Crossing the Wansbeck

to go with Roger Hawkins' Morpathia piece'Chantry Bridge is on the site of the Anglo-Saxon ford
to go with Roger Hawkins' Morpathia piece'Chantry Bridge is on the site of the Anglo-Saxon ford

Roger Hawkins looks at the various River Wansbeck crossings in his latest Morpathia feature.

The late Alec Tweddle once gave a lecture to Morpeth Antiquarian Society on river crossings in the town, and there are surprisingly many: Low Ford Bridge, Skinnery Bridge, Bakehouse Steps, Oldgate Bridge, Elliott Bridge, Chantry Bridge, Telford Bridge, Stobsford Bridge, and of course the Stobsford itself.

Downstream from that is the Quarry bridge and finally the railway viaduct.

Old maps show other crossings, now gone. In 1860 there were stepping stones between Goosehill and the Terrace car park. Oldgate Bridge was a suspension bridge with a ford next to it for vehicles.

There used also to be a ford beside the Chantry bridge, which for centuries was the recognised crossing place until the medieval bridge was built, and there was another ford below the Stobsford that served Borehole Lane.

Most of them were purely for local traffic. The one that gave Morpeth its importance was the one near the Chantry, originally a ford, then the narrow, hump-backed medieval bridge, and now the Telford Bridge.

If we consider the ancient geography of the town, the first thing to note is that the Wansbeck is not navigable and is an obstacle to travel. Secondly, the road from Newcastle to Alnwick and beyond is not Roman.

What eventually became the Great North Road was no more than a succession of tracks linking one hamlet with the next in Anglo-Saxon times. If so, it is interesting to speculate on why long-distance travellers in those days crossed the Wansbeck here rather than somewhere above or below.

Not crossing downstream is easily explained. The Wansbeck enters its gorge below Morpeth, and after that becomes tidal. From the earliest times, therefore, the ford at Morpeth was the lowest reasonably safe crossing place.

The medieval bridge was built in the 13th century, but the ford may have had a bridge or submerged causeway even before that. The early form of Wansbeck was Wenespik.

In ‘Northumberland Place-Names’, Stan Beckensall suggests that this could be Wain-Spik, i.e. Wagon-Bridge, ‘spik’ being an obscure word in both Dutch and German meaning a bridge made of tree trunks or brushwood. There appears to be no equivalent word in the Anglo-Saxon, but it is suggestive that ‘spæc’ means a small branch or thin twig and ‘spelc’ a splint, which has an obvious affinity with the Northumbrian spelk.

Until the mid-19th century, Morpeth was the lowest bridging point on the Wansbeck.

Geographers take it for granted that everybody wants to cross a river at its lowest bridging point, but there is no obvious reason not to cross further upstream.

The Roman road called Devil’s Causeway crosses the Wansbeck at Marlish, the Hart at Hartburn and the Font near Netherwitton, and another Roman road, Dere Street, now the A68, was one of the most travelled routes into Scotland right up to the days of turnpike roads.

But one reason for long-distance travellers in Anglo-Saxon and Norman times to cross at Morpeth rather than further inland would have been because it is on the direct route north from the Roman bridge at Newcastle, the Pons Aelius.

Another, taking the point about the Devil’s Causeway, is that they would have encountered several large tributaries if they crossed further upstream.

Having chosen to cross the Wansbeck somewhere here, the question arises: Where exactly? It will be easier to see what options our travellers had if we imagine them coming from the north.

After fording the Coquet at Felton, they crossed a belt of high ground and descended gradually to Bullers Green. At that point their route became a narrow track with a steep drop on either side, the Cottingburn on the left and the Wansbeck on the right.

This track, now Newgate Street, is a classic example of geographical determinism – no other approach to the river crossing would have made sense.

Standing on the low terrace where Bridge Street is now, our travellers faced difficulties. The place where they stood was all right, but the south side was all obstacles.

On their right, the bank curved round in a forbiddingly steep cliff.

On their left, both banks were occupied by dangerous marshy areas, represented today by Low Stanners on the north bank and the West, Middle and East Greens on the south.

The only safe option was a ford, roughly where the Telford and Chantry bridges are now. There, an island-like hill, occupied now by Wansbeck Street, gave a safe foothold on the south bank.

We can no longer reconstruct the natural landscape south of Telford Bridge in detail, but a number of burns, now culverted, made their way into the Wansbeck somewhere near it.

The main ones were the Churchburn and the Postern Burn.

The land now occupied by the flower park and the courthouse, and extending eastwards as far as Crawford Terrace, was a deltaic area where sluggish streams wound in and out between swamps and low-lying islands.

So, not wishing to drown in a quagmire, travellers from the north crossed by the ford, gained the south bank near Wansbeck Street and turned right into Hill Gate.

They made their way over the shoulder of Ha’ Hill, crossed the Postern Burn as best they could, then climbed up the path to where the War Memorial is now.

From there they followed the tarry peth to St Mary’s Church. This ancient routeway is easy enough to follow, but it does involve a stiff climb at each end.

One might reasonably ask why they didn’t they follow the course of the modern road from Castle Square to St Mary’s. The answer is simple: it didn’t exist.

If you look carefully at the road between the Courthouse and Mafeking Park, it is actually in a cutting. The Churchburn at that point lies in a deep valley, which you can easily see if you peer over the stone wall at Mafeking Park. Our ancient travellers did not want to go along the bottom of the burn, so they took the path over the hill instead.

The Churchburn gorge used to continue upstream from Mafeking Park. Engineers in the early 19th century, probably Thomas Telford and his assistants, cut a ledge into the valley side to carry their new turnpike road.

It was carefully graded so that the horses pulling the mails could go at a fast trot in both directions.

At the back of the ledge, still visible from the Sun Inn to the Park Gates, they built a retaining wall of creamy sandstone.

In the 20th century, the burn above Mafeking Park was culverted. Its gorge was filled with the contents of the town’s dustbins, and Deuchar Park laid out when the landfill reached the level of Telford’s road.

It is difficult to picture this formidable valley as it was a thousand years ago, but once you can see it in your mind’s eye, you can appreciate why the ancient trackway took the route it did.