Hadrians Wall Country: Pt 1 – Haltwhistle, Northumberland

Our next trip took us around numerous towns and villages close to Hadrian’s Wall, via a few Castles, an ancient Priory and then to the Wall itself. Our 1st stop was a town claimed to be at the centre of Britain…

Haltwhistle:

Status: Northumberland, Town, England

Date: 28/12/2014

Travel: Car

Eating & Sleeping: N/A

Attractions: Centre of Britain, Centre of Britain Hotel, Market Square, Tourist Information, Old Mechanics Institute, St Wilfrid’s Church, Church of the Holy Cross, War Memorial, Memorial Gardens, Old Town Hall, Tyne Valley Line etc

Halt 1

Haltwhistle town centre is split up into a number of sections, with the main one being the Market Square in the middle of the town, so we parked up and set out to explore. Haltwhistle was granted a charter to hold a Market in 1306, by King John (1166 – 1216). The law had developed in England to stop new Markets appearing within a days ride of another 1, as it was thought they would take business from the existing Market. A charter would only be granted if a location exceeded this limit. Unless a charter had been officially granted then businesses could petition the King to have the Market shut down.

There are various interesting buildings lining the square, starting with the 1st building on the right behind the cars, known as Numbers 18 & 20 Market Square. This quaint little building dates back to the early 19th Century, and was originally built as a house, later being altered to feature the shop on the ground floor, whilst maintaining residential space above.

It is officially listed as “Sams Chop Suey House” however at the moment it appears to be occupied by “Haltwhistle Tandoori” so it must have changed hands since the listing was granted in 1987.

The short squat building to the left of the overall building is called the old Ironmonger’s Shop, at Number 16, built around the same time as Numbers 18 & 20. It has been given the same painted front as Numbers 18 & 20, overlayed on squared rubble walls. Both buildings are topped by stunning Welsh slate, presumably from somewhere near the Dinorwig Quarries in North Wales.

Halt 2

In the centre of the square stands a tall lamppost, pointing the way to various places around the UK, from North Orkney at the far North of Scotland, down towards the Isle of Portland in Dorset, Southern England. It is a play on the famous Land’s End Signpost in Cornwall, the most South-Westerly point in Great Britain, which points towards New York as well as back towards Scotland.

This came about because Haltwhistle is now known as the “Geographic Centre of Great Britain”, although this claim has been disputed. There are various measurements used to define the centre of Great Britain, or the UK as a whole, and depending how you look at it, it can be a number of places. The Haltwhistle measurement was taken by measuring the distance to the sea from here along the 16 main compass points:

(N, NNW, NW, WNW, W, WSW, SW, SSW, S, SSE, SE, ESE, E, ENE, NE, NNE)

Again this is dependant on how far you measure, as the Scottish Islands of Orkney are included in the measurement, as they almost adjoin Great Britain anyway, however the Islands of Shetland are excluded as they are further out, away from Great Britain itself. As you can see from the signpost, it identifies both Portland, the furthest South you can get in England in a straight line from here, and Orkney as being 290 miles away each.

Another interesting feature of the square, a number of which are located around the town, are the new information points with a foot pedal at the bottom. As you pump it up using the pedal it begins to give you spoken information about the local area, and if you pump it enough it will finish the talk, however if you stop pumping too early it will stop talking. Amusingly Gemma pumped it so much by accident it ran through the whole talk twice in a row!

Halt 3

Directly across the other side of the square, away from Numbers 16, 18 & 20, lies the “Centre of Great Britain” another early 19th Century building which also forms an overhang over the walkway down to some fine stone residential buildings. The listing states that the building incorporates some old late 16th century masonry on the left, presumably the area above the overhang. The building is currently occupied by a laundrette, and is named after Haltwhistles new status.

Halt 4

The back of the building looks remarkably different to the front, which has a new 20th century shop front, and of course a brand new paint job. Just a few years ago the building was a light green colour as shown on Google Street View, however now it has a lovely golden colour, along with a neighbouring building which looks remarkably similar.

To the right of the overhang is a building called a “Bastle” which is a specifically fortified building. Haltwhistle is very close to the border with Scotland. The border area, in both England & Scotland, was once notable for the Border Reivers who pillaged and plundered each others landed until the 17th century. Fortified buildings, including Pele Towers became very common in the area. We found a number of the “Bastle” buildings around Haltwhistle, and they all have a plaque on them to identify them as such.

Halt 5

There appear to be a few buildings taking advantage of the branding of “Centre of Britain”, including the Centre of Britain Hotel & Restaurant. It appears to be a more recent name change, as the listing has the Hotel down as the Red Lion Hotel instead.

This building is quite interesting architecturally, as if you look to the right, you can see the remains of an old Pele tower from the 15th Century, which has been incorporated into the main structure of the wing to the left added in the early 18th. The listing states that the street was “refenestrated” in the late 18th century, which means that the walls between the buildings were opened up, so presumably up until this point the tower and the wing were separate, before the interior wall was knocked through.

Haltwhistle is already full of surprises, and as the paint scheme on the 2 buildings suggests, the owners of the Hotel also own the Laundrette, which is a handy resource for their Guests as well as the general public.

Halt 6

Directly opposite the Centre of Britain Hotel is the “Manor House Inn”, a beautiful old Coaching Inn, presumably on the CarlisleNewcastle route. Travellers around Britain had to rely on horses before the invention of the automobile, and many new settlements grew up around the regular placement of Coaching Inns, where a weary traveller could find a bed for the night and a fresh horse to continue their journey. A good example was the “Graham Arms Hotel” in Longtown, named after the Graham family who founded the Hotel as a Coaching Inn in the 18th century, and subsequently created a town around it.

Halt 7

Our final stop in this area of town was the old “Church Hall”, just a few buildings further up the street. The large date stone behind the Zebra Crossing, to the left of the main door states that it was laid by the “Lord Bishop of Newcastle”, who at that time was Norman Straton (1840 – 1918, former Bishop of the Isle of Man), in 1908.

The appearance of the building suggests that its no longer in use, and it also isn’t included in the listed buildings register for Haltwhistle, presumably as the original fabric of the building has altered, with what look like new windows having been installed in the ground floor window frames.

Haltwhistle once had it’s own Town Hall, completed out of a stunning sandstone Ashlar in 1861. Haltwhistle has never been it’s own County Borough (distinct from the County Council, abolished in the 1970’s) however it does have it’s own Town Council, who once met in the Town Hall. The building is sadly no longer used for administrative purposes, and is now used by local businesses, but it’s still rather interesting architecturally. Unfortunately I didn’t know it was there until I started doing some extra research for this post, but I have seen pictures of it.

Halt 8

Located directly behind Numbers 16, 18 & 20 Market Square lies the local Church, the “Church of the Holy Cross”. This fine Parish Church is one of the oldest buildings in the town, as the oldest sections date back to the beginning of the 13th century, just 100 years after the invasion of England by the Normans.

A major refurbishment was carried out in 1870, spearheaded by R.J. Johnson (1834 – 1921, Architect from the Liberton suburb of Edinburgh, Scotland). The work resulted in the rebuilding of the Western portion of the Nave, as well as the roof pitches, which were heightened, making the roof steeper. This was probably linked to drainage issues on the roof.

Its quite interesting that if you don’t have the same sense of curiosity as we do, and feel the urge to explore every road that you see, you might not even know the Church was there, if you had arrived on the high street by bus. You can’t even see it from the Market Square, and it took a little exploration before we spotted it.

Halt 9

Leaving the area around the Parish Church/Market Square and heading West along the high street, you will pass a number of other stunning stone buildings, starting with the imposing form of the Haltwhistle Methodist Church, shown to the right. It was completed in 1882, replacing a much older building which had previously stood here.

It sits to the right of the old “Mechanics Institute” HQ, housed in a fine building that was built 20 years after the Church, in 1900. Today the building houses the local library, as well as the Tourist Information Office, which was unfortunately shut when we visited. It has to be one of my favourite Haltwhistle buildings, as its a stunningly elegant construction which is a fine addition to an already well crafted high street featuring various old stone buildings.

Halt 10

Just a few yards West of the Mechanics Institute lies a large memorial garden, in the centre of which sits the Haltwhistle War Memorial. It pays tribute to the soldiers from the town who lost their lives in World War I, and later World War II. It’s therefore perhaps fitting that behind the Memorial sits the local hospital, a new modern building completed in June 2014, replacing the older 19th century version demolished in 2012.

Uniquely for a hospital it also incorporates hotel style rooms, where relatives of people receiving long term treatment in the hospital itself can stay, and remain close to their loved ones.

Halt 11

Looking out from the War Memorial, the tall tower/spire of Saint Wilfrid’s Catholic Church, which until recently also housed the local United Reformed Church, graces the skyline. The history of the two congregations is similar to the situation which occurred in the Scottish border town of Coldstream, where the congregations eventually merged from a number of different buildings, into a single one.

The original St Wilfrids was completed in 1865, and lies at the other end of Haltwhistle, past the Market Square and the old Church Hall. It gained the name St Wilfrids in 1920, and became the focal point of a large congregation. The separate United Reformed Church inhabited this building at the West end of the town. The history of the two Churches became intertwined in 1991, as St Wilfrids congregation was out growing the Church itself, so the then Parish Priest, called Father Tom Power, contacted the United Reformed Church. They agreed to merge their Churches into one building, with enough space for both congregations, and this West Church became the new St Wilfrids, whilst retaining its status as a United Reformed Church. This unique arrangement lasted until 2009 when the United Church moved out, and St Wilfrids took ownership of the whole building.

It’s incredible that we hadn’t come across this type of Church sharing before, yet in just a few months we had found two examples, one in Scotland (where the congregations merged to form one church) and one in England (where two Churches co-habited the same space).

Haltwhistle is a great little town, in one of the most beautiful areas of countryside in the UK, Northumberland, just a few miles away from the Northumberland National Park, Kielder Forest Park, and of course Hadrian’s Wall. The nearby cities of Carlisle and Newcastle offer great shopping destinations, famous landmarks and history, as well as good travel links around the rest of the UK. Haltwhistle itself has some beautiful buildings, and with it’s new status as the Centre of Britain it has a brand to build around itself.

Haltwhistle has it’s own train station, opened by the Newcastle & Carlisle Railway in 1838. The NCR is now part of the Tyne Valley Line, with regular trains running between Carlisle & Newcastle, via Brampton, Hexham and Gateshead. The line is named after the River Tyne, formed by the South Tyne which runs through Haltwhistle, which merges with the North Tyne west of Newcastle. Occasional train services also continue through Newcastle to Middlesbrough in Yorkshire, and through Carlisle to both Whitehaven, and Glasgow via Dumfries. One service that sadly no longer runs is the branch line towards Alston, the highest town (by altitude) in Britain. The line closed in 1976, and the track has been removed, but it once had its terminus here in Haltwhistle. A heritage line in Alston has relayed part of the route in narrow gauge form and runs steam passenger trains 3 miles out of Alston, and have ambitions to eventually complete the route all the way to Haltwhistle one day.

Bypassing the town is the main A69 route, between Carlisle and Newcastle. Local buses use this route to connect Haltwhistle with the two cities, as well as Hexham, famous for it’s impressive Abbey in the centre of town.

There is plenty to see in the area, and if you get to visit this part of England then its well worth stopping in Haltwhistle, which would also make a great base for exploring the area, which includes the famous forts along Hadrians Wall, as well as the Anglo-Scottish Border, less than an hour away. We kept moving, towards nearby Featherstone Castle…

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