ON a peninsula of the Wansbeck, in a fertile valley, lies the ancient and attractive town of Morpeth, thought by some to be the most beautiful town in Northumberland. It is not associated with any events of historical importance, though the ruins of the large castle of the de Merlays, standing on a wooded eminence above the town, show the might of the Norman barons who reigned there. Later it came into the possession of Belted Will through marriage, and his descendant the Earl of Carlisle is the present lord of the Manor. Morpeth had its share of the raids and burnings of the troubled centuries. One time John, in his infuriated march north to be revenged on the barons, burnt it. The terrified Northumbrians had already devastated the country in the vain hope of retarding his advance. In Elizabeth’s time Morpeth was in a woeful state. It is said that the Scots rode to it for plunder as they might ride to a market. On their way home, driving the cattle before them, they looked like farmers returning from a fair. Horses were restored only at a blackmail price. The walls of the Castle, which had been built by the de Merlays when they received the barony of Morpeth from William at the Conquest, were shattered during the Civil War. They were never repaired, and nothing of the Castle itself exists but the gatehouse, supposed to have been built in the fourteenth century.
West of the Castle is the parish church of St. Mary, built at different periods of the fourteenth century. The chancel contains some beautiful Curvilinear work. sedilia, priest’s door, and the low side window through which afflicted persons received the communion, and squints or slits on each side of the chancel arch. On the north side is an aumbrey with a hinged door and the original old ironwork. In the west wall of the vestry is a curious recess with a small circular window looking into the north aisle. It is supposed to have been an anchorite’s cell, and the aperture (as there was no external door) his means of communicating with the world.
Coming down the avenue of trees from Morpeth station the visitor is greatly impressed by a stately building looming up before him. It was the county prison, the present cells being now in Newcastle. In the nineteenth century Morpeth Gaol was a terror to the horsecopers, muggers, and other gangrels who were credited with the thefts and burnings which constituted the more ordinary forms of crime in North Northumberland. The clock tower surmounted by quaint figures, once the town jail, at least the stocks were there, the town hall built from designs by Sir John Vanburgh, a very picturesque building, and a number of old hostelries, give Morpeth a charming, old-fashioned air. The Old Grey Nag Inn has an Elizabethan front. Either at the Nag’s Head or Queen’s Head Sir John Eldon and his bride slept on the way back from their runaway marriage from the old timbered house in Newcastle. Collingwood House was occupied by the great admiral, who spent his scanty leisure in planting trees.
Morpeth is thought by many to possess a greater natural beauty than any other town in Northumberland. To me it is always the homeliest, in many ways the most typical of day-to-day life. The stranger who on a summer day leans over the walls of the footbridge which replaced the medieval bridge in 1831, spanning the Wansbeck as it ripples through the town smiling and friendly, will gather what I mean from the boys and girls plodding among the stones. They assail the stranger in words used by hundreds of generations before them : ” Canny man, canny man, gie’s a ha’penny.” Should the traveller good-naturedly respond by tossing a copper or two into the water he will be rewarded by the sight of a ducking and diving and scrambling inspired far more by the spirit of frolic than desire for money. It speaks of days when the poor were much poorer than they are now, and also affords evidence of the fact that nowhere in the North of England are the old tongue and the old customs more cherished than in Morpeth. Nearly all that survives in the folklore of Northumberland may be found in this little town. The history of the place is that of an open village, which makes its annals very different from those of Berwick and Alnwick and other fortified places. At the end of the bridge, on the north side of the Wansbeck, stood the Chapel of All Saints, where services were held and the dues collected. Unfortunately it is now transformed into a business property.
About a mile and a half from Morpeth is Newminster Abbey. Crossing the river by the west bridge the High Stanners are passed. This unenclosed ground gets its name from the small stones and gravel on the margin of the river. The Low Stanners, formerly the place of execution, is on the eastern outskirts of the town. The walk by the riverside is called the Lady’s Walk, as it was the way to Newminster dedicated to the Virgin Mother. The avenue called the Lovers’ Walk ends in the sheltered haugh over which is spread the ruined buildings with steep wooded scaurs rising above. Only a fragment of the Abbey remains, the solitary arch of the northern doorway, though excavations are recovering much of the original building, which is almost identical with that of Fountains in Yorkshire. It was founded for the Cistercian monks by Ranulph de Merlay in 1137, who was buried there with Juliana his wife. It became the burial-place of many noted families. One knight lying there was the great Robert de Umfraville, known as Robin-Mend-the-Market. The possessions of the Abbey were extensive. Lands on the Wansbeck, all up Coquetdale, fisheries on the Tyne, salt works at the mouth of the Blyth and Coquet, helped to form a great ecclesiastical property. Its value in modern money would be 20,000 per annum. But they were doomed, though on the visitation in 1536 no charge of laxity could be brought against Newminster, Alnwick or Blanchland. The relic the monks then still venerated was the girdle of St. Robert, the first abbot. Eight wax candles burned before his tomb. The name of the last abbot is unknown, and the roof fell, smashing the tombs, when the monastery was rifled at the Dissolution. Many of the English sovereigns had visited Newminster, and it had escaped every visitation of the Scots except the burning of David I, when it was rebuilt.
The Wansbeck valley, extending about two miles between Morpeth and Mitford, has often been extolled for its loveliness. The best description is that of Miss Mitford, who when she was eighteen years of age was taken by her father to see their grand relatives in theNorth. Her account of the journey is a reminder of the travelling methods in the first decade of the nineteenth century, which, though they ‘would not have been found suitable by those in a hurry, did not lack attraction to a romantic girl just entering the borders of womanhood. The party travelled to London by stage coach, but afterwards had the advantage of Mr. Ogle’s private carriage, the said Mr. Nathaniel Ogle being a cousin of Dr. Mitford and a Northumbrian landowner. They changed horses at Royston and Wade’s Mill, and, after several days, reached Little Harle Tower in Northumberland. Miss Mitford writes enthusiastically of the ruined Castleand of ” the wild and daring Wansbeck almost girdling it as a moat.” Lord Redesdale, in his ” Reminiscences,” published in 1915, explained the claim of the family to be of Saxon descent. At the Conquest the Castle and Barony were held by Robert de Mitford, whose only child and heiress was a daughter named Sibella. William bestowed her in marriage on Sir Robert Bertram, who seems, from a contemporary document, to have been deformed, estoit tort. In the reign of Henry IH the estates were forfeited to the Crown and then seemed to have passed into possession of the Pembroke family. They belonged to that Aymer de Valance, Earl of Pembroke, who was slain in a tournament held in honour of his wedding. It was said of this family that for several generations no father ever saw his son. Charles II restored Mitford to the Mitfords, and with one or two vicissitudes it has been held by them ever since. The history will explain the local couplet pointing to the great antiquity of Mitford :
Midford was Midford ere Morpeth was ane And still shall be Midford when Morpeth is gane.
The old Castle had been beautifully situated, with the Wansbeck flowing close to the Mound on which it was built and plantations framing it. The Wansbeck, which receives its tributary the Font a little above the village, breaks into a dance over its bed of sandstone as it passes the Castle. The place has many literary associations. Reference has just been made to Lord Redesdale, a man of singularly varied accomplishment – a novelist, a really great gardener, a wit and diplomatist, antiquary and collector. Captain Meadowes Taylor, who wrote the ” Confessions of a Thug,” was the son of a Mitford.
Overlooking the village stood St. Leonard’s Hospital, founded by Sir William Bertram in the reign of Henry I. The village, once more important than Morpeth, is now only a few cottages dominated by the ruins of the ancient and mighty castle. It was built by William Bertram, who founded Brinkburn Priory. It was captured by the Scots in 1318, and after being dismantled passed into the hands of the Mitfords, who left it at the beginning of the nineteenth century to live in a manor-house in the valley which is now also ruined. A portion of the later tower remains west of the church with the Mitford arms above the doorway and the date 1637. A part of it in which is the great kitchen is converted into a cottage, and the dog spit wheel is preserved.
The church of St. Mary Magdalene, after being long dilapidated, has been restored. There is a fine thirteenth-century chancel with sedilia and aumbrey and a crude effigy with a tender inscription to Bertram Reveley, who died in 1622: ” Bertram to us so dutiful a son, if more were fit it should for thee be done.” There is another monument on the wall above to him commemorating his virtues. He was descended from
” a race of worshipful antiquitie Loved he was in his life space of high eke of low degree Rest Bartram in this House of Clay Revely until the latter day.”
Belonging to the monks of Newminster in the Middle Ages there is a wild mountain country reaching to the Borders. It is known as Kidland, where a few shepherds tend thousands of sheep. Part of it was granted to the monastery in 1181 by Odinel de Umfraville, who stipulated that ” the dogs of the monks were to lack one foot that the lord’s wild animals might have peace.” The lordship of Kidland belonged to Newminster until the dissolution of the monasteries. In 1541 the Survey described the ” greate waste ground called Kydlandes of iiij navies or more of breade and vj myles or more of lenthe. All the said Kydlande is full of lytle hylles or mountaynes and between the saide hilles be dyvers valyes in which descende litle Ryvelles or brokes of water spryngynge out of the said hilles and all fallinge into a lytle Rever or broke called Kydlande water which falleth into the rever of Cokette nere to the town of Alyntoun, within a myll of the Castell of Harbottell.” This naïve account needs no alteration to-day ; though more than three and a half centuries have elapsed, the natural features remain untouched by man’s activities.
Kidland was much exposed to the attacks of the Scots and Redesdale men, and the monks found it more profitable to let the grazing to the men of Coquetdale; but shepherding in Kidland was never considered an easy way of making a living, ” being so farre also fro’ the strength of the plenyshed ground of England.” The monks, when they found tenants scarce, stocked the farms and sent lay brethren to tend the flocks. Along the banks of the streams are many foundations of buildings once accepted as British dwellings, but now supposed to have been the shielings of the monks or the Coquetdale men. At the junction of the Yoke burn and Sting burn, near Cushat Law, the Monarch of Kidland, are the remains of a chapel called Memmerkirk, built for the devotions of the monks and their servants when ” summering ” in Kidland.
There is a story of the chaplain in those early days when it was just as lonely as it is now. To keep record of the days of the week he made a bee skep each day. But a week came when he mislaid one, and the lay brethren assembling for Sunday Mass from their duties on the hills were scandalised to find him busily engaged on his daily task. The monks gave up attempting to carry on the farms, as the border thieves lifted so much of their stock and murdered its guardians. The men of Coquet, when they held these wild upland pastures, were not at all reluctant to make reprisals on the foe by removing some of his cattle, and the monastery found it safer to let them remain as tenants. The gentle men of God were no match for their turbulent neighbours.
There was rough law administered, and justice meetings were held at regular times, when both sides of the Border were represented. Prisoners were’ exchanged and claims laid for damages. At one of these meetings on Windy Gyle, a usual place for a rendezvous, Sir John Forster, the English warden, had with him many Northumbrians and also Lord Francis Russell. Sir John sent to the Scottish warden the customary assurance of peace, when the Scots made a sudden attack and the unfortunate nobleman was slain in what seemed a most unjustifiable fray. This was in July, 1585, and a cairn still marks the place, called Russell’s cairn. Gamels path, a part of Watling Street, on the western slope of Thirlmoor, was another recognised place of meeting. The other one was Hexpeth gatehead, on Windy Gyle.
The other noted Kidland hills are Bloody Bush Edge, which must have seen some terrible, forgotten fight. Cushat Law is 2,020 feet high, and from its summit a view to the east looks over woods and valleys and winding rivers to the North Sea, and away to the west are the Cumbrian hills. Enormous flocks of sheep wander on the Kidland hills, and the shepherds who live in the widely separated cottages are a race of intelligent, interesting men. In winter their life is very hard, and many have been lost in the great snowstorms. In summer, mists descend very rapidly, to the confusion of the traveller, but the shepherd’s wife is very hospitable and pleasant to the lost wayfarer. Where the distances are long and the flocks immense, much depends upon the dogs, which are wise and well-trained.
At Milkhope, Dryhope, Kidland Lea Their value is well known.
The shepherd is entitled to a number of sheep as a part of his wages. There is a joke that the shepherd’s own sheep never die from the afflictions that beset his master’s animals.
Besides his dogs, of which each shepherd has several; he needs also a good supply of sticks.
In the long nights of winter When the girls are weaving baskets And the boys are making bows
the shepherd dresses his hazel sapling and ornaments it with his pocket-knife.
A story is told, by Mr. Dippie Dixon, of an old herd who had a new stick sent him by a brother herd who was a famous stick-dresser. He inspected it and then tried walking with it, muttering ” Heavy ! heavy ! heavy t ” ; then, flinging the stick from him in disgust, exclaimed, ” All nivvor wear it ! ”
In the lovely secluded ravines the ” burns tumble as they run,” often making gleaming waterfalls with ferns and flowers along the banks, and in the boggy places are many varieties of moss. Wild fruits are plentiful in August and September, for the blackberry, cranberry, red whortleberry, and blaeberry are found. On Cheviot particularly, and also on Cushat Law, Bloody Bush Edge, Windy Gyle, and Thirlmoor, is the delicious cloudberry, known to the natives as”noop.” Ospreys and golden eagles are occasionally seen, and a raven still nests in Ravens Crag, near Milkhope, but seldom brings off its young. An eagle has occasionally been seen on Windy Gyle. A noted ornithologist gives this picture of the birds on the hills : “During the heat of the day all the bird life of the district appears to collect near the burns. Wild duck and teal rise from the quiet pools ; the blackgame startle us as they spring from the bracken on the brae. One hot day in July we noted no less than seven-teen species in a distance of three miles up the Eelrig – a lonely burn leading into the Coquet above Blindburn ; these were the heron, lapwing, wheatear, whinchat, grey wagtail, dipper, common sandpiper, kestrel, merlin, sparrow hawk, curlew, mountain linnet, ring ousel, meadow pipit, wren, sandmartin, and carrion crow.”
The Briton has left traces of his habitations in Kidland. The Roman came and passed, but his camps and the road of his genius remain. Raiding Scot and plundering rogues from Redesdale have had their day, and the frightened monk has watched his flocks and raised his shrine in the waste. But no change has come over the face of Nature in the centuries, no village smoke ever rose to the deep sky. The shielings that clung to the sheltering edge of the burns have gone, and the succeeding herds’ huts also. Mostly on the heights now, grey and fearless, the shepherds’ cottages gaze over valleys and hills that seem numberless. But wandering in the heather, or where the burn chatters in the deep ravine, it seems like a land “where no man ever comes or has come since the making of the world.”