Hexham, Corbridge, Wylam and Tynedale


Hey for the buff and the blue,
Hey for the cap and the feather
Hey for the bonny lass true,
That lives in Hexhamshire

`The Hexhamshire Lass'

Despite its important status as the largest town in Tynedale and its role as the main centre for touring Hadrian's Wall, Hexham surprisingly does not seem to have Roman origins. One suggestion is that the town was once the site of a number of Roman villas belonging to prominent Roman officers but this has never been proved.

Hexham's recorded history does not begin until 674 A.D, three centuries after the Roman departure, when in Anglo-Saxon times, an abbey was founded here by the Northumbrian saint and bishop, called Wilfrid.

Educated on the holy Northumbrian Island of Lindisfarne, St Wilfrid (634 - 709 A.D) had travelled to Rome and was impressed by the lifestyle and magnificence of European churches. He decided that something of a similar nature needed to be built in Northumbria.

The results were the great churches at Hexham and Ripon. Hexham Abbey was one of the first buildings in Anglo-Saxon Britain to make full use of stone. Wilfrid's abbey at Hexham was regarded as one of the finest in the country and its beauty was particularly enhanced by the use of Roman stones taken from the ruins of Hadrian's Wall and the nearby Roman fort at Corbridge.

Wilfrid was a flamboyant, highly educated and persuasive man but his talents brought him into inevitable conflict with the King of Northumbria, who threw him into prison for nine months. On release, Wilfrid was banished from Northumbria and fled to Sussex, where he played a very important part in converting the South Saxons to Christainity.


An old postcard showing Hexham and its abbey

For a time Wilfrid's abbey at Hexham had the status of a cathedral and was the centre of a see stretching from the Tees to the River Aln. The cathedral and see of Hexham was later superceeded by Lindisfarne and Chester-le-Street.

By the time of the Norman Conquest Hexham and its abbey were part of the see of Durham but in the reign of Henry I it regained a degree of independence, when the town and its surrounding district known as Hexhamshire', were confiscated from the Prince Bishops of Durham and given to the Archbishops of York, to whom it belonged until 1837.


In 875 A.D, Hexham and its abbey were severely destroyed by the Vikings, under the leadership of Halfdene the Dane but historically Hexham is better known as a long suffering target for Scottish raids.

A most notable raid was that of 1296, when the Scots laid the town to waste, burning the abbey and the Hexham grammar school. Another great raid took place in 1346 when King David of Scotland plundered and burned the abbey prior to the Battle of Nevilles Cross, near Durham.

Hexham abbey suffered badly at the hands of many Scottish raids, but centuries of continuous rebuilding, have ensured that a complete historic abbey, or more acurately, a priory church, still stand at Hexham today.

Sadly of the work of St Wilfrid, only the Saxon crypt remains beneath the abbey floor. There is however one other reminder of St Wilfrid's time, namely a thirteen hundred year old Anglo-Saxon `Frith' or `Frid' stool, which is found in the abbey choir. Carved from a block of stone, it was at one time used as a symbol of the sanctuary provided for criminals and refugees at Hexham. The `stool' or `stol', is said to have been the throne on which Northumbrian kings were once crowned but is more likely to be a a primitive example of a bishop's throne.


The abbey dominates Hexham's busy market place, which has witnessed much of the town's turbulent past. It is however, somewhat surprising to discover that one of the bloodiest events of Hexham's history took place in this market place as late as the eighteenth century, long after the days of the border warfare.

The incident occured on the 9th March 1761, during a protest against methods of conscription into the local militia. Objection was to the election of men to the militia by balloting, instead of the selection of recruits by landowners, as had previously been the case. The introduction of this new system met fierce resistance in other parts of Northumberland and in Durham so there was a large military presence for the balloting of men at Hexham.

The military presence at Hexham seemed to be justified as around 5000 men attended the meeting, mostly to protest. As their anger began to increase, the Riot Act was read and they were asked to disperse. The protestors made it clear they would not give in, so magistrates ordered soldiers from the North Yorkshire Militia to open fire on the crowd. At least forty people were killed and over three hundred injured in the resulting chaos. The event became known as the `Hexham Massacre' and for many years later the North York Militia were labelled the `Hexham Butchers'

The story has a rather sad and gruesome ending - on the 17th August of the same year, a seventy four year old man called Patterson was arrested for his alleged ivolvement in the Hexham `riot'. He was sentenced to be hung, cut down alive, to be disemboweled, have his entrails burnt (in front of his eyes !) and then to be beheaded and quartered. In the event it was decided that the old man's sentence be reduced to a straight forward hanging.

Straight forward it was not, Patterson's rope snapped before he died and in the tradition of a martyr, he was able to utter his last words `innocent blood is hard to spill'. It was later discovered that Patterson had not been in Hexham on the day of the riot !.


There are a number of interesting Roman sites to visit in the vicinity of Hexham and a few miles north west of the town at Carrawburgh we may see the remains of the fort of Brocolitia, the next major Roman site on Hadrian's Wall to the east of Housesteads. In 1949 an important Roman find was made here when the ruin of a Mithraeum or temple to Mithras was discovered. Comprised of three inscribed altars dedicated to a god called Mithras by Roman officers, it is one of the best preserved in Britain.

Mithras, God of morning
Our trumpets waken the wall!
"Rome is above the nations,
But thou are over all !"
Now as the names are answered
And the guards are marched away,
Mithras, also a soldier,
Give us strength for the day!

`A Hymn for Mithras'

Rudyard Kipling.

Mithraism, the disciplined worship of the Persian god of life, was encouraged by the Roman army and involved secret initiation ceremonies. It was strongly opposed by Christians in later centuries and they were probably responsible for the eventual destruction of the temple at Carrawbrough.

Mithras was by no means the only god worshipped on the Roman Wall and at Carrawbrough, a shrine called Coventina's Well, has also been found. Coventina was a Celtic water goddess worshipped by the native inhabitants of the wall country. Coventina's Well was excavated in 1876 by the archaeologist John Clayton, who also discovered thirteen thousand Roman coins on the site.


A mile to the north west of Hexham the River Tyne is formed by the confluence of the South Tyne with the North Tyne. The South Tyne is normally more closely associated with Hadrian's Wall but at Chesters to the north of Hexham, Hadrian's Wall actually crossed the North Tyne by means of a bridge. The North Tyne has its origins in the Border Country of the Cheviot Hills many miles to the north of Hadrian's Wall and is be covered in an another section

The ruins of the fort of Chesters, known to the Romans as Cilurnum lie close to the western bank of the North Tyne in attractive surroundings. This fort was one of the biggest in the Wall Country and was originally built to house a cavalry regiment

The site is best known for the foundations of a Roman Bath House, which is one of the best preserved in Britain. Lying almost right beside the River North Tyne, the Bath House was comprised of Hot Rooms, Cold Rooms, a Sweating Chamber and a large entrance hall. Soldiers would have relaxed and bathed in this bathhouse in much the same way as in a modern Turkish or Swedish bath.

In the nineteenth century Chesters was the home of the amateur archaeologist and classical scholar John Clayton, whose old house is situated in the parkland surrounding the fort. Clayton owned most of the Roman Wall forts in Northumberland and sucessfully protected them from the threat of whin-stone quarrying. It is largely to Clayton that we are indebted for the preservation of many central sections of Hadrian's Wall

In earlier centuries many of the forts along the central area of Hadrian's Wall, had been protected by a more unlikely source, namely the Border Reivers and Mosstroopers. Some of these lawless clans, like the Armstrongs at Housesteads, used the wall forts as permanent bases and thus kept souvenier hunters at bay. They also discouraged local farmers from plundering the ancient sites for stone.


Two miles east of Hexham, on the northern bank of the River Tyne, is the village of Corbridge, which in Roman times, was the site of Corisostopitum, a fort built around A.D 80, by the Roman Governor of Britain, Julius Agricola. The remains of the fort can still be seen, half a mile to the west of Corbridge village.

Corstopitum guarded an important crossing of the River Tyne, located at the junction of the two important Roman roads known as Dere Street and the Stanegate. The fort played an important strategic role in Agricola's attempted conquest of Caledonia, but when this proved to be an unprofitable use of resources, Hadrian's Wall was built and Corstopitum fell into temporary decline. Corstopitum is not located on the Roman Wall.

About A.D 160 Corstopitum regained importance, when it developed into a military supply base serving the whole eastern half of Hadrian's Wall. A large civilian settlement, with tradesmen and merchants grew up around this base and Corstopitum developed into one of the most important Roman towns in the wall country.


The Excavations on Corstopitum, which began in 1906, have uncovered a number of interesting features, including temples dedicated to a number of different gods, (a reflection on the cosmopolitan nature of the settlement). The base of a Roman fountain can also be seen at Corstopitum, it was originally decorated with statues and was fed by a small aqueduct.

Like a number of other sites along the Roman frontier, Corstopitum now has a museum with displays of Roman glass, pottery, tools, military equipment and even Roman Board games. The `Corbridge Lion' is one of the museum's best known exhibits. It is a sculpture of a lion devouring a stag and was probably used to decorate a Roman officer's tomb at Corstopitum.

To the north of Corbridge at a place called Port Gate, the Roman Dere Street crossed Hadrian's Wall, as it continued north into Redesdale on its way to Caledonia. Another Roman road known as the `Devil's Causeway, joined Dere Street at Portgate, it can be traced north eastwards across Northumberland, to the mouth of the River Tweed at Berwick.


In the centuries following the Roman departure from Britain, the importance of Corbridge continued and in Anglo-Saxon times it was a capital of Northumbria. In the later Dark Ages, Corbridge was the scene of two important battles in 914 and 918 A.D in which Northumbria's Anglo-Saxons, with help from the Scots, fought against the invading Norsemen. These particular Viking invaders did not come, as might be expected from the eastern coast, or from the new Scandinavian kingdom in Yorkshire but came from the west, via Cumbria, from the Norse setled kingdom of Dublin.

In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Corbridge became one of the wealthiest towns in Northumberland and as a result suffered greatly from Scottish raids. It was occupied by David I, of Scotland in 1138, burnt by William Wallace in 1296, by Robert the Bruce in 1312 and also by David II in 1346.

The Vicar's Pele tower at Corbridge, a fortified ecclesiastical residence is a strong reminder of this violent history. It was built around 1300 using Roman stones taken from the ruins of Corstopitum.


At Mickley on the south bank of the River Tyne four miles east of Corbridge we find the the birthplace of the famous wood engraver and naturalist, Thomas Bewick (1753-1828).

Bewick began his trade as an engraver, apprenticed from 1767 to the Newcastle engraver Ralph Beilby with whom he later formed a partnership. In 1784 he published a number of his beautiful woodcuts in hisSelect Fables and many of his pictures, often designed for the entertainment of children have their own story to tell.

As a naturalist, Bewick is best known for the History of British Quadrupeds, a work written and illustrated by him in 1790 and theHistory of British Birds written and illustrated between 1797 and 1804. He is also noted for giving his name to the Bewick Swan.

At Stocksfield, the cottage called `Cherryburn', where Bewick was born, is the site of a museum dedicated to the work of Northumbria's greatest artist. Set in a beautiful part of the Tyne valley, the museum includes a printing house and many examples of Bewick's work. Visitors are likely to be amazed at the skilled detail of Bewick's engraved vignettes and tail pieces and will be amused by Bewick's sense of humour which is noticeable in a number of his works

Bewick is buried a little further down the Tyne valley, in the churchyard of the village of Ovingham opposite the town of Prudhoe which is the site of an impressive ruined Norman castle. Dating from 1173 Prudhoe Castle is thought to have the oldest castle keep in Northumberland. It was originally built by the D'Umfraville family but passed into the hands of the Percys in the fourteenth century



Wylam on Tyne , is the last village in the Tyne valley, before we enter built up Tyneside. There is perhaps, no other place in the world of comparative size to Wylam, that more deserves the title `Birthplace of the Railways'.

It was here that the great railway pioneer William Hedley, built his Puffing Billy locomotive, which worked at Wylam colliery from 1813. The Puffing Billy operated from Wylam colliery to the coal staithes on the River Tyne at Lemington on the outskirts of Newcastle, a few miles to the east. Later the Puffing Billy was replaced by Hedley's Wylam Dilly which was in operation until 1862

Hedley was assisted in much of his work by the Wylam born blacksmith Timothy Hackworth (1786 - 1850) who is another of Wylam's great railway pioneers. Hackworth later went on to assist George Stephenson with the construction of the Stockton and Darlington Railway for which he developed his own engine called The Royal George..

Ultimately Hackworth established his own engine works at Shildon in County Durham, where today we find a museum dedicated to his life and work. Hackworth was a remarkable man, his last engine The Sans Pariel acheived a speed of 80 mph in 1849 and he was the man who introduced locomotives to Russia in 1837.

Both Hedley and Hackworth deserve to be better known but they are both overshadowed by another Wylam born engineer, George Stephenson who of course built the Rocket , the first locomotive to capture the imagination of the world. George and his son Robert are covered in a later chapter.


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