Saturday 4th June 2022
With a fast approaching ten-day walking trip along the Southern Upland Way at the end of the month we needed to spend some time honing our fitness and camp-craft and testing various bits of gear including my new rucksack and trail shoes. Although we’ve done a fair bit of camping with the tandem (when we use our ‘Big Agnes’ two-man tent which is a bit too heavy for walking), apart from a two-day mountain marathon in Iceland we’ve only ever done day-walks together.
To provide a basis for a route, I turned, as I often do, to a gazetteer of sites relating to the dark and dangerous c16th ‘reiving’ period of which there are hundreds in Northumberland and Cumbria. It gives information, including location, on former dwellings – castles, towers, halls and ‘bastles’ – that were built to protect occupants and their belongings (including livestock) from thieving bands of dangerous men who made forays across the border and even raided their neighbours. Many of the buildings are still in use, others have been incorporated into contemporary dwellings and some are no more than low piles of rubble.
Due to their antiquity the majority of sites lie on, or close to, ancient rights of way that offer a perfect opportunity for a quiet walk off the beaten track. During the reiving times, people sought security in family and extended family groups so areas came to be dominated by particular ‘surnames’ which still resonate in the names of places, properties and in some cases descendants. Today we’d be in ‘Ridley’ country along the River South Tyne centred on Bardon Mill.
Although the forecast for the area was sunny, warm and windy, a few miles to the east my cycling club had ridden up from Durham to Morpeth where sunshine had been strictly rationed until well into the afternoon. I’d lined up 5 sites: there was Bardon Mill itself, Henshaw (a mile or so along the road from Bardon Mill), Willimoteswick, Penpeugh, Black Cleugh and Farrow Shields (the last four being a bit more remote and providing the dots to be joined). After parking on the eastern outskirts of Bardon Mill, just off the busy A68, the plan was to visit a complex of buildings at Henshaw then continue under the railway line on a public byway to a crossing point over the river.
Henshaw (Tow House)
There were several buildings to view in Henshaw which was about 1.5 km away from where we’d parked the car in Bardon Mill. Somehow I failed to register Town Head Farmhouse so I’ll have to go back for that one. Tow House Bastle (a well preserved bastle, now a house) and the nearby Old Workshop (strong house, now an outbuilding) were easily identified by their stonework with the Old Workshop having a particularly impressive header over the door.
Next on the list was Willimoteswick, which lies across the river. Although a crossing was clearly shown on my map, the plan began to unravel when we reached a closed gate with a notice declaring ‘private angling’. Keeping faith with the map, I completed the short distance to the river’s edge where it was immediately apparent that the only means of crossing was an ill-defined ford – a wide and exposed one – that gave no indication of depth.
On the other side, a lonely fingerpost continues to do what it was designed for but I wasn’t getting soaked, if not drowned, to prove a point. Admittedly, my map wasn’t exactly up to date (2009) but it shows the route as a significant byway which is now – to all intents and purposes – a dead end. So we retraced our route to Bardon Mill where we’d parked close to the footbridge we intended to return by.
As we passed through Redburn (between Henshaw and Bardon Mill) I was drawn to an interpretation board at the entrance to a pleasantly wooded playground. It revealed that the playground and surrounding fields are on the site of Bardon Mill (Henshaw) colliery, a drift mine that, from 1944 to 1973, had worked the Little Limestone coal seam.
This weekend the country was celebrating the Queen’s platinum jubilee (the Trooping of the Colour had been held yesterday) which accounted for the brilliantly creative knitted artworks adorning the post boxes between Bardon Mill and Tow House. From the top of such a post box we were regally observed by the monarch herself (together with her guardsmen) when we stopped at the cafe, as was a group of loyal subjects respectfully celebrating her jubilee on the shady green opposite.
Diagonally opposite the tearoom, a tall, square-faced, brick chimney constrained by iron bands – drew my eye and interest. Bardon Mill Pottery was built on the site of a former water-powered woollen mill in 1878. Apparently it’s the last commercial operator in Britain that’s still producing salt-glaze pottery, all of which is hand-thrown. So, when we’d finished our drinks we wandered over and, on a whim, purchased three pottery chickens (just £3 each) which we dropped off at the car when we passed.
Bardon Mill (The Grange)
This converted bastle, which likely dates to the early-c17th, is now a dwelling (The Grange), the western gable of which is on the lane leading to the railway crossing. Apart from the distinctive stonework, the house retains a lot of features including the door (now a window) on what is now the upper floor and a narrow slit in what would have been the basement (now the ground floor).
After crossing the busy Newcastle to Carlisle railway line near Bardon Mill Station we reached the River Tyne Trail via Millhouse footbridge. Constructed from iron lattice work, It was constructed in 1883 to improve on another ford and has a total span of 85 m (40 m over the river). It’s the first footbridge upstream of the point where the rivers North and South Tyne meet near Hexham.
Now we were back on the road to Williemoteswick, once the manorial home of the Ridleys and birthplace of Nicholas Ridley. Born in 1500, he became Bishop of London but was martyred at the stake in 1555 for his support of Lady Jane Grey’s abortive claim to the Tudor throne.
Willimoteswick (or Willimontswick) is a working farm these days. What sets it apart is the late medieval gatehouse which can be seen for miles around. Although it looks like a castle, it was actually a fortified manor house and is similar in appearance to Cocklaw Tower, a few miles to the east. It’s private but, being on a public footpath, easy to view and inspect more closely.
We’d be returning at the end of the walk so we didn’t linger and began the steep 2-kilometre climb onto Ridley Common. The effort on a hot, sunny day is worth it as it offers great views across the Tyne Valley where Hadrian’s Wall runs along the skyline opposite.
When you finally haul yourself onto the flat expanse of Ridley Common you can look down on the farm buildings at Penpeugh (I’d say Pen-pyuff) where the bastle is recorded as being the closest barn. The stonework looks reasonable enough for its location but it’s been heavily remodelled as no bastle had doors and windows of that size or so easily accessible.
Leaving Penpeugh behind, we struck out on an exposed, four-kilometre stroll over Ridley and Plenmeller commons with a small sandstone quarry handily appearing to separate them. We were lucky that the sun was shining but had it been raining, the strong headwind would have made for a more testing experience.
Between 1991-2002 the part of Plenmeller Common we were walking over had been an opencast site from which 1.9 million tonnes of coal was extracted (so the notice on the boulder informed us). From my research there has been some form of coal mining on the common since the mid-1800s: the first colliery was established alongside the road beneath the Beacon and the last, elsewhere on the common, was abandoned in 1932. The coal was taken from the Pennine Lower Coal Measures which overlie the limestones, sandstones and shales of the Stainmore Formation. However, the seams are not as productive as those further to the east.
Briefly leaving the common you step onto a road (probably constructed to accommodate the early colliery on Blackshield Bog) where there’s a couple of sweeping bend to take you up to The Beacon (which comes into sight initially on Ridley Common). The verge offers a tolerable option here and there but the 1.3 km of tarmac seemed like twice that.
On the summit is a building with a large, shallow dome on both gable ends. The eastern end is intact but the dome on the western end, along with the upper wall, has collapsed and now lies inside the building. Judging from photos on the internet this happened fairly recently. I have no idea what function the domes served and would be delighted to hear from anyone who knows. We made full use of the shelter which the building provided from the blustery easterly wind, to cook a lunch of bacon, eggs, tomatoes and mushrooms, washed down with a mug of coffee. Visibility was perfect and we could see for miles up and down the Tyne Valley.
We departed eastwards on a long descent over the common following what is marked on the map as a bridleway. My hopes of an easy walk back were disabused as we quickly lost what was only ever a faint trail and were soon having to ‘freelance’ through tussocks and heather, scratching about for the best track. On this occasion we could see easily where we needed to go but, in poor visibility, it might have been a different story.
Black Cleugh Bastle
As soon as we could peek over the final shoulder we were able to see the wall which would deliver us to the next bastle. Black Cleugh is listed as a ‘ruined bastle’ but retains several distinctive features which is more than can be said for most ruins. The walls are approximately a metre thick (though they can be much thicker further north where attack was more likely). The upper part of a narrow door is visible in which you can see a rebate for a drawbar. Stones to the sides and above the door are all impressively large.
Farrow Shields Bastle
This site isn’t far from Black Cleugh, separated only by the Blackcleugh Burn. It’s listed as ‘bastle fragments’ and I have to confess that I couldn’t really identify anything that convinced me of the authenticity of what I was looking at. The extant building may not have included anything of the bastle itself. Maybe I should have had a better look at the stonework footings around the site.
We then walked steeply down to the bottom of the field, crossed a narrow burn and picked up a track that, after a brief ascent, returned us to the River Tyne Trail at Shankfoot, just above the river. Turning sharply east, we followed the river downstream, through Haughstruther Wood (where forestry operations had turned the trail to a sea of mud) back to Willimoteswick where we regained the road, this time passing right alongside the gatehouse which we were able to inspect a bit more closely.
Down on the river’s floodplain it was much less windy and the encroaching evening was one of golden sunshine. We turned our backs on Willimoteswick and quickly found ourselves back at Millhouse Bridge where I dawdled for a bit, simply to watch the river flowing under the bridge. All that remained on my itinerary, after re-crossing the railway line, was to get a couple of photographs of The Grange now that the sun had moved itself into a more amenable position.
Almost reluctantly we returned to the car parked close by. Including the detour, we’d walked over 13 miles with a fair bit of hills and hard going even though that wasn’t really the point. Nothing was missing, nothing had fallen off or out, gone wrong or even had to be adjusted but we’d made a couple of notes of points to attend to (straps were dangling all over the place so these needed to be tidied up) but conditions had been very much in our favour. What’s more I’d ticked off seven more sites from what is a long list that will keep me going for years to come. We checked the chickens and as there were no eggs to collect, we set off home, already thinking about the next episode visiting sites which had been tantalisingly close but better left for another day.
P.S. This post isn’t finished: there’s a route download to come and quite a few more images which I’ll add in a few days as the Southern Upland Way is now upon us…