Wooler and North Northumberland

A Thomas Bewick engraving of Chillingham Cattle
A Thomas Bewick engraving of Chillingham Cattle

Till or Breamish ?

From Alnwick and Hulne Park, a road leads north west, across Eglingham Moor, towards Chillingham and Wooler. The road passes through the village of Eglingham, which in typical Northumbrian fashion is pronounced ‘Egling jum’. There are also villages called Ellingham and Edlingham to the north and south of here, which are both pronounced in the same manner. Chillingham is pronounced in the normal English way.

Chillingham, is the small estate village for Chillingham Castle,which lies to the east of the River Till. This river is unique to North East England in having two names, for in its upper stretches it is called the River Breamish (not to be confused with Beamish). The name change, takes place a few miles to the south of Chillingham, near a place called Bewick (not to be confused with Berwick), where according to tradition

Foot of Breamish and head of Till,
Meet together at Bewick mill.

Both river names are thought to be Celtic in origin. Breamish may be related to the Welsh ‘brefu’ meaning ‘to roar’.  Till is thought to come from a word meaning ‘to dissolve’. The Till eventually joins the Tweed at Till Mouth half way between Norham and Coldstream.

Chillingham Castle and Cattle

Chillingham Castle is a fourteenth century four corner towered building, constructed around an old pele tower. The castle is noted for its dungeon which lies below the north eastern tower of the building. It now displays some rather gruesome (no longer used) implements of punishment including a stretching rack, a bed of nails, a nailed barrel and a spiked chair labelled with a warning not to sit on it because ‘it is very old and easily damaged’

Perhaps Chillingham’s resident ghost known as the ‘Radiant Boy’ was a victim of dungeon punishment. He was regularly seen at the castle until the bones of a child were discovered buried within the walls of one of the bed-rooms in an earlier century. The bones were removed and buried in a nearby churchyard.

Chillingham is certainly one of Northumberland’s most impressive buildings but perhaps the castle is best known for the herd of wild cattle, which have inhabited its grounds for seven hundred years.

The Chillingham Cattle are the purest surviving native wild white cattle in Britain and are descended from the British wild ox, which roamed the forested hills of northern Britain as early as the Bronze Age.

When Chillingham Castle’s parkland estate was enclosed in 1220, a wandering herd of the wild cattle are said to have been trapped within the grounds, where they were left without any interference from livestock breeders. Another explanation for their existence at Chillingham is that the beasts were deliberately kept there as a food supply for the castle. They had an advantage over domesticated beasts in that because of their wild nature, they could not be easily stolen by the cattle thieving Border Reivers and mosstroopers, who inhabited Northumberland in days gone by.

Today the cattle can still be seen roaming the 365 acre walled parkland of the Chillingham estate. They may however only be viewed at certain times in the accompaniment of the keeper, and then only from a safe distance. They are creamy white in colour with curved horns, are quite shy, potentially dangerous and are ruled over by a King Bull, in the same way as wild deer. The King Bull keeps his status until challenged and defeated by a younger male.

The Chillingham Cattle were studied by Thomas Bewick (1753-1828), the famous Northumbrian born, naturalist and engraver, who on one occasion while painting a portrait of a Chillingham bull, was chased by the beast and forced to climb a tree for refuge. Here he gained a perfect close up view of his furious subject down below.

On the 17th October 1872, Chillingham was visited by Edward the Prince of Wales, who looking for a bit of ‘sport’ decided to take a chance at shooting the king bull of the Chillingham herd. Concealing himself in a hay cart the prince shot dead the bull, from a distance of seventy yards. His exploits do not seem to have impressed the locals, including one local poet called Robert Elliott, who wrote;

He’s a warrior ye knaa and the papers are full
Iv a terrible encoonter he had wiv a bull !
He slowtered the bull, but his critics will say
That the prince was concealed in a bundle iv hay;
An’ thit it was ne feat at a’ te lie hid;
An’ slowter the bull in the way that he did;
But some folks are selfish, an’ winna hear tell
Iv ony greet feats unless done by thorsel.

Overlooking the grounds of Chillingham Castle, on a hilltop, not far to the south, are the remains of a much older fortress called Ross Castle, a promontory dating from Iron Age times. Good views of the Northumbrian countryside can be obtained from Ross Castle encompassing Alnwick, Lindisfarne, the Farne IslandsBamburgh Castle, Dunstanburgh Castle and the Cheviot Hills, including views of Hedgehope Hill (2,348 feet) and The Cheviot itself (2,676 ft). The name Cheviot is almost certainly of Celtic origin but the meaning is obscure.

Visit the Chillingham Castle website

Wooler: Gateway to the Cheviots

Wooler in Glendale, a small market town and popular centre for touring the Cheviots is situated by a large stream called the Wooler Water and lies at the junction of a number of major roads into north Northumberland and Scotland. The Wooler Water, (part of which is also known as ‘Happy Valley’), is a tributary of the River Till and is formed by a confluence of the Harthope and Carey Burns which rise in the Cheviot Hills, to the south of Wooler. The Harthope valley, formed by a geological fault, cuts its way between the Cheviot and Hedgehope Hill and is the site of the remote Harthope Linn waterfall. Good views can be obtained from this remote and beautiful Cheviot valley.

Millfield: A land-locked vale

Wooler stands at the southern entrance to a large flat, land-locked valley called Milfield Plain, within which we find the River Till, the River Glen, the Humbleton Burn and the Wooler Water. The Plain was once the base of a great prehistoric lake. According to tradition, Milfield Plain was the place where King Arthur of the Britons, fought the first of his twelve legendary battles against the invading Anglo-Saxons. The vale has probably witnessed many more battles since that time, bearing in mind its proximity to the Scottish border.

One recorded incident took place here on the 13th August 1513, less than a month before the Battle of Flodden, when Milfield Plain was the scene of a minor battle in which the Scottish Lord Home, who had been ravaging the Northumbrian countryside, was ambushed by the English under Sir William Bulmer of Brancepeth Castle (in County Durham). The Scots were heavily defeated with over a thousand men killed while hundreds more were taken prisoner. The English losses amounted to only sixty men.

Cup and Ring markings on Doddington Moor
Cup and Ring markings on Doddington Moor. Photo David Simpson

Doddington Moor: Ancient sites and mysterious markings

Milfield Plain is enclosed on all sides, by the high ground of Doddington Moor in the east and by the Cheviot foothills to the west. This higher ground, surrounding the plain, is littered with the remains of many ancient sites, associated with the Welsh speaking ancient Britons and other earlier peoples.

Doddington Moor is particularly rich in ancient sites, especially in the vicinity of the hill called Dod Law, and also near the waterfall called Roughting Linn, further to the north. Most notable of the ancient sites is the ‘Ringses Camp’, on the hills less than a mile to the east of the village of Doddington.

The Ringses camp seems to be a focal point for the mysterious Cup and Ring Markings, which are in abundance hereabouts. The markings, which are found on rocks and stones, consist of dug out cup shapes and concentric rings. Northumberland seems to have the highest concentration of these in the country. Their ancient purpose is unknown.

Battle of Humbleton Hill

North west of Wooler, a road leads us into the valley of Glendale, passing the site of the Battle of Humbleton Hill. Here on the 13th August 1402, Harry ‘Hotspur’ Percy defeated and captured Earl Archibold Douglas, who was returning to Scotland with an army of ten thousand men, following a raid on Northumberland. The Scots had taken up position on the slopes of the hill, but were heavily defeated by the superior skills of the English archers.

Hotspur was not given much credit for his victory by King Henry IV, who arrogantly claimed the ransom money for the release of the Scottish prisoners. This snub infuriated Percy and it was probably this that eventually led the great Northumbrian warrior into rebellion against the King. A rebellion that ultimately resulted in Hotspur’s death at the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403.

Yeavering Bell
Yeavering Bell north Northumberland. Photo © 2009 David Simpson

Yeavering Bell : Iron Age Fort and Anglo-Saxon palace

The best known feature of Glendale, to the west of Wooler (the Glen is a tributary of the Till), is the distinctive outline of the hill called Yeavering Bell (1,182 ft). Its summit, is the site of the largest Iron Age fort in the north. Here there are the remains of 130 ancient huts. Good views of the Northumbrian countryside can be obtained from the top of Yeavering Bell, as described in Tomlinson’s Guide to Northumberland;

“Famous hills plains, rivers, castles, villages,
pele towers and battle fields lie stretched like a
beautiful picture before the delighted gaze”

At the foot of Yeavering Bell once stood the Royal Anglo-Saxon Palace called Ad Gefrin. Excavated in 1955, the building consisted of timber halls and defensive works. It is most closely associated with Edwin, the 6th century King of Northumbria. Ad Gefrin was later replaced by another Royal palace called Melmin, which was situated in Milfield Plain nearby.

King Edwin’s Palace at Yeavering, or a great hall like it is associated with a debate in which the King and his senior followers, made the decision to convert from Paganism to Christianity. In the ‘History of the English Church and People’ written only a century later by the Venerable Bede, details of a speech are recorded in which one of Edwin’s heathen followers speaks out in favour of converting to Christianity. The speech seems to give us an insight into the Anglo-Saxon mind;

“Your majesty, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thanes and counsellors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside, the storms of winter rain or snow are raging.

This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter’s storms; but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing. Therefore, if this new teaching has brought any more certain knowledge, it seems only right that we should follow it.”

Not a great deal is known of Yeavering’s history following Anglo-Saxon times, though in 1415 it was the site of a little known battle in which an army led by Robin ‘Mend the Market’ Umfraville, defeated 4000 Scots.

Further up the Glendale valley is the village of Kirknewton to the north west of Yeavering Bell. Kirknewton’s church is famous as the home of a strange Anglo-Saxon carving depicting three wise men wearing kilts, they are known as the ‘Kilted Magi’.

Kirknewton lies at the head of the River Glen, which is formed by the confluence of the wild valleys of the College Burn and Bowmont Water. Most of the latter stream lies on the northern side of the border and passes through the Scottish town of Kirk Yetholm, at the northern terminus of the long distance footpath called the Pennine Way. In days gone by Yetholm was associated with a family called the Faas, who were the principal Gypsy clan of the Border Country.

River Till and River Tweed

The River Glen is a tributary of the River Till which in turn is the only English tributary of the Scottish river Tweed. The meeting of the waters of the Northumbrian Till and Scottish Tweed is commemorated by a delightful piece of local folklore;

“Tweed said to Till
‘What gars ye rin sae still ? ‘
Says Till to Tweed,
Though ye rin wi’ speed
And I rin slaw
Whar ye droon yin man
I droon twa”

Norham : Prince Bishop Borderland

Norham on Tweed (the name means northern homestead)  to the north of Tillmouth on the English side of the River Tweed near Berwick and the site of the northernmost castle in England. The ruins of the keep and its surrounding walls, are all that remain of this fortress, which was once the chief border stronghold of the Prince Bishops of Durham.

Norham Castle © David Simpson 2006
Norham Castle © David Simpson 2006

First built by Bishop Ranulf Flambard in 1160, for many years it was thought virtually impregnable. It withstood many a siege by Scottish kings, including Robert the Bruce, but in 1513 the castle was partly wrecked by James IV prior to the Battle of Flodden. From then on it fell into disrepair.

The castle has seen much history, for here Anthony Bek, Bishop of Durham (1284-1311), entertained Edward I King of England while Edward decided who should become the next king of Scotland. It was here that the chosen John De Balliol paid homage to Edward, to the fury of Robert the Bruce.

Norham Castle has a close association with Sir William Marmion, who later became one of the many heroes of Flodden. Sir Walter Scott’s poem ‘Marmion’ is named after this knight, its opening lines feature Norham;

Day set on Norham’s castled steep ,
And Tweed’s fair river, broad and deep,
And Cheviot’s mountain lone;
The battled towers, the Donjon keep,
The loophole grates where captives weep,
The flanking walls that round it sweep,
In yellow lustre shone.

The attractive village of Norham, was until 1836, the capital of a district called ‘Norhamshire’, an outlying part of the County Palatine of Durham belonging to the ‘Prince Bishops’. The district was included in Bishop Pudsey’s Boldon Buke of 1183 – County Durham’s equivalent of the Domesday Book.

Norham’s church of St Cuthbert, though now a largely nineteenth century structure was originally founded in 830 A.D. by Eadfrith, Bishop of Lindisfarne. It had been built to house the remains of a converted Christian Northumbrian King called Ceolwulph, to whom the Venerable Bede dedicated his history of England. The church was rebuilt in Norman times, by Bishop Flambard of Durham.

A little downstream from Norham is Horncliffe within one of the numerous meanders of the River Tweed. Its name means ‘the cliff or hill in a horn or tongue of land’. It is the most northerly village in England.

Defining the Border: The Battle of Carham on Tweed

To the west of Wark the England-Scotland border leaves the course of the Tweed, near the village of Carham from where it heads south west through the imposing natural boundary of the Cheviots. At Carham the border is not naturally defined and historically Carham was at a highly exposed part of the border. It is perhaps not surprising that Carham gives its name to a very important battle.

The Battle of Carham occurred in the year 1018, and was fought by Malcolm II King of Scotland against the Northumbrians under the leadership of their Earl Uchtred, who levied all Northumbrian men north of the Tees. Northumbria was easily defeated as it was no longer the huge northern kingdom it had been.

The outcome of the battle had an important result as it established the River Tweed as the Anglo-Scottish boundary Until this time Northumbria’s boundaries had extended beyond the River Tweed towards Edinburgh and the Lothians. We are still reminded of this fact by a predominance of Anglo-Saxon place names in Scotland between the Tweed and the Forth.

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