Morpeth Northumberland Travel and Tourism Information
Perhaps it was a masterpiece of branding by locals who didn’t welcome visitors. Certainly it would stop many in their medieval tracks if they realised the name Morpeth meant murder path.
The town with the deadly name is now an attractive haven for commuters and wildlife. It stands on a loop of the Wansbeck, a picturesque river that has proved volatile in recent years, seriously flooding parts of the town.
Along its south bank is Carlisle Park, which in summer 2011 was accredited by Visit England for the 10th time. The name is a reminder of the family who donated the land, the Howards, who were lords of Morpeth and later Earls of Carlisle.
Famous sons of Morpeth include the Father of English Botany William Turner, who is commemorated with a herb garden in Carlisle Park. In the 16th century he was the first Englishman to describe and record plant species. His herball was written in English to be read by non-academic people.
Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood fired the first shot at the Battle of Trafalgar and took command after Nelson was killed. Baron Collingwood was born in Newcastle but lived in Oldgate at Morpeth, calling his garden overlooking the river his quarterdeck. It is now the site of St Robert’s RC Church. He said: “Whenever I think how I am to be happy again, my thoughts carry me back to Morpeth.”
Suffragette Emily Davison, who lived a few miles away at Longhorsley, is buried in the graveyard of St Mary’s Parish Church. She died in 1913 after being trampled at the Derby by the King’s horse Anmer while demanding votes for women.
An adopted Morpethian was Robert, abbot of Newminster, who successfully defended himself against an accusation of “excessive familiarity with a pious woman” and was eventually declared a saint.A mile west of Morpeth are the remains of Newminster Abbey, founded in 1138 by white-robed Cistercian monks from North Yorkshire’s Fountains Abbey. It would have been built in similar splendid style. Its lands extended miles west to the source of the Wansbeck, near the Roman road Dere Street, today’s A68.
The frugal Cistercians kept sheep here for wool, not meat, and believed in learning from Nature as much as from books. All their abbeys were dedicated to St Mary the Virgin, as is Morpeth’s 14th century parish church. The abbey was ruined by Henry VIII and then generations of local people who carried away stones.
Unlike other Northumberland market towns, Morpeth is predominantly built of brick, which became the norm here after a fire in the late 17th century destroyed dozens of small houses. Its Clock Tower in Oldgate, thought early 17th century, is distinctive as freestanding belfries are extremely rare in England.
Next to the river and beside bustling Telford Bridge, the Chantry dates from 1296 in the reign of Edward I, Hammer of the Scots. Here prayers were said for the dead and for benefactors of the chapel. It became the King Edward VI Grammar School by royal charter in 1552 and is now a craft showroom, shop, tourist information centre and bagpipe museum.
The 1714 Town Hall was designed by Sir John Vanbrugh, who also created Castle Howard in North Yorkshire – Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead – for the Earl of Carlisle. When the Howard family’s estate in Morpeth was broken up a century ago, Lord Joicey bought the Town Hall and presented it to the townspeople.
Morpeth Castle was wrecked in the Civil War when 500 Lowland Scots held it for 20 days on behalf of Parliament against 2,700 Royalists. The gatehouse was restored by the Landmark Trust as holiday apartments. It was the second castle built in the town, a short distance from the first, which was on Ha’ Hill in what is now Carlisle Park.
The park contains one of Morpeth’s five local nature reserves, the others being Borough Woods, Bracken Bank, Scotch Gill Woods and Davies Wood. The park’s ancient semi-natural woodland is home to at least three species of bat and the area is a haven for red squirrels.
The castle-like old courthouse, opposite the gates of the park, was designed by John Dobson as the gatehouse to a jail. It made an imposing backdrop to the dispensation of justice by local magistrates until its closure in 1980 when it was converted to homes. Nearby Goosehill was the site of a gallows until public executions ended.
The town centre has recently been transformed by the redesign of the Sanderson Arcade, which includes M&S and a host of high street names as well as local specialist shops such as a chocolatier. Morpeth is home to County Hall and the county library, which houses the Northern Poetry Library, the largest collection of contemporary poetry outside London.
There is a golf course, a sports centre with pool at the riverside and rugby and football pitches on the fringes of town. At nearby Tranwell is the Pegasus Centre of Riding for the Disabled. A couple of miles south of Morpeth is Whitehouse Farm Centre, where animals range from crickets to llamas and shire horses.
Records of Morpeth are first seen in Norman times. Before that there were perhaps a dozen small settlements, among them possibly a hill fort near the site of today’s railway station and habitations on what is now the golf course.
After the Conquest, Morpeth was granted by the king to William de Merlay and became the centre of a barony which included Shilvington, Saltwick, Twizell, Duddo, Blagdon, Shotton, Clifton, Stannington, Hepscott and Ulgham. De Merlay built the town’s first castle.
Both castle and town were burned down by King John in 1216 in retaliation for being forced by barons to sign Magna Carta. One of the barons was Roger de Merlay, who gained the right to hold markets in Morpeth. The family developed the town north of the river, the newness indicated by names such as Newgate Street. Behind each house was a long burgage strip where animals could be kept and food grown.
Local government was carried out by trade guilds. Seven key-carrying aldermen from seven companies were needed to open the town treasury, a box called “the hutch”. The Morpeth mace of 1604 was presented by the lord of the manor Lord Howard, of Naworth in Cumbria. Known as Belted Will, he earned income from Morpeth interests including corn and fulling mills.A predecessor was Thomas, Lord Dacre of Gilsland, who fought at Flodden in 1513 and discovered the body of Scotland’s James IV on the battlefield.
For centuries Morpeth had a noted cattle market and was a centre for leather tanning – in 1683 the Tanners’ Company bought acres of oak trees to provide bark for the industry. In the early 19th century there were 25 butchers, 18 grocers, 15 tailors and 34 inns and taverns. The Sun Inn, near the parish church, is an ancient hostelry.
The church grounds include 18th century watch houses to prevent bodies being snatched for medical studies. Among the graves are those of Second World War Polish servicemen. Local history is re-enacted in colourful style every April at the Northumbrian Gathering’s Border Cavalcade, when the Morpeth Gadgy welcomes lord of the manor Lord Greystoke back from the Battle of Otterburn in 1388.
Gathering chairman Kim Bibby-Wilson says: “The cavalcades celebrate neither victory nor defeat, but rather the spirit of Borderers caught up in the web of everlasting conflict at a frontier.”
Where is Morpeth?:
See the map on our Northumberland maps page.