The Curious Case of the Missing History


By Richard Oram

One thing that struck me most forcefully at Kielder was the almost total disconnection of locally-based people from the deep history of the North Tyne valley.  For some, 1982 seemed to represent a distinct break-point, with what came before holding little interest.  Indeed, there was more than one reference to how little there was of any historical interest in the valley.  When pushed, a very thin sequence of episodes/periods was offered: the dam’s construction and the flooding of the upper part of the valley; post-WWI to 1960s Forestry Commission management; 19th-century coal-mining and the railway; a gap until Border Rievers in the 16th century; then a leap straight back to the Romans; and before them a vague sense of ‘prehistory’ and then straight into geological time.  This lack of awareness of the rich history of this area appears to be compounded by the absence of obvious major archaeological monuments in the landscape.  Again, however, some harder questioning revealed that ‘history’ was something to be equated with large structural remains – castles, parish churches, hillforts etc – things which were not obvious to the eye in the valley north of Bellingham.  But, it was conceded, there were some abandoned post-medieval settlement sites in the afforested areas, some (probably Bronze Age) hut-circles and cairns, and some individual standing stones (but, to the disappointment of the Partnership employees questioned, no major ritual monuments).  Yet, especially amongst the FC employees, although there was suggestion of strong awareness of the wider archaeological landscape within the planted areas – expressed in terms of schedule and unscheduled Ancient Monuments marked on their maps – there was little recognition of the physicality of those monuments except where a line had been drawn around them on an OS sheet.  The system of turf banks between the reservoir and the road just north of Leaplish, for example, marking probably part of an early Improvement era upland farm complex, was clearly not considered even worth mentioning in the literature available at the information centre and passed unremarked upon by our guide.

It was quite shocking to me to hear the upper section of the North Tyne valley described as an area that had no ‘real history’.  This perception of it by its inhabitants appears to have been reinforced by what is very much a 20th-century tendency to treat it as a self-contained entity, a closed system that had – and still has – very few dealings with the lower part of the valley from Falstone down to Hexham.  Indeed, the fact that Falstone represents the southernmost extent of the Partnership’s territorial range has served to draw an artificial line across the valley and institutionalise the sense of separation between the two halves of what had formerly been the one system.  Discussion with employees – especially those who lived in Falstone or Kielder – revealed a perception of difference on their part from the communities lower down the valley: ‘people go down the valley for things, never up.’  It also revealed a very strong link back to that sense of the area covered by the reservoir and the forest being intrinsically without historical or archaeological interest; all the things that would interest people lay outside the forest boundary (including the closest castles) but really there wasn’t that much in any case north of Hadrian’s Wall until you were over the Border into Scotland.  There was very much a sense conveyed that the Partnership employees were convinced that there was almost no point trying to interest visitors in the history of the district because there wasn’t one that merited being talked about; again, there was a powerful view expressed that historic interest was dependent on major stone monuments that could assume an iconic role in the area’s promotion.  Without such an icon, there was no point in trying.  Indeed, there was almost an apology that the whole of the valley was of such obvious lack of historical relevance that we, as historians, had probably been wasting our time coming there!

Ironically, the narrative which we were presented with by way of thumb-nail outline pointed to a much richer and deeper history than the presenters were aware of.  The mining history of the valley, for which there is apparently a good photographic record, offers a striking contrast to the large-scale operations in the Northumberland and Durham coastal coalfields. Small in scale, remote and possibly originally serving the needs of the Tynedale communities, it offers a possibility through census records to provide a human-scale link to lost communities in the upper portion of the valley.  There was no indication of any link between the mines and the Duke of Northumberland’s estate around the head of the valley, much of which now lies under the forestry.  Passing reference to a grouse moor and shooting interests points to a different economic imperative and perhaps hints at an older importance for the area as part of a much larger, integrated system.  Indeed, there are indications of a complex economic network in the upper portion of the valley in the late 18th and 19th centuries, with mining communities being scattered through a landscape of upland, primarily pastoral farms, which backed onto the high moors and tops which were extensively exploited and used for seasonal grazing and hunting.  How old that kind of system was in its origins is unclear, but there are strong grounds for proposing that something of the kind was already in operation in the later 12th century, when the valley formed part of the lands in England held by the kings of Scots.  To understand that system and to present it clearly to the public, however, requires Tynedale to be considered again as a unit and far closer links to be reforged between the section north and west of Falstone and the part to the south and east of the village below the dam.

Perhaps the greatest irony is that many of the historical features which illustrate that former unity are driven past by visitors as they approach Kielder from the south-east.  Bellingham is the main community in the lower portion of the valley, a status which it has held since at least the 12th century when its church became the parish centre for the whole of upper Tynedale.  Parishes represent coherent economic and social entities; Bellingham parish stretched from the watershed with the catchment of Liddel Water to Wark and Simonburn.  The second major feature is Tarset Castle near Lanehead, which was the principal lordship centre in the upper stretch of the valley from the late 12th to at least the early 14th century.  Held by the Comyns, who were amongst the most important vassals of the kings of Scots, this was a major stone-built castle whose construction – and the expenditure on it – underscores the value in real terms which this property held for an important noble family.  Now reduced to earthworks (albeit hugely impressive ones) just north of the old railway line, there is not even an information board to draw attention to the existence of the site.  Tarset’s neglect seems to symbolise the severance of the local community from the richness of their past.

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  1. Erin Gill says:

    Perhaps those who work, live and/or manage the Kielder Water Forest Park have come to think little of the area’s history because it isn’t ‘Big History’. It’s Big Landscape, after all.

    Two ways of moving beyond their notion that in order to be valid and interesting history has to be ‘big’ might be a) to explore, as you suggest, the history of the upper Tynedale valley within the context of the wider area, including the southern parish of Bellingham, and b) to focus on the social history of upper Tynedale. An oral history of both the Forestry Commission’s activities and the building of Kielder Water dam could prove of great interest to visitors and residents.