Rothbury, Cragside and Coquetdale

Cragside : an industrial ‘wizard’s castle’

Rothbury’s biggest attraction is undoubtedly the wonderful Cragside, a grand house in a 1200 acre parkland estate in the hills just to the east of Rothbury and owned by the National Trust.

Cragside near Rothbury, Northumberland. Photo © David Simpson
Cragside near Rothbury, Northumberland. Photo © David Simpson

Cragside was largely the creation of William, the First Lord Armstrong (1810-1900), a famous Victorian Engineer, gunmaker and inventor. A scientific `magician’ and also a powerful industrialist, Armstrong’s life and lifestyle are almost like a history of the Victorian age. It is not surprising that his house at Cragside is often described as a shrine to Victoriana.

Cragside was first built between 1864 and 1866 as a small modest hunting lodge located on the craggy moors ovelooking Rothbury.In 1869 Armstrong employed the Scottish architect Richard Norman Shaw, to transfer this building into the magnificent `fairytale’ house we see today, its appearance earning it a comparison to a wizard’s palace.

Armstrong also transformed the land around the house into a beautiful wooded park with lakes and pleasant walks. The lakes served a functional, as well as an aesthetic purpose as Armstrong used some of them to create hydro electricity. Indeed Cragside, was the first house in the world to be lit by electricity derived from water power. Cragside also had a kitchen spit and two elevators operated hydraulically. Armstrong was a man before his time.

Rothbury: Steeped in history

Rothbury, the capital of Coquetdale derives its name from Anglo-Saxon, times when it was called Routh Biria meaning `Routha’s Town’, but the history of the surrounding district goes back into even earlier times, as proved by the evidence of numerous ancient camps, cairns and stones, in the neighbouring countryside.

Most noteable of the ancient sites, is the prehistoric fort of Lordenshaws, which is situated at the junction of four ancient trackways. It was probably an important cult centre, judging by the number of mysterious unexplained cup and ring markings in the area (these can also be seen at Doddington Moor near Wooler and in Teesdale, County Durham).

Other ancient sites in the Rothbury area include `Old Rothbury’, a notable promomontory fort on Tosson Hill, to the north west, and the nearby Westhill Camp. There are also a number of ancient hut circles and barrows on Debdon and Whitfield Moors to the north of the town.

Bernard Gilpin at Rothbury

Though an attractive and peaceful little place today, Rothbury was in times gone by a typically rough border town, as William Tomlinson records in his Guide to Northumberland (1888);

“The people of Rothbury in former times were among the wildest and most uncivilised in the county. For fighting, gaming and drinking they had a worse reputation than the inhabitants of Tynedale and Redesdale. Very little regard had the good folk of Rothbury for the laws and their love of venison frequently led them into trouble”

Religion did not have a particularly strong influence in Rothbury and other parts of the Border country, in days gone by and preachers tended to avoid the area, particularly in winter when the Northumbrian weather was regarded as almost as inhospitable as the rough border folk themselves. It was avoided by all that is, except one Bernard Gilpin, the sixteenth century rector of Houghton-le-Spring in County Durham, who deliberately set out for Northumberland each winter, to evangelize among the border peoples earning himself the unofficial title `Apostle of the North’.

Gilpin was respected and somewhat feared by the dalesmen of Tyne, Rede and Coquet, so much so that on one occasion a mosstrooper stole Gilpin’s horses, but immediately returned them when he discovered the identity of the owner, for fear that the Devil would seize him.

Rothbury church was one of the places in which Gilpin would frequently preach and it was here on one occasion that two rival gangs began threatening each other, with clashing weapons while Gilpin was giving a sermon. It seemed as though they were about to embark on a pitched battle inside the church. Gilpin reacted quickly, and bravely stepping between them, asked the gangs to reconcile. The two surprised factions agreed to refrain from violence, so long as Gilpin remained in their presence.

Another famous story regarding Bernard Gilpin at Rothbury church, is the subject of one of William Bell Scott’s frescoes at Wallington Hall, near Morpeth.

While preaching one Sunday morning, Gilpin observed a glove hanging up in the church and asked the Sexton what it was for. The Sexton told Gilpin that it was meant as a challenge to anyone who removed it. Gilpin asked the Sexton to take the glove down, but he not surprisingly refused, fearing for his life. Gilpin therefore removed it himself, placed it in his breast pocket and continued with his sermon against the evil ways of his congregation. For some reason no one had the courage to challenge Bernard Gilpin.

The Druid’s Stone Coquetdale

The beautiful River Coquet rises in the Cheviot Hills, many miles to the west of Rothbury, on the England Scotland border, near the remote Roman camp at Chew Green to the north of Redesdale. From here it winds its way eastwards through some of the remotest scenery in the region and is joined by a number of side valley streams called `Hope Burns’ and by the River Alwin at Alwinton (pronounced Alenton), nine miles to the west of Rothbury.

Near to Alwinton we find the Village of Harbottle, the site of a ruined castle, once owned by the Umfraville family. The castle was an important part of the defences of the English border and was for many years the headquarters for the Wardens of the English Middle March. These men were responsible for maintaining peace, law and order in the turbulent days of Border warfare.

On the Harbottle Hills overlooking Harbottle village to the south, is the tiny Harbottle Lough and nearby a thirty feet high sandstone rock called the Dragon stone or Draag stone. This was once associated with Black Magic and ancient Druidic rites. Even in relatively recent times children were passed over the rock to cure them from sickness.

The Harbottle Hills do seem to be steeped in legend and superstition, for it is said there was once a plan to drain the Harbottle Lough, but the idea was abandoned after the workmen fled, upon hearing some mysterious, unseen person speak out against their actions.

Let alone, let alone
Or a’ll droon Harbottle
And the Peels
And the Bonny Holystone.

The Holy well of Holystone

The village of Holystone (sometimes pronounced Halystane in the local dialect), is on the south side of the Coquet, to the east of Harbotttle. It is said to be the place where in the easter of 627 A.D, the Roman missionary, Paulinus baptised 3000 Anglo-Saxons, including the Northumbrian King, Edwin. The site of the baptism is said to be marked by the ancient Lady’s Well, now looked after by the National Trust.

Holystone, Holy well Northumberland
Holystone, Holy well, Coquetdale, Northumberland © David Simpson

The well consists of a spring fed pool, at the centre of which stands a Celtic style cross dedicated to St Paulinus.

Like many parts of Coquetdale, Holystone has its share of ancient remains, such as a Roman road linking Dere Street and the Devil’s Causeway, to the north of the village, and five standing stones to the south called the `Five Kings’, which form a line forty six feet in length.


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