THE facts that the distance across Northumberland from a point near Berwick-on-Tweed to Allenheads is seventy-one miles and that the length of the coast from Lamberton to Tynemouth is seventy miles show that it is, roughly speaking, square-shaped, though the square is jagged and irregular. It has an area of 2,018 miles and divides naturally into East, West, and Middle. The physical features conform in a general way to those of Great Britain as a whole–hills in the west and an eastern slope to the. North Sea. The ‘populations vary in accordance with the physical conditions. Pleasant little bays, inlets and harbours have encouraged the formation of fishing villages on the east coast, and the fishermen form a distinct class, very clannish, and inclined to marry only among their own folk. But they have not proved immune from the vulgarising effect of certain modern conditions. As the seaside habit grows among the industrial communities, such fishermen as have not taken to trawling tend to become sophisticated. The Coble is turned into a pleasure-boat, the owner hires himself and it out to row and sail, and he begins to look for tips. But occasionally one meets with men of the old type. Not infrequently they are on the parish, for the merry sailor is apt to forget that there ever will be a rainy day. But he does not lose heart, and remains to the last tough, weather-bronzed and cheery, telling with gusto the adventures and incidents of his past. From sailor he turned into a deep-sea fisherman. When he could not go out for cod he became a Tweed salmon fisher, and as the end of a mail-coach driver was often that of keeping a toll-bar, so the last resource of the aged sailor-man was often to work a ferry-boat. But the young and enterprising men have forsaken the line for the steam trawl, and the experience of the war has shown that they have lost nothing in seamanship or courage by the change. Meanwhile, the Northumbrian fishing villages have been transformed into seaside resorts. If you wish to know what they used to be like, cross the Border and go to Burnmouth or Eyemouth, where there is no accommodation for visitors, the half-tame gulls are playmates of the amphibious children, and the old-fashioned fishing village is unchanged.
Off the coast lie a number of islands which have special attractions of their own. They cast a spell over the naturalist, especially the devout lover of birds to whom an annual visit to the Farne Islands is a pilgrimage. In days when civilisation was young, they and Lindisfarne were famous as the abode of holy and very abstemious hermits and saints, who prepared for Heaven by starving themselves on earth. They loved the wild birds too, and the eider-duck were so fostered by the island saint that they are often called Cuddy’s hens.
These are the chief islands, but Coquet Isle must not be left out, as, though small, it sustains the general characteristics of the rest.
Falling into the sea are the rivers of which Northumberland is proud. Most of them are dark and sombre as they approach the coast, as though reluctant to be merged in the infinite waters of the sea. That is a poetical way of putting it which the Tweed salmon poachers deny. They hold the law to be an ass because it deems that, as far as salmon catching is concerned, the mouth of the Tweed extends along the coast three miles north and three miles south. A legal subtlety highly inconvenient to those intent on netting salmon in the off season ! The Tweed, which only for a minute fraction of its course is an English river, proves our rule by being an exception. After leaving its various ” dubs ” (word abhorred by the late Andrew Lang !), it rushes madly under the arches of the old Border Bridge and at Spittal passes into the sea, gay and smiling to the last. One side is English, at Norham and Coldstream and Carham, but for the upper part of its course the Tweed remains” all Scotch.” It has one purely English tributary in the Till, a slow and sinuous stream which creeps through a succession of low, green haughs from Bewick Mill to Etal. After leaving the boat-house and the old mill-cauld at the latter village, it splashes and dances over a rocky bed past wooded and hazel-clad banks to Tillmouth. It is more of a joy to the fly-fisher than might be imagined by those who know it only by repute.
On its way, Till receives many pleasant burns, such as that at Sandyfords, associated with the name of St. Paulinus. It is interesting, but only a streamlet ” the breadth of a tailor’s yard.” At Ewart the Till receives the dashing and beautiful Glen formed by the junction at Kirknewton of the rough and noisy College and the staider Bowmont. In the upper part of its course the Till is called the Breamish. As an old rhyme has it, Foot of Breamish and head of Till Meet together at Bewick Mill.
And if you follow its winding course you find it rises in Scotsman’s Knowe, not far from Cheviot Hill. In its upper course it passes Ingram, Hedgeley, Chillingham and Chatton.
The Aln is a pleasant little seven-mile stream that rises near Alnham and after passing Alnwick and Lesbury reaches the sea at Alnmouth, famed for its golf course.
The Coquet is considered by enthusiasts, particularly fishing enthusiasts, to be the finest of all the rivers of Northumberland, and whether it be granted or not that proud pre-eminence, it is at any rate in the first flight. It rises in the Outer Golden Pot in the wild Thirlmoor Country, and after receiving near Linsheels the waters of the Usway Burn from Cheviot, it passes such a variety of country and so many things of beauty and interest that a good day in Coquetdale is difficult to beat anywhere. Before the war it used every year to attract crowds of anglers to the ancient and rugged village of Rothbury and will do so again now. As a chapter is given to Coquetdale, there is no need to say more about the river here. It may interest trouting anglers to know that the source of the Coquet is near that of the Bowmont, which comes from Cocklaw Foot. Cross the hill and you are in the region of Windygates, whence are drawn the burns that unite to form the Coquet. It flows directly to the sea while the Bowmont joins the College.
The gentle silvery Wansbeck issues from Sweethope Lough and takes its name in all probability from the huge neighbouring rocks at its source. They are called the Wannys – Great Wanny, Little Wanny, Aird Law and Hepple Heugh. Mr. Trevelyan suggests a different derivation in his volume called ” The Middle Marches,” but Wannys Beck appears to be the simpler and more natural. It sings its way past many famous places, Wallington, Middleton Hall, Mitford, Morpeth, Bothal, before it enters the sea at Cambois Bay.
At Belsay the Blyth is a pretty river and at Ponteland where it is joined by the Pont. This character is maintained through the Vale of Stannington and Plessey where are the ” sounding woods ” of ” Marmion.” Its short course of twenty miles ends in the busy harbour of Blyth.
But the Tyne is the river of the county. It is to Newcastle what the Thames is to London. The word Tyneside calls up a world of collieries and their natural concomitants, engineering shops and factories, the hum of commerce, man the worker, and the much-sung triumphs of industry. But though the Tyne ends with the gravity and importance of a successful business man or a burgomaster, its slender youth is gilded with romance. If you start at Warden, where the North Tyne and the South Tyne commingle, and pursue these tributary streams to their source, you will, in the case of either, soon pass from the realm of industrial achievement. North Tyne oozes from the Deadwater in that wild Cheviot country whence issue Rule Water and Jed Water, rivers of Damascus (that is to say Scotland), but after being joined by the Kielder Burn, the Lewis Burn, and others, it darts away merrily down a valley that remains wild in the age of railways and was a terror to pass through before their invention. Even the names of the stations on the line running down the valley of North Tyne evoke memories – Kielder, Plashetts, Falstone, Tarset, Bellingham – each has its own story. It is difficult to say where the river is most beautiful. There is a fine stretch at Bellingham and a finer just above it, but this is the stream in youth with a waist like an eagle’s talon, if one may be permitted an odd application of the fat knight’s phrase. Flowing down Humshaugh and passing Chollerford to its junction with the South Tyne at Warden, through all its course it possesses a beauty different from, yet equal to, that of the Tweed at Melrose. It is no wonder that the Romans found a tutelary deity for this foreign river.
The South Tyne rises on Cross Fell, close to the source of the Wear, and flows down the famous Gap of Tyne to Newcastle – the Gap is the low ground which intervenes between the Pennine Chain and the Cheviots. South Tyne enters Northumberland shortly after leaving Alston and passes many historic places, Lambley Castle, the ruins of Bellister, Featherston Castle, Haltwhistle, Haydon and Warden. The Tyne receives the Devil’s Water at Corbridge. Devil’s Water is a turbulent and charming little river which does not owe its name to Satan, but to the long extinct family of Dyvelston. It is a good example of the type of river found in Northumberland. Long before it reaches the outskirts of Newcastle the Tyne doffs romance and plays the part of a quiet water highway running between a wilderness of buildings sealed with the mark of commerce and industry.
Northumberland, unlike its neighbours Cumberland and Westmoreland, is not very rich in lakes, which it calls loughs. Sportsmen, naturalists, and lovers of wild scenery delight in that picturesque group situated close to the Wall adjoining Housesteads. It comprises Greenlee Lough, Broomlee Lough and Crag Lough. There is another group, to one of which reference has already been made as the source of the Wansbeck ; the others are reservoirs belonging to the Newcastle and Gateshead Water Company. The largest reservoir is Catcleugh and it has the additional’ merit of being well stocked with trout. It lies at the foot of the Reidswire among wild surroundings full of Border associations. In the country are many delightful tarns and ponds that are called lakes, but are scarcely large enough to deserve the name. Some are interesting for their fishing, as that at Pawston ; some as breeding places of the black-headed gull, as Pallinsburn.
Northumberland has no very high mountains. Cheviot, the highest peak of the Cheviot Hills, has an altitude of only 2,676 feet. Coming near to that height are Cairn Hill, Hedgehope, Comb Fell, Windy Gate or Gyle, Cushat Law, The Schel, Dun-more Hill, Black Hag, Newton Tors and Hungry Law. A glance at any contour map of England will show how the Cheviots exercised an influence on history. Between them and the sea there is from ten to twenty miles of lowland. That is the gateway to and from Scotland. An army could march from Edinburgh to London along the east coast without encountering a hill 600 feet high till it came to the easily-surmounted North Yorkshire moor. The same route was followed naturally by the great North Road before and after the age of stage-coaches, and subsequently by the Great Northern and North Eastern Railway. Travelling this way, the passenger feels at points in danger of tumbling into the sea ; the waves lie at his very feet, but he catches no glimpse of hill scenery. In the centre of the county the steep hills interposed a formidable barrier. These considerations were taken into account in dividing the frontiers. Save for the little piece of land extending as far north as Lamberton, which is adjacent to the Berwick Boundaries, the March follows the Tweed as long as it constitutes a difficult obstacle. At Carham, about eighteen miles from Lamberton, the course of the river is left, and the frontier, after a short space in which the heights are inconsiderable, is carried through mountainous country. It is difficult to follow, for the country is very wild. Between the Venchen, which is visible through the hotel window at Yetholm in Roxburghshire, and Carter Fell many eminences over a thousand feet in altitude occur.
Northumbrian hills are not so high and rugged as, for example, those in the Highlands of Scotland. They have a tendency to be round, smooth and green. Bracken is as plentiful as heather. But they are cleft by deep valleys, glens and dales, down which the typical Northumbrian river, a purling stream in summer but a raging torrent in winter, chatters in the pleasantest manner imaginable. They live in my memory as they were when I used to go fishing at the dawn of a June morning, when cuckoos called on the slopes and the ” whaup ” or curlew swore at the intruder who came too close to his nesting-place in the slack or glidders, and the russet coat of the fox showed by a glimpse now and again under the green fern as he chased the rabbit. He who was after the trout raged too when the ragged Cheviot ewes sprang nimbly into the water and splashed across, to the terror of the fish. No wonder one grew up to like the hills, always looking so far away, mysterious and changing, now wrapped in fog, anon beheld in a bewildering twilight when the wind blew the mist from rock to rock in trailing veils.
The general character of the land can be best understood through its agriculture. For in the early years of last century the Northumbrian farmer, like the rest of his tribe, had wheat fever badly. England was at war, and there were no controlled prices or ration books ! He grew seven and a half times as much wheat as he was doing before the German war broke out, and also far more oats. To-day Northumberland is the great sheep county. I heed not give figures to prove the meta-morphosis. Whosoever has fished the College or Bowmont must for ever remember the mournful ” baa-ing ” of countless sheep at night, when they were feeding their way to the high hills, and in the morning, when the shepherds with the aid of those wonderful clever little dogs of theirs drove them down to the fresh grass of the valley. Another pleasant sound associated with the hills was the lustily-blown cow-horn calling the men to the foddering every night at eight o’clock. It used to sound more eerily from the farms in the dark nights of winter.
In a book of wanderings it is not necessary to say much about the geology of the county – its coal, shale, limestone, sandstone and other sedimentary rocks, its igneous rock of which Cheviot is built up, its basalt and Great Whin Sill. But at least one result of the disturbance of the earth’s crust I would like to notice, because it has added to the charm of the county. This is the formation of numerous denes. A typical dene is a little gorge which looks like the furrow made by some titanic plough. The bones of one can be seen not more than half-an-hour’s walk from the farm of Blink Bonny at the base of Flodden Hill. It was stripped of its wood and despoiled of its charm some years ago, but that enables the formation to be seen all the more clearly. At the top a ripple of water in late spring but a gush in winter tumbles down a rough rock ladder in a nook of which the nest of the ring-ouzel may be searched for, not in vain, close to the spray from the tumbling water. Numberless other nests may be found lower down in the holes and crevices of the banks, on the higher parts of which primroses used to appear in myriads. There used to be a constant cawing from the rookery above, where often the squirrel might be seen close to the dark birds.
Places like this occur very frequently in Northumberland, some on a smaller, some on a larger scale, but always with a peculiar and happy charm. They are worth looking for by such as love a cool retreat under green boughs, to sit on a log and listen to the voices of birds, the gurgling of water, and the swish of summer wind.
Northumberland today is a great energetic county. The mines, shipbuilding yards, factories and workshops are the admiration of the world, but as far as the spiritual transcends the material, its past was greater still. Two great days stand out in its history on account of the influence they exercise on succeeding events. One was that on which King Oswald raised the Cross as his battle standard and discomfited the heathen under Cadwallon at Heavenfeld. Till the fane erected by Wilfrid was destroyed by the Danes the monks of Hexham annually held a memorial service on the battlefield. Before Oswald the more splendid Eadwine with Paulinus for gospeller had Christianised on a great scale, but the movement lacked momentum and relapsed after his death.
The second great day was that on which Aidan crossed the sands at Lindisfarne from distant Iona and established there a monastery. We are apt to think of religious houses in the light of what they became in later days – houses of luxury and corruption. High ecclesiastics became grasping and ambitious, differing little from the unscrupulous soldier barons. Friars were too often ignorant and immoral, as Chaucer pictured them in the fourteenth century. But Aidan, simple, wise, and spiritual, belonged to the morning of the Christian faith. So did his immediate followers, in particular Cuthbert whose fame was to spread over the Christian world, become closely associated with Northumberland, and shed a glory over Lindisfarne.
Originally a Scottish ” herd laddie,” he emerges from a cloud of myth and legend, a simple, pious monk implicitly believing the truths of Christianity as they were accepted in his day. Not questioning, not speculative, believing the Way to be through prayer, fasting, and the mortification of the flesh, he appears to the modern eye too intent on his personal salvation, as one who had not altogether understood that whosoever would save his life shall lose it. He could never have guessed the truth underlying the apparent paradox that ” Damn my own soul ” is the first step towards grace. But his wise, sober common sense and the unaffected sincerity and homeliness of his conversation convinced those who heard him that his must be the right path. Under his guidance and that of his successors Lindisfarne became a fountain whence the civilising waters of Christianity, education, and art washed over the sea of the country ? His was a doctrine of love which, like that of St. Francis, extended to beast and bird as well as humanity. Originating in Celtic sources, art as well as religion became moulded to the English character already in the making. Writing of the Lindisfarne Gospels the Rt. Rev. G. F. Browne, D.D., shows unanswerably that ” the working out of the motive is Anglian not Celtic.”
The Book of Kells, like ancient Celtic literature, is flawed with impurities of taste ; the art of the Lindisfarne Gospels is as English as a Shakespeare play or a Wordsworth Sonnet.
Until the arrival of the Danes, Lindisfarne remained the religious centre of Northumbria. It did not again assume that position. Durham, Hexham, Brinkburn, Tynemouth had the advantage of being on the mainland and passed it in the race.
After the Conquest the interest changes and the Border becomes the most famous place.
In Great Britain, for war and adventure, it supplied the stuff out of which were made the romantic ballads which to this day stir the heart like a trumpet.
Behind them in time legend dimly adumbrates great figures of the past like shapes that may be men or may be stones looking through the fog on a mountain side. Glendale has yielded the antiquary a rich store of prehistoric weapons and ornaments, but the oracles are dumb when asked who wore them. Yeavering Bell and the neighbouring hills carry traces that tell of a numerous highly organised tribe of inhabitants, but who is able to reconstruct their lives or tell their destiny ?
Figures of later date are equally elusive. Was King Arthur ever on the Roman Wall ? Was Bamburgh the Joyous Gard of Lancelot ?