On Gibbet Hill

To the west of Dartmoor is Gibbet Hill, a rounded prominence offering good views and grim memories.. For it was here that criminals who were hanged were gibbeted after death – as an example to others tempted to stray off the straight and narrow. Beamish April 2018 010

There were many gibbets across the land – for execution was not uncommon in the old days, and lots of men, women and children were left to swing after the hangman had “turned them off”. Most executions didn’t take place actually at the gibbet. The dead were brought there for prominent display where they might overlook the roads and tracks used by others who might be similarly tempted.

Interestingly, Dartmoor’s Gibbet Hill was an exception. It seems that execution and slow tortuous deaths might have taken place there as well. The great Dartmoor chronicler William Crossing relates that:

The modern road passes over the shoulder of Gibbet Hill, the highest point of Black Down, the scene, as some stories say, of the death by burning of the wicked Lady Howard. Tales are also related in the neighbourhood of unfortunate wretches being confined there in an iron cage and left to die, as a punishment for their crimes on the highway. It is told of one that he existed for a considerable time in the cage, the country people supplying him with food, and that he was sometimes so ravenous that he had been known to devour candles, when the market folk going homeward had nothing better to offer him, It may be remarked that one of the gates of Black Down, at the end of Burn Lane, is still known as Ironcage Gate. A Hundred Years on Dartmoor.

Our ancestors might have been tough on crime, but they cared little for the causes of crime. Poverty, starvation even, drove desperate people to break the law. You could be hanged and gibbeted for offences that would just get you a police caution these days. And the system was socially biased – the rich could get away with lots, the poor paid a terrible price for the most modest stepping over of the legal boundaries.Man Trap 3

The great place for London executions was, of course, Tyburn (present-day Marble Arch). I never used to walk down London’s Oxford Street without remembering that this was the way that the condemned were brought from Newgate Gaol on their way to execution – a journey that could take two or three hours, despite it only being two miles distant. The grim procession would stop frequently at every tavern so that the doomed criminal could indulge in refreshments.

There were usually eight hanging days at Tyburn a year, and they were great social occasions. Far from having a deterrent effect that attracted thousands of onlookers for a day out. The hangings were a popular entertainment for London folk.

Apart from gibbeted people, the countryside was fraught with danger of the casual walker. Stray off the path and you might well be peppered by shot from a gamekeeper’s spring gun or caught in a landowner’s man trap. Rights of way, public highways – the footpaths and bridleways we walk today – are fortunate to survive. Landowners generally looked askance at wanderers and vagabonds. Some, of course, still do!Man Trap 2

Overlooking Ballachulish in Scotland is the site of the gibbeting of James of the Glens, executed for the murder of Colin Campbell, a act of vengeance in a vicious clan war, though James was almost certainly innocent. Robert Louis Stevenson used the Appin Murder and its consequences as the plot for his great novel Kidnapped. There is a moving memorial to James on the spot now, just up from the Ballachulish Bridge.Joe the Quilter

The last gibbetings took place in England as recently as 1832. Durham miner William Jobling was executed for murder and gibbeted at Jarrow Slake:

The body was encased in flat bars of iron of two and a half inches in breadth, the feet were placed in stirrups, from which a bar of iron went up each side of the head, and ended in a ring by which he was suspended; a bar from the collar went down the breast, and another down the back, there were also bars in the inside of the legs which communicated with the above; and crossbars at the ankles, the knees, the thighs, the bowels the breast and the shoulders; the hands were hung by the side and covered with pitch, the face was pitched and covered with a piece of white cloth.

James Cook of Leicester met a similar fate, gibbeted close to the Aylestone Tollgate. The Newgate Calendar records that

Thousands of persons were attracted to the spot, to view this novel but most barbarous exhibition; and considerable annoyance was felt by persons resident in the neighbourhood of the dreadful scene. Representations were in consequence made to the authorities, and on the following Tuesday morning instructions were received from the Home Office directing the removal of the gibbet.

If you weren’t gibbeted your corpse was often handed over to the surgeons for medical research.

It’s interesting that when you think of people wandering the tracks, roads and footpaths, before the 1830s, including some of our greatest chroniclers such as Charles Dickens and George Borrow, that the sight of gibbeted corpses must have been so familiar that they scarcely mentioned it.

Nearly all the gibbets have gone now, though a few replicas have been erected, such as the one in my picture above at the Beamish Living Museum. But the memories linger on…

The late-medieval French poet Francois Villon, wrote the following about gibbets when he was waiting to be hanged -fortunately he was spared…

Dried by the sun are we, black from its ray;

Washed clean and spotless, for the rains come nigh.

Close hang the ravens and the vultures grey,

To feast upon and hollow out each eye.

Even for beard and eyebrow they will sigh.

No rest for us, spinning ceaselessly,

Only the wind and pay the law’s last fee,

More pecked of birds than fruit on garden wall.

Therefore, in mercy, look not scornfully,

But ever pray that God will pardon all.

L’Epitaphe Villon, Trans. Lewis Wharton.

Beamish April 2018 010

 

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Turnpikes, Toll Gates, Fly Agaric, the South Tyne and the Pennine Way

There was a wonderful cloud inversion as we drove up Hartside on the way to Garrigill, for a walk along the Pennine Way and the South Tyne Trail. One of the best we’ve seen for a long time, hiding the levels of the Eden and the Solway. The high Pennines around were high above the clouds, a hard frost giving a ‘first taste of winter’ look to this wild northern countryside.

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Garrigill (c) John Bainbridge 2018

The road to Alston has one of the steepest climbs in the country as it ascends to Hartside – the once familiar cafe now a sad ruin after a recent fire. Interestingly, it was turnpiked in the 18th century at the expense of the Commissioners of Greenwich Hospital in London, mostly because they owned a lot of moorland around Alston.

Turnpikes were effectively toll roads, built at the expense of private companies. I suppose, given that there was no real income tax at the time, it was the only way roads could be funded. Companies did it for profit, of course.

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On the South Tyne (c) John Bainbridge 2018

The snag was that people had to pay for travel, no matter how poor they may be. Some rich travellers didn’t like to pay either. It wasn’t unknown for wealthy gents to leap the toll gates on their horses. George Templar of Stover, Devon, made rather a habit of it.

But in a round about way, the creation of toll roads might have preserved some of our old ways, our ancient tracks which are now rights of way. Cunning travellers, seeking ways to avoid paying at the tollhouses, would seek out any useful untolled track that took them in the right direction. Hence, old stretches of road, footpaths and bridleways gained a new and surreptitious use.

We had intended beginning our walk from Alston, but they were resurfacing the road through. Instead, we started from Garrigill, so familiar to walkers of the Pennine Way, who come down tired and thirsty from the wilderness around Cross Fell.

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Fly Agaric (c) John Bainbridge 2018

Garrigill a pretty little village, one of the remotest in England. It was once named Gerard’s Gill. During the productive years of the lead-mining industry over a thousand people lived in Garrigill. It has shrunk by several hundred since.

We followed the Pennine Way along the South Tyne, which also bears the route of the South Tyne Trail. A pretty walk this, along a particularly beautiful stretch of river. The autumn colours were at their best, and it was pleasing to see a considerable amount of fly agaric – associated so much with fairies and witchcraft. It’s a powerful hallucinegenic and dangerous. Witches, they say, used to make their flying ointment from it. We hadn’t seen any for a long time. It gets its name by its ability to attract flies, of course.

Above the path are several farms bearing the name Skydes, High, Middle and Low – interesting name, perhaps Norse? There’s a Danish word which is similar, meaning fire or fusillade or shooting. If anyone has a definite explanation of the word please let me know…

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The Old Quaker Meeting House in Alston, dating back to 1732 (c) John Bainbridge 2018

I never walk the Pennine Way without thinking of the many people who have walked it – not least Tom Stephenson who created it – I met him once a long time ago – and Wainwright, who wrote a guidebook, but didn’t like the trail very much.

Whatever your views, this stretch is a delight, wooded riverbank and surrounding high moorland.

We came out in Alston, the highest market town in England (though the folk of Buxton would dispute that claim) – a nightmare on this day as they were tarring the main road through. A pleasant place, which has been used for films and television. It was used in a recent production of Oliver Twist – appropriately for Charles Dickens visited the town in 1838 while researching his next novel Nicholas Nickleby.

Like Garrigill, it was a boom town in lead mining days. Silver was mined here too, the ore often being sent down for minting in Carlisle. Its market dates back to 1154.

Seeking a slight alternative back we took the well-established track to Nattrass Gill, passing through Annat Walls farm – where an old farmhouse has become a barn. Wonderful, these old buildings. So little changed. You could easily film a period drama in any one of them.

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Nattrass Gill (c) John Bainbridge 2018

Nattrass Gill is a waterfall running through a wooded ravine, crossed by a narrow footbridge. It was a scenic spot beloved by Victorian tourists, though there were fewer trees in those days. The stone steps were put in to facilitate their access. A pretty spot, rather dramatic. Were in nearer the roads it would be thronged by modern-day tourists. Pleasant that you have to walk if you want to see it.

From Bleagate Farm – it gets a mention in documents dating back to the 1300s – we were retracing our steps of the morning, along the South Tyne back to Garrigill. The frost of the morning had lifted and there was bright sunshine, adding a delight to the autumn colours.

 

The Teignmouth and Dawlish Way

One of the best ways to keep rights of way open is to devise and publicise local walking routes for people to follow. You don’t need to invent a Pennine Way or a Coast to Coast route. Just link some paths together to provide a circular or linear trail, publish a guide and encourage people to get out there. Well walked paths are paths that get noticed and protected.Scan

A success story in devising short routes is the Teignmouth and Dawlish Way, an eighteen mile circular trail linking these two Devon seaside resorts. It’s pleasing to note that the guidebook has now gone into a third edition, written and published by the Teignmouth and Dawlish group of the Ramblers Association.

And a splendid edition too, sumptuously  illustrated with lots of photographs, not only of the stunning Devon scenery, but – clever this – with pictures of some of the turnings on the route, just so there’s no confusion about which way to go.

Although the T and D Way formally starts from Teignmouth Pier, it can be started, being a circular walk, from any point along the route. Fit walkers might like to do the whole eighteen miles in a day, but many ramblers might care to linger and explore this quieter area of Devon at a gentler pace, perhaps over a weekend or even in shorter stages. The guide gives information on public transport and how to seek out accommodation.

This part of Devon isn’t as well known as some others, but is well worth looking at – from Teignmouth the route takes in the villages of Bishopsteignton, Luton, Ideford and Ashcombe, before winding down to the seaside resort of Dawlish. Paths then take the rambler on an inland route back to the start in Teignmouth.

Along the way, there’s a lot of history – Bitton House, where the poet Mackworth Praed and the Nelsonian Admiral Pellew lived, the ruins of a medieval bishop’s palace, several early parish churches, and a town with links to authors such as Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Eden Phillpotts.

And the profits of the guide go back to the Teignmouth and Dawlish Ramblers, who work hard to keep open the paths in this part of south Devon.

So why not try the Teignmouth and Dawlish Way? Excellent walking at all times of the year.

You can order a copy by post for just £2.50 or by sending a cheque to Teignmouth and Dawlish Ramblers c/o 1 Shillingate Close, Dawlish, EX7 9SQ or from the Dawlish Tourist Information Centre. A real bargain for such a great booklet!

And if you are in Devon why not walk with the Teignmouth and Dawlish Ramblers (visitors welcome). You can find out more about them at their website: www.teignramblers.org.uk

In the Steps of the Egglestone Abbey Monks

When you walk out from the little County Durham town of Barnard Castle to the ruins of Egglestone Abbey, you are not just walking in the steps of the Premonstratensian monks who lived there, but also following in the tread of Charles Dickens and JMW Turner, and many other Victorian luminaries.

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Barnard Castle (c) John Bainbridge 2018

Turner painted scenes on the River Tees here, as did other Victorian artists such as my great favourite Atkinson Grimshaw. Charles Dickens stayed at Barnard Castle while researching northern schools for his novel Nicholas Nickleby, the original for Wackford Squeers of Dotheboys Hall lived not far away. Thomas Humphrey who inspired Master Humphrey’s Clock had premises in the town. Oliver Cromwell also visited during the English Civil War.

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The House where Oliver Cromwell stayed (c) John Bainbridge 2018

The town was a favoured place of King Richard III, who even today is held in great affection by the locals. Ignore the Tudor propaganda – as medieval kings go he was positively enlightened, and beloved in the North of England.

Some of this walk was in the past in Yorkshire, but county boundary alteration has moved this area firmly into County Durham.

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Green Bridge (c) John Bainbridge 2018

One of the best ways of visiting some ancient abbey is to walk to it – there’s something reminiscent of pilgrimages in such journeys. And undoubtedly the medieval monks of Egglestone Abbey would have used the very same paths we trod.

The path we took out is now part of the Teesdale Way, which follows the River Tees along its travels to the North Sea. Only a couple of miles out to the abbey, but well worth it.DSCF0112

We crossed the Green Bridge footbridge below the town – the metal bridge, made in Darlington in 1882 is an impressive structure; originally the Tees was crossed here by stepping stones –  and followed the true right bank (true right or left is defined by having your back to the source of the river). There are some lovely properties in the little suburb of Lendings. Soon we reached a residential caravan site. The Teesdale Way could do with rather better waymarking here, though a helpful employee told us the way – steer right away from the river following the exit signs. Just as you reach a football field, take the Teesdale Way opposite.

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Bow Bridge (c) John Bainbridge 2018

This is really beautiful pastoral countryside, the River Tees not far below. Some grand woodland and old pastures.

The paths reached a quiet lane which took us down to the river, where we watched the trout feeding. Just into it comes the its tiny tributary the Thorsgill Beck – now there’s a Norse name to conjure with: the Thor perhaps from the Norse god of thunder, though just possibly from thorpe, meaning a small settlement; the Gill, a narrow valley, from the Norse original gjel; the Beck, a small brook, from the Norse bekkr. You are certainly brushing with history on this walk.

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Egglestone Abbey (c) John Bainbridge 2018

Just before the beck meets the mightier Tees, it is crossed by the present-day road bridge, itself quite old, but also by a more original crossing – Bow Bridge, a hump-backed packhorse bridge, which dates at least to the 1600s, but is possibly even more ancient.

On high ground above are the ruins of Egglestone Abbey, dedicated to SS Mary and John the Baptist, founded by the Premonstratensian canons between 1195 and 1198. Never one of the great abbeys of England. In fact in the 1200s there was an attempt to downgrade it to a priory. It retained its abbey status, though it was always a poor foundation.DSCF0134

There were turbulent times in the years following: the Scots ravaged it in 1315 and on several other occasions. And of course it was put out if existence as a religious house following the Dissolution of the Monasteries. In 1548, the site was granted to Robert Strelley by Henry VIII. He turned it into a farm, but over the following centuries it  gradually fell into ruin.DSCF0137

Today it is run by English Heritage and there’s free admission during daylight hours. Despite its troublesome past, there is an air of tranquility about the place. We were the only visitors, apart from some jackdaws who were nesting in the heights of the old walls. There are a few ancient grave markers, and the tomb of local worthy Sir Ralph Bowes, who died in 1482.

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The Tomb of Sir Roger Bowes (c) John Bainbridge 2018

So peaceful were the ruins of the old abbey, that it was hard to tear ourselves away, but more architectural joys awaited us.

A little further down the lane we crossed the Tees at the impressive Abbey Bridge, which doesn’t date to the nearby monastery but only to 1773, when local landowner JS Morrit wanted better access to his country estate at nearby Rokeby.  Rokeby, by the way, inspired the long poem by Sir Walter Scott, who was much enthused by this part of Teesdale. This was still a toll bridge until well into the 20th century. It can be quite busy so cross with care.

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Abbey Bridge (c) John Bainbridge 2018

We followed the opposite bank back towards Barnard Castle, through riverside meadows, passing on the way an old flax mill, called Low Mill, which probably made fibres for twine and thread for sewing shoes and gloves.

An interesting walk through history. We’re planning more walks through history on the Teeside Way, so do keep following…