Keys to the Past

Local History

West Allen (Northumberland)

Doorway of Limestone Brae Methodist Chapel. Photo by Northumberland County Council.
Doorway of Limestone Brae Methodist Chapel. Photo by Northumberland County Council.

West Allen lies in south Northumberland, in the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It is an upland parish on the high Pennine plateau that borders County Durham to the south.

The first evidence of human activity comes in the form of a Neolithic arrowhead found on the watershed between the West Allen and Wear valleys. The Neolithic period was time when farming was only just beginning and people continued to hunt for food. A Bronze Age arrowhead from Middle Edge shows hunting was still important then and that people were using old technology in flint tools. So far there is no evidence of the places these prehistoric people lived, although settlement was possible in the uplands at this time as is seen in the Cheviots in the north of the county. Bronze Age settlements and field systems in the North Pennines may be out there waiting to be discovered.

Iron Age and Roman life is little known in West Allen. There was only a limited military presence at Whitley Castle by the Roman army. Where the native people lived at this time has yet to be discovered.

In the medieval period, small villages and hamlets were scattered across the parish, such as Coalcleugh, Hesleywell and Keirsleywell Row. Although the valleys were obvious routeways, people also travelled across the uplands in some instances. Stone markers were set up to stop people getting lost and to mark the ownership of land, such as Blacklaw Cross, which marked a route from Corbridge to Penrith.

The medieval and early post-medieval periods in the Borders of England and Scotland were times of warfare with Scotland followed by violent raiding by border families, known as reivers. To protect themselves and their livestock some people built defensive structures called tower houses and bastles, such as at Ninebanks and Whiteley Shield and Furnace House.

As well as farming, people looked beneath the soil to the mineral resources of the area to make a living. Lead mining began to develop in the region from the mid-16th century as large amounts of Galena are present across the North Pennines. One of the earliest mines was Coalcleugh Lead Rake and at Carrshield the remains are remarkably complete. The mined ores were carried out of the West Allen (often by packhorse) for further preparation and smelting, before being taken to Tyneside for manufacturing. As well as lead, other minerals were encountered and mined, including barytes, fluorspar, witherite and zinc. As well as mining lead, the miners often lived on smallholdings high on the valley sides, supplementing their income by farming the marginal lands. The 18th and 19th centuries saw farming develop more productive and innovative methods. Perhaps none is quite as evident in this area as the use of lime. Much of the high plateau was exploited at this time by a rash of limestone quarries and their associated lime kilns. The kilns produced agricultural lime that was used to improve the land for cultivation, such as at Hesley Well Farm, Keenley Thorn and Ninebanks. Coal was used to fire the kilns and evidence of coal mining comes from a number of places, including Coalcleugh.

It was this very industrialised society that attracted many of the early Methodist preachers to the dale. John Wesley himself saw a need to administer to the impoverished and industrialised masses, and not just those in the towns. Wesley visited Allendale in the 18th century and several important Methodist chapels were built in the dale. They were unpretentious and designed to contrast with the extravagant and ornate churches associated with the Church of England. Some ten chapels were built across the parish, including High House Methodist Chapel, Limestone Brae, Whiteley Shield Primitive Methodist Chapel, Appletree Shield and Boakam House.

In the 19th century and 20th centuries lead mining went into decline and with the loss of the markets for much of the materials previously mined, the economy has been replaced by grouse shooting and sheep farming.

Reference number:N13800

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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.