bewick is best known for the History of British Quadrupeds, a work written and illustrated by him in 1790 and theHistory of British Birds written and illustrated between 1797 and 1804. He is also noted for giving his name to the Bewick Swan.
At Stocksfield is the cottage called ‘Cherryburn’, where Bewick was born. Bewick is buried a little further down the Tyne valley, in the churchyard of the village of Ovingham opposite the town of Prudhoe which is the site of an impressive ruined Norman castle. Dating from 1173 Prudhoe Castle is thought to have the oldest castle keep in Northumberland. It was originally built by the D’Umfraville family but passed into the hands of the Percys in the fourteenth century
Wylam on Tyne
Wylam on Tyne , is the last village in the Tyne valley, before we enter built up Tyneside. There is perhaps, no other place in the world of comparative size to Wylam, that more deserves the title `Birthplace of the Railways’.
It was here that the great railway pioneer William Hedley, built his Puffing Billy locomotive, which worked at Wylam colliery from 1813. The Puffing Billy operated from Wylam colliery to the coal staithes on the River Tyne at Lemington on the outskirts of Newcastle, a few miles to the east. Later the Puffing Billy was replaced by Hedley’s Wylam Dilly which was in operation until 1862
Hedley was assisted in much of his work by the Wylam born blacksmith Timothy Hackworth (1786 – 1850) who is another of Wylam’s great railway pioneers. Hackworth later went on to assist George Stephenson with the construction of the Stockton and Darlington Railway for which he developed his own engine called The Royal George..
Ultimately Hackworth established his own engine works at Shildon in County Durham, where today we find a museum dedicated to his life and work. Hackworth was a remarkable man, his last engine The Sans Pariel acheived a speed of 80 mph in 1849 and he was the man who introduced locomotives to Russia in 1837.
Both Hedley and Hackworth deserve to be better known but they are both overshadowed by another Wylam born engineer, George Stephenson who of course built the Rocket , the first locomotive to capture the imagination of the world. George and his son Robert are covered in a later chapter.