Monday, 21st September 2020
This afternoon, as part of my long-term, casual project to record the fortifications of Northern England and the Scottish border, I paid a quick visit to Staward Peel which, between 1272 and 1384, during the Scottish Wars of Independence and much of the Hundred Years War, was a virtually impregnable tower complex and thereafter a monastic retreat. It stands on a precipitous spur in Staward Gorge through which runs the River Allen before it joins the River Tyne, not far away, between Bardon Mill and Haydon Bridge, in Northumberland. Very little of what must have been a virtually impregnable fortification remains today as most of the stone was reused in the c17th to construct nearby Staward Manor.
I didn’t have a lot of time so opted for a short route – a circuit of just under 3 miles – expressly to photograph the tower. As it turned out, the route I’d chosen is incorporated in the southern section of the 11-mile John Martin Heritage Trail which starts and finishes in Haydon Bridge, the birthplace of the artist who was a contemporary of JMW Turner.
I didn’t have a lot of time so opted for a short route – a circuit of just under 3 miles – expressly to photograph the tower. As it turned out, the route I’d chosen is incorporated in the southern section of the 11-mile John Martin Heritage Trail which starts and finishes in Haydon Bridge, the birthplace of the artist who was a contemporary of JMW Turner. It’s thought that Staward Peel, Staward Gorge and the River Allen may have been the inspiration for ‘The Bard’ (1817), one of John Martin’s paintings, now in Newcastle’s Laing Art Gallery.
For the initial stretch across fields past Gingle Pot, I was accompanied by a large herd of curious cows lined up behind me as though being taken for a walk. This lasted for longer than I’d have imagined but eventually they turned off to find something else to amuse themselves with. Entering the woods shortly afterwards there was no clue about how sharp and precipitous the tree-covered ridge would become. Far below, on the eastern side, is the Harsondale Burn while, to the west, lies the River Allen.
Further along the heather-clad ridge you arrive at what seems to have been the only stone construction other than the tower – the gatehouse or ‘gate-wall’ (there’s not much left whatever you want to call it). The National Trust interpretation board is a great help as without it you might struggle to make sense of what’s in front of you. I must have read somewhere else, without making notes, that the stone was initially cut by the Romans (I’m throwing it in just in case).
Comparing the remains of the tower further on, there seems to have been little space on the ridge for the other buildings, which is in accordance with the artist’s interpretation. Around two metres thick, the walls are those of a building designed to frustrate attackers. The ridge would have been cleared of trees and it must have been an impressive sight, sufficient enough to have inspired Martin.
Once I’d got all the images I needed (the featured image for this post was taken the following year in early spring so you can see more), I descended the steep trail to the main path and started back through the lovely sunlit woods alongside and above the River Allen. There’s good access down to the river below the tower where you find impressive exposures of shale and sandstone stratigraphy of the Stainmore Formation which proliferates on the eastern side of the North Pennines.
The hike back out of the gorge is along a narrow trail passing beneath a crag where you’re warned about the possibility of thinner, more fragmented, layers of shale and sandstone falling on you. I can imagine that in winter this part of the trail could be a bit muddy and slippery. It’s steep too, and by the time I clear was the woods I was well and truly blowing with my tee-shirt busily absorbing the copious sweat generated beneath my camera bag. The short walk on the road involved crossing a neat, stone bridge that – until 1950 – had spanned the tell-tale trace of line that was the Hexham-Allendale branch of the NER. In fact, the house by the bridge had been Staward Station.
Further along the road, I stopped in the car, to take a couple of long shots of Staward Manor. Both parts of the house visible from the road incorporate 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 [We did but the JMHT remains as yet unexplored 14/03/23]. Although I got a great day for it in the final days of summer, the next few weeks of autumn should be a great time to go, when colours start to change and falling leaves allow you to see a bit more. Starting from the top isn’t ideal as parking opportunities aren’t good. It’s much better to go to the National Trust car park at Allen Banks which we did for a longer walk a few months later. You can find that route here.