Keys to the Past

Local History

Bywell (Northumberland)

View of Bywell Village Cross.
View of Bywell Village Cross.

The parish of Bywell lies in southern Northumberland and its southern edge is defined by the River Tyne. From the low-lying riverside edge, the eastern side of the parish rises to North Acomb and then towards Hadrian's Wall, but the rise is gentler on the western side. The village of Bywell is the main settlement and gives the parish its name, which means `by the spring'. It was described at the end of the 19th century as 'a lovely patch of Arcadia preserved to the modern world amid all the industrial changes that have transformed some of the fairest scenes in Northumberland into black and hideous wastes. Bywell has not changed greatly since that time.

The earliest evidence we have for human activity in the parish is a collection of worked flints from the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods. Most of them were discovered as scatters on the surface of the ploughed fields around Peepy, although some flints have come from excavations. Although we have no evidence of where or how the people who made these tools lived, these finds suggest a longstanding early human presence.

In the Bronze Age we get our first evidence of prehistoric burials in the parish. Although not as plentiful as in more upland parishes, there is at least one burial cairn known in Bywell and, as recently as 1980, a cist was discovered at Newton. It contained pottery vessels, a piece of flint and a bead. A more unusual discovery was some wooden dugouts, or canoes, which were reportedly found in Shildon Lough when it was drained in 1779 and are thought to be prehistoric.

There is also scant evidence for settlement in the Iron Age and Roman periods, although an Iron Age defended settlement with a Romano-British farmstead on top of it is known on Shildon Hill. Several Roman finds have been discovered, including altars and a silver cup, but it is possible that these have been brought to Bywell from elsewhere. More tentative is the route of a Roman road which crossed the parish, although there is evidence of a Roman bridge having stood downstream of the castle.

Bywell is more renowned for its early medieval remains which is in contrast to many other parts of Northumberland where there are often no monuments or finds from this period. The twin churches of St Peter and St Andrew were both founded before the Norman Conquest and may have served two different Anglo-Saxon estates. Even though they have been partly reconstructed in the medieval period and restored in the 19th century, characteristic Anglo-Saxon features can be recognised. St Andrew's has the best Saxon tower in Northumberland and parts of St Peter's chancel walls may belong to the early eighth century church in which Bishop Egbert of Lindisfarne was consecrated in AD802.

After the Norman Conquest evidence of the past is even more abundant with a number of villages and hamlets known at Bearl, Styford, East Acomb, Newton Hall and Bywell. Bearl has earthwork remains of old the village, but many of the other settlements are only known from old documents. The medieval period was a troubled time in the Border regions of England and Scotland and some villages, such as Bywell suffered destruction by the Scots. This is probably why defensive buildings like Bywell Castle and Newton Hall tower were built. Another, earlier castle, or motte may have stood near the banks of the River Tyne at Styford. There are no later defensive houses, or bastles, here although there are examples in neighbouring parishes.

Growing peace in the Border region through the post-medieval period is reflected in the construction of buildings such as the mid-18th century Bywell Hall and early 19th century Styford Hall. Parkland was created at Bywell Hall and Styford Hall showing the growing confidence of the 18th and 19th centuries. This was also a period of economic change and the main economic activity of the parish was and still is agriculture. An example of the improvements seen in agriculture from the mid-18th century onwards can be seen at the planned farm buildings at Town Farm, Newton that are arranged around a yard and at the lime kiln at Newtonkiln House. Although the railway between Carlisle and Newcastle lies nearby, it runs along the south bank of the River Tyne and does not enter the parish. Yet the modern road link between the two cities mean that the parish is now cut in half by the A69 dual carriageway.

Reference number:N13002

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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.