Charting the county’s old farmsteads

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Leaving behind the pillbox at the top of Hemscott Hill, we proceed northwards towards Druridge.

This part of Northumberland is rich in what were once big Victorian farms. They grew out of the 18th century drive for agricultural improvement and had their heyday in the High Farming period from about 1840 to 1880.

Blakemoor House was one such. Here, on our left, we come to Hemscott Hill farm, a typical stone-built Northumbrian farm.

The house itself is not listed, but the 19th century outbuildings are: “Cartsheds probably early C19, shelter sheds and pigsties mid-C19. Cartsheds rubble, other buildings roughly-squared stone with tooled-and-margined quoins; slate roofs. Shelter shed L-plan; south wing has three segmental arches and left return with round-arched pigeon opening; west wing has two segmental arches and boarded door to right. Gables with moulded kneelers and coping. Pigsties attached to North East corner of west wing have reverse-stepped gables; twin yards on east have walls with chamfered coping.”

A little further on, we come suddenly to a sharp left turn. Just beyond is Druridge, after which Druridge Bay is named. The earliest form of it, from 1243, is ‘Dririg’. It means ‘Dry Ridge’, which suggests that the area was, as it is now, always rather waterlogged.

Druridge is another big 19th century farmstead, except that, significantly, it appears in John Speed’s map of c.1610, which the other two do not.

Speed tried to show the relative importance of places. Most have a dot in a circle, and a tower with a spirelet. This does not indicate a church. It is merely a stylised roof.

In his map of Hampshire, Speed marked most places with a dot and circle, but the usual symbol in his other county maps is a tower. I hardly think this means that places in Hampshire were less important than anywhere else. He simply changed his mind about how to show them, though why he didn’t keep to the simple dot and circle, I can’t imagine.

Nor can the tower symbol mean that all these places had towers. Cadwallader Bates' map of Castles and Fortalices in Northumberland in 1415 shows only Widdrington and Warkworth in this area.

In 1610, Warkworth was the most important place hereabouts, with two towers and a flat-topped building. But Widdrington is shown almost as boldly. East and West Chevington have each a tower and a flat-roofed building, as does Felton, on the left-hand edge of the map, suggesting something a little above the average. This is credible for Felton, which had its medieval bridge, but the Chevingtons seem rather unlikely candidates for special distinction. It may be, however, that the person who surveyed the area, perhaps Speed himself, was favourably impressed by them.

The scale of the map clearly made selection essential. If it were not for that, Chibburn Preceptory, which in Speed’s time had been a place of importance within living memory, would surely have merited inclusion.

The very obviously blank area to the north of Druridge is interesting. Speed plainly wasn’t intent on filling every square inch, regardless of what was in it, so we can safely assume that the coast lands between Druridge and Hauxley were pretty much as empty then as they are now.

It is this very sparsity that made, and perhaps still makes, Druridge a viable site for a nuclear power station. In a report on possible sites for new nuclear power stations, prepared as recently as 2009 by Atkins Ltd for the Department of Energy and Climate Change, the authors say: “Demographic risk: This entire area passes the demographic criterion. The part of the area with the lowest population impact is around the ‘Druridge B’ site identified by the CEGB in the early 1980s.”

The expression “around the Druridge B site” means practically everything between Druridge and Widdrington to the south, and Ladyburn Lake to the north, but avoiding those three places, and set back from the coast for environmental and other reasons.

Druridge Farm used, like Hemscott Hill, to be a large Victorian farm. What were once labourers’ cottages line the roadside, and farm buildings stand behind. But most of them have been converted to dwellings so it is more now like a hamlet than a farm. A minor road runs northwards from here for about three-quarters of a mile. It comes to an end in a turning circle, after which you can carry on on foot.

It’s an extremely popular place. When I was there, the road and the grass verges were dotted with the cars of people who had gone walking or were off to the beach.

The other attraction is the Druridge Pools Nature Reserve. Like Cresswell Pond, it’s great for bird-watching, but its origin is different. Cresswell Pond is quite shallow and is due to subsidence following underground mining. The Druridge Pools site, by contrast, was an opencast mine, and owes its formation to post-extraction landscaping.

Northumberland Wildlife Trust bought it from British Coal in 1987. A path leads off the road to two hides, one to the north overlooking the large pool, which is also very deep, and one to the south, which looks towards Druridge Farm. The Trust describe this southern part of the reserve as “two wet fields”, but what I saw from the hide was a very attractive small pool with marguerites growing in front of it.