A Visit to Staward Peel

This afternoon (21/09/2020), as part of my long-term project to record the fortifications of Northern England and the Scottish Border, I paid a quick visit to Staward Peel, a ruined medieval tower on a promontory ridge in Staward Gorge, Allendale, Northumberland. With little time to mess about, I decided on a short route, a circuit of just under 3 miles, put together with the express purpose of photographing the tower. I found out later that it incorporated a part of the 11-mile southern section of the waymarked John Martin Heritage Trail which starts and finishes in Haydon Bridge where the c19th artist, who was a contemporary of Turner, was born. 

For the initial stretch across fields past Gingle Pot, I was accompanied by a large herd of curious cows strung out behind me like I was taking them for a walk. This lasted for longer than I’d have imagined but eventually I think they could see they weren’t going to fit through the approaching gate and turned off to find something else to fill their day. The point where you enter the woods is fairly unremarkable but this quickly changes when you realise how sharp and precipitous the tree covered ridge is. To the east and far below, is the Harsondale Burn and to the west, the River Allen. A bit further along the pretty, heather-clad ridge you come to the tower, or what’s left of it and that’s not very much.

The National Trust interpretation board is a great help here; without it you might struggle to make sense of what’s in front of you. The finger of stone to the right is thought to be part of a simple gatehouse using stone of Roman origin. Judging from what remains of the tower’s walls further on, there seems little space on the ridge for the other buildings shown in the artist’s interpretation. Around two metres thick, the walls are certainly those of a building designed to frustrate attackers. The ridge would have been cleared of trees and it must have been an impressive sight, possibly the inspiration for ‘The Bard’, one of John Martin’s paintings, on display in the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle.

From information on the interpretation board, the stone was used in constructing nearby Staward Manor which begins to account for the tower’s lack of presence today. To make up for it, there are some atmospheric sandstone outcrops below the tower, putting me in the mind of Edinburgh Castle but on a much smaller scale. Once I’d taken the images needed, I descended the steep trail to the main path and started back through the sunlit woods above the River Allen. There’s good access down to the river below the tower with more impressive sandstone on display, part of the Stainmore Formation that proliferates on the eastern side of the North Pennines.

The hike back out of the gorge is along a narrow trail passing underneath a well publicised crag where you can see more sandstone – thinner, more fragmented layers this time, together with layers of shale – hence the reason for the warnings of rocks falling on your head. I can imagine that in winter the trail, which continues to climb steeply, could be a bit muddy and slippery. However, by the time I cleared the woods I was well and truly blowing (I’ve not been too well over the last few days) and sweating heavily; the back of my tee-shirt was somewhat moist and I finished the walk carrying my camera bag and flicking the back of my shirt to get some air to my back. The short walk on the road involved crossing a neat, stone bridge which, until 1950, spanned the Hexham-Allendale branch of the NER (the house by the bridge was once the site of Staward Station).

The final part of the day was to get in the car (tucked in by the bridge) and drive a few hundred metres along the road, find a suitably revealing spot, lower the window and take a couple of long range photographs of Staward Manor (both parts of the house visible from the road incorporate previous bastles with the west wing being a particularly fine example). I’ll definitely be going back to explore the gorge further, maybe acquainting myself with the full John Martin Heritage Trail. Although I got a great day for it, the next few weeks of autumn should be a great time to go, when the colours start to change and falling leaves allow you to see a bit more. The main issue with starting from the top end is parking but starting lower down, towards Haydon Bridge should help.

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