On Watch Hill

Our last few walks have explored the north Tyne at its source and nearby where it enters Kielder Water. Last weekend we travelled some 30+ miles downstream to where the north Tyne meets the South Tyne, just outside Hexham, below Warden. There’s been a hill fort or lookout point on the great hill here for as long as warfare or armed incursion have been part of everyday life; from the Iron Age, if not before, up to the 17th Century. The name Warden comes from the old English ‘Weard-dun’ meaning watch hill and this broad rural peninsula between the two rivers, roughly triangulated on the north side by the Roman wall and road (Stanegate) is one steeped in history. Our 3.5 mile walk followed well trod paths and clearly marked bridleways. The latter is also part of the Sandstone Way – a long distance cross county cycle route between Berwick & Hexham.

We started and finished at The Boatside Inn. The name a reminder that a ferry once plied its way across the South Tyne here, a half mile before its confluence with the north Tyne. The ferry was eventually superseded by a bridge in 1826, with the current road bridge dating from 1903.

A narrow, fence lined path parallels the railway before joining a broad bridleway that crosses it by former railway workers cottages. With room to breathe again we made the first steep ascent of Warden hill, through stone walled pastureland and alongside mature woodland. The Newcastle-Carlisle was one of the first intercity lines built in England and revolutionised the economy hereabouts. The view up the broad south Tyne valley gives few hints of it today, but from the mid 19th to mid 20th century quarries and coal mines linked to the (now closed) Fourstones station and sidings would have dominated the scene.

The only major industrial activity remaining today is one that predates the railway, by whose riverside embankment and level crossing it lies. The Fourstones Paper Mill Company, established as the Warden Paper Mill in 1763 by bookseller William Charnley, supplied handmade paper for the burgeoning Newcastle book trade. The old mill was not mechanised as such until the 1860’s and today produces a range of paper products from till rolls and toilet rolls to disposable pads and heavy duty wipes. I love the fact that during the Napoleonic wars the business was commissioned by HM government to produce counterfeit banknotes that would be used to undermine the French economy.

The view absorbed, we switch backed on upwards through the woodland. Being on the south side of the great hill and relatively sheltered the many scots pines here have remained unscathed by Storm Arwen. By contrast, we later witnessed on the northern flank of the hill extensive storm damage to mature beech, oak and pine.  

Did not divert to the summit on this occasion but instead continued with the gently descending track leading into the valley of the north Tyne, through the Warden estate and home farm with its outbuildings, paddocks, tied cottages, walled gardens and parkland. Lots of fallen trees in evidence and later, joining the valley road, saw more felled timber awaiting collection. A small yellow bulldozer and forwarder (trunk carrier) were parked in the ploughed up verges and field tracks. Later research revealed that, out of sight a few hundred yards up the steep slope, is the site of a motte and bailey castle. Just one of many ‘pop-up’ wooden forts built by colonising Normans in the late 11th Century. Like so many others it would eventually be abandoned, but the fact that it maintained the ‘watch hill’ function, here above the meeting of the waters, is significant in itself.

A welcome diversion, when back in the valley bottom, was a visit to the parish church. It has an unadorned interior lifted by fine Victorian leaded glass windows. An ancient holding of nearby Hexham Abbey, St. Michael’s was rebuilt in the mid 18th century on its original Saxon foundations. The building retains a distinctive late Saxon tower, the remains of a 7th century cross outside, while in side the porch are housed Roman stonework reused as Christian burial slabs.

An imposing stone and timber neo-gothic lych-gate from 1903, commands the entrance to the churchyard but the features that struck me most were the three graves next to it that still had their metal ‘mortsafes’ intact. In the 18th & 19th centuries exhuming freshly buried corpses for medical dissection was not uncommon. To prevent such illegal activity families could take extra precautions like this – usually as a rental from the sexton until the bodies were decomposed – to ensure their late kin really did rest in peace.

You can’t begin a walk from a pub without paying a visit at the end. As we were with friends and their dog we sat with our drinks and food in the big tepee the Boatside had had erected in the garden during lockdown. Another wonderful walk in good company and looking forward to more rambling discoveries.

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