A gloriously fine day greeted 28 members and friends of Glendale Local History Society for their tour of the Ministry of Defence Otterburn Ranges.
It couldn’t have been a more appropriate visit as we remembered that soldiers would have been training in this very landscape 100 years ago in anticipation of what became the Great War.
Our group travelled along the old Roman road, Dere Street, built in 71-81AD as a thoroughfare from York to the north. From this track evidence of four or five Roman camps could just be detected by a discerning eye. As we entered the danger area, used for live firing practice and night training, it became apparent there were no stone walls, sheep stells, or barbed wire fences – thus reducing the risk of ricochet.
We were privileged to be taken into a forbidden area littered with dozens of historic tanks now used for target practice. We also saw two small railway track systems which were still used for targeting moving objects.
Along with more modern day bunkers we viewed Ridless Bronze Age burial cairn which, situated on high ground, had high status and commanding views.
The bulk of this remote, desolate land (now comprising 32,000 hectares) had been purchased in 1911 from the Redesdale (Mitford) family and has been used for military training for 104 years. It comprises undulating moorland with ridges and basins of which 95 per cent is now designated National Park.
The area is farmed as upland grazing with the lambing season protected by a ‘no firing’ policy.
A wealth of protected wildlife and archaeological remains is to be found. The highlight, regarded as the most evocative site, is the protected Scheduled Monument First World War trench system. These trenches were dug, when strategic changes were needed as the war progressed, to initiate new recruits into the type of warfare they would face.
An archaeological excavation in 2005 concluded it was unlikely that soldiers of the day had lived in these trenches. However, they had been constructed according to the manuals of the time. Their design included a front line, support line, communication trench and reserve line.
It is likely that they were used to train gunners and for artillery practice from miles behind the reserve line, in practice for firing over trenches to enemy lines.
After the deployment of the British Expeditionary Force (which numbered far less than the French and Germans armies), the British Forces saw a million men join up, occupation and fitness were required in readiness until these new recruits could be deployed. Trenches were dug all over England to fulfil this purpose. The Otterburn trenches, however, are unique.
We were very grateful to Philip Abramson for guiding our tour and sharing his extensive knowledge. To conclude, 18 of the group enjoyed lunch at Otterburn Mill, which itself has a rich heritage, reflecting the rise and passing of the industrial revolution. The main buildings date back to the mid 18th century, when it was a thriving woollen mill.
GLHS starts its next season in September. Visit www.wooler.org.uk/glhs