Bellingham and North Tynedale

The Three Tynes

North Tynedale is the valley of the North Tyne which rises in the Cheviots above Kielder Water reservoir. The reservoir occupies much of the upper part of the valley. The North Tyne eventually merges with the South Tyne (a Pennine river by origin) at Warden Rocks near Hexham some twenty miles west of Newcastle upon Tyne.

North Tynedale
North Tynedale photographed from the Kielder dam Photo © 2015 David Simpson

The valley of the South Tyne, along with the Tyne itself lies entirely to the south of Hadrian’s Wall and many of the most famous sections of Hadrian’s Wall are situated nearby.

South Tynedale was historically a Border valley, but unlike its brother the North Tyne, it is a Pennine river, and in their upper reaches the two valleys have quite distinct characteristics.

The North Tyne is very much a wild border valley, rising not in the limestone Pennines, but in the igneous heights of the Cheviot Hills which form the formidable northern frontier between England and Scotland. It is a valley historically associated with Border Reiving, though today the uppermost part of the valley is most famous for the beautiful Kielder Water reservoir and the surrounding forest.

Bellingham, North Tynedale Photo © 2015 David Simpson

Bellingham – North Tynedale Reiver Country

Bellingham (pronounced Belling-jum), a village on the North Tyne, four miles north of Wark is regarded as the modern capital of North Tynedale. It is situated right at the heart of what was once part of Northumberland’s Border Reiving country.

Bellingham occupies a lovely spot alongside the North Tyne where it is joined by the Hareshaw Burn. The burn passes through Hareshaw Dene which provides a lovely wooded walk to a Northumbrian Linn (a waterfall) called Hareshaw Linn. Its Anglo-Saxon name means Grey-Wood waterfall. The waterfall is situated in the lovely dene or wooded valley to the north of Bellingham:

With sudden dash and bound and splash
With rout and shout and roar and din
The brook amazed, alarmed and crazed
Is sprawling into Hareshaw Linn

Not far from Bellingham is Hesleyside Hall, once the home to a famous Border Reiving clan, the Charltons who derived their name from the hamlet of Charlton, to the west of Bellingham. The Charltons were one of the four main Border Reiving clans or ‘Graynes’ of North Tynedale. The others were the Milburns, Robsons and Dodds.

North Tyne at Bellingham
The North Tyne river at Bellingham. Photo © David Simpson 2015

The Dodd family were associated with Burnbank pele tower, which is situated in the valley of the Tarset Burn not far to the west of Bellingham. Dodds are said to be descended from Eilaf, an Anglo-Saxon monk who was one of the carriers of St Cuthbert’s Coffin at the time of the Viking raids in the 9th century.

Legend has it that Eilaf pinched some cheese from his fellow brethren, who prayed that the culprit be turned into a dodd (the Anglo-Saxon word for a fox). When the identity of the thief was revealed the monks had Eilaf turned back, but it is said that from that day on Eilaf and his descendants were known by the name of Dodd.

An old border cry regarding the Tarset Burn and the adjoining Tarret Burn was once heard in many a border fray involving North Tynedale reivers like the Dodds and Charltons.

Tarset and Tarret Burn
Hard and Heather Bred
GYet! GYet! GYet!

(GYet means clear the way)

The Legend of the Lang Pack

The church at Bellingham is dedicated to St Cuthbert and is said to have been one of the places where St Cuthbert’s body was brought to following the Viking raids on Lindisfarne in the ninth century AD.

In the churchyard of St Cuthbert’s is a long stone which marks a grave closely associated with a well known piece of North Tynedale folklore: ‘the Legend of the Lang Pack’.

The story is set around Lee Hall on the banks of the North Tyne to the south of Bellingham, near to where the River Rede joins the North Tyne at Redesmouth. The hall was historically the home of the Ridley family who left their country residence each winter to reside in London. In the winter of 1723 the house was left in the care of three servants, who looked after the hall under strict instructions not to allow any guest or lodger into the house.

One afternoon that winter, a pedlar called at the hall carrying with him an unusually long package and asked if he could have shelter for the night. Remembering their master’s orders the servants refused the pedlar, but when he asked if he could leave the package, while he sought shelter elsewhere, permission was granted.

As the night grew dark one of the servants, a young maid called Alice, became increasingly suspicious of the pedlar’s long pack which had been left in the kitchen of the house. While lighting a candle the maid swore she saw the package move.

She quickly alerted the other two servants one called Richard and the other, a younger man called Edward. The older man scorned young Alice’s suspicion, but young Edward not wishing to take any chances fetched his gun (which he called Copenhagen), and shot at the ‘lang pack’. To his astonishment a cry was heard and blood began to ooze from the mysterious package.

When the Lang pack was opened, the body of a dead man was found inside wearing a silver whistle around his neck. It soon became apparent that the man had been brought to the hall as part of a plot. The plan was obvious, this man was going to break free from his package and open the door for fellow accomplises to burgle the household.

The servants realising that they were likely to be visited by the rest of the gang that night, summoned help from the neighbourhood and many locals came to Lee Hall, bringing with them their guns ready to see off the gang.

Later that night the gang arrived and were given the signal on the whistle, but were astonished to be greeted with gunshot from the servants and locals waiting at the hall. Four of the gang immediately fell dead from their horses, the rest quickly fled.

At daylight the following morning the bodies of the four dead men had mysteriously disappeared and the Lee Hall servants were only left with the body of the unfortunate man from the Lang Pack. The rest of the gang were never caught and the identity of the man from the Lang pack remained a mystery for all time. The body was finally burried at Bellingham churchyard, where it is said to lie beneath the long stone cut in the shape of a pedlar’s pack.

The Ghost of Archie Armstrong

Haughton Castle by the North Tyne, to the north of Hadrian’s Wall, dates from the fourteenth century and is reputed to be haunted by Archie, a notorious clan chief of the Armstrong family, who was imprisoned here during the reign of Henry VIII.

Many centuries ago a lord of Haughton castle, called Thomas Swinburne captured Armstrong and imprisoned him in the dungeon, but unfortunately, forgot to leave instruction for the provision of food and water for his prisoner.

A few days later, while attending a meeting in York, Swinburne suddenly remembered his ill-fated captive, after discovering the keys to Armstrong’s cell in his pocket. In panic Swinburne quickly stormed out of the meeting and mounted his horse to gallop home to Northumberland.

Swinburne was too late, when he opened the cell there Armstrong lay dead on the floor and what a horrifying sight it was, as it seemed that in desperation Armstrong had gnawed the flesh from his own arm.

For many years the ghost of Armstrong haunted the castle until it was exorcised by a local vicar, using a black lettered bible. The ghost returned to Haughton for a short time, while the bible was taken to London for binding, but when the book was returned to Northumberland, Armstrong’s ghost was rarely seen again.

On the opposite bank of the North Tyne from Haughton Castle, is the village of Barrasford and a stream called the Swin Burn, which gave its name to the Northumbrian family called the Swinburnes. The Swinburnes lived at Great Swinburne Castle, which stood nearby. Members of this family have included Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909), the famous Northumbrian poet.

Not far to the north of Swinburne Castle is a farmstead with the curious name of Pity Me. There are several places with this name in the North East of which the most prominent the other is a village in County Durham north of Durham City. The name of the Northumbrian Pity Me is said to derive from a corruption of Celtic words meaning ‘Field of Graves’.

Wark on Tyne

Wark on Tyne, a small North Tyne village up the valley from Haughton was once the capital of North Tynedale. Sessions of Scottish courts were at one time held here, because in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries it was the centre of the Liberty of Tynedale, which for a time belonged to the Scots. Wark and its district were in fact technically part of Scotland until 1296, when it was retaken for England by King Edward I.

Wark was once the site of a Norman motte and bailey castle, but the only remains of this today, are a large green mound. A castle probably stood here in earlier times as the Anglo-Saxon name of Wark, signifies an earthwork. In local dialect the word ‘work’ is still sometimes pronounced ‘wark’.

Chipchase, one of the most picturesque castles in Northumberland, lies on the eastern bank of the Tyne not far from Wark. It was built around a fourteenth century pele tower in the 1700s and is one of the finest Jacobean period buildings in the county. For many years the castle was the home to a border family called the Herons, who were the Keepers of Tynedale.

The Battle of Heavenfield

Hadrian’s Wall crossed the River North Tyne only a few miles to the north of Hexham, near the Roman fort of Chesters (Cilurnum). Upstream the valley beyond here is entirely to the north of Hadrian’s Wall.

One of Northumbria’s first recorded battles, the Battle of Heavenfield (635 AD), took place in the vicinity of the North Tyne, near to where it was crossed by Hadrian’s Wall at Chesters. Surprisingly, unlike most Northumbrian battles this was fought not between the English and the Scots, but between the Northumbrians and the Welsh, who were a great enemy of the Kingdom of Northumbria in early times.

Site of the Battle of Heavenfield
Site of the Battle of Heavenfield Photo © David Simpson

It is worth remembering that the ancient British inhabitants of northern Britain (Britons), had been Welsh speakers (or at least speakers of Brittonic, a close relative of Old Welsh). These people were driven west by the early Northumbrians (Anglo-Saxons) who settled here in the 6th century AD. It was the Welsh who killed King Edwin, one of Northumbria’s most powerful rulers in the Battle of Hatfield near Doncaster (633 AD). The Welsh had formed an alliance with the Midland Kingdom of Mercia to defeat the Northumbrians.

King Edwin’s successor was King Oswald (634-642 AD and later Saint Oswald), a Christian king who had been converted to his faith by the Scots. As in Edwin’s reign, Oswald’s greatest enemies were the Welsh, led by King Cadwallon and the Mercians (of the Midlands), who were ruled by a Pagan king called Penda.

In 635 AD the Welsh under Cadwallon, brought north a huge army into Northumbria to fight Oswald in the tradition of the tribal warfare that dominated this era of history. Oswald assembled his men for battle to the north of Hexham on high ground in the vicinity of the North Tyne, close to Hadrian’s Wall. This area became known as Heavenfield.

Here they were well situated to meet the Welsh, who were advancing up the old Roman road called Dere Street, which crossed the Tyne at Corbridge. Oswald prepared for the conflict by placing a cross in the centre of the battlefield and led his men into prayer for victory.

When the Welsh arrived in the north they were were heavily exhausted from their long journey while the Northumbrians were alert and ready for the fight. Oswald’s men chased the Welsh southwards into that part of Northumberland now known as ‘Hexhamshire, and their king, Cadwallon, was slain on the banks of the Rowley Burn, near the valley of a stream called the Devil’s Water.

Oswald believed that the victory over the Welsh, confirmed his Christian faith and decided to set about converting the whole of his largely Pagan kingdom to Christianity. He employed St Aidan, a Scottish monk from Iona, as the first Bishop of Lindisfarne and with Aidan he travelled throughout the Northumbrian kingdom evangelizing among his people. St Aidan was later succeeded by many great Northumbrian saints like Cuthbert. It is therefore to Oswald that we owe the early development of Christianity in the northern part of England.

The reign of King Oswald, Northumbria’s greatest king continued until the year 642 AD when he was defeated in battle by King Penda of Mercia during an attempt to expand his Kingdom southwards. Oswestry in the midlands is said to be the place where Oswald met his death. Oswald was suceeded to the Northumbrian throne by his brother, Oswy, who later defeated the Mercians at the Battle of Winwaed near the River Humber, a battle in which the Mercian King, Penda lost his life.

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