HISTORY OF THE CENTRE OF BRITAIN.
The oldest remains of habitation in the Haltwhistle area are not the Romans as may be imagined, but bonze age settlements and standing stones from a period almost 1000 years before the Roman occupation. Remains of these sites are mostly on high ground overlooking the surrounding countryside, which would have been heavily wooded at the time. Remains can be seen on Broomfield Common, Cawburn and Gibbs Hill. The remains of a stone circle – only two of which remain – aptly named “the Mare and Foal” can be seen from the B6318 “Military Road” just north of Haltwhistle.
The exact centre of Britain 2º26’W:54º57’33” falls on a earthwork of this period.
When the Romans came, the lower ground was still densely wooded and all Roman remains are on higher ground. Haltwhistle must have had a great status as the “Centre of the Wall” for, as well as the main forts. of Aesica and Carvoran there are numerous camps and forts in the area. These are not excavated, but are shown on OS maps for the area and are easily identifiable as symmetrical turf mounds in many places just north of the town.. This indicates the area was far more populated than other areas of the Roman Wall and also indicating a far greater population of the Haltwhistle area than even today. It also must have been a warmer period with many remains of cultivation terraces on the highest and most exposed parts of Hadrian's Wall - areas now just fit for marginal pasture.
There is little known about the history of the town in the so called dark ages but in Norman times saw the building of local castles some of which are still in everyday use. Bellister Castle has its earliest reference in 12th century and was built to guard fords over the rive S Tyne, (which up until the Great Flood of the Tyne in 1777 flowed on the opposite side of the Castle to its present course.)
By the start of the Middle Ages the town was establishing itself and appeared in old documents as “Ault-twyssl” or “Haut twessel” et. al. Haut = High ground + twessel - confluence of two rivers.. The town was granted market town status by King John in 1207. Soon after this time the Church was built and today is the oldest building in the Town.
King Edward I ruled for an extended period at nearby Lanercost Priory, built of stone plundered from Hadrian’s Wall.
It was soon after this time that the area's most infamous period began. After the Battle of Bannockburn neither the King of England nor the King of Scotland was able to extend their authority and law and order to the Border areas.
Thus began a period of almost 300 years of turbulence with local lawless clans known as the Border Reivers being the predominant influence. More Castles appeared, Pele Towers were built and for those who could afford to do so, defendable houses, known as Bastles were built. These structures were inhabited on the first floor with access to the main entrance being gained by way of wooden ladders, or stone steps.
The oldest part of the Centre of Britain Hotel is in fact a Pele Tower which we believe was built around 1417. Around the Pele Tower are a number of Bastle Houses all marked with Blue Plaques. Our Old Dairy building was a Bastle House.
The Pele Tower was the base for the Warden of the Middle Marches . Throughout the Middle Ages there was a festering feud with the Reiver clan of the Armstrongs of Liddesdale, who regularly raided Hautwessel. The feud was brought to a head in 1598 after the Armstrongs had mounted a terrible attack plundering the town.
The then Warden of the Middle Marches, Sir Robert Cary, complained to the King of Scotland demanding satisfaction. The King replied that the Armstrongs lived on the “debatable lands” and were no subjects of his, and recommended the English warden to take his own revenge. Sir Robert therefore mustered his men and marched to Cathill in Liddesdale where Sim of Cathill, an Armstrong, was slain by one of the Ridleys of Hautwessel.
The Armstrongs retaliated with another raid on Hautwessel in which much of the town was burned down. This terrible incident. Known as “The Fraye of Hautwessel” left only the Church, Pele Tower and the few Bastle Houses standing - But Sir Robert led a final raid on the Armstrongs upon which so many of the Armstrongs were wiped out, their power hereafter declined and Hautwessel enjoyed relative calm.
There are a number of so called Border ballads which relate to this period. (click HERE for more information about the ballads)
In 1601, with the coming together of England and Scotland under a common crown, law and order was restored in the Borders after nearly 300 years of the Reiver threat. For a number of years there was a residulal threat from remnants of the Border Reivers with outlaw gangs of so called “Moss Troopers” specialising in appearing out of the mist to rob and pillage.` See below for detailed record of these incidents as published in John Hobson's "History of Northumberland" 1840.
After the demise Reivers threat the Pele Tower and the next Bastle were joined together with an infill which is now the Hotel's restaurant. These buildings became the excise (tax collector) office.
The Jacobite rebellions in 1715 and1745 largely bypassed the area, but in the aftermath we were left with an indelible legacy. Commander of the redcoats General Wade, infamous for his retribution against the Jacobites at Colluden and after, built the so-called Military Road across the country linking Newcastle with Carlisle and designed to provide a quick marching route for the Army to repel any further insurgency from North of the Border.
This is today’s B6318 which runs parallel to Hadrian’s Wall and the foundations for which were largely plundered from the Wall, It was built in the 1760.s and is the reason why large sections of Hadrian’s wall are no longer visible.
Plundering of the symmetrically shaped stones on the Wall was rife at this time. An easy way to obtain materials for new houses and whole settlements – Walltown, Wallhouses, and Wall are all hamlets constructed by using the legacy of the Roman stonemasons. Credit for halting this desturction of the country's most important archaeological remains must be attributed to William Hutton, a well learned and well travelled historian, most noted for his "History of Birmingham". He published “History of the RomanWall” in 1802 and in so doing chastised the locals for plundering their heritage and was thereby instrumental in initiating the conservation of what remained of the Wall.
In about 1770, and when the mail coaches started, our building became a Coaching Inn known as the Red Lion and served then not only as the excise office, but also the Post Office.
There were two daily competing Coach services between Newcastle and Carlisle – “The Royal Mail “ calling for horse change at The Sun Inn (now the Conservative Club) and the “True Briton” changing horses at the Red Lion. There was great rivalry between the two coaches particularly on the run to Newcastle, via Hexham and Corbridge - the “True Briton” often catching up with the “Royal Mail” –even though the schedules showed “True Briton” departed 80 minutes after the Royal Mail. The journey from Newcastle to Carlisle took 8 hours with two horse changes - Haltwhistle and Hexham.
But this was a prosperous time for the hotel and there was a major rebuilding, with a large extension being built to the rear, new stables and the frontage being redesigned to its present façade with three stories – the first three story building in town. All vestiges of the medieval Pele tower were built over – most of them not to be rediscovered until 1996
The three castles plaque high on the parapet of the building, is a so called "Fire Mark" indicatiing coverage by the Newcastle Upon Tyne Fire-Office - numbered 1788 - is this the membership number, or the year of the rebuilding? Newcastle Upon Tyne Fire-Office was founded in 1783 and, through various mergers, can now be traced to be absorbed into the modern day Aviva Insurance Co. .
In 1836 the Newcastle to Carlisle Railway came – (an amazingly quick railway development when it was only in 1825 that the first Shildon to Darlington and Stockton passenger railway was demonstrated). At this time when the first railway time tables were published, the spelling of the town’s name became standardised. There are many variations in the records and in the maps of the pre-railway era, but we fancy the railway pioneers adoped the distortion of the name to reflect the railway era. True or not – many of our visitors assume the town’s name originated from that time.
The arrival of the railway saw a demise of the Coach services and commercial orientation became focused on the west end of the town nearer the station.
However this was another boom time for Haltwhistle with the quick development of coal mining, quarrying, brickworks and other industries the population almost doubled in 50 years. The Alston branch was opened there was a wagon way up to Cawfields Quarry on Hadrian’s Wall – the route of which can be followed along Haltwhistle Burn past many remains of the Industrial activity of those days.
Soon there were 10 hostelries in the town, the new town plan envisaged all buildings being three stories, the Mechanics’ Institute (now the library), Hospital and Church Hall (now sadly neglected despite efforts for a revival) and the expanding railway network bought new opportunities to the farmers who were soon importing and exporting large numbers of cattle and sheep via the railway. The Red Lion, after taking a back seat after the end of coaching (it even became a Temperance Hotel for a (very) short period) took on a new importance - adjoining the expanding cattle mart on the site now occupied by the Supermarket. It became the farmers’ pub and had a special significance to the farming community. The hotel was twice further extended in 1875 and again in 1917.
But the boom times would not last forever, slowly the traditional industries began to expire – the development of the road network and the onset of private motoring started to deplete the commercial life of the town. The railway to Alston was closed in 1976 and Haltwhistle’s traditional status as a market town was eroded by the freedom of private transport the modern population enjoyed. The town centre could not compete with the newly accessible shopping centres of Hexham, Carlisle and Newcastle. Whilst the local industries adjusted into to newly developed production of chemicals, paints, plastics, a significant number of small businesses folded leaving, in the late 1980’s, more business premises closed in the town than remained open!
So it was that after years of decline the old Red Line faded out and eventually closed down in 1989 – a symbolic low point for the Town.
In 1994 we were persuaded to have a look at the now rotting building and soon realised that there was a great wealth of architectural features and business potentail just waiting to be reborn.
After two years of planning, during which time we discovered Haltwhistle’s status as the Centre of Britain, we bought the building, totally stripping down all the rotting timber and plaster, reopening in May 1997 as today’s Centre of Britain Hotel -our modern presentation including many archaeological features which were discovered during the building work. Eminent Archaeologist, Peter Ryder of Riding Mill was employed to monitor and record all archaeological detail and his comprehensive report is available for inspection.
The reopening of the Hotel coincided with the opening of the A69 bypass – a further blow to –the traditional businesses of the town which relied on passing trade – or was it? This fundamental change in the status of the town led to the development of a more positive sustainable business attitude, with, like the Hotel, the emphasis on attracting people here as a destination and/or providing specialist shops and businesses attractive to both locals and visitors. Once again the Main Street is thriving.
The town has enjoyed three epochs of greatness – Romans, Reivers and Industrial Revolution. Now the ancient Eras, combined with our unique tranquil landscape and the unequalled friendliness of the people will build towards Haltwhistle’s potential new epoch as a visitor destination.
MYSTERY TUNNEL AT HALTWHISTLE HOTEL (BBC VIDEO)