South Tynedale

South Tynedale scenery
South Tynedale scenery © David Simpson

River South Tyne

The South Tyne rises at Tynehead Fell in Cumbria, to the east of Cross Fell, the highest hill in the Pennines. Around half a mile to the south of Tynehead and also in Cumbria we find the neighbouring River Tees which rises on Cross Fell itself. To the east of Tynehead Fell beyond Burnhope Seat in County Durham, the fledgling River Wear also begins as a series of streams.

From its source the South Tyne flows north from Tynehead to the little village of Garigill and in a further two miles is joined by the Black Burn, also from Cross Fell. Within a mile and a half the South Tyne reaches Alston where it is joined from the east by the River Nent.

Alston Moor looking towards Cross Fell
Alston Moor looking towards Cross Fell © David Simpson


The market town of Alston in Cumbria is situated on the South Tyne and is a hub for the North Pennines with roads leading out across the moors to Teesdale and Weardale and into parts of Cumbria, as well as continuing along the South Tyne valley to the north.

Alston Market Place
Alston Market Place © David Simpson

Early records show that Alston was originally called Aldenby, a Viking place-name that was still used as late as the 1170s. It may mean Aldhun’s village or perhaps Halfdan’s village. The ‘by’ element of the name indicates that it was a Viking farm or village. This type of place-name is quite common in the Eden valley of Cumbria to the south but not along the Tyne to the north in Northumberland. By the 1200s the town had changed its name to Aldenstun and was often known as Aldstone or Aldston in later times. It is a rare known incidence of a place-name being changed from the Viking ‘by’ to the Anglo-Saxon ‘tun’.

Steep streets are a feature of Alston © David Simpson

The settlement of the Vikings hereabout may explain Alston’s location in Cumbria where there was extensive Viking settlement in marked contrast to Northumberland.

Geographically, Alston is something of a peculiarity being situated in Cumbria (historically in Cumberland) rather than in Northumberland despite its situation on the South Tyne which is mostly a Northumbrian river.

There were all kinds of confusions in the past that in part resulted from this. Alston’s historic church of St Austin was in the Diocese of Durham, but it was also in the deanery of Corbridge and belonged to the Abbey of Hexham and what is more Alston and neighbouring Alston Moor formed part of the Liberty of Tynedale that once belonged to the Scottish kings yet they still lay within England.

Alston © David Simpson

So Alston was under the sovereignty of the English kings but not English ownership, though this was rectified by the English in the 1260s in the reign of Edward I.

Early owners of the manor of Alston were the Vipont family (or Veripontes) who held Alston on behalf of the King of Scotland. A Nicholas Vipont is mentioned as Lord of the Manor in the reign of Edward II. Later, Alston passed to the Cliffords around the reign of Henry V and then to the Whitlows about the time of Henry VI. It then passed later to the Ratcliffes of Dilston near Corbridge whose lands were confiscated following their part in the Jacobite rebellion of 1715.

Market Cross, Alston
Market Cross, Alston © David Simpson

Alston is centred on a sloping market place with lots of interesting stone houses and a market cross at the centre. The cross dates from the nineteenth century and is a replica of an earlier market cross. One notable house in the town dates back to 1681 but the church, dedicated to St Augustine of Canterbury (or St Austin) was built in 1870 on the site of an earlier church of that name and lies at the heart of the village where it is encircled by the Kings Arms Lane.

House at Alston, dated 1681
House at Alston, dated 1681 © David Simpson

Front Street, which joins the market place to the west is the home to Alston Town Hall of 1857, built at a time when Alston was a thriving lead mining centre and most of its inhabitants were miners employed in this trade. Others worked in the usual trades associated with a market town. Lead shot was once manufactured here and in the 1820s it is noted that the town employed linen weavers, dyers and spinners. There were once 19 public houses in the town.

The South Tyne at Alston
The South Tyne at Alston © David Simpson

Alston and the Nent

At the north end of Alston, the South Tyne is joined by the River Nent where we find the southern terminus of the South Tynedale Railway, a narrow 2 feet gauge railway that operates along a 5 mile line down the valley into Northumberland. It opened in 1983 and follows the course of a former standard gauge line that closed in 1976. Nearby is the Hub Heritage Museum in an old goods shed that has an interesting collection of vintage vehicles including cars and old bicycles.

Alston Town Hall dates from 1857 and was designed by A.B Higham of Newcastle
Alston Town Hall dates from 1857 and was designed by A.B Higham of Newcastle © David Simpson

To the north of Alston, the South Tyne leaves Cumbria and enters Northumberland. Just before it leaves the county there is an old farmhouse dating from the 1740s called Randalholm Hall. It is built around an earlier fortified pele tower of the fourteenth century.

South Tynedale just north of Alston
South Tynedale just north of Alston © David Simpson

The River Nent rises less than five miles east of Alston in the Cumbrian village of Nenthead which lies over 1,400 feet above sea level. It rises close to the border with County Durham not far from Killhope Cross in the remote upper reaches of Weardale. Nenthead was a lead mining centre and former mines in the neighbourhood are open to explore in tour trips on certain designated days.

Alston Market Cross looking towards the valley of the South Tyne
Alston Market Cross looking towards the valley of the South Tyne © David Simpson

Along the Nent just to the west of Alston is a small waterfall called Nent Force. Nearby there is a five mile long underground canal called Nent Force Level that was built by engineer John Smeaton in the eighteenth century.

Kirkhaugh and Whitley Castle

Kirkhaugh on the South Tyne is in Northumberland about half a mile north of the Cumbrian border and its Anglo-Saxon name means the riverside meadow land (haugh) with a church (kirk).

Kirkhaugh is home to the Holy Paraclete church which stands alongside the South Tyne and has a very thin, needle-like spire. This church mostly dates to 1869, but there is a thirteenth century window and a Saxon cross which, like the place-name, betray the antiquity of the site.

South Tynedale near Kirkhaugh
South Tynedale near Kirkhaugh © David Simpson

Kirkhaugh church is on the west side of the South Tyne but the hamlet of Kirkhaugh itself, a collection of farm buildings, is across the river to the north west and is situated away from the river on the adjoining stream called the Mill Burn. On the west bank of the South Tyne opposite the church, the river is also joined by a stream called the Lort Burn. Interestingly this was also the name of a stream that once joined the River Tyne on Newcastle Quayside.

The Lort Burn lies just to the north of the Roman fort called Whitley Castle, known to the Romans as Epiacum and situated on the north-south Roman road called the Maiden Way which can be traced in places through the countryside of South Tynedale.

Epiacum © David Simpson

Epicacum is a particularly unusual fort as it is diamond in shape rather than the typical playing card shape associated with Roman forts. It is thought to have been built to protect the Roman lead mining interests in this part of the Pennines.

Built in the second century AD, Epiacum was situated in the former territory of the tribe called the Brigantes and may be named from a local tribal leader. The Brigantes are often considered to be the largest tribal group in Britain but were in fact a confederation of numerous smaller tribes.

South Tynedale near Kirkhaugh © David Simpson
South Tynedale near Kirkhaugh © David Simpson

Slaggyford and Knarsdale

A mile and a half north of Kirkhaugh is Slaggyford, an attractive stone village on the west site of the South Tyne with a curious name. First mentioned in the 1200s as ‘Slaggiford’ the name described a slippery or ‘muddy ford’ that crossed the South Tyne or perhaps the neighbouring Knar Burn and has nothing to do with slag being the waste product of industrial activity.

Slaggyford © David Simpson

Slaggyford was once a market town with its own fair but it was later eclipsed by nearby Alston. The village is the northern terminus of the South Tynedale Railway that begins at Alston. In this area the railway runs near to the course of the Roman road called the Maiden Way.

Knarsdale or Knaresdale as it was known in the past is less than a mile north of Kirkhaugh and consists of mostly scattered buildings. It is the home to the eighteenth century Knarsdale Hall at the heart of the Knarsdale Estate to which a number of farms in this area of South Tynedale belong.

Burnstones, Knarsdale, part of the Knarsdale Hall estate
Burnstones, Knarsdale, part of the Knarsdale Hall estate © David Simpson

The word ‘knar’ in the name of this place is a medieval word meaning ‘rugged rock’ or a ‘knot in wood’. In medieval times Knarsdale was the seat of the Pratt family but was confiscated from a John Pratt during the thirteenth century following his disloyalty to King Edward I. It was given to Sir Robert Swinburn.

Knarsdale was once the heart of the medieval Forest of Knarsdale and the dale of Knarsdale itself is presumably the wooded valley of the Knar Burn which joins the South Tyne on its western bank near Knarsdale Hall.

Railway bridge and Thinhope Burn, Knarsdale
Railway bridge and Thinhope Burn, Knarsdale © David Simpson

Neighbouring Burnstones, is situated on another tributary called the Thinhope Burn which is crossed by an attractive old railway bridge that once carried the Alston Branch of the North Eastern Railway and is now part of a long distance footpath and cycle way.

Thinhope Burn and old railway bridge, Knarsdale
Thinhope Burn and old railway bridge, Knarsdale © David Simpson

Another long-distance path, namely the famous Pennine Way passes through the Knarsdale area on the west side. It also passes through Slaggyford, Kirkhaugh and Alston to the south.

Just to the north of Knarsdale is the tiny village of Eals on the east side of the South Tyne. Situated on a river meadow its name refers to an island parcel of land that was prone to flooding.

South Tynedale near Softley Farm
South Tynedale near Softley Farm © David Simpson

On the west side of the river are the farms of Softley and Whitwham, which are both part of the Knarsdale Estate. The first was presumably named from a clearing (ley) of soft, easily cultivatable land, Whitwham derives from the old word ‘hwam’ meaning a nook or hollow in a valley of some kind. The name means ‘the white nook’.

Softley Farm
Softley Farm © David Simpson


Lambley is a village a mile further downstream to the north of Knarsdale and is situated on the west side of the river. It means the ‘clearing of the lamb’ though in truth the original Lambley is a farm half a mile to the north.

The South Tyne from Langley viaduct.
The South Tyne from Lambley viaduct © David Simpson

Lambley farm stands close to the site of a Benedictine convent of nuns first mentioned in the reign of King John. It was attacked by the Scots in 1296 and the nuns were tortured and ravished but the convent continued up until the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s and afterwards became a seat of the Allgood family of Nunwick.

Langley viaduct
Lambley viaduct © David Simpson

The present village of Lambley to the south of the farm was formerly a mining settlement called Harpertown. There was a mine here called Lambley Colliery which operated from around the 1860s until closure in 1958 and across the river to the west was Coanwood Colliery which operated from around the 1860s to about the 1930s and was initially owned by Wilson and Crawhall.

South Tyne from Lambley Viaduct
South Tyne from Lambley Viaduct © David Simpson

The church at Lambley is dedicated to St Mary and St Patrick and dates from 1885. A quiet north-south country road about half a mile west of Lambley follows the course of the Maiden Way Roman road.

Lambley’s best-known and most impressive landmark is however the Lambley Viaduct which is reached by a woodland walk footpath on the east side of the river. It was built by the Newcastle and Carlisle Railway in 1852 under the guidance of the engineer George Barclay-Bruce.

South Tyne from Lambley Viaduct
South Tyne from Lambley Viaduct © David Simpson

There is no longer a railway here as the line closed in 1976 but the viaduct is crossed by the footpath and offers some spectacular views of the South Tyne below. Not for those with a dislike for heights, it stands 32 metres above the river and consists of nine main arches and seven smaller arches.

South Tyne between Lambley and Featherstone
South Tyne between Lambley and Featherstone © David Simpson

Featherstone Castle

Featherstone Castle, in a beautiful setting on the east side of the South Tyne, a mile and a half north of Lambley is a private residence and is situated on ‘haughs’ or flat meadow lands alongside the river.

Featherstone Castle
Featherstone Castle © David Simpson

The oldest parts of Featherstone Castle date from that century but a tower was added later in the 1300s. Crossing the South Tyne to the north of the castle is Featherstone Bridge which dates from 1775. The lovely riverside land is a popular place for walkers.

The South Tyne from Featherstone Bridge
The River South Tyne from Featherstone Bridge © David Simpson

The castle at Featherstone was historically associated with a family called Featherstonehaugh (pronounced Fanshaw) who took their name from the location and lived here from the thirteenth century. They were descended from William De Monte who resided here in the reign of King Stephen.

Featherstone Bridge
Featherstone Bridge © David Simpson

De Monte took his name from his earlier house which was situated on a hill or ‘monte’ at Stanhope in Weardale called Craig Hill but De Monte’s Northumberland descendants adopted the name Featherstonehaugh.

Featherstone Castle
Featherstone Castle © David Simpson

Curiously, and confusingly, the Weardale branch of the family adopted the slightly different name Fetherstonehalgh, though the last member of that family, a Colonel Fetherstonehalgh was killed at the battle of Blenheim in 1704.

Featherstone Castle
Featherstone Castle © David Simpson

One resident member of the Northumberland Featherstonhaugh family at Featherstone Castle was Albany Featherstoneghaugh a High Sheriff of Northumberland who was murdered on October 24, 1530 by Nicholas Ridley of Unthank and Hugh Ridley of Harden at a location called Wydon Eals about a mile north from the castle near Haltwhistle.

The South Tyne near Featherstone Castle
The South Tyne near Featherstone Castle © David Simpson

A border ballad records the event and was included in the lengthy poem Marmion by Sir Walter Scott. It was passed to Scott by the Durham historian Robert Surtees of Mainsforth, to whom it had in turn been passed by a lead mining agent who had heard it recited by an 80 year old mother of an Alston Moor lead miner. It thought that Surtees, who was a good friend and correspondent of Sir Walter, may have made it up:

Hoot awa’, lads, hoot awa’,
Ha’ ye heard how the Ridleys, and Thirlwalls, and a’,
Ha’ set upon Albany Featherstonhaugh,
And taken his life at the Deadman’s shaw?

There was Willimoteswick,
And Hardriding Dick,
And Hughie of Hawden, and Will of the Wa’.
I canno tell a’, I canno tell a’,
And mony a mair that the deil may knaw.

The auld man went down, but Nicol, his son,
Ran away afore the fight was begun;
And he run, and he run,
And afore they were done,
There was mony a Featherston gat sic a stun,
As never was seen since the world begun.

I canna’ tell a’, I canno tell a’,
Some gat a skelp, and some gat a claw;
But they gar’d the Featherstones haud their jaw –
Nicol, and Aleck, and a’.
Some gat a hurt, and some got nane
Some had harness, and some gat sta’en.

Ane gat a twist o’ the craig;
Ane gat a dunch o’ the wame;
Symy Haw gat lamed of a leg,
And syne ran wallowing hame.

Hoot, hoot, the auld man’s slain outright!
Lay him now wi’ his face down: he’s a sorrowful sight.
Janet, thou donnot,
I’ll lay my best bonnet,
Thou gets a new gude-man afore it be night.

Hoot away, lads hoot away,
Wi’s a’ be hangid if we stay.
Tak’ up the dead man, and lay him ahint the bigging.
Here’s the Bailey o’ Haltwhistle,
Wi’ his great bull’s pizzle,
That supp’d up the broo’, and syne – in the piggin.

An attractive stone village called Park Village lies to the north east of Featherstone Castle on the edge of the castle parkland alongside the Park Burn.

River South Tyne, Featherstone
River South Tyne, Featherstone © David Simpson

It is around about here, with Wydon Eals Farm to the north of the river that the South Tyne dramatically changes course and instead of running south to north flows north eastward towards Haltwhistle and from there on it flows east towards Haydon Bridge, Hexham, Corbridge and on to Newcastle and Tynemouth.

Tipalt Burn and Blenkinsopp Castle

About two miles downstream to the north east of Featherstone Castle as the River South Tyne turns to the east near Haltwhistle the river is joined on its west bank by the Tipalt Burn.

The stream flows through a small valley to the west of Haltwhistle that forms a continuation of the Tyne Gap and its course is followed for about two miles by the A69 Newcastle to Carlisle road. The Tyne valley railway also runs close to its course as far as Greenhead. In fact the burn makes a sort of C-shaped course, rising from a series of little little sikes about five miles north of Haltwhistle beyond the Roman Wall.

The Tipalt Burn at Greenhead
The Tipalt Burn at Greenhead © David Simpson

From there the Tipalt Burn flows south west towards Thirlwall and Greenhead but then flows south east towards Haltwhistle. Tipalt derives from the Anglo-Saxon ‘Aet-yppe-wald’ meaning ‘the plateau wood’.

Blenkinsopp Hall and to its west Blenkinsopp Castle lie respectively on the north and south sides of the Tipalt Burn valley and the busy A69 road that follows its course.

Blenkinsopp Castle
Blenkinsopp Castle © David Simpson

Blenkinsopp Hall was originally called Dryburnhaugh but was renamed through association with the Blenkinsopp family. A John Blenkinsopp resided here from around 1663. The present hall was built sometime before 1812 and remained in the hands of the Blenkinsopps and later the Blenkinsopp-Coulsons of Jesmond until 1876 when it was sold to Edward Joicey. It remains a private house today.

Blenkinsopp Castle, about a mile to the west of the hall but on the south side of the Tipalt Burn and the A69, is a building of much greater antiquity. It was commenced in 1349 when a Thomas Blenkinsopp was granted a licence to crenellate (create a castle) from his existing manor house called ‘Blenekensope’.

Blenkinsopp Castle
Blenkinsopp Castle © David Simpson

The Blenkinsopp family took their name from this place though its meaning is not certain. There seems to be an agreement that the first part of the name is Celtic but there are at least three different explanations. It could mean ‘hill with a cairn’ (similar to the name Blencarn in Cumbria) or ‘top ridge’ or perhaps means the ‘man who lives on a hill’.

Blenkinsopp Castle
Blenkinsopp Castle © David Simpson

The second part of the name is Anglo-Saxon from the word ‘hope’ meaning side valley. Blenkinsopp lies between two side valleys of the Tipalt Burn called Wydon Cleugh and Coal Cleugh with a smaller unnamed stream near the castle itself. The castle was partly restored by the architect John Dobson in the 1830s and a passageway was then found at its northwest corner which inspired speculation that it was secretly linked to the nearby castle at Thirlwall a mile and half away. In truth the passage did not extend anything like that distance. Close to the castle is the charming Blenkinsopp Inn.

Blenkinsopp Castle Inn
Blenkinsopp Castle Inn © David Simpson

Blenkinsopp Ghost

Blenkinsopp Castle is associated with a legend and ghost story concerning one Bryan Blenkinsopp who lived here many centuries ago. As a young man, Blenkinsopp boasted he would not marry until he met with a lady possessing a chest of gold heavier than ten of his strongest men could carry. Remarkably, later in his life, Bryan’s wishes were fulfilled when he met with such a lady, while abroad fighting in the Crusades. Bryan brought her back to England where they were married, but the lord did not, as expected, live happily ever after.

Blenkinsopp Castle
Blenkinsopp Castle © David Simpson

When the new bride learned of her husband’s youthful boasts, she became worried he had only married her for her wealth, so she secretly hid her treasure chest in the Blenkinsopp grounds, where Bryan could not find them. Bryan responded to this bitterly and either heartbroken or humiliated by his bride’s lack of trust, he mysteriously left his wife and castle and was never to return again.

Blenkinsopp Castle
Blenkinsopp Castle © David Simpson

The lady came to regret her actions, but despite strenuous efforts to find her husband, he could not be traced. She apparently died a lonely and remorseful woman. It is said that her ghost may occasionally be seen haunting the grounds of the ruined castle where she waits, ready to guide the way to the spot where her chest of treasure is hidden. Some believe that the spirit will not lay to rest until the treasure is discovered and removed.

Greenhead scenes
Greenhead scenes © David Simpson


Alongside the railway to the north west of Blenkinsopp was the site of Blenkinsopp Colliery which was opened by the Blenkinsopp Coal and Lime Company sometime between 1836 and 1842 and operated until closure in 2002.

Greenhead © David Simpson

Just to the north of here is the pretty village of Greenhead which is home to a church of 1828 built by John Dobson. At Greenhead the A69 leaves the Tipalt valley and heads south west across the moors to Brampton and Carlisle.

Greenhead © David Simpson

Thirlwall Castle

It is at Greenhead that the Tipalt Burn makes a turn and from here we can continue upstream northwards to nearby Thirlwall where we find the ruins of Thirlwall Castle on the course of Hadrian’s Wall. The castle can be reached by a short footpath which crosses the railway to the north of Greenhead close to where the Tipalt Burn is joined by the Pow Charney Burn.

Meeting of Pow Charney and Tipalt Burn near Thirlwall
Meeting of Pow Charney and Tipalt Burn near Thirlwall © David Simpson

Thirlwall is a spot that is considered to have been the weakest part of Hadrian’s Wall where the Caledonians or perhaps local tribes thirled or broke through but the weakness itself was caused by it crossing the Tipalt Burn.

Thirlwall Castle
Thirlwall Castle © David Simpson

Thirlwall is the place of origin for the Thirlwell or Thirlwall surname and the castle was the family stronghold, built by John De Thirlwall in 1330 at the height of the troubles on the Anglo-Scottish border.

Tipalt Burn near Thirlwall
Tipalt Burn near Thirlwall © David Simpson

The castle was built using stone plundered from nearby Hadrian’s Wall. According to a legend, a golden table belonging to the family was thrown down a well to hide it from raiders, where it was protected by a spell and is said to remain there to this day.

In later times the Thirlwall family moved away from Thirlwall and other families moved. Later still, according to an information board, the castle’s occupants were birds, bats and insects. During the nineteenth and twentieth century the castle was plundered for its stone.

Thirlwall Castle and surrounds © David Simpson
Thirlwall Castle and surrounds © David Simpson


A little over a mile to the west of Thirlwall we find the Northumbrian-Cumbrian border village of Gilsland on the River Irthing. The Irthing forms the border here and continues to be so for several miles to the north.

View from the road between Gilsland and Greenhead shwoing the crest of the Great Whin Sill on the hill top which plays host to Hadrian's Wall
View from the road between Gilsland and Greenhead showing the crest of the Great Whin Sill on the hill top which plays host to Hadrian’s Wall © David Simpson

Between the two villages of Greenhead and Gilsland there are some excellent views looking back east towards Greenhead and Thirlwall. Here we can with the distinctive distant crest of the Great Whin Sill providing a setting for Hadrian’s Wall near Carvoran and Walltown.

Gilsland © David Simpson

Gilsland’s name means ‘Gille’s Land’ and is thought to be named from Gille, son of Beuth mentioned in the foundation Charter of Lanercost Priory of 1169. The priory lies along the Irthing Valley in Cumbria about five miles to the west.

River Irthing, Gilsland
River Irthing, Gilsland © David Simpson

Gille’s name was also interpreted in the twelfth century as Gilbert son of Boet but is thought to derive from the Old Norse personal name Gilli deriving from the Old Irish ‘Gilla’ – meaning servant.

The Irthing is a natural border as it marks the east-west watershed as this river is a tributary of the River Eden (near Carlisle) and is thus ultimately destined for the Solway Firth and the Irish Sea. The Tyne valley railway passes through Greenhead and Gilsland on its way from Newcastle to Carlisle.

Gilsland scenes
Gilsland scenes © David Simpson

Bellister Castle, Plenmeller, Unthank

At Haltwhistle the South Tyne is of course destined for the North Sea and it is here that its journey northward becomes a journey eastward to Newcastle and Tynemouth.

Near Haltwhsitle, on the south side of the river is yet another castle, Bellister Castle, which was associated with a younger branch of the Blenkinsopp family who were in possession of it from at least 1470.

The name Bellister is of Old French origin and means something along the lines of ‘fine site’ or ‘pleasant sojourn’ – ‘bel-ester’. The castle stands on a mound which is partly man-made and partly natural and was once surrounded by a moat.

Bellister Castle
Bellister Castle © David Simpson

In the 1540s it was described as a ‘bastle house’ (a fortified farmhouse) but was extended and enlarged around 1669. The Blenkinsopp family sold Bellister Castle in 1697 and later owners included Cuthbert Ellison of Hebburn Hall who lived here around the 1820s.

Bellister Castle
Bellister Castle © David Simpson

The castle reputedly has a ghost called the ‘Grey Man of Bellister’. He was a minstrel who sought hospitality at the castle which was granted by the host. However the owner of the castle became suspicious that the minstrel was a spy. The visitor left secretly on the day of his departure (perhaps sensing his host’s suspicions) and the host, on discovering the departure set the hounds on his former guest’s scent. At the mouths of the blood thirsty hounds the minstrel met his death and returned to the castle to haunt its walls.

Plenmeller © David Simpson

To the east of Bellister Castle is the hamlet of Plenmeller with the rolling Plenmeller Common to its south. The name is Welsh-Celtic and probably dates to the time of the Britons. It means ‘top of the bare hill’. Early recorded spellings include Plenmenewre, Playsmalevere and later Playnmelor. It may be related to the names of Blencarn in Cumbria and nearby Blenkinsopp to the west.

The road to Unthank
The road to Unthank © David Simpson

Unthank Hall and its estate near the south bank of the river South Tyne to the east of Plenmeller was one of the seats of the Ridley family and sometimes thought to be the birthplace of the martyr, Bishop Nicholas Ridley who died during the reign of Mary Tudor. His sister certainly resided here and he sent a letter to her here shortly before his martyrdom.

Unthank © David Simpson

The hall is one of several places called Unthank throughout the region and Unthank is thought to refer to the difficult task of farming in certain locations, though it is sometimes said that they were places at which squatters had resided at some time in the distant past. The present hall dates to the nineteenth century and is partly the work of John Dobson.


The flat riverside land of Bellister Haugh on the south side of the South Tyne lies directly opposite the railway station in the little market town of Haltwhistle on the north side of the river. It might be expected that Haltwhistle was named from being a railway station halt but in fact the delightful name Haltwhistle is of old Anglo-French origin deriving from ‘Haut-Twisla’ meaning ‘high fork’ from a fork in the river.’ It is a reference to the confluence of the Haltwhistle Burn and the South Tyne.

Haltwhistle © David Simpson

Haltwhistle, which proudly claims to be the Centre of all Britain is also at the heart of the best parts of Hadrian’s Wall Country and tourism is an important part of the town’s livelihood. It is the largest town in South Tynedale and situated a good twelve moorland miles north of Alston.

Market Place, Haltwhistle
Market Place, Haltwhistle © David Simpson

Recorded in the thirteenth century as ‘Hautwisel’ it is the second element of the name ‘Twisel’ or ‘Twisla’ that signifies a fork, deriving from an old medieval word. Other ‘twisels’ in the north include Twizel near the Tweed, Twizel near Morpeth and Twizell between Chester-le-Street and Stanley in County Durham.

Haut is from the Old French meaning ‘high’. The Halwhistle Burn which forms the fork rises to the north of Haltwhistle where it passes close to the fort of Aesica or Great Chesters on the Roman wall.

Main Street, Haltwhistle
Main Street, Haltwhistle © David Simpson

Historically a border town, Haltwhistle was granted a market charter in 1207 by Robert de Rhos in the reign of King John but its most rapid growth came as a mining and whinstone quarrying settlement in the nineteenth century with the South Tyne Colliery situated in the valley of the Haltwhistle Burn just to its north. This colliery opened around the 1860s and closed in 1931. There was a woollen mill here in this valley in the nineteenth century as well as in the town itself where there was also a coke works and blast furnaces.

Haltwhistle © David Simpson

In medieval times Haltwhistle was at the heart of border raiding country and was the site of a small castle mentioned in a list of Northumbrian fortifications in 1416. The castle is recalled in a neighbouring mound and the name of the street called Castle Hill.

Centre of Britain Hotel, a former pele tower, Haltwhistle
Centre of Britain Hotel, a former pele tower, Haltwhistle © David Simpson

To the west is Westgate and Main Street where some of the houses (identified by plaques) are former fortified bastles or defended houses, another reminder that Haltwhistle was vulnerable to the disturbances of the Border country in times past. They include a fish and chip shop that is a former bastle house and the Centre of Britain Hotel which is a former pele tower.

Bastle House Plaque, Haltwhistle
Bastle House Plaque, Haltwhistle © David Simpson

King Edward I, who played no small part in intensifying the often sour relations between the English and Scots stayed in Halthwistle in September 1306 during a Scottish military expedition. However raiding in the area often came from the notorious Border Reivers who could be either English or Scottish.

Westgate, Haltwhistle
Westgate, Haltwhistle © David Simpson

In 1598 Haltwhistle was plundered by the Armstrongs of Liddesdale (in Scotland) but the Scottish king claimed the lawless Armstrongs were not his subjects and suggested, in fact gladly encouraged, the English Warden of the Marches, Sir Robert Carey to take his revenge upon them.

The English attacked and plundered Liddesdale and an Armstrong called Sim Armstrong of the Calfhill was slain with a spear by a Ridley of Haltwhistle. The Armstrongs sought revenge and attacked and plundered Haltwhistle once more but once again an Armstrong, this time one of the sons of Sim Armstrong of Whitram was slain. The assailant was once again one of the Ridleys who shot an arrow from his refuge in one of Haltwhistle’s fortified bastle houses.

Main Street, Haltwhistle
Main Street, Haltwhistle © David Simpson

Carey attacked Liddesdale again, causing much destruction as the Armstrongs meanwhile counteracted by plundering Carey’s lands but Carey ultimately captured the Armstrong leaders and the troublesome clan was subdued. The initial events of this feud are recalled in a ballad of the time called the Fray of Hautwessel:

The limmer thieves o’Liddesdale
Wadna leave a kye in the hail countrie.
But an’ we gie them the caud steel
Our gear they’ll reive it a’awaye;
Sae pert they stealis I you say:
O’late they came to Hautwessel,
And thowt they there wad drive a fray,
But Alec Ridley shot too well.

Twas some time gane, they took our naigs,
And left us eke an empty byre:
I wad the deil had had their craigs,
And a’things in a bleeze o’fire;
Eh! But it was raised the warden’s ire,
Sir Robert Carey was his name;
But an John Ridley thrust his spear
Right through Sim o’ the Cathill’s wame.

For he cam riding o’er the brae,
As gin he could na steal a cow;
And when we’d got our gear awa’
Says – ‘Wha this day’s work will avow?’
I wot he got reply enow,
As ken the Armstrongs to their grief.
For to tine the gear and Simmy too,
The ane to the tither’s nae relief.

Then cam Wat Armstrong to the town,

Wi’ some three hundred chiels or mair,
An’ swore that they wad burn it down;
A’ clad in jack, wi’ bow and spear.
Harnessed right weel, I trow they were;
But we were aye prepared at need,
And dropt ere lang upon the rear
Amangst them, like an angry gleed.

Then Alec Ridley he let flee
A clothyard shaft, ahint the wa’;
It struck Wat Armstrong in the ee’,
Went through his steel cap, heid and a’.
I wot it made him quickly fa’,
He could na rise, thourgh he essayed;
The best at thief-craft or the ba’
He ne’er again shall ride a raid.

Gin should the Armstrongs promise keep
And seek our gear to do us wrang;
Or rob us of our kye or sheep,
I trow but some o’ them will hang;
Sharp is the sturdy sleuth dog’s fang,
At Craweragge watchers will be set,
At Linthaugh ford too, a’ neet lang,
Wow! But the meeting will be het.

The church at Haltwhistle is on the south side of the town and dedicated to Holy Cross. It was once a possession of Tynemouth Priory. The nave dates to the thirteenth century and contains tombs of the Blenkinsopp family. There is also an altar tomb of John Ridley who was the brother of Nicholas Ridley, a Bishop of London and one of the Oxford Martyrs burnt at the stake there in 1555 during the reign of Queen Mary I.

Melkridge, Henshaw, Bardon Mill

Melkridge is a village a little over a mile to the east of Haltwhistle where there was once a bastle house at Melkridge alongside the main road (now the A69) but this was demolished in 1955. The name Melkridge means ‘milk ridge’ and refers to pasture land that was suitable for dairy cows.

Melkridge © David Simpson

During the age of reiving, a family called Unthank here and presumably took their name Unthank over on the other side of the river to the south west.

A mile to the east of Melkridge and still on the north bank of the South Tyne is Hardriding House (once a seat of the Ridleys) and half a mile to the east of the house the neighbouring villages of Henshaw, Redburn and Bardon Mill, which more or less form a single community.

Henshaw © David Simpson

Early forms of the name Henshaw show that it was once called Hedenshalch, meaning the heal or nook of land belonging to a heathen, or perhaps deriving from a personal name. The belief is that that the land may have belonged to a Dane, singled out for his non-Christian beliefs.

Bardon Mill
Bardon Mill © David Simpson

There is a railway station on the Tyne Valley line at Bardon Mill which opened on the Newcastle-Carlisle line in 1838. In the nineteenth century there was a flannel manufactory at Bardon Mill and the name of the place derives from the steam-powered woollen mill established in the mid eighteenth century.

Bardon Mill
Bardon Mill © David Simpson

In the early nineteenth century the mill became a drain pipe and brick making business and then in 1878 a pottery was established here by William Reay and Robert Errington – though sewerage pipes were the main feature of the business.

Pottery, Bardon Mill
Pottery, Bardon Mill © David Simpson

When plastic piping made the production of traditional pipes obsolete, the kiln at the pottery was adapted for making pots and is still home to a working pottery called the Errington Reay Pottery.

A wooded valley formed by the Chaineley Burn joins South Tyne from the north side at Bardon Mill and there was once a small colliery in this valley to the north called Barcombe Colliery close to nearby Birkshaw. A little to the east is the village of Thorngrafton, its name deriving from ‘Thorn Graf’, signifying a thorny grove or thicket.

Thorngrafton © David Simpson

The Roman fort of Vindolanda is situated to the north on the west side of the Chaineley Burn valley. Vindolanda is situated on the Roman road called the Stanegate, rather than on Hadrian’s Wall which is slightly further to the north.

South Tyne valley viewed from Thorngrafton
South Tyne valley viewed from Thorngrafton © David Simpson

Just to the east of Bardon Mill there is a footbridge across the Tyne called Millhouse Bridge which links Bardon Mill to the south side of the river. Here a road at the south side of the bridge leads to Williemotewsick about three quarters of a mile to the west or to Beltingham about half a mile to the east.

River South Tyne from Millhouse Bridge, Bardon Mill
River South Tyne from Millhouse Bridge, Bardon Mill © David Simpson

Willimoteswick, Beltingham, Ridley

Willimoteswick Castle is a fortified fifteenth or sixteenth century manor house that was a seat of the Ridley family and like Unthank Hall claims to be the birthplace of the Oxford martyr, Bishop Nicholas Ridley.

Willimoteswick Castle
Willimoteswick Castle © David Simpson

The name Willimoteswick (occasionally the spelling is Willimontswick) means the motte (castle) or villa of someone called William and it is tempting to associate this name with William De Monte the progenitor of the Featherstonehaugh family.

Scenery near Willimoteswick Castle
Scenery near Willimoteswick Castle © David Simpson

By the reign of Charles I, Willimoteswick belonged to Richard Musgrave and later, in the nineteenth century, belonged to the Blackett family of West Matfen.

Beltingham © David Simpson

A mile to the east on the south side of the river is the very pretty though tiny village of Beltingham which has a medieval church dedicated to St. Cuthbert. The church is thought to have once been a private chapel of the Ridley family and may date to the 1500s but was much restored in the nineteenth century.

Beltingham church
Beltingham church © David Simpson

Due to the restoration it is difficult to to be sure but a nineteenth century report dated some parts of the church back to 1260 and a Saxon cross in the churchyard points to even earlier origins. What is more, the churchyard is the home to three beautiful ancient yew trees, one of which is thought to be at least 900 years old.

A yew tree in Beltingham churchyard
A yew tree in Beltingham churchyard © David Simpson

The yews likely take the history of the site as a place of sacred worship back more than a thousand years given the religious associations of yews which are often associated with churchyards connected to ancient places of worship. The dedication of the church to St Cuthbert may indicate a connection with the saint. Perhaps he visited here or maybe it was one of his posthumous resting places.

Beltingham © David Simpson

The church stands near to a pretty Georgian house called Beltingham House of 1750 which is under private ownership. The house once belonged to the Bowes-Lyon family who are relatives of our late queen, Elizabeth II. Visitors here once included Elizabeth, the mother of Queen Elizabeth II. Queen Elizabeth II’s sister, Princess Margaret was also a visitor here.

Beltingham House
Beltingham House © David Simpson

Close by is a fortified Tudor farmhouse or ‘bastle’ dating from the age of Border Reiving which along with a neighbouring former joiners’ shop of the mid eighteenth century, serves as holiday accommodation.

Bastle at Beltingham
Bastle at Beltingham © David Simpson

About a quarter of a mile to the east near to where the River Allen joins the River South Tyne is Ridley Hall. This is yet another place associated with the Ridley family and may be the ‘Rid-ley’ or ‘ridded clearing’ from which the family took their name.

Today, the Ridleys are most closely associated with Blagdon Hall near Cramlington. By the nineteenth century Ridley Hall, like Beltingham House, belonged to the Bowes-Lyon family and was for a time the residence of the poet Lilian Helen Bowes-Lyon (1895-1949). Originally a sixteenth century house, this was replaced by a new house in 1743 and was rebuilt again in Tudor style in 1891. A private house, it was put up for sale in 2017.

Ridley Bastle and Ridley Cottage
Ridley Bastle and Ridley Cottage © David Simpson

Just to the south east of Ridley Hall, the farming hamlet of Ridley includes the attractive Ridley Bastle house and Ridley Cottage.

The beautiful wooded Allen Banks of the River Allen nearby, just to the east, once belonged to Ridley Hall but this land is now owned and managed by the National Trust. To the south and also in this wooded valley are Kingswood and Staward, an area that was once the haunt of a notorious livestock thief called Dickie of Kingswood.

Langley Castle

A couple of miles to the east of the Allen and about a mile to the south of the River South Tyne near Haydon Bridge we find the lovely Langley Castle. It is situated in grounds alongside the A686 road that heads south into the Allendales. Dating from the mid fourteenth century this castle has been described by the architectural historian, Nikolaus Pevsner as “an extremely impressive tower house”.

Langley Castle
Langley Castle © David Simpson

Pevsner gave much of the praise for the castle’s impressive appearance to Cadwallader Bates, a noted historian of Northumberland who hailed from Heddon House at Wylam. Bates, who owned the castle, skilfully restored the building in the 1890s.

The castle had been built in 1350 by Sir Thomas De Lucy and is thought to stand on the site of an earlier residence that belonged to the Tindal family who took their name from Tynedale of which they were barons. In 1405 the castle was attacked and burned by King Henry IV, following the Earl of Northumberland’s part in Archbishop Scrope’s rebellion.

The destruction left the castle in ruin and seems to have meant that the castle was barely inhabited after that time despite a list of successive owners and so saw little of the expected modifications of different architectural styles that usually occur to most castles over time. Bates therefore ironically gave credit to King Henry IV for its preservation.

Langley Castle
Langley Castle © David Simpson

Owners of the castle after the time of De Lucy included the Umfravilles, Percys, Nevilles and then the Radcliffes. The Radcliffes purchased it in 1632 and took the title Viscount and Baron Langley. However, it was confiscated from the family due to their support of the Jacobite rebellion in the following century.

Later, Langley Castle belonged to the Governors of Greenwich Hospital until purchased by Cadwallader Bates in 1882. For a time after the passing of the Bates family the castle stood empty during the early twentieth century. It served as a barracks during the Second World War and then as a girls’ school until finally, in 1986, it was converted into a hotel by Dr Stuart Madnick of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The name Langley means ‘long clearing’ and also gives its name to the nearby Langley Burn which forms a wooded dene and joins the South Tyne to the north at Haydon Bridge.

Scenery near Stublick
Scenery near Stublick © David Simpson


Less than mile to the south of Langley Castle along the Langley Burn valley and on the road to East Allendale is the little village or hamlet of Langley itself which was once the site of a lead works. There are a couple of small reservoirs here and along the road to the south are chimneys in the Stublick area connected with the lead smelting industry.

Langley Dam Reservoir.
Langley Dam Reservoir © David Simpson

There were two lead smelting mills in this area both built by the Greenwich Hospital who owned the land in the late 1700s and the reservoirs were built as a water supply for the industry.

The remote Stublick chimney to the east was situated at the end of a a long flue that ran from a smelting mill. You might think that its main purpose was to protect people from the fumes.

Stublick Chimney
Stublick Chimney © David Simpson

In fact the flues enabled the accumulation of lead (and sometimes silver) deposits that when swept and collected by children more than recovered the cost of building such flues. A colliery which closed in 1926 also operated at Stublick.

Chimneys at Stublick
Chimneys at Stublick © David Simpson

The name Stublick means ‘enclosure of the stob or tree stump’. The remains of a medieval boundary cross called Stobs Cross is situated on the moorland of Spitalshield Moor nearby and is perhaps connected in some way. About four miles to the east across the moors is the valley of the Devils Water which joins the Tyne near Corbridge.

Haydon Bridge

Described as a “remarkably pleasant, well-built lively village” in the 1820s this could still be applied to Haydon Bridge today though it might be better described as a small town. In the 1880s another writer describes it as “a quiet agricultural village, with modern looking houses, built of the local white stone, and roofed with blue slate”.

Haydon Bridge
Haydon Bridge © David Simpson

Haydon Bridge occupies both sides of the River South Tyne that are linked by the bridge that gives this place its name. Haydon was originally the ‘hay-den’ meaning ‘hay dene or valley’. The original Anglo-Saxon village of Haydon was on a hill about half a mile to the north where we now find West Haydon and East Haydon Farm near a small dene called the Cruel Sike. The sike is said to have been the setting for a border fray and an old couplet warns:

Till the cruel Syke wi’ Scottish blode rins rede,
Thoo mauna sowe corn by Tyneside.

The main clue to the original village being sited here is the old medieval church of Haydon on an isolated spot nearby and is thought to have been built around 1190. It was constructed using Roman stones, presumably plundered from the nearby Roman wall and its associated fortifications. The old church was superseded by a new church dedicated to St Cuthbert that was built in 1796 close to the bridge on the north side of the Tyne.

Church of St. Cuthbert, Haydon Bridge
Church of St. Cuthbert, Haydon Bridge © David Simpson

A bridge was built across the South Tyne around 1309 and this shifted the focus of Haydon towards the Tyne. The bridge was later rebuilt, at an uncertain date, and this replacement was in turn destroyed in the great flood of November 1771.

A new bridge was built in 1776 though repairs had to be undertaken in the early 1800s. The bridge proved unsuitable for modern traffic and is now open only to pedestrians. It makes a rather pleasant feature linking the two sides of Haydon Bridge together and offering pleasing views of the South Tyne, as well as the little town itself. Modern traffic now crosses the river by the nearby road bridge to the east which dates from 1970.

The modern bridge at Haydon Bridge
The modern bridge at Haydon Bridge © David Simpson

Haydon Bridge’s early history was closely linked to Langley Castle as it was once the manor and estate of the Lucys (it was a Lucy that built Langley). In fact Haydon Bridge was once part of the manor of Langley and in 1343 Anthony Lord Lucy of Cockermouth obtained a charter from King Edward III to hold a weekly and annual fair.

One of the best-known sons of Haydon Bridge was the painter John Martin (1789-1854) whose romanticised melodramatic work often depicting biblical scenes made him “the most popular painter of his day” according to the portrait painter, Sir Thomas Lawrence.

Haydon Bridge
Haydon Bridge © David Simpson

Born in Haydon Bridge, Martin lived here for his first fourteen years. His strict church upbringing and the dramatic industrial scenes of the neighbourhood are thought to have had a profound influence on his work.

Haydon Bridge
Haydon Bridge © David Simpson

Two of Martin’s brothers also achieved fame and notoriety and this perhaps helped raise his profile. William Martin (1772-1851), the eldest, who was born at Haltwhistle, was a self-styled philosopher and noted inventor who registered several patents including a weighing machine, a machine for perpetual motion and a miners’ safety lamp.

The second eldest Martin brother, Richard, was a senior soldier who fought at Waterloo. The third eldest, Jonathan Martin (1782-1838) who suffered from insanity was the most notorious and is remembered for setting alight York MInster in 1828 after he became troubled by a buzzing sound in the minster’s organ.

The South Tyne at Haydon Bridge
The South Tyne at Haydon Bridge © David Simpson

Haydon Bridge to Hexham

East of Haydon Bridge the Tyne flows past Allerwash Hall (the name means alder swamp), then passes Newbrough and Fourstones before reaching High Warden on a high peninsula of land west of Hexham about four miles east of Haydon Bridge.

Newbrough which means the ‘new burgh’ is named from a market established by a member of the Cumin family and granted by the king in 1221. King Edward I held court here in 1306 during a military expedition into Scotland.

Valley view at Fourstones
Valley view at Fourstones © David Simpson

There is a church just to the west dating to 1731 and dedicated to St Peter while just to the north is Newbrough Hall built by John Dobson in 1820 and next to a tower house, that is probably medieval, called Thornton Tower. Thornton was the original name for the Newbrough area before the ‘New Borough’ was granted a market.

Fourstones © David Simpson

There was a colliery at nearby Fourstones operated by a William Benson and his sons from 1805 until 1927. The name Fourstones is thought to recall four Roman altars (or at the very least four Roman stones) that are said to have marked its boundaries. The Roman Stanegate road passes through Newbrough and Fourstones.

Fourstones © David Simpson

It is near Warden (from the Anglo-Saxon ‘Weard-Dun’ meaning ‘watch hill’) to the east of Fourstones that the River South Tyne is joined by the River North Tyne and simply becomes the Tyne just before it skirts the neighbouring northern side of the town of Hexham to the east. Warden sands on a high commanding site between the two rivers.

Warden © David Simpson

The church at Warden is dedicated to St Michael and has an eleventh century tower that could be either pre or post-Norman conquest. The nave of the church dates to the mid eighteenth century.

Boatside Inn, Warden
Boatside Inn, Warden © David Simpson

An inn called the Boatside stands close to the bridge across the South Tyne about a quarter of a mile south of the village. The meeting of the waters where the River Tyne begins can be reached by footpaths and viewed from three different river banks including one reached from Acomb to the east.

Waters meet - the three Tynes
The Waters meet. North Tyne to the right, South Tyne to the top left, the Tyne in the foreground. Pictured from the Acomb bank © David Simpson

Hexham Corbridge Allendale

Hadrian’s Wall | Hadrian’s Wall Country

Kielder North Tynedale | Redesdale

Newcastle upon Tyne 



North East England History and Culture