A History of Alnmouth

Introduction

Until 1806 Church Hill was joined to the village by a low lying neck of land and the river flowed round its southern end. On Christmas Day of that year a severe storm caused the river to break through the neck, forming a new channel to the sea; the old channel silted up and sand dunes developed sealing off the old estuary. In 1857 the road from Hipsburn and the Duchess Bridge across the river were built, and at about the same time the flood banks were constructed that prevented the water from inundating much of the estuary flood plain at the times of the highest tides. Thus while the internal detail of Alnmouth has not changed much over many centuries, its setting as seen now is not the same as that seen by our ancestors

Summary

Throughout the ages Alnmouth has attracted people because of its sheltered estuary and the sea, which together enclose the peninsula on which the village stands. In prehistoric times, the estuary, longer and wider than it is now and fringed by extensive marsh, would have been a rich source of wildlife, as would the sea and shore, all providing food within easy reach of a good settlement site. To later people the sea and river still provided a source of fish and other marine life and also the opportunity to develop sea-borne trade. These were the twin pillars of the economy of the village for many centuries, with periods of prosperity and depression as trade fluctuated. The final decline of Alnmouth as a port started in the first half of the 19th c and its fishing flickered out about 1970, but in this same period it developed a reputation as a seaside watering place, attracting day visitors and tourists, who came, and still do, for its river, sea and beach.

Let us follow the fortunes of the village through the various stages in its history.

Prehistoric, the primitive period before the coming of the Romans.

Roman, when the people of this area only had intermittent contact with the Romans.

Anglo Saxon, a very long period when people did not cluster into settlements.

Norman, when the village was organised into a pattern and the beginnings of prosperity.

Middle Ages, a period of prosperity followed by economic decline.

Early Modern, the second period of prosperity and the initial signs of decline.

Modern, when the village was saved from serious decline by catering for leisure pursuits.

 

Prehistoric

In the early bronze age, about three thousand years ago, someone broke a pot. How many pieces survived or what happened to them we do not know, except for one piece which was found just to the north of the built up area of Alnmouth. This, along with pieces of worked flint and flint wasters, found not only in the same area but also across the river to the west of the village, attest to the presence of prehistoric people in this area, attracted no doubt by the suitable settlement site on the high ground to the north of the village, in close proximity to the plentiful food supply provided by the long wide estuary and the sea.

Roman

Unlike the prehistoric period, there is no physical proof for the presence of Romans in or around Alnmouth, but Ptolemy, a Greek geographer, in the map of his known world of about 150AD, shows on a distorted British Isles, the Alauna Flumen or River Aln. The most likely explanation is that Roman surveyors for some reason had recorded the position of the river, and this information came to the attention of Ptolemy. The sixth-century Ravenna Cosmography, a kind of early medieval route map, includes Alauna and Cocuneda referring to the Aln and the Coquet. We can only speculate as to why the River Aln was so recorded, possibly it was done by surveyors of the Roman Army, connected with the advance of Agricola into Scotland about 80 AD. The line of the Roman frontier fluctuated, so that sometimes what is now Alnmouth was in the area directly under Roman control, but more often it was to the north of the border.

Anglo Saxon

After the Romans left Britainsoon after 400 AD, we come to the six hundred years of the Anglo Saxon period. At first different groups of people moved in, vying with the native population and one another for parts of this rich prize. Eventually, what is now the north east of England fell to the lot of the Anglo Saxons, and at first the population was scattered in small groups, places like Alnmouth and Lesbury did not exist, but they probably formed part of an estate centred somewhere in the vicinity of the present Lesbury. The name “Lesbury” probably derives from Anglo Saxon and the ending “bury” is likely to mean a centre or focus of some kind. Although the rate of change wasslow, over a period of six hundred years the cumulative effect was large, so this period saw big changes in customs and control. There was probably a small settlement in the Alnmouth area to exploit the potential of the sea and estuary. Bede tells us that in 684 AD a Synod ‘of no small size.. ’to elect a new bishop to the diocese of Hexham was held at a place near the river Aln called “Two Fords”. Cuthbert was the selected candidate but he did not want to leave his beloved Lindisfarne, so after much negotiation Cuthbert was elected to Lindisfarneand someone else took over Hexham. Alnmouth fits the description of “Two Fords” and is very probably the place. The Synod probably took place on Church Hill, which at that time was not isolated by the river and was of far greater extent than now. Another reminder of the Anglo Saxon presence in the Alnmouth area was the discovery in 1789 of two parts of an Anglo Saxon stone cross somewhere on Church Hill. The cross shows a representation of the Crucifixion of Christ, panels of very typical interlace work and two inscriptions. It has been dated to late in the 800s or early 900s, that is about two hundred years after the Synod of Twyford, say about six or seven generations. It seems that Church Hill may have been a place of religious significance from early times, possibly even having been used for pagan rituals. The Cross found there suggests an assembly point where people gathered to hear a priest, who was probably itinerant. There is very little evidence for there being a church at Alnmouth in this period and even that is not very strong. If there had been a church at the time of the Synod of Twyford it is almost certain that Bede would have given more detail in his description of the Synod’s location.

Norman

It would be a mistake to assume that almost immediately after 1066 the Normanswere in control of affairs in Northumberland; William the Conqueror’s grip on the south of Britainwas shaky and he was fully engaged in attending to affairs there. The Scots and Scandinavians were interested in getting control of the north of Englandand the local chiefs were a very unruly group. For a period of years the situation was complex and bloody and it was not until after 1100 that the Normansbegan to exert real authority and could begin to make plans to benefit from their new acquisition. Even so, during the chaotic period when Matilda and Stephen were contending for the Crown of England, David I of Scotlandin 1136 seized the opportunity to annexe Northumberland, and Scotlandheld it until 1157, when Henry II regained it. William de Vescy, the Norman Baron, who held Alnwick and its neighbourhood, or his advisers, decided to set up a “Borough” at Alnmouth but the exact date of its charter is not known, but an allusion to it in a Charter of 1147 shows that it was in existence then. William, the younger grandson of David I, was made Earl of Northumberland in 1152 and dispossessed by Henry II in 1157 but in this period he granted a Charter, executed at Edinburghto William de Vescy to have a court at Alnmouth, one of the usual prerogatives of a borough. The new borough was planted on land cut off from Lesbury.

It is not at all certain that at the time of the Norman Conquest there was a church at Alnmouth but in a Charter of 1147 the new borough is first mentioned and the tithes of the church were granted to Alnwick Abbey. This gift was confirmed later and at the same time a plot of land in the borough was added. Another confirmation of this addition states that the chief house of the cannons was in Alnmouth. A survey of Alnmouth, of 1567, says that in ancient times the church had an establishment of three priests and a clerk. It is reputed to have been built on Church Hill in the late 12thC and from 18thC prints of the ruins, the chancel at least, was extended in the late13th/early14thC. The church was cross shaped and the nave had two aisles, at its greatest extent its length was approximately 180 ft and the transept was approximately 80 ft. overall. It does seem to have been a surprisingly large church and large establishment for Alnmouth.

William de Vescy, or his advisers, made a wise decision. There are indications from a variety of sources that the new town of Alnmouth prospered and became an important port, but this does not mean that there were substantial stone built harbour walls. To cater for the small wooden ships of the Normansrather crude timber jetties would have sufficed, and in many cases the transfer of cargo could have been to or from horse drawn carts brought out on the sand at low or half tide. As in much of England at this time the main export was wool in one form or another, the export of grain only became important a little over five centuries later.

Mayson’s Map of 1614 is the earliest known map of the village and it shows it as a little larger than as at present, and with all the burgage strips laid out, much as it must have been left by the Normans. Most of the street system as shown then is the same as at present and in some places the boundaries of burgages can be traced.

The title of borough did not depend upon the population, it was an indication of land tenure and rights of the burghers. A burgher did not owe the lord a duty of labour but paid him in some way, in return for which he held a burgage-plot on which he could build a dwelling and use the land to keep domestic animals and grow vegetables. In addition the burgher had the rights of cultivation of strips of land in the common fields and grazing of animals on the common land. Usually boroughs had some special economic activity and in the case of Alnmouth this was to use the sea for fishing or carriage of goods and people.

Middle Ages

Alnmouth’s period of prosperity lasted until the early years of the 1300s which were marked by a spell of very bad weather leading to successive failure of the harvests. To add to the problems war with Scotland broke out and England was defeated at Bannockburnin 1314. Alnmouth was raided and sacked by the Scots in about 1336. In 1348 the plague called the Black Death started in the country and spread rapidly, there were further outbreaks for a few years and they led to a serious shortage of labour and a decline in economic activities throughout the country. Some of Alnmouth’s burgages were left vacant and conditions seem to have been very bad.

For Alnmouth there was a long period in the doldrums, and things did not begin to improve until the latter years of the 1600s. The Unionof the Crowns of England and Scotlandin 1603 was the trigger that started a slow process which was to be important for Northumberland and Alnmouth with it. Slowly the lawlessness of the areas each side of the border died down, reiving and raiding ended, improvement and investment became worthwhile. Agricultural improvements do not happen overnight but towards the end of the 1600s Northumberland was in a position to supply grain to meet the growing demand created by the embryonic industrial towns further south. This grain trade revived Alnmouth’s economy which is reflected in the rebuilding in stone which began then, recorded by the six lintels, carved with dates from 1713 to 1736 still visible today, and the twelve granaries mentioned in the Tithe Map Schedule of 1844.

Early Modern Times

From about 1700 Alnmouth’s shipping and prosperity increased, building in stone continued, although there are examples of brick houses from this period. Some of the granaries were large, purpose built structures, evidence of substantial investment, but some were much smaller, probably pressing into service existing buildings to take advantage of the boom conditions. The shipping records, rather surprisingly, show that the change in course of the river in 1806 did not have much effect on the trade of the port, but towards the middle of the 1800s changes were gathering pace that would have a very serious effect upon Alnmouth. Ships were getting bigger and were being built of iron and steel; such vessels would be seriously damaged if they grounded unlike the small wooden vessels that could moor up on the beach and work cargo to or from carts that came to them. In addition the railways came on the scene and took away much of the goods traffic. The coastal trade gradually died and the granaries were converted to other uses, some became flats and houses, one became a chapel and some were demolished. Usually old, regularly spaced rectangular openings that have been blocked up betray their origin.

Modern Times

Alnmouth was saved from economic decline because it became a popular destination for long stay and day visitors fostered by the cheap popular travel encouraged by the railways. In addition to this it was taken up by wealthy people from Newcastleand Northumberland as a quiet watering place. The Cadogan family, quickly followed by the Pease family, made Nether Grange out of a granary, the Browne family of Callaly Castle used the Hall, the large brick building on the west side of Northumberland Street, as a holiday home. By the Edwardian period there were quite a number of wealthy families who frequented Alnmouth, Mr Scholefield built Lint Close, the large house which is now the Friary, the Fenwicks of Newcastle had a house at the beginning of Riverside Road The affairs of the village were largely directed and controlled by the people of wealth and influence, many of whom took an interest in the village.

In the Great War of 1914-18 twenty one men from the village lost their lives, all of them service personnel. In an era of large families and little social movement few would have escaped the impact of tragedy. The 1939-45 War in contrast saw the number of Alnmouth people killed total eighteen but eight of these were civilians. While these figures show a similar pattern to those for the whole country, it seems a matter of mere chance that a single tip and run raid on Alnmouth was the cause of seven of the civilian deaths. In addition it wrecked some houses in Argyle Street, damaged a lot of others and put the small village gas works, which lay between the bottom end of Argyle Street and Riverside Road, out of business. The blocks of flats at the eastern end of Argyle Street fill the gaps created by the bombing. There were a number of military units stationed along the coast and many service personnel were billeted in Alnmouth, and again young local men went off to distant places, so that there was more social mixing. By the end of the War most of the wealthy and influential people had died or moved away and for good or ill their input to local affairs faded away, unlike the earlier conflict when the leadership of the village seemed to change very little.

The spread of motor car ownership in the period just before and after the 1939-45 War resulted in perhaps even more visitors coming to Alnmouth. A car park developed between the Village Golf Course and the beach in an area that formerly housed static beach huts, the car becoming a mobile beach hut. This was, and still is, a honey pot for visitors.

Most work available now in Alnmouth is connected with tourism in some form, so many residents of working age commute to Alnwick, Morpeth or Newcastle, but live in Alnmouth because they think it is a good place to live, the underlying attractions being the river, sea, sand and surrounding countryside. This combination has brought human beings here over the centuries; what has changed has been the way that they use them.

 

Fred Bettess; March 2010