To The Source Of The Coquet

ALWINTON is perhaps even more exquisitely situated than Harbottle, standing on the green haughs between the Coquet and Alwin, which here unite. Its church of St. Michael has some points of interest and contains a little work of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In the eighteenth century it had fallen into a wretched condition and had been badly repaired. In 1851 it was completely restored. A curious feature is the elevation of the chancel by ten steps above the nave, with another three steps leading to the altar. This was rendered necessary by the slope on which the church is built.

Beneath the north aisle rest many generations of the Clennel family, to whom belong some eighteenth-century tombs. In the south transept, called the Biddlestone porch, lie the Selbys of Biddlestone. A fragment of light on the luxuries esteemed in out-of-the-way Northumberland in the thirteenth century is found in an agreement between the rector of Alwinton and the Abbot of Newminster concerning tithes at Kidland, about which there seemed very strong feeling. The seneschal of Gilbert de Umfraville was one of the arbitrators, and it was arranged that the monastery should give the parson half a mark of silver, a pound of pepper, and a pound of incense annually at Michaelmas.

Gilbert de Umfraville had a gallows – that outstanding medieval necessity – at Alwinton, and the hill known as the Gallow Law stands above the village. The Norman barons kept order with a strong hand, though it is said William of Normandy had a great aversion to taking life by process of law. Gilbert, however, had evidently no scruples in that way. He took prisoner, for some offence, an unfortunate wretch called Thomas de Hoims, who escaped from Harbottle and fled to Alwinton Church for sanctuary. He forswore his country and was going to leave it, but two of Gilbert’s men followed him and cut off his head on Simonside, brought it back, and hung it on Harbottle gallows in ghastly revenge for the loss of a victim. Old animosities have a pleasanter outlet at the annual meeting of shepherds at Alwinton. A football match is still played between men of Redewater and men of Coquet, and the old slogans ring out-” Tarret Burn and Tarset Burn, Yet! Yet ! Yet ! ” and ” Coquetside for Ever.”

A house which stands on a green patch near the heather on the south bank of the Coquet has an interesting name – Angryhaugh. It is derived from anger, a meadow or pasture ground, and ” haugh ” is evidently a mere repetition when the origin of ” Angry” was forgotten.

The green foothills of the Cheviots shelter Alwinton on the north, and issuing from a narrow glen the silver Coquet broadens out to take its gracious charm through the lovely valley it creates.

To the north-east of Alwinton, on a slope of the Cheviots, which rise 1,300 feet above it, is Biddlestone Hall, the ancient seat of the Selbys, which may be the Osbaldiston of ” Rob Roy.” It stands amid a grove of oaks beside a deep ravine. Biddlestone Hall, or Tower, appears in a ballad by the Ettrick Shepherd describing a raid of the Carrs of Cessford :

Ride light, ride light, my kinsman true Till aince the daylight close her e’e, If we can pass the Biddlestone Tower A harried Warden there shall be.

He reived the best of my brother’s steeds, And slew his men on the Five stane Brae, I’d lay my head this night in pawn To drive his boasted beeves away.

The adjoining village of Netherton was once one of ” the ten towns of Coquetdale.” In later times it was known for its brisk social life, greyhound coursing, cockfights, merry nights, etc., and many stories are told of its characters and their habits. One of them is about the Netherton carrier, a century ago, who had been at Alnwick and had goose for dinner, evidently a very large helping. He tried to ” droon her ” before leaving Alnwick, made another attempt at the Bridge of Aln Inn, and also at Whittingham, but he declared he never ” gat her drooned till he gat to Netherton ” ! The old ” Fighting Cocks,” the scene of many a main, is gone now. After Waterloo a renowned battle took place here as elsewhere, when the feathered warriors were named after the French and English generals. They fought to the wild hoarse yells of the natives and the visiting team from Bickerton. That particular form of Northumbrian jollity has gone for ever. The old Star Inn is now a hotel and the ” Fighting Cocks ” is the schoolmaster’s house.

Clennel Hall, where stood an ancient tower of the Clennels, is on the banks of the Alwin, secluded amid sycamore and ash trees at the base of the Cheviots. The old tower is incorporated in the modern mansion. Over a window on the first floor is a piece of frieze carved in bas-relief representing some scene like Chevy Chase, which Mr. Cadwallader Bates described as ” the most interesting bit of ancient work he had ever seen in Northumberland.”

Coquet, issuing from the hills, tempts the wanderer’s feet. It is no longer the serene water whose murmuring voice fills the lower valley. Wilder and lonelier becomes the stream the further we follow it, and ever wilder and more untravelled is the country through which its slender, tumbling tributaries, descend. Here and there are the stones of peles, once indistinguishable doubtless from the lofty scaurs that edge the water. The raiders from Scotland and Redesdale often found the rough roads and raging torrents to their mind when the watchers, giving the alarm, lost their enemies in the thick mists or dodged them in vain up the boulder-strewn ravines. In later times old customs died hard in a solitude where only the sound of water and cries of birds fell on the ears, where sheep baa-ed indeed, but seldom horse’s hoof fell on the miserable tracks. From Alwinton only necessity took travellers to shepherd’s hut and lonely shieling. Linn Brigg, a short way up, is the last foot-bridge, and over the moor above, beyond Selby’s Lake, lies Wilkwood Farm, and a scrap of history about it tells strangely but truly of the remoteness of Upper Coquetdale in 1818. The Princess Victoria was already destined for the throne and England had changed from agriculture to humming industries when a lease was drawn up for East Wilkwood Farm. The lease between Daniel Wood, the farmer, and Walter Selby stated ” that he shall and will make use of one of the corn mills belonging to the said Walter Selby for the grinding of all such corn as the said Daniel Wood, his servants and cottagers shall have occasion for.” Daniel had also ” to walk a game cock, feed a spaniel dog, and spin four pounds of lint yearly for the squire of Biddlestone.”

It would be hard to find the charm of running water more beautifully exemplified than where Ridlees burn comes singing down to Coquet. Its waterfalls, pools and rippling shallows are delightful. Above Linsheels the Coquet narrows into the heart of the hills. On the right bank are lofty cliffs from which a dizzy path looks down on the dashing stream. On this height one of the many hundred Border watches was kept against the Scottish freebooters. The two peles mentioned lower down the river are both described as having been attacked and ” brunt ” by the Scots. But they watched too for the men of Redewater, their own countrymen. The watch at this point, ” Passpeth,” is thus set in the ” Border Laws ” :

The Day Watch of Cookdaill beginning at Passpethe Allenton (Alwinton) to watch to Passpethe with two men every day : Setters and Searchers of this Watch, John Wylkinson, the Laird of Donesgrene, John Wylkinson otherwise called Gordes John.

The watchers were visited any time by a searcher and fined if absent. The name of Linsheels came from the shiels that the farmers lived in when they pastured their flocks in the summer months among the valleys or on the high waste grounds. This was called summering, or shieling, and is described in a survey of 1542.

At Shillmoor the Coquet receives the Usway, a beautiful tributary which rises at the base of big Cheviot, not far from Scotsman’s Knowe. It passes three shepherds’ houses in its course of eight miles, Uswayford, where is a fine waterfall, Fairhaugh, and Battleshield. The latter name is a striking instance of word corruption. It seems to speak loudly of border warfare and some lonely fight of desperate men disturbing Cheviot’s sleep. But it was only a shiel, or summer farmstead of Henry de Bataile. A grazier in far-off times he must have been, as it is the Newminster Cartulary that reveals his name and calling. Below the waterfall, ” Davidson’s Linn,” on the Usway, in a lonely glen called Harecleugh, are the remains of an illicit still which belonged to a noted distiller of mountain dew called Rory. Rory’s still is said to be in a very good state of preservation. Past Shillmoor the Coquet falls over rocks, making a fine cascade with a deep pool for fishing. A spot well known to anglers, where a fence stops on the rock above the stream, is ” The Rail End.” Shillhope Cleugh, below Shillhope Law, rises precipitously above the bed of Coquet. Further on is a long, deep pool where the Coquet pushes its way through solid rock. It is called ” The Wedder Loup,” and is famous for big fish. Its name arises from a fatal accident to a Border thief who, being followed, tried to jump to the other bank with a fat sheep he had lifted. The weight of his booty made him miss his footing, and both he and his struggling victim were drowned. At Windyhaugh the Barra burn rushes into Coquet, and three shepherds’ houses appear in sight. The monks of Newminster had a fulling mill at Windyhaugh. Their monkish finger is met everywhere in Coquetdale. It was granted to them by Gilbert de Umfraville ” for the salvation of my soul and of the souls of my ancestors and heirs.” He must have required the intercession of the Church acutely. The stones from the mill can still be seen in the old house at Windyhaugh, and the foundations of the mill were visible at low water a few years ago.

Above here is Rowhope burn mouth, where between steep hillsides the burn enters Coquet, having a little higher up been joined by the Trows burn. The anglers’ song says :

Oh, come, we’ll gae up by the Trows Where the burnie rins wimplin’ an’ clear, Where the bracken and wild heather grows, An’ the wild rose is sweet on the briar.

The Coquet and its tributaries have surely evoked more fishing songs than any other Northumbrian stream. Close to a huge rock at Rowhope burn mouth there stood an inn called Slyme Foot, where the eighteenth-century farmers of the district spent much of their time gambling and drinking illicit whisky which came from numerous distilleries among the hills. In such an inaccessible district this cheerful traffic flourished amazingly. The older dalesmen can still remember the visits of smugglers carrying ” grey hens ” to the farm-houses. When there were no bridges the fords were very dangerous in rainy weather, and the gauger found it difficult to round up the hardy rogues. Indeed the exciseman was apt to develop a taste for the peat-flavoured spirit, and one of them stationed at Harbottle had a frequent entry in his official diary, ” Stopped wi’ witters.”

Carshope and Carlcroft are the next two shepherds’ cottages up the water, and at Carlcroft is a ford. At. Blindburn House the Blindburn joins Coquet, and a pool here is beloved by anglers. Up the Blindburn, Rory had another still so well hidden that on four different occasions the gaugers were within a short distance of it without it being discovered. At Blindburn the Coquet, the infant stream, first reveals itself as a fisher’s joy.

At Fulhope is a shepherd’s house, and the tiny Coquet is augmented by the Fulhope burn, which is as large as the parent stream. On the hill called Fulhope Edge a fierce battle was fought in 1399. It was previous to that the Scots destroyed Wark Castle and carried fearful warfare into Northumberland, which was then also under the black hand of the plague. Sir Robert de Umfraville, giving chase, fell on the Scots and routed them among those streams which tumble from the high hills. Past lonely Makendon cottage, below Thirlmoor’s frowning rocks at the south of Chew Green, lies the source of the Coquet. Hill rises upon hill, dark and rugged where the fairy stream has birth, and Watling Street crosses the moors into Scotland by Brownhart Law, which forms the boundary. From its crest the view reaches far as Eildon’s triple heights, and on the west are the hills of Dumfriesshire. On the east side is Great Cheviot, Cushat Law, and the conical green tops of the Cheviot range.

Makendon estate runs up to ” the Scotch edge ” and marches with the property of the Duke of Roxburghe. On the debatable land the boundary line has always been a source of contention, and even recently the Ordnance Survey was the occasion for a revival of opposing claims. A part of Watling Street south of Chew Green, during Border wars, was an appointed place for borderers to settle disputes by combat. It was here that Robert Snowdon of Hepple, in his sixteenth year, slew in a combat with small swords a celebrated Scottish champion, John Grieve. Here also in this wild debatable land the Earl of Northumberland and Earl Douglas met in 1401 in a futile attempt to bring their respective countries the blessings of peace.

Two blocks of stone in the vicinity are known as Outer Golden Pot and Middle Golden Pot. They were long supposed to be of Roman origin, but are now known to be ancient boundary stones between the parish of Elsdon and the chapelry of Holy-stone as guides to the traveller in this unpeopled country. Chew Green, a very large camp, also called Makendon, is the Ad Fines of the Romans lying far behind the Wall. Watling Street traversed these desolate moorlands and may possibly have been founded on a British trackway. For centuries it has been the common highway between England and Scotland. After the Battle of Otterburn the Scottish army halted one night at Chew Green. They carried with them the bodies of the Earl of Douglas and two squires who fell near him, which lay on slender biers ” of byrch and haysell graye.” A mournful procession, with the gallant dead leading the way, they marched across the Border and reached Melrose next day. Our hearts are still moved by the spectacle of that antique woe as we watch in fancy the silent and unbeaten host crossing the hills – the dark true men of the North.