Keys to the Past

Local History

Falstone (Northumberland)

View over the Falstone area.
Photo by Harry Rowland.
View over the Falstone area. Photo by Harry Rowland.

Falstone lies in west Northumberland and is high and remote. It is now dominated by Kielder Water reservoir and Kielder Forest. Most of the parish is planted with trees, the exceptions being the open water and farmland east of the dam. Here, beyond the dam, lies Falstone village and a number of farms along the side of the North Tyne valley. Other farms and villages, of all ages, now lie submerged beneath the reservoir. Before the reservoir was flooded in the 1980s, a number of sites were excavated and recorded, some showing evidence of human activity from prehistoric times to the medieval and post-medieval period. The name Falstone is thought to come from 'Fallow-stone', a dull-coloured yellow or yellowish; or perhaps from the Old English word 'fag', meaning variegated or coloured.

The earliest evidence we have for human activity belongs to the Mesolithic period, a time before farming was introduced. A small collection of flint implements was discovered during excavations at Belling Law. These tools may have been used to hunt animals and prepare food. At this early stage in history people lived by hunting animals and birds and picking wild fruits and grains; farming did not become common until the Neolithic. A polished stone axe from Haw Hill Camp together with some flint tools from here and Belling Law, show that people were beginning to clear trees or undergrowth. However, we do not know where the people who made and used these tools lived.

Little is known about Falstone in the Bronze Age. This was a time when people began to make tools from metal as well as stone, but none have been found in the parish. Yet, we do get our first evidence of how prehistoric people buried their dead at this time. A cist discovered at Smalesmouth contained a few sherds of pottery from a beaker and similar fragments have also been found at Haw Hill Camp.

In the Iron Age we get our first evidence of where prehistoric people lived. A number of settlements and enclosures stand around the fringes of Kielder Water and, now, also submerged beneath it. Near Smalesmouth Farm is a defended settlement enclosed by a rampart built of earth and stone. At Haw Hill Camp and Belling Law Iron Age timber structures were found during excavations.

Little seems to have changed in the area during the years of Roman rule. Falstone lies north of Hadrian's Wall, the northern edge of the Roman Empire for much of its time in Britain. Most people probably continued to live in the same kinds of homes as during the Iron Age, as was found near Smalesmouth where a Roman period settlement overlies an Iron Age one. A common difference between these settlements is their overall shape; in the Iron Age they were usually roughly circular, but in Roman times they are often more rectangular. Just such a settlement survives at Hawkhirst. There is also evidence of contact with the wider Roman world with the discovery of samian pottery from France at one of the settlements and a gold coin found at Falstone.

Following the end of Roman rule in the early fifth century, we know there were probably some early medieval settlers in the parish as they have left some evidence of their art behind. These include three pieces of a ninth century decorated stone cross shaft and a more unusual house-shaped memorial stone carved with runes.

Even in medieval times it appears we have little evidence of settlement in the parish. Donkleywood is recorded in the 13th century but there is evidence of a 12th century hunting lodge there, possibly associated with Kennel Deer Park. Little else is known of its history until the post-medieval period. Cultivation terraces near Falstone suggest that there were people farming the land here and there may have been a medieval chapel at Hawkhope, but its site is only hinted at by the discovery of the runic memorial stone mentioned above. However, these were times of warfare and unrest in the borders of England and Scotland and perhaps this threat was a deterrent to many people, who preferred to live elsewhere.

Yet, even as cross-border raids and skirmishes continued into the 16th and 17th centuries we begin to see evidence of more people living in the parish. This is shown by the large number of defensive buildings called bastles built at Shilburnhaugh, Hawkhope, Shilling Pot, Falstone Farm, Ridge End, Gordon's Walls, Starsley, Smalesworth, Stone House and Donkleywood. As well as these defensive buildings, some smaller temporary farms called shielings lie in more remote parts of the parish, on the Lewis Burn, Kyloe Crags, Broomylinn and the Yett Burn. As the region became more peaceful in the 17th and 18th centuries some of the bastles were adapted into farm buildings or farmhouses, but others lie as ruins or are now submerged beneath the reservoir.

A great number of small post-medieval farmsteads were known in the parish, such as Emmet Haugh Farm, Wellhaugh Farm, Plashetts Farm, Blackarm, Binky Crags, Binky Burn, Cow Close, Old Rowley's Shield, Sandboard Knowe, Belling, Low Cranecleugh and Woodhouses, although many now lie beneath Kielder Water reservoir. Some may date to the 17th century when a series of short-lived farms were established but were lost in the 18th century with agricultural reorganisation. Apart from agriculture, other economic activities included lime kilns at Hawkhope and Falstone, a millstone quarry at Millstone Crag, a mill at Belling and Shilburnhaugh, a whiskey still and coal mining. Coal mining was developed at Falstone in the 19th century by two local families, the Percys and Swinburnes, and initially used to heat their estate buildings. The Swinburnes built a number of stone bridges such as Long House Bridge and Forks Bridge to help transport the coal. Commercial ventures were set up at Lewis Burn and Plashetts, the latter operating successfully until the 1930s. The 19th century saw the arrival of the Border Counties Railway in 1862, which must have played an important part in developing this industry, but the line itself failed to thrive and this section closed in 1958. Today, the main attraction of Falstone is Kielder Water Reservoir and the extensive forest trails of Kielder Forest.

Reference number:N13253

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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.