On 14th October 2015 Tony Henfry gave an excellent talk about Biddlestone Chapel and the Selby family. Our speaker had been much involved in the rescue and restoration of the chapel through the support of the Historic Chapels Trust and the National Park, and with its continuing maintenance.
Biddlestone is a tiny, remote hamlet at 800 feet on the edge of the Cheviot moorlands. The name means ‘little valley of the little burn’, unrelated to the large (listed) stones which were the base of a Saxon village cross. Sited in an excellent defensive position a few yards to the south of the ‘little valley’, a well hidden chasm with a 200 foot drop to the little burn, is a 14th century pele tower, which became the ground floor of the chapel.
The Selby family inherited Biddlestone in 1311 and owned it for over 600 years. A Roman Catholic family, one of many in north Northumberland, as border landlords they paid their recusancy fines and maintained pragmatic relationships with the government and their neighbours. As the border region settled in the 16th century they became quiet estate owners, and through good management and good marriages the estate grew to 30,000 acres.
The Selbys did not live at Biddlestone all year, preferring York and London; thus they avoided any involvement in the Jacobite Risings of 1715 and 1745.
When in 1796 they rebuilt the house after a fire, Dobson designed their new home to join a chapel seating 50 people superimposed on the pele tower – clearly the Selbys were confident to show their faith publicly well before the Catholic Relief Act of 1829. In Scott’s Rob Roy (1817), the narrator Frank Osbaldistone heads north to Scotland, and describes seeing on his way a large and antiquated house, the burn and the hunting kennels in a wild spot at the edge of the moors – surely Biddlestone.
The chapel was refurbished in 1862 with gothic windows, the east window displaying the Selby coat of arms; a small but elaborate altar; and tile-patterned linoleum at the east end. But it remained quite simple, with plain pine pews and gallery, white walls, small framed pictures of the Stations of the Cross and the coats of arms of the family.
The family prospered, gaining coal mines in Lancashire, Jesmond and County Durham. Several younger sons became priests, and in the 1840s another made his fortune in Denmark where he became the king’s chamberlain and a baron. In the 19th century two Selbys became JPs, one of them serving also as Deputy Lieutenant and High Sheriff of the county.
In 1914 the last Selby owner was a naval Lieutenant Commander based in Sussex, who severed all connections with Biddlestone. In 1911 he sold some land to the War Office to form part of the new Otterburn Training Camp, and before war broke out he sold the remaining 17000-acre agricultural estate; the house and its immediate grounds were finally sold in 1918, becoming home to several families in succession. In 1940 the house was requisitioned as a military hospital, left in poor condition, vandalised, and subsequently never occupied. It was in a ruinous state by the time it was demolished in 1957.
The chapel remained intact because it was used for worship by local families, a nominal rent paid by the Catholic diocese. The Forestry Commission took over the land, planting a dense spruce and fir plantation which hid the chapel from casual view and no doubt protected it.
By 1990 the chapel was unfit for use; plaster 2 feet deep on the floor, although the pele tower, and an Anderson shelter erected within it, remained in good condition. The Historic Chapels Trust acquired it in 1997 and began its restoration. It has no electricity or running water but it is well ventilated being 10 feet above ground level. It is technically a secular building but it used for occasional services and is licensed for Catholic marriages.
The Selbys were buried in Alwinton parish church except for two buried in a small plot in a field to the south around 1900.
Tony Henfry also gave twenty GLHS members a guided tour of the chapel, an opportunity to see this fascinating building for ourselves.
For more information, including opportunities to visit, see www.hct.org.uk.
Neil Munro, a former City Guide for Newcastle upon Tyne, took members on their very own guided tour of old Newcastle’s streets from the comfort of Wooler’s Cheviot Centre. Neil was well equipped to negotiate the way through numerous lanes and roads with his extensive experience in Adult Education and the Education Service of Tyne and Wear Archives.
We learnt first about the early bridges over the River Tyne in Roman times and why they were positioned in a particular place. The Pons Aelius was a Roman fort and settlement on the north bank of the Tyne. In Saxon times there was a cemetery where the castle now stands. The son of William the Conqueror was the first to erect a castle of earth and timber there about 1080. In succeeding centuries it was rebuilt in stone. Masons from all over the country came to the town to provide building expertise. Both the Black Gate and The Keep have been recently restored and re-opened to the public and are well worth a visit.
From 1400 Newcastle was designated a Town and a County, thus earning certain rights and privileges. The oldest street in Newcastle is the mediaeval Side, still cobbled, which runs down to the Quayside from St Nicholas Cathedral. Dog Leap Stairs lead from the Castle Garth to Side. The name refers to ‘a narrow slip of ground between houses’. In 1772 Baron Eldon, later Lord Chancellor of England, eloped with Bessie Surtees making their escape, according to folklore, on horseback up Dog Leap Stairs, quite an achievement as they are extremely steep!
The town was vulnerable to attack from the Scots, so a wall was built around it commencing 1280 and a tax levied to fund it. It was not permitted to build up against the wall. A surprising amount of the wall survives, sometimes in the most unlikely spots of the present city.
Admiral Collingwood was baptised and married in the then Church of St Nicholas so it is not surprising to find an adjacent street of fine buildings named after him in 1810 after his death. It provided a through route between Pilgrim Street and Westgate. Many of the streets near the wall are named after the towers. These include, Pink Lane, Westgate, and Neville Street. The wall was not breached until the Civil War.
Pilgrim Street recalls the pilgrims who made their way to the Shrine of our Lady in Jesmond. Nearby Gallowgate is derived from Galler Gate (gate or gata meaning street), the road to the gallows. Here prisoners from Newgate Prison were executed from `1400, the events being recorded in ancient parish registers of St Andrew’s Church, the oldest in the town.
The Keelmens Hospital, set back from the Quayside in All Saints Parish, is an early example of men providing for themselves by contributing to build an Almshouse for keelmen and their dependants. Holy Jesus Hospital is another building provided for the needy of the town. It was built by the Freemen of Newcastle.
Along the Quayside numerous “chares” can still be found. These narrow medieval alleys or lanes retain the term “chare” such as Broad Chare with its magnificent Trinity House and Pudding Chare. Others have picturesque names such as Breakneck Stairs and Long Stairs. The Benedictine nuns of St Bartholomew’s lived where Nun Street now stands. St Mary’s Place near the Haymarket recalls St Mary Magdalene, with its leper hospital outside the town wall. Wesley Square is named after John Wesley whose visit in 1715 was to him memorable for “the sight of so much drunkenness”.
Other famous men connected with the town included Roger Thornton, Harry Hotspur, Thomas Bewick and John Marley, all of whom gave their names to streets in the town.
This talk encouraged us on our next shopping trip to Newcastle to take a closer look at streets which may be familiar to us now for their shops and restaurants. We shall look at them with different eyes in future.
At the first meeting of the new season on 10th September, Alan Fendley spoke about North-East airfields – aviation history 1910–2003. His talk entertained and informed both those in the audience who had little knowledge of the subject and those who had, like Alan, served in the RAF.
The Northumberland airfields played an essential part in the defence of the country throughout this period.
Until 1918 military flight was the responsibility of both the Royal Flying Corps, which was part of the army, and the Royal Naval Air Service. In those early days there were isolated, temporary airfields such as Newcastle Town Moor, where there was also an aircraft factory (1912–6), and at Long Benton, where there was a balloon barrage to protect the Tyne shipyards.
The RAF was formed as an independent organisation in April 1918. Acklington airfield was operational from 1916–20 as the Royal Flying Corps, and in 1938 it reopened to be used by the RAF until 1975.
In WWII the region was largely responsible for training, which was no less dangerous than the better known exploits of the air crews in the south. The RAF had expanded in the 1930s, and during the Battle of Britain the defence of the UK's airspace was divided up within RAF Fighter Command into four Groups, each comprising a number of airfields and squadrons. No. 13 Group covered the north of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
The four groups saw different levels of activity during the Battle. No. 13 Group was primarily a training region. No. 11 Group, responsible for the defence of London and the south-east, saw the heaviest fighting, and pilots were often rotated among the groups to allow them to rest and recuperate after several weeks of fierce contact with the enemy, so many came north.
No. 13’s training role might be considered less risky, but a quarter died during training so in fact it was more hazardous. No. 4 Air Gunnery School at Tramwell Woods, Morpeth, (1942–45) had an exceptionally high death rate, including many Poles who had escaped to fight for the Allies.
The Group HQ and radar school was at Ouston (1941–3), and training on Spitfires took place at Eshott (1942–5).
Milfield is a natural aerodrome (1942–59); however pilots were obliged to take off into the prevailing westerly wind, leading to many crashes in the Cheviot Hills.
In addition to training, the North East saw plenty of action during the war. Based at Acklington, in October 1939 on their first combat patrol, 607 Squadron shot down an enemy flying boat. In February 1940, also flying from Acklington, F/L Peter Townsend shot the first enemy aircraft to fall on English soil. He became an ‘Ace’ pilot when later he had downed 5 enemy aircraft.
Presumably the pilot of a Junkers 88 thought he had saved German secrets by landing in the sea at Budle Bay, but when the tide went out the plane was salvaged and gave up valuable information.
Attempting to negotiate a peace before Hitler’s invasion of Russia, Rudolf Hess landed at Bamburgh before going on to crash-land near Glasgow.
Two Danish students, who had built a plane in a barn, flew westwards towards the UK where they were picked up on radar. They went on to serve in the RAF, one dying in service.
In the severe 1943 winter, an American Boeing B17 Flying Fortress had to abort its flight to Germany and return to Molesworth, Cambridgeshire. Hopelessly lost, it crashed into Cheviot. By chance a shepherd’s collie led people to the site, and all but 2 of the crew were rescued.
From 1936–8, Hindenburg airships provided the first regular scheduled flights between Europe and the US, but the crews also took aerial photographs for German intelligence. In 1945 some Luftwaffe plates were used to find the site of Ad Gefrin, the royal Anglo-Saxon township.
The WWII airfields now have other uses: Wolsington became the site of Newcastle International airport, Ouston is now Albermarle army base, and Acklington site is a prison.
RAF Boulmer was originally a satellite to Eshott, but now it is now a base for Air Traffic Control and an early-warning station. The remaining ‘golf balls’ face east, as they were built during the cold war. Boulmer plots every flight across UK airspace, sometimes scrambling RAF planes to challenge unplanned flights. This important role will continue, but the more visible RAF Search and Rescue (SAR) Force is to end after 74 years, and instead the service will be provided by a private contractor. So we’ll no longer be seeing the yellow RAF Sea King helicopters, which Alan described as ‘thirty-seven and a half thousand rivets flying in formation’, and after more than a century of illustrious service there’ll be no RAF airfields in Northumberland.
Getting from A to B in the 1700s was a hazardous business.The roads were unmade, rutted and plagued by footpads and highwaymen. For these reasons most people stayed at home or in their own locality. Any long journeys involved a large retinue of people, horses and armed protectors.>
In his talk, Toll Roads and Turnpike Roads, Derek Cutts explained how Britain’s general increase in prosperity and more settled domestic political climate after the mid-18th century brought about a need for better, safer and quicker communications, a need that resulted in the construction of a road system of turnpikes and tolls that established the routes of most of the roads we use today.
The first Turnpike Act was passed in 1697 and more followed. Turnpike Acts put road building and maintenance into the hands of Toll Trusts. These Trusts were essentially local in their make-up but together were charged with doing something of national importance.
By the early 19th century, the toll system had spread all over the country. Progress was not easy. Derek explained how local considerations, petty jealousies or plain greed held up projects, led to their abandonment or to the re-routing of a proposed road. The results of some of this are still with us today – a bend that a horse drawn mail coach had difficulty negotiating will always be difficult for an articulated lorry! Wherever a turnpike necessitated a stop, supply businesses such as inns and farriers emerged.