Up The Tyne To Ovingham
( Originally Published 1920 )
George Stephenson's birthplace and education - Robin with the Beard and Prudhoe Castle - Ovingham and its church - Bywell and its twin churches - Bewick's Tailpieces as illustrations of old Northumbrian life - " Got over."
To go up the Tyne from Newcastle is to pass through many miles of busy industry. Newburn, five miles up, is practically a suburb and important for its steel works. Its pattern-shop was a fortified manor house. Newburn was the nearest ford to Newcastle and has been crossed by armies of Romans and Scots, and was once a considerable town, being capital of the lower Tyne before Newcastle grew to power. Here George Stephenson passed much of his youth and first learnt to work with engines. The early Norman church with the original square tower crowns the hill.
Wylam, where George Stephenson was born in 1781, is four miles higher up the Tyne. On the Hexham road, and appropriately overlooking the railway, stands the red-tiled cottage. The story of his hard childhood shows how early the forefathers of this generation expected their children to earn money. He was working when he was seven and got his education by snatches in a night school from a Scottish schoolmaster.
A little above Wylam, on a rocky steep over the Tyne, stands Prudhoe Castle. The barony of Prudhoe was given by the Conqueror to Robert de Umfraville, or "Robin with the Beard," the first of that great family and the hero of many legends. The castle was built in the twelfth century by Odinel de Umfraville, but in 1381 it passed into the possession of the Percies. Sir Ingram de Umfraville made the famous reply to Edward II at Bannockburn, who, seeing the kneeling host of Scots, when Bruce ordered prayer before battle, turned to his companion, saying triumphantly : " See ! yon men kneel to ask mercy." " You say truth, sire," answered Sir Ingram ; " they ask mercy - but not of you ! " Prudhoe Castle was an immensely strong fortress, as the ruins to-day testify, and the magnificent natural position of steep escarpment and deep ravine is similar to Norham, with a moat to complete the defence. When William the Lion's army was retreating in defeat from the unsubdued fortress of Odinel they stripped the bark from the orchard apple trees, reminding us of the more deadly damage done to the French orchards by the Germans. Gardens still grow under its walls, and part of the castle is used as a-dwelling-house. But much of this magnificent castle remains to interest the antiquarian. Indeed, Mr. C. J. Bates considers that " Prudhoe, though of small dimensions, attains more nearly to the ideal of a Border Castle than does any other in Northumberland." The castle moat and garden occupy three acres.
At Cherryburn, a mile to the west, was the birthplace of Thomas Bewick and his brother. On the opposite side of the Tyne is Ovingham, supposed to be very ancient. The name may be Saxon, the home of the Offings, or sons of Offa. The church is interesting, with a fine pre-Conquest tower belonging to the earlier Saxon building in which stones from the Roman wall have been used. Beneath the tower is the vault of the Bewick family, where " Thomas Bewick, engraver of Newcastle," is buried and here his genius unfolded. In his memoirs he says : " As soon as I filled all the blank places in my books, I had recourse at all spare times to the gravestones and the floor of the church porch with a bit of chalk to give vent to this propensity of mine of figuring whatever I had seen. At that time I had never heard of the word ` drawing' nor did I know of any other paintings besides the King's Arms in the church, and the signs in Ovingham of the Black Bull, the White Horse, the Salmon, and the Hounds and Hare." What an affecting picture of the simple boy moved by the irresistible biddings of the artist spirit. From an old family called Carr, in Ovingham, sprang another boy--" fair science frowned not on his lowly birth " - George Stephenson, whose mother was the daughter of a dyer in the village. "The late Canon Greenwell at one time held the living, and his sister, Dora Greenwell, wrote her poems in the old-fashioned and delightful parsonage.
To the north of Ovingham are the remains of Nafferton Tower, which stands to-day as the masons left it, unfinished, in the reign of John. Richard de Umfraville complained to the king that a neighbour called Philip de Űlecote was building a fortress too close to Prudhoe and he was ordered to desist. So the workmen downed tools and Philip the forester of Northumberland had to seek another home.
In a secluded corner of the Tyne, just outside the grime of the Northumbrian coalfield, are the two unique churches of the once noted village of Bywell. There is no village now. The Romans built a bridge here, the piers of which remained standing in the river until a few years ago, and in Saxon days St. Wilfred a church. On the site of the latter stands St. Andrew's, one of the twin churches of Bywell, with a grand pre-Conquest tower. The rest of the church is thirteenth century, much of it rebuilt. Many ancient gravestones are built into the walls of this church. It was known as the White Church, from the white canons of Blanchland to whom it belonged, and the other church, St. Peter's, as the Black, from the black Benedictine monks of Durham. The latter was built probably in the middle of the eleventh century, and in the north wall of the nave are four of its original windows. It had been much altered in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and has had many restorations since.
The old village cross, but not in its ancient position, is passed on the way to the castle of the Nevilles, an ancient manor of the Balliols, who received it from the Conqueror. The castle, which is really only a gate-tower, was built in the fifteenth century. It is three-storied and very picturesque, clothed in ivy, with four turrets. The Nevilles forfeited the estate to the Crown. The last of them was Charles, Earl of Westmorland, who took part in the abortive " Rising of the North " in 1568.
To return to Bewick, the most considerable artist Northumberland has produced. His father was a small farmer who rented a land-sale colliery, that is, one where the coals were sold to people in the neighbourhood. The story of his life does not concern us much here, but no stranger could possibly obtain a better insight into old Northumberland - that is to say, Northumberland of the eighteenth century - than can be had through the famous tailpieces of which the best are found in the two volumes of " British Birds." As an artist, Bewick was self-educated. His earliest exercises in drawing were made on the margins of books, the flagstones and hearths of his home, and his first studies of pictures, according to the delightful memoir which Austin Dobson wrote for the " National Dictionary of Biography," were " the inn signs and the rude knife-cut prints then to be found in every farm or cottage, records of victories by sea and land, portraits of persons famous or notorious,
ballads, pasted on the wall,
Then, by the kindness of a friend, after a probation of pen and ink and blackberry-juice, he passed to a paint brush and colours, and began to copy the animal life about him."
With Ruskin's notes available it would be superfluous to dwell on the artistry of the tailpieces, but many of minor importance from Ruskin's point of view are the most interesting to true Northumbrians. A few examples may be cited to show how one of the most observant of artists caught the country life of his time. Most of the habits and customs have faded away, but the wanderer in Northumberland may now and again come across remnants and indications of manners as they were in the time of the great engraver and as they had been for centuries before his time. After the railways were built it was never the same in rural life.
Perhaps the most amusing of the cuts is the one placed before the preface to the second volume of " British Birds." It shows the interior of an old-fashioned Northumbrian cottage. The inmate is obviously one of those referred to by Touchstone when he declared it was meat and drink for him to meet a clown. His hat hangs on a chair and discloses a head bald at the top with grey " haffets." His lanky, unintelligent face is raised upward with closed eyes. His mouth is open, showing that time has made havoc with his teeth, and his hands are raised above his full porridge platter. In a word, he is asking a blessing." As he thanks the Deity for the good things provided, a tabby cat with upturned tail is helping himself liberally to his supper. The wooden spoon, the little bowl for the milk, the roughly made table, the print on the wall, are all typical of an old cottage interior. At times Bewick's humour was grimly ironical, as in the tailpiece following the chapter on the goose. In it four youths are seen mounted each on a tombstone as though they were cavalry-men. One is blowing a horn; each of the others carrying a sword, and all are got up to look as military as possible. A skull and crossbones on a fallen tombstone speak of the grave, while the smiling vicarage and the rookery beside it suggest a life that is unchanging.
The touch of Rabelais is to be seen in the picture of two anglers, the elder of whom is carefully extracting gentles from the body of a dead dog while the younger holds his nose. But that is a mild example of country humour a hundred years ago.
Interesting as recalling the past is the picture of a very spare man holding on to the tail of a lean cow, which he has evidently driven into the river to escape the tollbar situated, as was often the case, on the bridge above. Innumerable stories are still bandied about amongst ancient rustics of the various ways in which the toll-keeper could be cheated. Perhaps the most remarkable was that of a Berwick character called " Jimmy Strength," who used to lift his donkey bodily over the gate. But swimming behind the cow was more common.
The drawing of a man clinging to the branch of a tree, which has been evidently broken by his weight, and being precipitated into the foaming river is wit very characteristic of the rude forefathers of the hamlet.
Bewick was never tired of drawing the wayfaring or gangrel folk who passed along the highways and byways of his day. There was the packman carrying what Ruskin, commenting on these tailpieces, calls simply"a big box." It was really a pack such as that commemorated in the story of the Long Pack, a favourite chapbook of the nineteenth century. The packman in some instances carried webs of cloth, in others only " fine knacks for ladies " ; sometimes he was a " clocky " dealing in clocks and watches. I remember one, who must have been probably nearly the last of his race, who tramped the country districts in the snuff-coloured, brass-buttoned clothes of a past generation. He used to recommend to the rustics his spectacles as "not gold, marm, but equally as good." Over and over again figures of his type appear in the tailpieces. The terror of the gaunbody was the dog, and Bewick evidently knew well the dodges to overcome that enemy, getting him to take hold of a stick, or wrapping a cloak round his arm through which the animal could not bite.
There was also the beggar, or gaberlunzie man. He was familiar to people who lived at such a homestead as is figured before the introduction to the first volume of " British Birds." It is a farmstead of a kind that has almost become obsolete. The farmhouse is a thatched cottage. In a stackyard are two well-thatched ricks. There are a stable, outbuildings, dovecot, a man is carrying a full sack on his back, turkeys and chickens are picking up what they can, and over the house a string of birds is passing in flight.
The moor had a fascination for Bewick, but it was the terror of it that seized his imagination. Look at the picture above the table of contents in the second volume. In the middle of a storm of wind and rain an old and fearful traveller sits on a packhorse, a full basket on his arm and creels on the animal. It is pouring with rain and blowing as well. His hat has just blown off and he is distracted with alarm and anxiety as he strains to read the tottering fingerpost in the failing light. He hates the moor. In the tailpiece on p. 5, vol. 1, there are again a blinding storm, a horse and his rider, the latter probably a farmer. There is fear alike in the thrown-back ears of the nag and the averted face of the man. They have passed a fingerpost and are nearing a gallows with its burden. You can almost hear the chains creak in the storm. How common it was for the traveller to pass a body dangling from a gallows may be judged from the frequent recurrence of such place-names as Gallows Knowe, Gallows Hill, and even Gallows Close. A gallows on a wild moorland road is shown on p. 71, vol. I, and a convict being driven to one on p. 50, vol. 2.
In a moor picture a man is following a packhorse laden with sacks and holding his hat on against the tempest while he is approaching another dimly-seen little fingerpost. The sacks will serve as a reminder that up to recent times the bridle path, so called because it was used by packhorses, was the only approach to the mills in that land of streams wherein Bewick was accustomed to wander. You can see many ruined mills on the streams. In their day each had its " poker " or man who delivered the " pokes " or sacks of flour, whitey-grey figures that might have come out of Chaucer.
Dismal is the picture of two travellers, apparently gypsies, followed by a dog wending their way across a moor in the usual storm, the woman carrying a bundle in her shawl which may be a baby, and the man with a tinker's outfit. It will remind lovers of Thomas Hardy of that famous journey over Exmoor by a similar set of characters. Shops and commercial travellers have been the undoing of gangrel or gaun folk such as muggers, pedlars, basket-makers, and the like.
A wonderful feeling of desolation is conveyed by the hilly moor on p. 231, vol. 2. The tree, dwarfed by the wind and standing as if its back were turned to it, the little dog, the man holding on to his hat, and the barren hillocky land give expression to the forbidding character of the moor.
There are other less dismal changes chronicled by Bewick's pencil, such as Carlin Sunday or Shrove Tuesday in the olden time. The Sundays in Advent used to be commemorated by a rhyme known throughout the British Isles :
Tid, mid, misera,
Just as pancakes form the appropriate dish for Shrove Tuesday, salt fish for Good Friday, dyed eggs for Easter, so peas, fried and very peppery, formed the right meal for Carlin Sunday. These were part of the pretty observances that saved the country from dullness in the olden time. Like many other customs, they have fled before the steam engine. Other changes are incidental to the development of the soil. Everyone who knows the old history of Northumberland is aware of the vast number of bogs, mosses and mires which only the moss-troopers could traverse in safety. In the time of Bewick they still existed to such an extent that the booming of the bittern was one of the common country sounds. Since then the drainer has been busy, and what before was bog is now in many cases dry land, attracting new birds and growing new flowers. It had a curious effect on sport, and nearly every Northumbrian is a bit of a sportsman. The use of stilts appears to have been very common in Bewick's time and indeed remained so long after he had passed away. He shows us men walking on stilts in the water, and sportsmen evidently after duck or other water birds, the gun strapped to the shoulder, the little dog swimming after his master, and the latter needing, as it seems to modern eyes, all his dexterity to be able to cross the flooded country on these artificial limbs.
Bewick had evidently a boyish sympathy for illicit sport. In what Ruskin called " the most splendid " of these pictures a poacher with his gun is following the tracks of hares and rabbits on the snow. Fish-spearing appears to have been not unlawful, as the four-toed leister frequently occurs in these pictures, sometimes lying beside the fish that had been killed, sometimes carried by a burly peasant through the water in which he is wading. Bewick delighted also in picturing the various troubles that lay in wait for the fisherman. His line gets hanked just after he has hooked a fish ; while he is running a big one an angry bull makes its appearance, so that the unfortunate angler is between the devil and the deep sea.
This is all part of the joyous side of the engraver. He is in a different mood when portraying the wayfaring beggars, wanderers, and wastrels of the old time. The number of one-legged or otherwise disabled men is extraordinary. So is the number of blind men who are under the guidance of a little dog, and he takes strange delight in showing these men in most perilous circumstances. The little dog becomes excited by an angry bull just at the time when he should be carefully leading his master over a narrow plank bridge. We see the water bubbling below and expect the itinerant to fall in at any moment.
Old age he depicts with curious vividness, as in that hovel with its most wretched inhabitant over which he .has painted the inscription : " If Youth but knew what age would crave, every penny it would save." In another he shows a tomb of which the inscription conveys the philosophy of the rustic in the briefest possible words. The inscription is : " Good times, and bad times, and all. time got over." The phrase " got over " gives the very essence of the old Northumbrian rustic's outlook on life. The pictures of house and homestead, which form a large part of the tailpieces, go far to explain the hardness of country life a hundred years ago. Hedworth Williamson, with " A Northern Headstone " for a text, put it all into a little poem.