Hexhamshire and District (Northumberland)
The civil parish of Hexhamshire lies in south Northumberland. It is in the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and borders County Durham. Much of the parish is the high and remote moorland of Hexhamshire Common cut by small tributaries of the Devil's Water, Rowley Burn and Ham Burn. Many small farmsteads have been built on the hillsides above the Devil's Water and the largest settlement is Whitley Chapel.
More than 6000 years ago, during the Neolithic period, people carved a mysterious design into the natural rock on Burntridge Moor. This cup marked stone is the first sign we have of people living in this area but is not the only one in the parish. Another cup mark is carved into the medieval Stobs Cross and the stone must have been quarried from its original position and erected here.
The Neolithic was a time of change when people began to lead a more settled way of life and when farming began. This trend continued into the Bronze Age and these new farmers would have had to clear some ground to be able to grow crops. Apart from chopping down trees and clearing undergrowth they also cleared away many stones into heaps by the side of their new fields. These heaps can still be seen on Greenrigg Moor where they make up a cairnfield and low stony banks. Other cairns are dotted about the moorland but some of these were probably used for burials. At this time people were often buried in stone cists and covered with stones. These cairns were built more carefully and usually have a ring of kerb stones around the bottom of the mound, such as near Beldon Cleugh and on Burntridge Moor.
Until the Roman period we know nothing about where the people in Hexhamshire lived. It is impossible to know how their lives were affected by the presence of the Romans, yet a small settlement at Edge House is typical of the many small homesteads that the native people built at this time. It has an earthen bank and ditch around the outside with some round houses in the centre.
After the Roman army left Britain little is known about Hexhamshire until after the Norman Conquest in 1066. Hexhamshire belonged to the church and as such was not involved in the creation of baronies in Northumberland at this time. Until the 1070s it was associated with Durham and later became the property of the archbishops at York, an association that continued until 1837. People may have lived in villages at Rowley and Whitley Chapel but the evidence is unclear. At least we know there was a church and mill at Whitley Chapel and people must have passed through the parish at this time because Stobs Cross was put up on Spitalshields Moor to guide people on their way across the moorland.
In medieval and early post-medieval times, the border region of England was a very unsettled and sometimes dangerous place to live. There were battles, skirmishes and raids taking place on both sides. In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, as feuds between border families arose, some people built special defended farmhouses called bastles. In Hexhamshire there are many examples, such as White Hall, Hesleywell, Old Peacock House, Low Ardley, Riddlehamhope Hall and, the best preserved, High Holms.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, when more peaceful times came to this part of the country, people began to build new farms such as Park House and Turf House and convert the old bastles into less defensive farmhouses. Roads were built and improved, for example with new bridges over Blaeberry Cleugh, the Linn Burn and on the Riddlehamhope track. Industries sprang up such as coal mining at Low Stublick, quarries, and lime burning to improve the land at Westburnhope. Yet, shepherding must have remained a major part of the agricultural economy of the parish as there are many sheepfolds recorded in the moorland. As the country became more industrialised new approaches to Christianity developed in many of the industrial cities and in time these ideas spread to the North Pennines. Known as nonconformists, this new breed of worshippers built plain and simple chapels, such as Lilswood and White Hall.
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