Norham

NORHAM is easily reached by train from Berwick, but the walker or cyclist will get a finer impression of the country on either side of the Tweed as it widens out towards Spittal. It is not easy to follow the river, as there is no continuous path. About two miles above Berwick on the north side the Whitadder, a lovely Berwickshire stream, falls into the Tweed and can only be crossed by following its banks to Canties Bridge, which is still within Berwick bounds. But the Bounds road is passed before reaching Paxton. The village of Paxton lies to the right and the road goes past the policies of Paxton House. If instead of keeping to the road the pedestrian about one mile from Canties Bridge takes any of the field gates that lead to the river, he will walk to the Chain Bridge where the Tweed, silver and gracious, flows past Paxton Woods. A path skirts the edge of the river along the grounds of Paxton House. On the opposite side are green haughs, and, beyond, the rising farm lands. Here Charles I had a large camp on his way to Scotland to meet the Covenanters. The pleasantest way to reach the Chain Bridge .from Berwick is by boat, which can be hired at Berwick. The idea is to go up with the tide and after picnicking, return with its ebb. Above the bridge, high on a cliff can be seen the roofs of the pretty village of Horncliffe – still by the rustic called Horckley as it used to be written – and about a quarter of a mile beyond it, where the Mill waters run into the Tweed, one of the loveliest glens in this part of the world.

Horncliffe Glen is noted on the Borders. It is a deep ravine, woods on one side where the primroses in spring are wonderful, bracken and whin on the other. A path runs up the burnside, and as there is no particular object in visiting Horncliffe, unless to see the low thatched cottage that is said to have sheltered Cromwell when the army crossed the Tweed, the visitor can either follow the stream that way or take the path on the precipitous bank above and thus reach Horncliffe Mill. There is no more exquisite scene in North Northumberland. The moss-grown mill, with a quaint vane and an outside stone stair, stands under an overhanging sandstone cliff, the water babbling at its base, ferns peeping from every crevice. The complete seclusion, the protection of the high banks which allow ferns and many a flower not usually found in the neighbourhood to adorn the rocky sides of the stream here, suggest Devonshire’s mild and humid air. By clambering across the stream behind the mill a path will be found right through the woods for possibly two miles, when it emerges on the Norham Road. No visitor to Berwick would, seeing the scarcity of woodland in its neighbourhood, guess the existence of such a lovely, wild, remote glen in which the March sun always feels like May, so perfectly has nature sheltered it. Keeping to the right on emerging on the Norham Road, which is reached either by a stile or a fence, the traveller finds himself on a pleasant highway which leads from farm to farm till suddenly, after passing :the park wall of Morris Hall on the left, he sees the bare grey ruined keep of the famous Castle over ninety feet high and the strong remains of the outlying curtain walls. Before giving a slight sketch of Norham’s historic past it will be as well to describe the route which the cyclist who did not strike off the main road beyond Canties Bridge to the Tweed would take. The road lined with trees passes a few steps from Paxton village. The song of ” Robin Adair,” with its haunting regret, sprang from a rude ballad written in Paxton early in the eighteenth century, of which one verse runs :

Paxton’s a fine snug place, Robin Adair, It’s a wondrous couthie place, Robin Adair ; Let Whitadder rin a spate Or the wind blow at ony rate, Yet I’ll meet thee on the gait, Robin Adair.

The concert room for generations has made us familiar with the refined pathos of the later version :

What’s this dull town to me ? Robin’s not near. What was’t I wished to see, what wished to hear ? Where’s all the joy and mirth Made this town heaven on earth ? O they’re all fled with thee, Robin Adair.

Some of us prefer the homelier but not less tender words of the original.

Whatever words are sung to it, the ancient air ” so simple in construction, so full of power and pathos,” is a gem of purest beauty.

The local saying that Paxton was famous for “Drunken old wives and salmon sae fine,” evidently originated in the mind of some misbegotten knave who lived on the other side of the Tweed. Paxton belonged to the Paxtons of that Ilk who were among the unfortunate Borderers who in early times held land in both kingdoms and experienced the usual difficulty of serving two masters. The Paxtons were forfeited both by English and Scottish Kings. Paxton was burnt by the Duke of Gloucester in 1482 and by the Duke of Norfolk, who laid the neighbourhood waste in 1540. At the Union the Paxtons only had a few acres left. Sir Joseph Paxton, who built the Crystal Palace, came of that stock. Paxton House lies to the left, the policies bordering the road. It was built by the Adams in 1777 for Ninian Home, who bought the estate.

A very pleasant road continues to Horndean, a tiny village, and thence, studying the finger-posts, to another hamlet famous for its small church, Ladykirk, once called Upsettlington. Before its name was changed one sunny day in August, 1497, James IV sat playing cards in the shade with the Spanish Ambassador. The six horses who were drawing Mons Meg to subdue ” Norem ” were doubtless tired and, like their masters, glad to rest in the cool air above Tweed’s serene flood. It was through James that the modern name of Ladykirk arose. The story is that James IV, returning from a raid into England in those days when Flodden was still unfought, found just above Norham that the river had risen at the ford. He made a vow that, if he and his men got safely over, on the high bank on the north side he would build a Kirk to Our Lady which fire would not burn nor water destroy. Thus rose the grey stone chapel roofed and seated with stone on the precipice overlooking Norham. It is modernised now with wooden seats, but by its walls we seem still to hear beyond the murmuring Tweed the shouts of horsemen and the rattle of harness and sword as the weary steeds and heated driven men scramble up the steep sides of Tweed’s north bank. It was home to them, even as to this day it is north country to the English wayfarer who, coming from the pleasant burr of the Norham villager, meets on the Ladykirk Road the broad accent of the Scottish hind. The little graveyard of Ladykirk has, or had, sixteenth century stones with cross-bones and skulls still spelling out their hieroglyphic comment on the final destiny of kings and church-builders and knights and rustic man and maid. The church is built of polished freestone in the form of a Latin cross and is Gothic with the exception of the steeple, added two hundred and forty years after the original building. The roof is very notice-able, being covered with wrought ashlars jointed and overlapped so that the rain is carried off as if the roof were in one piece.

The walls have bullet marks. Ladykirk was one of the last pre-Reformation churches erected in Scotland.

To approach Norham (North Town, on account of its position) from the Scottish side is far more arresting to the imagination than reaching it from the Berwick Road or from the railway road, the only other two entrances. From Ladykirk bank the high road between woods descends to Norham bridge. In autumn it is singularly beautiful to look on the coloured trees down the slope below which rolls the Tweed with leaves dancing on the flood of brown waters. Beyond, the sunshine lingers in the long neutral tinted village that seems to lead right up to the woods around the grey castle. The ancient church of Norham is hidden away to the right not far from the banks of the river. Here on the English side Tweed runs by pleasant haughs where the fishers cast their nets for salmon. Village gossips still recall that about a hundred years ago at a ford below Ladykirk the Norham doctor of the day, hurrying to a case, was caught by the flood and he and his horse whirled away.

After crossing the bridge the village lies to the left. To the right the road goes to a picturesque cottage known as the Boathouse, and a little further up is Norham Glen, a beautiful place, but not to be compared with Horncliffe. The Tweed is here at its loveliest.

Norham’s centre is the Cross which stands on its ancient base. The village had a charter given by Bishop Pudsey in the twelfth century. Its weekly market, says an Elizabethan Survey, was ” keept on the Sundaye which by reason it is undecent is there-fore the less used or esteemed.” There are still a few thatched cottages, but no old houses. It is a favourite residential place, as it lies warm in the valley away from the east winds that torment the coast. It always appears the most restful of villages, for it is one mile from the station, and its large, quiet, sunny spaces between the opposite sides of the street give it dignity and aloofness. Even in this remote world every village has its own character. The neighbours do not shout across the street as they do at democratic Eyemouth. Houses are not merely the cottages of hinds as at Ladykirk, or crowded within the circumference of a great wall as at Berwick, or let in lodgings as at Spittal. At Coldstream there is a bustle of trade and shops as if it were a Wolverhampton in miniature. At Norham the shops are few and retiring. They are lost sight of between the varying sizes of cottage and villa. They but wait on necessity and ignore the superfluous. Even religious buildings do not clamour for attention, and manse and vicarage are hid from the casual visitor. The old church has to be sought, and the church-yard where the sheep nibble on the old green graves, green for so many forgetful years. A clump of dark yews covers a family vault, and the paths wander about above the dust gathered there since the Saxons worshipped within sound of the running Tweed. It is only ten minutes’ walk to the Castle from here, and yet how far away from its repose the shouts of those who defended and assailed that solitary and majestic relic of power above the woods of Tweed ! When the village was called Ubbanford (Ubba or Offa would be the name of some important person), there was a Saxon church built by Bishop Ecgred about 830 in which was buried saintly King Ceolwulf, his shrine being transferred from Lindisfarne by the Bishop who dedicated the church to St. Ceolwulf, St. Cuthbert and St. Peter. Bede dedicated his History to ” Ceolwulf the Most Glorious.” The present building was contemporary with the Castle, and is supposed to have been built by Flambard. Edward I. met in the church the Scottish nobles at the famous arbitration when the claims of John Balliol were discussed. In the reign of the Conqueror Earl Gospatric was buried in the church porch. Built up into a pillar in the churchyard are a number of stones dug out from the foundations of the Saxon church, and in the opinion of Dr. Raine they are of the same date as the cross at Bewcastle. They are ornamented in beautiful ninth century style. One of them has an inscription P. Anima Ælfa, meaning, probably, Pray for the soul of Ælfa. From the churchyard a short, narrow path runs between hedges to the river, and turning to the right a beautiful view of the Castle is in sight. Valiant, it looked forth in its youth, fresh and fearful from the masons’ final touches, with watchful eye on the menacing north. To-day its brave age has seen from north bank and south bank men who have marched past its walls to die for a higher cause than Border feuds. Would the Northumberland Fusiliers have fought as well in France and Flanders if their ancestors had not listened often for days to the tramp of hosts and opposing cries, or the clatter of late forayers. returning at night ?

The famous episode of Sir William Marmion’s visit to Norham is fully related by Thomas Grey in ” The Scalacronica.” The Thomas Grey mentioned in the story was his father. It will be remembered that the author when himself Captain of Norham was captured and taken to Edinburgh Castle, where he wrote his book. The following is his spirited history of Marmion’s adventure :

” At which time at a great feast of lords and ladies in the county of Lincoln a young page brought a war helmet, with a gilt crest on the same, to William Marmion, Knight, with a letter from his lady-love commanding him to go to the most dangerous place in Great Britain and there cause this helmet to be famous. Thereupon it was decided by the knights present that he should go to Norham as the most dangerous and adventurous place in the country. The said William betook himself to Norham, where, within four days of his arrival, Sir Alexander de Mowbray, brother of Sir Philip de Mowbray, at that time Governor of Berwick, came before the Castle of Norham with the most spirited chivalry of the Marches of Scotland and drew up before the Castle at the hour of noon with more than eight score men-at-arms. The alarm was given in the Castle as they were sitting down to dinner. Thomas de Grey, the constable, went with his garrison to his barriers, saw the enemy near drawn up in order of battle, looked behind him, and beheld the said knight, William Marmion, approaching on foot, all glittering with gold and silver, marvellous finely attired, with the helmet on his head. The said Thomas, having been well informed of the reason for his coming to Norham, cried aloud to him : ` Sir Knight, you have come as knight errant to make that helmet famous, and it is more meet that deeds of chivalry be done on horseback than afoot, when that can be managed conveniently. Mount your horse : there are your enemies ; set spurs and charge into their midst. May I deny my God if I do not rescue your person, alive or dead, or perish in the attempt ! ‘

” The knight mounted a beautiful charger, spurred forward, and charged into the midst of the enemy, who struck him down, wounded him in the face, and dragged him out of the saddle to the ground.

” At this moment, up came the said Thomas with all his garrison, with levelled lances, which they drove into the bowels of the horses so that they threw their riders. They repulsed the mounted enemy, raised the fallen knight, remounting him upon his own horse, put the enemy to flight, of whom some were left dead in the first encounter, and captured fifty valuable horses. The women of the Castle then brought out horses to their men, who mounted and gave chase, slaying those whom they could overtake. Thomas de Grey caused to be killed in the Yair Ford a Fleming named Cryn, a sea captain, a pirate, who was a great partisan of Robert de Brus. The others who escaped were pursued to the nunnery of Berwick.”

Norham Castle, built in 1122 by Flambard, Prince Bishop of Durham, that upstart, pushing, medieval ecclesiastic, full of ” craft and wile,” was the most important fortress on the Borders and the scene of not only great exploits but great meetings between the rival countries, and many times it changed hands. King John met William the Lion here to make one of the many treaties intended to secure peace on the Borders. The latter’s son, Alexander II, stayed here ; Edward I met the Scots camped at Upsettlington, on Holywell Haugh, a meadow facing the Castle on the opposite side, and discussed their differences, and the result was his selection of the ill-fated John Balliol as King of Scotland, who swore fealty to Edward in the Castle. After that the story of sieges and surprises goes on without ceasing. One unfortunate sovereign who tried to secure it was Henry VI, and Queen Margaret after the battle of Hexham. James IV brought the famous cannon Mons Meg (so called because made at the Mons renowned now as the point from which the ” Contemptibles ” made their immortal retreat, and as the spot where the Great War ended with the defeat of Germany) from Edinburgh for the attack, and there are still preserved near the Castle some of the missiles discharged from it. When James made his last sally from Scotland on his way to Flodden, Norham held out for five days. The Scots’ last attempt to secure it was in 1530, and after that, the power of Norham gradually declining with the union of the kingdoms, it fell into decay. In Camden’s time the Castle had ” an outer wall of great compass with many little towers in the angle next the river, and within, another circular tower much stronger, in the centre whereof rises a loftier tower.” The complete decay of the Castle now is due to the undermining of the river.

It stands on an almost perpendicular bank rising above the Tweed, and is protected like so many Northumbrian strongholds on one side by a precipitous climb from a ravine where a thread of water runs into Tweed. The stranger entering through the curtain wall that skirts the road by an ancient archway sees outlined against a half circle of trees the bare walls of the keep seated on a considerable mound. The grass runs up to it over masonry and ditch, banks and hollows all green now above the strength and splendour which Scott’s romantic eye saw so plainly. Perhaps he only saw it once in his unforgetting fashion when autumn had painted the encircling trees and the red October sunset was staining the broad bosom of his beloved Tweed. As a recent writer 1 says of his description, ” the close succession of minute touches neither oppresses us nor distracts us in our enjoyment of the complete effect.”