The Breamish Valley
The valley of the River Breamish rises in the Cheviot Hills about a mile south east of the summit of the Cheviot itself. Dunmoor Hill, Great Standrop and the prominent Hedgehope Hill, separate the valley from that of the Harthope Burn near Wooler to the north. Further hills separate the Breamish from the vale of the Aln to the south.
From its source, the Breamish flows eastward towards Ingram and then close to Powburn near to which it changes course to head northward. It also changes name, to become the River Till at Old Bewick. From there, the Till passes west of Chillingham then onward to Chatton before changing course again, this time westward to Milfield Plain to continue its journey north to join the River Tweed.
The Breamish valley is best reached from just off the A697 a little north of Powburn, a place that is eight miles south west of Wooler and eight miles north west of Alnwick.
Heading into the Breamish valley from the road north of Powburn, the first place we encounter is a little hamlet called Brandon. There are very scant remains of a thirteenth century church here which stands on the site of an earlier Saxon church. Brandon lies closer to the Breamish river than a companion hamlet just across the Breamish to the south called Branton.
Brandon and Branton are both apparently named from ‘broom’ or gorse and the names mean ‘broom-hill’ and ‘broom-farm’. In Norman times they were recorded as ‘Bremdona’ and ‘Bremetona’ and although this may confirm their origin as ‘broomy’ places, it is hard not to speculate that their names were in some way influenced by their location either side of the Breamish.
The name of the Breamish is, incidentally, Celtic and may be related to the Old Welsh ‘brefu’ meaning ‘to roar’. There is no connection with the similar sounding Beamish, a village in County Durham that has a name of French origin.
Entering the Breamish valley from the east you are struck by the valley’s initial gentle beauty which gradually takes on a wilder nature as you proceed along its continuously beautiful course.
The Breamish valley is also known as the Ingram Valley from the village of Ingram, about a mile and a half to the east of Brandon. Ingram is a tiny village with a bridge across the river and is the home to an attractive little medieval church dedicated to St Michael that has an eleventh century tower.
The name Ingram comes from an Anglo-Saxon word for grass pastureland. A promontory fort with the intriguing name of ‘Clinch Castle’ can be found to the south east of Ingram.
As we proceed along the valley there are a number of flat riverside areas, popular with visitors, that face out on to the steep hills on the immediate opposite side of the Breamish.
Many of the hills in the valley are pleasingly littered with ancient cairns, ‘hill forts’ and settlements. Several of the hill tops host the stone or earth ramparts of hill forts dating back over 2,000 years, that once contained stone or timber houses.
Although known as ‘hill forts’, they were not necessarily defensive features but are certainly atmospheric and offer great views of the valley below. There is an excellent walking trail of the hill forts as shown on an information board near Bulby’s Wood to the west of Ingram.
In the uppermost reaches of the Breamish we head into the deeper wilds of the Cheviots near a watershed for local rivers and streams. Here, Linhope Spout, a waterfall, situated in a ‘hope’ or side valley on the north side of the Breamish is the most notable natural feature of the valley.
Waterfalls are normally termed ‘linns’ in Northumberland so ‘Linhope’ means ‘side valley of the waterfall’ with the word ‘spout’ added as an additional descriptive term. Near Linhope to the north is the site of a prehistoric village at Greaves Ash covering about twenty acres.
To the south of the Breamish hereabouts is Alnham Moor which feeds the neighbouring River Aln. The Aln valley runs parallel to the Breamish beyond the high hills, a couple of miles to the south and is more of a vale than a dale and lies on the fringe of the Cheviots.
Upstream to the north west the Breamish begins as a series of tiny streams in remote country near the summit of the Cheviot. To the south and south west is Cushat Law which, along with Bloodybush Edge, form a source for another neighbouring river, the Alwin, a tributary of the Coquet. Here we have reached the end of the journey up the Breamish valley and return to Powburn.
Powburn and Glanton
Powburn is a village of stone houses next to the A697 with a name meaning ‘stream with pool’. The Pow Burn itself flows through the village joining the Breamish to the North East. Just east of Powburn is Crawley Tower, a pele created by the Heron family in 1343. It was later home to John ‘the Bastard’ Heron who fought at Flodden Field in 1513 and indeed helped trigger the events of that famous battle.
About a mile south of Powburn, just off the A697 is the picturesque village of Glanton half way between the Breamish and the Aln valley at Whittingham. Glanton means ‘look-out farm or village’. However in 1648, some 180 Royalist troopers certainly didn’t look out when they were captured and taken prisoner here by Roundheads as they slept in their beds.
Glanton was the birthplace of the renowned historian, Hugh Trevor-Roper (1914-2003), otherwise titled Lord Dacre of Glanton. It is also known for a Bird Research Station established here in 1930.
Old Bewick, Breamish and the Till
The A697 crosses the River Breamish by a bridge just north of Powburn more or less where the Devil’s Causeway Roman road crossed the same river in ancient times.
East of the A697 the Breamish begins to change direction and now winds its way northward towards Old Bewick. Until we reach the Chillingham and Lilburn area the river and the Wooler-bound A697 are never more than a couple of miles apart.
It is at Old Bewick that the river inexplicably changes name to the River Till with the exact point of change once marked by a mill:
Foot of Breamish and head of Till,
Meet together at Bewick mill.
The change of name seems to be associated with the change in its direction of flow and change of associated terrain. The Till, which ultimately joins the Tweed to the north, is very much a river of the lowland plains while the Breamish is mostly an upland river.
Old Bewick is a tiny village of stone cottages and farm buildings situated on a remote country lane east of the A697. It looks across the lovely countryside of the Till valley towards the hills to the west and the prominent Old Bewick hill fort site is found to the rear of the village to the east.
A Celtic style cross by the roadside about half a mile north of the village marks a turning into a minor road that leads east to Old Bewick church, a tiny enigmatic church of Norman origin dedicated to Holy Trinity.
Typical Norman architecture is found within and there is a sleeping stone effigy of a lady dating to the fourteenth century. According to tradition this church was given to the Priory of Tynemouth by Maud the daughter of the Scottish king Malcolm Canmore in memory of her father who was killed at the Battle of Alnwick in 1094.
To the south east of Old Bewick, a road leads to the village of Eglingham in the valley of the Eglingham Burn which joins the Aln near Alnwick. To the north of Old Bewick are the grounds of Chillingham Castle.
Hedgeley Moor and Percy’s Leap
A mile and a half west of Old Bewick on the west side of the A697 near Wooperton is the site of the Battle of Hedgeley Moor which took place on April 25th, 1464 during the Wars of the Roses. That year, James III of Scotland appointed ambassadors to meet with Edward IV at York to negotiate peace.
Lord Montagu was sent north with a band of men to collect the ambassadors and escort them safely through Northumberland. However, a truce with Scotland was not in the interests of the Lancastrians who often used Scotland as a base, so the noted Lancastrian Sir Ralph Percy (who supported the claims of Henry VI) gathered retainers and attempted to block Montagu’s way. Percy, the eldest son of the Duke of Northumberland, was slain.
A couple of ancient standing stones about 30 feet apart are found within the battlefield site. They date from a time long before the battle but are known as ‘Percy’s Leap’ and are said to mark the distance of a leap that Percy made as he was dealt a mortal blow. Half a mile south on the east side of the A697 is a stone called ‘Percy’s Cross’ said to have been erected in memory of Sir Ralph by his nephew, the fourth earl of Northumberland.
Wooperton, Roddam and Ilderton
North of the battle site west of the A697 is the little village of Wooperton and to its north Roddam Hall and the village of Ilderton. With a name that apparently comes from the Anglo-Saxon ‘weah-berg denu’, Wooperton intriguingly means ‘temple hill valley’.
Roddam Hall dates from the 1700s, but this area was long associated with the Roddam family before the hall was built. The family took their name from the place and are supposed to have lived in the area since Saxon times. The place-name Roddam simply means ‘clearing’.
We should treat family histories that go back to pre-Norman times with caution but a Scottish historian of the 1500s called John Major asserted there was a charter issued by Athelstan, Anglo-Saxon King of England confirming Roddam rights to the land. There is no other record of the document but it is said to have read:
“I King Athelstan
Giffis heir to paulane
Odam and Roddam
Als gud and als fair
Als ever tha myn ware
An yair to witness Mald my wife.”
Roddams or Rodhams were a family of influence in Northumberland and although the line of the Roddams who owned Roddam came to an end in the nineteenth century, lesser branches of the surname lived on and descendants include US politician Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose ancestors moved from Northumberland into Durham where they later worked as coal miners at Kyo near Stanley.
By strange coincidence from 1775 Roddam Hall belonged to a British naval officer, Admiral Robert Roddam (1719-1808), who was the brother in law of Sir Henry Clinton (1730-1795), a British general in the American War of Independence.
Ilderton, on a hill top site to the north of Roddam Hall is the home to a church of mostly eighteenth century origin dedicated to St Michael though parts date to the thirteenth century. There is a mausoleum to members of the Roddam family in the churchyard dating to 1795.
Across the A697 between Wooler and Powburn are East and West Lilburn where we find Lilburn Tower, a Tudor style house designed by John Dobson around 1829. There is also an earlier ruined tower at Lilburn and ruined remains of a Norman chapel partly rebuilt in the twelfth and thirteenth century.
Lilburn was owned by the De Ros family and then from the early 1300s by the Lilburns who took their name from here. It passed to the Clennels and then the Collingwoods in the late 1700s. John Lilburne, ‘Freeborn John’ who founded the Levellers political movement in the 1600s was descended from the Lilburns of Lilburn. By that time Lilburne family connections were at Sunderland and Thickley in County Durham.
Named from a nearby stream, Lilburn means ‘little stream’, or ‘Lilla’s stream’ and is a tributary of the River Till. From Lilburn a road leads a mile east to Chillingham, passing close to a standing stone called the Hurl Stone reputedly connected with elves in times past. Nearby Hurlestone Tower, is a lookout tower erected in 2000 by the owners of Lilburn Tower to celebrate the new millennium.
Chillingham and its castle lie east of the River Till. The village itself is small and scattered with a church dedicated to St Peter that dates back to medieval times with interesting tombs and effigies of the Grey family within. Chillingham is pronounced as it looks, unlike most places in Northumberland that end in ‘ingham’ which are usually pronounced ‘ing-Jum’
The castle at Chillingham was commenced in 1344 when a licence to crenellate was granted to a Thomas De Heton and an impressive four corner-towered castle was constructed around an earlier pele tower.
Later, the castle became the home of the Huntercombes then the Greys and then the Bennets who were Earls of Tankerville. Around the mid eighteenth century new additions were made to the castle and the grounds and gardens were landscaped from 1753.
Visitors to Chillingham included Edward I who is supposed to have stayed at the earlier Chillingham tower in 1298 during a campaign against William Wallace in Scotland. Another visitor was James I of England (James VI of Scotland) who stayed here on his way south to take up the English crown.
One particularly interesting resident of the castle in later times was George Montagu Bennet, the seventh Earl of Tankerville (born 1852) who died at Chillingham in 1931. Known as the ‘Singing Earl’, he was a Christian Revival Baptist singer who had also worked for a time as a circus clown and as a cowboy in America. A true English eccentric, in New York he apparently first introduced himself to an American woman (who would later become his wife) by somersaulting over a sofa in an apparent attempt to land in her lap.
During the Second World War Chillingham Castle served as a World War Two barracks and over the years fell into a state of neglect. In 1982 it was purchased by Sir Humphry Wakefield, Baronet, who has developed the castle as a popular heritage attraction.
The castle is particularly noted for its dungeon which lies below the north eastern tower of the building. It 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’. Quirky and very dusty old displays are the somewhat eccentric offering of this unusual castle experience.
Chillingly, Chillingham claims to be Britain’s most haunted castle. One of Chillingham’s best-known resident ghosts, known as the ‘Radiant Boy’, was perhaps a victim of a 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 bedrooms. The bones were removed and buried in a nearby churchyard and the ghost went into happy retirement.
The Chillingham Wild Cattle
Chillingham is certainly one of Northumberland’s most impressive castles but is equally well-known for its herd of wild white 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.
On the 17th October 1872, Chillingham was visited by Edward the Prince of Wales – the future King Edward VII – 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.
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 illustrating 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 below.
Ros Castle and Hepburn Bastle
Overlooking the grounds of Chillingham Castle, on a hilltop, not far to the south near a farming hamlet called Hepburn is the site of a much older fortress called Ros (or Ross) Castle, a promontory dating from Iron Age times situated on a prominent hill top.
Ros is approached by a back road that crosses close to Hepburn Wood and the impressive ruins of the Hepburn Bastle house. Also known in the past as Hebburn Tower it belonged to the Hebburn (or Hepburn) family until the eighteenth century and is thought to date to at least 1514.
Continuing to Ros Castle, which is in the care of the National Trust there is a well-worn path to the top through the bracken and it is well worth the climb.
Great panoramic views of the Northumbrian countryside can be seen from Ros Castle encompassing Alnwick, Lindisfarne, the Farne Islands, Bamburgh Castle, Dunstanburgh Castle and the Cheviot Hills, including views of Hedgehope Hill (2,348 feet) and The Cheviot itself (2,676 ft).
To the west of Chillingham, the River Till flows northward on its journey towards the Tweed passing close to the village of Chatton on its western bank. Shortly after passing Chatton the Till makes a sudden turn westward along the edge of Doddington Moor past Fowberry Tower near to which it was once crossed by the Devil’s Causeway Roman road.
Fowberry Tower which belonged to the Fowberry family for 400 years was built as a tower house in the 1400s then rebuilt as a larger house in 1666 with extensions of 1776. Later owners included the Strothers then the Blakes of Twizell in the 1700s and later Matthew Culley, the son of the noted agriculturalist, George Culley of Fenton on the edge of Milfield Plain.
The River Till enters Milfield Plain about a mile to the west of Fowberry Tower where it is crossed by the pretty Weetwood Bridge just off the B6348 on the approach to Doddington and Wooler. The bridge is thought to date in part to the early sixteenth century and may be the same Weetwood Bridge that was crossed by the English forces as they headed north prior to the Battle of Flodden Field.