Redesdale, Elsdon and Carter Bar

Elsdon – the Old Redesdale capital

Redesdale is formed by the River Rede, a tributary of the North Tyne that forms a major valley to its east. Strongly associated with border raiding in times past, the main places of interest are Otterburn Elsdon and on the border with Scotland itself, Carter Bar.

Elsdon in Redesdale in Northumberland
The village of Elsdon in Redesdale showing the vicar’s pele Photo © David Simpson

Although Otterburn might be regarded as the `capital’ of Redesdale, in more historic times Elsdon held that distinction, when it was an important gathering place and market town for the clans of the valley who included the Storeys, Hedleys, Dunnes, Potts, Millburns and Halls.

The village, though pleasant and peaceful today saw its share of rough border, life in days gone by and was evidently not a great place for hospitality, as an old Northumbrian ballad records;

Hae ye ivver been at Elsdon ?
The world’s unfinished neuk
It stands amang the hungry hills,
An’ wears a frozen leuk.
The Elsdon folk like diein’ stegs
At ivvery stranger stare;
An’ hather broth an’ curlew eggs,
Ye’ll get for supper there.

Yen neet aw cam tiv Elsdon;
Sair tired efter dark
Aw’d trovell’d mony a lyensome meyle
Wet through the varra sark
Maw legs were warkin’ fit ta brik,
An’ empty was me kite,
But nowther love nor money could
Get owther bed or bite.

At ivvery hoose iv Elsdon
Aw teld me desperate need,
But nivver a corner had the churls
Where aw might lay me heed;
Sae at the public hoose aw boos’d
Till aw was sent away;
Then tiv a steyble- loft aw crept
An’ coil’d amang the hay.
Should the Frenchers land iv England
Just gie them Elsdon fare;
By George ! they’ll sharply hook it back,
An’ nivver cum ne mair
For a hungry hole like Elsdon
Aw nivver yit did see;
An’ if aw gan back tiv Elsdon,
The De’il may carry me.

Vicar’s Pele and battle graveyard at Elsdon

Despite the poor image that the old rhyme creates of Elsdon in past times, it is quite an attractive village today. The most noticeable reminder of Elsdon’s border history, is the village Pele tower, which is one of the best examples of its kind in Northumberland. Dating from around 1400, the tower was a fortified rectory, with walls 9 feet thick.

Its occupants once included the Reverend Charles Dodgson, a tutor of the Duke of Northumberland’s son. He was also the Great Grandfather of Lewis Carroll. Dodgson was rector here between 1762 and 1765.

St Cuthbert’s church to the south of the vicar’s pele, was the nearest graveyard to the Battle of Otterburn (1388). During church restoration in the early nineteenth century, a mass grave containing the skeletons of hundreds of men and boys, who died in the battle was uncovered.

Another notable feature of Elsdon are the two curious hills at the northern end of the village which mark the site of an old Motte and Bailey castle. Tomlinson’s Guide to Northumberland (1888) suggested that the earthworks were some kind of Celtic tribal capital at the time of the Roman occupation. There are certainly a number of ancient British camps and settlements in the vicinity of Elsdon.

In later times a Norman castle was built on top of these earthworks which became the home of the Umfravilles, Norman Lords of Redesdale. This family were heavily involved in many a border raid into Scotland and had a reputation which earned members of the family names like Robin `Mend the Market’ – a reference to the destruction of Scottish towns.

England’s longest place-name

The little village of Blakehopeburnhaugh is supposedly the longest place name in England, with eighteen letters. The name is of a very Anglo-Saxon, ‘old Northumbrian’ nature and means `black valley stream, with flat riverside land ‘ .

Blakehopeburnhaugh’s status in the Book of Records was apparently challenged by a hamlet called Cottonshopeburnfoot (19 letters), which lies less than half a mile up the valley, but this does not qualify because the Ordnance Survey writes the name in two parts as Cottonshopeburn Foot.

Carter Bar

The valley of Redesdale has for many centuries provided an important through-route into Scotland and today it is followed by the A68 Jedburgh road into Scotland, which crosses the border six miles to the north west at Carter Bar in upper Redesdale.

Carter Bar was the scene in 1575 of the Redeswire Fray, one of the last major battles fought between the English and the Scots. The fray occured when a violent battle broke out, following an argument between a Warden of the English Marches and the Keeper of Liddesdale, who ironically, were both employed to keep the peace on their respective sides of the border.

The meeting between these two men was meant to be a day of truce, but the arrogance of the English Warden, John Forster, aggravated the Scottish representatives and a battle ensued (the Forsters were a family with reiving traditions).

Among the Scottish contingent were members of the Crozier family and among the English, the Fenwicks of Wallington, arch-enemies of the Croziers. This obviously gave added venom to the battle. At the end of the fray the English, who were largely unarmed, came off worst and among those killed was George Heron of Chipchase, the Keeper of Tynedale and Redesdale.

Winter’s Gibbet

An unclassified road from Elsdon to Wallington and Morpeth follows the course of an old drove road south eastwards, where it passes the site of Steng cross, an old medieval guiding post. Some good views of the Northumbrian border country can be obtained from this area looking north towards Harwood Forest, the Simonside Hills and the Cheviots, and south towards the Wild Hills of Wannie where the River Wansbeck rises.

Winter's Gibbet near Elsdon in Redesdale Photo © 2015 David Simpson
Winter’s Gibbet near Elsdon in Redesdale Photo © 2015 David Simpson

In the vicinity of Steng Cross, near to the roadside is the eerie site of a Gibbet or `stob’, as the Northumbrians call them. Known as Winter’s Gibbet, it was from this that the body of a certain William Winter was hung, following his execution at Westgate, Newcastle in 1791. Winter, a gypsy had been ecxecuted for the murder of an old woman, called Margaret Crozier, who lived in the vicinity of Elsdon.

The old woman ran a small drapery store in the neighbourhood, which led Winter to believe she was wealthy. He murdered her after breaking into her home to find that she had little worth stealing. He seems to have been a rather desperate character, as he had not long returned from transportation. His family did have a history of crime, as both his father and brother also died by execution.

Winter’s body was returned to the Elsdon area following his execution in accordance with an old custom that murderer’s corpses should be displayed near the scene of their crime.

The site of the body hanging from the gibbet is said to have haunted a young shepherd boy by the name of Robert Hindmarch, who at the age of eleven, had given the evidence which largely convicted Winter. Hindmarch’s life was dominated by a constant fear of reprisals from Winter’s friends and this probably led to his early death at the age of twenty two.

For a time the morbid site of Winter’s body, drew sightseers from all around, until the stench from the corpse became so bad that people began to avoid using the road that passed that way.

Eventually the corpse was taken down and burried, but was replaced with a carved wooden effigy of Winter, of which only the head now remains. This gives the gibbet the curious appearance of an incompleted game of hangman.

In the last century the gibbet was viewed with considerable superstition, with one of the strangest claims being that chips taken from it had the magical ability to cure toothache.

Read about the Battle of Otterburn here


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