JONATHAN JONES meets former Northumberland County Archaeologist, Chris Burgess, and learns something about the passion and obsession that drives him and others in his speciality.
There can be few places as blessed as Northumberland when it comes to history and archaeology and it’s a place that has long attracted people with a passion in both these fields. Former Northumberland County archaeologist, Chris Burgess must feel special affection for the county with a privileged first hand – and often hands on – insight into the region’s history.
Interviewed by BBC Radio 4 in 2014 while working on a project to excavate the site of the Battle of Flodden (1513) Chris described how it is always the possibility of the next find that keeps him going.
“Sometimes you find nothing. sometimes you find everything” he explained back then, but found he was always driven on by the possibility of giving a voice to individuals and events from the distant past.
In 2013-14, in conjunction with his role as county archaeologist, Chris had been the manager of the Flodden 500 Project, working with a team of up to 80 people from both sides of the border attempting to uncover the secrets of the famous battle site near Branxton, a couple of miles to the south of the River Tweed.
More recently Chris had been working on a landscape partnership project focused on Holy Island when he experienced a life changing event, suffering a brain haemorrhage, early in 2016.
Chris has learnt a thing or two about obsession, since then. His time on Ward Four, at Walkergate Park Hospital, in Newcastle, gave him many moments to reflect on the workings of the mind of the archaeologist, and the subjects or objects that they often obsess about. It seems that for Chris his particular passions and obsessions take him far beyond the borders of the North East.
“Every heritage professional has one site they obsess about” says Chris “and I am no different. For me it is the mythical ‘Amber Room’ in Tsar Nicholas’ Winter Palace, near St Petersburg, which sadly disappeared into the fog of war in early summer of 1945.
“Often held to be the eighth wonder of the world, the room was decorated with panels of mosaics, formed of Baltic Amber and backed with gold leaf. The entire room was lit only by candles.
“More than eight tonnes of Amber were used in the building of the room, which was constructed in the Charlottenborg Palace in Berlin, by Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, before being presented as a gift to his cousin Tsar Nicholas of Russia.”
Not only is the Amber room valued for its constituent amber and gold, but as an unparalleled piece of art. Sadly it was plundered by the Nazis during World War II, when it was stripped from its St Petersburg home by the retreating German army, ahead of rapidly advancing Russian forces.
Chris said: “Eyewitness reports have it packed onto a train, or trucks, and taken to the port of Konigsberg, where it was loaded onto the hospital ship SS Wilhelm Gustaf, which sailed from the port, only to be torpedoed and sank by Russian submarines in the Baltic Sea.”
But Chris’s obsession with this old decorated room, dismantled and lost more than 40 years before he was born, is not simply an “archaeological thing”.
He said: “It wasn’t just an archaeological thing that drove Howard Carter to search relentlessly for the Valley of the Kings, in order to gaze on the face of Tutankhamun in his burial chamber, ignoring warnings and curses, until he eventually found it.
“It’s a matter of personal obsession.
“My Dad, also an archaeologist, was fascinated by Stonehenge, how it was built, and why it was built, to such an extent that he wrote several books on the subject.
“For Howard Carter, it was an Egyptian boy prince, for my Dad it was Stonehenge, and for me, it is the missing eight tonnes of decorative amber from the Tsar’s Winter Palace.”
He added: “The wish to look upon and understand the unseen, unique and unusual, is what drives most archaeologists, which is why most have a particular artefact or site they become obsessed with.”
“I have looked into the face of Tutankhamun’s Death Mask, seen his other treasures, and think I understand Howard Carter’s obsession, and the passion that drove it.
“I live in hope of one day standing and looking on the rediscovered Amber room, but sadly do not really expect to do so.
“I have been to the Neues Museum in Berlin, and seen Schliemann’s mythical gold from Troy, and read his interesting justification of why he took ownership of it from the Ottoman Empire.
“In the same museum I have gazed in wonderment on the face of Nefertiti.
“The one thing all these artefacts have in common, is that now, following short interruptions for conflict, they are all freely available to people from all countries to enjoy, regardless of race or ideology.”
The same is true of our own region’s artefacts and archaeological finds which are here to be shared with the world at large with each and everyone giving its own insight into humanity’s past and adding ever more knowledge to our human story.
In this first blog exploring the curious and fascinating origins of North East place-names DAVID SIMPSON examines our rivers, streams and waterfalls and plots the great beck/burn divide
Alright please don’t ‘Pity Me’, but ever since I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated by place-names and especially those of the North East. I don’t know why precisely, but it’s certainly linked to my interest in history.
Across the region our place-names offer unique insights into our distant past and I find it fun to discover that a familiar place we take for granted is often not quite what it seems. Then of course we have all those strange and peculiar names: Pity Me, Witherwack, Wallish Walls, Snods Edge and Foggy Furze. How about Shiney Row, Seldom Seen, Success, Once Brewed or even No Place? These are the places that arouse much curiosity in our region but even seemingly mundane place-names also hold unexpected secrets.
The first thing to know when studying place-names is that for a period of a little over a thousand years – and that’s how old most of our place-names are – our language has changed an awful lot. This means spellings in old records can be notoriously inconsistent. So you can’t just look at a place-name today and guess what it means; you have to go back in time.
Place-name experts look for the earliest spellings, scouring ancient documents and interpreting the names according to the language of times past.
The experts are skilled linguists and historians, with an exceptional knowledge of how language evolved. They come with a good grasp of old languages like Latin, Old Welsh, Indo-European, Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse, Middle English and a knowledge of local dialect too. They also need a good understanding of local history and know about the local topography by familiarising themselves with the landscape. It might also help to know a few folk tales connected with the place-names they study. The experts are prepared to do much detective work to reach their final conclusions and even then they may not always be sure. In the end the fruits of their labour are often nothing more than a passing curiosity for most of us.
The fun part for me is exploring and interpreting this work and looking for patterns. I enjoy puzzling over baffling contradictions and being surprised that seemingly obvious explanations are not what I had expected. I also believe, well I’m certain of it in fact, that place-names and their local features have close links to local dialect. You see, place-names and dialect are living history and often a very old part of our heritage that we can easily overlook.
Since most place-names have evolved over long periods of time, it’s best to start at the beginning. If we glance at the map we find the most ancient names are those of the rivers and larger streams. Names like Tyne, Tees, Team, Wear, Aln, Allen, Don, Derwent and Deerness go back thousands of years to the pre-Roman Celtic times or sometimes to the era when the inter-related Indo-European languages across Europe and parts of Asia were beginning to evolve.
The Tyne, for example has one such ancient name. Tyne derives from a root word ‘ti’ meaning ‘to flow’ and could simply be interpreted to mean ‘water’. One of its tributaries, the River Team, now partly culverted through Gateshead’s Team Valley has a similar root, related to river-names like the Thames in London or the Taff in Cardiff. Further east, the Don that joins the Tyne downstream at Jarrow comes from an Indo-European word ‘danu’ simply meaning ‘river’. The Don of Jarrow shares its roots with the Don at Doncaster and the Don in Russia, as well as the Danube of Austrian river fame.
The River Tees is thought to have a Celtic river-name though its roots may be earlier. It’s related to an Old Welsh word for ‘heat’ and means ‘boiling, surging river’ perhaps alluding to the waterfalls of upper Teesdale like High Force.
The name of the River Wear is thought to derive from ‘uis’, another Indo-European word for ‘flow’ but Uisiria and Uedra were later forms of the name. This was interpreted by Welsh speaking Celts (the Britons) to ‘Gweir’ which means ‘bending’. Look at a map and compare the whole course of the Wear from source to sea with the course of the Tyne or the Tees and you will see that ‘bending river’ is an apt description.
Other river-names with ancient origins include the Derwent which forms part of the border between Northumberland and Durham. One of a number of rivers called Derwent in England, the name comes from Old Welsh and means the ‘oak tree river’. Further south, a smaller County Durham river, the Deerness combines the Welsh element ‘dwfr’ meaning river with an Indo-European element ‘nesta’ meaning , ‘roar, rush’ that is found in names such as Loch Ness and Inverness.
Some river-names came much later in Anglo-Saxon or Viking times, suggesting their earlier names were forgotten or replaced. In County Durham, for example, the little river called the Browney (occasionally called ‘the brune’) has a name dating to Anglo-Saxon times that comes from ‘brun-ea’ meaning ‘brown river’
In Northumberland the River Wansbeck at Morpeth and Ashington has a name from the same era and is thought to derive from ‘waegens-spic’, a bridge made from logs (a spic) that was crossed by wagons. The Wansbeck is not a ‘beck’ in the usual sense of the word though. The word ‘beck’ is usually from a Viking word meaning stream but that is not the case here.
For the Germanic Anglo-Saxons of Northumbria who arrived in Britain between 500 and 600 AD from southern Scandinavia and neighbouring areas of what is now the German coast ‘burn’ was one of the terms they used for a stream. As their territory extended north beyond Edinburgh into what is now Scotland the word was introduced there and has had a lasting legacy. Its roots however are Northumbrian rather than Scottish.
North East England or more particularly County Durham is the battleground between the ‘burns’ and their later Viking counterparts the ‘becks’. The Vikings arrived from across Scandinavia from around 866AD and in areas more intensely settled or shared out by the Norsemen the Viking word ‘beck’ replaced the older Anglo-Saxon word ‘burn’ in the names of streams although ‘burn’ often survives in the names of local places associated with those streams.
So we find places like Saltburn (salty stream) on the Cleveland coast and Sherburn (shiny stream) near Durham but the local streams from which they are named are now called becks on the map as well as by the locals too. The Bowburn Beck at Bowburn near Durham, for example, flows in the shape of a bow (as in bow and arrow) and was originally simply called ‘the Bow Burn’.
Many other places in the region include the word ‘Burn’ and the names of the streams from which they derive can often be self-explanatory. Take Fishburn and Seaburn for example, one would have been noted for its plentiful supply of fish, the other simply flowed into the sea.
It’s easy to be fooled though, as we find at Whitburn near Sunderland. Not a burn at all, this was originally the ‘white barn’, a white-painted barn or one built with white stone. Then we have Sockburn near Darlington which was actually Socca’s burgh rather than a burn. It was the ‘burgh’ (a fortified place) belonging to someone called Socca. Even here further doubt is thrown on the explanation because the River Tees hereabouts quite clearly flows in a massive meander that forms the very obvious shape of a sock offering a more popular ‘folk explanation’. The fact that Sockburn was for centuries the southernmost point of County Durham and thus at the limit of the ‘soke’ of the BIshops of Durham adds further to the confusion. Both Whitburn and Sockburn by the way have fascinating links to Lewis Carroll and his Jabberwocky poem and you can read about those links here.
So enough of the burns, what about the becks? Well, the word ‘beck’ comes from the Old Norse ‘bekkr’ – ‘a stream’. It is the usual term for a stream in Viking settled Cumbria and Yorkshire but is missing from Northumberland where burn is used. In County Durham we get both becks and burns with burns in the north and becks in the south and the boundary between the two lies somewhere around Durham City and mid Weardale.
Streams north of Durham City are called burns all the way up to John O’ Groats in the far north of Scotland while south of the city they’re called becks all the way down to the Viking settled areas of the Norfolk coast. Meanwhile in much of southern England and even in Lancashire they prefer the later Dutch word ‘brook’ though burn in the form ‘bourne’ often occurs in place-names across the whole of England.
In Hamsterley Forest in Weardale we find a stream named from an Anglo-Saxon man called Bede (though probably not the famous Venerable Bede of Jarrow). It is called the Bedburn Beck. It seems superfluous when surely the name Bed Burn would suffice? It’s as if they couldn’t quite make up their mind whether to call it a beck or a burn.
To the south it’s remarkable to discover that every single stream that joins the River Tees directly is called a ‘beck’ while to the north every stream that joins the Tyne directly is a ‘burn’. Along the Wear it varies between beck and burn. In upper Weardale as far east as Wolsingham the word ‘burn’ is the choice but in the mid Wear valley around Bishop Auckland and Spennymoor where the river briefly sways towards the south, the preferred word is ‘beck’.
In Durham City it changes again with the Mill Burn beneath the city’s shopping centre on the north side of the town marking the beginning of those burns again and it is the burns that continue to feed the river from Chester-le-Street all the way to the river’s end at Sunderland, or at least they do on the map. Over in East Durham locals use the term ‘beck’ and this may be the choice of word for some people in Sunderland too. It would be interesting to know.
River-names of Viking origin in the North East are not so common but include the River Skerne (it flows from Trimdon to the Tees at Darlington) but its earlier Anglo-Saxon name was something like ‘Sherne’ (the shining river). It became Skerne under Norse influence.
Other river names that are pure Viking include the River Greta (griota – its name means stony) that joins the Tees at Greta Bridge downstream from Barnard Castle. Upstream from ‘Barney’ the Tees is joined by the River Balder – Balder is the name of a Norse God.
At Bishop Auckland the Wear is joined by the River Gaunless, yet another Viking name. Gaunless (like gormless) means useless, but why is uncertain. Perhaps it was too short of fish to feed the hungry Vikings or too sluggish to power the workings of a mill.
Waterfalls are a bit like burns and becks in that they change their names according to where in the region you look for them. High Force and Low Force in Teesdale derive from a Viking word ‘foss’ that literally means waterfall. Forces also occur in Cumbria and Yorkshire too.
In Weardale though waterfalls are called ‘Linns’ and they go by this name in Northumberland too where there are many impressive waterfalls to see. Linn was seemingly a word used by the Anglo-Saxons of Northumbria but has Celtic roots deriving from ‘Hlynn’ a word for a pool – probably from the plunge pools found at the foot of a fall.
So we can see that ancient people of long ago and sometimes the slightly more recent settlers, the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings from Northern Europe have played an important part in the naming of our rivers and water features. It is those later peoples that also played a big part in the naming of our towns, villages, cities and topographical features as we will discover in the next What’s in a (North East Place-)Name?
As Hillary Clinton continues her campaign to become the next President of the United States, DAVID SIMPSON examines her family connections to the North East and our region’s historic links to people of power and influence.
Hillary Clinton’s North East Links
It was not until relatively recent times that Hillary Rodham developed a preference for publicly using her marital surname as she pursued her high-flying political career. Despite her marriage to the man who would one day be President, Hillary would often go by the name Hillary Rodham. Whether she was aware of it or not, she was preserving a family name that has links to North East England going back perhaps more than a thousand years.
Hillary’s father, Hugh Rodham, was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in 1911 but his father, Hugh Simpson Rodham, came from a family of coal miners and was born in the County Durham mining village of Kyo, near Annfield Plain in the year 1879.
Hillary’s grandfather was only a child when he left Durham for the United States along with his mother, Isabella Bell (a name that must surely have posed questions of amusement within the family). The young lad’s coal miner father, Jonathan Rodham originally of Wagtail Cottage, Holmside near Craghead had gone in search of new opportunities in the New World and with work secured there, he invited his spouse and child to join him.
Hillary Rodham’s paternal family tree and its associated branches show many links to coal mining in Durham and the North East, most notably around Tanfield and Chester-le-Street but also with links to Bishop Auckland and Wallsend. They were people of humble origin, although Hillary’s great-great-great grandfather, a Jonathan Rodham, married an Ann Parkinson at the fairly esteemed location of St Mary-le-Bow church, in the shadow of Durham Cathedral.
Other County Durham family members in Hillary Clinton’s ancestry could well be descendants of Northumberland ‘Border Reiver’ stock with a smattering of Border Reiver surnames in the family tree that include Charltons, Bells and Grahams. There are no Armstrongs in this family, though, or at least as far as we can see. That would have been an interesting link as a descendant of that particular reiver family group have made their mark on American and world history in ways that take us well beyond our skies.
Many generations of the coal mining Rodhams in Hillary Clinton’s ancestry are linked to County Durham but their true roots are just to the north in the neighbouring county of Northumberland. Here, their very name stems from a place called Roddam (its name means ‘at the forest clearings’) and today it is the site of Roddam Hall. The name Roddam is the root of the Rodham surname, despite the slightly different spelling, and Rodhams and Roddams are thought to be the oldest family in Northumberland.
Roddam is near the tiny town of Wooler about eight miles – as the crow flies – from the border with Scotland though you’d have to cross the wild terrain of the Cheviot Hills to reach the border.
According to a Scot called John Major (now I’m sure I’ve heard that name before) writing some time in the 1500s, there was a man called Pole who was granted land at Roddam by King Æthelstan way back in Anglo-Saxon times. This man became the first member of the Roddam family, though over time some members of the family adopted the spelling Rodham.
It’s also interesting to note that among the Farne Islands off the Northumberland coast are rocks called Roddam and Green, though it’s not clear how or if these might relate to the family name of Roddam or the place near Wooler.
Our region’s connections to George Washington
If Hillary Clinton is successful in her quest to become US president she will find herself in esteemed company in respect to her links to North East England as the distant roots of George Washington himself can be found within our region.
The historic village of Washington, once in County Durham – we could perhaps call it ‘Washington CD’ – is now surrounded by the modern town of Washington and is a part of the City of Sunderland. It is the place from which the entire Washington family, everywhere in the world, take their name.
The name De Wessyngton (meaning ‘from Washington’) as the family were initially called, reflected the earlier spelling of the place that they acquired and of which they became lords around 1180. The family was originally called De Hartburn as they came from Hartburn near Stockton-on-Tees in the south of our region.
They changed their name upon moving location after purchasing Washington (Wessyngton) from Hugh Pudsey (c1125-1195), the powerful Prince Bishop of Durham.
Perhaps coincidentally, their family crest consisted of stars and stripes. In the 1400s one member of their family became a Prior of Durham Cathedral, an important and powerful political post whose influence was felt across the region. Prior Washington was second only in power to the Bishop in the North East.
Descendants of the Durham Washingtons held land here in the North East until the 1600s but during the 1300s some members of the family had moved on to Lancashire and then ultimately to Sulgrave in Northamptonshire. Nevertheless, they kept their Washington name and it was from this branch of the family that the very first President of the United States was descended. Ultimately though, it is from Washington in Sunderland that George Washington, Washington DC and the US state of Washington all take their name.
People of Power in Our Region’s Past
Aside from presidential connections, Durham and Northumberland are certainly no strangers to people of power in our history. We lay claim to figures of immense political influence and sometimes radical ones too, going right back to the earliest of times.
In the Anglo-Saxon era North Easterners like King Oswald (604-642AD) and King Oswiu (990-1035AD) became ‘Bretwaldas’ or overkings of all England. In later times, King Cnut, Viking ruler of Britain is said to have established a base on the site of Raby Castle in south Durham.
In medieval times the Neville and Percy families along with the Prince Bishops virtually ruled the north as a separate entity from their bases in Durham, Northumberland and Yorkshire. Just outside our region at Middleham Castle in Wensleydale, North Yorkshire was the primary home of both King Richard III and Warwick the Kingmaker (1428-1471), a Neville – whose name literally described the immensity of his power.
Our connections with royalty extend into modern times too. The present Queen’s ancestry has firm roots in County Durham through the Bowes family while, the Duchess of Cambridge along with her husband William and their children cement these links further through her family’s humble Durham mining connections that are not unlike those of Hillary Clinton.
PMs and Political Giants of the North East
We have also had our notable share of Prime Ministers hailing from the region. Most recently, Tony Blair, though born in Scotland, was raised and schooled as a child in Durham and returned to represent the region in parliament. Under his influence the county of Durham became the only place in the UK outside London to be visited by President George W. Bush. The President dropped in on the home of Blair by helicopter before calling in for a meal at a local pub. Bush was the first US president to visit the region since Jimmy Carter came to visit both Newcastle and our Washington here in the North East back in 1977.
In addition to Blair, earlier Prime Ministers who have have hailed from our region included Anthony Eden (1897-1977) of Windlestone, who came from a well-established Durham family and of course the great Northumberland-born reformer Charles the 2nd Earl Grey of Northumberland (1764-1845). Yes it is he of tea fame, who tops the monument at the very heart of Newcastle upon Tyne.
Much of Grey’s Great Reform Bill that brought about radical changes to British democracy was drafted with the assistance of his son-in-law John George ‘Radical Jack’ Lambton (1792-1840), the First Earl of Durham, a coal owner to whom Sunderland’s Penshaw Monument is dedicated. Lambton, a statesman who forged important international links, first as the Ambassador to Russia, would become Governor General and High Commissioner of British North America. He was the man who instigated the process of Canadian independence from Britain.
Women of Power and Influence in the Region
The role of women may often be callously written out of the history books but the influence of powerful females is ever present and no less so than in the North East of England.
There have been many notable female figures of power in the region going right back to Roman times when the first ever Northerner to be mentioned by name was in fact a woman, Cartimandua, who was. a formidable female opponent to the Romans in the North. When the Romans arrived she ruled over much of our region from her fort near Scotch Corner.
Then there was St Hilda, abbess of Hartlepool and Whitby in Saxon times, in her time one of the region’s most powerful figures, who shaped the religious course of Northern England in those early times and a woman by whom kings were guided.
Some of our region’s most powerful political campaigners have been females, notably Ellen Wilkinson (1891-1947), the one-time MP for Middlesbrough and MP for Jarrow who was so influential in the famed Jarrow Hunger March for jobs in 1936.
Then from earlier times we have Josephine Butler. Born Josephine Grey (1828-1906) at Milfield near Wooler not so many miles from the ancestral home of the Roddams, Butler was one of the most determined and influential ladies in Victorian Britain. Her campaigns against human trafficking and her work on behalf of female suffrage helped to change the lives and often appalling situations of women living in the Victorian era and beyond.
We could also mention Gertude Bell (1868-1926), the Tyne, Wear and Tees industrialist’s daughter born at Sunderland’s Washington ‘New Hall’ only metres away from the ‘Old Hall’ that was the ancestral home of the illustrious Washington family. Bell became a mountaineer, a political administrator, a spy and an archaeologist with a penchant for Middle Eastern culture and politics.
Her extraordinary life included her brave acts of diplomacy; meeting face to face with powerful members of often turbulent Arabian desert tribes in what was very much a male dominated culture and era, even compared to Britain of that time. Bell was of course also noted for her part in drawing up the borders of modern Iraq, working alongside T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) and she was by all accounts a very formidable person.
So it can be seen that whether or not Hillary Clinton comes to be elected as the first President of the United States, North East England is likely to take its links to her family very much in its stride. As a region we are certainly no strangers to people in positions of power.
PAUL WHITE cycles 26 miles round the shores of the beautiful Kielder Water and despite the ups and downs suggests the challenge is not solely for the enthusiast
It was only quite recently that I took my first ever trip to Kielder Forest & Water Park. Considering my global travels, to not have taken the 90-minute drive north seems like something to almost be ashamed of. Especially when you find it is so beautiful.
To the west, it’s a similar distance from home to the Lake District, a journey I’ve made many times. So, why not Kielder?
My wife had mentioned it on many occasions, but I’d simply never got around to it.
However, earlier this year, we got up early one Saturday when the sun was shining, I slung our bikes on the back of the car, and headed off up the A68.
Having recently started a contract with Northumbrian Water, which owns the park, I had decided I finally had to find out what all of the fuss is about.
To say it was a trip I had planned doesn’t mean “well-planned”. Yes, I had read that the Lakeside Way was just over 26 miles long. Surely, that was easily achievable. After all, the name “Lakeside Way” clearly represented a ride that would be flat? No.
We took it easy and, despite the many ups and downs, rode the distance from Tower Knowe to Tower Knowe in around four hours. It was the first time my wife had been on a bike ride in something like two years, so without being patronising, it is clearly a ride that isn’t solely for the enthusiast. It’s a ride that can be taken as lightly or as seriously as you wish.
There are plenty of places to stop and enjoy the wildlife and a stunning art and architecture collection and, around eight miles from the end, the Kielder Waterside Park (previously known as Leaplish) is a great resting stop, where you can enjoy a meal at the Boat Inn. Admittedly, my body wasn’t so happy after an hour’s rest and a nice meal when I decided to set off on those final few miles.
This trip simply scratched the surface of Kielder, where plans are underway to make it the “best in Britain”, with new luxury lodges being developed at the Waterside Park. With the history of Kielder Castle and the area’s thriving art collection, there is a trip to Kielder for all enthusiasms.
The Kielder Ospreys are a great example of species being reintroduced to our region and, with everything from the tiniest birds through to these beautiful creatures and even buzzards, it’s a place for wildlife lovers as well as adventurers, food fans, history lovers, or just people wanting a great break.
And to think it was all created to help supply water to parts of our region as distant as Teesside.