Redesdale is formed by the River Rede, a tributary of the North Tyne which it joins on the east bank at Redesmouth. Strongly associated with border raiding in times past, the main places of interest in Redesdale are Otterburn, Elsdon and on the border with Scotland itself, the Carter Bar.
Although Otterburn might be regarded as the ‘capital’ of Redesdale, in more historic times Elsdon held that distinction, when it was an important gathering place and market town for the clans of the valley that included the Storeys, Hedleys, Dunnes, Potts, Millburns and Halls.
Elsdon village is situated on the Elsdon Burn, a tributary of the River Rede and is a pleasant and spacious village with a broad green and quiet country roads converging from several directions. There’s a tearoom that provides local information and a friendly free house village pub called Bird in Bush, offering accommodation with an independent brewery called First & Last Brewery (presumably the first and last in England) to the rear of the pub, that produces local ales.
In times long past Elsdon saw its fair share of the border troubles that once seemingly made its inhabitants wary and suspicious and so Elsdon was apparently not such a great place for hospitality in times past. An old, Northumbrian ballad which is perhaps slightly tongue in cheek records:
Hae ye ivver been at Elsdon ?
The world’s unfinished neuk
It stands amang the hungry hills,
An’ wears a frozen leuk.
The Elsdon folk like diein’ stegs
At ivvery stranger stare;
An’ hather broth an’ curlew eggs,
Ye’ll get for supper there.
Yen neet aw cam tiv Elsdon;
Sair tired efter dark
Aw’d trovell’d mony a lyensome meyle
Wet through the varra sark
Maw legs were warkin’ fit ta brik,
An’ empty was me kite,
But nowther love nor money could
Get owther bed or bite.
At ivvery hoose iv Elsdon
Aw teld me desperate need,
But nivver a corner had the churls
Where aw might lay me heed;
Sae at the public hoose aw boos’d
Till aw was sent away;
Then tiv a steyble-loft aw crept
An’ coil’d amang the hay.
Should the Frenchers land iv England
Just gie them Elsdon fare;
By George! they’ll sharply hook it back,
An’ nivver cum ne mair
For a hungry hole like Elsdon
Aw nivver yit did see;
An’ if aw gan back tiv Elsdon,
The De’il may carry me.
Elsdon : Vicar’s Pele
Despite the poor image the old rhyme creates of Elsdon in past times, it is an attractive and welcoming village today. The most noticeable reminder of Elsdon’s border history is the village pele tower, a ‘vicar’s pele’ which is one of the best examples of its kind in Northumberland. Dating from around 1400, the tower was a fortified rectory and has walls that are 9 feet thick.
Its occupants once included the Reverend Charles Dodgson, a tutor of the Duke of Northumberland’s son. He was also the great grandfather of Lewis Carroll. Dodgson was rector here between 1762 and 1765.
St Cuthbert’s church, to the south of the vicar’s pele, was the nearest graveyard to the Battle of Otterburn of 1388. During church restoration in the early nineteenth century a mass grave containing the skeletons of hundreds of men and boys who died in the battle was uncovered.
Another notable feature of Elsdon are the two curious hills at the northern end of the village which mark the site of an old motte and bailey castle. Tomlinson’s Guide to Northumberland (1888) suggested that the earthworks were some kind of Celtic tribal capital at the time of the Roman occupation. There are certainly a number of ancient British camps and settlements in the vicinity of Elsdon.
In later times a Norman castle was built on top of these earthworks which became the home of the Umfravilles, Norman Lords of Redesdale. The Umfravilles also held a castle at Harbottle in the neighbouring valley of Coquetdale.
The Umfravilles were given the land in Redesdale by William the Conqueror to whom they were related, to protect the king from enemies and also intriguingly, from wolves.
Th Umfraville family were heavily involved in many a border raid into Scotland and had a reputation which earned members of the family names like Robin ‘Mend the Market’ – apparently this was a reference to the destruction of Scottish towns.
An unclassified road from Elsdon to Wallington and Morpeth follow the course of an old straight as an arrow’s flight drove road south eastwards, where it passes the site of Steng cross, an old medieval guiding post. Some good views of the Northumbrian border country can be obtained from this area looking north towards Harwood Forest, the Simonside Hills and the Cheviots, and south towards the Wild Hills of Wannie where the River Wansbeck rises.
In the vicinity of Steng Cross, near to the roadside is the eerie site of a gibbet or ‘stob’. Known as Winter’s Gibbet, it was from here that the body of a certain William Winter was hung, following his execution at Westgate, Newcastle in 1791. Winter, a gypsy, had been executed for the murder of an old woman, called Margaret Crozier, who lived in the vicinity of Elsdon and whose home stood within site of the gibbet.
The old woman ran a small drapery store in the neighbourhood, which led Winter to believe she was wealthy. He murdered her after breaking into her home to find that she had little worth stealing. He seems to have been a rather desperate character, as he had not long returned from transportation. His family did have a history of crime, as both his father and brother also died by execution.
Winter’s body was returned to the Elsdon area following his execution in accordance with an old custom that murderer’s corpses should be displayed near the scene of their crime.
The site of the body hanging from the gibbet is said to have haunted a young shepherd boy by the name of Robert Hindmarch, who at the age of eleven, had given the evidence which largely convicted Winter. Hindmarch’s life was dominated by a constant fear of reprisals from Winter’s friends and this probably led to his early death at the age of twenty two.
For a time the morbid site of Winter’s body, drew sightseers from all around, until the stench from the corpse became so bad that people began to avoid using the road that passed that way.
Eventually the corpse was taken down and buried, but was replaced with a carved wooden effigy of Winter, of which the head remained for a while but that too has now gone in recent times leaving only the gibbet. It looks rather like an ongoing life-size game of ‘Hangman’.
In the nineteenth century the gibbet was viewed with considerable superstition with one of the strangest claims being that chips taken from it had the magical ability to cure toothache.
Otterburn, the focal village in Redesdale is situated on the A696 alongside the River Rede about three miles west of Elsdon. Following the era of the troublesome Border wars the village, which is situated where the little Otter Burn joins the River Rede from the north, developed as a coaching stop on what is now the A696 Newcastle to Jedburgh road.
Notable features of the village include the stately red brick Otterburn Hall which was built in 1870 in neo-Elizabethan style. It was constructed on the site of an earlier hall by James Douglas on land gifted to him as a compensation for the loss of his ancestor at the Battle of Otterburn in 1388.
A footpath to the west of the hall runs close to the site of this battle and a little to the west is Percy’s Cross (see the Battle of Otterburn below) which commemorates the event. The cross was erected around 1777 by Mr Ellison, the then owner of Otterburn Hall who had previously declined the Duke of Northumberland’s request to erect a monument to his Percy ancestor who had fought in the battle.
Nearby Otterburn Castle or Otterburn Tower as it is sometimes known is a hotel set in a building with a long history. Some parts of the castle go back to medieval times when it was a tower house while other parts of the building date to the Victorian era.
Built on the site of a probable earlier castle belonging to the Umfravilles in Norman times the tower was mentioned in 1388 when the Scots attempted, but failed, to capture it during the battle of Otterburn. The Umfravilles still owned the tower in the 1400s but in the 1500s it came to be the stronghold of the Halls who were the most prominent border reiving family of Redesdale.
The Halls still resided in the tower in 1715 when a notorious member of the family called Mad Jack Ha’ joined the Jacobite rebellion against King George and supported the claims of James Stuart, the Old Pretender to the English throne. Captured at Preston, Mad Jack was executed at Tyburn the following year.
Another Hall, Gabriel Hall then purchased the tower but it passed to the Ellison family of Newcastle in the 1740s. Later owners of the tower included a shipbuilder, James Storey of the Low Lights, North Shields in the later 1700s. It was owned by the James family in the nineteenth century and by Howard Pease, an antiquarian of Middlesbrough in the early 1900s.
The church at Otterburn dates to 1858 and was built by the famed North Shields-born architect John Dobson. At the eastern end of the village is the former Victorian Presbyterian church that later became a United Reformed Church and nearby a little further to the east a former Methodist Chapel now converted into a private house.
The attractive Otterburn Mill across the A696 from Otterburn Tower dates to the eighteenth century and includes a visitor information centre, restaurant, coffee shop and clothing shop.
In the 1820s the mill had been leased to William Waddel who was the son of a Jedburgh weaver. He established Otterburn’s reputation for weaving tweeds.
Queen Alexandra the wife of King Edward VII was an admirer of Otterburn’s woven products and the mill’s reputation continued to be recognised by royalty in later times. In 1926 Buckingham Palace requested a tiny pram rug from the mill for use by the newly born Princess Elizabeth – the future queen.
The mill continues to be famous for its pram rugs to this day. In the 1970s the mill ceased to operate as a working woollen mill but continued to sell woven goods after the Waddels sold the business to the Pringle family.
Much of the area north of Otterburn forms the Otterburn Training Area for the Ministry of Defence, which is familiar to thousands of soldiers. Covering around 90 square miles red flags warn of training exercises in progress.
The training area was established in 1911 and one of its most interesting features is a network of reconstructed First World War training trenches to the north of Rochester further up Redesdale. These are a scheduled historic monument and though out of bounds to the public can be seen on satellite views about two or three miles north of Rochester.
Battle of Otterburn
Otterburn is famed as the site of the Battle of Otterburn, fought north west of the village on August 19, 1388. It was the bloodiest, best-known encounter between the great arch-enemies of the Borders, the Percys of Northumberland and Douglas family of Scotland.
The two families were not minor clans like the Border Reivers of later centuries, but wealthy landowning earls, the most powerful men in the borders, who fought as ‘chivalrous‘ knights defending their respective sides of the national boundary.
Both families are of ancient lineage, Percys supposedly descend from a Viking warrior who settled in Normandy becoming ‘De Percy’ from a French village. The Douglases were descended from Flemish immigrants who came to Scotland in the reign of David I.
First head of the Douglas clan was William De Douglas, named from the lands of Douglas Water near Lanark, granted to him by an Abbot of Kelso. William’s descendants became rich and influential landowners in Scotland and later family members included Jamie, ‘The Black Douglas’ (1286 – 1330), friend and supporter of Robert the Bruce. Douglas was greatly feared in the English Borders:
Hush thee! hush thee!,
Little pet thee.
Hush thee! hush thee!
Do not fret thee.
The Black Douglas
Shall not get thee.
In the reign of Richard II, the Scots, under an Earl James Douglas, invaded northern England with an army of 4,000 men and ravaged the Northumberland and Durham countryside as far south as Brancepeth. Hamlets and villages were left burning and many local inhabitants were slain, though some fled to safety, taking refuge behind walled defences at Durham City and Newcastle.
The region was unprepared for the Scottish attack, though Harry ‘Hotspur’ Percy, the Earl of Northumberland’s son, was at Newcastle with his brother Ralph, ready to repel Scottish raids upon that town. The Scottish raid led by Douglas is commemorated in a lengthy Scottish Border Ballad The Battle of Otterburn recorded by Sir Walter Scott. We only include a few verses here:
It fell about the Lammas tide,
When the muir-men win their hay,
The doughty Douglas bound him to ride
Into England to drive a prey.
He chose the Gordons and the Grahams,
With the Lindsays, light and gay;
But the Jardines wald not with him ride,
And they rue it to this day.
And he has burn’d the dales of Tyne,
And part of Bamburgh Shire;
And three good towers on Redeswire fells,
He left them all on fire.
As the Scots returned from County Durham with their spoils, there was only a minor skirmish at Newcastle, as they did not have the time or resources to launch an attack upon the strong defences of that town. The English, under Hotspur had not yet mustered a large enough army to pursue the Scots, as they headed north.
Legend has it that during the Newcastle skirmish, Douglas challenged the Percys to battle by seizing Hotspur’s pennant, boasting it would hang from the Douglas castle at Dalkeith. Hotspur supposedly retorted that Douglas would not leave England alive. The Ballad of The Battle of Otterburn records these events:
And he march’d up to Newcastle,
And rode it round about;
‘O wha’s the lord of this castle,
And wha’s the lady o’t ?’
But up spake proud Lord Percy, then,
And O but he spake hie!
‘I am the lord of this castle,
My wife’s the lady gay’
‘If thou’rt the lord of this castle,
Sae well it pleases me!
For, ere I cross the Border fells,
The ane of us shall die’
‘Had we twa been upon the green,
And never an eye to see,
I wad hae had you, flesh and fell;
But your sword sall gae wi’ me.’
‘….. gae ye up to Otterburn,
And wait there dayis three;
And if I come not ere three dayis end,
A fause lord ca’ ye me.’
Crossing the Tyne near Newcastle, the Scots continued northwards burning Ponteland castle on their way, as they headed for Redesdale. They took up camp on the site of an ancient British hill-fort near Otterburn. According to the ballad there was little in the way of provision for Douglas at Otterburn:
The Otterburn’s a bonnie burn;
‘Tis pleasant there to be;
But there is nought at Otterburn
To feed my men and me.
‘The deer rins wild on hill and dale,
The birds fly wild from tree to tree;
But there is neither bread nor kale,
To fend my men and me.
Legend says Douglas was willing to endure a lack of provisions as he waited to honour the terms of Percy’s challenge:
‘Yet I will stay at Otterburn,
Where you shall welcome be;
And, if ye come not at three days’ end,
A coward I’ll ca’ thee.
While Douglas lay encamped at Otterburn, Henry Percy’s army increased in size. It could have been bigger, but Hotspur did not wait for the support of the Prince Bishop of Durham and marched his own army of 8,000 men north to Redesdale, arriving at Otterburn in the late evening of 19th August 1388.
Although his men were tired and there was only the light of the moon to help them see, Percy was determined to attack the Scots there and then, so giving his men the element of surprise. His hasty hot-headed way of doing things gives us an impression of why Shakespeare gave him the nickname ‘Hotspur’.
It was decided the attack would be two pronged, with a body of men under Thomas Umfraville, Lord of Redesdale attacking the Scots from the rear, while Percy advanced from the south.
With chants of A Percy! A Percy! Hotspur’s contingent made their onslaught on the Scottish camp but discovered that in the confusion of darkness, they were not raiding the main camp, but a small encampment of Scottish servants and camp followers, who nevertheless still fought back.
Hotspur’s mistake was costly as it meant the English had lost the element of surprise. The noise alerted Douglas, whose men began to attack the English flanks with chants of a Douglas! A Douglas!
For a time the Scots were easily winning the battle, helped by the absence of Thomas Umfraville’s contingent on the English side, who were lost in the moors to the north. Eventually Umfraville decided to give up the plan of attacking the Scots from the rear and retraced his steps to re-join the main English forces under Hotspur.
The reunification of Umfraville and Percy’s men regained an English advantage, but the Scots fought more fiercely than ever. Douglas, sensing danger rose to the challenge violently hacking his way through the English forces using a battle axe with rousing chants of A Douglas! A Douglas! Douglas was to suffer. Three spears pierced his body bringing wounds to his head and thigh. He fell from his horse and lay dying as the battle continued around him.
The most senior of Douglas’s men, clustered around their dying leader to give protection, but the earl urged his men to keep on fighting. According to the Otterburn ballad, he told his men he had foreseen his fate:
But I hae dream’d a dreary dream
Beyond the isle of Skye
I saw a dead man win a fight
And I think that man was I.
Gradually the Scots regained control of the battlefield. The English began to tire. As more and more Englishmen were captured or slain, many of Percy’s men began to flee and Hotspur was eventually captured and forced to yield to a Scottish noble called Lord Montgomery, who had taken over the command from Douglas, who was by this time dead.
Despite their loss of leader, the outcome of the battle was a decisive Scottish victory. They lost only two hundred men compared to English losses of over a thousand. The body of Douglas was taken back to Scotland and he was buried with honour at Melrose abbey. Hotspur and his brother Ralph, were later released for a ransom.
In 1402 at the Battle of Humbleton Hill, near Wooler Hotspur was at war with the Douglas family once again but the following year he was killed at the Battle of Shrewsbury, ironically fighting on the same side as the Douglas family in a rebellion against the king.
Ballad of Chevy Chase
The historic ballad of The Battle of Otterburn quoted above dates from shortly after the battle in 1388. It later inspired a similar English ballad that records a variation of the battle’s events called The Ballad of Chevy Chase. Probably dating from the 1430s this version has different lyrics with the theme being that Percy went hunting in the parklands of the Cheviots in land that Earl Douglas considered Scottish.
A hunting park was known as a ‘chase’ and the Cheviot Chase was called Chevy Chase. The Ballad of Chevy Chase begins:
The Percy out of Northumberland,
An avow to God made he
That he would hunt in the mountains
Of Cheviot within days three,
In the maugre of doughty Douglas,
And all that e’er with him be.
The fattest harts in all Cheviot
He would kill and carry away.
‘By my faith,’ said the doughty Douglas again,
‘I will let that hunting if I may!’
Then the Percy out of Banborowe came,
With him a mighty meinye,
With fifteen hundred archers bold
Chosen out of shirès three.
This began on a Monday at morn,
In Cheviot the hills so hye;
The child may rue that is unborn,
It was the more pitye.
A later version of this English ballad was composed, again with different lyrics, around the 1600s and there may have been several versions around. In time The Ballad of Chevy Chase was one of the best-known and most popular English ballads familiar to settlers in America – giving rise to places called Chevy Chase in Maryland and Washington DC.
The American comedian Chevy Chase, who was born Corneilius Crane Chase in New York in 1943 was given the nickname ‘Chevy’ by his grandmother. She was a descendant of the Scottish Douglas clan and familiar with the famous ballad.
Risingham, Woodburn and Corsenside
The River Rede joins the North Tyne at Redesmouth near Bellingham 6 miles south of Otterburn and the river flows through much quiet countryside to reach that point.
About half way between Otterburn and Redesmouth the river is joined by the Lisles Burn from the east where we find West Woodburn and East Woodburn. These are the the principal settlements (other than Redesmouth) of lower Rededale.
On the south east side of the River Rede near the two Woodburns are traces of the Roman fort of Habitancum or Risingham to give its English name. This fort, which is of course to the north of Hadrian’s Wall, was established during the time of Septimius Severus and occupied until around 367 AD.
South of West Woodburn the course of the Roman road of Dere Street crossed the Rede after departing from the A68 which it re-joins three miles to the south at Cock Play where there are traces of a Roman camp. The Roman road, with its typical straight arrow-shot course runs along the length of Redesdale rising and falling with frequent dips particularly near West Woodburn.
West Woodburn is a pleasant village of stone houses. Here is a pub called the Bay Horse situated next to a bridge that carries the A68 across the Rede. The bridge is about half a mile east of where Dere Street originally crossed the river.
East Woodburn across the other side of the Rede is a mile to the east on the Lisles Burn and is a similar but a smaller settlement on a quiet road. Sandstone was quarried here on the neighbouring Darney Crag.
Along the River Rede between the two villages is the church of All Saints, which dates from the nineteenth century and nearby close to where the Lisles Burn joins the Rede is Townfoot Farm marking the boundary between the two places.
Returning to West Woodburn, about a mile to the west long the road leading to Bellingham in North Tynedale we can find the ruins of the Low Cleughs Bastle on a hillside to the north. A typical defended farmhouse of the Border Reiving era, it was abandoned in the 1850s. There is a car park off the road with a public footpath up to the bastle which the public are free to explore.
East and West Woodburn are situated in the parish of Corsenside (which means ‘Crossan’s hill pasture’) and the parish church is about a mile and a half to the north of the Woodburns midway to Otterburn.
Dedicated to St Cuthbert, Corsenside church is twelfth century Norman. Dedicated to St Cuthbert, it is thought to be on the site of one of the resting places for the monks who carried the saint’s coffin.
This is a surprisingly solitary but beautiful location for a church and if the legend is true, a well chosen resting place for those who carried the coffin of the saint. Corsenside has an interesting name meaning ‘hill pasture belonging to Crossan’, Crossan, apparently being a Gaelic name.
About a mile and a half south of the Woodburns on the A68 at Chesterhope Common is the tiny village of Ridsdale which was built to house workers of an iron works and foundry founded by the Chesterhope Iron Company in 1838. The mining of the iron ore took place at Broomhope just to the south west.
Ridsdale village and works was bought the following year by the Derwent Iron Company who built further blast furnaces here. In the 1840s Robert Stephenson used Ridsdale iron in the construction of Newcastle’s High Level Bridge in the 1840s but it was around this time that the works fell into difficulties and closed in 1847.
The Ridsdale works were reopened by the great industrialist William Armstrong in 1862 who used the iron in manufacturing military projectiles. Remains of the iron foundry’s engine house, that may be mistaken for some kind of fortification, stand nearby.
The meaning of the name Ridsdale is uncertain but ‘rid’ is possibly an old form of ‘red’ from the peaty nature of a stream that joins the Rede nearby. Indeed, this is a likely explanation for the name of the River Rede itself.
Just over a mile to the south east of Ridsdale is Great Wanney Crag, in the hills known as ‘the Wannies’ (or wilds of Wannies) and the neighbouring Sweethope Loughs in the upper reaches of the River Wansbeck.
Now heading back up the valley of Redesdale from West Woodburn in the direction of Otterburn, Dere Street more or less follows the course of the A68 though it departs from this route slightly to cross the Rede at Elishaw where it is joined by the A696 from Newcastle.
Off the A68 to the west of Otterburn and south of Elishaw are traces of a Roman camp at Dargues associated with early Roman campaigns into Caledonia. A further two and half miles up the valley between Elishaw and Rochester is a Roman camp near Horsley and then another mile upstream, is the Roman fort of Bremenium at Rochester itself.
Rochester hosts the ‘Last Cafe in England’ as the road heads north towards the Scottish Border though there is still more than 10 mils to travel before reaching Carter Bar on the Border.
Around 139 AD the Roman fort of Bremenium at Rochester fort was occupied by a cohort of Roman soldiers who where Lingones, a people from what is now the Bourgogne region of central France. Bremenium is not included in the later fourth century list of forts called the ‘Notitia Dignitatum’ as by that time the Romans had withdrawn their occupation southward to Hadrian’s Wall.
Dere Street also departs from the River Rede and the A68 at Rochester and proceeds northward across the wilderness of the Cheviots for six miles before reaching the site of the remote but significant Roman marching camp called Chew Green close to the present Scottish Border and near the source of the River Coquet. The famous Roman road continues northward from Chew Green towards the Eildon Hills and the Roman fort of Trimontium near Melrose in Scotland.
Blakehopefoot, Byrness, Catcleugh
Returning to Redesdale itself, two miles up the valley along the A68 from Redesdale Camp we enter the Redesdale Forest area. Cross the river into the forest area and we find a little hamlet called Blakehopeburnhaugh in Redesdale which is supposedly the longest place name in England with eighteen letters. The name is of an Anglo-Saxon, ‘old Northumbrian’ nature and means ‘black valley stream, with flat riverside land’.
Blakehopeburnhaugh’s status is apparently challenged by a neighbouring hamlet called Cottonshopeburnfoot (19 letters), which lies less than half a mile up the valley, but this does not seemingly qualify because maps write the name in two parts as Cottonshopeburn Foot.
The main village in this part of Redesdale is Byrness which has a tiny church dating from 1786, a self-catering holiday home cottage called The Byrness and a B&B called the Forest View Walkers Inn.
A mile upstream from Byrness the River Rede plays host to the remote Catcleugh Reservoir built between 1884 and 1905 which is about a mile and a half long and can be seen on the west side of the A68. A further two and a half miles up the valley from the head of the reservoir beyond the trickling streams that form the source of the River Rede we reach Carter Bar with its fabulous views and the flags of the nations of Northumberland and Scotland where the A68 crosses from England into Scotland.
A spot just to the north west of the Carter Bar over on the Scottish side of the border was the scene in 1575 of the Reidswire Fray, one of the last major battles fought between the English and the Scots. The fray occurred when a violent battle broke out, following an argument between a Warden of the English Marches and the Keeper of Liddesdale, who ironically, were both employed to keep the peace on their respective sides of the border.
The meeting between these two men was meant to be a day of truce, but the arrogance of the English Warden, John Forster, aggravated the Scottish representatives and a battle ensued (the Forsters were a family with reiving traditions).
Among the Scottish contingent were members of the Crozier family and among the English, the Fenwicks of Wallington, arch-enemies of the Croziers. This obviously gave added venom to the battle. At the end of the fray the English, who were largely unarmed, came off worst and among those killed was George Heron of Chipchase, the Keeper of Tynedale and Redesdale.