Her heart was light, her eyes were wild / As kneeling down with her little child / She christened her bairn in the Devilswater / The black eyed brat of the devil’s daughter. / Low she laughed as she hugged it tight / Clapped its hands at the golden light / That glanced and danced on the Devilswater / To think she was once a parson’s daughter. (From ‘Devilswater’ by WW Gibson)
Old friends who’d been this way but a little while since were kind enough to repeat their rural ramble in our company. Hexhamshire, or simply The Shire, was originally a generous gift of land (some 92 square miles of it) made by Queen Ethelreda to St Wilfred to support his foundation of a priory at Hexham in 674AD. During the medieval period it was the fiefdom of the Archbishop of York, separate from Northumberland as such. The smaller modern civil parish still retains that feel of a land apart due to its relative remoteness and definable boundaries. The Shire today is the rural hinterland south of Hexham, stretching from the green belt of the Tyne valley to Hexhamshire Commons (part of the North Pennines AONB). The main landowner here in the modern era is Lord Allendale’s estate. Pretty much in the centre of this sparsely populated, deeply rural landscape of sandstone gorges, woodland and rich pasture is the village of Whitley Chapel and that’s where we started and ended our four mile ramble.
The footpath through Quakers Hollow nature reserve was a lovely surprise. Named after the late 17th century Friends meeting house that once stood on nearby chapel hill this 9 hectares of semi-natural wetland is composed of peat which acts as a giant sponge to retain permanent moisture and supports rare flora and fauna. We heard reed buntings calling and saw clumps of purple orchids in the bog. A bird hide overlooks the site and thousands of willow whips have been planted on its perimeter by a local basket weaving group for future harvesting. All credit to the enterprising community here for their sterling work since 2002 in investigating, enhancing and interpreting this precious moss and its adjacent meadows. We especially admired the three handsome Exmoor ponies, the most perfect of conservation grazers, happily fulfilling their brief.
A short while later we dropped down to the Devilswater. This stream defines the Shire in a number of subtle interconnecting ways and runs for approximately six miles from its source in the high commons to confluence with the Tyne at Dilston below Corbridge. Although peaceful now fallen trees littering the steep banks below the footbridge reminded us of the power of a Pennine stream in spate – seemingly living up to its name! Rather more prosaically the word’s etymology defines it as a variant of Douglas, derived from Brittonic (Celtic) words Dub (black) and Gless (stream). Lancastrian Queen Margaret fleeing the battle of Hexham (1464) supposedly took shelter in a cave in the valley, while Anya Seaton’s historic novel of the same name tells the story of young Lord and Lady Derwentwater of Dilston Castle and their doomed involvement in the 1715 Jacobite rising. The Hexhamshire Brewery at Dilston Mill pub further dowstream boasts a Devilswater dark beer (‘black stream’ personified) while a local folk band also bears the name.
Soon we were trekking up through the airy mature pines of Steelhall wood before dropping down again to a confluence of well beaten track way leading to a deep set ford in an ancient wood by a footbridge, below which was an iron weir with a fish run zig-zagging through it!
A place to linger and speculate about those who had defined and worn those tracks down the centuries. Later I discovered this was one of the ancient packhorse routes where the area’s lead miners brought their precious hard won ores to be smelted at nearby Dukesfield Mill. These works were once, from the late 17th to the early 19th century, the largest smelting works in the land. The mill also extracted silver from the iron ore, making it even more lucrative.
Walking on we passed through woodland rides (clearings) and stands of coppiced (harvested) hazel, reminding us how rich a resource mixed woodlands of native species would have been to our forefathers, providing tool handles, fuel, fencing, furniture, building materials and so on.
The return leg of our ramble had the rushing Devilswater in its tree lined bed to our right and a sweep of clear felled former conifer plantation to our left. These slopes are now replanted with deciduous varieties liberally interspersed with the bright yellow flowers of broom amid a flush of bracken, birch and other colonisers of ground recently exposed.
Arriving back at the village we enjoyed a picnic outside St Helen’s parish church (rebuilt 1742). The little hill yielded a fine view over the diverse landscapes we had walked. A step inside the cool of the chapel like building revealed some very interesting windows. The most recent was one designed by our friend Bridget Jones, inspired by the life of St Cuthbert, commissioned to mark the millennium.
The other 20th Century plain leaded glass windows there are particularly eye catching in their creative simplicity. These lights are the work of Leonard Evetts (1909-1997) and are lovely memorials to parish benefactors – priest, farmer, churchwarden, and a formerWW2 WRAF radio operative – with bold stylised images referencing flowers, tractor tyres, fields, radar screen etc.
All in all a nicely varied gentle country walk, gifted by and enjoyed with old friends, discovering yet another fascinating corner of rural Northumberland.