North Tynedale, is the valley of the North Tyne that rises in the Cheviots above Kielder Water. It is a beautiful, peaceful and sparsely populated valley around 35 miles in length with the reservoir and neighbouring Kielder Forest dominating the uppermost part of the valley for the first ten miles.
The North Tyne has a Border Reiving history and around four hundred years ago was one of the most troublesome and dangerous parts of England. The largest villages, including the main settlement of Bellingham are downstream from Kielder Forest and the major tributary of the valley is the River Rede that joins the North Tyne at Redesmouth near Bellingham.
Along the North Tyne : Falstone
Following the course of the North Tyne from Kielder Dam at the foot of Kielder Water, the first places we encounter are the hamlets of Hawkhope and Yarrow followed by the more substantial village of Falstone on a prominent bend of the river.
In 1813, a weather-worn stone, thought to be part of a cross was found at Falstone inscribed with words in the Old English of the Anglo-Saxons. Thought to date from around AD700. On one side of the stone the words are written in uncial script and on the other side the words are written in runes. Both sides read:
“Eaomaer set this up for his uncle, Hroethbert.
Pray for his soul.”
The stone, which is now part of the collection of the Great North Museum in Newcastle was an extremely unusual find, given the use of both uncial and runic scripts.
Intriguingly, the name Hroethbert is an Anglo-Saxon form of Robert and the surname Robson (son of Robert) has been prominent in North Tynedale for many centuries, with the family being one of North Tynedale’s Border Reiver surnames. The Border Reiver culture saw its lawless heyday in Tudor and Elizabethan times.
The Anglican church at Falstone, dedicated to St Peter, is a rebuilding in the 1890s of an earlier church while the Presbyterian church in the village dates from 1807. This is very early for a Presbyterian church in England and likely reflects Scottish influence in the area.
A little down the valley and we find farm houses and hamlets called Stokoe and Donkleywood on the north side of the river and Smalesmouth and Ridley Stokoe to the south.
Smalesmouth is from the name of an adjoining burn, Stokoe, ‘Stoke-hoh’ means hill with wooden building or wooden pile of some kind. It’s the origin of the Northumbrian surname, Stokoe. It’s a reiver surname, as is of course Ridley.
Further along to the south of the river is flat land called Eals (meaning island) and the lonesome church of St Luke at Greystead, of 1818, overlooking the road. Continuing downstream the North Tyne is joined from the south by the Chirdon Burn where Dally Castle House incorporates the remains of the thirteenth century Dally Castle – an early bastle house of the thirteenth century that is thought to have once belonged to a Scot, David Lindsay, Justiciar or Lothian.
Tarset and Tarret : Dodds and Milburns
On the opposite side of the North Tyne from the mouth of the Chirdon Burn but a little upstream, the North Tyne is joined by the Tarset Burn which plays host to the ruins Tarset Castle (a prominent mound) on its east bank.
Tarset Castle belonged to the Scottish baron, John Comyn (Cumming) known as ‘Red Comyn’, who was assassinated by Robert the Bruce at Dumfries in 1306. The castle was destroyed by the Scots following the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.
We should not be surprised to find castles in the area once belonged to Scottish barons in North Tynedale. The medieval Liberty of Tynedale (which included both North and South Tynedale) was once a Scottish possession from at least as early as the 1130s if not before and was certainly regarded as disputed territory before that time. It was confirmed as a Scottish possession by the English during this period and remained Scottish property until 1286.
At Burnmouth, just upstream from a pretty place called Greenhaugh (with a ‘proper little pub’ called the Holly Bush Inn), the Tarset Burn is joined by the smaller Tarret Burn and together the two valleys were at the heart of Border Reiver country. It was associated with an old Border Reiver’s cry:
Tarset and Tarret Burn
Hard and Heather Bred
GYet! GYet! GYet!
(GYet means clear the way)
The four major ‘graynes’ or reiving clans of North Tynedale were the Robsons, Charltons, Milburns and Dodds and the Tarset Burn has associations with the last two of these reiving families.
The Dodd family were connected with Burnbank pele tower (between Burnmouth and Greenhaugh), which is situated in the valley of the Tarset Burn valley. The 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 ninth 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.
It’s a great story, though the likelihood is that the name derives from the word Dodd, meaning ‘hill’. Indeed some of the sikes (small streams that feed the Tarset Burn rise on the nearby hill called ‘The Dodd’.
Black Middens Bastle
Half way along the Tarset Burn valley between the Dodd and Burnmouth are a scattering of old bastle houses including the notable Black Middens Bastle which is in the care of English Heritage.
Bastles were the fortified farmhouses of Border Reiver families, although they didn’t quite have the status of pele towers which were more like small castles or crenellated manor houses. Little is known of the history of the Black Middens Bastle, except that it was attacked by members of the Armstrong family in 1583.
One of the ruined fortified homes a little further up the valley was associated with a Milburn clan member called ‘Barty of the Comb’ who once killed two Scots who had pursued him following a revenge raid north of the border. One of the Scots was decapitated by Barty who recalled: his “heid spang alang the heather like an inion”. The incident took place at Chattlehope Spout, a waterfall on the Chattlehope Burn in Redesdale between Catcleugh and Oh Me Edge.
Barty was overtaken by the two Scots as he returned south from beyond the Carter Bar with a companion and some stolen Scottish sheep. Barty’s companion, a reiver called Corbit Jack was slain. Barty’s residence called the Comb, was named from the nearby Comb Hill between Dodd Hill and Great Dodd in the upper Tarset.
Hesleyside : Charlton country
Returning to the North Tyne, only a little downstream from the mouth of the Tarset Burn on the way to Bellingham we enter Charlton reiver country. On the north side of the river is a little place called Charlton, an Anglo-Saxon place-name first mentioned in 1166 which means the churl’s farm (peasant’s farm). It’s likely that the Charlton family take their name from this place.
On the opposite side of the river is Hesleyside including Hesleyside Hall, the historic seat of the most senior members of the Charlton reiving family of the North Tyne. Originally a fortified pele tower house of the fourteenth century, most of the present hall is of the eighteenth century with the landscaping of the grounds by Capability Brown. Hesleyside is a private house and still belongs to members of the Charlton family.
In Northumbrian culture Hesleyside is noted as the inspiration for the Northumbrian pipe tunes ‘Sweet Hesleyside’ and the ‘Hesleyside Reel’ and as the setting for the tradition of the ‘spur in the the dish’ where in reiving times the lady of Hesleyside would serve a dish topped with a salver to the men of the house only to lift the salver to reveal riding spurs instead of the expected joint of meat – a hint that they needed to go raiding if they wished to be fed. It is the subject of one of the great paintings by William Scott Bell at Wallington Hall.
Bellingham and Hareshaw Linn
Bellingham (pronounced Belling-jum) 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.
Early spellings confirm that it was once ‘Bellinjum’ and in medieval times it was home to a family called the De Bellinghams (Bellingham is still a surname) who paid rent to the King of Scotland who held it in the thirteenth century.
On the east side of Bellingham near the Redesmouth Road are the earthworks of Bellingham Castle which was a Motte and Bailey castle. It is thought to have been built by a member of the De Bellingham family in the twelfth century. In the eighteenth century the Bellingham estate including the site of the former castle passed to the Radcliffe family who were Earls of Derwentwater.
Bellingham is a tiny market town and was once noted for its wool fair. It occupies a lovely spot alongside the North Tyne on the north bank of that river where it is joined by the Hareshaw Burn.
The Hareshaw Burn passes through the deeply wooded Hareshaw Dene which provides a lovely walk to a Northumbrian linn (a waterfall) called Hareshaw Linn. Its Anglo-Saxon name means ‘Grey-Wood waterfall’:
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
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 following the Viking raids on Lindisfarne in the ninth century AD. Most of the present building is of the thirteenth century and it is a pleasing little edifice.
Close to the church and reached by descending stone steps is the pretty St Cuthbert’s Well, known locally as ‘Cuddy’s Well. It is a Georgian pant on the site of a well that is said to have been founded by St Cuthbert. In legend, it had curative powers, apparently healing a girl called Eda, in some distant time, who had a paralysed arm. Her paralysis had apparently been caused by her not attending church. Given the well’s connections with St. Cuthbert, the water from the well is used in baptisms performed at Bellingham church.
Bellingham is centred on a little market place that is called Manchester Square, though it seems a long way removed from the city of that name. There is a a pub called the Rose and Crown and prominent Boer War Memorial that served as a fountain or pant.
A somewhat surprising feature on display on a neighbouring plinth next to the High Street on the edge of the market place is a Chinese gingall, a mounted musket resembling a tiny cannon. The gun was captured by British forces during the Chinese Boxer rebellion.
It was acquired by Commander Edward Charlton, one of the Hesleyside Charltons (later Admiral Sir Edward Charlton) who was serving with the British forces tasked with subduing the rebellion. The gun is on display next to Bellingham’s Town Hall of 1862 with its prominent clock tower.
Between 1861 and 1963 Bellingham was served by a railway station and the nearby goods yard is now the site of the Bellingham Heritage Centre and museum. Close by, railway carriages now serve as a tea room.
Redesmouth to Lee Hall
A couple of miles downstream from Bellingham is the little village of Redesmouth where the River Rede joins the North Tyne. About three miles up the Rede valley from here is little Ridsdale and West Woodburn where the Roman Dere Street crossed the Rede near the fort of Habitancum at Risingham. Here, however, we have strayed into Redesdale.
We are certainly in an area at the meeting of valleys here as less than three miles to the east of Redesmouth are the Sweethope Loughs in the upper reaches of the Wansbeck valley which heads east to the sea via Kirkwhelpington, Cambo, Mitford, Morpeth, Ashington and Cambois.
Returning to the North Tyne, downstream from Redesmouth we find Lee Hall close to the river and in the moors to the west near Shitlington Crags and Shitlington Common, is Shitlington Hall. Lee Hall and Shitlington Hall were both associated with branches of the Charlton family.
One of the Charltons, a Willie of Shotlyngton, as it was then called, raided the Weardale and Wolsingham areas of County Durham in 1528 and kidnapped the priest of Muggleswick. For his crime Charlton was captured and killed – his body hung in chains at Hexham.
The Legend of the Lang Pack
In the churchyard of St Cuthbert’s at Bellingham is a long stone which marks a grave closely associated with a well known piece of North Tynedale folklore associated with Lee Hall: – ‘the Legend of the Lang Pack’.
Lee Hall in addition to connections to the Charltons was historically a home to the Ridley of 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 blunderbuss 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 accomplices 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 buried at Bellingham churchyard, where it is said to lie beneath the long stone cut in the shape of a pedlar’s pack.
Downstream from Lee Hall, the North Tyne is joined on its west bank by the Houxty Burn – apparently named from a Hog’s sty but called Blacka Burn in its upper reaches.
To the east is a tiny village called Birtley with a nineteenth century church dedicated to St Giles built on the site of an earlier one said to be Norman, though a Saxon cross has been found here suggesting earlier links.
Like Birtley near Gateshead the name means ‘bright clearing’. The village lies beneath Rubbingstob Hill and to its east just beyond Dere Street is the Colt Crag Reservoir.
Wark on Tyne
Back to the North Tyne, the next main settlement we encounter downstream from Bellingham and Redesmouth is the village of Wark on the west bank of the river. It is sometimes called Wark on Tyne to distinguish it from another Northumberland village, Wark on Tweed far to the north.
Once the capital of North Tynedale, sessions of Scottish courts were at one time held at Wark in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when as the centre of the Liberty of Tynedale it belonged to the Scots. Wark and its district were technically part of Scotland until 1286, when it was retaken for England by Edward I.
Wark was 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 pronounced ‘wark’.
The Warks Burn joins the Tyne on the west bank just below the village. This stream rises about twelve miles to the west at Great Watch Hill near the Scottish Border and cuts a valley through the Wark Forest with the village of Stonehaugh half way along its course.
Back to the North Tyne, Chipchase Castle on the east bank of the river south of Wark is one of the most picturesque castles in Northumberland. It was built around a fourteenth century pele tower in the 1700s and is one of the finest Jacobean period buildings in the county. It is only open to the public for short designated periods during the year.
For many years the castle was home to the border family called the Herons, who were the Keepers of Tynedale and a family also associated with Ford Castle in the north of the county.
Simonburn and St Mungo’s church
About a mile down the river from Chipchase the pretty village of Simonburn is located on a stream that joins the river on its west bank and reputedly named from an Anglo-Saxon called Sigemund.
The church at Simonburn is unusually dedicated to St Mungo (also called St Kentigern) and was once the largest parish in Northumberland, stretching from the fringe of Liddesdale to the Roman Wall.
The dedication of the church to this Scottish saint, reflects North Tynedale’s historic links to Scotland, and a nearby well had been known as St Mungo’s Well from early times. The present church is mostly a rebuilding by the architect, Salvin in the 1860s but the church site is centuries old and the building incorporates part of an Anglo-Saxon cross.
Simonburn and nearby Nunwick Hall are associated with the Allgood family, one of whom, a Sir Lancelot built Nunwick Hall in 1760, its grounds lying between Simonburn and the North Tyne where the burn joins the river there had once been an ancient stone circle. The name of Nunwick may remember a nunnery of some kind or possibly the settlement of an Anglo-Saxon called Nunna.
A little downstream the North Tyne is joined by the Gunnerton Burn below the village of Gunnerton. The name Gunner seems likely to be a Norse personal name. There are hints of possible Viking place-names in the landscape across North Tynedale. Perhaps these settlements were associated with incomers from Scotland (the name of Liddesdale is Norse and there is strong evidence of Norse settlement in Dumfriesshire) or perhaps Norsemen from Cumbria where there was also significant Viking settlement.
Occasional place-names such as Haining point to some Norse influence in Tynedale but this influence is miniscule compared to the mass of Viking place-names found in Cumbria, Teesdale and the Yorkshire Dales.
Gunnerton was associated with the local Swinburne family who held a house in Newcastle in medieval times and helped build the Gunnerton Tower on Newcastle’s town walls.
Downstream, the North Tyne is joined by the Swin Burn at Barrasford which gave its name to the Swinburn family. Barrasford derives from ‘Berewas’ a term for some kind of grove (though the name ‘bare ass’ has been suggested). It is a pretty village with a public house called the Barrasford Arms and views of the nearby Haughton Castle across the other side of the North Tyne.
A mile up the valley of the Swin Burn is Great Swinburne and Swinburne Castle, the old family seat of the Swinburnes. Members of the Swinburne family have included Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909), the famed Northumbrian-born poet.
As well as Great Swinburne, there is a place called Little Swinburne too, a further mile to the north, situated between the Colt Crag Resevoir (near Thockrington) and Hallington Reservoirs. Little Swinburne has a tiny reservoir all of its own. The course of Dere Street (and the A68) passes between the two Swinburne villages.
Not far to the north of Swinburne Castle close to Barrasford Park 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’. It isn’t the only place with a curious name that’s thought to have Celtic roots. One of around seven ‘Celtic’ camps in the Birtley-Barrasford area intriguingly goes by the name of Goodwife Hot, again a possible corruption of an older Celtic name.
Haughton Castle : Archie Armstrong’s ghost
Haughton Castle on the south-east side of the North Tyne opposite Barrasford was connected with the Widdringtons and Swinburnes in medieval times and is about a mile and a half to the north of Hadrian’s Wall. Dating from the fourteenth century it is described by Pevsner as “a very perfect tower house of the oblong type with four angle towers.”
Named from a settlement on a ‘haugh’ or riverside meadow, Haughton Castle 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.
Chollerton, Humshaugh and Chollerford
South of Haughton as the North Tyne heads towards Hadrian’s Wall it passes the little village of Chollerton to the east and the larger village of Humshaugh to the west.
Chollerton, means either Cheolferth’s farm or is named from a ‘ceolan’ – a gorge, being a reference to the river. It is hard not to associate this name in some way with that of the nearby Roman fort at Chesters called Cilurnum.
Dedicated to St Giles, the Norman interior of the church at Chollerton dates from 1150 but the pillars of the nave are Roman and likely salvaged from Chesters Roman fort. On a hill, close to the north side of Chollerton village is a large and prominent farm complete with a disused, sail-less windmill.
Humshaugh (in early times spelled Hounshale or Hounshalgh) was the ‘haugh’ or meadow of someone called Hun and is the home to an early nineteenth century church.
To the south of Chollerton but over on the western bank of the North Tyne is Chollerford – the site of a ford in historic times but now crossed by a bridge where the prominent George Hotel overlooks the river. Just to the south, Hadrian’s Wall crossed the North Tyne near Chesters Roman fort which was known to the Romans as Cilurnum where remnants of the Roman bridge can still be seen.
Here too, nearby, is the large eighteenth century house of 1771 called Chesters with its grounds bordering the west bank of the North Tyne. This was the home to John Clayton (1792-1890), the wealthy Town Clerk of Newcastle upon Tyne who funded the Grainger Town developments there.
Clayton was also important as an antiquarian and a key figure in preserving, protecting and documenting Hadrian’s Wall in the nineteenth century.
The Battle of Heavenfield
A mile to the east of the river at Chesters just to the north of Hadrian’s Wall is a little church that marks the site of one of Northumbria’s first recorded battles, the Battle of Heavenfield (AD635). 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.
The ancient British inhabitants of northern Britain (Britons), had been Welsh speakers (or at least speakers of Cumbric or Britonic, a close relative of Old Welsh). As the Anglo-Saxons colonised the north the Britons were pushed west along the Tyne Valley and into Cumbria (the land of the Cumbric people).
Britons had killed King Edwin, one of Northumbria’s most powerful rulers at the Battle of Hatfield near Doncaster (AD 633) when the Welsh formed an alliance with the midland Kingdom of Mercia to defeat the Northumbrians.
Edwin’s successor was King Oswald (AD 634-642) later called Saint Oswald), a Christian king who was introduced to this faith by the Scots. Oswald’s greatest enemies were the Welsh, led by King Cadwallon and the Mercians, ruled by a Pagan called Penda.
In AD 635 AD the Welsh under Cadwallon, brought a huge army into Northumbria. Oswald assembled his men for battle north of Hadrian’s Wall and east of the North Tyne in an area that came to be known as Heavenfield.
Here they were well situated to meet the Welsh, who are thought to have advanced up the old Roman road called Dere Street that crossed the Tyne at Corbridge. Oswald prepared for battle placing a cross in the centre of the battlefield and led his men into prayer for victory. Christianity was not firmly established amongst the Northumbrian people at this time and it was seen as something of a test for Christianity.
The Welsh were perhaps exhausted from a long journey but the Northumbrians were alert and ready to fight. Oswald’s men chased the Welsh south and their king, Cadwallon, was slain on the banks of the Rowley Burn, near the valley of a stream called the Devil’s Water to the south of Hexham.
Oswald’s victory over the Welsh confirmed the power of the Christian faith and he set about converting his largely pagan kingdom to Christianity. He employed St Aidan, a Scottish monk from Iona, as first Bishop of Lindisfarne and Aidan travelled throughout the Northumbrian kingdom with the king converting the people. Aidan was later succeeded by great Northumbrian saints like Cuthbert.
Three Tynes : The Waters Meet
To the south of Hadrian’s Wall is an attractive little village simply called Wall above the east bank of the North Tyne. Within a mile and a half the North Tyne merges with the South Tyne to form the Tyne itself at Warden only half a mile from Hexham.
The village of Warden and High Warden lie in the wedge between the North and South Tyne. Warden, the lower of the two has a thirteenth century church with an eleventh century tower, while High Warden is on the steep ground between the two rivers. At the top of the hill here is an earthwork with ramparts of stone. The name Warden means ‘watch tower’.
East of the North Tyne and facing Hexham across the River Tyne itself is the village of Acomb, which has a name that means ‘at the oaks’ the same meaning as Acomb near York. The meeting of the North Tyne, South Tyne and Tyne can be approached from all three sides using footpaths from Acomb Bridge End near Warden or by a riverside footpath from Hexham.