Allendales : Three Rivers
The River Allen joins the southern bank of the South Tyne half way between the South Tynedale towns of Haltwhistle to the west and Haydon Bridge to the east. Along with the East Allen and West Allen, the River Allen forms the beautiful Allendales, one of the least-known areas of the North Pennines.
The Allen itself is in fact a comparatively short ravine that can be followed only four miles upstream where it is formed by the confluence of the much longer valleys of the Rivers East and West Allen.
Allenheads and the River East Allen
Allendale has only two main settlements, the small village of Allenheads and the larger Allendale Town, both of which are in the valley of the East Allen. This river rises to the south, close to the border with County Durham, with the upper part of the valley of Rookhope at Rookhope Head just across the border. Rookhope in Durham is an offshoot of neighbouring Weardale and like Allendale was once noted for its lead mining.
Allenheads, on the Northumberland side of the border, lies close to this border and is named from being at the source of the Allen in a lofty situation 1,350 feet above sea level. There’s even a ski slope nearby.
A former lead mining centre, Allenheads is an attractive place that is the home of the Hemmel Cafe and craft shop and a heritage centre featuring the lead mining history of the district. Hundreds of people once worked here in Allenheads’ local lead mines during the nineteenth century when the North Pennines was at the heart of Britain’s lead mining industry. The Allenheads mines once produced about a tenth of all Britain’s lead.
A stone covered former mine shaft of the Gin Hill Mine, which resembles a well, can be seen in the village with a notice informing that it descends 240 feet and that miners once climbed up and down with the aid of a ladder. Nearby is the old mine yard and former office buildings of the mine.
A spring in the village known as the iron well once supplied water to the locals. The water was carried across the fells and picked up iron ore deposits during its journey that have coated the well with a thin layer of iron. If you’re really thirsty, it’s probably best to head into the cafe or into the local Allenheads Inn, which dates from 1770.
A former school in the village serves as Allenheads Contemporary Arts Centre which is an open studio for artists and exhibition space as well as a place of accommodation for people touring the region. It takes inspiration from being a dark sky observatory. Allenheads Hall, to the south of the village, was built in 1847 for Thomas Sopwith who was the mine engineer and agent for the Beaumont family who owned the local lead mines.
Allenhead’s little neighbour on its northern side is a place called Dirt Pot which is apparently named from the one time site of a muddy pool, but certainly not from the clear waters of the nearby Byerhope Reservoir. Spartylea, two miles downstream to the north is another curious name that is thought to mean the ‘clearing of coarse grass’.
A further two miles downstream is Sinderhope which means the ‘southern valley’. The word ‘hope’, meaning a side valley is a common element in the place-names of the dales of North East England. There’s an Ellershope, Swinhope and Byerhope all near Spartylea and most places in the valley like these are scattered collections of farm houses forming tiny hamlets. The most substantial place in the Allendales is Allendale Town, the main centre for the dale and two miles downstream to the north of Sinderhope.
Allendale Town, once known as Allenton, is a former lead mining settlement and the heart of Allendale. It is a pretty town centred on a small market place and has lots of delightful stone houses.
Allendale Town is best known as the site of an annual ‘Baal’ festival, a custom with probable pagan origins. The ceremony takes place here every New Year’s Eve and the celebration involves a procession of ‘guisers’, or local men in costume who parade through the town in the darkness carefully carrying blazing tar barrels above their heads.
Upon reaching Allendale’s market place, the ‘guisers’, throw the contents of their barrels onto a huge bonfire which they dance around in the manner of an ancient ritual. The precise origins of the Allendale festival are not known, but it is most likely to have developed from some ancient pagan celebration of the winter solstice. Allendale’s baal festival is an unusual spectacle and attracts visitors from wide and far.
The town church in Allendale is dedicated to St Cuthbert and dates from 1807. It is situated above the river bank of the East Allen. A vicar of Allendale town called Robert Patten once supported the Jacobite rebellion of 1715 and joined their army, serving as the chaplain to Jacobite General, Tom Forster. The vicar was later pardoned after writing a history of the rebellion.
Lead mills were once numerous in the neighbourhood of Allendale Town and as at Allenheads most people in the town worked in the lead industry. Silver was also often harvested as a by product of this industry, extracted from the soot that accumulated in lengthy flues across the nearby moors. Its extraction was an unpleasant task for the workers but a lucrative one for the mine owners.
One of the main families associated with lead mining in the Allendales were the Blacketts who also had much influence in the Tyneside coal trade. The Blacketts were mining lead in the Allendales from around 1684, owning a notable mine in the Coalcleugh area of the West Allen. Later, in the nineteenth century, it was the Beaumonts who were the dominant name in the lead trade of the Allendales.
The main road north from Allendale town is the B6295 which heads through the neighbouring village of Catton to the north of the River East Allen, but the river here turns to the north west near a farm called Old Town which is thought to be on the site of a Roman station where a defended bastle house was later located.
Two miles north west of Allendale Town, the River East Allen merges with the River West Allen. From here on, the valley is simply called the River Allen, and is thickly wooded along its banks as it continues its journey towards the South Tyne into which it eventually flows.
Shortly after the East and West Allen rivers merge, the River Allen as it becomes, is crossed by the A686 by the Cupola Bridge. The road rapidly descends into the valley from the north east in a hairpin bend and after crossing the Allen and crossing the bridge it follows the course of the West Allen south westward before continuing onward towards Alston.
The wooded valley of the River Allen to the north of the bridge is the home to the picturesque Staward Pele tower at Staward-le-Pele, as this place was once known. The tower dates from at least the fourteenth century and its name is thought to mean ‘fenced enclosure’ or ‘stony enclosure’.
In 1386 it was given by Edward the Duke of York to the Friars Eremite at Hexham and after the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s it belonged to the Bacon family.
About half a mile north of Staward Pele is Plankey Mill, a former corn mill that forms another pleasant spot on the banks of the River Allen. Much of the woodland along the river around Staward Gorge belongs to the National Trust.
The woodland around Staward Peel was once the haunt of a notorious livestock thief or ‘mosstrooper’ called Dickie of Kingswood who operated in the area long after the time of the Border Reivers, who had carried out similar activities in the border dales back in Tudor times.
Legend has it that Dickie once stole some oxen from a farm at Denton Burn, on the outskirts of Newcastle and then drove them across the country to Lanercost in Cumberland, where he sold them to a farmer for a good price.
While at Lanercost, Dickie had become attracted to a particularly fine horse, belonging to the farmer to whom he had sold the stolen oxen. Dickie asked if he could buy the horse but the farmer explained that the mare was one of the finest in England and under no circumstances would he part with such an animal. Dickie accepted the farmer’s refusal to sell and advised him to look after his mare and keep it well protected from horse thieves. He then departed with the money he had received for the oxen.
The temptation to steal the valuable horse from the farmer was too much for Dickie and later that night he returned to Lanercost, broke into the sleeping farmer’s stable and made off with the horse.
While on his way home to Allendale, who should Dickie meet but the Denton Burn farmer from whom he had stolen the oxen. Naturally the farmer asked Dickie if he had seen the oxen, the description of which Dickie immediately recognised. “Aye” said Dickie, “I’m sure I saw them up on a farm at Lanercost”. Dickie did not of course tell the farmer that it was he who had stolen the oxen and delivered them to Lanercost.
The farmer was now in very good spirits in the hope of regaining his oxen. He gratefully thanked Dickie and complimented him on his fine looking mare.
Dickie immediately recognised that here was an opportunity to return the horse to its Lanercost owner (or perhaps more accurately make a sale) so he told the farmer that if he liked the mare so much he would gladly sell it to him for a reasonable price. A price was agreed and the horse was handed over to the delighted farmer who set off for Lanercost to reclaim his oxen.
When the two farmers met up with each other at Lanercost they soon worked out that they had been duped by the same man. Dickie meanwhile had returned to his Allendale hideout a much wealthier man.
River West Allen
Heading up the West Allen from Cupola Bridge this valley is more thinly populated than its counterpart to the east but it was also once noted for its lead mining. About a mile upstream from the Cupola Bridge is Bearsbridge where a minor road from the east crosses the West Allen.
Nearby on the west side of the river is Whitfield; there’s no village there but there are two churches that were built to serve the dispersed population of the district. The church of St John is Georgian or early Victorian and is about three quarters of a mile west of the river while the church of Holy Trinity built for Mrs Ord-Blackett in 1860 stands close to the river.
Whitfield has a long history and was given in Norman times by William, King of Scotland to the priory of Hexham and by the reign of Henry VI it belonged to a family who went by the name of Whitfield, one of whom was a High Sheriff of Northumberland. It was sold to the Ord family in the eighteenth century.
Along the River West Allen, upstream to the south of Whitfield are several tiny settlements scattered along the valley that include Ninebanks, Spartywell, Farneyside, Carrshield and at the source of the river, Coalcleugh where a number of tiny streams feed the river at the watershed where the counties of Durham, Cumbria and Northumberland meet.
Just to the east is Kilhope Moor in the upper reaches of Weardale, in Durham and just to the west in Cumbria the village of Nenthead at the head of the River Nent which joins the South Tyne at Alston.