South Tynedale - Alston to Haltwhistle Including the Allendales and the Roman Country


The River South Tyne rises near the Cumbrian town of Alston in the vicinity of Cross Fell, the highest point in the Pennines. It begins not far from the source of the River Tees and the streams that feed the two rivers almost merge in the boggy moorland where Tyne and Tees are born.

Naturally, being so close to the source of two great rivers, we are in lofty surroundings, so it is of no surprise that the area is the home of England's highest village (with a church) and England's highest market town.

Nenthead is the highest village, almost in the valley of Weardale, but actually on the River Nent which joins the South Tyne near England's highest market town of Alston. This is an attractive little place with a cobbled market square, 1000 feet above sea level. Nenthead is higher still at 1415 feet.

From Alston, the South Tyne flows north into Northumberland through the remote and beautiful scenery of South Tynedale. An ancient Roman road called the Maiden Way follows the course of the valley here towards Haltwhistle, where we first enter the `Wall Country'. Here the South Tyne changes its course to head east and from here on Hadrian's ancient frontier is never far to the north.


Stretching 80 Roman miles (73 modern miles), from Bowness on the Solway Firth to Wallsend on Tyne, Hadrian's Wall crosses the shortest east to west coast distance in England and runs along the northern fringe of the naturally formed routeway through the hills called the `Tyne Gap'.

When Hadrian became Emperor in 117 A.D, the Tyne Gap was already the site of a number of Roman forts associated with a Roman military road called the STANEGATE. This road ran from Corbridge on Tyne (Corstopitum) to Carlisle (Luguvalium) and was more or less a frontier in itself. On completion of Hadrian's Wall the Stanegate's defensive role was relegated to that of a supply route for the new frontier.

For Hadrian's pride shall open lie
To bittern's boom and curlew's call;
From Solway sands to mouth of Tyne
Vale is whispered on the wall.

Howard Pease


Gilsland, situated near the Cumbrian border, is the most westerly village in Northumberland and the place where Hadrian's Wall enters North-Eastern England. The boundary between Cumbria and Northumberland here is at the centre of an east-west watershed as nearly all streams to the west, enter the Cumbrian River Irthing destined for the Irish Sea, while streams to the east of Gilsland head ultimately for the North Sea.

Even the names of the streams differ from one side of the county boundary to the other. Those on the Northumbrian side are called `Burns', those in Cumbria to the west are called `Becks'. Burn is an Anglo-Saxon word, Beck is a word of Viking origin.

The reason the stream names differ between Cumbria and Northumberland is that Cumbria, settled by the Norsemen, was once Viking territory, while Northumberland remained fiercely Anglo-Saxon, as the heartland of the old Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria.

Vikings and Anglo-Saxons did not become closely associated with this area until long after the >Romans had departed from Britain and the only direct association with the Roman occupation was at Housteads where there was an Anglo-Saxon garrison employed by the Roman army.


The course of Hadrian's Wall can be traced in the village of Gilsland where it runs through the vicarage garden. A number of former Roman camps may be seen in the locality of Gilsland, which were probably occupied during the construction of Hadrian's Wall.

Gilsland was the place where the famous romantic border poet, Sir Walter Scott, first met his future wife, Charlotte Carpenter and it was to Miss Carpenter that he dedicated the verses `To a Lady, with Flowers from the Roman Wall', written nearby at Thirlwall in 1797;

Take these flowers, which purple waving,

On the ruined rampart grew,

Where, the sons of freedom braving,

Rome's imperial standard flew.

Warriors from the breach of danger

Pluck no longer laurels there;

They but yield the passing stranger

Wild-flower wreaths for Beauty's hair.


The ruins of Thirlwall Castle, to the east of Gilsland, lie close to what was arguably the weakest part of Hadrian's Wall. It was here that the Caledonians `thirled', or threw down part of the wall, during a Barbarian raid in Roman times. The castle at Thirlwall was constructed in the thirteenth century, long after the Roman period, but was built using Roman stones taken from the ruins of the nearby fort of Carvoran.

For many years Thirlwall was the home of a notorious Border family called the Thirlwalls, who in 1550 were recorded as `prone and inclined to theft'. The family were immortalised in a well known local ballad, commemorating a border fray in which Albany Featherstonehaugh, a High Sheriff of Northumberland, was murdered;

Hoot awa', lads Hoot awa',

Ha'ye heard how the Ridleys and Thirlwalls and a'

Ha' set upon Albany Featherstonehaugh

And taken his life at the Deadmanshaw ?

There was Williemontswick

And Hardriding Dick,

And Hughie of Hawden and Will of the wa'

I canno' tell a', I canno' tell a'

And mony a mair that the De'il may knaw.

These verses were part of a ballad sent to Sir Walter Scott by his great friend, the Durham historian Robert Surtees, who claimed he had heard it recited by an old woman on the moors near Alston in South Tynedale. In truth the ballad had been composed by Surtees himself. It was enough to fool Sir Walter, who included it in his lengthy poem called `Marmion'.


South of Thirlwall, Hadrian's Wall crossed a tributary of the River Tyne, called the Tipalt Burn, by which lie the villages of Greenhead and the Welsh sounding Glenwelt. The remains of a Roman fort at Carvoran, known in Roman times as Magna, lie to the north east of Greenhead. It is situated at the junction of two Roman routeways known as the Stanegate and the Maiden Way, both of which predate Hadrian's Wall.

Magna was built many years before Hadrian's Wall and is probably associated with Julius Agricola's attempted conquest of Caledonia. Today, Carvoran is the site of an interesting Roman Army Museum.


Between the village of Greenhead and the town of Haltwhistle, on the South Tyne, we may find the ruins of Blenkinsopp Castle, which are said to be linked to those at Thirlwall by a secret passage. Blenkinsopp is associated with a legend and ghost story, concerning one Bryan Blenkinsopp, who lived here many centuries ago.

As a young man, Lord Blenkinsopp boasted he would not marry until he met with a lady possesing a chest of gold heavier than ten of his strongest men could carry. Remarkably, later in his life, Bryan's wishes were fulfilled when he met with such a lady, while abroad fighting in the Crusades. Bryan brought her back to England where they were married, but the lord did not, as expected, live hapily everafter.

When the new bride learned of her husband's youthful boasts, she became worried he had only married her for her wealth, so she secretly hid her treasure chest in the Blenkinsopp grounds, where Bryan could not find them. Bryan responded to this bitterly and either heartbroken or humiliated by his bride's lack of trust, mysteriously left his wife and castle and was never to return again.

The Lady came to regret her actions, but despite strenuous efforts to find her husband, he could not be traced. She died a lonely and remorseful woman. It is said that her ghost may occasionally be seen haunting the grounds of the ruined castle where she waits, ready to guide the way to the spot where her chest of treasure is hidden. Some believe that the spirit will not lay to rest until the treasure is discovered and removed.


Haltwhistle, is the nearest town to Hadrian's Wall and is the largest town in South Tynedale, 12 moorland miles north of Alston.

Haltwhistle grew most rapidly as a coal mining settlement in the nineteenth century, which may lead one to think that its name has something to do with it being the site of a Victorian railway station. In fact the delightful name Haltwhistle, is of very old Anglo-French origin deriving from `Haut-Twisla' meaning `high fork in the river' (See Place Names)- a reference to the confluence of the Haltwhistle Burn and the South Tyne. This burn, called the Caw Burn in its upper stretches, runs close to the site of two Roman forts; namely the little known Haltwhistle Burn fort and the fort of Great Chesters, which both lie just to the north of the town.


AESICA, is the name the Romans gave to the fort at GREAT CHESTERS, the remains of which can be seen north of Haltwhistle. As late as 1724, this fort was recorded as being exceptionally large, standing at a height of thirteen feet. It is probably for this reason that it aquired the name Great Chesters.

Like other forts along Hadrian's Wall, Aesica had a civillian settlement and a bath-house outside its walls, but perhaps its most interesting feature, was a six mile long Roman aqueduct used to supply water to the fort. The aqueduct's course can be traced in the hills to the north. There were also Roman aqueducts in the region at South Shields, Chester-le-Street and at Lanchester.

When the word `Chester' occurs in place names like Great Chesters it usually signifies the former site of a Roman fort. The name`Chester' was given to such places not by the Romans, but by the later Anglo-Saxons. Nevertheless the word is of Roman origin deriving from the Latin `Caistra', meaning fort or city. In some parts of Britain the alternative word `Caster' is found in place names like Lancaster or Doncaster. Caster has exactly the same meaning as Chester. (See Place Names)


Some of the most spectacular views of Hadrian's Wall can be seen in the vicinity of Great Chesters, where it runs along the crest of the rocky crags formed by the `Great Whin Sill'. This is a cliff-like band of hard black basaltic rock called Dolerite which was formed by a volcanic intrusion 280 million years ago.

The Great Whin Sill can be traced as far south as Teesdale (where it forms the famous waterfalls), and stretches north towards the sea near Berwick, where it forms the Farne Islands and the solid coastal foundations of Bamburgh, Dunstanburgh and Lindisfarne Castles.

The imposing inland cliffs formed by the Great Whin Sill which run in an east-west direction a few miles to the north of the River Tyne would have been a very important consideration by the Emperor Hadrian in the siting of his great defensive wall.


Without a doubt, the two best known Roman sites of the Northumbrian `Wall country', are the fort of Vindolanda at Chesterholm and the fort of Vercovicium, better known by the English name of Housesteads. Both forts are just off the B6318 Newcastle to Gilsland road, in the vicinity of the hamlets called Once Brewed and Twice Brewed (See Place Names). The B6318 follows the course of a Roman military road.

Vindolanda is not actually on the Roman wall, but like the fort of Carvoran near Haltwhistle, it was built forty years earlier, as an important military garrison on the Stanegate Roman road between Corbridge and Carlisle.

The fort of Vindolanda is strategically situated on a `holm', a section of land formed by the junction of two streams. Hence the Anglo-Saxon name Chester-holm. Vindolanda, the Roman name, means `White enclosed land'.

The fort itself is of considerable interest, but archaeologically Vindolanda is best known for the remains of the `VICUS', or Civilian settlement just outside the fort. Excavations on the vicus have revealed a number of houses, shops, a cemetery and a hoard of leather shoes, but the most interesting discovery was that of a Roman Mansio, or Inn containing rest rooms, kitchen, courtyard, a bath house, and a latrine.

Many of the items from the vicus are displayed in Vindolanda's museum and research centre which was built by an archaeologist in the nineteenth century using Roman stones. The museum houses replicas of a Roman and a Celtic chariot and displays a recreated Roman kitchen.

A full-scale replica reconstruction of a small section of Hadrian's Wall has also been made at Vindolanda. It gives a good insight into what the wall would have looked like in Hadrian's time.


Hadrian's Wall runs along the crags to the north of Vindolanda, in the vicinity of which are five small shallow lakes called `Loughs', in a fashion curious to Northumberland and Ireland . Hadrian's Wall overlooks one of these lakes, called the Crag Lough, a mile to the west of the fort of HOUSESTEADS which was known to the Romans as VERCOVICIUM.

When Hadrian's Wall was built in A.D 122, Housesteads succeeded Vindolanda as the most important garrison in the area and like Vindolanda it

had an important civilian settlement. The vicus at Housesteads suffered considerably from raids by native `Barbarians' and eventually the civilian inhabitants were forced to move permanently into the fort for refuge.

In the fourth century the Roman fort at Housesteads was garrisoned by a cohort of Anglo-Saxons from Germania (they had not yet settled in Britain). Evidence suggests that the Anglo-Saxon occupancy of Housesteads, may have continued during the Golden Age of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria, which came into being in the 7th century long after the Romans had left Britain.


North of Housesteads is the shallow Broomlee Lough and further north still are the Kings and Queens Crags, which are supposedly named after Arthur and Guenevere. Nearby, a mile to the south east are the Sewingshields Crags, once the site of an old castle near Hadrian's Wall, where King Arthur is said to have held court. Arthur, a legendary Celtic king is said to have fought in battle against the invading Anglo-Saxons in the vicinity of Hadrian's Wall.

Legend has it that in the nineteenth century, a shepherd was sat knitting on the ruins of Sewingshields castle when he accidentally dropped a ball of wool. Chasing it through the mass of weeds and nettles that covered the overgrown ruin, the shepherd stumbled upon a secret passage infested with bats lizards and toads.

Looking towards the end of the passage the shepherd noticed a bright and distant light. He entered the passage to investigate further, until he eventually discovered a blazing but fuelless fire emitting from the centre of a great subterranean hall. Close to the fire, stood a table upon which lay a bugle, a garter and a sword. Around the table were seated King Arthur, his queen, his knights and his hounds All of them lay in a deep, deep sleep.

Instinctively the shepherd removed the Excalibur sword from its scabbard and proceeded to cut the garter. This astonishingly caused Arthur and his knights to awaken. The startled shepherd quickly returned the sword to its sheath, causing all but the king to instantly return to their sleeping state. In terror the shepherd returned to the passage and ran from the hall as quickly as he could, his heart beating faster and faster. As he ran he heard the growling snores of King Arthur echo along the passageway as he fell back into his slumbering sleep. In the distance the king was heard to mutter these last angry words;

" O, woe betide that evil day

On which this witless wight was born,

Who drew the sword the garter cut,

But never blew the bugle horn."

The shepherd returned to Sewingshields on a number of occasions, but no matter how hard he tried, he could not find the entrance to the secret passage. Some say that King Arthur will be found at Sewingshields once again and that next time the bugle will be blown, freeing Arthur and his knights, from their sleepy spell to fight for Britain in the hour of its greatest need. This legend of King Arthur is similar to the Legend of Sir Guy the Seeker associated with Dunstanburgh Castle.

Admitedly King Arthur is usually associated with south western England and throughout the country there are many Arthurian legends of a similar nature to the Sewingshields story. Many historians do however agree, that if such a figure as King Arthur ever existed, he seems most likely to have lived in the vicinity of Hadrian's Wall, probably in the region of Carlisle, in Cumbria.


Five miles to the east of Haltwhistle, the River South Tyne is joined by the River Allen, which forms one of the least known valleys of the Pennines.

The River Allen itself, is in fact a comparitively short ravine, which can be followed only four miles upstream, to where it is formed by the confluence of the much longer valleys of the Rivers East and West Allen. The Allendales have only two main settlements, the small village of Allenheads and Allendale Town, both of which are in the valley of East Allendale.

Allendale Town, once known as Allenton, is a former lead mining settlement, which claims to be the geographical centre of Great Britain. This claim is also made by Hexham, but a glance at a map shows Allendale to have a particularly strong case.


Allendale Town is best known as the site of an annual `Baal' festival, a custom with mysterious Pagan origins. The Baal Ceremony takes place here every New Years Eve and the celebration involves a procession of `Guisers', or local men in costume who parade through the town, carefully carrying blazing tar barrels above their heads.

Upon reaching Allendale's market place the `guisers', throw the contents of their barrels onto a huge bonfire which they dance around in the manner of an ancient ritual. The precise origins of the Allendale festival are not known, but it is most likely to have developed from some ancient pagan celebration of the Winter Solstice. Allendale's baal festival is a great spectacle and attracts visitors from all over North Eastern England.


Two miles north of Allendale Town, the East and West Allen merge where the valley becomes thickly wooded as it approaches the River Tyne. This part of Allendale was once the home of a notorious livestock thief or `mosstrooper' called Dickie of Kingswood, who operated in the area long after the time of the violent Border Reivers, who carried out similar activities in the border dales, at the time of Queen Elizabeth I.

Legend has it that Dickie once stole some oxen from a farm at Denton Burn, on the outskirts of Newcastle and then drove them across the country to Lanercost in Cumberland, where he sold them to a farmer for a good price.

While at Lanercost, Dickie had become attracted to a particularly fine horse, belonging to the farmer to whom he had sold the stolen oxen. Dickie asked if he could buy the horse but the farmer explained that the mare was one of the finest in England and under no circumstances would he part with such an animal. Dickie accepted the farmer's refusal to sell and advised him to look after his mare and keep it well protected from horse thieves. He then departed with the money he had recieved for the oxen.

The temptation to steal the valuable horse from the farmer was too much for Dickie and later that night he returned to Lanercost, broke into the sleeping farmer's stable and made off with the horse.

While on his way home to Allendale, who should Dickie meet but the Denton Burn farmer, from whom he had stolen the oxen. Naturally the farmer asked Dickie if he had seen the oxen, the description of which Dickie immediately recognised. "Aye" said Dickie, "I'm sure I saw them up on a farm at Lanercost". Dickie did not of course tell the farmer that it was he who had stolen the oxen and delivered them to Lanercost.

The farmer was now in very good spirits in the hope of regaining his oxen. He gratefully thanked Dickie and complimented him on his fine looking mare. Dickie

immediately recognised that here was an opportunity to return the horse to its Lanercost owner so he told the farmer that if he liked the mare so much he would gladly sell it to him for a reasonable price. A price was agreed and the horse was handed over to the delighted farmer who set off for Lanercost to reclaim his oxen. It is not known what hapened when the two farmers met up with each other at Lanercost but one thing is certain, Dickie returned to Allendale a wealthier man.


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