The early Christian landscape of the Wansbeck

Hartburn, St Andrew church
Hartburn, St Andrew church

‘Most minsters stood near water, whether rivers or the sea. Peninsulas enclosed by converging rivers, or sites on tributaries two or three miles above confluences, were especially popular. The main church complex was normally, to a greater or lesser extent, elevated, whether on a coastal headland, a river-side scarp or bluff, or a small local hillock... In hilly areas there is a preference for sites with sheltering hills westwards and northwards, broad riverine views southwards and eastwards.’

(John Blair, The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society)

This gives us four things to indicate that a church might once have been Anglo-Saxon minster: An elevated peninsular site, open to the south and east and sheltered from the north and west.

To these we can add two other considerations, again following Professor Blair:

Fifthly, the quality of boundedness – making the minster a place apart. And lastly, access to the transport network, such as being near a Roman road, a ford, or navigable water. A well-attuned minster trod a fine line between accessibility and aloofness, between being in the world, but not of it.

Warkworth

Taking Warkworth as an example, the village is almost completely encircled by the River Coquet, giving it the quality of boundedness. And although a weir now blocks off the upper part of Warkworth Harbour, in Anglo-Saxon days sea-going ships could enter at high tide and lie up beside the church.

Hartburn

As you approach Hartburn from the Dyke Neuk, the road is unremarkable until about half a mile before the village. Then it drops 50ft into the valley of the Hart, crosses the bridge, and ascends steeply to St Andrew’s church and the village beyond.

Hartburn Bridge is a vital link in the local transport network, as anyone knows who has had to find their way back to Morpeth by some other route.

No doubt before the bridge was built people crossed by a ford at the same spot; but although the river is usually fairly shallow here, it must have been a perilously awkward crossing.

The Devil’s Causeway runs past the other end of the village, about half a mile west of the church. So Hartburn is on both a Roman road linking Corbridge to Tweedmouth and a critical river-crossing on a locally important east-west route.

The village occupies a wedge-shaped site aligned northeast-southwest, on the southern side of the Hartburn gorge and about a mile above the confluence of the rivers Hart and Wansbeck. The church stands on a bluff above the gorge. If you cross the churchyard and peer down, you can see the burn running far below on its rocky bed.

The natural boundary of the village on the south side is the valley of a little un-named burn, not quite so deep or steep as the Hartburn, but quite enough to give it a sense of boundedness. Only on the west was it necessary to have an artificial boundary.

If so, it probably consisted of a bank and ditch, perhaps running roughly north and south where the war memorial is.

However, according to Hodgson (History of Northumberland, Part II, Volume 1) the vicar’s glebe went from the church to the Devil’s Causeway so the man-made boundary may have been rather longer and gone all the way from the war memorial to the Roman road. Either way, there may yet be some trace of it for the archaeologist to find.

St Andrew’s church is wholly medieval, with no Anglo-Saxon masonry or carved stones. But Denis Briggs’s dowsed plan, which is on view at the back of the nave, tells a different story. Beneath it are the remains of an Anglo-Saxon church.

It has all the features we noticed at Bolam – nave, porch, apse and porticus. There are two apses. It is impossible to say from dowsing alone which is the earlier, but Mr Briggs opted for the shorter one.

Porticus (plural, rhyming with ‘goose’) were narrow chapels attached to the north or south wall of the nave, originally intended for the display of holy relics.

Each porticus was entered through a little doorway inside the church as a security measure.

But whereas at Bolam their existence on the north side is problematic, here it is not.

The six chambers are all more or less the same size and lie symmetrically on either side of the nave.

Small as that early church was, its plan shows a sophisticated understanding of church architecture.

It is not done to dig up the floor of a medieval church, so Denis Briggs’s plan is the only evidence we have of this early and interesting building. Our photograph shows the south-east view of a model of it, based on the plan.

The thing we know least about is the roof; it could have been of lead, stone slates or reed, or heather thatch.

The walls were certainly of sandstone and, based on the Anglo-Saxon churches at Escomb and Bradford-on-Avon, we can be fairly sure that they were high in proportion to the width of the building.

The porch and chancel were probably lower, while small, high windows like the ones shown can be found at Bolam, Jarrow, Woodhorn and other places.

The church and vicarage, though not the village, have good views to the south-east, across the Wansbeck Valley. Blair does not suggest a reason for minsters preferring an open view in that direction, but the obvious one is to catch the first rays of the sun on a winter morning. Minsters were not centrally heated. Any warmth was welcome.

Is Hartburn the missing minster?

I think it is. It stands in the middle of the Vale of Wansbeck above Morpeth, just where the other minsters in or near the Wansbeck Valley would have had difficulty reaching, and it meets all of John Blair’s criteria for the site of an inland minster.