Hexham And Its Neighbourhood

THE Battle of Hexham fought on Hexham Levels on May 8th, 1464, may be said to have ended the Wars of the Roses. The Lancastrians received a blow from which there was no recovery. Whether there was only one battle of Hexham or two battles in successive years is open to doubt. One was recorded, but as the inquest on the death of the Duke of Somerset is signed April 3rd,1463, and he was executed immediately after the battle fought on May 4th, 1464, Mr. Crawford Hodgson suggests that the clerk may ” have confused the date of two battles fought about the same date near the same place.”

It is an easy walk from Hexham to Hexham Levels by Hackwood, Beacon Grange, and Sunnyside, close to Linnels Bridge and Mill. The bridge carries an inscription :

God Presarve Wmfoira Evengton, Belldete This Brege Of Lyme And stone, 1581

The date 1581 is borne out by the character of the mouldings, but the bridge of that date appears to have been superseded by another built in 1698, or after Benedict Errington and John Heron, owners of the Linnels, ” were presented by the Grand Jury for having suffered the Linnels Bridge to go out of repair, it having been at first built by the owner of the Linnels.” Today it is part of a fine bit of scenery. The Devil’s Water is a very rough water and comes jumping and foaming over its bed of rock, above which the trees on either side almost meet. In days not very old the mill was a haunt of doubtful characters, but all was changed after the property was sold by Sir John Haggerston. A beautiful residence has been built almost on the edge of the noisy stream, whose waters are now partially employed in the ditches and channels of a very modern water garden, and though the ancient mill is retained it is only as a curiosity. One cannot help envying the owner of such an ideal home, near the road yet hidden from it, sheltered by the high bank and the trees, and always within hearing of the madly gay little river.

At a short distance up stream are the levels, or haughs, where the battle was fought. It was a very bloody encounter. Lord Montacute and his followers were in an overpowering majority and still flushed with their victory at Hedgeley Moor. The Lancastrians fought with their backs to the stream and lost heavily in consequence.

It was here that Queen Margaret met with the most romantic of her adventures. With her son she managed to escape from the field of battle, but only to get lost in a thick wood, Dipton or Deepdene, which even to-day puts one in mind of a stronghold of robbers such as abounded in the fifteenth century. It is a huge ravine, the banks of which fall precipitously to the West Dipton burn which flows between them on its way to join the Devil’s Water. Here the unhappy queen was held up by one of a band of robbers and she was again confronted with the fate from which she had apparently escaped. Much difference of opinion as to the truth of the story has been expressed, but one feels inclined to share the view put forward in the “History of Northumberland,” where the story is continued as follows :

The situation was a critical one, but it was saved by the courage and presence of mind of Queen Margaret. Calling the man to her, she told him he had been born in a fortunate hour. A chance was given to him of redeeming by a single act a life of vice and crime. The son of his king was at his feet for him to save. The unhappy queen besought him to protect his prince and endeavour to convey him to a place of safety. Overcome by Margaret’s entreaties and prayers, the bandit agreed to become the protector of the fugitives, swore he would suffer a thousand torments ere he would abandon the prince, implored the queen’s pardon for his misdeeds, and vowed he would devote the remainder of his life to acts of mercy. Convinced of his fidelity, the queen left her son in the hands of the robber while she went in search of her husband. The cave on the West Dipton burn is said to be the place where Margaret and Prince Edward were temporarily lodged by their protector. It is 31 feet long and 14 feet broad, but scarcely high enough to allow of a person standing upright. In the middle is a massive pillar of rude masonry which is said to mark the line of a wall which formerly divided the cave into two parts. The chief authority is Chastellain, who says that he had it from the queen herself, and gives a very circumstantial account of the affair. In the face of such testimony it is difficult to question the substantial truth of the incident.

In the wild and overgrown woods it is no easy matter to find the cave amid the rank undergrowth, but there is on the local map the Queen’s letch – the place where her horse slipped – and the cave is near by and may be found by noticing the trodden path leading to it. The Dene is the most remarkable, and in some ways the most beautiful, in the county, but good climbing legs are needed for its full enjoyment.

Far in the south of the county, inaccessible by rail and seemingly entirely remote from all modern industry and bustle, yet within ten miles of the blast furnaces and unsightly chimneys of Consett in Durham, lies Blanchland. Although twelve miles from Hexham, it is easily reached by driving, the road going by Slaley and Bolbeck Common and Blanchland Moor. No way is better calculated to give an idea of the high fells of Northumberland. In the deep valley of the infant Derwent Blanchland’s grey walls, with their dim romance of human devotion and art, are circled by the changeless moors. In the centuries since first the white-robed monks travelled the lonely fells and founded the abbey, no other civilising influence has laid its hand on the miles and miles of solitude which encompass Blanchland now as in the twelfth century. Its exquisite name is supposed to spring from the white habits of the canons. Three other contemporary religious houses were similarly named, Blanche Land near Cherbourg, Blanca Lande in Guernsey, and Alba Landa, or Whitland, in Carmarthenshire. Walter de Bolbeck founded the abbey for the Premonstratensian canons.

A seal of the abbey is preserved at Durham. The distant Abbot of Premontré was the head of the order and visited the house from time to time. Records of his visitations are preserved. Its seclusion did not protect it from the Scottish raiders, and the disorganisation due to that was possibly the cause why in 1343 Blanchland had ” fallen in temporals and spirituals and was in much need of reform.” Edward III, in 1327, in pursuit of the elusive Scots, arrived at Blanchland, which had been recently burnt by the raiders.

Little is known of the history of the abbey, and at the dissolution of the monasteries it was sold. In time it came to Nicholas Forster of Bamburgh and thence to Lord Crewe, and now belongs to the trustees of the famous charity founded by him. The chancel of the abbey church, the north transept, and the noble tower now form the parish church. In some of the windows are fragments of medieval painted glass depicting the canons in their white robes. On the floor of the transept are some interesting grave covers, one of an abbot with a crozier and chalice on either side of a cross ; another with a bugle, sword and arrows ; another with a cross above five steps and the letters I II C. In the transept aisle is the most striking of the memorial stones, a blue slab with a sword, bow and arrow, and the name of the hunter, Robt. of Egylston, probably the abbey’s forester. In the churchyard is an ancient cross. A portion of the conventual buildings on the west side of the cloister garth, dating from the thirteenth century, is now the ” Lord Crewe Arms.” The gatehouse, which makes such an impressive entrance to the village square, is possibly fifteenth-century, and also the house on the west of it.

Where two streams unite to form the Derwent, a mile above Blanchland, in lovely scenery, is a high cliff, imposing and picturesque, called Gibraltar Rock.

Corbridge, about three miles from Hexham in the opposite direction to Blanchland, has an altogether different interest. Excavations were begun at Corstopitum, a Roman town rather than a military station, in 1906 and are still going on, with results of the highest importance. This ancient capital of Northumbria is entered on the south side by a bridge of seven arches built in 1674, from which a splendid view is obtained. In the corner of the church-yard is a pele tower built in the fourteenth century and the residence of the early vicars and a place of refuge in the troubled times of the Scottish marauders. The large and beautiful church has a Saxon porch, and with the exception of Hexham is the earliest ecclesiastical building in Northumberland. It is largely built of stones from the Roman town. The arch into the nave is supposed to have been transferred from a Roman gateway.

From Corbridge there is a delightful walk through the fields to Aydon Castle, a fortified mansion of the fourteenth century standing in a fine position on the bank above the dene through which the Cor burn runs, looking over the valley of the Tyne with Hexham Abbey in the distance. It is now used as a farmhouse, and besides its picturesque situation has many beautiful features. The stables remain to show the turbulent times of their erection, for they are both built and roofed with stone, and with stone mangers to protect the dumb animals from the fires the Scots invaders kindled on their red road through North England. Several carved windows remain, and in the interior are beautiful early fourteenth-century fireplaces.

A mile from Corbridge are the ruins of Dilston Castle, once the home of the Radcliffes. Romantic and pathetic are the dismantled walls from which, with foreboding in his heart, the last Earl rode forth in 1715.

O Derwentwater’s a bonnie lord And golden is his hair.

In the annals of Northumberland there is no more touching story than that of his short and noble Iife. His doom was written at his birth. His mother, Lady Mary Tudor, was a natural daughter of Charles II, and her married life with the Earl of Derwentwater was so unhappy that they separated. Her eldest son James was brought up at the exiled Court of St. Germains, so that both his blood and association with the young Pretender ensured his sympathy with the Stuart cause. When he was twenty-one he came home to the ancestral seat at Dilston, and taking up his duties as the landlord of a great estate became generally beloved by the north country people, who succumbed to his attractive appearance and charming, generous personality. The portraits existing today at Thorndon, where his body was at last buried, testify to his good looks. Although a strong adherent of the Church of Rome, his benevolence extended as much to Protestant as Papist. The ballads relating his fate point to the love he had inspired during the few years he lived on his patrimony. His marriage to Anna, daughter of Sir John Webb, whom he had met whilst she was being educated in a convent in Paris, helped to confirm his attachment to the Stuarts. When he hung back from the rising, she rallied him. He foresaw the failure.

Farewell, farewell, my lady dear, Ill, ill thou counsell’dst me, I never more may see the babe That smiles upon thy knee.

The ” wee German lairdie ” who reigned in England was adamant to all the unfortunate Jacobites who, after surrendering, were at his mercy. They consisted of seventy-five gentlemen of Northumberland and about one hundred and forty-three of Scotland, with just over a thousand of humbler followers. George need not have shown such a lack of clemency. They were hardly to be feared, in a stable realm, who were merely the dupes of a romantic and pious dream.. Some died from cruel treatment, some were executed, some transported. Every effort was made to save the Earl’s life. The Countess knelt at George’s feet, many noble ladies petitioned him, the Earl at his trial pleaded his youth, and his submission, and that of his adherents. The judges, his peers, were anxious to show mercy, but George was implacable. The last Earl of Derwentwater was executed on February 24th, 1716, on Tower Hill. That night, over Dilston’s melancholy tower, the red fingers of the Aurora Borealis shot across the sky, and the watching peasantry saw in it the portent of the passing of their beloved lord. Since then they have called them, not the Northern, but Lord Derwentwater’s lights. His body was brought to the family vault at Dilston. In 1805 the coffin was opened to see if the head had been buried with the embalmed body, and the Earl was lying, still young, with his severed head and its light brown hair still perfect. Unfortunately, the vault was not closed properly, and people in the neighbourhood visiting it, a blacksmith actually pulled out several teeth and sold them. After that, all the family coffins were removed, and with them the body of the last Earl, to Thorndon in Essex, where his descendant, Lord Petre, lives.

After the confiscation of the estates they came into the possession of Greenwich Hospital, and the castle was allowed to go to ruin, vagrants occupying the Radcliffes’ lordly halls, and the furniture, through lax management, found its way into many houses in the district. The mansion of the Radcliffes was destroyed in 1768, and the tower now to be seen is part of the ancient castle built by the Dyvelstons in the fourteenth century. Their name was originally D’Eivill, and the effigy of a knight of the family lies in Hexham Abbey, clad in armour. Dilston and Devil’s Water are derived from the name of the first barons.

Near the ruins stands a little chapel among the trees, beneath which was the vault of the Radcliffe family, and where they lay for so many years till curious sightseers made their removal necessary. Not far from the tower stands the pleasant house built by the noted agriculturist, John Grey, a fine type of the Northumbrian gentleman, and the father of that new crusader, Josephine Butler. Grey was appointed in 1833 to take charge of the Greenwich estates, and he cleared away from the castle the unsightly débris of years of neglect. Later removals dis-closed the foundations of the old castle of the D’Eivilles. Below the ivy-clad ruins, which stand on a steep bank, runs the lovely, flashing Devil’s Water, sometimes flowing quietly past green haughs or dancing over the flat rocks between precipitous wooded banks. The walk up the Devil’s Water is of entrancing beauty and solitude, past wild, wooded slopes, with deep pools in the shade below. Nearer Hexhatn is the romantic reach of the river, flowing between lofty cliffs called Swallowship. And all the scenery is reminiscent of Derwentwater’s romantic figure and his ” Farewell.”

Farewell to pleasant Dilston Hall, My father’s ancient seat ; A stranger now must call thee his, Which gars my heart to greet.

Albeit that here in London town It is my fate to die ; O carry me to Northumberland, In my father’s grave to lie. There chant my solemn requiem In Hexham’s holy towers ; And let six maids of fair Tynedale Scatter my grave with flowers.