Blanchland – The White Land, The Oldest Gravestone in Northumbria, A Naked Briton, The Old Gaol, Four Horses replaced by Thirty-Six Hostellers.

Post 152:  12 April 1997: Day 8 Edmundbyers Youth Hostel to Acomb Youth Hotel – 19 miles

We left the small village of Edmundbyers, to pass over Edmundbyers Common and Buckshot Fell with expansive views of the previous day’s walk. We had a delightful descent of the upper reaches of the Derwent Valley, crossed a bridge over the River Derwent to leave County Durham and enter the County of Northumberland, then entered the village of Blanchland.

This small, isolated, picturesque village was a joy to behold as we stepped back into medieval times. It is believed that Blanchland, which means ‘White Land’, is named after the white habits of the premonstatensian monks who settled here in the 12th century and founded Blanchland Abbey. In the centre is a large courtyard and the row of cottages dating from the rebuilding of the village by the Lord Crewe Trustees in the 18th century. We stopped for an icecream in bright sunshine to savour this delightful spot. The small stone building in the centre once covered the village’s water supply. The Lord Crewe Arms Hotel was built as the Abbott’s lodge, guesthouse and abbey kitchens. The imposing medieval gatehouse was once the entrance for lay workers into the Abbey’s precinct; it now occupied by the post office, with a Victorian post box. The church was built in 1752, using those parts of the old abbey church, which had survived and has a number of interesting features including some notable medieval tombstones on the transept floor. These are carved with croziers (the bishop’s hooked staff) and a chalice, while two other tombstones show bows and arrows, swords and the hunting horns of foresters. Within the churchyard there is a medieval cross and the grave of Robert Snowball who was murdered at his farm near Hunstanworth.

The schoolhouse was built in 1851, but closed in 1981 when there were only eight pupils. The two entrances have unusual stone posts, which once supported the winding engine at the Ramshaw lead mine.

We left Blanchland with regret, but Hadrian’s Wall beckoned and there followed a steep climb from the village to the wide-open expanses of Blanchland Moor. Here panoramic views over Tynedale and the Vale of Hexham opened up before us towards the low hills beyond, where our ultimate goal, Hadrian’s Wall, was located. After passing through Slaley Wood, we descended to the village of Slaley. The village is a classic ribbon development along a minor lane. Apart from the international golfing centre at Slaley Hall, its other notable feature is the Church of St. Mary the Virgin. The present church was built in 1832, although there has been a church on the site since the 13th century. Of particular interest is the gravestone of Richard Teasdaill, to the left of the porch, which is reputably the oldest outdoor gravestone in Northumbria, dated 1 March 1635.

Quiet fields and lanes led to the busy B6306, which we then followed to the historic town of Hexham, where Alan had to leave us to return to his wife, job, or both. This is a flourishing market town and centre for commerce, local government and church activities. As well as a good stopping place for travellers, it is now a major centre for tourists, particularly for anyone wishing to explore Hadrian’s Wall.

Hexham is dominated by the superb abbey, much of which dates from the 12th century. Within the abbey a splendid crypt is all that remains of a church completed in AD 674. In the roof of the Pilgrims’ passage is the Geta Stone of A.D. 208. After Antonius murdered his brother and joint emperor Geta, he ordered the name of Geta to be erased from every stone in the Roman Empire; he did not succeed in Hexham. A Saxon throne, or frith stool, in the chancel marks the centre of what used to be circle of medieval sanctuary. Also of note is the Roman Officer’s tombstone in the south transept. This was found in the Abbey but would have first been erected towards the end of the 1st century to commemorate the death of Flavinus, a Roman standard-bearer, killed at the age of 25. A naked Briton crouches below his rearing horse, dagger in hand, ready to dispatch the young soldier. However, in the cold north, I shouldn’t think the naked Briton lived much longer. In the same part of the church are the ‘night stairs’ down which the Canons walked in procession from the dormitory to attend the midnight and five o’clock services. The Abbey was open daily.

A pleasant place for a rest and refreshments is in the delightful public park next to the Abbey, The Seal, where monks once meditated.

The Old Gaol was built on the orders of the Archbishop in 1330 and was then supplied two years later with chains, manacles and a gaoler. It now houses the Tourist Information Centre and the Border History Museum, the latter recording the turbulent history of the Borders. Of particular interest is the dungeon, still in place today, consisting of a room below ground with no light or sanitation. Relatives had to bring food and it was quite common for prisoners to die of hypothermia, starvation or illness.

Determined that we would not suffer a similar fate, we raided every food shop in Hexham to obtain provisions for the next day, until we could carry no more. As Acomb Youth Hostel, two miles further on, is self-catering, we also had a huge meal in a fish and chip shop. Wainwright would have been proud of us.

On leaving Hexham, we crossed the River Tyne to quiet lanes and paths, which led to the village of Acomb and the youth hostel. There are hostels and there are basic hostels. This was the latter so that to get to the toilets and shower it is necessary to go outside. It was converted stables, but little conversion seemed to have taken place. Whereas it might have once accommodated four horses it now accommodated thirty-six hostellers, although there were only six of us in tonight. These sorts of hostels always encourage a certain companionship amongst the guests, a sort of camaraderie in adverse conditions. It was not long after I stayed here that I wrote to the Youth Hostels Association, not to complain, but to ask that rumoured proposals to close it were thrown out. It was after all an excellent staging post on my walk to Hadrian’s Wall; how dare they contemplate closing it! In addition, it had a homely log fire and there was a choice for the evening of two inns. Dick and myself were quite excited at the prospect that the Wall would be reached next day.

However, Acomb didn’t seem to share our excitement as we walked to the inns along the main street, looking like a set from the film ‘High Noon.’ We had expected the mayor to come out and greet us, tiller girls to cheer our every step, the band to play, perhaps even a ticker-tape parade. All we got was a soggy piece of chocolate cake, the worst I had ever tasted.

Next stop Hadrian’s Wall!

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