THE romance of ancient Northumberland unfolds before us as we pass over Berwick Bridge. Many bridges have spanned the Tweed and led the traveller from the south among the high-pitched houses of the crowded town that rise above the river bank. Even now the mouldering pile can be seen in the mud of a bridge a few yards above the present one, perhaps that which James VI crossed in 1603 when he found it unstable and gave orders for a new one to be built. An annual sum for upkeep continues to be paid from the Exchequer to this day. Perhaps the stakes are those of the bridge swept away in the reign of King John when he built the malvoisin or tower to overlook and intimidate Berwick. The memory of this tower, which was soon pulled down again by the Scots, is still preserved by the name of Tower Villa on the high bank overlooking Tweedmouth Dock. A constant bone of contention was the ferry which crossed the river here. It was of great importance in times when the bridge was destroyed, as the Scots claimed the whole of the river and prevented the English boats touching the northern bank.
Berwick from the Tweedmouth side must from earliest times have given an impression of strength. At high tide the river washed against the walls, and the ships of the busy seaport rocked in the quay. Higher up the river, on ground now partly occupied by the railway station, menacing, the castle stood, an integral part of the great Walls of Edward’s day which still crumble massively among grass and ivy on the high river bank that faces the flats of Tweedmouth. From the castle walls the west end of Tweedmouth, with small huddled houses, looks dull and low-lying. Beyond it miles of cornfields shine yellow in summer weather where the Low Road leads to Ord village. But during the last two hundred years Berwick must have gained in colour, for that is about the date when the red roofs that enchant the traveller coming by train or road rose steeply around the eighteenth century town hall. Near where it is built once stood the Red Hall of the Flemings, which Edward burnt with its prosperous Flemish merchants when his wild soldiery reddened with the townsfolk’s blood the gutters that ran to the Tweed.
In Tweedmouth churchyard is buried John Mackay Wilson, who wrote ” The Tales of the Borders,” and a well-known celebrity, Jimmy Strength or James Stuart, noted for his strength ; he lived to be 115. A stone figure of him by Mr. Wilson, a former keeper of Berwick lighthouse, stands in the old bowling green in the Palace at Berwick.
The south road leads from Tweedmouth over Sunnyside Hill, past Scremerston, a little mining village, the manor of which belonged to the unfortunate Earl of Derwentwater and passed into the possession of Greenwich Hospital. The slag heaps which border parts of the roads after passing Scremerston were planted about thirty years ago with firs and are now quite ornamental plantations. But the need of pit props caused many inroads to be made on the trees during the war. A road to the right before reaching the Cat Inn, a little bare hostelry, stretches into middle Northumberland past Lowick and Wooler. Ancroft, a desolate-looking village, stands on the high ground about one and a half miles above the turning, and a long, lonely road through agricultural land leads to Lowick. At Ancroft is a field called the Broomie huts. There is a curious and pathetic legend connected with this pretty name. The pretty name has anything but a pretty origin. In the reign of Anne a colony of cloggers lived there who made boots for the army. The plague visited them on its devastating journey from the south. Those who took the disease were carried out to the high field where the broom grew, and little bowers were made over them. When they died, hut and body were burned. Doubtless they were never visited by the living before death claimed them, and hunger and thirst would hasten the end of their pains.
The excellent main road we are on now turns sharply to the left at Haggerstpn Castle, where once stood the ancient tower of the Haggerston family. Leland calls it ” a towre upon the south syde of Lindis ryver.” A mile further on a road branches to the left for Holy Island. The Kyloe Hills are on our right, and the rugged crags near Belford are very fine, with trees and heather and many rare plants. On the height is a British camp with a double rampart, and the foundations of St. Mary’s Chapel of uncertain date and history. A well near the roadside is called St. Mary’s Well and a century ago still had two ladles fastened by chains to the side to refresh the thirsty passers-by. From the crags on a clear day the view of Holy Island and the Farnes and Bamburgh is very beautiful. On the roadside by the hamlet of Buckton is a plantation called Grizzy’s Clump, where Grizzel Cochrane robbed the mail of the warrant for her father’s execution, who was in prison for taking part in a rising against James II. A girl of eighteen dressed in men’s clothes, she rode out from Tweedmouth and awaited the clatter of the postboy’s horse :
The warlocks are dancing threesome reels On Goswick’s haunted links ; The red fire shoots by Ladythorne, And Tam wi’ the lanthorn fa’s and sinks. On Kyloe’s hills there’s awfu’ sounds But they frighted not Cochrane’s Grizzy.
The moonbeams shot from the troubled sky In glints o’ flickerin’ light ; The horseman cam skelping thro’ the mire For his mind was in affright. His pistol cocked he held in his hand But the fient a fear had Grizzy.
As he cam’ fornenst the Fenwicke woods From the whin bushes shot out a flame ; His dappled filly reared up in affright, And backward over he came. There’s a hand on his craig, and a foot on his mouth, ‘Twas Cochrane’s bonny Grizzy.
” I will not tak thy life,” she said, ” But gie me thy London news ; No blood of thine shall fyle my blade Gin me ye dinna refuse.” She’s prie’d the warrant and away she flew With the speed and strength o’ the wild curlew.
The delay of fourteen days thus gained by the heroic daughter gave Sir John Cochrane’s friends time to plead his cause and he was pardoned. Over the Border at Legerwood her tombstone can still be read, though no mention is made of her exploit at Belford :
Her rests the corps of John Ker of Moristown who departed this life the 27 of September 1691 in the thretth year of his age As also the corps of Grissell Cochrane his lady who died the 21 of March 1748 in the 83rd year of her age.
In Wilson’s ” Tales of the Borders ” her story is graphically told.
Belford is a quiet village with an old market cross. It is often mentioned as a stage in the journey between England and Scotland. Queen Margaret stopped here. There are no old houses, as it was very open to raids from the Borders, and even in the reign of Charles I it is described as “the most miserable beggarly town of sods that ever was made in an afternoon of loam and sticks. In all the town not a loaf of bread, nor a quart of beer, nor a lock of hay, nor a peck of oats and little shelter for horse or man.” In living memory many Northumbrian houses were roofed with sods of turf, or divots as they were called.
As at Ancroft and many other places, a gruesome tale of the visitation of the plague in the eighteenth century is still remembered. The dead were shovelled hastily out of sight in their wearing apparel on Belford Moor. Afterwards greed recollected the latter fact, and fragments were dug up of dress in the hope of finding money in the pockets of the hapless victims. This was a grimmer body-snatching than that of Burke and Hare, but the ways of our ancestors were not as our ways, as witness the following example of justice that Jeddart might envy.
Cadwallader Bates tells the story as happening near Belford in the thirteenth century. A Scot called Gilbert of Nithsdale was coming over the moor with a hermit called Seman. Why a freebooting Scot, as his name seems to indicate, should be wandering fifteen miles over the Border with a harmless Northumbrian of pious life seems to call for some explanation, which we are unable to-day to give. Gilbert, the stalwart rogue, robbed Seman of his clothes and one penny and beat him soundly. But he had not gone far with his ill-gotten gear when Ralph of Belford, a king’s officer, met him, and, judging by appearances in the hasty medieval way, arrested him and took him to Alnwick. Here arrived Seman bleeding and naked to confront the barbarous Scot. The bailiff and townsmen heard the tale of the injured holy man. The singularly appropriate custom of the country makes the heart warm in these days of cold justice by process of law. The injured person must act as his own executioner. So the meek hermit beheaded Gilbert and received his clothes for so doing. He was thus revenged and suitably rewarded in a fashion we cannot help feeling was both original and satisfying.
One other word is gleaned of Belford before the Union of 1603, when it was still a collection of clay-daubed hovels. The Earl of Hertford in one of his retaliatory expeditions against the Scottish borders – the one indeed in which he cruelly burnt the nunnery at Coldstream – was nearly captured as he lay at Belford, but the Scots managed to ” lift ” his chaplain. Whether he was ransomed or died on the spears of jeering Scots is not recorded.
The local folk-lore preserves a fantastic rhyme which with its hint of a finer poetry is worth remembering :
In Collierheugh there’s gear eneuch, In Cockenheugh there’s mair ; But I’ve lost the keys of Bowdon Doors And I’m ruined for evermair.
This occurs in the lament of the Hazelrigg Brownie. At Cockenheugh Crag, about two miles west of Belford, is Cuddie’s Cove, a traditional resting place of St. Cuthbert. Bowdon Door Crags is the name of some rocks on Lyham Moor between Belford and Chatton.
Lying adjacent to the sands over which one crosses to Lindisfarne, and indeed a part of them, are the sands of Goswick – the picture is easy to make in the imagination – a low and level waste of wet sand with little ridges in it such as the tide always leaves behind and a kind of stipple-work made by the excavations of the lugworm, a wash of little waves far off on the edge, a wreck held fast in the grip of those tiny morsels of sand which separately count as nothing, but when acting in union bury and create.
You see them in the act of engulfing what was once a good ship, and close to the cultivated land arise the dunes which the wind has fashioned, blowing the particles in a stinging shower on dry summer days and heaping them up till the tussock and other wild weeds began to hold them compactly together. Far away to the southwards the hills look down on the sea and are themselves a wall to the horizon.
Goswick and Cheswick were fair game for the Scottish forayers in the old raiding days, and the houses belonging to them were frequently emptied of gear and the harvest fields devastated. In those old days no mention is made of fishermen, and it is doubtful if the craft was carried on there before the days of Sir William Crossman, although in the eighteenth century the coast was haunted by great shoals of salmon. In an account which has been preserved of the produce of the fishery of Sandstell, near the mouth of the Tweed, we get some evidence of the enormous quantity of salmon that must have worked their way along the edge of the coast to the mouth of the river. The accounts were kept by the family of Waite and published in 1831 by William Waite. The accounts begin in 1736 and are carried on to 1818. The best years are those beginning in 1760, which has this N.B.: ” Believed the most plentiful season ever known in the Tweed, a great quantity of salmon sold at nine-pence, eightpence, and one day at fourpence per stone. One flood on a Monday supposed to produce I0,000 salmon. N.B. – In all these years very few trouts.” But the account-keeper had to note on the very next year a new record. It is described as the greatest year that ever was at Sandstell, no fewer than 17,484 salmon being taken, and 13,000 trout. No account was kept of the gilses. Please note the spelling, the ” r ” is a modern interpolation.
In 1772 a note is made which throws light on the occupation very generally pursued in that quarter of the world. ” About this period, the hole in the Meadow Haven began to increase and lowering the beacon rocks for smugglers’ ballast – both certainly injurious to the Tweed, but Sandstell particularly.” Ten years later, in 1782, occurred two most remarkable floods in May, and for a long time after that the salmon did not seem to come so regularly. But in 1792 the fishery recovered. Sandstell is several miles from Goswick, but undoubtedly the salmon worked their way along the coast towards the river mouth, and those that are taken at Goswick are making for the Tweed. It is much the same on the northern part of the coast. Regular net-fishing is carried on in the sea north of the pier, and it is by no means unusual for the deep-sea fishermen who work from the Greenses Harbour to take salmon out at sea. To return for a moment to the antique character of the people. Those men who are engaged in salmon fishing have at all times been a rude and lawless people. Smuggling was not the worst of their habits ; in the sixteenth century they were inveterate wreckers. Probably at that time there was a population on the mainland from Spittal to Scremerston, Cheswick, and Goswick, even as far as Bamburgh, of people who drew part of their livelihood from the land and part from the sea. In the sixteenth century the Bonaventure, a ship belonging to Archibald Graham and the Scottish merchants, was driven on the rocks at Sotterburn Mouth ; among other receivers of spoil were the townships of Goswycke and Cheswycke, who each received L40. In very recent years many of those salmon fishers, as soon as close time was declared, used to become the most determined poachers, and many are the battles that have been fought between them and the legal guardians of the salmon. On these occasions the women used to figure prominently, and were equally adept at throwing stones and using bad language. But to-day most of this kind of thing has faded away with the progress of civilisation, and the drift-net fisherman now closely resembles his brother of the seine net. He mends his nets and gathers his fish while the season lasts, and when it is closed takes himself to some other vocation. He used to get hold of a ferry-boat or work as an ordinary labourer, for in the course of a varied life he had become, if nothing else, a very handy man. To-day he devotes the energy which he used to give to poaching to working the lifeboat, when he has an opportunity of earning something by salvage, and, if other things have changed, the dangerous sea is the same as it was in the beginning. King Charles I, with an army, camped here on May 25th, 1639, previous to his abortive Scottish campaign. ” He lay in a little house belonging to the widow of Sir Robert Hamilton. The camp was pitched neare the sea shore, upon a plain heath ground most part of it, and of a spungie turf which would have been very discommodious to the souldiers had they continued there in rainy weather.” Under their vacillating leader, however, they did not stay long anywhere. But one would like to recall, if possible, the sight that must have presented itself to the traveller of those days. There is no old castle or very old house in the neighbourhood. The Scots took care that none survived. Their constant raidings kept the countrymen very poor, and cottages were put together of mud and plaster that would have been flimsy if they had not been made so thick. An old traveller says that the usual roofing of these cottages was not even thatch, but sods of earth laid flat. Indeed, some cottages of this kind survived till comparatively late in the nineteenth century. They had scarcely any walls to speak of, the back one being not more than two or three feet above the ground and the front one perhaps six feet. The doorways were not high enough to admit a man of middle height unless he bowed his head. The windows were very small and the hearths very large. Fuel, at any rate, did not need to be economised, as not only were the coal pits near, but the sea continually heaved up driftwood from the ships that had been engulfed. Some of the cottages to-day are not beautiful ; but those who find fault with them usually know very little of the hard conditions that prevailed on the English Border up to within a very recent period. Not that on the sands cottages obtrude themselves. There are one or two set back among the dunes ; but the eye rests not on them, but on the wide expanse of sand, with its fringe of white wavelets breaking gently on the shore, the dark rocks of basalt that at low tide thrust themselves up out of the water, and at high tide show their position only by the waves that curl and break over their tops. A wreck is always to be seen, and, when .the circumstances under which it was lost are forgotten, it becomes a forlorn though picturesque addition to the landscape. Wind and water have cleared away all that was superfluous, and only bare ribs or a broken hull and mast stand as a monument of man’s daring and Nature’s strength.