Nancy

I have been ploughing my way through David Nasaw’s biography of Andrew Carnegie.  I have been panning for gold.  Carnegie was an avid golfer and somewhere in this 878pp tome there are unique, if short references, to the man’s passion for the game.  Golf in the Wild research can be a slow and laborious process.

I mention this only because I have been itching to move on.  Intrigued by the reference to Nancy Ridley in the previous post, ‘buried by the Lych gate’, at St Cuthbert’s Beltingham, I was curious enough to buy her long-out-of-print Portrait of Northumberland, first published in 1965.  I am a short way into its pages but her descriptions of Roman Wall Country are instantly recognisable, a litany of names and places I know intimately by foot, by car and on motorcycle.  It is our home.

After too many years ping-ponging between northwest England and the south, chasing IT’s filthy lucre, it is odd that I should find myself tied to this place, at the very edge of England’s last wilderness. Now, nearly twenty-five years in the same place, it would be unthinkable to be anywhere else other than here.

‘Here’ is a landscape that would be entirely recognisable to Nancy but her introduction to Portrait of Northumberland is from another time entirely – “The Tyne still maintains its reputation as the greatest ship repairing river in the world” – “Every Northumbrian town has a live-stock mart for the sale not only of home bred but also Irish cattle” – “This is one of the most popular holiday districts in Northumberland where the same people go year after year.  There are many good boarding houses in Allendale Town”.  Sadly, the ‘same people’ are now most likely to be found on foreign beaches.

Nancy’s introduction also includes many references to the Great North Road which in her time would have run through the heart of towns and cities on its way to the Scottish Borders and beyond. The same would have been true of the old Newcastle to Carlisle A roads on their journey through the Tyne Valley.  We walk round with computing power in our pockets, unimaginable in 1965 but, the most visible aspect of change are the roads and vehicles on them – this from newcastleuncovered.com

In contrast, these recent images from around Beaufront Woodhead present a landscape unchanged since Nancy’s time and long before:

Lone trees on the lane to Acomb

Broken gate

Unbroken gate

Bridge on the lane to Acomb

This morning, while snow still lay all around we drove to the Allen Gorge car park and again walked to Beltingham, this time in search of Nancy’s grave. It should be easy to find but even after a relatively short time, the headstone is almost indecipherable:

Nancy’s grave – almost indecipherable

Time, she says,
“There’s no turning back,
keep your eyes on the tracks”
Through the fields, somehow there’s blue
Oh, time will tell, she’ll see us through

Finally a technical point re the images – generally I will shoot in Acros (+Yellow filter) so I can see the tones of a mono image on the camera LCD. Then, I will normally process the RAW image, sometimes colour, sometimes mono – for once these are all straight Acros jpegs from the ‘can’ – tweaked with the Camera RAW filter in PhotoShop CC. Interestingly, it is surprising how much shadow detail can be recovered even from a jpeg. Use of the original Acros image also preserves the film grain that Fuji have worked so hard to emulate.

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St Cuthbert’s – Beltingham

I get places on a motorcycle – in July last year it was St Cuthbert’s at Beltingham, an out-of-the-way place in Northumberland with surprising connections.  Today we returned on foot.  According to the Spirit in Stone website, St Cuthbert’s is a much loved and regularly used Grade I listed church, it’s the finest example of 15th Century Perpendicular style in the country. Restored in 1884, a vestry was added, an earlier window remains however as does a squint, a small barred open window. There are fine stained glass windows by Kempe 1891 and two of his pupils, and a modern window by Leonard Everetts 1982. A medieval font stands by the entrance, where Bishop Ridley was baptised, who was martyred by Queen Mary in 1555. In the stone window frames on the south side there are relief carvings of a rabbit, flowers, fleur-de-lys and a grotesque mask.

Adjacent to the churchyard is a restored Pele tower, and an old family home of the Bowes Lyon (Queen Mother’s family), both in private ownership. In the churchyard, there is a Roman Altar and Nancy Ridley author is buried by the Lych gate. There is a shaft of a Saxon Cross c. 680 AD on the the East side, and a large Yew Tree on the North side, possibly 2000 years old. The South and East walls of the church are marked by scratches, thought to have been made by archers sharpening arrowheads.  In the graveyard the Bowes Lyons have their own personal section, walled and gated from the rest of us.

I have passed by on a number of occasions and always the doors to the church have been locked.  Today we got lucky:

Inside St Cuthbert’s, Beltingham – one of the occasional days it is open.

Outside St Cuthbert’s, Beltingham

A fading story – headstone at St Cuthbert’s

Gravestone, St Cuthbert’s, Beltingham

Etched in stone – a sad story – St Cuthbert’s

The Cross

Given the proximity of the ‘b’ and the ‘n’ on the QWERTY keyboard, this place could be easily dismissed as a typo.  Approaching from the east via Gilsland and West Hall, Bewcastle seems impractically distant from anywhere.  In the words of Peter Davidson, it feels like the last of England.  The sheep and cattle roam free under the Border’s wide skies, at a point where Northumberland, Cumbria and southernmost Scotland meet.  Davidson compares its remoteness with that of Norway’s northernmost Sami territory, Finnmark.  It was probably this, more than anything, that determined I must go.

And yet, for all its remoteness, there is obvious evidence that, at various times in ancient history, this place possessed significance.  There is the corvid haunted castle, the church which stands on the same land once occupied by a Roman fort and, within the graveyard, the Bewcastle Cross,  the finest Anglican Cross in Europe. Dating from the 7th century, it is dedicated to Alcfrith, son of Oswiu, King of Northumberland who ruled from 641 – 670 ADwww.bewcastle.com.

Bewcastle Cross, St Cuthbert’s Church

St Cuthbert’s Church

Peter Davidson again – The Idea of North – Topographies , Britain:  The point of the Bewcastle Cross within any idea of the English north is the absolute, internationalist sophistication of its iconography and execution: the vine scrolls are eastern Mediterranean in inspiration; the panel of Christ is derived, via Ireland, from Coptic sources. This is as sophisticated an artefact as the England of the late seventh century was capable of producing: it has details consonant with the sculpture of contemporary Rome.  It forces a reconsideration of the whole question of centre and periphery, standing as it now does in a hamlet at the very edge of England where to go further north you would have to walk to reach Scotland.  By drove roads, moss-troopers’ tracks, memorised secret paths to the frontier.

Rome, 1141 miles

The road to New House

Between Park Farm and The Wilderness

The ford at Rawney

These last images are from a four mile, circular walk that heads north from Bewcastle towards New House, west to Park Farm, south to Lyne Bank Bridge and east, back to Bewcastle.  Examine the OS map and the entire area is criss-crossed by footpaths, bridle paths and farm tracks – the memorised secret paths to the frontier.

We will return – not least because Bryony and Joy at the relatively nearby Scypen were so welcoming, late on a March Sunday afternoon.

OS Map view of walk