NEAR the Roman station on Thirlmoor emerges the loveliest of wandering, winding Northumbrian streams, the much-sung Coquet, and forty miles further on it reaches the sea at Amble. Going up-stream past Warkworth and Morwick Mill, its secluded, sylvan beauty continues. At Guyzance on a green haugh are the remains of a monastic cell. In the years when such things were neglected it was used as a quarry for building-stone. The walls have now been enclosed and the beautiful base of the ancient columns revealed. On the north of the chancel is a curious blocked doorway. The burial ground is still open to the inhabitants of Guyzance and Brainshaugh. The windings of Coquet are here very marked, with the wooded banks rising above. A horseshoe fall, set amongst overhanging trees where the river throws its whole length of tumbling water, is very beautiful.
The construction of this dam in 1776 is said to be the cause of the lack of salmon in the upper reaches, as it is impossible for them to jump the weir. Two miles inland from the river at Swarland is an obelisk erected in 1807, to the memory of Lord Nelson, by a gentleman who placed an inscription on the pedestal saying it was ” not to commemorate the public virtue and heroic achievements of Nelson, which is the duty of England, but to the memory of private friendship.” An extraordinary method of calling attention to the friend of a great man.
Where the north road crosses the Coquet by a quaint fifteenth-century bridge stands Felton, in as beautiful scenery as can be found in the vale. Several events of historical importance occurred at Felton. On October 22nd, 1215, the barons of Northumberland did homage to Alexander, King of Scots, being not unreasonably dissatisfied with John Lackland, who in revenge reduced it to ashes the next year. In 1715 Tom Forster had his miserable following augmented here by seventy Border horsemen. In ’45 the ” butcher Cumberland ” stayed at Felton on his way to dark Culloden. John Wesley remarks in his journal, after giving a stirring address in the village on a missionary tour in 1766, ” that very few seemed to under-stand anything of the matter.” Rural Northumberland was not given in those days to revival meetings, just as it had been the despair of early missionaries who found that their hardly-won adherents were ready to drift back to the old gods at the bidding of their lords.
On a crest of land above the Coquet on one side, with a ravine formed by the Back burn on the other, stands the church of St. Michael. The chancel and nave belong to the thirteenth century, but it was rebuilt with aisles in the fourteenth. In the north wall is the upper part of the effigy of a priest holding a chalice. There is a pre-Reformation bell with the inscription ” Ave, Maria, Gracia, Plena ” hung in the double turret, where is also one of the eighteenth century. It is an ancient and interesting building, and until sixty years ago the singing was accompanied by a clarinet, bass fiddle, etc., which gave so much more scope to village talent and musical development than does the solitary instrument of to-day.
From Felton, past Elyhaugh, to Weldon Bridge is a delightful walk of over four miles. Here is the Anglers Inn, where the mail coaches used to stop. It was and is a much frequented resort of anglers. Along either the river bank or by a carriage road is the approach to Brinkburn Priory, which some consider the highest architectural achievement of Northumbria. Descending a steep hill from which lovely glimpses of the Coquet are seen among the trees, the Priory is hidden until suddenly this most beautiful of Northumbrian abbeys appears on a green peninsula. It is almost enisled by Coquet,
Whose winding streams sae sweetly glide By Brinkburn’s bonny Ha’.
Many a solitary monkish fisherman must have lifted his voice in praise of Coquet, whilst the sandstone cliffs caught the echo of his happy melody. Turner, the supreme, came here and laid the dreamlike beauty on canvas.
Brinkburn was already known by that name when Bertram de Mitford selected it for the site of a convent of Austin Canons. With the consent of his wife and sons he commissioned Osbert Colutarius, possibly a master-builder, to commence it for Sir Ralph the priest and his brethren. The Bertrams made valuable grants of land, but the Chartulary shows that they were often very impoverished by Scottish raids. Tradition says that once the Scots could not find it amongst the thick woodland, and the marauders had turned their horses north when the deep bell of the monastery ringing thanks for the inmates’ deliverance guided them back, to leave behind fire and slaughter in the peaceful valley. Either they or the monks threw the bells into a pool in the river still called the Bell Pool, where they may yet be discovered with other treasures. The canons were always complaining of poverty, and it was evidently not without good reason, for the Commissioners reported in 1552 that they had only found at Brinkburn ” one tene challes, ij owlde westmentes, one owlde coppe, ij small belles, one small hand bell, one holly water pot of bras.” It is a pathetic list. But though the Scots had an ill name, there must have been other influences of a disintegrating nature at work, for four years later the prior was found guilty of immoral conduct and the canons guilty of venerating a girdle of St. Peter. For these diverse reasons, perhaps the second included the first, the convent was dissolved and the prior, William Hogeson, dismissed with an annual pension of 11 pounds.
Religious services were still maintained by chaplains, as a parochial district appertained to the convent. The church and its lands have passed through many secular hands since then till they came to the present owner, who lives in the ad-joining mansion.
In the seventeenth century the roof of the abbey fell in at the south-west angle, but the greater part remained, a beautiful blending of the richest Norman work with purest Early English. Pointed and semicircular arches intermingle with the most graceful freedom, which with the rich varied ornaments make it one of the most interesting examples of the transition from the earlier to the later period. The shape of the church is cruciform, and it is 130 feet long and of noble height.
Brinkburn is earlier than Hexham Abbey, and it is possible that its lancet windows have been copied in many churches of south Northumberland. It may have been a genius of a master builder that Bertram of Mitford found.
In the elder days of Art Builders wrought with greatest care Each minute and unseen part For the Gods see everywhere.
The building was restored and roofed in 1858 and has suffered little by the process. The only discovery of note was an unused grave-cover inscribed to Prior William, Suffragan Bishop, etc., a great dignitary evidently, but his greatness is covered now by the two narrow words ” Hic Jacet.” Still the river murmurs past ; the old millrace that he saw working still flows. No spot more exquisite or peaceful could be imagined, and the piety of man has enriched it with the serenity of perfect art.
From Pauperhaugh, about two miles further on, is a charming walk along the valley to Rothbury. The Forest Burn comes down from Simonside’s eastern slopes through Rothbury Forest, which covers a great tract of country crossed by the railway from Morpeth. The burn is still wild and remote, running through woodland and flowery glades. Its banks are the haunts of badgers, foxes and otters. In early times anyone hunting in the Forest without leave had to pay a fine of ten pounds of silver to the King, and his dogs and horses were forfeited to the lord of the manor. Within half a mile of Rothbury is the Thrum, where the river races through a narrow chasm which is only about two yards wide and sixty yards long. It has been enlarged, as the easy leap which looked so tempting led to drowning accidents.
Rothbury is the capital of the Dale and the best centre for exploring the Coquet. It is almost enclosed by hills, with the densely-planted grounds of Cragside belonging to Lord Arm-strong rising steeply up rocky heights covered with heather and bracken. Its first recorded name was Rodeberia, and as there are the remains of a tenth-century cross it is probable that it owes its name to the rood, meaning the burgh of the Cross.
The manor of Rothbury was granted by King John to Robert Fitz Roger of Warkworth. He had large powers, and it seems a far cry from the equality of today to the privileges granted to Roger. He had the power to apprehend, try, and hang malefactors. Their goods became the property of the Crown, but all lost property and stray cattle became his. He had an assize of bread and ale, a ducking-stool and a pillory. On the way to Thropton is Gallowfield, where Roger executed justice. In regard to seignorial misuse of privileges he shut the free sokemen out of a portion of Rothbury Wood, where they grazed their stock, and diabolically bought off the parson’s opposition by presenting him with six acres of the common pasture. This was one of the ways in which enclosure started. There must have been many acrimonious disputes between powerful baron and powerful priest. On one occasion recorded, the parson’s servant was returning with a cask of wine in a wagon to Roth-bury and, having enjoyed part of his cargo too recklessly, he fell under the wheel and was killed. Oxen, wagon, and wine, being the instrument of death as the law ran, were forfeited to the Church and had to be redeemed. The servant must have surely been a relative of the man drowned in the Tyne about the same time with the festive name of Adam Aydrunken.
The inhabitants suffered greatly from the incursions of the Scots, who were always driving off their four-footed wealth. In 1586, in a book giving losses due to the Scots, the value of the various animals is given – an ox 135. 4d., a cow 1os., an old sheep, wether, or ewe zs., a hogge or goat Is. 4d. The people were of a wild and warlike disposition, as they had to be constantly ready to fight. About this time they are thus described : ” If any two be displeased, they bang it out bravely, one and his kindred against the other and his ; such adepts were they in the art of thieving that they could twist a cow’s horn, or mark a horse, so as its owners could not know it ; and so subtle that no vigilance could guard against them.” According to this account, the wily Scot must have needed all his wits to best them. Nothing remains of the fortress called the ” brave castle ” of the Barons of Rothbury, and only a few houses survive in the town with seventeenth- or eighteenth-century dates on them. The raiders from Scotland did not often leave the roofs above the heads of the natives. Edward I signed one of the many truces with the Scots here, and John also stayed in the village for a time and signed the town’s charter, finding shelter in the valley from the cold blasts that blow across the Borders. A delightful picture of Rothbury is given by Thomas Doubleday, who published ” Coquetdale Fishing Songs ” in 1852: ” Rothbury is cheerful at sunny mid-day, but dimly sober towards evening, for then the hills close in again, and in their gorge the town of Rothbury stands. Its site has evidently been selected for shelter, being shut in by hills, save towards the west. To the north, behind it, the hills are steep and broken into crags, amidst which the goat-numerous here – alone finds footing. To the south are the hills forming a portion of the great Simonside ridge. And to the east the crags close in and cross each other, as if determined to bar the Coquet from further passage. The town has all the marks of hoar antiquity in its aspect. The stone bridge of four arches which here spans the Coquet bears the mark of age. The low tower of the church, which stands near the river, is weather-worn and the whole structure the worse for time. The houses have all the impress of time, and the very orchards, with their moss-grown trees, seem to have smiled for years gone by and for generations now buried. The old market cross is half in ruins, the very stocks in the churchyard, like a toothless mastiff, seem to have lost their terrors amidst the ravages of age.”
Alas ! the medieval bridge since then has been almost ruined by the County Council. The old market cross which used to shelter the countryfolk with their farm produce (it must have been a covered market greatly like that at Hexham) when it got ruinous was pulled down instead of being restored. A very old man within recent times remembers watching the countrymen at the fair going unto the shelter of the cross to try on the leather breeches they were about to buy. The village stocks and pillory and the bull-ring all went about the same time. This piece of ground is now enclosed and has a cross to the memory of Lord and Lady Armstrong. Rothbury, being so favourably situated for such a fine trout stream as the Coquet, has always nourished many anglers in its bosom, and original characters abound in those who practise the solitary art. But things are not what they used to be even amongst the finny tribes, and a piquant observation on that point may be quoted from ” Rambles in Northumberland,” by Stephen Oliver. The old Coquet angler speaks in his own tongue : ” Talk o’ fishen there’s na sic fishen in Coquet now as when I was a lad. It was nowse then but to fling in an’ pull oot by tweeses and threeses, if ye had as many heuks on, but now a body may keep threshin’ at the watter aa’ day atween Hallysteun and Weldon an’ hardly catch three dozen, an’ mony a time not that. About fifty years syne I mind o’ seein’ troots that thick i’ the Thrum below Rotbury, that if ye had stucken the end o’ yor gad into the watter amang them it wad amaist hae studden upreet.”
Such a speech, with the inimitable accent and emphasis of the Northumbrian, must be heard on its native soil to get its full flavour.
The interest of Rothbury Church lies almost entirely in its font. The basin is seventeenth-century, but it stands on the shaft of a pre-Conquest cross of red sandstone. On one side is a headless figure, with another on the right that seems to be holding back a curtain, and, underneath, numerous heads looking upward. It may represent Christ and sup-pliant sinners. Another side has intricate knotwork and a bronze spout intended to run off the water. The other sides are covered with dragons and nondescript animals. Other parts of the cross were found at the restoration of the church in 185o.
Holes have been drilled in it evidently for candles, which were lighted at the consecration of a Saxon churchyard.
Opposite Rothbury is Whitton Tower, the parsonage of Roth-bury, and a prominent mark in the landscape, standing on a ridge of the Simonside hills. It was built towards the end of the fourteenth century and has been well preserved. It has modern portions built by successive rectors. The vaulted basement would be used to hide the frightened women and children during a Scottish raid, and in the courtyard the cattle would be secured.
Nae bastles or peles Are safe frae thae deils. Gin the collies be oot or the laird’s awae The bit bairnies an’ wives Gang i’ dreid o’ their lives, For they scumfish them oot wi’ the smoutherin’ strae.
The Scots had a habit of setting light to straw at the inner door if they could, and the inmates got suffocated in the thick smoke.
The first floor, now the rector’s study, is also vaulted, and while alterations were being made in it a piscina was discovered in an alcove, pointing to a pre-Reformation oratory.
A mural shield on the west wall of the tower has a coat of arms either of the Umfravilles or of Alexander Cooke, the rector from 1435-74, who probably built the upper storey of the tower. The reigning rector is still lord of the manor although the lands and village of Whitton are his no longer. The villagers of ” Wutton, Roberie ” in the thirteenth century had to render an account of one mark for ” frussure.” They had ploughed pasture lands without leave – a reversal of the procedure during the Great War, when ploughing of pasture was compulsory.
From Whitton Dene an ancient trackway goes in the direction of Lordenshaws Camp on the Simonside hills, one of the most complete of the many British camps in the Coquet valley. It is encircled by three ramparts with a deep ditch between the two outer ramparts. The camp forms an irregular oval. The eastern entrance has grey lichen-covered gateposts which appear almost in their primitive condition. Earthworks extend from the inner to the outer ramparts. In the camp are some well-defined hut circles. One of them has walls two feet high and a paved floor, one flagstone carrying traces of fire. From the eastern gate a hollow way drops into the slack towards Garley Pike, where a spring and a small burn supplied the water for the camp. Several large stones in the vicinity have the mysterious markings to be found in many parts of Northumberland.
On the northeast side of the hill are a number of grave-mounds, and some have been excavated, and a line of stones may be traced from the camp towards two of the excavations. On the neighbouring Garley Pike are other hut circles, and there are ramparts and a ditch at Pike House. Many evidences of British occupation have been found, cists, axes, pottery, etc. A splendid view is obtained from Lordenshaws Camp, Upper Coquetdale to the west bounded by the dark heather-clad hills beyond Holystone and Harbottle. To the east the Coquet winds to the sea, and the broad expanse of Druridge bay, with the shining sea beyond, is visible. And all round can be seen the crests of hills crowned by prehistoric camps that have been very fully explored and written about by Canon Greenwell.
West from Rothbury, half a mile, the Lady’s Bridge crosses the Coquet, where after passing along pleasant meadows are the noted Tosson Woollen Mills. They have been worked for a century by one family and their durable and handsome products have many admirers. Beyond the farm buildings which are all that is left now of the ancient. village are the ruins of a pele tower which belonged to the Ogles. It was one of a line of towers extending from Harbottle to Warkworth as a defence against the reiving Scots. A complete system of watchmen was maintained whose names and duties are found in all the records of towers and villages along the Northumbrian border.
Every man do rise and follow the fray upon the Blowing the Horn, Shout or Outcry upon Pain of Death.” The massive walls of the pele, about nine feet thick, still stand to the height of thirty or forty feet, although the large outer stones have long been removed for neighbouring buildings. The tenacity of the masonry is due to the method in which all Border peles were built, small boulders, taken here from the Coquet, being welded with hot lime. The lords of Hepple held their court in Tosson after the Scots had destroyed their own castle. Before Tosson’s decay, the village inn stood opposite the pele, and the stump of the oaken beam from which the ” Royal George ” hung is yet to be seen in the house wall. When its doom as a hostelry was sealed, the village joiner ” grat ” as he mounted the ladder to cut it down. A green spur of the Simonside hills rises above the trees and grey walls of Tosson’s tower. Burgh Hill Camp occupies over an acre of the summit, from which a wide and lovely view of Coquet rewards the climber. The high civilisation of the Britons can be well gauged by ornaments and weapons found near this camp. Two leaf-shaped bronze swords discovered had the pommels of the handles made of lead, which is regarded as unique. Bronze rings for fastening the swords to the warrior’s belt were found beside them. Jet buttons and a well-designed food-vessel in a cist which had probably held a woman’s body were dug up near, and also amber buttons or amulets and a bronze axe.
The Simonside Hills extend from Hepple to Pauperhaugh, near Brinkburn, along the south bank of the Coquet, and reach their highest point south-west of Rothbury. They are studded by great boulders, the largest of which have names. Between Tosson and Simonside a high perpendicular rock with a shallow cavern on the side of the hill is called Little Church. Simonside, 1,409 feet high, is a bold hill, the most noticeable on the Rothbury landscape. On the south of the hill is Selby’s Cove ; an opening in the rock, where once a moss-trooper called Selby is said to have had his retreat. Croppie’s Hole, not far off, was the lair of a well-known fox without a tail – a cropped fox. This original animal survived for many years by his superior cunning, but at last was run to death on Amble sands, having led the hounds and a single huntsman right down the valley of the Coquet. It is sad to think of plucky Reynard, reared in the dark recesses of Simonside, after so many years of superior wit, meeting a dazed end with the strange tumult of the sea in his ears. Another fox, after a long run, found shelter on Simonside, where a local character, old Will Scott, found him and told the Squire, who inquired if he was quite sure. ” Sure,” said the old fox-hunter, ” hevvent as his aan handwritin’ for it,” holding out his hand the fox had bitten. South of Selby’s Cove over the moors is Fallowlees, a farmhouse, and two loughs on which the black-headed gull breeds. On Chartners Lough, about a mile north-west of Fallowlees, grows a variety of the lesser yellow water lily. Two dangerous morasses cover many acres, from which issue numerous watercourses. One of these, Coe burn, after rushing impetuously down, disappears in a chasm on the hill. By the banks of these runnels grow many flowers and ferns. It is a wild and lonely land, amidst heather moorlands which gaze down on rocks and woodland with the bright river wandering amidst meadows.