Wooler : Gateway to the Cheviots
Wooler is an attractive market town and popular centre for touring the Cheviot Hills. Its name has uncertain origins but old spellings suggest it derives from the Anglo-Saxon ‘wella’ meaning well, spring or stream. It is situated on a small river called Wooler Water and the name may mean ‘bank or hill overlooking a stream’.
Wooler lies on the edge of the Cheviots at the south end of the broad, low-lying Milfield Plain that sits below these hills. A number of rivers and streams meet on this beautiful plain, namely the Humbleton Burn, River Till, River Glen and Wooler Water while to the west along the valley of the River Glen are the adjoining valleys of the College Burn and Bowmont Water.
Being close to the junction of so many valleys Wooler is a natural point for roads to converge and the place serves as an important focal point for this northern corner of Northumberland.
Following the Norman Conquest Wooler became a barony given to the Muschamp family by Henry I. It included neighbouring places like Hethpool, Lowick, Belford, Etal, Ford, Kimmerston, Crookham, Akeld, Coupland and Humbleton.
In 1199 a Robert Muschamp was granted a licence to hold a market at Wooler. His successor, another Robert De Muschamp held Wooler during the reign of Henry III and was apparently considered the mightiest baron in the North. He was a benefactor of Melrose Abbey in Scotland and buried there in 1250.
Later medieval families in Wooler included the Scropes, Darcys, Couplands and Percys and then the Greys who held the barony and manor of Wooler from the 1500s. It later passed through marriage to the Bennets, Earls of Tankerville. The Tankervilles owned the family seat of Chillingham Castle, until the 1980s.
Always an important agricultural centre, Wooler was noted for its wool by the 1300s but as we have seen, this does not explain its name. By that time Wooler was shipping wool to Berwick and onward to Flanders. With the troubles of the border country Wooler often fell victim to raids and this perhaps prevented the place from developing into a more substantial town.
In 1595, a Scot called Andrew Ker, Laird of Cessford entered Wooler and made off with all the sheep and movable goods of the Wooler parson who was away in London. The parson, failing to get assistance from the law, retaliated by stealing an equivalent number of Cessford’s sheep.
Things soon escalated, Cessford entered Wooler with a band of men, their trumpets blowing. The raiding party murdered two men in the town and murdered another man called Storey about two miles distant. The parson meanwhile fled to Berwick. The Storey family took revenge, raiding in Scotland and murdering one of Cessford’s shepherds.
Wooler remained a somewhat isolated place for centuries until the coming of the railways in the Victorian era and the motor car in the following century. By the 1920s it was noted that Wooler’s numerous hotels were often full to the brim with visitors.
Wooler’s attractive main street is the High Street and includes a number of local independent shops. At the east end it becomes ‘The Peth’ linking the main street to the A697. This crosses Wooler Water by a bridge nearby. Adjoining the east end of the High Street from the north is Church Street, hosting Wooler’s parish church that dates from 1856. It is dedicated to St Mary.
Nearby, Glendale Road and Ryecroft Way join the High Street from the north and lead into attractive residential areas. Ryecroft Way is close to Wooler’s Catholic church of St Ninian which opened in 1856 and attributed to the architect George Goldie.
Next door is Fairfield Hall (Loreto Guest House) an eighteenth century house that once served as the Catholic Presbytery. It was previously the home of a Mrs Jane Silvertop, a member of prominent Catholic family who were connected with the foundation of Minsteracres in the far south of Northumberland.
Before the building of the church Fairfield Hall was in part the residence of a priest for the Catholic mission founded by Mrs Silvertop in 1792. During the Second World War, the Essex Regiment was billeted here for a time (1940-41).
At the west end of the High Street, Burnhouse Road heads out west to the village of Humbleton to join the A697 heading west into Glendale or north into the valley of the River Till and the villages of Milfield, Ford and Etal.
On the northern edge of the town alongside the A697 is the historic Tankerville Arms built by Charles Bennet, first Earl of Tankerville in the eighteenth century. It is thought that it was initially built to accommodate guests for the earl’s hunting parties when Chillingham Castle was full.
Known in the nineteenth century as ‘The Cottage’ the inn was popular with visitors who wanted to explore Wooler’s wild remoteness and the supposed health-giving properties of its air. The writer Virginia Woolf stayed at the Tankerville Arms for a month during 1914.
Close to the Wooler Water between the A697 South Road and the Peth is the Ad Gefrin whisky distillery and Anglo-Saxon Museum which takes its name from the Ad Gefrin Anglo-Saxon palace site at Yeavering to the west of Wooler (see below).
The new centre, which opened in 2022 includes a beautiful distillery, a museum and a great hall. The museum features Anglo-Saxon items including some found at Yeavering and at other places nearby along with impressive on-loan items from the Anglo-Saxon period. The Great Hall is an immersive Audio-Visual experience that recreates the great halls of the Anglo-Saxon kings and queens of Northumbria.
Harthope, Happy Valley, Wooler Water
Cheviot Street joins Wooler’s main High Street from the south and forms a steep climb that takes us deeper into the Cheviot Hills along the valley of the Harthope Burn. This burn is one of the Cheviot valleys that feed the Wooler Water, a small river that enters Wooler from the south east in low level country. Wooler Water becomes a tributary of the River Till on Milfield Plain to the north of the town.
In the hill country a couple of miles south of Wooler, the Wooler Water is called the Coldgate Burn and is formed by the confluence of the Harthope Burn and the Carey Burn near a steep spot called Skirl Naked where there is a minor road into the hills. The Coldgate valley is also known as Happy Valley, perhaps to be more encouraging to visitors and becomes Wooler Water around Haugh Head to the south of the town.
Deep in the hills to the south, the Harthope valley, formed by a geological fault, cuts its way in an almost straight line with its upper reaches sandwiched between the two highest and most prominent hills of the Cheviot range.
Here Hedgehope Hill is found on the valley’s eastern side and the Cheviot itself to the west. These two hills can be seen for miles around as far south as central County Durham. The name Cheviot is almost certainly of Celtic origin but the meaning is obscure. A lovely notable feature of this remote stretch of the valley is the Harthope Linn waterfall.
Battle of Humbleton Hill
Returning to Wooler and heading north west out of the town leads us into the Cheviot valley of Glendale formed by the River Glen, passing the site of the Battle of Humbleton Hill or Homildon Hill as it is also known.
On the 13th August 1402, it was here that Harry ‘Hotspur’ Percy defeated and captured Earl Archibold Douglas, who was returning to Scotland with an army of ten thousand men following a raid on Northumberland. The Scots had taken up position on the slopes of the hill, but were heavily defeated by the superior skills of the English archers.
Hotspur was not given much credit for his victory by King Henry IV, who claimed the ransom money for the release of the Scottish prisoners. The snub infuriated Percy and it was possibly this that eventually led the great Northumbrian warrior into rebellion against the king. If so, it was a rebellion that ultimately resulted in Hotspur’s death at the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403.
An ancient standing stone called the Bendor Stone stands in a field near the site of the Battle of Humbleton Hill and is said to commemorate the event but was here long before that time. It should not be confused with the ‘Battle Stone’ near Yeavering, further to the west.
Yeavering and Glendale
Proceeding west from Humbleton we continue into Glendale, the valley of the River Glen (another tributary of the Till) and pass the little hamlet of Akeld which has a fortified farm house called a ‘bastle’ that dates from the fifteenth century. The name Akeld comes from the Anglo-Saxon ‘ac-helde’ meaning ‘oak slope’.
About a mile further west is the little village of Yeavering and to its west the standing stone called ‘The Battle Stone’ and then to its west a place called Old Yeavering, all of which are overlooked to the south by the best-known feature of Glendale, the distinctive hill called Yeavering Bell (1,182 ft).
Yeavering Bell’s summit is the site of the largest Iron Age fort in the North East. Here we can trace the remains of 130 ancient huts. Good views of the Northumbrian countryside can be obtained from the top of Yeavering Bell, as one writer in the 1880s noted:
“Famous hills plains, rivers, castles, villages,
pele towers and battle fields lie stretched like a
beautiful picture before the delighted gaze”
At the foot of Yeavering Bell in the vale formed by the River Glen to the north of the present road once stood the Royal Anglo-Saxon palace and town of Ad Gefrin. Excavated in 1955, this consisted of timber halls and defensive works and is most closely associated with Edwin, the sixth century King of Northumbria.
King Edwin’s Palace at Yeavering, or another great hall much like it somewhere in the Kingdom of Northumbria (which stretched from the Forth to the Humber) is sometimes associated with a debate in which the king and his senior followers, made the momentous decision to convert from Paganism to Christianity.
In the ‘History of the English Church and People’ written only a century later by the Venerable Bede, details of a speech are recorded in which one of Edwin’s heathen followers speaks out in favour of converting to Christianity. The speech seems to give us an insight into the Anglo-Saxon mind and the atmosphere of a Anglo-Saxon hall:
“Your majesty, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thanes and counsellors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside, the storms of winter rain or snow are raging.
This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter’s storms; but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing. Therefore, if this new teaching has brought any more certain knowledge, it seems only right that we should follow it.”
Aerial photos and excavations at Ad Gefrin have revealed that as well as the halls of the royal palace there was a temple, (and later a church), a cemetery, several buildings, a kitchen and a great enclosure representing a defended fort or coral of some kind.
Most intriguingly there was a wedge-shaped raked auditorium of an assembly structure where people were seated and addressed by perhaps the king, a noble or some other orator or performer from a podium.
Not a great deal is known of Yeavering’s history following Anglo-Saxon times, though in 1415 it was the site of a little-known battle in which an army led by Robin ‘Mend the Market’ Umfraville, defeated 4,000 Scots.
Across the river on the north side of the Glen valley from Yeavering is the site of a deserted medieval village called Langeton remembered in the name of a nearby farm called Lanton. A little to the east of Lanton is Coupland, a village which curiously has a Scandinavian name that means ‘bought land’. Coupland Castle, a neighbouring tower house, includes a date of ‘1619’ above a fireplace but the building may be older as tower houses generally date from earlier times.
About half a mile up the Glendale valley from Old Yeavering we find the village of Kirknewton. It is just to the north west of Yeavering Bell. Kirknewton’s church dates to the thirteenth century but the exterior is nineteenth century by John Dobson.
The architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner described the chancel and a south transept as “exciting survivals” of thirteenth or early fourteenth century architecture of a “very northern and primeval kind”.
The church is also noted for a strange and primitive stone carving depicting three wise men wearing kilts, who are known as the ‘Kilted Magi’. The church is dedicated to St Gregory and the name of the village ‘Kirknewton’ – ‘the new church settlement’ perhaps suggests it was once a church of importance.
Kirknewton lies at the head of the River Glen, which is formed by the confluence of the College Burn and Bowmont Water. The College Valley which joins the River Glen from the south near Kirknewton is an entirely English valley but rises close to the Scottish border which confusingly here actually lies to the south (and to the west) near the valley source. In this hilly country the border takes a restless, wandering course.
The name of the College Burn comes from ‘cold-letch’ – a cold stream. Its main settlement is Hethpool, a hamlet where there is a fourteenth century pele tower, a nearby waterfall and a neighbouring hill called Great Hetha with a hillfort on its summit.
Just above the hamlet of Hethpool a hill or ‘Bell’ which includes the Collingwood Oaks woodland where trees were planted by Admiral Lord Collingwood of Trafalgar fame who hoped to create a timber resource for the building of ships.
Near the upper end of the valley we see the prominent hill called The Schill to the west. Its summit is crossed by the Scottish Border and by the Pennine Way. Then we have the Cheviot itself to the east which separates the College Valley from the neighbouring valley of Harthope.
Bowmont Water and Yetholm
Bowmont Water is a larger and less hemmed in stream (or little river) than the College Burn. It was originally called Bolbenda – the name’s meaning uncertain but perhaps refers to bends in the river. Nearby, a place called Bowmont Hill was named from the stream and perhaps resulted in the change of the name.
Hamlets of the Bowmont Water valley, upstream from east to west are Kilham, Thornington, Pawston and Mindrum. At Mindrum (it means ‘mountain ridge’) the valley comes in from the south and from here on as we continue up valley, we somewhat surprisingly, head southwards into Scotland with the river crossing into Scotland less than two miles south of Mindrum. The last English farm in the Bowmont valley is Shotton Farm below Shotton Hill to the east of the river.
‘Shot’ in old names like Shotton or Shotley is ambiguous as it can come from either the Anglo-Saxon words ‘Scot’ (a Scotsman) or ‘Sceat’ (a slope), both of which could apply to this farm near Mindrum. There are several other places called Shotton around the North East region and interestingly the place-name seems to be confined to the historic counties of Northumberland and Durham.
Just south of Shotton Farm, a stream called the Shotton Burn forms the border with Scotland but the border then cuts straight across the Bowmont Water which the stream joins to the west.
Heading south, leaving England behind, within a mile and a half we find the two largest settlements in the valley: Town Yetholm west of the river and Kirk Yetholm to its east. Yetholm derives from the words ‘yet’ meaning gap or gateway and ‘holmr’ – a river island. Kirk Yetholm is at the northern terminus of the long distance footpath called the Pennine Way.
Although Town Yetholm and Kirk Yetholm are linked by a bridge across the Bowmont Water the river forms a broad green vale a quarter of a mile wide between the two places so they are quite separate but closely linked communities.
In days gone by Kirk Yetholm was associated with gypsies including the family called the Faas, the principal gypsy clan of the Border Country. Kirk Yetholm was gypsy capital of all Scotland and the last gypsy king was crowned here in 1898. Many local people claim gypsy descent and a stone on Kirk Yetholm green commemorates the gypsy connection.
There’s also a celebrated gypsy connection at Town Yeholm. During the village festival in June there’s a tradition of choosing a ‘Bari Gadgi’ and ‘Bari Manushi’ – which means ‘best boy’ and ‘best girl’ in Romany gypsy language and the young man and young woman are dressed in a green coloured sash and rosette.
Each July during Civic Week celebrations at the Scottish town of Kelso in the valley of the Tweed to the west, numerous horse riders led by the ‘Kelsae Laddie’ and his ‘left and right hand men’ leave that town wearing blue sashes and cross the countryside to head for Kirk Yetholm. They take a route not far from the English border and arrive in Kirk Yetholm from the north where they are greeted with a toast.
The riders then retire to Town Yetholm across the Bowmont Water for lunch in the Plough Hotel where they are joined by the Bari Gadgi and Bari Manushi to dance a reel to the accompaniment of a piper. The Bowmont Water rises in the Cheviot Hills about eight miles to the south of Yetholm back near the English border in the region of Windy Gyle. Here the English border now lies to the south with streams beyond the watershed across the border feeding the upper reaches of the River Coquet in Coquetdale.
Carham on Tweed
North of Yetholm the England-Scotland border crosses the Bowmont Water near Shotton Farm and from here west of Mindrum it heads northwards, bridging across sparsely populated land of scattered farms between the Bowmont Water and River Tweed.
This part of the border stretches about five miles and it’s a land of relatively gentle hills and Tweed valley lowlands where, save for the occasional tiny stream, the border struggles to find a natural boundary to follow. Things are different once it reaches the River Tweed near the English village of Carham on the south side of that great river. From here onwards the Tweed forms the border for several miles on its eastward route to Berwick.
West of Carham towards Kelso in Roxhburghshire, both sides of the River Tweed are in Scotland. Carham helps to define the border in a geographical sense but also defined it in an historical sense. In times past the land north of the Tweed stretching at one point as far north as Edinburgh and beyond was once part of the Kingdom of Northumbria.
In 1018 things changed at the Battle of Carham when Malcolm II, the King of Scotland fought against the Northumbrians under the leadership of their Earl, Uchtred of Bamburgh, who levied all Northumbrian men north of the Tees. Northumbria was by then no longer a kingdom, but a remote northern earldom subject to England but not always supported by that realm.
The Northumbrians were defeated in the battle. Lands north of the Tweed and within the Tweed valley were then ceded to Scotland forever, including places such as Melrose, long part of Northumbria with its strong links to St Cuthbert. So devastating was this outcome that the Bishop of Durham is said to have died, broken-hearted, on hearing the news.
So the outcome of the battle had an important result as it established the River Tweed as the Anglo-Scottish boundary and more or less defined the border as we know it today. Today, the quiet, pretty little village of Carham seems a long way remote from the days of the border struggle but it must have been at a greatly exposed point on the border from this time onward. Remarkably in medieval times there was once a little monastic cell of Augustinian canons based here, protected only by a tower.
Wark on Tweed
Two miles east of Carham is Wark on Tweed. Wark means ‘earthwork’ and this was the site of a grand castle built by Walter Espec in 1136. It was certainly a major castle but only the impressive mound of the motte and associated earthworks remain.
Scots destroyed the castle in 1138 but it was rebuilt by Henry II in the 1150s. The castle went on to have an extraordinarily eventful history and it’s worth listing some of those events. To begin, King Stephen used it as a base for raiding Scotland, then we have King John setting fire to it in 1216 along with the neighbouring village and we have Henry III taking up temporary residence for a time with his queen.
The castle’s history doesn’t end there however. William Wallace is said to have attacked it and Edward I celebrated Easter within it in 1296. Edward II assembled his army here prior to his disastrous Battle of Bannockburn and Robert the Bruce seized the castle in 1318.
In 1342, Sir William Montague, the Governor of Wark Castle attacked King David II’s Scottish army as they returned from a raid in England. King David then attacked and captured Wark Castle. Then King Edward III came to the garrison’s aid, and while he was here supposedly established the Order of the Garter – an order of chivalry to which several knights subscribed.
According to Northumbrian legend the garter of the Countess of Salisbury slipped as she danced at Wark, causing the courtiers to snigger. They were reprimanded by the king as he picked up the garter with his sword uttering the words that soon came to be the motto of the order:
“Honi soit qui mal y pense”
(Shame on him who thinks ill of it)
Unfortunately, this legendary event is also claimed by a number of other places and in truth the turbulent and dangerous Wark was perhaps an unlikely setting for such frivolous activities.
Nevertheless Wark Castle continued to play its often bloody part in history. It was stormed in 1385, then it was seized by a Scot called William Haliburton in 1419, and retaken the same year by Sir Robert Ogle for the English after his men entered it by a sewer from the Tweed.
The Scots attacked the castle again in 1460 and they caused severe damage before the Battle of Flodden in 1513. Wark Castle was repaired in 1523 but had fallen out of use by the beginning of the next century when King James I became king. Wark’s eventful history is perhaps best summed up in an old rhyme:
“Auld Wark upon the Tweed
Has been many a man’s dead”
Cornhill on Tweed
Two miles west of Wark a sharp bend in the River Tweed and a bridge of 1763 across the river separates the English village of Cornhill on Tweed from the Scottish town of Coldstream where the A697 crosses the river.
On crossing the Tees you are struck by the very ‘Scottish-ness’ of Coldstream’s hansome appearance and not just because of the flying of Scottish flags. Cornhill by comparison has the definite feel of a Northumbrian village
Cornhill, like Wark, was the site of a castle, though not on the same scale. There are scant traces of this fortification near the Tweed to the west. The village church dedicated to St Helen dates from 1866.
Perhaps the most prominent feature of Cornhill other than the bridge is the luxury hotel called the Collingwood Arms, an eighteenth century building recalling that notable Northumbrian family name who owned it up until 1955. Above the entrance door are the prominent words ‘Post Horses’.
Less than two miles downstream from Cornhill, the Tweed is joined by the River Till from the south near Twizell at Tillmouth. East of that point the Tweed continues east, still forming the border with Scotland as it passes Norham and Horncliffe near to which it deviates from the river a couple of miles to the west of Berwick upon Tweed.