Morpeth is the county town of Northumberland, being the headquarters for Northumberland County Council with the County Hall itself situated near the southern outskirts of the town. However, Morpeth’s historic status as the ‘county town’ is challenged by Alnwick which is of course the seat of the Dukes of Northumberland.
Morpeth lies fifteen miles north of Newcastle upon Tyne and is situated within a broad u-bend of the River Wansbeck. The town grew in importance as a coaching stop and market town on the Great North Road, the famous old route between London and Edinburgh.
The name Morpeth could derive from the old main road north as the name likely derives from ‘moor path’ – the route across the moors. As a term used in Northumberland, Durham and the Borders ‘peth’ seems to refer to historic climbing streets or roads that often ascend from rivers. An alternative more colourful suggestion for the name ‘Morpeth’ is that it derives from ‘Murder Path’, which we can suppose is perhaps not altogether improbable considering the Border history of Northumberland.
In Tudor times, Henry VIII’s antiquarian, John Leland described Morpeth as follows:
“…a market town, xii long miles from New Castle. Wansbeke, a praty river, rynnithe thrwghe the syde of the town. On the hether syde of the river is the principall churche of the towne. On the same syde is the fayre castle standing upon a hill, longinge with the towne to the Lord Dacres of Gilsland. The towne is longe & metely well buylded with low housys, the streets pavyd. It is far fayrar towne then Alnwicke.”
In times past Morpeth Barony belonged to the De Merley (Marley) family. One of their number, Roger De Merley obtained licence from King John to establish a market at Morpeth in 1199. Later Morpeth passed through marriage to the Greystokes from the 1260s. In the Tudor era the title passed to the Dacres, Barons of Gilsland but after 1569 holders of the Baron Dacre title were undetermined.
In 1660, a Sir Charles Howard was created Earl of Carlisle and became Baron Dacre of Gilsland in Cumberland and Viscount Howard of Morpeth in Northumberland. Charles was great grandson of Lord William Howard (third son of Thomas Howard 4th Duke of Norfolk). Lord William’s wife was Elizabeth Dacre, youngest daughter of Thomas Dacre, 4th Baron Dacre of Gllsland. These family names and titles are remembered in Morpeth’s Dacre Street, Howard Road and of course Carlisle Park.
Like many Northumbrian towns Morpeth suffered regularly at the hands of Scottish attacks, although when the town was burned in 1216 it was as the result of a dispute between local barons and King John of England.
Morpeth was never a walled town like Newcastle or Berwick but it did once have a castle. The castle was built in the eleventh century and although it was destroyed in 1216 it seems to have lived until rebuilt in the 1340s.
The motte and bailey of the original castle can still be seen with the motte forming the imposing mound called Ha’ Hill in Morpeth’s beautiful Carlisle Park on the south side of the River Wansbeck. The gatehouse from the later Morpeth castle remains intact (with some alterations) and is a little more further to the south. This castle was built within the bailey of the original castle. The gatehouse is now a private holiday let belonging to the Landmark Trust.
Notable visitors to the second Morpeth Castle in times past included Margaret Tudor, sister of Henry VIII. She became the widow of King James IV of Scotland and stayed at Morpeth Castle for four months after fleeing from Scotland.
In the seventeenth century the castle was occupied by the Scots under General Leslie during the Civil War when a garrison of 500 Parliamentarian supporting Scots held out against a larger force of Royalists under the Earl of Montrose for twenty days.
In 1715 Morpeth was involved in the first Jacobite Rising, in which most Northumbrians including the residents of Morpeth, supported the attempt to put James Stuart, the ‘Old Pretender’ on the throne. It was in Morpeth market place that the Jacobites proclaimed James the true king.
Supporters of the Jacobites did not include the ‘Geordies‘ of Newcastle who supported the claim of King George. Morpeth market place was the place the Jacobite rebels learned the deflating news that Newcastle had closed its gates to their rebellion.
The main streets in the old part of Morpeth are on the north side of the Wansbeck and are Bridge Street, Oldgate, Newgate, Market Place and New Market.
Bridge Street leads to the bridge across the Wansbeck at the eastern end of the old town. To the west near the Market Place the street is joined by Newgate Street from the north and by New Market on the south side. On the corner of Bridge Street and New market is Morpeth’s old Town Hall.
Further west past the Market Place, Bridge Street becomes Oldgate which crosses the Wansbeck by the modern but attractive Oldgate Bridge of 1970 at the west end of the old town. The bridge, of three arches, replaced an earlier bridge that suffered some damage from flooding during the 1960s.
Starting at this western end of the town, there are pleasant riverside walks. Just up river to the north of the Oldgate Bridge are stepping stones that cross the river.
Along the valley of the Wansbeck about a mile to the west but still within the bounds of the town of Morpeth are the remains of Newminster Abbey (on private land). It was a Cistercian abbey founded in 1137 by Ranulf Merley, the Lord of Morpeth.
Its first abbot was a monk from Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire called Robert who came to be known as St. Robert of Newminster. The following year the abbey was attacked by the Scots but seems to have been rebuilt in 1180. In 1147 the monks from Newminster founded Roche Abbey near Rotherham in Yorkshire which became a daughter abbey of Newminster.
Returning to Oldgate in Morpeth town centre, the most notable landmark feature in the centre of the town is the standalone belfry tower or town steeple known as ‘Morpeth Clock Tower’. Situated in Oldgate near the market place it dates from the 1400s. Isolated belfry towers are very rare in English towns, so this is a building of particular note. The lower part of the tower once served as a prison.
Near the Catholic church (which is dedicated to St. Robert of Newminster) on the north side of Oldgate is a brick Georgian house with the name ‘Collingwood House’ above the door. This was the home of the famous Admiral, Lord Cuthbert Collingwood (1748-1810) who was second in command to Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar. An impressive monument to Collingwood can be seen at Tynemouth.
Morpeth market place near the Clock Tower is quite small and faces a mini roundabout where the four main streets of the town meet. Opposite is the town hall of ashlar stone with its twin towers. It was built in 1714 to the designs of the famed architect Vanbrugh, though renewed to the same design by the architect R. Johnson of Newcastle in 1870 following a destructive fire.
Newgate Street to the north is perhaps the most handsome of the old town’s streets, with lots of attractive little shops typical of a market town. Old streets adjoining Newgate Street include Old Bakehouse Yard, entered by an archway and further to the north Copper Chare which hosts Morpeth’s Victorian church of St James (1844-46) and Morpeth Methodists church.
Bridge Street has a mix of Georgian and Victorian buildings with banks, shops and other outlets. The Queens Head in Bridge Street, the successor to a coaching inn of that name with a history that dates back to 1656, is a prominent establishment in the street. It was here that John Scott (Lord Eldon), the future Lord Chancellor stayed after returning from Scotland following his elopement and marriage in 1772 with Newcastle merchant’s daughter Bessie Surtees (see Newcastle Quayside).
At the east end of Bridge Street before it crosses the river by the bridge we find the Morpeth Chantry or Bridge Chantry of the thirteenth century. Called All Saints Chantry in medieval times it included a chapel and a priest here once blessed travellers on the Great North Road and collected a toll for the upkeep of the bridge.
From the 1300s part of the building was occupied by a school and in the 1500s the famed botanist William Turner was educated here. Morpeth Free Grammar School, established in 1552 utilised part of the building up until the 1850s. Today the chantry houses Morpeth’s Tourist Information and the unique Morpeth Chantry Bagpipe Museum which focuses on the Northumbrian small pipes for which the county of Northumberland is renowned.
Also on the north side of the river near the bridge but across the road from the chantry is the imposing Presbyterian church of St George with its tall spire. It dates from 1861 and is on the site of Morpeth Mill. Now a United Reformed Church it dominates Morpeth in a way that you might expect from a parish church but Morpeth’s mostly fourteenth century parish church of St Mary the Virgin in ‘Kirkhill’ is south of the river and half a mile away from the town centre.
The bridge overlooked by the Presbyterian church is itself of interest, carrying the A197 (the old A1 or Great North Road) across the River Wansbeck. A three-arch bridge, it was built in 1829-31 and includes an inscription crediting the famed engineer Thomas Telford for the work, though it is often claimed to have been built by the Newcastle architect John Dobson, who was perhaps working under Telford’s guidance.
Heading south across the bridge we are following the historic Great North Road. A reminder of this is the old toll house. It is single storey building that faces out onto traffic lights and a pedestrian crossing and is now part of a public house at Pethgate Court.
Close to here we enter an area called Castle Square with old streets called Hillgate to the west and Goose Hill to the east both heading towards the banks of the River Wansbeck. The square itself is now mostly a small car park.
A little further south is a lovely old early nineteenth century brick house locally called ‘Appleby House’. This was once resided in by a Morpeth mayor (Alfred Appleby) of that name. It stands close to Morpeth Court and the entrance to Carlisle Park.
Morpeth Court which now hosts luxury apartments is a huge old court house of 1822 and was designed by John Dobson, who as we have mentioned may have been involved in building the nearby bridge. He must have been briefed to build something that looked formidable.
The court house is impressive and imposing. You would be forgiven for thinking that this might be Morpeth Castle. It’s imposing features are only softened by it directly facing the entrance to the beautiful Carlisle Park.
Carlisle Park includes the Ha’ Hill that was once the motte of Morpeth Castle and is partly the home to the William Turner Garden, a walled herbal garden dedicated to the famed Morpeth-born botanist Dr William Turner.
Turner, who was born in Morpeth around 1508 has been described as the ‘Father of English Botany’ and his interests in nature and botany developed during his Morpeth boyhood. His influential work Herbal was published in three parts from 1551 to 1562 and dedicated to Queen Elizabeth I.
Turner effectively made the first comprehensive record of Britain’s flora, applying scientific techniques and scientific names (still used today) for the identification of plants.
Turner was also noted as a rebellious clergyman who didn’t conform to all the trimmings and pomp of his religious office. He even taught his dog to jump up at priests and remove their caps. In addition Turner was an MP (in Wilthsire) and a noted physician who travelled widely in Europe where he found he had a gift for learning languages.
St Mary’s, the parish church of Morpeth lies outside Morpeth town centre to the south along the Great North Road at an area called Kirkhill. The church dates from the fourteenth century and is unusual in that the churchyard has a watchtower built in the 1830s to guard against body snatchers.
The churchyard is also notable in that it contains the grave of Emily Wilding Davison (born 1872), the suffragette who threw herself in front of the King’s horse at Epsom on Derby Day, 1913. A steel statue of 2018 depicting Emily Wilding Davison sitting on a bench, by the sculptor Ray Lonsdale can be seen in Morpeth’s Carlisle Park.
Davison was born in London but her father was from Morpeth and her mother from nearby Longhirst. Emily never lived in Morpeth but always considered the village of Longhorsley her home, where her mother ran the village shop.
Longhorsley is situated on the A697 about four miles north of Morpeth. A house in the village from which Miss Davison set off on her fatal journey to Epsom is marked by a plaque.
Emily died four days after her suicidal feat and her body was brought north to Morpeth for burial in the family plot. Her funeral was treated as quite an event, with many suffragettes attending.
During her campaigns as a suffragette Emily Davison had been imprisoned several times, had been force fed and once locked herself in her prison cell only to be flooded out by a magistrate using a hosepipe. On one occasion she had attempted to disrupt the House of Commons and on another she even managed to brutally whip an unfortunate church minister, whom she had mistaken for Lloyd George.
Remarkably the house with the plaque was also associated with another famous person who lived here at an earlier time. Thomas Bell (1848-1925) the inventor of self-raising flour, who named his brand Be-Ro (Bell’s Royal). His business was originally based in Longhorsley before moving to Newcastle.
The Longhorsley village pub across the road from the house is called the Shoulder of Mutton and the village is home to a church dedicated to St Helen which dates from 1783.
On the village green is a large 5 ton stone of Northumbrian whinstone placed here to celebrate the millennium in the year 2000. A time capsule is concealed below it and the Northumbrian flag flies high above on the village flagpole.
A pele tower house in the village (a private house) dates to around the 1500s and was once the home to the Horsley family who took their name from the village. They were land owners in Longhorsley throughout the medieval period. Their house was later converted into a residence for a local Roman Catholic priest and housed a Catholic chapel, although a new Catholic church was later built near the tower in 1841.
The name Horsley means ‘clearing or pastures of the horse or horses’. The place was presumably named from the length of the village rather than from an elongated horse. The designation Longhorsley helped to distinguish it from another Northumberland village called Horsley which is situated near Wylam.
Half way between Longhorsley and Weldon to the east of the A697 is Linden Hall, which is a hotel. It was built as a private house by the North Shields-born architect John Dobson in 1813 for the Newcastle banker, merchant and coal owner, Charles William Bigge (1773-1849). The Bigge family owned Benton House in Benton near Newcastle and neighbouring collieries there and at nearby Willlington Quay. The family name was given to Benton’s Bigge’s Main Colliery.
Mitford is a village just west of Morpeth across the other side of the A1, situated where the River Font joins the River Wansbeck from the northwest. Both rivers snake their way across the countryside hereabouts. Indeed ‘Mitford’ is from an old word ‘mythe’ meaning ‘junction of streams’ so Mitford was ‘the ford at the river junction’.
The village was associated with the Mitford family from medieval times, perhaps from the time of Edward the Confessor though the provenance of landed families claiming roots in the pre-Conquest era should always be treated with caution.
For much of the medieval period Mitford and its castle were in the hands of the Bertram family though the first Bertram married a daughter of John De Mitford at the time of William the Conqueror giving the Mitford family a continuous connection to the place.
Before 1138 a castle was built on the site of an Anglo-Saxon fort. During a baronial revolt Flemish troops working for King John caused much destruction to the castle. The Bertrams had wanted to make Mitford a town and Roger De Bertram paid Henry II for the privilege of establishing a market. Later, in 1199 the Merleys were granted a licence to hold a market at Morpeth by King John proving detrimental to the Mitford ambitions.
In 1250, during the reign of Henry III the Bertrams brought a law suit against the Merleys in the Northumberland court for damaging the Mitford market trade but the king intervened bringing an end to the suit and effectively sealing the death warrant for Mitford market.
Around 1316, Mitford Castle came into the hands of a freebooter Gilbert Middleton (see Belsay) described as the ‘keeper’ of the castle. In 1317, Middleton, assisted by a Walter Selby and a party of wayward horsemen, robbed the Bishop of Durham, Lewis Beaumont and an accompanying cardinal at Rushyford on the Great North Road in County Durham.
The bishop and his brother Henry Beaumont were whisked off to Northumberland at speed and imprisoned in Mitford Castle but the cardinal was allowed to continue his journey to Durham presumably to pass on the news of the bishop’s kidnapping. The two men were released after the wealthy church of Durham paid a ransom.
Later, Middleton was ousted from his castle; captured by Ralph Greystock and subsequently executed at London. The following year Mitford Castle was attacked and dismantled by Alexander King of Scotland. Ruinous in the reign of King Henry VIII, it stands on a mound above the Wansbeck in the grounds of Mitford Hall.
The Mitford family were connected with Mitford again from the reign of Mary Tudor when the queen confirmed Cuthbert Mitford as owner of Mitford. The family later resided in a manor house with a pele tower and now a ruin like the nearby castle. A standing arched doorway has the inscribed date of 1637 but most of the building is thought to date to the 1500s.
Since 1802 senior members of the Mitford family have held the title Baron Redesdale including the father of the famed Mitford sisters of the 1930s (see North East surnames). Around 1823 the old manor house at Mitford was superseded by Mitford Hall, built by John Dobson within a neighbouring loop of the Wansbeck. A private home, it lies to the west on the opposite side of the river. Mitfords owned the hall until 1993 when it was sold to the Shepherd family.
River Font : Nunnykirk and Netherwitton
The River Font which joins the Wansbeck at Mitford begins its course near Harwood Forest to the south of the Simonside Hills towards Rothbury. The upper part of its valley near the forest plays host to the Fontburn Reservoir.
About two miles downstream from the reservoir is Nunnykirk, once part of the lands of Morpeth’s Newminster Abbey but granted to the Crown following the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
Nunnykirk later belonged to the Grey family and then to the Wards and later the Ordes. In 1825 the Newcastle architect John Dobson built Nunnykirk Hall for a William Orde. William was, along with his nephew Charles Orde, a famous racehorse breeder. Horses bred at the Nunnykirk stud included the nineteenth century thoroughbred called Beeswing after which a village in Dumfriesshire was named. In more recent times Nunnykirk Hall has served as a special school.
A mile downstream from Nunnykirk is Netherwitton a little village situated at a point where a bridge crosses the River Font. Nethwerwitton means ‘lower wood farm’ and according to the Tudor historian John Leland was the birthplace of Roger Thornton, known as Newcastle’s Dick Whittington. Thornton was a mayor and MP for Newcastle on numerous occasions during the early 1400s.
There is an East and West Thornton and a Thorntonmoor just south of Netherwitton which may be associated with him in some way, but the whereabouts of a castle that Thornton supposedly built in the area is not known.
The nearby Netherwitton Hall built by Robert Trollope around 1685 stands on the site of the Thornton mansion house. Through marriage the Netherwitton estate passed from the Thorntons to the Trevelyan family after a Walter Trevelyan, son of Sir George Trevelyan married Margaret Thornton in 1772. The hall is still in the hands of the Trevelyan family today.
Slightly downstream from Netherwitton the Roman road called the Devil’s Causeway crossed the River Font and a further two miles downstream about half way to Mitford, traces of Roman fortlets have been found near the hamlet of Stanton. Stanton itself is the site of a plain old ruined hall of Tudor origin. It was historically associated with the Fenwick family though it in the eighteenth century it came into the hands of the Baker family of Elemore near Durham. Stanton means ‘stone farm’ – and its probable that its name has some connection with the utilisation of Roman stones.
In the moors to the north east of Netherwitton and north of Stanton towards Longhorsley is Clavering’s Cross. It marks the spot where Robert Clavering, a Sheriff of Northumberland was shot dead on November 22, 1586, by William Selby of Berwick. Clavering’s party, who were returning north from Newcastle, included Cuthbert Collingwood who had previously served as a sheriff.
Collingwood was Clavering’s father-in-law and was accompanied by his wife and daughters. Selby and a band of men ambushed the travelling party in an incident that was linked to a family feud between the Selby and Collingwood families. Shots were fired despite the peas of Lady Collingwood. Her husband was shot in the stomach but it was Clavering who received a fatal shot to the chest.
Longwitton and its Worm
About a mile south of Netherwitton is Longwittton, half way between the valley of the River Font and the valley of the Hart Burn. Longwittton is associated with one of the region’s ‘worm legends’.
The Longwitton Worm has been described as a “tremendous dragon, that could make itself invisible” and guarded some wells or ‘fountains’ in the neighbourhood of Longwitton of which there were several. Attempts to kill the beast always failed until a famous knight – apparently Guy, Earl of Warwick – stepped forward to the challenge.
Guy commanded the dragon to come forth from its den using some magic words that he was privileged to know. The words forced the beast to retain its visibility, however each time the knight wounded the worm it departed and swiftly returned with new vigour. Guy soon discovered that the healing properties of the beast came from it dipping its tail into the well. Guy then came between the beast and the well, blocking its access before mortally wounding the worm with a stab to the heart.
Hodgson’s History of Northumberland of 1827 gives thanks to a 90-year-old farmer called William Hepple of Cambo for passing down the story of the worm. A wooded dene at Longwitton is linked to the stream called the Hart Burn, a tributary of the Wansbeck, just to the south of Longwitton.
Old maps show a small feature called ‘Dragons Den’ on the south side of the Hart Burn near Hartbun village, about a mile south of Longwitton. The Hart Burn is a prominent stream and is a tributary of the Wansbeck. On the north side of the burn is a ‘Holy Well’ described in old times as ‘Chalybeate’ which usually signifies a well that was once considered to have healing or medicinal properties.
The church of St Andrew at Hartburn village on the south bank of the Hart Burn is thirteenth century in origin though its tower may be older. A number of skeletons were once found within the tower fabric of the tower and were dated to the Norman or late Saxon period. The historian of Northumberland, John Hodgson was vicar at this church from 1833 to 1845.
An earlier vicar of Hartburn, a Dr Sharpe, was the builder of the Hartburn Tower House at the north end of the village which was built between 1749 and 1792, or at least he was the supervisor, as it was in fact built by his parishioners.
There seems to have been a taste for building romanticised defensive folly structures in this part of Northumberland during the eighteenth century. Less than two miles west of Longwitton near the Rothley crossroads is Codger Fort and Rothley Lake and to the south of the crossroads are Rothley Crags and Rothley Castle.
The castle and fort are ‘romantic’ folly fortifications built by the Blacketts of Wallington Hall sometime between 1745 and 1776. The nearby Rothley Lake was created as an accompanying landscape feature by Capability Brown of Kirkharle. The story that Blackett built Codger Fort (it’s on private land so can’t be accessed) to defend against Jacobites may or may not be true.
North of Codger Fort a road leads north towards the upper Font near the Fontburn Reservoir and onward to Rothbury while the road south leads to Scots Gap over on the other side of the Hartburn and then on towards Wallington Hall and the upper parts of the River Wansbeck.
The country estate of Meldon lies on the north bank of the Wansbeck to the east of Hartburn where the river is joined by the Hart Burn itself from the south. Meldon was once part of the Barony of Mitford and in 1598 was granted to Alexander Heron by Queen Elizbeth I, but was later an estate of the Fenwicks.
One of the Fenwicks known as Mad Meg of Meldon was reputedly an old miserly wicked witch and hoarder who lived during the 1600s and continued to haunt Meldon long after her death. Portraits of Meg once hung in the castle at Ford near Wooler in north Northumberland and another at Seaton Delaval Hall. She seems to have fulfilled the description of a stereotypical witch with pointed hat, crooked nose and all. Little is known of Meg except that she married a Fenwick, was said to have been related to the Delavals and was reputedly the daughter of a money-lender called William Selby of Newcastle.
The Meldon estate later passed from the Fenwicks to the First Earl of Derwentwater through marriage but was confiscated from a successor, James the third Earl of Derwentwater (see Dilston, Hexham), following his part in the Jacobite Rebellion of 1715 for which he was executed at Tower Hill, London.
Meldon was given to Greenwich Hospital under whose ownership it remained until purchased by Isaac Cookson in 1832. Cookson employed John Dobson to build the grand hall on the site in that year. The hall still stands and remains in the ownership of the Cookson family to this day. The estate includes nearby farms called Needless Hall and the lands stretch north to the River Font. The River Font itself joins the River Wansbeck about three miles to the east of Meldon Park at Mitford.