Keys to the Past

Local History

Alwinton (Northumberland)

Landscape near Alwinton.
Photo by Harry Rowland.
Landscape near Alwinton. Photo by Harry Rowland.

Landscape around Alwinton. Photo by Northumberland County Council, 1992.
Landscape around Alwinton. Photo by Northumberland County Council, 1992.

Alwinton parish is one of the largest parishes in the Cheviot Hills. It is almost entirely upland reaching from the Scottish Border at Chew Green in the west to Alwinton in the east, and from the Auchope Cairn on The Cheviot in the north to the edge of the River Rede in the south. Most land is given over to sheep-grazing, army training on the Otterburn Training Area, and coniferous forests. In places the parish boundary uses well-defined lines such as the Scottish Border, Clennell Street drove road and Dere Street. The range of archaeology in the parish is quite outstanding, both in terms of its range and preservation.

The earlier prehistoric periods of the Mesolithic and Neolithic are little known in the parish. So far, only one Neolithic axe has been found, in the lowlands at Linshiels. Archaeologists are not sure why there is such an absence.

Bronze Age cairns are known throughout the parish, like those on Windy Gyle. Here stands Russell's Cairn, one of the largest surviving cairns in Northumberland. Other small cairns are scattered across the parish, some clustering around the larger examples. These smaller cairns may have been built as burial places or created when land was cleared of stones to make fields. Bronze Age settlements are known at Barrow Cleugh where traces of timber ring groove houses can be seen. In contrast few Bronze Age tools have been discovered, even from the lowlands of the parish.

There are also traces of how prehistoric communities may have divided up their land, or marked their territorial boundaries. A series of cross ridge dykes cross Clennell Street and may be of Bronze Age date, such as that at Uplaw Knowe. Clennell Street is a well attested medieval drove road but might have much earlier, prehistoric, origins.

A number of Iron Age settlements have been discovered in the parish. Some are collections of round houses inside a fence or palisade as at Hoseden Linn, and others are more heavily defended by earthen ramparts such as Gallow Law hillfort overlooking Alwinton, and at the entrance to the Alwin valley.

Some of these farmsteads were occupied into the Roman period and life probably changed very little for the people living in the parish. At Ward Law the oval shaped Iron Age settlement was replaced by a more rectangular shaped settlement in Roman times, a trend seen in many places in the county at this time. Smaller farmsteads were also built, including one overlooking the Kidlandlee Burn. The people who lived in these settlements were farmers and, sometimes extensive, tracts of prehistoric cord rig survive on the hillsides, although they are most easily seen from the air. At that time farming was carried out across a range of altitudes and there are examples of fields near Dreary Sike and The Trows.

The Roman influence was strong in parts of the parish. At Chew Green the Roman army crossed the headwaters of the River Coquet and built a series of camps. Through excavations and earthwork survey, archaeologists have discovered there were several phases of occupation here. A marching camp was built initially, and was followed by fortlets for defending and repairing Dere Street, marching camps and temporary camps. The route of Dere Street still survives and you can walk along stretches of it. The Roman name for Chew Green is unknown, although a forgery of a medieval map calls it Ad Fines, which means `the end of the world.' Along Dere Street is another temporary camp at Featherwood East, which would have broken a long march between Chew Green and places such as High Rochester fort and Silloans camp.

Of the early medieval period no remains are known this far up the Coquet valley. As we move into the medieval period archaeological sites and historic documents survive to tell us about life in the parish. Much of the upland part of Kidland valley was granted to the Cistercian Newminster Abbey, near Morpeth. Extensive sheep rearing was carried out in shielings and monastic granges and was a major source of income. Some of these places have been tentatively identified using place-name evidence and the Newminster Chartulary, which gives details of the abbey's possessions from its foundation in the 1130s. Dere Street continued to be used as a route across the hills from Scotland to Coquetdale and Redesdale in this period. A small medieval settlement and field system overlies part of the Roman site at Chew Green. It was called Kemylpeth and it had a chapel built in the last of the Roman fortlets. As a Border village, days of truce were held here and at another points where tracks crossed the Border, such as Windy Gyle and Carter Bar.

Other medieval settlements are known at Quickening Cote and Passpeth. In excavations at Memmerkirk, archaeologists uncovered a possible long house, perhaps built over an earlier shieling, which was itself built inside an earlier prehistoric enclosure.

The remoteness of much of the parish has meant that post-medieval changes have been limited. Indeed, some people used this very seclusion to their advantage. At Memmerkirk, excavations revealed a building that may have been used as a meeting house by late 17th century Dissenters, a practice that was then illegal. More illicit activity took place at Blindburn and Wholehope where whisky was distilled in stills. Archaeologists have excavated the still at Wholehope, which seems to have been used between the 1780s and 1820s.

Some of the improvements in farming are shown by a corn drying kiln at Barrow Mill that dried the crop for better storage and prevention of damp diseases. In the uplands sheep grazing and grouse shooting were developed, leaving a number of sheep shelters dotted about the hillside. A hunting lodge called Kidland Hall was reputedly built as the result of a bet to build the highest mansion in England. It was pulled down in the 1950s but the stables remain and some ornamental Monkey Puzzle trees still grow in the old gardens. Drove roads were also of great importance in Alwinton; Clennell Street and Dere Street carried the Scottish animals south to the markets of larger English towns and spawned small settlements with inns along their route, such as Chew Green Inn. The drove roads were important communication routes until the road network was expanded and the railways arrived.

The peacefulness of this remote part of England is now only interrupted by army training exercises on the Otterburn Ranges. The training area developed from the Redesdale area and is a throwback to the earlier prehistoric, Roman and medieval combat that took place within the bounds of the parish.

Reference number:N12983

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Please note that this information has been compiled from a number of different sources. Durham County Council and Northumberland County Council can accept no responsibility for any inaccuracy contained therein. If you wish to use/copy any of the images, please ensure that you read the Copyright information provided.