Morpeth and the River Wansbeck

Morpeth : The County Town

Morpeth on the River Wansbeck is the County town of Northumberland, and lies fifteen miles  north of Newcastle upon Tyne.

Situated within a U-bend of the River Wansbeck, Morpeth grew in importance as a coaching stop and market town on the Great North Road between London and Edinburgh. The name of the town could in fact take its name from this road, which leads north across the moors, as the name is said to derive from `moor path’.

An alternative suggestion is that it derives from `Murder Path’, which is not unlikely when we consider the bloody border history of Northumberland.

Like many Northumbrian towns Morpeth suffered regularly at the hands of Scottish attacks, although when the town was sacked and burned in 1216 it was King John of England and not the Scots who were responsible. This raid on the town followed disagreements between the king and local barons.

Morpeth was never a walled town like Newcastle or Berwick, but it did once have a castle, of which only the mound remains at the Ha’ Hill overlooking the town’s park. The castle was occupied by the Scots under General Lesley during the Civil War, when a garrison of 500 Scots held out against the Royalists for twenty days.

In 1715 Morpeth was involved in the first Jacobite Rising, in which most Northumbrians supported the attempt to put James Stuart, the `Old Pretender’ on the throne. Supporters of the Jacobites did not include the ‘Geordies’ of Newcastle who supported the claim of King George.

A Suicidal Suffragette

St Mary’s, the parish church of Morpeth, is unusual in that the churchyard has a watchtower built in the 1830s to guard against bodysnatchers. The churchyard is also notable in that it contains the grave of Emily Wilding Davison (born 1872), the suffragette who threw herself in front of the King’s horse at Epsom on Derby Day, 1913.

Miss Davison, who was from Longhorsley, to the north of Morpeth, died four days after her suicidal feat. Her body was brought to Morpeth for burial, where her funeral was treated as quite an event, with many suffragettes attending.

During her campaigns as a suffragette Emily Davison had been imprisoned several times, had been force fed and once locked herself in her cell only to be flooded out by a magistrate using a hosepipe. On one occasion she had attempted to disrupt the House of Commons and once even managed to brutally whip an unfortunate church minister, whom she had mistaken for Lloyd George.

A rural County

For a county town Morpeth is fairly small, with a population of only around 15,000, but perhaps its size is not surprising, for the most thinly populated county in England. Most of Northumberland’s population is in fact concentrated in a number of small towns between Morpeth and Newcastle upon Tyne, that is within that south eastern portion of the county which once formed part of the Great Northern Coalfield. Many of the towns in this part of Northumberland, have coal mining origins such as Blyth, Bedlington and Ashington, while others such as Ponteland, Darras Hall and Cramlington have grown mainly as modern dormitory subburbs of Newcastle upon Tyne.

Beyond Morpeth and south east Northumberland, the main towns of the county are Hexham Alnwick, and Berwick Upon Tweed, and all three of these are smaller than Morpeth. In fact the next major centre of population to the north of Newcastle upon Tyne, is the Scottish capital of Edinburgh. Much of the countryside in the Wansbeck valley to the west of Morpeth is sparsely populated.

Sweethope Loughs and the Wild Hills O’ Wannie

The road south from Elsdon and Steng cross in Redesdale leadsus to Kirkwhelpington, Wallington Hall and the upper reaches of the River Wansbeck, 20 miles north west of Newcastle upon Tyne.

Kirkwhelpington lies by the Wansbeck river, close to the A696, Newcastle to Jedburgh road in the vicinity of the Wild Hills O’ Wannie. These hills take their name from the River Wansbeck and are the subject of a haunting Northumbrian pipe tune. The `Beck’ in Wansbeck has nothing to do with the Viking word for a stream as the name Wansbeck derives from the Anglo-Saxon `Waeganspick’ possibly meaning `waggon bridge’.

Up the Wansbeck valley to the west is the Great Wanny Crag, site of one of Northumberland’s many ancient forts to the north of the Sweeethope Loughs. These lakes form the source of the River Wansbeck.

St Bartholemew’s church at Kirkwhelpington, was the place where the Reverend John Hodgson wrote the greater part of his classic seven volume History of Northumberland between 1823 and 1832. The village is also noted as the burial place of Charles Algernon Parsons, (1854 – 1931), inventor of the steam turbine engine.

Capability Brown Country

To the south of Kirkwhelpington, is Kirkharle, birthplace of Lancelot Brown the landscape gardener, (1716 – 1783), who was more famously known as `Capability’ Brown. He acquired this name from his usual saying when presented with a new plot of land that `it has capabilities’.

Brown began his career as a gardener on the Kirkharle estates, where he learnt his trade before leaving Northumberland in 1739. He went on to become the head gardener at Windsor and at Hampton Court and was responsible for laying out the famous gardens at Kew and at Blenheim Palace.

Wallington Hall : History and Historians

Along the Wansbeck valley to the east of Kirkwhwelpington, we find Wallington Hall, one of the finest old houses in Northumberland. It was built in 1688, around the foundations of an old Pele Tower belonging to the Fenwicks, who were the principal Border clan of south east Northumberland. When the Hall was built in 1688 for Sir Williiam Blackett, a man with coalmining and shipbuilding interests, the old pele tower was incorporated into the new building.

In 1777 Wallington Hall passed into the hands of the Trevelyan family and through them it became associated with three of the greatest British historians; G.M Trevelyan, George Otto Trevelyan and George Macaulay. The desk at which Macaulay wrote his `History of England’, is in the Wallington study

Wallington Hall has been in the care of the National Trust, since 1942 and is most notable for its interesting furniture, pictures and fine plaster work.

For many the biggest attraction at Wallington are the eight large wall frescoes by Sir William Bell Scott, which depict scenes from Northumbrian history. Beautifully painted with fascinating details, the fresco subjects are; The building of Hadrian’s Wall, St Cuthbert on Farne Island, The Viking invasion of Tynemouth, The death of the Venerable Bede, The Spur in the Dish, Bernard Gilpin at Rothbury church, Grace Darling’s sea rescue and a Tyneside industrial scene – shown below.

The subject of the `Spur in the Dish’ depicts the Charlton Border Reiving clan assembled for lunch in their home at Hesleyside Hall, in North Tynedale. The lady of the house has brought in a salver and dish for her hungry husband and his retainers, but the salver has been lifted to reveal not the expected Sunday joint, but instead the dish contains a riding spur.

This is an illustration of an old border custom, most strongly associated with the Charltons. The lady is giving a subtle hint to the men of the household that the larder is almost empty and that they must ride, reive and steal some cattle if they want to be fed.

The estate grounds of Wallington Hall, which were partly laid out by Capability Brown, are the site of four curious stone gargoyle or griffin heads. Originating from Old Aldersgate in London, they were brought to the North East as ballast in one of Sir Wiliam Blackett’s ships, which worked between London and Newcastle.

A mile to the north of Wallington Hall is the village of Cambo, built in 1740 as a model village for Wallington Estate workers. Capability Brown went to school here.

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