Corbridge and the Tyne Valley

Corbridge, a village of handsome streets and stone houses is one of the most delightful places in Northumberland. It lies only two miles east of Hexham but is a little smaller and situated on the northern bank of the River Tyne.

Corbridge bridge
The bridge across the Tyne at Corbridge dates from 1674. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Corbridge is described as a village but has the feel of a tiny town. For centuries it was a place of considerable importance, being the site of a Roman town called Corstopitum which was just to the west of the present village.

Later Corbridge became an important Anglo-Saxon settlement that served as one of the royal centres and capitals of Northumbria. It also continued to be a place of importance in later medieval times, being home to four churches, but its vulnerable location was often at the mercy of raiding Scots who plundered the Tyne valley.

Roman Corbridge

A Roman fort was first built at Corbridge around 77AD by the Roman Governor of Britain, Julius Agricola and controlled the river crossing of the Tyne at one of the lowest fordable points. The fort was located near the river in the Red House Haughs area about half a mile west of the more familiar Corbridge Roman site of today but was abandoned around 86 AD perhaps due to flooding.

A new fort was then built at the present Roman site near the Cor Burn. It was here that Dere Street crossed the Tyne. From Corbridge, Dere Street was linked to the forts of Ebchester (Vindomara) and Lanchester (Longovicium) to the south east.

Roman town site at Corbridge
The Roman town site at Corbridge. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Beginning at Corbridge and running west along the Tyne valley was another Roman road known today as the Stanegate (the stone-paved way), which was built before Hadrian’s Wall. It marked the initial northern border of the Roman advance and Corbridge became the heart of the Roman frontier.

The early fort at Corbridge was burned down around 105 AD and replaced by a new one associated with the development of this Stanegate frontier. When Hadrian’s Wall was completed in 122 AD Corbridge lay within the protection of the wall’s hinterland. The Tyne provided further protection for Corbridge to the south.

A new phase in Corbridge’s development began with the northward advance of the Emperor Antonius Pius to a new frontier – the short-lived Antonine Wall – between the Clyde and the Forth. During this time the Roman site at Corbridge rapidly expanded as it became a major military base and agricultural supply centre for the campaign and advance of Rome into Caledonia.

Corbridge was not located on Hadrian’s Wall, but was two miles to its south. From Corbridge Dere Street continued north and served as an important route for the Roman advance. It passed through the Stagshaw Bank area and crossed Hadrian’s Wall through a gateway at Portgate near the fort of Halton Chesters (Onnum) and then continued onward into Redesdale to the fort of Risingham (Habitancum). From there it continued its journey north to Trimontium in the Eildon Hills in what is now Scotland.

At Portgate, another Roman road, known today as the Devil’s Causeway joined Dere Street and headed off in a north easterly direction across Northumberland as far as Spittal near Berwick upon Tweed. These roads all emphasised Corbridge’s important strategic location.

The Tyne at Corbridge
The Tyne at Corbridge looking south west. Photo © David Simpson 2018

After the Antonine Wall was abandoned around 160AD, Corbridge developed into a legionary base serving the whole eastern half of Hadrian’s Wall as well as forts beyond the frontier to the north.

The Romans called Corbridge Corstopitum (or Coriosopitum) and the place saw considerable expansion during this time but continued to be an important supply base and centre for granaries and warehouses and a market was developed. Corstopitum would have been a home to tradesmen and merchants as well as the Roman legionary soldiers stationed in the military compound.

By the early 200s AD the Corbridge site was developing into a major Roman town and became increasingly civilian in nature which it remained up until the Roman abandonment of Britain in the fifth century.

Excavations at Corstopitum began in 1906 and uncovered a number of interesting features including temples dedicated to a number of different gods. It was a good reflection of the cosmopolitan nature of the settlement. The base of a Roman fountain was also found that was originally decorated with statues and fed by a small aqueduct.

Like a number of other sites along the Roman frontier, Corstopitum now has an excellent museum with displays of Roman glass, pottery, tools, military equipment and even Roman board games. The ‘Corbridge Lion’ is one of the museum’s best-known exhibits. It is a sculpture of a lion devouring a stag and was probably used to decorate a Roman officer’s tomb at Corstopitum.

Saxon church tower, Corbridge
St Andrew’s Saxon church tower, Corbridge. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Corbridge in Anglo-Saxon times

In the centuries following the Roman departure from Britain, the importance of Corbridge continued and in Anglo-Saxon times it served as one of the capitals of Northumbria. It was the Anglo-Saxons who built the settlement of Corbridge on its present site and constructed a monastery and church. They took stones from the neighbouring Roman site to use as building material.

Corbridge’s beautiful St Andrew’s church was part of this monastic site. Probably founded by St Wilfrid it dates from around 71 AD. The architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner described the church as “the most important Saxon monument in Northumberland except for the Hexham crypt”. Parts of the west tower are of particular note and date from before 786 AD when a Bishop of Lichfield was consecrated here – a curious event given that Lichfield was in Mercia rather than Northumbria.

Church of St Andrew, Corbridge
Church of St Andrew, Corbridge. Photo © David Simpson 2018

As a Northumbrian royal centre Corbridge would have been a place of political intrigue and on April 18, 796 AD it was the place at which King Aethelred I of Northumbria was murdered at the instigation of noblemen who had plotted against him. It was the second such murder in the Corbridge area as, in 759 AD, another Northumbrian King called Oswulf was murdered at Great Whittington three miles north of Corbridge beyond the Roman wall.

In the later Viking period Corbridge was the scene of battles in 914 AD and 918 AD in which Northumbria’s Anglo-Saxons, with help from the Scots, fought against the invading Norsemen. These particular Viking invaders under the leadership of king Ragnald, were Hiberno-Norsemen. They did not come, as might be expected, directly from Scandinavia or from the Viking kingdom established in Yorkshire at York but came from the Norse settled colonies of Dublin and the Scottish Isles.

Whether they invaded along the Tyne from the west or from the east is uncertain, but it thought that one of the Corbridge battles has been confused through the mists of time with another invasion and battle involving Ragnald, that was perhaps focused in the Tynemouth area. So there is some debate as to whether there were two battles or only one fought at Corbridge during this period.

Historic Corbridge

In medieval times there were three other churches at Corbridge in addition to that of St Andrew. There was a church of St Mary but the ruins of this were pulled down in the late eighteenth century, and a church of the Trinity which has long gone. On the north side of the village was a church dedicated to St Helen that is now remembered in St Helen’s Street.

Craft gallery Corbridge.
Craft gallery in old blacksmiths’ forge near the bridge, Corbridge. Photo © David Simpson 2018

In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Corbridge became a busy and wealthy town but as a result suffered greatly from Scottish raiders looking to plunder. It was occupied by David I of Scotland in 1138 who encamped here; it was burnt by William Wallace in 1296 and then by Robert the Bruce in 1312 and also by David II in 1346 prior to the Battle of Neville’s Cross at Durham. In 1644, during the Civil War the Scots were routed in a skirmish at Corbridge by Royalist forces under the command of Colonel Fenwick and Sir Marmaduke Langdale.

In the early thirteenth century, King John had a fascination with Corbridge and was convinced the town concealed treasures from a distant era. Perhaps inspired by the occasional discovery of Roman remains, he believed Corbridge had been a wealthy town in ancient times that had been destroyed by an earthquake and that there were buried treasures below the village waiting to be revealed. Despite digging in and around the church of St Andrew, he found nothing to satisfy his lust for riches.

It was King John who granted Corbridge a charter and weekly market and a fair in 1201. It was around that time that Corbridge was given to the Clavering family but it passed back to the crown in the reign of Edward I. It was then given to the Percys during the reign of Edward III.

Market Cross, Corbridge
Market Cross, Corbridge Photo © David Simpson 2018

The present village of Corbridge is centred on a small market place which has an attractive market cross. The cross was erected by the lord of the manor, Hugh Percy, Duke of Northumberland in 1815. It replaced an earlier market cross that had stood on a Roman altar in the centre of the town for 600 years. The old cross can still be seen near the door of the former vicar’s pele tower near St Andrew’s churchyard on the north side of the market place.

Old market cross, Corbridge
Old market cross, Corbridge. Photo © David Simpson 2018

The vicar’s pele tower at Corbridge was a fortified ecclesiastical residence and a strong reminder of the constant threat of raids at Corbridge in distant times. Situated near the corner of St Andrew’s churchyard it was a three story fortified house used by the vicar of Corbridge as a defended residence and was built around 1300 using Roman stones from the ruins of Corstopitum.

Vicar's Pele at Corbridge
Vicar’s Pele at Corbridge. Photo © David Simpson 2018

The pele was still resided in until the early seventeenth century and in later times served as a prison. Today the pele is a lovely micro pub and brewery called ‘The Pele’ situated in the heart of Corbridge.

Low Hall, Corbridge.
Low Hall, Corbridge. Photo © David Simpson 2018

The Vicar’s Pele is not the only surviving fortified house at Corbridge. At the east end of Main Street is Low Hall which dates from about 1600 and includes an attached tower house. Low Hall is described as the ‘oldest house’ in Corbridge’. Nearby just across the road is ‘Monksholme’, a beautiful Jacobean style house that was once a pub called the New Inn.

Monksholme, Corbridge
Monksholme, Corbridge. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Corbridge is a lovely place to explore with many fine streets of stone houses that are very appealing. So it is surprising to learn that in the 1700s and early 1800s observers commented on filth, middens and piggeries and the unhealthy appearance of the people.

However, improvements in standards were remarked upon in the 1820s when Corbridge was described as a “large, populous, well-built village”. There were around 230 houses in 1821 and the principal occupation of residents seems to have been shoemaking with the village supplying footwear for lead and coal miners and other rural workers in neighbouring districts. Hat making was also noted as a Corbridge trade.

As the nineteenth century progressed Corbridge seemingly became an increasingly attractive place to visit and is described in the 1880s as “one of the most picturesque and interesting of Northumbrian villages” as it still is today. By that time it had come to be noted as a health resort where people resided or visited in an attempt to bring about improvements in health.

One interesting feature in Corbridge perhaps associated with this time are numerous stone ‘pants’ or drinking fountains. They include the Market Place pant of 1815 and Stagshaw Road pant to the north. To the south east along Main Street is the Main Street pant and in the adjoining Spoutwell Lane is the trough of the Spout Well. This spring supplied water to a number of the Corbridge pants.

Also of interest near the west side of St Andrew’s church is a plaque marking the King’s Oven. First recorded in 1310, this is where the villagers’ bread and meat was baked in a communal oven when Corbridge was a royal borough. The oven was still used until the late nineteenth century.

The Angel, Corbridge
The Angel, Corbridge. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Today Corbridge has a good range of places to eat and drink including old pubs and inns such as The Angel, a former coaching inn and postal stop dating to the seventeenth century. There are also a number of interesting and attractive independent shops in Corbridge such as Forum Books which occupies an old Methodist chapel on the edge of the market place.

Other buildings of note around the village include Eastfield House in Main Street, one of Corbridge’s oldest houses and the Town Hall at the head of Hill Street. The town hall was built (despite Corbridge’s village status) in 1887 by F. Emily to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee.

Corbridge Town Hall
Corbridge Town Hall. Photo © David Simpson 2018

From the early nineteenth century Corbridge was the site of the Corbridge Pottery, also called Walker’s Pottery which was situated in a separate settlement in the countryside just north of the village. The pottery, which closed in 1910, made pipes, chimney pots, roof tiles and also made bricks. Two impressive lime kilns of the pottery can still be seen at the site along Milkwell Lane to the north of the village.

Of course we cannot leave Corbridge without mentioning the bridge across the Tyne on the south side of the village. The original Roman bridge was upstream from here to the west near the Corbridge Roman site but this had long since gone when a medieval bridge was built in 1235 replacing a ford and ferry.

The bridge Corbridge
The bridge Corbridge Photo © David Simpson 2018

This bridge was subsequently replaced in 1674 by the present bridge which consists of seven stone arches. It was the only bridge on the Tyne from source to sea to remain standing following the devastating flood of November 1771. So high was the water during this flood that the confident Corbridge residents stood on the bridge and leaned over the parapet to wash their hands in the fast flowing floodwaters of the Tyne.

An interesting story connected to this bridge at the time of the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 relates how the bridge was barricaded one night with carts and wagons filled with dung to guard against Jacobite rebels after intelligence was received of rebel movements in the countryside nearby. Daylight revealed that the reported rebel movements were in fact a huge drove of Northumberland Kyloe cattle.

St Mary's Chare, Corbridge
St Mary’s Chare, Corbridge Photo © David Simpson 2018

Near the north side of the bridge there is an interesting steep, cobbled footpath called St Mary’s Chare named from a former chapel. It links the bridge to the centre of the village and is known locally as ‘Bad Bank’.

Aydon Castle

Situated about a mile north of Corbridge near the upper parts of the Cor Burn is Aydon Castle, an impressive thirteenth century manor house described as “almost completely intact”. Shortly after it was built it was fortified to guard against raids associated with the troubles of the borderland.

Aydon Castle
Aydon Castle. Photo © David Simpson 2018

In a lovely wooded setting on a precipice which helps to enhance its defences, Aydon Castle is an attraction that deserves to be better known. Aydon historically belonged to the Baliols, then later the Aydons, Walles, Raymes, Cranabys, Claverings, Carrs, Colinsons, Douglas and Blackett families.

The strong defences of the manor certainly proved necessary, if not always effective judging by some of the incidents in its history. It was burned and plundered by the Scots in 1315, taken by English rebels in 1317 and seized by the Scots in 1346. In the 1600s it became a farmhouse, surely making it one of the most impressive fortified farmhouses in the land. Aydon Castle was still lived in until as recently as 1966 but is now an English Heritage property.

Aydon Castle
Aydon Castle. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Part of the precipice on which Aydon Castle is situated is known as ‘Jack’s Leap’, though the reason for this is uncertain. One story is that it commemorates a lover who took a frantic leap in a moment of despair. Another is that a party of raiding Scots was surprised and routed here by a Sir Robert Clavering and that all the Scots other than the surviving ‘Jack’ fell to their deaths.

Riding Mill

The village of Riding Mill is on the south side of the Tyne about two miles downstream to the south east of Corbridge and the two places are connected by road and by railway, each with its own station on the railway that connects Newcastle to Carlisle. Riding Mill was historically simply called Riding and is a pleasant village with several stone houses. The village merges with neighbouring Broomhaugh on its east side.

The old mill house of the actual mill is alongside the main road at the east end of Riding Mill village. It was a water mill operated by a mill race connected to the burn near the rear of the house. A corn mill is known to have existed at Riding from medieval times. The burn itself is sometimes called the Riding Mill Burn, March Burn or Dipton Burn though the last two of these in fact join together as forks of the main stream about a mile and a half west of Riding Mill. Dipton, which also gives its name to a nearby wood, simply means ‘deep dene’.

Opposite the old mill house is the Wellington Inn which has a date of 1660. Another interesting building of note in Riding Mill is the village manor house of the 1600s which lies at the west end of the village. A substantial private house, it is situated alongside the main road through the village and includes a castellated garden wall.

Riding Mill or Riding was historically part of the parish of Bywell St Andrew and its name actually comes from ‘ridding’ meaning a clearing.

Just along the Tyne to the east of Riding Mill is a Northumbrian Water pumping station. This lies at the northern end of a water distribution system that includes a 21 mile long water tunnel and pumping system that links the Tyne to the River Wear and River Tees.

A four mile long pipe from Riding Mill links the Tyne to the tunnel, enabling water to be redistributed from the Tyne to meet shortfalls in the Wear and Tees. It was considered particularly useful for meeting the demands of the industries of Teesside much further down that valley. There are outfalls near Frosterley in Weardale and near Eggleston in Teesdale. Water is discharged into the North Tyne from Kielder Reservoir to compensate for water removed from the Tyne at Riding Mill.


About two miles downstream to the east of Riding Mill but over on the north side of the river is Bywell. Situated within a nick and bend of the River Tyne, the name comes from ‘Byge-Wella’ meaning ‘spring in the bend’ and is named from a nearby well. It was a place of some importance in distant times. There are only a handful of houses in the hamlet at Bywell including Bywell Hall (a large house in private grounds on its west side) but Bywell does include a ruined castle near the river.

Bywell village
Bywell village. Photo © David Simpson 2018

By the 1820s Bywell was described as a “small, pleasant hamlet, formerly a place of some consequence” and at that time there were twenty houses including an inn though by the 1880s the inn had become a house.

Bywell castle is a clue to Bywell’s former importance but perhaps the most remarkable thing about this little hamlet is that it is the home to not one but two impressive medieval churches that are located metres away from each other but both served different parishes in times past. This must have caused some confusion and for clarity they were sometimes known as the ‘Black Church’ and the ‘White Church’ to distinguish one from the other.

The story is that there were once two sisters who had a heated quarrel over who took precedence and each founded a church that excluded the other. It is of course a legend.

The 'Black Church' of St Peter, Bywell.
The ‘Black Church’ of St Peter, Bywell. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Nearest to the River Tyne is the church of St Peter or ‘The Black church’ which is early Norman, dating from the middle of the eleventh century. It is thought likely that the church stands on the site of an earlier church of Anglo-Saxon times. Its parish, which was bounded by that of Blanchland, Slaley and Corbridge extended as far south as Shotley on the Northumberland side of the River Derwent near Shotley Bridge.

The church of St Andrew or ‘The White Church’ just to the north of St Peter is Anglo-Saxon in origin and is thought to have been erected by St Wilfrid around the 670s. Described as “a first-rate Saxon west tower” by Nikolaus Pevsner, the lower part of the tower is early Saxon and the upper part is thought to be late Saxon, dating from after 1000 AD.

Bywell is mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles as the place where Egbert was consecrated as the twelfth Bishop of Lindisfarne by Archbishop Eanbald of York but whether this consecration took place at the site of the church of St Andrew or at the probable predecessor of St Peter is not known.

Interestingly, the dedication of the Saxon church to St Andrew is the same as that of the Saxon church at Corbridge and of the abbey at Hexham which also has Saxon origins.

The 'White Church' of St Andrew, Bywell.
The ‘White Church’ of St Andrew, Bywell. Photo © David Simpson 2018

St Andrew’s church at Bywell, though no longer used today was home to a tiny parish which included the farm of Bearl to the north, along with the settlements of Styford, Riding (Mill) and Broomhaugh. However through its association with Styford it appears to have been the principal church of an extensive Norman barony called Bolbec which had Anglo-Saxon roots.

By the nineteenth century the two parishes were closely linked and in the 1820s it was noted that a single clergyman undertook the sermons for both churches, performing sermons in one church in the morning and in the other in the evening.

Being close to the River Tyne both churches were vulnerable to flooding and suffered some damage in the great flood of November 1771 when they were inundated by the river. Prized horses were taken into St Andrew’s church for refuge where the horses held onto the tops of the high pews and one horse climbed onto the altar to avoid the flood water. Ten houses in the village were swept away and six people lost their lives during the flood.

The 'Black Church' of St Peter, Bywell.
The ‘Black Church’ of St Peter, Bywell. Photo © David Simpson 2018

The two churches were attached to two different Norman baronies centred upon the Bywell area that had developed from earlier Anglo-Saxon estates. It is from the endowment of these churches to two different monasteries that they came to be popularly termed the ‘black church’ and ‘white church’.

In Norman times Bywell was the name of a barony that passed at the time of the Norman Conquest from its Saxon owners to Guy De Baliol, who also owned Barnard Castle (then called Marwood) in Teesdale. Along the Tyne, the barony of Bywell included nearby Ovington, Mickley and Acomb (near Hexham) as well as some outlying places near the Northumberland coast like Ellington, Cresswell, Newbiggin and Woodhorn which are all in what is now the Ashington area.

The church of St Peter at Bywell was the principal church of this particular barony and in 1174 the Baliols granted the church as an endowment to the Priory of Durham Cathedral. Durham Priory was a Benedictine monastery, whose monks wore black robes and it was probably through this association that St Peter’s came to be known as Bywell’s ‘Black Church’.

The Baliols later forfeited their estates at Bywell and elsewhere in the reign of Edward I due to a rebellion and the barony itself passed to the crown and then later to the Nevilles.

Two churches at Bywell
Two churches at Bywell. Church of St Andrew in foreground with church of St Peter beyond the churchyard. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Bywell was one of two baronies lcoated between the Tyne and Derwent that were centred on the Bywell area. The neighbouring barony was the Barony of Bolbec which included Riding Mill, Broomhaugh, Shotley and Minsteracres as well as places further north such as Wallington, Shafto and Cambo and places to the west like Heddon and Benwell.

The Bolbec barony was known to the Anglo-Saxons as Styford from a place on the north side of the Tyne opposite Riding Mill which is half way between Corbridge and Bywell. It is now the site of Styford Hall, a house of about 1800. The name Styford means ‘path ford’ and there must have been an early river crossing here.

The Norman name for the barony came from Walter de Bolbec, who was the founder of Blanchland Abbey in the Derwent valley. His abbey, founded in 1165, was named from the white or ‘blanch’ robes of the Premonstratensian canons known in England as ‘white canons’. Walter granted the church of St Andrew at Bywell as an endowment to the Blanchland canons and this is why the church came to be known as Bywell’s ‘White church’.

From the 1400s the baronies of Bywell and Bolbec passed from the crown to the powerful Neville family of Raby who were the Earls of Westmorland but all their lands were confiscated following their part in the Rising of the North in 1569. This rising was a plot to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I.

Bywell was then sold to the Fenwicks who began a long association with the place, although the actual castle at Bywell, still incomplete, was built by the Nevilles. The castle, a ruin, dates from the fifteenth century and is an impressive turreted tower house and gatehouse built with Roman stones that were presumably plundered from neighbouring forts on Hadrian’s Wall. Henry VI is thought to have briefly sought refuge at this castle following defeat at the Battle of Hexham in 1464 during the Wars of the Roses.

The village cross, Bywell
The village cross, Bywell. Photo © David Simpson 2018

However, the notable Bywell Hall to the west of St Andrew’s church was built for the Fenwick family around 1760. The noted architect James Paine built the hall on the site of an earlier house. The hall is not normally open to the public except by designated tours at certain times.

To the north of Bywell there are two or three peculiar place-names of note. They include the farm called Peepy near the Beam Burn and a house called Sod Hall also near to that stream. On older maps Peepy seems to have been called Peep-I-see-thee and was about a quarter of a mile north of another farm building called Seldom Seen though this has now gone. To the north east of Bywell is a rather large farm near Ovington called Bearl. It was originally ‘Bere-Hill’ meaning ‘barley hill’.

Stocksfield, Mickley and Cherryburn

Across the Tyne to the south of Bywell is Stocksfield Hall and the nearby Stocksfield Burn and to its south, the village of Stocksfield itself. Stocksfield was part of the parish of St Andrew’s at Bywell but was something of an anomaly in that parish as it was not historically part of the Barony of Bolbec and instead belonged to the Baliols.

The Anglo-Saxon name means ‘field belonging to a stocc’, a ‘stocc’ usually signifying a religious house of some kind, though whether this was one of the churches at Bywell or perhaps Hexham abbey is not known. Adjoining Stocksfield to the south is Painshawfield which is thought to mean field of the ‘rocky summit’. It was once just a couple of farmhouses near the Bat Burn but now, along with Stocksfield is the site of extensive modern housing estates.

Country villages around Stocksfield to the west and south include Broomley, Old Ridley, Hindley and Hedley on the Hill. A ley is usually a clearing and the names of these places respectively mean the broom or gorse clearing, the ridded clearing, the clearing of the hind and the heather clearing. To the south, the village of Whittonstall on Dere Street has a name that derives from Quick-Tunstal meaning ‘the homestead with a quickset hedge’.

Near Mickley (mickley means the ‘big clearing’) to the east of Stocksfield we find Cherryburn, a cottage under the care of the National Trust. The cottage is situated close to a stream of the same name. Cherryburn Cottage was the birthplace of the famed engraver and naturalist, Thomas Bewick (1753-1828).

Bewick began his trade as an engraver who was apprenticed from 1767 to the engraver Ralph Beilby with whom he later formed a partnership. Bewick was inspired by the landscape, nature, wildlife and people he encountered around Cherryburn and his woodcut prints are intricately detailed, beautiful and often humorous.

In 1784 Bewick published a number of beautiful woodcuts in his Select Fables and many of his pictures, sometimes designed for the entertainment of children have great stories to tell.

As a naturalist, Bewick is best known for the History of British Quadrupeds, a work written and illustrated by him in 1790 and the History of British Birds written and illustrated between 1797 and 1804. He is also noted for giving his name to the Bewick Swan.

Bewick is buried in the churchyard of the village of Ovingham on the north side of the Tyne opposite the town of Prudhoe to the east of Mickley.


Prudhoe means the ‘proud hill spur’ and the hill of this description is the site of the impressive ruins of the Norman Prudhoe Castle. Dating from 1173, Prudhoe Castle is thought to have the oldest castle keep in Northumberland.

Prudhoe Castle.
Prudhoe Castle. Photo © David Simpson 2018

The castle was originally built by the powerful Umfraville family to whom the barony was bestowed by William the Conqueror. The castle’s founder was an Odonel de Umfraville and built between 1161 and 1182. It perhaps occupied the site of an earlier stronghold.

In 1173 the castle successfully withstood an attack by the Scottish king, William the Lion who returned to Scotland. He besieged the castle again the following year but found it considerably strengthened. He then turned north to besiege Alnwick where he was captured and subsequently imprisoned in Normandy.

Around 1381 Prudhoe passed by marriage from the Umfravilles to the Percys who owned it until confiscated from them due to a rebellion in the reign of Henry IV. It was returned to the Percy family during the reign of Henry VI but confiscated again by Edward IV because of their support for the Lancastrian cause. However, it came back into Percy hands once again, later passing to their successors, the Dukes of Northumberland.

Today the castle is a property of English Heritage. It claims to be the only medieval castle in Northumberland that was never captured by the Scots.

Entrance to Prudhoe Castle
Entrance to Prudhoe Castle, Photo © David Simpson 2018

Along with Hexham, Prudhoe is one of the two largest Northumberland towns in the Tyne valley though Prudhoe’s growth has more to do with the historic influence of coal mining in the neighbourhood and its proximity to Tyneside than its medieval importance.

The oldest part of the village is that which lies along South Road but it is with coal mining that Prudhoe grew. The neighbouring West Wylam Colliery was established in the 1860s and was worked until 1961. West Wylam is part of Prudhoe and should not be confused with Wylam across the river to the north east.


Immediately opposite Prudhoe and its castle on the north side of the Tyne is the village of Ovingham (pronounced Oving-jum) which is linked to Prudhoe by a bridge. It is an attractive village with a church dedicated to St Mary that has a late Saxon tower. Inside the church are fragments of a Saxon cross. Indeed the place-name Ovingham is Anglo-Saxon and means homestead of the family or followers of Offa.

Ovingham Photo © David Simpson 2018

The vicarage south of the churchyard dates from the fourteenth century and was built to house three Augustinian canons from Hexham Abbey. Thomas Bewick, who is buried in the churchyard at Ovingham, was educated at the Ovingham vicarage.

Ovingham is noted for an annual event of fun and frivolity called the Ovingham Goose Fair which has its roots in the thirteenth century. However it has not been held in recent years, initially due to the disruption resulting from repairs on Ovingham Bridge.

Wylam on Tyne

Wylam on Tyne is the last village in the Tyne valley, before we enter built-up Tyneside. There is perhaps, no other place in the world of comparative size to Wylam, that more deserves the title ‘Birthplace of the Railways’.

It was here that the great railway pioneer William Hedley built his Puffing Billy locomotive, which worked at Wylam colliery from 1813. The Puffing Billy operated from Wylam colliery to the coal staiths on the River Tyne at Lemington on the outskirts of Newcastle, a few miles to the east. Later the Puffing Billy was replaced by Hedley’s Wylam Dilly which was in operation until 1862.

George Stephenson's birthplace at Wylam
George Stephenson’s birthplace at Wylam. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Hedley was assisted in much of his work by the Wylam-born blacksmith Timothy Hackworth (1786-1850) who is another of Wylam’s great railway pioneers. Hackworth later went on to assist George Stephenson with the construction of the Stockton and Darlington Railway for which he developed his own engine called The Royal George.

Ultimately Hackworth established his own engine works at Shildon in County Durham, where his home is preserved as part of the Locomotion National Railway Museum. Hackworth was a remarkable man, his last engine Sans Pariel achieved a speed of 80 mph in 1849 and he was the man who introduced locomotives to Russia in 1837.

Both Hedley and Hackworth deserve to be better known but they are both overshadowed by another Wylam born engineer, George Stephenson who of course built the Rocket, the first locomotive to capture the imagination of the world. Stephenson’s birthplace can still be seen at Wylam to the east of the village alongside a pretty wooded footpath that follows the course of the old Wylam wagonway.

Hexham South Tynedale | Allendale

Hadrian’s Wall | Hadrian’s Wall Country

 Kielder North Tynedale | Redesdale

Newcastle upon Tyne | North Tyneside | Whitley Bay

Alnwick Morpeth Area | Rothbury and Coquetdale

Blaydon and Ryton

Shotley Bridge and Ebchester | Blanchland and Derwentdale



North East England History and Culture