Keys to the Past

Local History

Kirkwhelpington (Northumberland)

Kirkwhelpington village.
Photo by Harry Rowland.
Kirkwhelpington village. Photo by Harry Rowland.

Fields of ridge and furrow, west of Kirkwhelpington.
Photo by Harry Rowland.
Fields of ridge and furrow, west of Kirkwhelpington. Photo by Harry Rowland.

Between roughly 4000 and 6000 years ago, settled farming lifestyles took over from nomadic hunting lifestyles. Archaeologists call this the Neolithic period. Discoveries of tools, such as the stone axe head and mace head found on Kirkwhelpington Glebe, prove that Neolithic people were living in, or travelling through, Kirkwhelpington. Some mysterious carvings have been found on rocks in Kirkwhelpington. Archaeologists think cup marked stones were made by Neolithic people as religious symbols, or perhaps to act as route markers. The rocks continued to be significant to the people of Kirkwhelpington up to 2000 years after they were carved as they have been found in Bronze Age burials, including one at The Fawns.

Between 3000 and 4000 years ago, society gradually went through a number of changes. Archaeologists call this period the Bronze Age because copper alloy tools and weapons were first developed then. People began to be buried individually, rather than communally as had happened in the past. Some people were buried with objects to accompany them into an afterlife, perhaps to show how important or wealthy they were. A cairn of stones was often built over the burials such as at Catcherside and Ray Fell.

Bronze Age people were farmers. Remnants of their ploughed fields, known as cord rig cultivation, can be seen at Middlerigg.

Because house design and farming didn't change much between 2000 and 4000 years ago, archaeologists sometimes find it difficult to date the remains of stone round houses, fields, tracks and animal enclosures. They often call them later prehistoric and there are earthwork examples at Canny Cleugh, Wolf Crag and The Chesters. These remains were either created in the Bronze Age or the Iron Age. Another feature of the later prehistoric landscape is the cross ridge dyke. One of these can be seen today at Black Down. Although they are usually seen as a feature of Bronze Age life, cairns have been built throughout history. Archaeologists have not been able to date the cairns at Black Down Flow exactly, but they were probably also built in the later prehistoric period.

Between 2000 and 3000 years ago, during what archaeologists call the Iron Age, society seems to have been more warlike. People built defended settlements, or hillforts, in high places such as Camp Hill near Catcherside and on Great Wanney Crag. Other settlements, such as West Whelpington were less heavily defended. Animals continued to be farmed and herded and the remains of an animal enclosure can still be seen at Coppingburn Crag.

After the Roman invasion of AD43, life for people in Kirkwhelpington continued in some ways and changed in others. The parish was outside the Roman Empire for much of the time the Roman army was in Britain but the native people would have felt the effects of living so close to the Roman Empire. The Romans brought peace and prosperity to the North East of England and so in time, people stopped building defended settlements; instead they built farmsteads and villages on lower ground, enclosed by smaller ramparts. The earthwork remains of at least 13 undefended settlements have been identified in Kirkwhelpington such as at Wolf Crag and Kirkharle. One element of Roman technology and culture definitely reached Kirkwhelpington as a Roman skillet was found near Wanney Crags in 1885.

After the Roman army left Britain in AD410 immigrants from Europe gradually occupied parts of northern England. The Anglo-Saxons settled in Northumberland and lived in settlements which grew up around farms. Because they have excavated there, archaeologists know that West Whelpington was occupied at this time. A series of hollow ways have been found at Heeston Bank, showing that people and goods regularly travelled through Kirkwhelpington in the early medieval period.

Evidence for medieval life in Kirkwhelpington after the Norman invasion of 1066 can be found all over the parish. Medieval documents can be compared with standing remains such as earthworks. Some of the villages were eventually completely abandoned, becoming deserted medieval villages and leaving only earthworks of the crofts, tofts and street patterns. Others shrank, leaving a single farm, church or house as the only remnant of a community. Some examples of these villages include Kirkharle, Little Harle and West Whelpington.

Border raiding was a constant threat in Northumberland from the 12th to the 16th centuries. People who could afford it built defensive houses to protect themselves and their possessions from hostile Scottish raiders. Called tower houses, some examples in Kirkwhelpington include West Harle and Littleharle Tower. Some medieval settlements were surrounded by moats such as Ferneyrigg and The Fawns.

Evidence of medieval farming can be seen all over Kirkwhelpington. Some examples include cultivation terraces, enclosures at Bewick Hill, a cattle park, boundary banks at Kirkharle and ridge and furrow ploughing at West Whitehall Farm. A water mill existed to grind corn at Kirkwhelpington in 1325. Fish was also an important part of the medieval diet. To ensure a fresh supply all year round, fishponds were built at Ray Cottages and Kirkharle in the medieval period.

The churches in Kirkwhelpington parish date to the medieval period. St Bartholomew's dates from the 13th century and St Wilfred's was built in the 14th century. Natural water sources, such as St George's and St Mary's Wells, also had religious significance and have become known as holy wells.

After 1540, in what archaeologists call the post-medieval period, border raiding was still a threat. Catcherside Cottage and Ray Cottages are bastles that would have protected a family and their livestock from border reivers.

Eighteenth century agricultural improvements resulted in a boom in farm building. Farms built as a result of the enclosure of Whelpington Common in 1717 included Wolf Crag and Middlerigg. Another result of enclosure were the boundary stones which appeared at township, estate and parish boundaries. At least 16 of these stones survive today and include the Gun Stone and the Loughing Stone marking the boundary between Ottercops and Kirkwhelpington townships.

Landscape parks became fashionable in the 18th century. Capability Brown, the famous garden designer, began his career at Kirkharle where he was involved in the redesign of the park.

Coal was being worked at Ray Tongues in Kirkwhelpington at least as long ago as the 18th century. Limestone has probably been quarried and burned in Kirkwhelpington throughout history, but the only lime kilns that archaeologists know about are those at West Side and Larkhall, which were both in use in the 19th century. At the same time, lead was mined but the parish was never a major producer. The leadworkings at Crook Dean Hill were unsuccessful and soon closed. Capheaton Tilery produced bricks and tiles for the Capheaton Estate for a hundred years and its buildings can still be seen today.

Reference number:N13389

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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.