Rothbury : Coquetdale ‘capital’
Here we explore the small town of Rothbury and trace the course of the River Coquet firstly downstream into its lower valley and then upstream into the upland valley of Coquetdale to the west of Rothbury. It is a beautiful valley along its entire course with a rich associated history.
We begin at Rothbury itself, the unofficial ‘capital’ of Coquetdale, a picturesque little town that is a great place to start. It is situated mostly on the north bank of the River Coquet and 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 upon Tyne.
The history of Rothbury’s surrounding district goes back into even earlier times than the era of the Rothbury Cross, as proven 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 neighbouring place its name.
Hut circles and barrows from ancient times 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.
Lordenshaws was probably an important cult centre judging by the numerous unexplained and mysterious, prehistoric ‘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 and several other places but particularly in Northumberland.
Rothbury was originally a part of the Barony of Warkworth and 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 it leaves Rothbury the road passes the Beggars’ Rigg picnic area alongside the Coquet. This acquires its name, apparently, from a gentleman of the seventeenth 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 twentieth century development.
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, 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, Lords of Harbottle in 1386. From the early 1400s until the 1930s it 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 in 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. He 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 thirteenth century but much is a rebuilding by Durham architect, George 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 Lord William Armstrong of Cragside and his wife Margaret. Decorated with motifs inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement it stands on the site of the ancient market cross.
Despite the church’s prominence, religion did not always 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 explained 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 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.
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.
Coquet Valley : Pauperhaugh
We now head east from Rothbury downstream into the gentle low-lying valley of the River Coquet. 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 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 by William De Bertram, Baron Mitford. 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 nineteenth century.
It was in 1858 that an architect, Thomas Austin, restored the priory’s church for the Cardogan family and the result is sympathetic to the building’s heritage. There was enough material available to affectively undertake a restoration so that 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 beautiful manor house of Brinkburn stands on part of the monastery site. One part is Georgian and the other a castellated Victorian extension. The building is an empty shell.
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.
Although they did not stay and settle in great numbers as they did in other regions of the North, one important group of visitors who encamped in the Coquet valley were the Vikings under Halfdan who used the Coquet Valley as a base for their raids in north Northumbria and Scotland.
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 easterly 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 eighteenth 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’ (Longhorsley and Longframlington) both on the A697 which may well confuse the traveller making a journey on this busy road.
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 twelfth 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 nearer the Coquet is Old Swarland. ‘Swaer-Land’ means ‘land that is heavy to plough’. In medieval times Swarland belonged to the Carliols, a family of note in Newcastle. Old Swarland, a farming village with an old hall of the late seventeenth century later belonged to the Hasleriggs who were staunch Roundheads during the Civil War. The Hasleriggs inherited Swarland through marriage, also owning land at Woolsington, Fawdon and Weetslade.
Now self-catering holiday accommodation, Old Swarland Hall is a lovely building with an intriguing castellated gable-end wall decorated with Gothic arches. Around 1740 Swarland was bought by the Grieves of Alnwick for whom in 1765 architect John Carr built the grander Swarland Hall. Carr also created a new parkland on this site a mile north of Old Swarland.
In 1795 the new hall was bought by well-travelled, wealthy Northumberland businessman, Alexander Davison, a personal friend of Trafalgar hero, Lord Nelson. In 1807 Davison built an obelisk memorial to Nelson in Swarland Park near the present A1.
Clearly an eccentric military fanatic, Davison laid out part of the park in the shape of Aboukir Bay (on the Nile delta) commemorating Nelson’s leadership in the naval Battle of the Nile, against the French in 1798. Trees and shrubs were laid out in the formation of the British fleet. Later proprietors of Swarland Hall included colliery owner Hugh Andrews; Northumberland High Sheriff, James Woods and the owners of Shilbottle and Longframlington collieries.
Much of the hall was derelict by the 1930s and its last vestiges demolished in 1947. In the mid 1930s the hall’s 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 affected by the Great Depression. Many young impoverished teenage lads from Tyneside headed to Yorkshire to reside in a camp at Fountains Abbey to learn 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 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.
Many workers returned to Tyneside at the onset of World War Two with the renewed demand for industry. From the 1970s some of the Swarland smallholdings 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, like Swarland, is on the west side of the A1. Dating from 1772 and altered by John Dobson in 1851 it was once the seat of the Cooks who changed their name to Widdrington. Newton Hall is a private house that should not be confused with Newton Hall, another old hall near Newton-by-the-Sea on the Northumberland coast between Embleton and Beadnell.
Felton and West Thirston
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 and then Guyzance.
Felton is a small town-like village to the east of the A1 and is linked by a bridge to the village of West Thirston on the south side of the Coquet. These are attractive villages of stone houses and to the west is the church of St Michael which dates from the thirteenth century, though much belongs to restoration of the Victorian era.
There are in fact two bridges, old and new, standing side by side linking West Thirston and Felton. The original old bridge, dating back to the fifteenth century is now for pedestrians only. Felton was once on the Great North Road, which explains its town-like appearance, though the A1 now, of course, bypasses the village half a mile to the west.
In 1215 English barons met at Felton to pay homage to King Alexander of Scotland, transferring their allegiance from King John of England. The following year King John and his army burned the village in a fit of rage, apparently reducing it to ashes.
During the Jacobite Rising of 1715, a small band of Northumbrian Jacobites were joined here by around seventy Scots as they headed south towards Morpeth. Nearby Felton Park was used by the Jacobites as a temporary base but in the Jacobite Rising of 1745 Felton seems to have switched its allegiance.
In that year it played host to the Duke of Cumberland and his army as they headed north to ultimately defeat the Scottish Jacobites, in brutal fashion, at the battle of Culloden.
The Coquet twists and turns downstream from Felton and particularly so at the hamlet of Guyzance about two miles to the north east. This peculiar name is a corruption of Gysnes, probably from a Norman who once lived hereabouts. Guyzance was called ‘Gsynes’ or ‘Gynes’ in the 1200s and ultimately takes its name from Guines near Calais.
The very scant remains of the medieval chapel of St Wilfrid of Gysnes stand alongside the Coquet at nearby Brainshaugh and are marked on maps as a ‘priory’ ruin. It belonged to the canons of Alnwick to whom it was given by Richard Tyson in the twelfth century. It supposedly had a subterranean passage linking it to Brinkburn Priory further up the Coquet, but this was probably an overground route through the then thick forests of the district.
From Guyzance and Brainshaugh the Coquet continues east towards Warkworth and finally onward to Amble-by-the-Sea which faces out to the lonely Coquet Island. Here, however we have strayed a long way from Rothbury and now turn our attention to Coquetdale, the upland valley of the River Coquet to the west of Rothbury.
Coquetdale : Thropton
Returning to Rothbury we now head upstream into upland Coquetdale where the river still takes on a winding, meandering nature. This is part of the Coquet’s charm, a characteristic teasing, flirtatious almost coquettish course. Sadly this is not, however, the origin of the river’s name.
At one time it is thought that Coquetdale 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, a substantial village only a mile west of the town. Its name means something like ‘village farm’.
The element ‘throp’ in the name of Thropton means ‘a small village or outlying farm’ and is seemingly the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of the Viking word ‘thorpe’ which is very common in the Danelaw settled areas of England (which did not include Northumberland) though the ‘Throp’ in Thropton could still of course be Viking.
There’s a former Presbyterian church of 1863 here at Thropton (now a United Reformed Church) and a Catholic church of 1811 but there’s no medieval parish church.
Great Tosson and the Simonsides
A footbridge from Thropton leads across the Coquet where a path of about three quarters 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, a fortified farmhouse. The tower itself is a border pele of the fourteenth or fifteenth century. The summit of Simonside itself is about a mile and a half south of Great Tosson with Lordenshaws to the east. About a mile to the west of Great Tosson is another hill called Tosson 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’. The first element also occurs in the name of Tow Law (from ‘tot-hlaw’ meaning ‘lookout hill’) in County Durham.
The name Simonside which gives its name to the range of hills was recorded as Simundessete in the thirteenth century and may incorporate either the word ‘side’ as in hillside or ‘set’ which is an old word for a fold. The first part of the name is a Germanic or Norse name, Sigmund.
Simonside hill forms a distinct heather covered ridge-like sandstone hill. Although not as prominent as the Cheviot range to the north, like the Cheviots, the Simonsides can be seen from many miles away. They can certainly be viewed from as far south as some parts of central County Durham.
Snitter to Cartington and Biddlestone
For a couple of miles west of Thropton if we follow the valley of the Coquet upstream it twists and turns in a remarkable fashion across a narrow floodplain bordered by hills. There are few if any settlements in this section of the valley itself with most settlements, predominantly farms, being in the hills to the north of Thropton and away from the river.
In the hills north of Thropton itself we find the scant ruins of Cartington Castle that was once home to a family of that name. The castle began life as a fourteenth 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 which joins the Coquet at Thropton. Along the course of this little valley, the neighbouring road passes Snitter, High and Low Trewhit, Trewhitt Hall, Burradon and Netherton. Snitter apparently comes from ‘sniteren’ from an old word meaning ‘to snow’ or possibly from a Scandinavian word for a corner of land. Trewhitt is a Viking name meaning ‘clearing among the firs’.
Interestingly, in and around the Rothbury area unlike most other parts of Northumberland there are numerous hints of Viking place-names though not on the scale you would find in say the Yorkshire Dales, Cumbria, Cleveland or even Lincolnshire.
In its upper sections the Wreigh Burn becomes the Netherton Burn, named from the nearby village of Netherton. Netherton has a straightforward Anglo-Saxon name meaning ‘lower farm’. Here in this area of the Cheviots we are at a watershed with some streams nearby feeding the River Aln with the village of Alnham nearby to the north east.
About a mile and a half west of Netherton, near Harden Hill, where the Netherton 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 main 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 and Flotterton in the neighbouring hills with Caistron and Hepple closer to the River Coquet to the south west.
If desired we can cross the bridge near 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 back across a bridge into Rothbury.
At Caistron there are lakes in the flood plain alongside the River Coquet 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 its name 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.
About three quarters of a mile to the west of Hepple, the natural continuation of the valley upstream is along the Grasslees Burn to the south west. The main Coquetdale road continues along the Grasslees Burn valley towards Billsmoor and onward to Elsdon in Redesdale. Before Billsmoor the burn passes close to a farm house called Midgy Ha’ which means ‘midgy-infested hall’.
The B6341 road heads along the Grasslees Valley towards Elsdon. A roadside layby here about two miles south of Hepple and three miles north of Elsdon has an information board describing a four mile circular walk that takes in Darden Lough, a small lake amongst the hills a mile and a half to the south.
However the Grasslees Burn is a very minor stream and not the main valley. The River Coquet has made a sharp turn near 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.
Not far from where the river changes course at the junction with the Grasslees Burn to the west of Hepple, we continue to follow the course of the Coquet valley upstream. We are now heading in a south to north direction rather than east to west.
Nearby at Holystone Grange with the hills of Holystone Common forming part of the Cheviots to the west is Woodhouses Bastle. This is an excellent example of a fortified farmhouse and dates from the sixteenth or seventeenth century.
Specifically Woodhouses Bastle is thought to date from 1602, which is relatively late in the age of Border reviving. Its builders are thought to have been the Potts family. An information board at the site explains the different features of the building which was occupied until the early part of the twentieth century. There are pleasing views east towards the Simonsides from the bastle house.
Holy Well of Holystone
Upstream, a little over a mile from Woodhouses, the village of Holystone (traditionally pronounced ‘Halystane’ in the local dialect) is on the west bank of the Coquet, half way between Hepple and Harbottle.
Holystone is said to be one of the places where the Roman missionary, Paulinus baptised thousands of local people in AD627 during the reign of the Northumbrian king, Edwin. Paulinus is also known to have performed baptism in the River Glen near Yeavering and in the River Swale at Catterick in what is now North Yorkshire.
If Holystone’s connection to Paulinus is genuine, then the site of the baptism is marked by the ancient Lady’s Well, now looked after by the National Trust. This well consists of a spring-fed pool, at the centre of which stands a Celtic style cross.
The well is maintained by the National Trust who include a helpful sign that informs that this holy well was once a watering place beside the Roman Road leading to the fort of Bremenium (High Rochester) in Redesdale. It took its present form in either Roman or Medieval times and a wall was built around it.
Holystone was the site of small priory of Augustinian Canonesses and through this all-female establishment it came to be known as the Lady’s Well. The priory was demolished during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1541.
The figure of a priest or religious man of some kind overlooks the well and is sometimes identified with Paulinus. It was brought here from Alnwick Castle in the nineteenth century.
Despite the long association with Paulinus, the well is also known as St Ninian’s Well, after the fifth century saint which is often the case with those ancient wells in the borders region, that date from the Roman era.
Interestingly, the National Trust sign mentions St Ninian but not Paulinus. It is a bit of a mystery as the recorded mentions of the well’s association with St Ninian seem to be later than those that connect it to Paulinus, but the connection with Paulinus is thought to have been an historical error. Whatever its origins, this is certainly a beautiful spot. In times past people would throw pins and coins into the well for good luck.
Incidentally, few question the name of the little village of Holystone in which the well is situated and naturally connect it with the ‘holy well’. However the village is Holystone not Holy Well and it is tempting to connect its name with the prominent ancient Drake Stone at Harbottle a little further up the dale.
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 ‘building’ or ‘buildings’ and the place-name has 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 twelfth 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 and 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 just under a mile to the north west of Harbottle is the village of Alwinton, (pronounced Alenton) where the little River Alwin which has a Celtic name, joins the Coquet from the north. The Alwin actually joins the Coquet at the hamlet of Low Alwinton which is separate from the main village a little further to the north.
Low Alwinton is the site of holiday cottages and the historic Alwinton church. The church, dedicated to St Michael and All Angels, stands on a steeply sloping site with the nave and chancel on different levels linked by ten steps. Eighteenth century tombs of the Clennell family of Harbottle are contained within the north aisle.
Thought to be on the site of an Anglo-Saxon church, it had certainly been a Norman edifice with a thirteenth century transept added later but in truth most of the present church is a nineteenth century restoration by the Durham architect, George Pickering.
A little over a quarter of a mile to the north of Low Alwinton set away from the river is the main village of Alwinton. The river itself veers upstream north eastwards towards Clennell Hall. From Clennell a road heads two miles east to Biddlestone.
Alwinton village itself to the west is at the heart of some popular walking country. Here there is a Northumberland National Park car park and a lovely stone-built pub called the Rose and Thistle. Sir Walter Scott is thought to have stayed at Alwinton while collecting material for Roby Roy.
Clennell Hall at Clennell near the River Alwin just under a mile to the north east dates mostly from the 1890s and is built in Tudor style. Part of the building is an earlier sixteenth century tower house. There was once a hamlet nearby called Clennell with a name that may mean the ‘clean hill’ – a hill that was clear of overgrowth. Clennell also gave rise to the surname Clennell that originated from here.
A pathway north from Alwinton follows the ancient routeway of Clennell Street, known in times past as Ermspeth – ‘the eagle’s way’ – linking Morpeth to Kelso. There are numerous ancient sites along its course, mostly of the Bronze Age, north of Alwinton.
West and north west of Alwinton the beautiful Coquet can be traced for 12 miles to its source along narrow roads in wonderfully wild Cheviot scenery. A mile and a half west of Alwinton at Linshiels the upstream course of the Coquet takes us north west to Shilmoor. Here the river is joined on its north side by the Usway Burn which rises near the Cheviot and skirts Kidland Forest.
Back along the Coquet, two miles north of Shilmoor, there’s a little junction where the road crosses the Rowhope Burn by a tiny bridge. Here a minor road heads north for two miles towards the hill of Windy Gyle (2,034 feet above sea level) near the Scottish border before heading back south east towards Clennell and Alwinton. Windy Gyle is topped by a Bronze Age cairn named Russell’s Cairn after a Northumberland MP, Lord Francis Russell who was slain here in July 1585. His murder was the result of an affray during a meeting of the wardens of the marches.
Returning to the junction of Rowhope and the Coquet we are still some miles from the Coquet source. Pausing to glance at a map we may enjoy the names of hills and valleys in this part of Coquetdale: Dumb Hope; Woolbist Law; Yearning Law; Brooming Crook; Beef Stand; Pepper Side; Pete’s Shank and Chew Green. From Rowhope the Coquet and accompanying road pass Blindburn; Buckham’s Bridge, Walton and Makendon before reaching a little car park at Chew Green a mile from the source of the Coquet.
At Chew Green there are traces of a huge Roman camp situated on Dere Street. Here the Roman road called Dere Street (known in the Cheviots as ‘Gammels Path’) changes from a north westerly direction into a northerly direction making its way (from York) towards the great Roman fort of Trimontium near Melrose in Scotland. Hereabouts Dere Street in part follows the pathway course of the Pennine Way. Just south west of Chew Green the Coquet forms the border with Scotland for a little less than a mile where its eventual source is lost in the moorland moss of Coquet Head.