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Ford and Etal

Central Northumberland

Rothbury and Coquetdale area of Northumberland

Coquet Valley from Simonside - Northumberland National Park

Coquet Valley from Simonside © Northumberland National Park

Rothbury  was once an important royal possession that looked destined for a comfortable future in farming, but it was denied that gilded life.

Instead the village was visited by one disaster after another. It was a war zone for centuries. Three hundred years of conflict with Scotland reduced the little community to poverty. Then came the English Civil War and later Scotland’s Jacobite rebellions, which spilled over into the county.

But as prosperity passed Rothbury by, so too did urban development, allowing rural beauty to survive. Today, houses cling to the steep-sided valley, looking down on characterful shops and a village green where players in the annual traditional music festival hold impromptu concerts.

The heart of Rothbury derives from the vision of one man, Victorian industrialist and inventor Lord Armstrong. With millions made in armaments and shipbuilding on the Tyne, he created a fairytale home on thousands of acres of moorland above the village and shared his prosperity.

Cragside, now managed by the National Trust, was the first house in the world lit by hydroelectricity and is equipped with ingenious household devices. Armstrong employed many villagers, planting seven million trees and running the estate, where guests included both British and foreign royalty.

Cragside © Simon Fraser

He ensured the railway was brought from Scot’s Gap to Rothbury. It survived as a passenger route until 1952, for freight until 1963. With its arrival the village flourished. Heather-thatched cottages were replaced with solid stone buildings housing services such as a cottage hospital, a magistrates’ court and two banks, and Rothbury had the largest livestock mart in the county. The Coquetdale Steeplechase meeting was held annually on a racecourse considered the finest in the North.

Coquetdale’s historian David Dippie Dixon recorded in 1903: “During the last 30 years the business of the little town has increased a hundredfold, which may be attributed to various causes, notably the coming of the late Lord Armstrong to Cragside in 1863, the opening of the Northumberland Central Railway in 1870, and the establishment of Messrs Donkin and Son’s mart in 1871.”

At last Rothbury was regaining its status. Remains of 12 hill forts indicate an important role in prehistory and it had been the capital of Coquetdale since early Anglo Saxon times. It belonged to the Crown until 1204, when King John handed it to the lords of Warkworth.

Little more than a century later, the dale was plagued with troubles. The climate became more rainy and cold, making hill farming more difficult. A series of famines between 1315 and 1317 was followed by epidemics among farm stock and then in mid-century by the Black Death. It was 100 years before the farming community began to recover.

It is thought Rothbury might once have had two churches, built end to end, as at Lindisfarne and Jarrow. But most of the building was destroyed in a Victorian redesign. However, All Saints retains in its font part of a stone cross, believed to be from the early 9th century and the oldest in England.

The villagers have not always been godly. A 19th century historian noted: “The people of Rothbury in former times were among the wildest and most uncivilised in the county. For fighting, gaming and drinking they had a worse reputation than the inhabitants of Tynedale and Redesdale. Very little regard had the good folk of Rothbury for the laws, and their love of venison frequently led them into trouble.”

Rothbury from Simonside © Duncan Elson, NNP

Rothbury is one of the historical 10 towns of Coquetdale, most of which were reduced to hamlets or farmsteads by depopulation that started with the Plague. Now planning policies curb building in the countryside. In the village recent house building by landowner the Duke of Northumberland has been allied to investment in the local sports club.

The meandering River Coquet, Northumberland’s longest, races through a narrow rock channel at Thrum Mill. Here the Gypsy King Willie Faa is reputed to have leapt the river when being pursued with the kidnapped heir of Clennell Castle. In 2008 and 2009 the Coquet flooded houses in the village.

A journey east to the A697 Morpeth-Coldstream former coaching road can lead south to Weldon Bridge and Brinkburn, the latter noted for its priory which hosts an acclaimed music festival.

Alternatively, turn off the Rothbury-Weldon Bridge road and pass a farm named Hope on the way to Longframlington, a village on the A697 with open views, a medieval church and an award-winning corner shop.

Continue east to Swarland, which looks across the coastal plain to Druridge Bay eight miles away. The village was owned by Nelson’s chandler Alexander Davison, who planted trees in parkland representing the fleets at the Battle of the Nile and erected an obelisk to the hero of Trafalgar.

Upper Coquet Valley © Peter Skelton

Much of the village was built in the 1930s for unemployed North East tradesmen, but most of the self-sufficiency plots have been given over to commuters’ houses. It has an equestrian centre and, in Forestry Commission woodland, an 18-hole golf course.

Nearby is Felton, with a main street of mellow stone and a couple of pubs, where the River Coquet flows through a 70ft gorge. There is a sweet medieval church on a hilltop.

Or from Longframlington follow the A697 north amid several miles of moorland, once frequented by highwaymen, to craggy Thrunton Woods.

To the north, leafy Whittingham on the River Aln was once the business centre for families farming higher in the valley, who flocked to a fair on St Bartholomew’s Day. Within living memory there were several tradesmen, from blacksmith to undertaker, as well as a police station.

The church of St Bartholomew has Anglo Saxon origins. Buried in the churchyard is the fashion designer Jean Muir, who lived at Lorbottle.

The ancient Drake Stone overlooking Harbottle © Northumberland National Park