The village of Milfield lies on the north west side of the beautiful Milfield Plain to the north of Wooler, within which we find the River Till, the River Glen, the Humbleton Burn and the Wooler Water. Milfield is an attractive tiny village with a stone-built pub called the Red Lion facing out to the A697.
The Milfield Plain was once the base of a great prehistoric lake and the hills that surround the plain were the ancient heartland of the entire North East region being a focal point for humanity in distant times and very likely then the most populous part of what is now North East England. Such an element of ancient history and mystery naturally attracts its share of legends and the inevitable Arthurian connection.
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. 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.
Even into relatively modern times Milfield’s connections with war and battle continued when it became the site of an airfield during the Second World War. In fact the site had been used as a refuelling stop for a squadron from Edinburgh during the First World War but this had fallen out of use in 1919.
RAF Milfield opened in 1942 as an Operational Training Unit. A memorial stone nearby honours the men and women of the RAF and Royal Canadian Air Force who served at RAF Milfield, and those who lost their lives. Today the airfield site is used by the Borders Gliding Club.
Milfield Plain was the site of the Anglo-Saxon royal palace and town of the kings of Northumbria called Maelmin that superseded an earlier town and palace complex at Yeavering (ad Gefrin) in Glendale further to the south and west of Wooler. Ad Gefrin had been associated with King Edwin but was abandoned after his reign and was replaced by Maelmin according to the Venerable Bede. Maelmin was established around 650 AD and was in use for around 200 years. It was associated with Northumbrian kings such as Oswald and his successors.
As at Yeavering nothing can be seen of the palace site today except in traces on aerial photographs but it is worth visiting the site for taking in the setting and walking in the footsteps of the Northumbrian kings and other ancient people.
The Anglo-Saxon era in which Maelmin was founded was in fact a very late chapter in the ancient story of this district that stretches back thousands of years. A special Maelmin Heritage Trail has been created in the fields of the plain just off the A697 to the south of the village near the old airfield. The trail traces the ancient roots of the area.
The site once included settlements from the Neolithic (4,000-2,000BC) and Bronze Age (1000BC) eras and also included houses from the Dark Age era (AD 410-550) which was the period that succeeded the Roman age and preceded the Anglo-Saxon age. A Dark Age house has been reconstructed within the course of the trail.
Information boards and a map highlight some of the features and prehistory of the area. In the Neolithic period there were two henge monuments in Milfield Plain and the northern henge dated to around 2,300 BC. There were at least seven such henges throughout the Till valley. A reconstruction of the northern Milfield henge has been created on the Maelmin Trail though it does not occupy the site of the actual henge.
Doddington: Ancient sites, mysterious markings
From Chatton the River Till flows north west after passing beneath Wetwood Bridge to enter the broad expanses of Milfield Plain and is joined by the Wooler Water from the south near the edge of Doddington Moor. To the north is the actual village of Doddington.
Doddington village consists of stone houses and farm buildings and is the home to the Doddington Dairy which produces Northumbrian ice cream and cheeses. The ruins of a barn or ‘bastle house’ tower, dating from 1584, and overgrown with trees, can be seen near the farm.
The village church, dedicated to St Mary and St Michael dates from the thirteenth century and once included a western chamber of unexplained use which Nikolaus Pevsner considered “extremely strange”. The church later received some modifications from the Durham architect Ignatius Bonomi in 1838 and later still the chamber was converted into a chancel. In the churchyard there is a watch house dating from the 1820s.
Milfield Plain south of Doddington is enclosed on all sides by the high ground of Doddington Moor to the north and east and by the Cheviot foothills to the south and west. This higher ground, surrounding the plain, is littered with the remains of many ancient sites, associated with the Welsh speaking ancient Britons and 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 to the North. Note though that there are other waterfalls in Northumberland that go by the name ‘Roughting Linn’.
Perhaps the most interesting of the ancient sites in the area – and there really are many – 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.
Fenton and The Culley Brothers
Farms at Fenton in the hills near the northern edge of Milfield Plain were once famed as the home of agriculturalists Matthew and George Culley who were respectively born in 1730 and 1734. They were the sons of a farmer at Denton near Walworth in County Durham. The Culleys studied farming extensively and George travelled throughout England investigating breeds and farming techniques.
The Culleys came to farm at Fenton in 1767 because it was possible to purchase quite sizeable Northumberland farms at relatively low rates at that time, enabling them to experiment. Other Durham farmers are known to have purchased farms in Northumberland at that time.
New systems of crop rotation were introduced to north Northumberland by the Culleys but it was as sheep breeders that they came to be famed, crossing the Dishley Leicester breed of Leicestershire with the Teeswater sheep of Teesdale, a breed with which they were familiar at Denton. This produced the Border Leicester breed of sheep at Fenton which are now found across the world. It is a breed noted for both its meat and its wool.
Northumberland is a county that has long been noted for its sheep with the Border Cheviot breed of sheep being familiar since the 1370s and still common in the county today. Variants of this breed produced from cross-breeding include the North Country Cheviot breed of sheep which was bred in northern Scotland from Cheviot stock.
Along the River Till valley to the north of Milfield and Fenton are the villages of Ford and Etal which along with Heatherslaw Mill form one of the most picturesque and fascinating areas to visit in Northumberland. The two villages might also claim to be amongst the prettiest, if not the prettiest inland villages in the county (though Blanchland is a strong contender) and both are homes to notable castles.
Two miles north of Milfield is Ford village near the east bank of the River Till. To the west of the river is Flodden Edge, Flodden Hill and the village of Branxton which are all connected with the great Battle of Flodden Field of 1513 in which Ford Castle played a role.
Ford was simply named from a ford across the Till, though today there is a bridge. A church was built at Ford in the thirteenth century and can still be seen. Dedicated to St Michael it is largely medieval, with a notable bell cote, though parts of the church were rebuilt and restored by the architect John Dobson in 1853. Near the church we can see the scant ground remains of a fortified parson’s tower house or ‘vicar’s pele’ dating from 1541.
St Michael church was here before the castle which has been its impressive neighbour since about 1340. Originally there was a manor house here that stood near the church and belonged to Odenel De Forde from around 1272. De Forde was married to the daughter of Robert De Muschampe of Wooler.
De Forde’s daughter married Sir William Heron of Hadston (near Druridge Bay) who inherited Ford and in 1338 Heron obtained a licence from Edward III to crenellate and so the construction of Ford Castle began. Heron was a powerful military man being the Captain of Pickering and Scarborough Castles in Yorkshire and of Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland. He also held the important role of ‘Warden of the Forests North of the Trent’ and was High Sheriff of Northumberland for eleven successive years. Later Herons at Ford included an ambassador to France and other High Sheriffs of Northumberland.
Heron’s castle at Ford was of the quadrangular type featuring four corner towers – the first of its kind in Northumberland and Durham, though this style was later adopted at nearby Chillingham Castle and at Lumley Castle later in the century. Only three of the corner towers survive at Ford though one is subsumed within the building.
Being so close to the border the castle often suffered at the hands of Scottish raids, so needed to be a strong foundation. In 1385 it was attacked and taken by the Scots under the Earls of Fife, March and Douglas, though its most famous seizure by the Scots came in 1513 prior to the Battle of Flodden when it was occupied by King James IV and his army.
At that time, its owner Sir William Heron was imprisoned in Scotland and his wife, Lady Heron had tried to persuade the Earl of Surrey (who would go on to command the English forces in the battle) to negotiate an exchange of prisoners to dissuade James from taking the castle. James declined and upon the seizure made Ford Castle his headquarters prior to the battle.
A story developed that James then began an affair with Lady Heron which took his mind off the battle plan and prevented him from gaining the upper hand. However, the story of this dalliance is thought to be a legend with some doubt that she was even in the castle at the time. James carried out much destruction on his departure from the castle and left it in a sorry state. Of course James would lose his life on the battlefield.
Sir William Heron was later released and when he died in 1536 the castle was placed in the trust of a ward. The ward looked after it on behalf of Heron’s daughter and heir, Elizabeth Heron, who had not yet come of age. In 1549 the castle was defended against the Scots by Thomas Carr of nearby Etal with whom Elizabeth formed a romantic attachment and they were later married. Carr thus inherited the castle.
George Heron of Chipchase Castle in North Tynedale, who was related to Sir William Heron but not a direct heir, claimed that the castle should be his and a border feud soon developed between Carr and Heron. On the 27th March, 1557 Heron successfully employed a band of men to seize the castle and threw out Carr’s servants and Carr’s brother, Robert. Most of the Northumberland families including the Greys of Chillingham seem to have supported Heron in his actions except for the Collingwoods who favoured the Carrs.
The day after the castle was seized a party of men approached Ford Castle. They included Ralph Grey of Chillingham, Giles Heron, the Treasurer of Berwick and Robert Barrow, Mayor of Berwick who were set upon by another band of men led by the recently evicted Robert Carr. The mayor was killed and Giles Heron was wounded. However the castle remained in George Heron’s hands and the Greys sent reinforcements to Ford to support him.
These events, though not unusual in the borderland, caught the attention of the Crown. The Bishop of Durham, the Nevilles of Brancepeth (the Earls of Westmorland) and also the Percy Earls of Northumberland were all encouraged to resolve the situation and ascertain the facts.
Both earls seemed to conclude that Heron was the guilty party before the full investigation was completed especially as things continued to get out of hand when Thomas Carr was murdered in 1558. The Earl of Northumberland proclaimed Heron the murderer and Westmorland seized Heron’s property.
It was later reported by the Council of the North that a Gregory Ogle and a Roger Heron had been responsible for the murder but the source of this information was not revealed.
The murdered Thomas Carr left a son and heir who was only a minor and Ford Castle fell into the wardship of the Crown which helped to stifle the feud. The Carrs continued to hold Ford and neighbouring Heatherslaw, though another of their number, a Thomas Carr was murdered by his stepfather, John Ratcliffe of Alnwick in 1660.
After 1660 Ford village and its castle passed to Francis Blake, the husband to a sister of the murdered Thomas Carr. Later the castle passed to Blake’s grandson, Francis Delaval, and the castle remained a Delaval property up until 1808 when the then Lord Delaval died and it passed to his granddaughter Susannah, the Marchioness of Waterford who was married to an Irish peer.
In 1827 Susan’s son, Henry Beresford, third Marquess of Waterford inherited the castle. A curious character, Beresford was often identified as the mysterious, not to mention notorious, ‘Spring-heeled Jack’, a devil-like man in a black cape with claws for hands and eyes like balls of fire who terrorised women in London, Liverpool and across England and Scotland during the mid nineteenth century. He was so-named from his apparent ability to make spectacular leaps.
Beresford was certainly a deviant character noted for his drunken antics. He once ran riot in the town of Melton Mowbray with a group of others carrying a pot of red paint daubing it everywhere apparently giving rise to the phrase ‘paint the town red’.
The rumour that Beresford was Spring-Heeled Jack began in the 1840s based on aspects of his character and willingness to do anything for a bet. However the unpleasant antics of the mysterious Spring-Heeled Jack creature still continued after Beresford’s death in 1859 so unless these were copycat crimes the earlier sightings could not have been him.
It is Beresford’s wife, Louisa, the Marchioness of Waterford, who is most fondly remembered at Ford as a philanthropist and she made a most lasting impact on the village. She rebuilt Ford, creating the beautiful model village that we see today hoping to improve the welfare of the tenants on the Ford Castle estate.
The lovely village she created occupies the foot of a slope set back from the neighbouring road and its main street of quite charming and impressive cottages that lead to the castle. All the buildings in the village are of interest but of particular note are the village shop and its post office and the Lady Waterford Hall at the centre of the main street.
At the west end of the quiet main street towards the castle is a memorial to the Marquess of Waterford dating to 1859 but with no mention of his apparent notoriety. Perhaps tellingly, Lady Waterford, who founded a temperance society, did not include a public house or inn as part of her plan for this beautiful village.
As well as being a philanthropist, Lady Waterford was noted as a talented Pre-Raphaelite watercolour painter. Her work can be seen in the remarkable schoolroom that she built in the village in 1860 where she decorated the walls with a series of huge paintings, completed in 1882 that look like frescoes. Depicting biblical scenes with characters such as Cain and Abel she designed these to inspire and educate the local schoolchildren. The children from the village served as models for the young people depicted in the paintings.
The paintings were created over 22 years and can still be seen inside the former school which closed in 1957 but is now open to the public as a small gallery and museum called Lady Waterford Hall. The hall has an impressive timber-framed roof and is one of Northumberland’s more unusual and perhaps least-known attractions.
In 1907 Ford Castle, its estate and village was purchased by the wealthy coal owner and Liberal MP for Chester-le-Street, James Joicey, the first Baron Joicey (1846-196). Joicey, who owned Longhirst Hall near Morpeth also purchased Etal Castle and the Etal estate in 1908 and today the Ford and Etal Estate still belongs to members of this family.
During Joicey’s ownership the village continued to develop in the style established by Lady Waterford and one of the houses was built in memory of Lady Joicey
Heatherslaw Mill and Railway
The lovely Heatherslaw Mill is an appealing location on the banks of the River Till about half a mile north of Ford and forms part of the Ford and Etal Estate. Murders were recorded in this vicinity in medieval times but today it is a quiet place of quaint peace and tranquillity apart from the occasional toot of a tiny steam locomotive. Heatherslaw is certainly a charming and popular spot to visit.
The centre piece is the pleasing stone building of Heatherslaw Corn Mill, one of the oldest water driven flour mills in existence. It can be traced back to the twelfth century when it was operated by the widow of a Nicholas Graham in 1307 but the building we see today is mostly of the eighteenth century.
Heatherslaw mill fell out of use in 1909 and suffered from neglect but in the 1970s a trust was formed for its repair and preservation and it opened to the public in 1975. Today you can see the mill at work, explore the visitor centre and the gift shop and relax in the tearoom.
A pleasant little bridge links the mill to the tiny railway station of the Heatherslaw Light railway just opposite the mill on the eastern side of the Till. In the summer months this fifteen inch gauge steam railway runs an hourly return trip service northward to Etal Castle and back.
The railway winds its way to Etal from Heatherslaw hugging the bank of the meandering River Till along the way, only leaving the river’s course to cut across the particularly sharp bend or ‘crook’ of the river that can be seen opposite the little village of Crookham over on the western side.
The narrow gauge railway is not the only unusual way to enjoy the Northumberland countryside hereabouts. About a mile and a half to the south of Ford village and still within the valley of the Till is Kimmerston Riding Centre situated at a farm of that name which offers horse riding holidays, treks and horse riding lessons with supervised rides around the Northumberland coast and countryside.
Etal Castle and Village
Half a mile or so north of Heatherslaw, Etal is another very pretty village with a castle near the banks of the River Till. Situated near a ford across the river, the castle was built by a Sir Robert Manners who gained a licence to crenellate his manor house here from Edward III in 1342. It was built by the same masons as nearby Ford Castle though it was never on the same scale as its neighbour.
The Manners family had held Etal from before 1179 but constant border warfare and Scottish raids necessitated the need to fortify the Manners’ Manor house. Sir Robert Manners was the captain of Norham Castle on the Tweed and had successfully defended the garrison there against a surprise Scottish raid on the night of Edward III’s coronation in 1328.
In 1513 Etal Castle fell to the invading army of King James IV of Scotland prior to the Battle of Flodden. It was in that year that Thomas Manners, then aged sixteen, inherited the estate of Etal and in 1525 was made the Earl of Rutland. He seems to have had little interest in Northumberland and sold his estate to the Crown in 1547, in whose hands it remained for the rest of the century under the management of the Collingwood family.
When James VI of Scotland became king of England in 1603, land on the border no longer had any military value to the crown and Etal was sold to George Hume, the Baron of Berwick in 1604. Hume transferred its ownership to Lord Howard De Walden and then Walden sold it to Robert Carr of Etal, a Scotsman who was descended from the Carrs of Ford. Being as he was described as ‘of Etal’ he must have already been living there when he purchased Etal in 1626.
When the Covenanter Scots invaded England in 1640, Carr held the command of the Scottish army from its headquarters in Sunderland. Before 1645 he had switched allegiance and found himself a prisoner of the Scots. Following the Parliamentarian victory in the Civil War, Carr’s lands were confiscated by the crown and although he was later freed, John Ratcliffe of Ford, the Guardian of Thomas Carr and a Parliamentarian claimed the lands and castle of Etal with the government’s approval.
Following the restoration of the monarchy the lands were returned to Carr. The last of this line of Carrs to reside at Etal was Sir William Carr who died in 1777.
After 1777 the Etal estate passed through the marriage of Carr’s daughter to the Earls of Erroll and their subsequent relatives before it was eventually sold to the Sunderland shipbuilder, James Laing in 1886. By this time the castle was in a ruinous state and had been in a state of decay since the late 1500s. Today the castle is in the care of English Heritage and a ruin. It includes an interesting exhibition about border warfare and the Battle of Flodden which took place about a mile or so to the west across the other side of the River Till.
A Georgian house called Etal Manor was built in Etal village in 1748 and enlarged in 1767. The village, which stands near the castle, has several interesting and delightful white-painted houses with slate or thatched roofs. The houses in the village date from the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth century and the place vies with Ford as one of the county’s prettiest villages.
Duddo Stone Circle
Slightly away from the River Till about a mile and half north east of Etal is the little village of Duddo. There is a tower house here on a rising hill near the village. In a ruinous state, it dates from the early 1600s and replaced an earlier tower that was destroyed in 1496.
A signpost in the village points west to Shellacres, Tiptoe and a stone circle. The stone circle actually lies to the north of the village but you need to head west where you can park up and there’s a three quarter of a mile walk along a designated path across a field and then up a small hill to reach the stones on the summit.
Today they are known as the Duddo Five Stones but before 1903 when a fallen stone was re-erected they were called the Duddo Four Stones. The standing stones in this small circle range from 5 to 10 feet high and are an enigmatic site dating back to the Bronze Age around 4,000 years ago.
There are some excellent views here across to the Cheviot Hills to the south west and also west to the distant three peaks of the Eildon Hills near Melrose in Scotland.
Castle Heaton and Twizell
About two miles downstream along the Till to the north of Etal is a little place called Castle Heaton on the banks of the Till. A castle belonging to the Grey family was established here in 1415 but destroyed by the Scots in 1496 and subsequently by James IV of Scotland in 1513.
It was a quadrangle castle but was in a severely damaged state by 1541 and was left to ruin. It was later converted into a bastle house that incorporates a substantial vault belonging to the earlier castle.
Across the river just to the east of Castle Heaton is the farm with the rather charming name of Tiptoe, though there is no bridge or ford across the river here. Another mile downstream to the north of Castle Heaton is a place called Twizell, the home of a ruined folly called Twizell Castle on a bend of the River Till.
A tower house belonging to Sir John Heron once stood here from about 1496 but was damaged or destroyed by the Scots in 1496. In 1520 the Herons sold it to a member of the Selby family and it was purchased by the Blakes in 1685. Francis Blake began the construction of a Gothic style tower as a house on the site in 1770 but he never completed the work and it fell into ruin.
Twizell Bridge across the Till here is thought to date to the fifteenth century and played a part in the Battle of Flodden Field in 1513. It is mentioned in a poem by Sir Walter Scott for its part in this battle. The peculiar name Twizel is an old word for a fork in a river or stream and very likely refers to the junction the River Till with the River Tweed at Tillmouth about a mile to the east which certainly fits the description of a typical ‘twizel’.
The meeting of the waters of the Northumbrian Till and Scottish Tweed is commemorated by a delightful if slightly sinister little rhyme:
“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 : The Prince Bishop’s Borderland
Norham on Tweed about two miles along the Tweed to the north west of Tillmouth is on the English side of the Tweed about seven miles south west of Berwick and is home to 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.
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 and 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 at nearby Norham church in June 1291 that the prominent barons of Scotland swore fealty to King Edward I, recognising him as their superior Lord and entrusting him with deciding upon the appointment of their future king. The meetings were held throughout the month at the church and in the open as well as on the green of the neighbouring village of Upsetlington. The following year at Berwick, King Edward chose John Balliol as the Scottish king much to the fury of the primary rival claimant, Robert the Bruce.
Norham Castle is associated 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 and the poem’s 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’ which was 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. Bedlingtonshire and Islandshire (Lindisfarne and the Farnes) were also once outlying parts of Durham within what is now Northumberland. They were collectively known as ‘North Durham’.
Norham’s historic church of St Cuthbert, was originally founded in 830 AD 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 the English Church and People.
It was to Norham that the monks and bishop who formed the Community of St Cuthbert carrying the coffin and relics of St Cuthbert fled to from Lindisfarne in 875 AD to escape the Viking raids on the Northumbrian coast. They were based here for some years before they began their wandering across the north which saw them eventually settle at Chester-le-Street and then later at Durham.
Norham church was rebuilt in Norman times, and what remains from the Norman era reflects the important status and history of this church with elements of the architecture inside echoing parts of Durham Cathedral and Durham Castle. Significant parts of the church were rebuilt and restructured in the late 1840s and early 1850s but there is still much to see from Norman times.
Horncliffe to Berwick
A couple of miles 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.
A mile or so downstream the border departs from the Tweed shortly before it is joined on the north side by the Whiteadder Water near Berwick where a significant portion of land north of the Tweed including of course Berwick itself lies within England.