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Ancient history in the Northumbrian hills


Looking out from Lordenshaw Hill Fort

The hills to the south of Rothbury in the heart of Northumberland are known as the Simonside Hills. The area is scattered with pre-historic remains, showing that man has inhabited this region for thousands of years. According to the National Park website:

‘Ancient cairns mark the summit of the ridge. Below, in the forest, there is a Bronze Age cemetery and swords from this era, unmarked by fighting, have been found on the lower slopes of Simonside.

Below the ridge lies Lordenshaw hillfort.

The beacon of Simonside was used to warn of a Scots invasion during Tudor times.’

The same website also says that, ‘Today, Simonside appears as an open expanse of wilderness, with a great deal of modern forestry planting in evidence. It is however a managed landscape in the truest sense and regular burning of the heather in the interests of promoting a healthy game bird population lies at the heart of its maintenance as a "wild" open space.’ I will say a little more about that game bird population later …


We visited this site in late August, when the heather was at its most glorious and on a beautiful sunny (albeit windy) day. It’s an easy climb up a wide grassy path to reach the hillfort.

The path to the fort

The hill fort was built around 350BC. It is roughly circular and has two entrances to the east and west. It is surrounded by two concentric ditches, the outer one of which has a diameter of 140 metres. The innermost part of the site, the inhabited area, has a diameter of roughly 70 metres and is on two levels. It contains the remains of several dwelling huts and what appear to be smaller structures, the purpose of which is unknown.

As a non-expert the site can be difficult to visit and interpret, as there is no signage at all. That helps to preserve its special atmosphere but makes it hard to work out which stones are significant, and which might just have been left lying there! However, I have done my best to work out exactly what it was I photographed!

A dwelling house

The above photo shows the most clearly defined of the several dwelling houses that have been identified at the site.





Lordenshaw Hill Fort - burial cairns?

I think the above photos are some of the burial cairns on the hill top which pre-date the fort, being from the Early to Middle Bronze Age (between 3000 and 4000 years ago). According to one source I found, ‘it was around this time that a change came in the way the dead were interred. Rather than placing the bodies or cremations in elaborate long-barrows, the inhabitants of the northern England usually placed the remains in simpler stone or earth mounds’ (see http://www.gefrin.com/lordenshaws/lordenshaws.html).



The eastern entrance

The above photos were taken at the eastern entrance to the fort, where three large stones mark where the pathway cuts through the ramparts.


Ditch to the south of the eastern entrance

Ditch to the north of the eastern entrance

Above you can see the ditch surrounding the fort, looking in both directions from the eastern entrance. This is the outermost defensive ditch with a diameter of around 140 metres. Below is another section of the ditch, on the north side.

Surrounding ditch

Prehistoric rock art

Lordenshaw is known particularly for the large number of rock carvings in the vicinity of the fort, which pre-date it by at least one thousand years. It is difficult to say exactly how old they are, and no one is sure of their function. Some sources I’ve come across say that they date from the Neolithic or New Stone Age and are about 5,000 years old. Again, without signage we found it hard to search them out, and we missed the most famous examples – we will have to go back! But many of the decorated rocks were used in the building of the fort so are scattered around the hillside. Here are a few photos of some we did find - I think!




Carved stones (?) at Lordenshaw

Scattered stones

Views from the fort

It is easy when you are here to appreciate why those Iron Age people chose this spot for their fort, as it commands wonderful views over the surrounding countryside. From the south side, where we ascended from the car park, you can look across to the next ridge of hills and see south east to the lower land there – nowadays dotted with wind turbines.

View to the south east

As we rounded the hillside to its northern flank we could look down over the small town of Rothbury and see the imposing Cragside House nestled among the trees. Cragside was the Victorian home of was the home of William Armstrong, the first Baron Armstrong, who founded the Armstrong Whitworth armaments firm. Armstrong invented the hydraulic crane, among other things – you can read more about him in my Newcastle blog, https://toonsarahnewcastle.travellerspoint.com/19/. Thanks to his inventiveness Cragside was the first house in the world to be lit using hydroelectric power.

Cragside House seen from Lordenshaw

The ‘glorious’ twelfth

While exploring Lordenshaw we could hear the intermittent sound of gunfire. At first I thought we must be near a military firing range, but we later realised that the shooting was coming from the hillside to the south where a grouse shoot was taking place. The law in the UK prohibits the shooting of game before certain dates, and in the case of grouse that date is the 12th August – known as the ‘Glorious Twelfth’ although it is far from glorious for the grouse themselves! It may be of some comfort to learn that according to a cousin of my husband’s, who works for a gamekeeper in the Tyne Valley, the shooters are usually so poor that very few birds are actually hit!

Distant view of grouse shooters on the Simonside Hills

As we returned to the car park after our walk around the fort, the grouse shooters were doing the same, descending the hillside opposite. I grabbed a few candid shots of this very English scene!




Grouse shoot beaters and dogs, Lordenshaw

Posted by ToonSarah 07:23 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged landscapes people history views dogs archaeology customs Comments (14)

A sacred pool

Around Holystone

The sream running from Lady's Well down to Holystone

The Lady’s Well

Just outside the small village of Holystone is a surprising sight, an atmospheric little pool surrounded by a grove of trees.

The water tank, which is what it is in essence, has had several purposes over the centuries. It was probably built by the Romans to serve as a watering place on the road from High Rochester Roman fort to the River Aln, which passes nearby. They captured the natural spring with a low stone retaining wall to create a large, rectangular pool of clear water.

Lady's Well

According to legend, in Saxon times the water was used for the baptisms of early Christians. It is said that in AD 627 St Paulinus baptised 3,000 Northumbrians here. He was a 7th century Roman monk sent by Pope Gregory I to the Kingdom of Kent in south-east England with a mission to convert the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity. He served in Kent until AD 625, when he accompanied Aethelburg, the sister of King Eadbald of Kent, to Northumbria for her marriage to King Edwin. There Paulinus managed to convert the king and his leading nobles to Christianity and began to spread his mission throughout Northumbrian territory. He was named the first Archbishop of York and died in AD 644. It is now thought that the myth associating him with Holystone stemmed from a misreading of the writings of the Venerable Bede, and that if he did baptise 3,000 people at one go, this took place in York rather than here. Nevertheless the story persists in many descriptions of the site.

More plausible is a link to the 6th century St Ninian, Bishop of Whithorn in south western Scotland between AD 500 and AD 550. He is said to have preached here and baptised his converts to Christianity in the waters of the well pool. Certainly he has been linked to numerous wells beside Roman roads throughout Northumberland, and it’s quite possible that he did visit in an attempt to spread Christianity, but again any association between him and the well is unsubstantiated.

In Medieval times, the pool was dedicated to the Virgin Mary by the Augustinian nuns in the priory at Holystone, now long gone – closed down by Henry VIII during the Reformation and its stones used for building Harbottle Castle. It was at this time that the name of Lady’s Well became attached to the pool.

Statue of St Paulinus

It later fell into disrepair but was repaired in 1780 when the stone edging walls were rebuilt and a 15th century stone statue of St Paulinus was brought from Alnwick Castle and placed in the centre of the well. It is likely that the stone slab at the east end of the tank may also date from this time; this may have served as some sort of altar (although again the legends about St Paulinus claim that he knelt here, making it a holy stone, from which derives the name of the village).

NT sign

During this period the well was thought to have healing properties so became a destination for those seeking cures as well as for pilgrims worshipping Our Lady and/or St Paulinus.

In the second half of the 19th century the statue was removed from the centre of the well to the south west end and a stone cross erected in its place. The statue is situated within the socket hole of a large roughly squared stone of unknown origin and date but not unlike the base of a medieval cross – some say that this, not the ‘altar’ stone at the far end of the pool, is the holy stone that gave the village its name.

The powerful spring that feeds the pool continues to serve as the source of Holystone village’s water supply. Signs at the site ask visitors not to disturb the water in any way. This is such a tranquil spot, with an air of mystery about it, that the mood itself is not conducive to messing around, talking loudly or causing any such disturbance. Certainly when we were there the other visitors we saw were on the whole respectful , with even the couple of toddlers running around easily dissuaded by their parents from throwing anything into the water, as if they too felt the atmosphere a little.

Incidentally, although as the sign indicates this site is owned and managed by the National Trust, there is no charge made to visit, nor any donation requested.

Rather than walk directly from the village we followed a suggestion in a small guide book we have for Northumberland walks and parked in the Forestry Commission car park a short drive away. It was a pleasant short walk through the woods and across a rather over-grown meadow to reach the pool.

Walking through the forest and past the stream that runs away from the pool

We returned via a farmhouse at the edge of the village, across some fields and back to the car park along the road.

Woodhouses Bastle

On the way back we stopped at Woodhouses Bastle, which I’d spotted at the side of the road into Holystone. A bastle is a defensible farmhouse. These were built in this region as a response to the warring conditions along the English/Scottish border during the 16th and 17th centuries. Woodhouses is considered one of the best surviving examples. It sits on private land but it’s possible to get close to it by climbing a permissive path along the edge of a field, which is what we did to get some photos.

Woodhouses Bastle

A little further down the road we encountered this typical Northumbrian traffic jam. The sheepdog seemed to have been given the afternoon off as he was sitting in the tractor which was doing all the work of herding the sheep!

Northumbrian traffic jam

Posted by ToonSarah 03:57 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged buildings water religion history statue houses woods farm pool saints Comments (14)

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