From Craster To Alnmouth
( Originally Published 1920 )
Howick and Howick Haven - The Longhoughton copyholders - Bondagia and Bondager - A curious burial custom - An irascible 18th-century vicar and his register - Boulmer and its smugglers - Old importance of Alnmouth.
FOLLOWING the coast from Dunstanburgh's caverned shores, fine cliffs continue rising from the sands for two miles till we come to the little fishing village of Craster. Crab fishing is very prosperous here, and there is a large herring-curing business. Craster Tower, the seat of the Craster family, is a short distance from the village. In it are incorporated the remains of an ancient pele tower which has been from Norman times in the possession of the Crasters. The station for Craster is Little Mill, 21 miles off, so that at any point the pedestrian can get the convenience of the railway. About 1 1/2 miles from the station is Howick Hall, built in 1782 for Earl Grey. Originally it was a pele tower.
A mile from Craster, Cullernose Point shows again the magnificent basaltic cliff 120 feet high. The Whin Sill, the great igneus rock that bestows the wonderful grandeur on Dunstan-burgh Castle, here cuts the coast for the last time. Its columns do not occur again on the coast, but we shall see how the practical ingenuity of Rome turned it to account.
About two miles further on is Howick Haven, with sands, fine rocks and caves, where there is another Rumbling Churn. A high tide in 1849 laid bare near Howick boathouse a submerged forest which revealed remains of oak, hazel and alder, both rooted and lying prone.
Before reaching Boulmer we can turn inland and visit Longhoughton, now a small agricultural village, but a place of importance in the Middle Ages. In 1569 it had no fewer than forty-seven copyholders. It may be interesting today, when so much is said of small-holders, to give their standing and estate. Thirty of them were the old Bondagia, for which we have no equivalent word, although the word " bondager," now meaning female out-worker, is probably derived from it. These holdings are described as containing a house and a husbandland of thirty acres of arable, meadow or pasture land and paying the lord thirty shillings yearly. In Longhoughton, at a very early period, the villan's services on the baron's land had been commuted to a money payment - a great stride from the times when he had to work a certain number of days on the lord's demesne. The remaining seventeen holders, called " cottagia," had a croft or garden and a selion of land with a rent varying from 2S. 2d. to 3s. 4d. The selion varied in different parts of the county, but here it was a ridge of from half an acre to an acre and a half. The names of the small proprietors are given in the Elizabethan survey, and in 1863 Mr. George Tate, to whose researches I am indebted, records that one man called Elder was still a tenant farmer in the village where his forefathers had held land. A few descendants in the female line are yet to be found.
In those early days a weekly market was held, and tradition points out where the market cross stood. Round it every corpse was carried before burial. The cross, after being lost for many years, was found in a smugglers' cave, and now crowns the east wall of the church, which was probably built soon after the Conquest. It shows early Norman work, but its most notice-able feature is the strong Early English tower, with walls five feet thick, which was erected for defence as well as for religious purposes, as there was no pele tower in the vicinity. In 1567 Longhoughton Church was still a refuge for the inhabitants against Scottish marauders. Clarkson's survey says : " The Church and steple is the great strengt, that the poor tenants have to draw to in tyme of warre wherefor it is ever neadfoull the same be for that and other causes kepid in good reparations."
But the student of the human document will be more intrigued by the Register kept by the Rev. George Duncan from 1696 to 1719 than in looking at a church which has little architectural beauty. He seems to have been a very irascible parson, but the characters of the villagers are stamped with true Northumbrian aberrations and pieties. The vicar spares neither dead nor living in his comments, which are sometimes in Latin, sometimes in English. To take the old name of Elder he remarks : " Henry Elder (infelix valde nuptiis) an ingenious smith of an ancient race of Longhoughton." Anne Wilson, " a poor mendicant widow," is stigmatised as " vilis ebriosa peccat." William Gray is " a hind, valde ignorans et obstinatus peccat." He buried Robert Pringle, a day labourer, in 1712, and notes, " malus filius mali patris."
In the English tongue he remarks : " Married 1706 Thomas Story (a very brutish and wicked fellow) herd of Sharplee." Another herd is even worse, married in the same year : " William Morton is a gross, ignorant and wicked herd of Scrablees ; another herd is " very wicked and obstinate, hardened." This plays havoc with the illusion entertained by literary people of the blameless pastoral lives led by the man of the crook as he follows in solitary ways his bleating flock ! In a later register it is a relief to this dark picture to know that in 1723 he buried Barbara, the serious, good wife of James Gustard, an old and good herd. Another Gustard was also " a knowing good man." Nicholas Davison is " a serious and religious herd." In 1711 he buries " Mary the wife of a very honest herd and an old and long oat-meal maker." Belief in darker powers is evinced when he records the burial of " Jinie, wife of William Grey, a quack and warlock doctor." The fishers of Boulmer and Seaton get very bad characters. They are all very ignorant, obstinate, profane, careless and brutish people. At their marriages these terms are employed, but he notes, at the burial of a bachelor, " George Grey, an old innosent and fortunate fisher." He shows a natural elation when a dissenter is brought to reason, no doubt by his own efforts. " Buried John Egden, a very dissenter in his life, and yet (note the yet) very good charitable man ; he was some years before his death brought to be a sincere member of the Church," and his wife is called " the good widow of the good dissenter."
But dissenters are badly treated indeed by the vicar. A webster of Longhoughton is called " a wicked knave and a dissenter," and a dissenting herd is called " a tergiverse Janus whig." Dissenters in Northumberland are still jeeringly called whigs. To the eccentric vicar we owe a debt for a little light on the occupations and habits of the past, but his lack of humour led him mostly to fasten on the shortcomings of his flock. When the labourer's task was o'er, the vicar acidly recites with a black recording pen the sins that kind oblivion would cover. If only the maligned villagers had left a retort in their candid and jocular Northumbrian style it would be deeply appreciated now. But, alas ! few among their busy hands ever held pens, and the vicar's judgments are written above the silent dust.
About a mile from Longhoughton Station is Ratcheugh Crag, the grand basaltic columns eighty feet high and finely overhung with trees. An observatory crowns it, from which splendid views of the coast are seen. Two miles to the south is the beautiful Cawledge Dene, which can be followed south till coming to the road which leads to Alnwick.
Returning to the coast we reach the old fishing village of Boulmer, notorious once for smugglers, very pretty now with old cottages and the cobles on the sands and the fine background of cliff scenery and its old-fashioned fisherfolk, the descendants , of those whom the irate vicar found so troublesome. He does not mention smugglers, but many a cask of spirits was landed in his day. The Border and all parts of Northumberland patronised Boulmer. An old rhyme discloses the distances travelled by farmers. The Forest is the ancient Forest of Rothbury :
Awd Bob Dunn o' the Forest,
Bushy Gap farmhouse had a double gable, and in the space between the walls the gin was concealed till distributed.
Three miles further south we come to the sand-dunes of Alnmouth, standing at the mouth of the river Aln, the ancient port of Alnwick. It is called Alemouth, and has undergone much change in its spelling, but has always kept the soft " ae " sound. Standing at the mouth of a river that was navigable by the small craft of the day, it was early of importance as a seaport. The bailiff of Alemouth had by royal command in 1316 to send ships munitioned and victualled to Gascony, and in 1333 he had to give up all ships capable of carrying fifty tuns of wine for the defence of the realm. Two years later the town was actually required to send three or four trustworthy men to Norwich to take counsel for further measures. Before the Union a beacon was maintained on the Watch Hill or Wallop Hill at the west end.
During the eighteenth century and the early nineteenth Alnmouth was a very flourishing place, exporting corn, which was kept in large granaries now used as dwelling-houses. But it did not evade the fate of many similar places on the east coast. These high, gaunt buildings with small windows look very curious. The export trade declined after the end of the French wars and became extinguished with the growth of the railway. Now the trade of Alnmouth has departed, and only the fishing industry remains. In recent days it has been best known for its famous golf course.
The mouth of the Aln is interesting owing to the change of its course. Formerly the Aln reached the sea south of the Church Hill, which was united to the town, and the Cheese Hill by a low sandy ridge. Current and storm bore on it so strongly that in 1806 a breach was made, and since then the river has run into the sea on the north side. The tide flows up for a mile, sometimes going as far as Lesbury's beautiful old bridge. On the Church Hill was an ancient Saxon chapel dedicated to St. Waleric, but wind and wave and wanton spoliation hastened its decay. Probably the remains, which were blown down by a great gale in 1806, were of an early Norman building. That there was a Saxon foundation is proved by the discovery in 1789 of the shaft of a Saxon cross. The sandstone slabs have a crude representation of the Crucifixion. An inscription reads : " Myredeh meh wo " - Myredeh me wrought. The other name resembles Eadulf, who seized the throne of Northumberland in 705, and Myredeh is probably the name of an Irish sculptor. A few tombstones remain of the eighteenth century.
On the Northumbrian coast, Alnmouth holds with Berwick the distinction of presenting to the traveller's eye, from the railway, a charming picture of river and sea. At Berwick the huddled red roofs rise steeply above the mouth of Tweed, but, with beauty born of murmuring sound and wide skies flashing in keen sunlight, or misty in the haar, Alnmouth sits close to the water's edge - with an intimate grace that suits its quiet history - thirty miles and more from the Walls at Berwick.