Morpeth is the County town of Northumberland, being the headquarters for Northumberland County Council, though its historic status as ‘county town’ is challenged by Alnwick.
The town lies fifteen miles north of Newcastle upon Tyne. Situated within a u-bend of the River Wansbeck, Morpeth grew in importance as a coaching stop and market town on the Great North Road between London and Edinburgh.
The name of the town could take its name from this road, which leads north across the moors as the name is said to derive from ‘moor path’. The southern approach of this old road to the bridge across the Wansbeck is called ‘Peth Gate’.
An alternative more colourful suggestion is that the name Morpeth derives from ‘Murder Path’, which we can suppose is perhaps not altogether unlikely considering the bloody 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 the Barony of Morpeth belonged to the De Merley (or Marley) family and one of their number, a Roger De Merley obtained a licence from King John to start a market at Morpeth in 1199. Later Morpeth passed through marriage to the Greystocks (or Greystokes) from the 1260s and in the Tudor era passed to the Dacres who, although owners of Morpeth, were later titled Earls of Carlisle.
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 11th century and although it was destroyed in 1216 the castle seems to have lived on and was 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 Wansbeck. The gatehouse from a later part of the castle remains intact (with some alterations) and is a little further to the south. It is now a private holiday let belonging to the Landmark Trust.
Notable visitors to Morpeth Castle in times past included Margaret Tudor, the 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 Scots held out against the Royalists 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. Supporters of the Jacobites did not include the ‘Geordies‘ of Newcastle who supported the claim of King George.
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. Further west past the Market Place, Bridge Street becomes Oldgate which crosses the Wansbeck by the modern Oldgate Bridge of 1970 at the west end of the old town.
Starting at this western end of the town, there are pleasant riverside walks and just along the river to the north of the Oldgate Bridge are stepping stones across 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 lived on being 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 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.
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 meet. Opposite is a fairly modest town hall of ashlar stone with twin towers on the facade. It was built in 1714 to the designs of the famed architect Vanbrugh, though there were some renewals around 1870 following a destructive fire.
Newgate Street to the north is perhaps the most handsome of the old town streets, with lots of attractive little shops typical of a market town, while Bridge Street, the main street, has a mix of Georgian and Victorian buildings with banks, shops and other outlets. 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 13th century. In medieval times 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 Grammar School utilised part of the building from 1552 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 with its tall spire. It dates from 1860.
The bridge itself is of interest, carrying the A197 (the old A1 or Great North Road) across the 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.
Over on the south side of the bridge is the huge old court house of 1822, that certainly was designed by John Dobson. He must have been briefed to build something that was quite formidable looking. Impressive but imposing, many can be forgiven for thinking that this is Morpeth Castle. It is only softened by directly facing the entrance way to the beautiful Carlisle Park.
This lovely 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.
Longhorsley: a suicidal suffragette
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 14th 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.
Miss Davison, who was from Longhorsley, a village to the north of Morpeth, died four days after her suicidal feat. Her body was brought to Morpeth for burial, where 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.
Emily Wilding Davison’s home village of 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.
The village has a pub called the Shoulder of Mutton and a church dedicated to St Helen which dates from 1783. 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.
The village of Mitford lies just to the west of Morpeth across the other side of the A1. It is situated at the point where the River Font joins the River Wansbeck from the northwest and both rivers snake their way across the countryside hereabouts.
The village was associated with the Mitford family from medieval times who took their name from the place. The Mitfords were living here, it is said, from the time of Edward the Confessor though the provenance of local landed families living in an area before the Norman Conquest should always be treated with caution.
The name Mitford comes from an old word ‘mythe’ meaning ‘junction of streams’ and so Mitford was ‘the ford at the junction of streams’ – namely the Font and the Wansbeck.
For much of the medieval period Mitford and its castle were in the hands of the Bertram family though it seems that the first Bertram here had married a daughter of John De Mitford at the time of William the Conqueror giving the Mitford family a continuous connection to the place.
Sometime before 1138 a castle was built here on the site of an Anglo-Saxon fort. During a baronial revolt Flemish troops in the employment of King John attacked Mitford and its castle and caused much destruction.
The Bertrams had ambitions to establish Mitford as a prospering town and during the reign of Henry II Roger De Bertram paid the king for the privilege of establishing a market here. Later, in 1199 the Merleys were granted a licence to hold a market at Morpeth by King John and this seems to have proved detrimental to the success of the Mitford market.
In 1250, during the reign of Henry III the Bertrams brought a law suit against the Merleys in the Northumberland court for damaging the trade of his market at Mitford but the king intervened bringing an end to the suit and effectively sealing the death warrant for the Mitford market and Mitford’s ambitions as a town.
In around 1316, Mitford Castle had come into the hands of a freebooter called Gilbert Middleton (see Belsay) who was described as the ‘keeper’ of the castle rather than its owner. 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.
However, Middleton was later ousted from his castle and captured by a Ralph Greystock. He was subsequently executed at London. The following year Mitford Castle was attacked and dismantled by Alexander King of Scotland and it was described as being in ruins during the reign of King Henry VIII. The castle ruins can still be seen on a mound above the Wansbeck and are within the grounds of Mitford Hall.
The Mitford family were firmly connected with Mitford once again from the reign of Mary Tudor when a Cuthbert Mitford was confirmed as the owner of Mitford by the queen. Later the family resided in a manor house near the castle site. The ruins of this manor house still stand near the castle and include a battlemented pele tower. 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 male members of the Mitford family have held the title Baron Redesdale. They included the father of the famous Mitford sisters (Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity, Jessica and Deborah) who were London society girls who rose to prominence during the 1930s. The sisters were noted for for several scandals and for their often extreme political views and associations.
Nancy Mitford was best known as a novelist, Diana Mitford was known as a prominent fascist who married the British Union of Fascists leader Oswald Mosley, Unity was a friend of Adolf Hitler, Jessica was a Communist and social campaigner and Diana became the Duchess of Devonshire. Despite their Northumbrian family connections none of the sisters were actually born in Northumberland.
In around 1823 the old manor of the Mitfords at Mitford was superseded by Mitford Hall, built by John Dobson within the neighbouring loop of the River Wansbeck. A private abode, it lies to the west but on the opposite side of the river. Mitford family members owned the hall until 1993 when it was sold to the Shepherd family.
The 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 19th 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 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.
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.
The Longwitton 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 stream down towards Hartburn Village. Over on the north side of the burn the maps show a ‘Holy Well’ described as ‘Chalybeate’ which usually signifies a well that was once considered to have healing or medicinal properties.
The church of St Andrew at Hartburn on the south bank of the Hart Burn is 13th 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 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 Rothley is Rothley Castle and to its north Codger Fort. Both of these romantic folly fortifications were built by the Blacketts of Wallington Hall sometime between 1745 and 1776 and 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 the 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, 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.