Rothbury, the ‘capital’ of Coquetdale is a picturesque little town situated mostly on the north bank of the River Coquet. It derives its name from Anglo-Saxon times when it was possibly the burgh or fortified manor of someone called Hrotha.
Evidence of Anglo-Saxon settlement is demonstrated by the intricately carved Rothbury Cross which dates from about 800 AD and is recognised as one of the most important Anglo-Saxon crosses of its kind. Part of the cross is now a pedestal for the font within Rothbury church and other fragments can be seen at the Great North Museum in Newcastle.
The history of Rothbury’s surrounding district goes back into even earlier times, as proved by the evidence of numerous ancient camps, cairns and stones in the neighbouring countryside.
Ancient sites around Rothbury include an Iron Age hill fort called ‘Old Rothbury’ to the west of the town which was possibly the fortified ‘burgh’ or ‘bury’ from which the later Anglo-Saxons gave the place its name. Ancient hut circles and barrows are also abundant in the area with examples on Debdon and Whitfield Moors to the north of the town.
Most notable of the ancient sites in the area is the prehistoric fort of Lordenshaws, which is situated in the hills a mile south of Rothbury at the junction of four ancient trackways. It was probably an important cult centre judging by the numerous unexplained and mysterious, ‘cup and ring’ markings in the area. Cup and Ring markings can also be seen at Doddington Moor near Wooler and in Teesdale, County Durham.
The town of Rothbury
Rothbury was originally a part of the Barony of Warkworth. Medieval owners of Rothbury included the FitzRogers, Claverings, Percys and Ogles. As a centre for an agricultural district situated on an important fording point across the Coquet, a market was granted to Rothbury during the reign of King John and in 1291 Rothbury received a charter as a market town.
The main street in Rothbury runs west to east in two rows called High Street and Front Street with High Street on the north side being on higher ground. To the west the main street heads out of the town towards the village of Thropton and onward deeper into Coquetdale.
Before leaving Rothbury the road passes the Beggars’ Rigg picnic area alongside the Coquet which acquires its name, apparently, from a gentleman of the 17th century who gave permission for the poor to “pluck his peas” that grew hereabouts. In local place-names a ‘rigg’ is a ridge.
At the eastern end of Rothbury the Front Street becomes ‘Town Foot’ before splitting into two roads. One road leads south east to Weldon Bridge and the lower parts of the Coquet valley. The other road heads north east to Alnwick past the entrance to the wonderful grounds of Cragside. Both roads skirt the borders of the Cragside estate.
Before it becomes Town Foot, the east end of Front Street is joined from the south by Church Street and Bridge Street which both have self-explanatory names. They are linked to each other near the river by a street called ‘Haw Hill’.
Bridge Street is named from the four-arched Rothbury Bridge that crosses the river into the southern part of Rothbury. This area of the town consists mostly of developments of the twentieth century.
However, Station Road on this side of the river was once home to Rothbury railway station which stood on a site that is now an industrial estate. The station served Rothbury from 1870. It was rebuilt in the 1890s but closed to passengers in 1952 and then finally closed to freight in 1963 before it was subsequently demolished.
Station Road follows the B6342 which leads about 10 miles south across sparsely populated countryside to Scots Gap near Wallington Hall and Cambo.
Whitton village and Rothbury Thrum
To the west of Rothbury bridge, Station Road leads via Whitton Bank Road to the little stone-built village of Whitton and its narrow lanes. Whitton Tower (a private house) is a pele tower and bastle house in the village that dates from the fourteenth century. It was built by the Umfravilles, the Lords of Harbottle in 1386 and from the early 1400s until the 1930s served as a residence for the Rectors of Rothbury. It then became a children’s home which it remained until the 1980s when it was divided into private abodes.
Another tower of a kind within Whitton is ‘Sharp’s Folly’, a peculiar tower built around 1720 by Archdeacon Thomas Sharp. The son of the Archbishop of York, Sharp was a Rector of Rothbury who resided at Whitton Tower. Sharp employed locals to build the folly as a kind of job-creation scheme and he is thought to have used the tower for its views and for making astronomical observations.
Back into Rothbury, the river to the east of the bridge is crossed by stepping stones. Further east still, near Thrum Mill – a former corn mill on the north side of the Coquet – the river passes through a very narrow and deep chasm between rocks known as ‘the Thrum’ before opening out onto a broad pool in a bend of the river.
In 2013 Thrum Mill featured in a TV programme ‘The Restoration Man’ hosted by North East-born architect, George Clarke which followed the progress of this beautiful mill’s restoration.
Bernard Gilpin at Rothbury
Rothbury’s Church Street is of course the home to the town’s parish church which is dedicated to All Saints. The chancel and east transepts of the church date to the 13th century but much is a rebuilding by an architect called Pickering in 1850. On a triangular green near the church is a tall cross perhaps inspired by the Anglo-Saxon Rothbury Cross. The Armstrong Cross as it is known, was erected in 1902 to the memory of William Armstrong of Cragside and his wife Margaret. It stands on the site of the ancient market cross.
Despite the church’s prominence, religion did not have a particularly strong influence in Rothbury and other parts of the Border country in the troubled times of days gone by. This was particularly the case before James I became king of both England and Scotland in 1603.
Preachers tended to avoid the area, especially in winter, when the Northumbrian weather was regarded as almost as inhospitable as the rough border folk themselves. It was avoided by all, except one Bernard Gilpin, the sixteenth century rector of Houghton-le-Spring, who deliberately set out for Northumberland each winter, to evangelize among the border peoples earning himself the unofficial title ‘Apostle of the North’.
Though an attractive and peaceful little place today, Rothbury was in times gone by a typically rough border town, as William Tomlinson records in his Guide to Northumberland (1888):
“The people of Rothbury in former times were among the wildest and most uncivilised in the county. For fighting, gaming and drinking they had a worse reputation than the inhabitants of Tynedale and Redesdale. Very little regard had the good folk of Rothbury for the laws and their love of venison frequently led them into trouble”
Another historian, Eneas Mckenzie, writing in the 1820s also recalled those times, speaking of the “…barbarous traits of a rude age (that) remained prominent in the manners of the inhabitants. Poaching, drinking, gambling and fighting…”
Mckenzie also noted how the “inhabitants were fond of music and warmly patronised their pipers and wandering minstrels”.
Bernard Gilpin was respected and somewhat feared by the dalesmen of Tyne, Rede and Coquet, so much so that on one occasion a mosstrooper stole Gilpin’s horses, but immediately returned them when he discovered the identity of the owner, for fear that the Devil would seize him.
Rothbury church was one of the places in which Gilpin would frequently preach and it was here on one occasion that two rival gangs began threatening each other, clashing their weapons while Gilpin was giving a sermon in the church. It seemed as though they were about to embark on a pitched battle inside the church. Gilpin reacted quickly; bravely stepping between them, he asked the gangs to reconcile. The two surprised factions agreed to refrain from violence, so long as Gilpin remained in their presence.
Another famous story regarding Bernard Gilpin at Rothbury church, is the subject of one of William Bell Scott’s wall paintings at Wallington Hall.
While preaching one Sunday morning, Gilpin observed a glove hanging up in the church and asked the sexton what it was for. The sexton told Gilpin that it was meant as a challenge to anyone who removed it. Gilpin asked the sexton to take the glove down, but he not surprisingly refused, fearing for his life. Gilpin therefore removed it himself, placed it in his breast pocket and continued with his sermon against the evil ways of his congregation. For some reason no one had the courage to challenge Gilpin.
Cragside : an industrial ‘wizard’s castle’
Rothbury’s biggest attraction is undoubtedly the wonderful Cragside, a grand house in a 1,200 acre parkland estate in the hills just to the east of Rothbury and owned by the National Trust.
Cragside was largely the creation of William, the First Lord Armstrong (1810-1900), the famous Victorian engineer, armaments manufacturer and inventor. A scientific ‘magician’ and also a powerful industrialist and shrewd businessman, Armstrong’s life and lifestyle are almost like a history of the Victorian age. It is not surprising that his house at Cragside is often described as a shrine to Victoriana.
Cragside was first built between 1864 and 1866 as a small modest hunting lodge located on the craggy moors overlooking Rothbury. In 1869 Armstrong employed the Scottish architect Richard Norman Shaw, to transform this building into the magnificent almost Germanic ‘fairytale’ house we see today, its appearance earning it a comparison to a wizard’s palace.
Armstrong also transformed the land around the house into a beautiful wooded park with lakes such as Debdon Lake and Nelly’s Moss Lake and a number of pleasant walks. The lakes served a functional, as well as an aesthetic purpose as Armstrong used some of them to create hydro electricity. Indeed Cragside, was the first house in the world to be lit by electricity derived from water power.
Cragside also had a kitchen spit and two elevators operated hydraulically. Armstrong was a man well ahead of his time and his house and its grounds are one of the most spectacular sites of the region. Armstrong was, incidentally, also the owner of Bamburgh Castle.
The Coquet Valley: East of Rothbury
Pauperhaugh and Brinkburn Priory
The road east-south-east from Rothbury more or less follows the lower dale and vale of the Coquet as the river makes its journey towards the sea. The road skirts the steeply wooded grounds of Cragside with the river to its south.
About two miles from Rothbury the road and river pass a tiny hamlet called Pauperhaugh. In the 1820s the visiting historian Mckenzie remarked that Pauperhaugh consisted of three farmholds and that everyone who lived there was called Armstrong except for a servant.
The name Pauperhaugh is curious. A haugh is flat riverside land but the place was originally called Papworthhaugh, meaning the ‘worth’ (an enclosure) belonging to someone called papa or papi. There is an old Norse word ‘papi’ meaning ‘hermit’ which might offer an explanation, so perhaps there was once a hermitage here. A stone bridge at Pauperhaugh dates from 1862 and was built by the Duke of Northumberland. It carries a minor road across the Coquet.
From Pauperhaugh the main road continues east through a hamlet called Prior’s Gate and about a mile from Pauperhaugh where a road leads off south to Brinkburn Priory, an English Heritage property situated within a pretty wooded loop of the River Coquet.
This was a priory of Augustinian canons founded in 1135. What makes this priory different from the remains of many other medieval priories in Britain is that it has a roof, as the priory was restored and a roof added in the 19th century.
It was in 1858 that an architect, Thomas Austin, restored the priory’s church for the Cadogan family and the result is sympathetic to the building’s heritage. The architectural historian and critic Nikolaus Pevsner remarked: “…architecturally, in the proper sense of the word, nothing has been lost…”
English Heritage encourage the exploration and admiration of the priory’s stained glass windows, its William Hill organ, its acoustics, the neighbouring abandoned manor house, the peeling wallpaper, a rusty old range and even highlight the possibility of spotting an otter or two in the nearby River Coquet.
The Augustinian canons were not the first people to occupy this loop of the River Coquet. In earlier times it had been the site of an ancient camp. It is certainly a delightful spot.
About half a mile east of Brinkburn, the Devil’s Causeway Roman road crossed the Coquet. This ancient road which is barely traceable in most places shoots off from the Hadrian’s Wall area near Corbridge in a north westerly direction across the full length of Northumberland towards the mouth of the Tweed where it can be traced to Spittal near the outskirts of Berwick.
Half a mile west of the point where the Roman road crossed the Coquet, the A697 Morpeth to Coldstream road now crosses the river at Weldon Bridge. Weldon was once a noted coaching stop:
“At Weldon Bridge there’s wale o’ wine,
If ye hae coin in pocket,
If ye can thraw a heckle fine,
There’s wale of trout in Coquet.”
The name of the River Coquet, we should advise, rhymes with ‘go get’ rather than ‘pocket’ or at least according to today’s pronunciation.
The old bridge at Weldon which is just upstream from the modern main road bridge dates from the 18th century as does the neighbouring Anglers’ Arms at the north end of the bridge. Angling seems to be quite the theme around here and the Coquet is a river that has long been noted for its trout. It seems that it has more than once inspired fishermen of times past to hail its charms in verse:
The Coquet forever, the Coquet for aye!
The Coquet the king o’ the stream an’ the brae;
From his high mountain throne, to his bed in the sea,
Oh! where shall we find such a river as he?
Then blessings be on him, and lang may he glide,
The fisherman’s home and the fisherman’s pride;
From Harden’s green hill to old Warkworth sae gray,
The Coquet forever, the Coquet for aye!
Weldon Bridge is situated between the two Northumbrian ‘long villages’ on the A697 which may well confuse the traveller making a journey on this busy road. About two and a half miles to the south of Weldon towards Morpeth is Longhorsley and about a mile and a half to the north of Weldon is Lonfgramlington.
Longframlington, which belonged to a John De Eslington during the reign of Henry III was later divided up into several freeholds. The church here is 12th century and the village includes two notable Georgian houses – Rockwood House and Embleton Hall which respectively date from 1717 and 1730.
Swarland and Old Swarland
Two miles east of Longframlington is Swarland and a mile to its south a little nearer to the River Coquet is Old Swarland. The name comes from ‘Swaer-Land’ meaning ‘land that was heavy to plough’. In medieval times Swarland had belonged to the Carliol family who were a family of note in Newcastle.
Old Swarland, a small farming village with an old hall of the late seventeenth century later belonged to the Haslerigg family who were noted as very staunch Roundheads during the Civil War. The Hasleriggs had inherited Swarland through marriage and also owned land at Woolsington, Fawdon and Weetslade near Newcastle.
Now self-catering holiday accommodation, Old Swarland Hall is a lovely old building with an intriguing castellated gable-end wall decorated with Gothic arches.
Around 1740 Swarland was bought by the Grieve family of Alnwick for whom in 1765 the architect John Carr built a new Swarland Hall on a much grander scale than the old hall. Carr also created new surrounding parkland on this site which is a mile to the north of Old Swarland.
In 1795 the new hall was bought by a well-travelled and wealthy Northumberland-born businessman called Alexander Davison who had been a personal friend of Trafalgar hero Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson. In 1807 Davison built an obelisk memorial to Nelson in Swarland Park near to the present A1.
Clearly a military fanatic and a bit of an eccentric, Davison laid out part of the park in the shape of Aboukir Bay (on the Nile delta) to commemorate Nelson’s leadership in the Battle of the Nile, a naval engagement against the French that took place in 1798. Trees and shrubs were laid out in the park to represent the formation of the British fleet.
Later proprietors of Swarland Hall included a colliery owner called Hugh Andrews; a High Sheriff of Northumberland called James Woods and the owners of the Shilbottle and Longframlington collieries.
Much of the hall was derelict by the 1930s and the last vestiges were demolished in 1947. In the mid 1930s the hall estate was bought by Commander Clare Vyner of Studley Royal near Ripon in Yorkshire who owned the ruins of the famous Fountains Abbey. He was keen to assist people from deprived areas who had been affected by the Great Depression and many young impoverished teenage lads from Tyneside headed south into Yorkshire to reside in a camp at Fountains Abbey where they learned a range of skills designed to improve their prospects of work.
Vyner established the Fountains Abbey Settlers’ Society Limited and in Northumberland created a new settlement on the Swarland estate consisting of smallholdings and houses for occupation by Tyneside tradesmen who were long-term unemployed and for whom jobs were found in local villages and towns. However, many workers returned to Tyneside when the onset of the Second World War renewed the demand for heavy industry. From the 1970s some of the smallholdings at Swarland were adapted as plots for new houses in a substantial modern village that has continued to grow.
Newton Hall, Swarland’s country estate neighbour at Newton-on-the-Moor to the north east is, like Swarland, also on the west side of the A1. Dating from 1772 and altered and added to by John Dobson in 1851 it was once the seat of the Cooks who later changed their name to Widdrington. Newton Hall is a private house and should not be confused with Newton Hall, another old hall which is near Newton by the Sea on the Northumberland coast between Embleton and Beadnell.
East of the A1 from Old Swarland the continuously winding valley of the River Coquet plays host to the villages of Felton and West Thirston, then Guyzance, Warkworth and finally Amble-by-the-Sea which faces out to the lonely Coquet Island. Here, however we have strayed a long way from Rothbury to which we now return and head west into upper Coquetdale.
Coquetdale: West of Rothbury
Thropton and Great Tosson
Having now returned to Rothbury the main road west takes us out into Coquetdale. At one time it is thought that this dale was the home to a great wood called the Cock Wood – ‘Cocwud’ – a forest frequented by wild birds. Later Cocwudale became ‘Cocudale’ and through a process which place-name experts call ‘back-formation’, the river came to be known as ‘Cocud’ and then Coquet. If correct this of course begs the question what was the river called before it became the Coquet?
The first village we encounter to the west of Rothbury is Thropton, only a mile west of the town. Its name means something like ‘village farm’. The element ‘throp’ meaning ‘a small village or outlying farm’ is seemingly the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of the Viking word ‘thorpe’ which is very common in the Danelaw settled areas of England. There’s a Presbyterian church of 1863 here at Thropton and a Catholic church of 1811 but there’s no medieval parish church.
A footbridge from Thropton leads across the Coquet where a path of about three quarter’s of a mile long leads to the hamlet of Great Tosson on the edge of the Simonside Hills to the south.
Great Tosson is the home to Tosson Tower and Woodhouses Bastle House, a fortified farmhouse. The tower is a border pele of the 14th or 15th century while the bastle house dates from the 16th or 17th century.
The summit of Simonside itself is about a mile and a half south of Great Tosson and about a mile to the to the west of the hill is another hill called Tossson Hill, which is the home to the ancient fort of Tosson Burgh. The name Tosson may come from the Anglo-Saxon ‘tot-stan’ meaning ‘look-out stone’.
Snitter to Cartington and Biddlestone
In the hills north of Thropton we find the very scant ruins of Cartington Castle that was once the home to a family of that name. The castle began life as a 14th century pele tower. In 1648 it was a Royalist stronghold held by Sir Edward Widdrington that very briefly held out to the Parliamentarians who besieged it that year.
North west of Thropton is the valley of the Wreigh Burn or Netherton Burn as it is known in its upper reaches in the Cheviots. Along its course and neighbouring roads are Snitter, High and Low Trewhit, Trewhitt Hall, Burradon, Netherton and, near Harden Hill, where the burn rises, we find Biddlestone. This place was historically the seat of the Selby family whose members included a notorious freebooter who assisted in the kidnapping of the Bishop of Durham at Rushyford in 1317.
The old Biddlestone Hall of the Selbys is thought to be the ‘Osbadeston Hall’ of Sir Walter Scott’s Rob Roy but the hall was demolished and replaced by a new one in 1796. The Selbys continued to reside here until 1914. The new hall was itself demolished in 1957, though the associated Biddlestone Chapel of 1820 remains.
Caistron and Hepple
Returning to the Coquet valley, west of Thropton the main Coquetdale road runs along the north side of the valley with lovely views of the river’s winding course below.
Here we encounter the hamlets of Warton, Flotterton, Caistron and Hepple. If desired we can cross a bridge at Hepple and head back east along a minor road on the south side through Bickerton (which means ‘bee keeper’s farm’), then on to Little Tosson, Ryehill, Great Tosson, Whitton and then back across the bridge into Rothbury.
At Caistron there are lakes alongside the river on the south side which serve as a trout fishery. The name Caistron at first glance looks like it might signify some kind of fort but in fact the name derives from ‘Carse-Thirn’ meaning ‘scrubby bush marshland where thorn bushes grew’.
Hepple further upstream derives from ‘Heop-Halh’ meaning the ‘flat riverside land where hips (dog roses) grew’. The Northumbrian surname Hepple and its variant spellings derive from this place.
From Hepple the natural continuation of the valley upstream is along the Grasslees Burn to the south west which the main Coquetdale road continues to follow towards Billsmoor and onward to Elsdon in Redesdale. Before Billsmoor the burn passes close to a farm house called Midgy Ha’ which means ‘the midgy-infested hall’.
However the Grasslees Burn is a very minor stream and not the main valley. The River Coquet has made a sharp turn south of Hepple so we need to head along a lesser road to the north west to follow the river’s course upstream to Holystone and Sharperton.
The holy well of Holystone
The village of Holystone (traditionally pronounced ‘Halystane’ in the local dialect) is on the south side of the Coquet, to the east of Harbotttle. It is said to be the place where in the Easter of 627 AD, the Roman missionary, Paulinus baptised 3,000 Anglo-Saxons, including the Northumbrian King, Edwin. The site of the baptism is said to be marked by the ancient Lady’s Well, now looked after by the National Trust. The well consists of a spring-fed pool, at the centre of which stands a Celtic style cross dedicated to St Paulinus.
Like many parts of Coquetdale, Holystone has its share of ancient remains, such as a Roman road linking Dere Street and the Devil’s Causeway to the north of the village. The road’s course passes close to the neighbouring village of Sharperton. To the south of Holystone are five standing stones called the ‘Five Kings’, which form a line forty six feet in length.
Harbottle and the Druid’s Stone
Two miles upstream from Holystone, the next village we encounter is Harbottle in the Kidland Forest area. Harbottle is the site of the ruined Harbottle Castle, once owned by the Umfraville family. The element ‘bottle’ in the name means buidling or buildings and the place-name as been interpreted as the ‘dwelling of the hirelings’ or the ‘buildings of the herepath’ (a routeway used by armies).
Harbottle Castle was founded by Odinel De Umfraville on the orders of Henry II sometime in the later half of the 12th century. It was an important part of the defences of the English border and was for many years the headquarters for the Wardens of the English Middle March.
These men were responsible for maintaining peace, law and order in the turbulent days of Border warfare. Thomas Dacre who served that role during the reign of Henry VIII lived at the castle and was notorious for stirring up trouble between the reivers of Coquetdale and Redesdale. Tensions between feuding families in the two rival valleys continued into the 1700s.
A notable visitor to Harbottle Castle was Margaret Tudor, the sister of King Henry VIII. At Harbottle she gave birth to a daughter, also called Margaret, who was the grandmother of King James I of England (James VI of Scotland)
On the Harbottle hills overlooking Harbottle village to the south, is a tiny lake called Harbottle Lough and nearby a prominent thirty feet high sandstone rock called the Drake Stone, Dragon stone or Draag stone. This was once supposedly associated with black magic and ancient druid’s rites. Even in relatively recent times children were passed over the rock to cure them from sickness.
The Harbottle hills do seem to be steeped in legend and superstition, for it is said that there was once a plan to drain the Harbottle Lough but the plan was abandoned after the workmen fled, upon hearing some mysterious, unseen person speak out loudly against their intended actions:
“Let alone, let alone
Or a’ll droon Harbottle
And the Peels
And the Bonny Holystone.”
Next up the valley a mile to the north west of Harbottle is the village of Alwinton, (pronounced Alenton) where the little River Alwin (a Celtic name) joins the Coquet from the north. A pathway north from Alwinton follows the course of a very ancient routeway called Clennell Street, also known in the past as Ermspeth – ‘the eagle’s way’ – which links Morpeth to Kelso. There are numerous ancient sites along its course, mostly of the Bronze Age just to the north of Alwinton.
West of Alwinton the beautiful River Coquet can be traced for several miles along narrow minor roads in wonderfully wild scenery with only the occasional scattered farmhouse or two for human company. Up here the Coquet begins in the wilderness of the Cheviot Hills on the England Scotland border, near the remote Roman camp of Chew Green to the north of the neighbouring valley of Redesdale.