Thursday, 23 November 2006

Wylam Railway Bridge: The first of its kind

The Tyne is world renowned for the seven magnificent bridges that cross the river between Newcastle and Gateshead, probably the most famous of these being the enormous steel arch of the Tyne Bridge. This morning I walked from Prudhoe, through the Tyne Riverside Country Park as far as Wylam to visit a less famous forerunner of that iconic bridge.

Wylam Railway Bridge to use its official title, although locally it is variously known as Points Bridge, Hagg Bank Bridge, Half Moon Bridge or Bird Cage bridge, was built in 1876, 52 years before construction of the Tyne Bridge was completed. Its single span design however, marks the bridge out as a direct antecedent of both the Tyne and Sydney Harbour bridges. This innovative design was arrived at, by designer W G Laws, through the necessity of having to avoid building piers in the river bed, under which were shallow mine workings.
Built for the Scotswood, Newburn and Wylam Railway Company at a cost of £16,000 and opening to traffic on October 6th 1876, co-incidentally the same year that saw the completion of another remarkable bridge across the Tyne; William Armstrong’s Swing Bridge at Newcastle, the bridge connected the railway with the Newcastle and Carlisle Railway at West Wylam Junction.

The line was closed in 1968 and the bridge later purchased by Northumberland County Council. Restored in 1997 and is now used by pedestrians and cyclists as part of an unbroken footpath and bridleway between Newburn and Ovingham. The bridge makes a stunning site when approached along the riverbank from Prudhoe, situated as it is on an attractive bend in the river, overhung by trees at either end of its span and framed against the sky. This remarkable example of Victorian engineering is completely at home in its environment. You could never look at this bridge and wish it were not there, it fits and it is right.

Wylam Railway Bridge is crossed on Wylam walk 2: Wylam Circular via Horsley, Ovingham and Prudhoe and on Prudhoe Walk 3: Prudhoe to Ovingham via Wylam and Horsley. Spectacular views of the bridge can be had from high above the river on both walks.

Wednesday, 15 November 2006

‘Beware of Long Lonkin that lies in the moss’: The Legend of Long Lonkin

This morning I walked over to Ovingham and up through Whittle Dene Woods as far as the A69. As I gazed across the busy road I was reminded of a local legend that has grown up around this place, the legend of Long Lonkin.

Just to the north about ten yards from the road and concealed by trees is the spot where, in 1215, Philip de Ulecote, a Royal Forester of Northumberland started to build a tower. As this fortification would overlook his castle at Prudhoe, the Lord of Prudhoe, Richard de Umfreville, objected to its building (The Umfrevilles would later successfully oppose the building of another castle at Bywell). Building was halted and the tower gradually became a ruin. Time passed, nobody can say for sure how long, and the ruins became the hide out of a notorious local villain named Long Lonkin. Longkin’s CV included robbery and murder but it was for his last villainous deed that he became the subject of local legend.

Just a couple of miles to the north of Lonkin’s lair, stood, as it still does today, the pele tower of Welton Hall. Lonkin had targeted the Hall for a robbery and laid his plans meticulously. By forming a relationship with a female servant from the hall he ensured that he had an accomplice on the inside and, on a night when he knew the master of the hall to be away, he put his plan into action. Let into the hall by his partner in crime, Lonkin proceeded to ransack the place in search of things to steal. Unable to find anything of value, Lonkin awoke the mistress of the Hall and demanded to be told where the valuables were kept. She refused and Lonkin justified his villainous reputation by killing her along with her young child and throwing their bodies into a nearby burn. Thwarted, Lonkin returned to his hide out to brood and to plan further acts of villainy.

On his return, and learning what had transpired in his absence, the master of the Hall, swearing his revenge set out to find Lonkin and administer justice. What happened next is unclear, some say that during a chase Lonkin fell into a burn and was drowned. Others say that he was caught and hanged! The fate of his accomplice, the female servant is unknown.
About a mile south of Welton Hall flows the Bogle Burn. 'Bogle' or 'Boggle', in old Northumbrian dialect is a ghost or evil spirit. Along the Bogle Burn is a deep pool called the Whirl Dub, said to be the last resting place of Long Lonkin. On stormy, moonlit nights, the ghost of Long Lonkin is reputed to haunt this place, a soul never at rest and never to find forgiveness for his many evil deeds.

The ruins of Lonkins Lair are marked on OS map explorer 316 and can be seen by making a short detour from Wylam walk 2: Wylam Circular via Horsley, Ovingham and Prudhoe. Welton Hall stands about 2 miles north of the A69 and is easily reached on good footpaths.

Tuesday, 14 November 2006

Et in Arcadia Ego: A visit to the village of Bywell

You do not pass through the village of Bywell on the way to anywhere else, there are no footpaths or bridleways through the village and the road in is a dead end. Although Bywell is only a couple of miles down the river from my home of 12 years, I am a little ashamed to say that until recently I had never visited. I walk in the Tyne Valley almost every day and although many of my walks take me to within sight of the village I have never thought of, or indeed, had reason to make the detour.

Bywell lies on the north bank of the Tyne, nestling snugly in a loop of the river. Opposite, on the river’s south bank, sits the village of Stocksfield. I walked up to Bywell Bridge, which, is easily reached, from Stocksfield railway station. From the bridge I had a first glimpse of what Bywell has to offer. From the left hand side of the bridge I saw, nestling amongst the trees, the ruins of Bywell Castle. I reckon that any village boasting it’s own castle has got to be worth further investigation and from the northern end of the bridge a pleasant footpath on the left led me the 300 yards to the village road.

As I entered the village, I got my second view of Bywell Castle, which nowadays comprises three structures: a gatehouse, a section of curtain wall, and Bywell Castle House. The gatehouse was built in the early 15th century by Ralph Neville, second earl of Westmorland but the rest of the castle was never completed. The reason is unclear but it would seem that the Umfravilles, Barons of Prudhoe, didn’t take kindly to another castle so close to their own and managed to put a block on its completion. Frustratingly, although there are many views of the castle as you walk into the village, trees and walls obscure the building from every vantage point. The castle today is in private hands and you can get no nearer to it than the road.

Walking through the village I began to become affected by the tranquillity and the idyllic setting, a sense of the past lies heavy on this place. Passing a riverside meadow full of quietly grazing and strangely spotless sheep tended by a shepherd lass with bonnet and crook, I was approached by a milkmaid bearing a yoke from which hung two wooden pails of fresh creamy milk that slopped gently as she walked. Little boys whipped tops and chased hens across the street and the hammer blows of the blacksmith shoeing a horse rang in the still air. Ok, I made that last bit up, but such a feeling of having stepped back into a long gone age had the village invoked in me that I wouldn’t have been in the least surprised to have come upon such a scene.

In fact the village was systematically cleared of its inhabitants during the mid to late Nineteenth Century as the Beaumonts of Bywell Hall created the parkland for their estate. As part of this clearance, the vicar of Bywell St Peters was offered a new vicarage, one that couldn’t be seen from Bywell Hall. The vicar, to his credit refused to budge and so a wall was built to conceal the view of the vicarage from the Hall. This wall became known, aptly, as the ‘Spite Wall’. The eyes of the Beaumonts of the day must have been easily offended as the vicarage of Bywell St Peters is quite the most splendid I think that I have ever seen.

In 1841 Bywell had a population of 130 by 1871 that had been reduced to 20 people mostly inhabiting the Hall and Bywell St Peter Vicarage. If the population today is greater than that I saw no evidence of it and throughout my visit I saw not a soul and had only the sheep for company.

In an area that has many notable and lovely churches Bywell has two of the best, standing less than 100 metres apart. Bywell St Andrew (The white church, once belonging to the Benedictine or black monks), and Bywell St Peter (The black church, once owned by the abbey of Blanchland whose monks wore black). Both have Saxon origins and were originally built to serve two different parishes. Records show that other Northumbrian sites had multiple churches, but only at Bywell do both still survive. Bywell St Andrew is no longer in use and is preserved and maintained by the Churches Conservation Trust.

The village of Bywell was described at the end of the 19th century as “a lovely patch of Arcadia preserved to the modern world amid all the industrial changes that have transformed some of the fairest scenes in Northumberland into black and hideous wastes”. Although today it would be impossible to describe the surrounding area in those terms, Bywell, preserved in it’s own time warp, has not changed greatly since that time.

Bywell can be visited by taking a very slight detour from the route of Prudhoe Walk 2: Prudhoe to Ovingham via Stocksfield and Ovington.

History of Bywell