Keys to the Past

Local History

Capheaton (Northumberland)

Medieval grave cover, East Shaftoe. Photo by Northumberland County Council.
Medieval grave cover, East Shaftoe. Photo by Northumberland County Council.

The parish of Capheaton lies in southern Northumberland. It encompasses craggy outcrops in the north and rolling countryside in the centre and south. The name Capheaton means the 'chief village of a district' and there is a wide range of archaeological and historical sites in the parish. These vary from Mesolithic finds and upstanding prehistoric remains near Shaftoe, to the park and gardens at Capheaton Hall. The parish is also crossed by the Roman road known as the Devil's Causeway as it travels between Hadrian's Wall north of Portgate and Learchild Roman fort. Capheaton was described in the 19th century as a 'truly Arcadian little village' and has probably changed little from that time.

The earliest evidence we have for human activity in the parish is a number of flints from East Shaftoe and a rock shelter. The flints date to the Mesolithic period and some were found on the surface of a ploughed field and others by excavation. Although we have no evidence of where or how the people who made these implements lived, with the possible exception of the rock shelter, these finds suggest a longstanding early human presence.

In the Neolithic and Bronze Age we are limited in the evidence we have for human activity to cup marked stones and a prehistoric burial. The mound in which an Anglo-Saxon burial was interred may also originally have been a Bronze Age burial site. In addition, a rare burnt mound attests to further activity at this time.

It is not until the Iron Age and Romano-British periods that we get our first evidence of prehistoric settlement in the parish and there are two examples on the crags near East Shaftoe. Both are positioned to make the most of the natural defences that the crags provide and one, at Salter's Nick, has a Romano-British settlement built over the top. The settlements are defined by earth and stone banks, or ramparts, and have evidence of round houses inside. One of the most exciting Roman discoveries in the county was made at Capheaton when a hoard of silver vessels and coins were found here in the 18th century. It is sometimes called the `Capheaton treasure' and several items are displayed in the British Museum. As well as this discovery, Capheaton has also been the location of another rare find in this county, an Anglo-Saxon hanging bowl that is now in the Museum of Antiquities, Newcastle upon Tyne.

After the Norman Conquest evidence of the past is even more abundant with a number of villages and hamlets known at Capheaton, Coldstruther, Kirkheaton and Shaftoe. The most extensive remains are of Shaftoe, now called East Shaftoe, where some of the house platforms, croft boundaries and field system survive as upstanding earthworks. In addition, the remains of a medieval tower are incorporated into East Shaftoe Hall and a ruined 14th century chapel lie close by. Another tower is recorded near Capheaton Hall but it seems to have been dismantled and the stone reused in the present hall.

Such fortifications show the troubled nature of the Border region of England and Scotland in the medieval and early post-medieval periods. In this later period a different type of defensive building, called a bastle, was common in Northumberland. An example of this type of building might be found at Kirkheaton Manor House, where the very thick walls of the main building suggest it was a superior type of bastle or a strong house. Another example may also survive at White House Farm in the west of the parish and both would have given some protection to families against raids by the Scots and local outlaws.

As the Border region became more peaceful in the 17th and 18th centuries some families felt confident enough to build less defensive homes. Some were built around former defensive buildings, for example Kirkheaton Manor House, but others, such as Capheaton Hall, were built from scratch with no defensive overtones at all. Capheaton Hall reflects a building tradition common in southern England more than 20 years earlier and was also embellished with a landscaped park possibly designed in part by Capability Brown. In the 18th century Capheaton village was also rebuilt as a model village. As well as agriculture, evidence of other post-medieval activities include coal extraction by means of bell pits, a drift colliery, colliery, possible millstone extraction, brickworks, quarries, a lime kiln and a corn mill. Today, Capheaton is a quiet rural parish with attractions such as Capheaton Hall and gardens open to the public by appointment only.

Reference number:N13004

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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.