The parish of Birtley lies in central Northumberland. It stretches from the relatively fertile banks of the River North Tyne in the west to the open moorland of Buteland Fell to the north. The name Birtley derives from the Old English words for `bright clearing'. The importance of farming to this area is shown by the survival of prehistoric and medieval cultivation remains in the parish. These contrast with the industrial remains from ironstone, coal and lime extraction.
Although there may have been earlier inhabitants, the first evidence we have for human activity belongs to the Bronze Age. Their burial cairns survive as upstanding features in the landscape but no traces of where they lived have been discovered yet.
It is only in the Roman period that the first settlements are found in Birtley. At least twelve farmsteads have been discovered so far and they mainly lie near the edge of the river valley and by its tributaries. These are largely sub-rectangular or sub-circular enclosures, defined by a simple earthen bank and ditch, with remains of houses and yards inside. It is thought that some of the ironstone workings in the parish may date from this period. The Roman road called Dere Street crosses the eastern part of the parish on its route between Corbridge and High Rochester and a Roman milestone has been found nearby.
Like many parts of Northumberland there is a gap in our knowledge about the early medieval period (AD410 to 1066) in Birtley. However, there are hints that there may have been an Anglo-Saxon presence in the area. Built into the walls of the medieval church is an eighth century grave marker and another stone that may also be pre-Conquest in date.
After the Norman Conquest we can once again recognise remains of the past. The medieval remains are varied, with remnants of former villages, a monastic grange settlement, field systems and cultivation terraces, a bloomery, and ironworkings. The Church of St Giles at Birtley was built in the 12th century.
The medieval and early post-medieval periods were troubled times in the Border regions of England and Scotland, with countless raids and skirmishes. A possible tower at Birtley, and bastles at High Carry House and Carrycoats Hall attest to the insecurity felt by the inhabitants of the parish at this time. The bastles would have provided shelter for both families and their livestock.
As the Border region became more peaceful in the 17th and 18th centuries some of these buildings, such as Carrycoats Hall, provided the focus for less defensive houses. As well as agriculture, evidence of other post-medieval economic activities include calcining kilns associated with the extensive ironworkings at Broomhope, brick and tile works, coal workings and a lime kiln. The 19th century also saw the coming of the railways with a route from Hexham, northward along the North Tyne valley. Today the railway has gone and the parish retains its rural character and agriculture is its mainstay.
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