Sitting in the Rose and Thistle in Alwinton, I was reflecting on the situation in Scotland, where the ‘right to roam’ legislation of recent years has completely changed the attitudes of walkers and other outdoor enthusiasts, bringing about a wider and more open appreciation of the countryside and the benefits to be gained from simply wandering about.
Aware of the more restrictive English conditions imposed by ‘permissive paths’ and the like, I was studying the next section of the Coquet walk, trying to figure out just where I could walk along the river bank and where I would be forced on to the road.
Because I would be walking alone for some of the time, my self-imposed ‘rules of engagement’ included:
- Staying on marked footpaths where possible
- No climbing over barbed-wire fences
- No clambering over drystone walls
- No solitary wanderings down deep ravines
- Always staying within one mile of the centreline of the river
Even before my first steps back from Coquet Head, I knew that despite the huge numbers of folk who have passed this way over the centuries, this is not in any sense an ‘approved’ walk, with continuous dotted green lines on the map to show where walking is both possible and ‘permitted’. Topographical realities had dictated much of my route during the first section of the walk, with occasional anglers paths from one deep pool to the next but with steep banks and broken contours being the norm. I expected to find access problems and forced detours increasing as I progressed, with access made difficult by the needs of agriculture and the enforcement of riparian rights.
Join me on this next section and we’ll see how things work out.
Back en-route, I passed this restored lime kiln beside the bridleway running south-east from Low Alwinton. The Selbys of Biddlestone Hall built the kilns around 1827 to supply lime to their estate, but competition from commercial kiln operators led to closure in 1866. I’ll have more to say about lime production later in this article
The bridleway to Harbottle is on the north bank of the Coquet, passing across the top edge of green pastures before descending closer to the river – which is heard rather than seen through the dense tree cover. During the winter, glimpses of the remains of Harbottle Castle may be seen through the leafless trees, with little imagination required to reconstruct what must have been an intimidating fortress until terminal decay followed the 1603 accession of James I and the union of the English and Scottish crowns.
Passing behind the village, I crossed the river via the footbridge then walked back to view the ruins of the ancient castle.
In Old English, 'herebotl' probably means 'army house or hall'
As Dippie Dixon tells us ‘Apart from the commanding site on which it stands, amid the wilds of Upper Coquetdale, there cluster around the old grey ruins of Harbottle Castle many thrilling asociations, full of interest to all who take pleasure in the history of this northern county. Situated at the very limits of the cultivated portion of the valley, on the verge of a hilly and unfrequented region, as well as being the extreme outpost of the English over against Scotland in that part of the borderland, the castle during the days of border warfare occupied a most important and strategical position.’
That position didn’t happen by accident. William the Conqueror gifted his relatives the Umfravilles large swathes of Northumbria to defend as buffer zones against Scots incursions and at Harbottle Odinel D’Umfraville erected a huge octagonal timber motte and bailey, which was rebuilt in stone circa 1200. Over time, the castle withstood several sieges, notably the 1296 attack by Robert De Ros and some 40,000 men. Robert the Bruce captured the castle in 1311, but it survived the threat of demolition.
In the 16th century, Lord William Dacre took up residence and the castle became an important prison for troublesome border reivers, with a grisly and well deserved reputation. Dacre was at various times Warden of the West March and Warden of the Middle March, so he had plenty of opportunity to exercise his rights of ‘pit and gallows’ (drowning was seen as an easier death than hanging, so the drowning pit was for executing female prisoners).
In October 1515, Harbottle played host to the pregnant Queen Margaret of Scots and her second husband, the Earl of Angus. During her visit, Margaret gave birth to a daughter (also Margaret, the future mother of Lord Darnley who was husband of Mary, Queen of Scots and father of James VI).
Margaret had to be entertained royally, so the visit was costly and the bored Queen apparently spent most of her time admiring her wardrobe and sending to Edinburgh for more dresses. Concerned for his purse, Dacre moved her on to Morpeth as soon as possible.
Dacre had other reasons for feeling grumpy – for example, in 1518 ‘having arrested 10 of the principal thieves in Redesdale, and having put them in irons within the dungeon of Harbottle Castle, he sent for the jailer and bailiff of the shire to convey them to Morpeth’
To prevent a rescue, ‘Dacre summoned his Harbottle tenantry, to the number of about eighty, to which were added his own household servants.
Setting out from Harbottle the prisoners were safely conveyed as far as Rothbury gate, where they were handed over to the jailer and his escort; but the prisoner’s friends, the sturdy men of Redeswater, being apprised of the movement crossed the moors behind Simonside, and overtaking the convoy at a straight path in Rothbury forest, killed the bailiff and six of the escort, took the jailer and four of his men prisoners, and having released their ten kinsmen fled for refuge into Scotland’
‘The late marches and borders of the two realms of England and Scotland are now the heart of the country. Proclamation is to be made against all rebels and disorderly persons, that no supply be given to them, their wives, or their bairnes and that they be prosecuted with fire and sword'
This 1604 decree by James I against reivers was rigorously and successfully enforced – with an unintended outcome being that Harbottle now has two castles; because the medieval castle was abandoned and the site used as a quarry for a new ‘castle’ built by the Widdrington family at the other end of the village. The building that exists today is a 1829 John Dobson rebuild for the Clennell family.
No Harbottle trip is complete without a long visit to The Star Inn, seen here in Andrew Curtis’ modern photo.
Robert and Anne Dunn have nurtured the business during the last 42 years, and by significant diversification they have successfully coped with changes in custom caused by depopulation of the hill farms and an increase in holiday homes in the village, etc. The Star Inn is a shop, a pub, and a National Park information centre. Take a look next time you are in Harbottle or call Anne Dunn on 01669 650221 for further information.
The next image shows The Star Inn during the post-war period, with Doctor Richardson’s 1948 Vauxhall Wyvern parked outside what was then known as the ‘Doctor’s House’.
Doctor Richardson was a really remarkable man, a GP who was held in the highest possible regard by folk from Makendon to Otterburn and Pauperhaugh north to Whittingham.
My friend John Tribe had an interesting first encounter with the good Doctor, as this story tells.
Looking cross the valley from the castle ruins, this photo shows the ‘Drake Stone’ squatting on the skyline and dominating the view to the south-west.
At 9 meters high and with a weight of more than 2000 tons, the Drake (or ‘Draak’) stone is reputedly the largest glacial erratic boulder in Northumberland, with most descriptions mentioning the lateral scratches or striations that are plainly seen in the next photo, the conventional wisdom being that the boulder has been polished and scratched by movements of the ice sheet during the last glaciation.
The next image is taken from the direction of the prevailing wind, and if one compares the above photo with the marked copy showing the course of rainwater channels caused by subsequent weathering, then it is possible to discern striations within these channels, indicating that millennia of weather erosion may have played a significant part in the modern appearance of the boulder.
Either way, this is a big beast of a boulder with a certain notoriety within the rock-climbing fraternity. The druids liked it too, they named it draak (old Scots for ‘soggy’) and may have held services nearby.
Close to the stone and near Harbottle Lake lies a long-abandoned quarry, where a recent survey recorded literally hundreds of discarded or unfinished millstones and quarry pits. From circa 1604 to 1800 this quarry supplied stones to local Coquet mills.
One of the stone huts where the quarry workers would shelter during inclement weather.
Rejected or broken millstones are lying in the heather.
This beautiful adder guarded the site during our visit (photo by Maurice Bulmer).
Leaving Harbottle by the footbridge, I followed the track uphill towards ‘The Peels’ before cutting off across the fields to ‘Peels Haugh’, planning to cross the river at Sharperton, either by the bridleway or by skirting the edge of ‘Fawcet Plantation’ and so gaining the main road and walking round the edge of Sharperton Common, then following the path to the bridge at Holystone.
This proved to be much more difficult than indicated by the map.
The ‘public bridleway to Sharperton Common’ crosses the Coquet at a ford which can only be used when the river is at a trickle – the alternative routes involve crossing this decayed plank bridge (next photo) and skirting the overgrown river bank or climbing the steep bank to the fields above. No safe passage is possible, either route involves crossing rusty barbed-wire fences and facing intimidatory notices.
From Sharperton, the public footpath towards ‘Charity Hall’ leaves the Rothbury road at at the foot of Sharperton Bank and close to where the old roman road from Bremenium (Rochester) crosses in a north-easterly direction.
According to McKenzie’s 1825 ‘History of Northumberland’, Charity Hall was gifted ‘in perpetuity’ to the poor of Rothbury parish and from 1719 was supported by an annual bequest from the estate of the Reverend John Thomlinson of Rothbury. In the event, ‘perpetuity’ proved to be rather more ephemeral and the property is now partially divided into holiday lets.
Heading in a southerly direction leads to this footbridge over to Holystone, a picturesque and rather sleepy village perhaps best known for ‘The Lady’s Well’.
As the image shows, this is a beautiful and serene little nook, with crystal clear water welling up to fill the shallow pond and big trees nodding sagely as the breeze riffles their leaves and unseen small creatures rustle amongst the leaf litter below.
The National Trust plaque gives the modern understanding of the history of the well, without entering into the mild controversy concerning a possible link to St Paulinus, a priest who reputedly baptised 3000 local pagan tribesmen here during what must have been a very busy day in AD 627 (don’t worry, the lads very quickly reverted to their traditional evil ways).
What seems more certain is that Paulinus was a member of a proselytising mission sent by Pope Gregory 1 in AD 601 to convert post-Roman Britain, and that following his AD 626 consecration as Bishop of Rochester he spent some time at the court of King Edwin at Yeavering (Gefrin) near Wooler. See him below, surrounded by gold leaf on a medieval font-cover in York Minster.
Oliver Dixon’s springtime photo is of Holystone Church, which in local tradition is built on or near the site of a mediaeval Priory complex that functioned as an Augustinian nunnery from the 12th century until dissolution by Henry VIII in 1539.
To verify the tradition, the very active Holystone History and Archaeology Group raised finance for a modern ground radar survey of the site and a subsequent archaeological dig. Click here to read the official report
Our friend John Tribe became interested in ‘The Holystone Seal’ as mentioned in Dippie Dixon’s book on Upper Coquetdale. Click Tribe:seal to read about his research. The next two photos show the wax seal and the stone replica that John produced.
Still in Holystone, These two photos (by Les Hull and Andrew Curtis respectively) show Dove Crag and the ‘Fairy Glen’,
beauty spots that are easily accessible in the forest above the village, although the growth of vegetation in the years since the pics were taken has substantially changed the general appearance of this area.
If you plan to visit, take care if you have small children in your party. Despite an abundance of marked and informal tracks, during inclement weather it is easy to go astray in the forest, so ‘gan canny’ because the National Parks people seem to have cut back on (read ‘eliminated’) any drainage or other maintenance of footpaths and signage.
I took the road out of Holystone and headed south on the footpath past Dueshill Farm and Tatty Lea wood, heading the for the upright stones named ‘The Five Kings’ and veering off mid-trek for a quick look at Holystone Grange. Originally named Dueshill Grange, the building was transformed in 1897 by the owner, Newcastle architect F. W. Rich. The impressive balustrades came from Haggerston Castle.
Almost adjacent to the Grange is Woodhouses Bastle, a fortified house that was reputedly completed in 1602, very shortly before the beginning of the end for the reivers and thieves who made the construction necessary.
This view shows the vaulted ‘byre’ into which cattle would be driven when a raid was anticipated.
The Five Kings
The stones vary in height, breadth, thickness and spacing and are apparently of immemorial antiquity, but as the above photo shows, only four of the ‘Kings’ remain in their lonely positions amongst the grass and dead bracken.
Opinions differ as to the purpose of the stones, although their position close to the sepulchral mound on the summit of Dues Hill and the relative proximity of ‘The Five Barrows’ on Holystone Common may be relevant.
A marked path heads south west into Grasslees valley, but due to years of neglect by the National Park authority the right of way is completely blocked by windblown trees, as this pic from the stile shows.
The early eighteenth century saw the virtual end of common grazing and the growth of land inclosure Acts of Parliament, with The Public Money Drainage Act of 1846 providing grant aid for landowners to drain and otherwise ‘improve’ their holdings. In turn, this stimulated the production of lime (used to de-acidify peaty soils), with a consequent increase in the demand for coal and the building of lime kilns like this one near Tosson and the earlier example seen at Low Alwinton.
A further spin-off was a demand for earthenware ‘land drains’, and the availability of local coal combined with the presence of fireclays encouraged the building of rural brick and tile works, including the mini-industrial complex at Ovenstone in the Grasslees valley.
Fortunately, the moors on both sides of the Coquet and across to the Simonsides had accessible reserves of coal, although this was generally in narrow seams and was of a poor shaly nature with a significant ash residue. Coal was dug from horizontal drift mines when the seams were close to the surface, but deeper concentrations were mined via primitive ‘bell pits’ as seen below.
As seen in Russel Wills’ photo, the circular spoil heaps around the rim of many of the shafts now appear as ‘fairy rings’.
As David Dippie Dixon tells us in 1903
‘The village of Hepple is pleasantly situated on a gently sloping piece of ground north of the river Coquet, and about six miles west of Rothbury. This interesting little village is almost self-contained, for besides the two farmhouses of Middle and West Hepple, it has its own church, parsonage, and school-house, its village shop and post office, also its joinery and smith’s shops’.
The depopulation of Coquetdale has brought about many changes to the local economies of riverside communities, and Hepple has not been immune to the consequential loss of revenue. The Post Office is still functional and seems to be well supported, otherwise Hepple seems to be asleep and does little to attract visitors. I found no public roadside car parking places and had to drive out of the village to turn my car around – many casual visitors will just keep going.
The ruins of ‘Hepple Tower’ are on private land and not accessible from the public road, although a photo is possible:
Endless repeats of ‘Dad’s Army’ have encouraged the popular notion that British arrangements for Home Defence during WWII were bumbling and amateurish, so it’s hard to imagine that Hepple and the Coquet featured in national defence plans during those desperate days.
The reality is that a Coquet Stop Line plan was developed in pre-war planning. This plan anticipated a German advance from the north and included deploying local Home Guard units and moving detachments of infantry and sappers into Coquetdale, blowing up bridges and destroying railway lines to buy time for a British Field Army to muster on the Wansbeck Stop Line and/or the Tyne Stop Line, a more substantial defensive line designed to protect the strategic shipbuilding and heavy engineering industries of the North-East. If the Tyne line was overwhelmed, the Derwent Stop Line was 10 miles further south.
Near Hepple sits this lozenge-shaped ‘pillbox’ (at grid ref NT97770002), once an integral part of the defensive line which ran from Amble up the Coquet valley. The Coquet Stop Line comprised a chain of similar pillboxes, which generally face north with the river and a cleared ‘killing ground’ to the front and ground cover for the defenders to escape from the rear when the box had to be abandoned.
Nancy Moscrop’s photo of members of the Coquetdale home guard platoon shows some of the local lads who would have provided local knowledge if the Coquet Stop Line plan had been implemented.
Dippie Dixon tells us ‘Caistron is described in 1811 thus: — ‘This pleasant village stands upon the north brink of the river Coquet, and was formerly the property of three gentlemen, all of the name of Hall, to distinguish whom they were denominated Duke, Lord, and Lawyer’
'Warton is a bonnie place, So is Flotterton Ha', But when ye come to Caistron It's the bonniest of aa'
Once a Coquetside hamlet peopled by Storeys and Snowdons, Caistron is now dominated by very extensive lakes formed by the extraction of gravel from haugh land on the south side of the river. Operations ceased in 2013 and a locally contentious site restoration plan is intended to provide a wetland refuge and associated trout fishery.
Just over a mile to the west of Caistron lies Wreighill, in ancient times a thriving small village, now a single farm and outbuildings – although frosty winter mornings reveal the outlines of a much larger settlement.
For anyone with a feeling for the past, the sense of dramatic history at Wreighill is all-pervasive.
Two cataclysmic events have shaped this place – the first being a 1412 raid by Scottish freebooters that resulted in the massacre of most of the inhabitants, the second being a 1665 outbreak of Bubonic Plague, unwittingly brought into the village via a small package sent from London.
On a more positive note, Wreighill is the 1752 birthplace of the mathematical savant George Coughran.
Coughran showed early signs of his precocious talent, corresponding anonymously with local newspapers and earning no less than ten prizes for solving differential calculus problems. He was recognised as the outstanding mathematical prodigy of his era, but died of smallpox at the tragically young age of 21.
On the south side of the river, Tosson is best known for the imposing remnants of Tosson Tower, a fortified ‘pele’ tower built for the Ogle family in the fifteenth century.
Plainly, the building has been used as a quarry for free building stone, but what remains gives a clear picture of the power that ownership of such an asset conveyed during those lawless and violent times.
Even so, the Tower itself was only as effective as the soldiers who were manning it, as this anecdote shows.
Following their 1648 defeat at Preston some Northumbrian remnants of the Royalist army straggled northwards, seeking shelter in the Aln and Coquet valleys.
Major Sanderson commanded the ‘forlorn hopes’1 detachment of the pursuing Roundheads and he reported:
‘The first towne we fell into was Tossons, where we took a lieutenant and sixe of his dragoons, all in bed’
'The next town was Lurbottle, where we took sixty horse and sixty men, all in bed'.
1The ‘forlorn hopes’ were soldiers who hoped to gain promotion and other rewards by volunteering for especially dangerous duties.
Thropton is about 2 miles west of Rothbury near the Wreigh Burn/Coquet confluence.
The junction seen from the south side of the river.
The 1811 humpback bridge over the Wreigh Burn still stands, with a pedestrian walkway behind as a nod to modern traffic.
Very fine views over the village and away to upper Coquetdale may be had from the quaintly named ‘Physic Lane’, just to the west of the ‘Cross Keys’ pub.
A view over Thropton from Physic Lane.
This elegant footbridge Behind the ‘Three Wheat Heads’ Inn gives access to the riverside haugh on the south of the village.
Map extracts are courtesy of Ordnance Survey on behalf of HMSO. © Crown Copyright. All rights reserved.
I gratefully acknowledge my principal written references;
1 ‘Upper Coquetdale, Northumberland: Its History, Traditions, Folk Lore and Scenery’ – By the gloriously named David Dippie Dixon
2 ‘The Steel Bonnets’ – By George MacDonald Fraser
3 ‘The Reivers’ – By Alistair Moffat
Thanks also to David Jones and Jan Frazer of the Coquetdale Community Archeology Group for advice and to Jean Foreman and Nancy Moscrop for the loan of precious family photographs.
I use my own photos wherever I can, otherwise I use ‘Creative Commons’ images from geograph.org. Thanks to Russell Wills, Andrew Curtis, Oliver Dixon and Les Hull for the ‘Creative Commons’ permission to use their images.
If you can help with photos, information or factual corrections to improve this article, or if I have inadvertently ignored your copyright, then please click here to email me.