Keys to the Past

Local History

Norham (Northumberland)

Norham Castle from the air. Copyright Tim Gates, 2003.
Norham Castle from the air. Copyright Tim Gates, 2003.

Norham is the second most northerly village in England and was once the main pillar of defence of the eastern English border against the Scots. Strictly speaking, for many years it was not really part of Northumberland at all, but was an outpost of County Durham. It had two main roles in history: as an ecclesiastical centre and a military stronghold.

The location of the village is well chosen. It nestles in a valley on the south side of the Tweed. The Cheviots to the south-west and the Lammermuir Hills to the north, provide a sheltered environment. The village has also grown up at a crossing point of the Tweed, and the village's original name of Ubbanford reflects this.

Long before the growth of Christianity and the border conflicts, the landscape attracted a number of early settlers. Many of their settlements are still visible, but only from the air, where faint traces of below ground remains can still be identified as cropmarks. Subsequent agricultural use ploughed out all above ground remains. Most of these sites have not been excavated, but an approximate date can be given based on the shape of these sites. At Norham Bridge Farm, a rectilinear enclosure may be the remains of a prehistoric settlement. A number of complex cropmarks can be found at Groat Haugh, including enclosures, pit alignments and linear markings that depict a mixture of settlement and burial sites, possibly even a ritual landscape.

There was certainly a Roman presence in the area and settlement appeared to have continued throughout this period. A Roman camp was located on the south bank of the Tweed; presumably designed to guard the crossing point. Other small settlements or farmsteads, which appear to be broadly contemporary with this Roman camp, are a rectilinear enclosure south of Norham, near the A698 and a possible cropmark settlement.

Presumably the crossing point of the Tweed encouraged a large amount of through-traffic in the area and led to the growth of a settlement on the site of modern day Norham. It was this route that St Aidan took on his way from Iona to found the monastery on Lindisfarne in AD635. It was surely often used by monks subsequently travelling between Iona and Lindisfarne and was also a resting place for the community of monks from Holy Island after they fled the Vikings in AD875. With them they carried the body of St Cuthbert, who was finally laid to rest in Durham Cathedral. And so it is at this time that we see the first connections between Norham and the bishops of Durham, who soon administered this area.

The church in Norham is, of course, dedicated to St Cuthbert. It was built in 1165, but the presence of many Anglo-Saxon carvings suggests that there was a ninth century church here. The exact location of this church is unknown but it is likely to be beneath, or to the east of, the present church, where a slight platform in the graveyard suggests a former building.

While Norham developed as a religious centre, it was also the focus of much unrest, being located on the disputed border between England and Scotland. The king delegated the defence of the area to the Prince Bishops of Durham and through their influence it became a military stronghold too. The mainstay of this stronghold was the castle built around 1121 by Bishop Ranulph Flambard. Of this early castle, only earthworks remain. It was a motte and bailey and in due course was damaged or destroyed by the Scots in 1136 and 1138. And so started a long series of repairs and rebuilding, culminating in a very substantial castle, the remains of which we see today, although it is technically in the neighbouring parish of Horncliffe. Sir Walter Scott described Norham Castle in his poem Marmion as 'the most dangerous place in England'. After the Union of the Crowns, the castle was no longer required and it fell into disrepair.

A medieval community with a castle and a fine church grew up in the area, along with a thriving salmon fishery. The burgage plots, which can still be seen behind the present day houses in Norham, may reflect an earlier medieval layout of the village around a green. On the green today is a market cross with medieval origins, although it has been restored in recent times as a fountain. Presumably, at least one mill existed along the River Tweed between the village and the castle where the local place name is Mill Burn. Somewhere near the village, possibly to slightly to the south, the Hospital of St Mary Magdalene was built some time before 1311, but was demolished in 1333. Small settlements grew up beyond Norham too, although to what extent any settlement could survive in such troublesome times is hard to imagine today. A deserted medieval village at Norham Ford was thought to exist, but nothing can be seen now. Others existed at East Newbiggin and at West Newbiggin, also now lost.

The oldest houses in Norham village today are predominantly 19th century in date, but those in the centre are presumably on the site of earlier, medieval houses. 10 Castle Street, also known as Albion House, is even earlier dating to the 18th century with a neighbouring cottage which date as early as the 17th century. The houses on Castle Street are otherwise mainly 19th century. The growth of nonconformism led to the construction of the Presbyterian Meeting House in 1753 and a Presbyterian chapel was recorded in 1865 in South Lane.

The coming of the railway in the 19th century saw the construction of a station in 1851, along with a number of associated buildings, such as the stationmasters house, office and telegraph office. It was closed in 1965. A railway viaduct was constructed over Newbiggin Dene in 1849 for the York, Newcastle and Berwick railway. Later in date is a signal box dating to 1911, located just outside the station.

Reference number:N13757

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Disclaimer -

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.