Warkworth: Hotspur’s Castle
The picturesque village of Warkworth with its tiny town-like quality lies on the River Coquet about a mile inland from the sea. Historically a fortified place, it is situatedp within a narrow meander of the river and the exposed neck of the river loop is protected by the grand castle that completes the natural defences of the site.
Warkworth’s Anglo-Saxon name comes from ‘Wercewode’ meaning ‘earthwork enclosure’. It was the site of an Anglo-Saxon fortification belonging to Ceolwulf, King of Northumbria, in the eighth century.
When Ceolwulf retired from his kingdom in 737 AD to become a monk on Lindisfarne he conferred Warkworth along with four other villages to the island monastery. The Anglo-Saxons are thought to have used Warkworth as a natural harbour for their boats which they called keels (ceols).
In 1139 during the anarchy of the reign of King Stephen, Henry, the son of King David of Scotland was given the Earl of Northumberland and the region came under virtual Scottish rule. Henry rebuilt the old wooden Saxon fort at Warkworth as a new stronghold of stone, though nothing seems to remain of his work today.
In 1158 Warkworth was granted to ‘Roger son of Richard’ who began the rebuilding of the castle. Some parts of the present Warkworth Castle date to his time.
Unfortunately, the well-defended castle does not seem to have been enough to withstand the attack of King William the Lion of Scotland who sacked Warkworth and seemingly murdered hundreds of Northumbrians in Warkworth church.
In 1213 the castle was visited by King John and in 1332 during the reign of Edward III Warkworth was given by the king to Henry, the second Lord Percy of Alnwick and so began the long association of that family with Warkworth.
In the later part of that century Warkworth was the home of the famed Northumbrian warrior Harry Hotspur Percy (1364-1403) whose father was the first Percy Earl of Northumberland and his mother a Neville of Raby Castle in County Durham.
It was during Hotspur’s time that the extensive building of much of the castle we see today began in the 1380s including the impressive keep. For much of the period that followed Warkworth became the principal Percy residence.
The war-hungry Harry ‘Hotspur’ is a major character in William Shakespeare’s ‘Henry IV‘ and Warkworth is described in the words of Shakespeare as a “worm-eaten hold of ragged stone” being a setting for some of the scenes in the play.
In one scene the notorious Hotspur is described by Henry, the Prince of Wales:
“I am not yet of Percy’s mind, the Hotspur of the North; he that kills me some six or seven dozen of Scots at a breakfast washes his hands and says to his wife – ‘Fie upon this quiet life! I want work’ ‘O my sweet Harry,’ says she ‘how many has thy killed today?’…. ‘some fourteen,’ an hour after; ‘a trifle a trifle.”
From Henry IV, Part 1, Act 2, Scene 4
In 1405, King Henry IV himself besieged the castle and by 1567 it was recorded as ruinous. Its military defences still proved useful in later times however when the Northumbrian General, Tom Forster rested here with his Jacobite army in October 1715. Today Warwkorth Castle is a deserted but splendid ruin that is great to explore and is cared for under the protection of English Heritage.
The castle protects the narrow neck of the river loop at the south end of the town. From here the principal street of attractive stone houses called Castle Street leads north to Warkworth Church in Dial Place and to Warkworth Bridge at the end of Bridge Street.
The church, dedicated to St Lawrence, is a substantial Norman structure, with internal ribs and decorated masonry that is strikingly reminiscent of Durham Cathedral and from the same era. Nikolaus Pevsner described the church as “unique in Northumberland in being a large fairly complete Norman church”.
The ribbed vaulting in the chancel with its zig-zag patterns is very similar to examples in Durham Cathedral from which they derive dating to around 1130. A mason or masons who had worked at Durham are believed to have been involved in their construction.
It is interesting that the church is dedicated to St Lawrence, which is also the dedication of the Norman church at the village of Pittington near Durham another church which has a strikingly similar interior to Durham Cathedral.
Warkworth’s church is thought to stand on the site of an earlier Saxon church and a Saxon cross was once found here. The church tower was added later around 1200 with its crowning broach spire dating to the 14th century.
There is some striking stained glass within the church, some placed within the plain rounded Norman windows. The stone effigy of a recumbent cross-legged knight dates to around 1330.
The neighbouring bridge (the old bridge) along the river just to the east at the end of Bridge Street is medieval in origin and is fortified with a defensive tower.
It was necessary to have this tower on the bridge as without it the crossing would have left the town exposed to attack in what was otherwise a superbly defended setting within the looping meander of the River Coquet.
Today Warkworth Bridge is only a footbridge with the road now crossing the river by the modern neighbouring bridge of 1965 immediately to its east. Bridges with fortifications are a rarity in England.
A rather curious and interesting feature of Warkworth is the Warkworth Hermitage which lies along the River Coquet to the west. It is in fact a chapel and priest’s house hewn into the riverside rocks in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century.
With upper and lower chambers the building included a kitchen, chapel and gardrobe. It is called a hermitage due to a legend arising from a ballad called The Hermit of Warkworth written in 1771 by Thomas Percy, the Bishop of Dromore in County Down, Ireland.
In summary the ballad concerns a Sir Bertram of Bothal who sought the love of Isabel. a daughter of Lord Widdrington but her heart was not won so easily. One day, as Bertram sat to dine with Lord Percy at Alnwick she sent him a helmet accompanied by a message that read:
“Sir knight, thy lady sends the this,
And yields to be thy bride,
When thou hast proved this maiden gift,
Where sharpest blows have tried.”
The call for bravery, supported by the enthusiastic Percy was taken up and they went raiding in Scotland where Bertram performed many valiant deeds but suffered a severe wound. He was then taken by his companions to the castle at Wark on Tweed for recovery. Meanwhile Isabel had set off to search for him but was captured by a Scot who had desired her heart and he kept her in confinement.
Bertram then recovered and set out to look for her but upon finding her place of confinement he witnessed her escape down a ladder of ropes assisted by a lad in Highland dress who he assumed to be a suitor. It sent Bertram into a jealous rage and he attacked the stranger with his sword delivering a mortal blow which Isabel also received as she tried to throw herself in front of the unfortunate man.
In her dying words Isabel revealed that the stranger was in fact Bertram’s brother who had come to rescue her. The remorseful Bertram is then said to have given away all his goods and possessions to the poor and lived the rest of life as a hermit in the hermitage that he supposedly cut into the banks of the Coquet at Warkworth.
Amble by the Sea
From the river loop at Warkworth the estuarine River Coquet heads about a mile south east to the village of Amble on the south side of the river. The road between the two places runs alongside the river accompanied by the sight and sounds of seabirds and the smell of the salty sea air.
Amble is larger than Warkworth but still a relatively tiny town with a picturesque harbour and pleasant views out to sea as well as inland to Warkworth Castle.
There was a settlement at Amble in ancient times with early spellings of the name including Ambell and Annebele. It is thought to mean the ‘bill or promontory of Anna’, though it may have earlier Celtic roots. A Celtic name ‘Am Béal’ meaning tidal inlet has been suggested and that is certainly an accurate description of Amble. An extensive ancient burial ground exists on the links to the south of Amble.
For much of its history Amble was a tiny hamlet with a manor house that belonged in medieval times to Tynemouth Priory. There was also possibly a monastic cell here belonging to the priory. The river mouth at Amble formed the port of Warkworth and it is recorded that in 1316 a ship laden at Hartlepool with wheat rye and salt and destined for Berwick was driven ashore by pirates here.
There was some small scale mining but it was really in 1837 that Amble’s growth as a town and port kicked off with the construction of a harbour to serve as a coal port for the collieries at neighbouring Radcliffe and Broomhill to the south. The town’s growth increased from a population of 200 in 1821 to 2,975 in 1891. By this time it was described as “a small and rising sea port”. The church, dedicated to St Cuthbert was not built until 1870.
In more recent times Amble has developed as a popular spot for tourists with 15 attractive ‘pods’ on the harbour front serving as outlets selling crafts, accessories, food and drinks and gifts. New housing developments can be seen along the river front on the approach from Warkworth.
Coquet Island with its lighthouse, lies just offshore from Amble and is a sandstone rock built upon a layer of coal measures – so geologically it is not connected with the Farne Islands to the north as they are whinstone rocks.
There was a monastic cell on the island as early as 684 AD, and here Elfleda the abbess of Whitby and sister of King Ecgfrith of Northumbria held a meeting with St Cuthbert in an attempt to persuade him to become a bishop. In later medieval times it is said to have been the home of a Henry the Hermit who was buried at Tynemouth.
In 1567 coiners came to work here to experiment in minting new coins, its location presumably being chosen for its isolation and secrecy. During the Civil War the island was garrisoned for the king but was captured by the Scots in 1643 who replaced it with a garrison of their own. A fortress on the island was partly converted into a dwelling house and lighthouse
In November 1821 a ship from Sunderland called The Catherine was wrecked on the rocks of the island in a dreadful storm. Locals on the shore tried in vain to alight from the shore from their cobles to come to their rescue with the loud encouragement of the crewmen who clung to the rigging of the wreck as breaking waves dashed the vessel to pieces. As the night closed the last cries of the crew could be heard as they perished in the storm. At that time there were no lifeboats stationed anyway on the entire coast between North Shields and Bamburgh.
The present lighthouse on the island was built in 1841 and its first keeper was William Darling, the elder brother of Grace Darling. Today Coquet Island belongs to the Duke of Northumberland and is a protected nature reserve managed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. It is noted for its puffins and Roseate Terns. The Roseate Tern is an endangered bird for which the island forms the largest colony in Britain.
South of Amble we find the little village of Hauxley and the coastal rocks forming Hauxley Haven, Silver Carrs and Bondi Carrs near the northern end Druridge Bay.
Inland to the south and west are Radcliffe, Broomhill, Hadston and Chevington in a former mining area that is still mostly rural and nowhere near as heavily populated as former mining areas to the south.
Druridge Bay stretches for seven miles from the rocks at Creswell near the River Lyne in the south to the rocks near Hauxley in the north. This beautiful bay – its name means ‘dry ridge’ – has miles of fine sand backed by grassy dunes.
It is one of the quietest coastal spots in the region and north of the Chevington Burn at the midway point forms part of the Druridge Bay Country Park which has a visitor centre with a café.
At the heart of the country park is the extensive freshwater lake called Ladyburn Lake with its surrounding walks and woodlands. The lake is to the rear of the dunes and only seconds from the sea. There are picnic areas, windsurfing and sailing courses and plenty of opportunities for birdwatchers.
Large concrete blocks can be found along the beach of Druridge Bay but they are an integral feature of the scenery and in no way mar the wonderful view. They were part of Second World War anti-tank defences.
Acklington and Eshott
Acklington near the former colliery village of Broomhill is about three miles south west of Amble and the site of Her Majesty’s Prison, Northumberland. It was built on the site of the former RAF Acklington airfield in 1975 which closed that year. First built in 1916, the airfield initially closed in 1920 then reopened in 1938 prior to the outbreak of the Second World War.
Near the A1, a couple of miles to the west is Eshott airfield, now the home of the Eshott Flying Club. The airfield was home to RAF Eshott from 1942 to 1944.
Nearby Eshott Hall, a country hotel in a lovely setting, dates from the early eighteenth century. Its owners once included the Carrs of Etal, the Adams and Brewis family and from 1877 it belonged to Emerson Muschamp Bainbridge, who founded Newcastle’s Bainbridge’s Department Store.
Eshott village near the hall has a name that means something like the ‘glade of the ash trees. The little village or hamlet of Helm just off the A1 a mile to the west of Eshott has a name that may have referred to a building such as a byre with a pointed top.
On the banks of the River Coquet north of Eshott airfield is the village of Felton situated at the point where the Great North Road crosses the river, though the A1 now bypasses Felton half a mile to the west.