Ancient Wonders E03: Ancient Castles and Hulne Priory

Part three of this captivating series considers the turbulent history of Northumberland during the Middle Ages


Wandering the ruins of Mitford Castle captures an eerie sense of history at the site of what was Britain’s only five-sided keep. Built in the 11th Century, it was burnt to the ground by King John in 1216. It was rebuilt in the early 14th century, only to be confiscated by Henry III and then pillaged by Robert the Bruce.

McVay visits Newminster Abbey, a Cistercian abbey near Morpeth which fell victim to the first wave of dissolution in 1537, and Hulne Priory, a home to “White Friars” near Alnwick. Hulne Priory was the filming location of Marion’s home in the film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and sits within Hulne Park. The park is open to the public –although it is not marketed as a visitor attraction and has no visitor facilities.

Moving on to the river gorge of the National Trust’s Allen Banks, McVay muses philosophically, “when you are a traveller, the greatest point of the adventure is not knowing where you are going and that sometimes being lost can be a good thing”.

The final location of this episode is Thirlwall Castle, near Hadrian’s Wall. It is one of many strongholds built in the local area as part of the defence of the English Border against Scottish raids.

Hulne Priory directions

Entry is via the approach from Alnwick, and is restricted to pedestrians only with dogs not permitted. If driving, park on Ratten Row on the north-west edge of Alnwick [map].  Opening hours are generally 11am to sunset each day, but visit the Northumberland Estates website or call the Estate Office on 01665 510777 to check other limitations. Two circular routes along permissive paths visit the abbey – Hulne Park walks map [PDF]

Thirlwall Castle directions

Turn off the A69 to Greenhead, and park near the Church [map].
An easy walk of under 2 miles is suggested by Northumberland National Park – Thirlwall Castle from Greenhead [PDF]


Don’t miss: episode two visited the hidden Hareshaw Linn and Old Bewick.

Next: in episode four, McVay heads into Kielder Forest.

Bamburgh Castle: Landmark of the Year

It will be no surprise to those who love Northumberland that Bamburgh Castle has been voted Landmark of the Year in the BBC Countryfile Magazine Awards 2015/2016.

The castle stands majestically on an outcrop, overlooking the coastline famous for its windswept beauty.

There has been a fort standing in this spot since 547AD – at that time it was known as Din Guarie. Following its invasion by the Anglo-Saxons, it gained the first recognisable version of its name –Bebbanburgh – from Bebba, wife of Æðelfriþ.

The fortification was destroyed by the Vikings in 993. The Normans built a new castle on the site, which forms the core of the current building. The new castle was occupied by Robert de Mowbray, Earl of Northumbria, during a revolt he led against William II. After his capture, his wife eventually gave up the castle to the reigning monarch of England.

Over the years, the castle was raided by the Scots and defended in key battles, though became the first castle to be defeated by artillery, during the War of the Roses at the end of a nine month siege.

For 400 years, the Forster family of Northumberland governed the castle until ownership was granted to Sir John Forster. The castle stayed in the Forster family until it was sold to pay the debts of bankrupt Sir William Forster.

The castle changed hands over the years and began to deteriorate. During the 18th and 19th centuries its various owners began restoration work which was eventually finished by the Victorian Industrialist William Armstrong, who also built Cragside (not far away, near Rothbury), the first house to be powered by hydroelectricity.

Bamburgh Castle makes a fantastic day out. For history lovers, a walk through its halls and grounds is a must-see. For those who prefer the outdoors, take in a dramatic view of the castle from the expansive sweep of Bamburgh beach while you are strolling, rock-pooling or paddling. We love to visit Bamburgh from Homildon – it’s only half an hour’s drive to the beach, and you can even make a day trip and visit Lindisfarne too – tides permitting of course! There are great walks from Bamburgh and your doggy pals will love the wide open beaches.

The Guardian recently listed Bamburgh as one of the UK’s top five beaches. They summed it up far better than we ever could:

“Northumberland has several gorgeous expanses of sand backed by wonderful play areas, also known as dunes, but Bamburgh is the pick of the lot. Brooding over it is one of England’s finest castles, an impressive ring of towers and crenellations around a Norman keep. It’s a handy back-up for days when the weather turns nasty. Nearby are the Farne Islands, accessible via boat trips from Seahouses, a three-mile walk south, mostly along the sands. Surfers love the place, as do dog walkers, horse riders, anglers and kite fliers. There is so much space that one thing you will never find is crowds.”

There truly is something for everyone at Bamburgh and this gem is well-deserving of its top spot as Landmark of the Year.


Image by Michael Hanselmann @ (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

The Battle of Homildon Hill: 14 September 1402

On this day, 14 September, in the year 1402, the battle of Homildon Hill was fought between the Scots and the English.

History is littered with the ongoing feuding in the Borders, with Scots and English engaging in many bloody battles over the centuries.

Henry IV had been King of England since 1367. In early 1402, the King’s forces were deployed fighting a revolt in Wales. The Scots led by Robert, Duke of Albany and Archibald, Earl of Douglas decided to take the opportunity to invade the north while the English army was busy elsewhere.

Throughout the summer of 1402 the Scots made a number of raids, of which the largest took place in August. The Earl of Douglas and 10,000 men rampaged through Northumberland, as far south as Newcastle, plundering and burning villages as they went.

Harehope Hill

Harehope Hill

However, they were not to escape “scot-free”! The army was heading back to the border, via the Tweed crossing at Coldstream, but they were laden down with their spoils. To their dismay they were intercepted by the Earl of Northumberland and his infamous son Sir Henry “Hotspur” Percy, whose forces were amassed on the plain near Milfield.

Upon realising they were cut off and would have to fight the English, the Scots headed for high ground, climbing the slopes of Homildon (now Humbleton) Hill, which rises steeply, looming up behind Homildon Cottage.

The English, seeing the Scots’ position, sent a force of archers ahead who climbed Harehope Hill, a hill neighbouring Homildon Hill with just a deep gulley between.

From this position, the English – and Welsh – archers loosed a volley of arrows which rained down on the Scots forces, whose armour was no match for the arrows “which fell like a storm of rain”. Lacking the archery tradition so valued in England, the Scots’ bowmen were generally not as proficient and their bows less powerful. In a long range archery duel such as this, there was no competition.

Battle of Homildon Hill 1402

The ill-fated Scottish horse charge (from Cassell’s Illustrated History of England (1895))

The Scotichronicon, written in the 1440s by Walter Bower, recounted the battle from the Scottish point of view. It describes “The English bowmen, advancing towards the Scots, smothered them with arrows and made them bristly like a hedgehog, transfixing the hands and arms of the Scots to their own lances. By means of this very harsh rain of arrows they made some duck, they wounded others, and killed many.”

The Scots tried sending small bands of horsemen, including the Earl of Douglas, to attempt an attack on the archers from close range. This was unsuccessful – the riders were picked off by the archers just as easily and soon the Scots had to admit defeat. Routed, the battle was over in an hour. Some tried to escape and, by all accounts, a large number of men drowned while trying to flee across the river Tweed.

The battle had a significant impact on future events. Many valuable Scottish prisoners were taken by the Percys during the battle, but King Henry demanded these prisoners were handed over to him. This sowed seeds of future trouble between “Hotspur” Percy and King Henry. Indeed, the battle was immortalised in the words of William Shakespeare in Henry IV, part 1.

Here is a dear, a true industrious friend,
Sir Walter Blunt, new lighted from his horse.
Stain’d with the variation of each soil
Betwixt that Holmedon and this seat of ours;
And he hath brought us smooth and welcome news.
The Earl of Douglas is discomfited:
Ten thousand bold Scots, two and twenty knights,
Balk’d in their own blood did Sir Walter see
On Holmedon’s plains. Of prisoners, Hotspur took
Mordake the Earl of Fife, and eldest son
To beaten Douglas; and the Earl of Athol,
Of Murray, Angus, and Menteith:
And is not this an honourable spoil?
A gallant prize? ha, cousin, is it not?

– Shakespeare, Henry IV, part 1, act 1, scene 1.

Ancient Wonders E02: Old Bewick and Duddo

The second part of this excellent series continues exploring the sequestered wonders of Northumberland


This episode begins by the cascading waters of Hareshaw Linn, once the centre of iron smelting industry yet now the sound of the falls is all that dominates while being home to many rare ferns and lichen as well as red squirrels.

Moving further north brings McVay to Old Bewick, some 20 minutes from Homildon, with a backdrop of the majestic Cheviots. The village is notable for the nearby double hill fort. His wanderings through the Bronze Age ruins set in such beautiful hills offer a glimpse of the very special, some would say entrancing, atmosphere of this part of north Northumberland: “You get the strangest feeling of being alone in these hills”.

The walk up to the ruined farm at Blawearie is recommended. Over 100 years ago, excavations of the Bronze Age Blawearie Cairn discovered the stone lined graves mentioned in the film along with jewellery and pottery.

Duddo Five Stones have been dubbed Northumberland’s answer to Stonehenge. This Neolithic monument sits atop a small mound with views of the Cheviots and the Eildon Hills in nearby Scotland. The five standing stones are striking to see and archaeologist Roger Miket has described the stone circle as “Undoubtedly the most complete and dramatically situated in Northumberland”.

Hareshaw Linn

An easy walk of 1.5 miles from Bellingham – Hareshaw Linn walk [PDF]

Old Bewick directions

If driving, turn off the A697 at the Eglingham turning, taking the left signed for Chillingham at the end [map]. Blawearie is a 6.5km (4 mile) walk from Old Bewick, returning via the hill forts via the Alnwick Wildlife Group website – A Favourite Walk – Old Bewick to Blawearie and back via Bewick Hill

Duddo Stones

Visiting is free. Approaching Duddo from the south, turn left and follow the road until you see a sign beside a field gate on the right-hand side of the road. Park here to walk about 1km along a permissive path.


Don’t miss: episode one of this excellent series visited the hidden St. Cuthbert’s cave and Edlingham.

Next: in episode three, McVay explores some of Northumberland’s Medieval castles and dissolved abbeys.

Pic: John Haddington [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Flodden rideout 2015

This Thursday is the Flodden rideout from Coldstream, which sees hundreds of horses and their riders take part each year.

The event is a traditional Borders commemoration of the Battle of Flodden Field when the forces of England’s King Henry VIII met those of Scotland’s James IV. This battle in 1513 proved to be a decisive English victory with James IV killed – the last monarch from the British Isles to die on the battlefield.

The rideout runs from Coldstream to the battlefield of Flodden, and back, to mark those who fell at the battle of Flodden. It is led by an elected principal, the ‘Coldstreamer’, who carries the standard.

The event is actually one of four rideouts from Coldstream during the week, the others being to Norham, Birgham and Leitholm.


On Thursday, spectators of the Flodden rideout should head for Branxton Hill by 12 noon to see it arrive. Wreaths are laid at the Flodden memorial at the foot of the hill followed by a gallop up Branxton Hill for a short service held and an oration delivered by this year’s guest speaker, Noel Hodgson. A PE teacher at Wooler’s Glendale School for many years, he has three published collections of poetry – ‘Below Flodden’, ‘Dancing Over Cheviot’ and ‘A Grand Land’. His novel Heron’s Flight: The Battle of Flodden 1513 is a historical fiction bringing the history of the battle’s events to life.

The Coldstreamer will then cut a sod of turf to carry back to Coldstream. This pays tribute to the actions of Abbess Isabella Hoppringle, who instructed that the bodies of the dead be brought for burial at Coldstream Abbey.

Flodden Rideout 2015

Thursday 6 August, leaving The Lees, Coldstream at 10:30am. Wreath laying at Flodden Memorial around midday. Rideout passes through Branxton village before gallop up Branxton Hill at 12:30pm. Departs Branxton Hill at 2pm, finishing at Coldstream Police Station 5pm with Coldstream Pipe Band.
Those wishing to take part in the actual ride must be confident riders and book in advance. See the Coldstream Civic Week website for details.

Pic: Martin Connolly [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Ancient Wonders of Northumberland

Ancient Wonders of Northumberland

Browsing around YouTube one day, we stumbled on the Ancient Wonders of Northumberland and were hooked. This excellent series by Michael McVay visits some of the county’s remote treasures with suitably reflective commentary. This combined with sweeping video conveys a degree of the profound quiet, secluded splendour and sense of history intrinsic to these locations.


In this first episode, McVay visits St. Cuthbert’s cave near Holburn, between Belford and Lowick. The monks of Lindisfarne are reputed to have wandered for seven years following Viking raids on their monastery, before bringing St. Cuthbert’s body to rest under this overhanging outcrop of sandstone in 875 AD.

He also goes to Edlingham, a small village to the west of Alnwick. It played a noted role in the local establishment of Christianity being one of four villages granted to Cuthbert in 737 by Northumbrian King Coelwulf. St. John the Baptist’s church dates from the 11th Century and the nearby castle is only slightly less old. Across from the castle is a disused viaduct of the Alnwick-Cornhill branch line. The Devil’s Causeway also passes close to the village.

Edlingham directions

Take the Alnwick turning off the A697 by the Bridge of Aln Hotel, about 3 miles south of Powburn. After just over a mile, take the right signed Edlingham. Park (considerately) near the church. Entry to Edlingham Castle free. An 8km (5 mile) circular walk starting from Edlingham includes these and other local scenic highlights: Walks in north Northumberland – Edlingham [PDF]

St. Cuthbert’s cave directions

If coming by car, turn off the Holburn to Chatton Road about one mile south of Holborn where signed. Drive down the lane to Holburn Grange farm and park just beyond.

The cave is some 1.75km (1 mile) walk from here: follow the signs up the hill. Alternatively there is a circular walk of about 7km (4.5 miles) including the cave and Raven’s Crag from this point – Walks in north Northumberland – St. Cuthbert’s Cave [PDF]


Next: in episode two, McVay reveals the ruins of Old Bewick and Blawearie as well as the Duddo stone circle.

Pic: Pam Fray [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Duddo Stone Circle

For a spine-tingling trip back in time, a visit to the stone circle of Duddo is not to be missed.

Located just 20 minutes’ drive from Homildon Cottage to the north of Ford & Etal, Duddo Five Stones is Northumberland’s answer to Stonehenge (albeit on a slightly smaller scale!)

After crossing a field along a mud track, the Neolithic monument appears on the horizon ahead of you, atop a small mound. The view takes in not only the Cheviots but also the Eildon Hills in nearby Scotland.

The prominent local archaeologist Roger Miket describes the circle as, “Undoubtedly the most complete and dramatically situated in Northumberland”.

Certainly the five standing stones are striking to see. Fairly flat and tapering toward the ground, the soft sandstone monoliths have been inscribed with deep vertical grooves from the centuries of Northumbrian rain and wind. The largest is over 2m high. There once were six stones (as recorded in 1811) but there is now a gap where the sixth stone stood.

In 1852 the antiquarian and topographer Canon James Raine investigated the stones, “On an eminence in the middle of a field a mile north west of Duddo stands a time and weather worn memorial of the Druidical period… The situation of this hillock is of a peculiar nature; it rises as it were, in the middle of a large natural basin two miles in diameter and might have been seen at one and the same time by thousands upon thousands of assembled devotees.”

A late 19th Century excavation of the site discovered a central pit “six to eight feet in diameter” with charcoal and burnt fragments of bone, suggesting the circle may perhaps have been used for cremations. By this time, only four stones were still standing although one of missing two was later discovered intact and re-erected.

It is a mysterious and almost eerie feeling to stand at the centre of this circle of stones placed so long ago by our ancestors. No one knows the exact age of the stone circle, but it dates back at least some 4,500 years. You can almost picture those humans from long ago performing their sacred rites in this most wild and lonely of landscapes.



Getting to the Duddo Stones

Visiting the Duddo Stones is free. Approaching Duddo from the south, turn left and follow the road until you see a sign beside a field gate on the right-hand side of the road. Park here to walk about 1km along a permissive path.

Historic Tales from Northumberland: Any Man's Kingdom

A gem from the past, dug from the archives and now available online in glorious Technicolour, is Any Man’s Kingdom. This British Transport Films travelogue from 1956 was among a series created to highlight the attractions of different English counties.

The poetic narration written by Harry Green and read by Stephen Murray, alongside the haunting score brings to life the wild nature and turbulent history of Northumberland. The film also focuses on the people of Northumberland, bringing to the story the sense of community, traditions and way of life of the fishermen, farmers, villagers and townsfolk of the county.

The journey across Northumberland pays a visit to many well-known towns and tourist attractions including Alnwick, Berwick, Craster, Lindisfarne, Blanchland and Bellingham; Hadrian’s Wall and Bamburgh Castle; the Farne Island puffins, terns and kittiwakes; and the Wild Cattle of Chillingham.

The film was made to encourage visitors to the county and our travels take us. It was recut to exclude a segment showing travel on a local branch railway line which was, unfortunately, subsequently shut down, so there are in existence two versions of the film (the version you can see online is the recut version).

BTF said Northumberland “offers such a variety of scenery and of history, such a rich fullness of life to its residents and to its visitors that choice of subject matter is more than usually difficult. In making Any Man’s Kingdom, the producers have attempted to include aspects of the county which not only illustrate this variety but which may also conjure up something of the heartwarming Northumbrian atmosphere.”

View the videos below:

Any Man's Kingdom travelogue part 1

Any Man's Kingdom travelogue part 2

A (very brief) history of Northumbria

Northumbria, a small part of which is now known as Northumberland, was one of the five Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, namely Kent, Mercia, Northumbria, Sussex and Wessex (of King Alfred fame).

Parts were eventually over-run by the Scots and Danes and you can still find a Scandinavian influence in place names of old settlements.  The kingdom was reduced to an Earldom under the Norman Barons, perhaps the most famous being the Percys of Alnwick who went on to become the Dukes of Northumberland.

Consequent to being a border area there are still several castles and fortified houses to be found, amongst them look for Pele towers, defensive houses with walls 3 to 4 feet thick.  In Elizabethan times and earlier these Peles were inhabited by raiding clans known as Border Reivers.

You can also find the famous Roman Hadrian’s Wall which was never, contrary to popular belief, the English Scottish border which is actually several miles north of the Wall.

The first Anglian settlement was started in in 547 and culminated in the fortress of Bamburgh being built.  There is an on-going series of novels written by Bernard Cornwell (of Sharpe fame) based on the Bamburgh family and the efforts of King Alfred of Wessex to amalgamate the five Kingdoms into a united England.

From the Norman Conquest in 1066 until the unification of England and Scotland under James I and VI there were numerous invasions of Northumbria.  Hence the large number of defensive battlements, many now in ruins, scattered all over the region.

The famous coal trade along the Tyne flourished from the 13th century until its decline in the 20th century.  There was also a thriving lead trade from the 12th century.

Saint Aidan founded a monastery on Lindisfarne (now commonly known as Holy Island) in 635 and the famous Lindisfarne Gospels are reputed to have been written between 698-721.  The Vikings raided the island in 793 but the monks rebuilt and lived there for another century before, fearing another viking raid, fleeing inland with their relics and treasures.

Harry (Hotspur) Percy was reputed to have had a relationship with Anne Boleyn before her marriage to Henry VIII.  This speculation led to much fighting for power within the Noble Families of England.