Bastle Hunting at Allenheads

Saturday 5th September 2020

Historically, the counties and shires along the border between England and Scotland have seen their fair share of conflict. Never more so than during the medieval period when for several centuries, national armies and predatory familial bands known as Reivers would decimate those individuals or communities unfortunate enough to fall within their area of influence. As a consequence the inhabitants were compelled to fortify their properties in an attempt to protect themselves and their livestock. 

The simplest of the well-fortified properties were known as bastles and generally comprised a single, thick-walled, two storey building in which livestock could be secured on the ground floor while humans occupied an equally secure space above. Facilities were minimal and windows were a dangerous extravagance that could easily be exploited by the baddies. Depending on the degree of affluence and influence, halls, hall-houses, manor houses, vicar’s peles, pele towers and castles were among a long list of buildings constructed on the medieval Anglo-Scottish border with the primary intention of keeping uninvited guests firmly out.

Being so close to the border – especially at its western end – the Tyne Valley (to which Allendale is connected) is well populated with these legacy sites, some in ruins but many of which have been converted into attractive modern dwellings with the robust features that give away their former purpose. Over the years, I’ve visited many of the primary sites along the border but I’ve long held the ambition to visit and record as many of the minor, and perhaps more interesting sites, as possible. So, a couple of evenings ago I got the ball rolling by planning a short walk, taking in a few of the locations closest to me at the head of Allendale not far from the village of Allenheads. 

We made the pleasant hour-long drive via Weardale and parked at the site of Allenheads Smelt Mill (which deserves a post of its own) then set off map in hand down the River East Allen, which is little more than a stream at this point. The weather wasn’t great though the worst that was predicted was showers. Our first target would be Peasmeadows Cottage which is a private dwelling, well tucked away. Without requesting permission it wasn’t possible to get a particularly revealing photograph but it gave me a sense of what I’d probably need to expect. Some locations I’d be able to photograph, others I wouldn’t, and some I might be lucky enough to be able to negotiate a time to revisit.

From there we continued along the river on a distinct trail but one that was well overgrown with nettles which didn’t suit my bare legs. After a brief shower, during which we took to the cover of some trees in order to protect my cameras, the sun began to peep through and by the time we reached St Peter’s Church and Corn Mill Farmhouse at Spartylea – both of which date to the early c19th – it was fully out and I was beginning to think about losing the jacket. 

I’d misidentified the next objective, a bastle at Swinhope Shield, and we missed it completely, so continued uphill along Elpha Green Sike, before fumbling about at the nearby cottages, looking for the FP. We found it eventually (on the R not far along the alley behind the buildings) and set off across the fields, through another farm (name unknown), eventually to a road where we turned steeply uphill past Thorney Knowe Quarry to enter Swinhope.

I can’t say exactly when the sun disappeared but dark clouds were now racing over the ridge ahead and it wasn’t long before the inevitable drops began to smack against my jacket (which had remained on despite the earlier warm sunshine). Then the wind picked up and began driving the rain directly into our faces. We quickly elected to take what we hoped would be temporary shelter in the sunken entrance of an empty cottage that was undergoing renovation. Although there was no cover directly overhead, the rain was being driven so hard by the wind that we were completely sheltered: if it had been falling vertically we’d have got a lot wetter. 

We waited another quarter of an hour (there’s not much point continuing if you can’t take pictures) before setting off again when the rain abated. We quickly reached the last objective, the bastle at Hope Head, where I got some nice shots in rapidly fading light, even though it wasn’t actually that late. The path took us through the property and downhill to cross the Swinhope Burn. As we started an exposed section along the spur, it really began to lash down, putting paid to thoughts of further photography.

Initially the rain was on our backs which was tolerable, but when we turned into the wind for another long stretch even the miracle material that is Gore-Tex ® was found wanting. We weren’t too far away from the car by now and were discussing the likelihood of the rain stopping just we got back. The words were no sooner out of my mouth, when the wind dropped and you could just imagine a hint of blue sky. Seconds later, the underside of the oppressive mass of cloud was lit by a lovely, warm orange glow. Whatever we might have thought of the timing, as conditions improved so did our spirits together with the tone of the conversation.

Reaching the final junction, we turned left downhill on what I know as the NCN 7, a road I’m more familiar with as a cyclist and where we’ve had the tandem a couple of times. With a bike between my legs, the bottom of the descent would have been seconds away. On foot, it was easily five minutes but we were off the wind line now so even if the weather kicked off again the worst was over. Things continued to improve however and as we passed Thorn Green Lime Kilns on the Middlehope Burn I used my phone to take the photograph featured at the top of this post, which I swear I have not post-processed.

Thus ended the first of what I’m sure will be many more bastle-hunting trips on both sides of the border. A nice project to get me through the coming winter when the lack of foliage helps photography no end. I must stop taking any notice of weather forecasts though – or get out of the summer habit of rocking up with only the minimum of preparations.

2 thoughts on “Bastle Hunting at Allenheads”

    1. Ha, ha! Thanks for the offer! Definitely would have if I’d had the cheek! Just to be clear, we were only sheltering in the lee of the horsebox (don’t want anyone to think we’d done anything naughty!). Love your property and thanks for leaving the comment.

      All the best

      Scott & Diane.

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