Elsdon – the Old Redesdale capital
Redesdale is formed by the River Rede, a tributary of the North Tyne that forms a major valley to its east. Strongly associated with border raiding in times past, the main places of interest 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 who 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 to the rear that produces local ales.
In times long past Elsdon saw its fair share of the rough border life 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.
Vicar’s pele and battle graveyard at Elsdon
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 follows 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 19th 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 main village in Redesdale is situated on 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 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 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, Hall he 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 19th 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.
The attractive stone-built Otterburn Mill near Otterburn Tower dates to the 18th 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 much of the area is out of bounds to the public and 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.
The Battle of Otterburn
Otterburn is famous the world over as the site of the Battle of Otterburn, which was fought to the north west of the village on the 19th August 1388. This battle was the bloodiest and best-known encounter between those great arch-enemies of the Borders, the Percys of Northumberland and the Douglases of Scotland.
These two great families were not minor clans like many of the Border Reivers of later centuries, but were wealthy landowning earls, the most powerful men in the border region, who fought each other as ‘chivalrous‘ knights defending their respective sides of the national boundary.
Both families are of ancient lineage, the Percys supposedly descended from a Viking warrior who settled in Normandy, acquiring the name De Percy from the name of 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 had been William De Douglas, who took his name from the lands of Douglas Water near Lanark, which were granted to him by an Abbot of Kelso. William’s descendants became rich and influential landowners in Scotland and later members of his family included Jamie, ‘The Black Douglas’ (1286 – 1330), a friend and supporter of Robert the Bruce – a man greatly feared on the English side of the Border:
Hush thee! hush thee!,
Little pet thee.
Hush thee! hush thee!
Do not fret thee.
The Black Douglas
Shall not get thee.
It was during the reign of Richard II that the Scots, under the leadership of a certain Earl James Douglas, invaded northern England with an army of some 4,000 men and ravaged the Northumberland and Durham countryside as far south as Brancepeth. Hamlets and villages were left burning and many of the local inhabitants were slain, though some fled to safety, taking refuge behind the walled defences of Durham City and Newcastle.
The region had been largely unprepared for this Scottish attack, though Harry ‘Hotspur’ Percy, the Earl of Northumberland’s son, was at Newcastle with his brother Ralph, ready to repel any Scottish attack upon that town.
The Scottish raid led by Douglas is commemorated in a lengthy Scottish Border Ballad called The Battle of Otterburn which was recorded by Sir Walter Scott. We will 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 ‘auld enemy’ were returning from County Durham with the spoils of their raid, there was only a minor skirmish at Newcastle. The Scots did not really have the time or the resources to launch an attack upon the strong defences of that town and 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 skirmish at Newcastle, Douglas in the true tradition of that age, challenged the Percys to battle by seizing Hotspur’s pennant, exclaiming that it would hang from the Douglas castle at Dalkeith, for all Scots to see.
Naturally Hotspur responded to the challenge and warned Douglas that he would not leave England alive. The Ballad of The Battle of Otterburn records the visit of Douglas to Newcastle:
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 the castle of Ponteland on their way, as they headed for Redesdale. Here 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.
The legend states that Douglas was willing to endure this lack of provision in order to honour the terms of the challenge in which he had agreed to wait for Percy:
‘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 had increased in size, though it could have been bigger, but Hotspur instead of waiting for the support of the Prince Bishop of Durham immediately 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 (we can see why Shakespeare gave him the nickname ‘Hotspur’). It was decided that the attack would be two pronged, with a body of men under the leadership of Thomas Umfraville, Lord of Redesdale attacking the Scots from the rear, while Percy continued the advance from the south.
With chants of A Percy! A Percy! Hotspur’s contingent made their onslaught on the Scottish camp, but their shock and horror can be imagined when they discovered that in the confusion of darkness, they were not raiding the main camp, but instead a small encampment of Scottish servants and camp followers, who nevertheless still fought back.
Hotspur’s mistake was costly for it meant that the English had now lost the element of surprise from their attack and the noise quickly alerted Douglas, whose men began to attack the English flanks with chants of a Douglas! A Douglas!
For a time the Scots seemed to be easily winning the battle, perhaps helped by the absence of Thomas Umfraville’s contingent, which had got 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 rejoin the main English forces under Hotspur.
The reunification of the forces of Umfraville and Percy regained an advantage for the English, but the Scots began to fight more fiercely than ever. Douglas, sensing the danger rose to the challenge and began to violently hack his way through the English forces using a battle axe, rousing the chants of A Douglas! A Douglas! as he proceeded. The Earl was to suffer for his actions – three spears pierced his body bringing wounds to his head and thigh. He fell from his horse and lay dying as the battle continued all around him.
The most senior of Douglas’s men, clustered around their dying leader to give him 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 battle as the English began to tire from their long and hurried march from Newcastle. As more and more Englishmen were captured or slain, many of Percy’s men began to flee the battlefield 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 the loss of their leader, the outcome of the Battle of Otterburn was a decisive victory for the Scots, who 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 burried with honour at the abbey of Melrose in Tweeddale. Hotspur and his brother Ralph, were later released for a ransom.
In 1402 at the Battle of Humbleton Hill, near Wooler the Hotspur was at war with the Douglas family once again but in the following year when he was killed at the Battle of Shrewsbury, he was ironically fighting on the same side as the Douglas family in rebellion against the king.
The Ballad of Chevy Chase
The historic ballad of The Battle of Otterburn which we have quoted above dates from some time shortly after the battle in 1388. It later inspired a similar English ballad which records the events or a variation of the battle events and this ballad was called The Ballad of Chevy Chase.
Probably dating from the 1430s this version has quite different lyrics with the theme of the story being that Percy went hunting in the park lands of the Cheviot Hills in land that the Earl Douglas considered to be Scottish. A hunting park was known as a ‘chase’ and the Cheviot Chase was known as Chevy Chase. The ballad 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 at once. In its time The Ballad of Chevy Chase was one of the best-known and most popular English ballads and was familiar to settlers in America – giving rise to places called Chevy Chase in Maryland and in Washington DC which were both named from a broad tract of land called ‘Chevy Chase’ by the British.
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 was familiar with the famous ballad.
Roman Risingham and Woodburn
The River Rede joins the North Tyne at Redesmouth near Bellingham about 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 the principal settlements (other than Redesmouth) in this lower part are West Woodburn and East Woodburn. Only a couple of miles to the south west are Wanny Crag and the Sweethope Loughs near the upper reaches of the River Wansbeck.
Near West Woodburn but on the south side of the River Rede are traces of the Roman fort of Habitancum or Risingham to give its English name. The fort which is of course to the north of the Roman wall was established during the time of Septimius Severus and was occupied until around 367 AD.
Here the Roman road of Dere Street departs from the A68 which it otherwise follows through much of Redesdale and it crossed the Rede just north of the fort.
West Woodburn is a pleasant village of stone houses. Here a pub called the Bay Horse is situated next to the bridge which carries the A68 across the Rede. The bridge is about half a mile east of where Dere Street originally crossed the river.
High Rochester, Dere Street and Chew Green
From West Woodburn to Otterburn, Dere Street more or less follows the course of the A68. Just west of Otterburn are traces of a Roman camp at Dargues associated with early Roman campaigns into Caledonia. A further two and half miles up the valley is a Roman camp near Horsley and then another mile upstream, is the Roman fort of Bremenium at High Rochester.
Around 139 AD this 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. Traces of a Roman road shoot off east from High Rochester towards the valley of Coquetdale and then onward to the valley of the Aln where it joins the Devils Causeway at Learchild near Whittingham.
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 a very remote but significant Roman marching camp called Chew Green close to the present Scottish Border. The northern part of the road in this area is known by the ancient name Gammel’s Path
One of the most gruelling sections of the long distance footpath called the Pennine Way follows the course of the England-Scotland border near Chew Green. Just to the west streams feed the upper wilder reaches of the River Coquet in Coquetdale. Dere Street itself continues northward from Chew Green towards the Eildon Hills and the Roman fort of Trimontium near Melrose in Scotland.
Blakehopefoot, Byrness and 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 hotel 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 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.