Morpathia: Nice day out - A visit to Warden

View over the ramparts of Warden Hill.View over the ramparts of Warden Hill.
View over the ramparts of Warden Hill.
Warden, where the North and South Tyne meet, has some of the best scenery in Northumberland.

We began our walk on Tyne Green in Hexham, a delightful linear park that runs for three-quarters of a mile on the south bank of the river. An information panel a little further on told us that this was where the former Border Counties Railway left the Newcastle to Carlisle line and struck north to Riccarton Junction.

If you look carefully through the trees at this point, you can see the foundations of the bridge that carried it over the River Tyne. I took a picture, but the leaves on the trees made it difficult to see properly so you’ll just have to imagine it.

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The foundations, or cutwaters, appear to be of timber – though there may be something more substantial inside. Each has two huge circular iron bases on the top that held the vertical piers of the bridge. Why the demolition gang didn’t take them as well is something of a mystery.

Warden church – Anglo-Saxon tower and stone cross. Also pictured, cattle on the approach to Warden Hill.Warden church – Anglo-Saxon tower and stone cross. Also pictured, cattle on the approach to Warden Hill.
Warden church – Anglo-Saxon tower and stone cross. Also pictured, cattle on the approach to Warden Hill.

The line went on a winding course to Riccarton Junction, a now abandoned village that had no road access. It stood on the Waverley Line to Edinburgh, also now abandoned.

Part of the Waverley Line has been re-opened as the Borders Railway between Edinburgh and Tweedbank, but it stops fully 20 miles north of Riccarton Junction.

It’s curious to think that, back in 1837 when the leading men of Morpeth first took a serious interest in railways, the fear was that the line from Newcastle to Edinburgh would follow this ‘midland’ route, leaving Morpeth without any railway connection at all and causing it to lose its trade.

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Walking on, we crossed the South Tyne at Warden Bridge, of which more anon.

The surface of the North Tyne (centre back) is smooth, but of the South Tyne choppy.The surface of the North Tyne (centre back) is smooth, but of the South Tyne choppy.
The surface of the North Tyne (centre back) is smooth, but of the South Tyne choppy.

A little further on is Warden parish church, dedicated to St Michael and All Angels. The tower is Anglo-Saxon, straight up with no buttresses.

The lowest part, shown in our picture, has the characteristic long and short work at the corner. It is thought to have been founded by St John of Beverley in AD 704, but another contender is St Wilfrid, perhaps 30 years earlier.

Although the church is ancient, the nave was rebuilt in the 18th Century and the chancel in the 19th. The late Denis Briggs surveyed it by dowsing in 1981 and discovered the trace of a typical Anglo-Saxon church beneath the present building. It had a nave the same size as now, but a smaller chancel with an apsidal end.

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The cross in front of the tower is a conundrum. It appears to be an Anglo-Saxon preaching cross – a cross beside which visiting priests could preach and celebrate the Mass when there was as yet no church. There is no sign of carving on the shaft, just the cross at the top, which is of a type known as a hammerhead.

Plaque on Warden Bridge – G.B. Bainbridge lived at Espley.Plaque on Warden Bridge – G.B. Bainbridge lived at Espley.
Plaque on Warden Bridge – G.B. Bainbridge lived at Espley.

A bronze plaque says that it is early seventh Century. If so, it would mean that the cross was put up in the time of the two earliest missionaries to Northumbria – St Paulinus, who came north in 624 with the Kentish princess Ethelburga when she married Edwin, King of Northumbria, but fled south again after Edwin’s defeat in battle in 634, or St Aidan, who came to Northumbria in 635 and died in 651. Neither of these seems very likely and the authoritative Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture dates the cross to the late 11th Century.

If so, this means that the church is about 400 years older than the cross. One naturally thinks that a bronze plaque cannot lie, but in this instance it’s clearly adrift by a wide margin.

On our way to Warden Hill, we entered a park with cattle grazing peacefully on either side of the path. Our leader told us to keep together, avoid getting between a cow and her calf and if we spoke to the bull, address him as ‘Sir’.

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Lo and behold, there was the bull, a large white animal accompanied by a black one of uncertain gender and a sweet little brown calf. Fortunately, they weren’t even inquisitive let alone aggressive. We walked on up the hill.

When you get to the top, Warden Hill is magnificent. It’s about 600ft above sea level with 360° views all round – the pastoral scenery of Tynedale at its best.

The name, Warden, is thought to mean Watch Hill. Nothing could be more appropriate, so the name must evidently have referred to the hill before it was bestowed on the village down below.

We had lunch there and afterwards looked at the hillfort. The impression you get on the ground is a bit confused, though you can easily make out the innermost bank of the ramparts and the entrance on the west side.

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On Google Earth, however, it shows up beautifully. You can see clearly that it’s an oval, aligned east-west with two lines of concentric earth banks and in some places three. It dates back to the Iron Age, from about 600 BC and into the Roman period.

Although it’s small as hillforts go, an acre or less internally, the Historic England listing describes it as having probably been a permanently occupied, high-status settlement.

It certainly feels like that. You can easily imagine an ancient British chieftain standing on top looking round, knowing that he was lord of all he surveyed.

On the way back, we walked along the south bank of the South Tyne to where it meets the North Tyne. The footpath is good, with a bench and lots of wild flowers.

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It’s a strangely solemn experience, thinking that this is where the Tyne as we know it really begins.

To get there, of course, we had to go back over Warden Bridge – and it was on the return journey that I noticed a connection with Morpeth.

A cast-iron plaque says that it was built by the County Council of Northumberland in 1903. The Chairman was His Grace the Duke of Northumberland and it records that one G.B. Bainbridge Esq. was the Vice-Chairman of the Bridges and Roads Committee.

George Bargate Bainbridge (1850-1944) was the son of Emerson Muschamp Bainbridge, founder of the world’s first department store in Newcastle. Another of Emerson Muschamp’s innovations was to charge fixed prices instead of allowing his shop assistants and customers to haggle.

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George Bainbridge followed his father as chairman of Bainbridge & Co. He was a county councillor, becoming Vice-Chairman and later Chairman of the Bridges and Roads Committee, and a county alderman.

He lived at Espley Hall and was a good friend to Morpeth. He built the YMCA Building, now the Market Place Cafe and Manzil restaurant, and as President of the Morpeth branch, leased part of the premises to them at a peppercorn rent.

The YMCA stayed there until 1964, when they moved to the Parochial Hall in Damside, now Admiral Collingwood Court.

Alderman Bainbridge was also a staunch supporter of the Wesleyan Chapel in Manchester Street, now the Boys Brigade Hall, and of other Wesleyan churches.

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