|Memories of Alnmouth, by Ella Dodds 1893-1979|
Cradled t'wixt the sea and river
Tides a-flowing, reeds a-quiver
Church hill's blessing from the south
This is our village, ALNMOUTH.
Roman, Saxon, Dane and Celt
Thus our mingled bloodstreams melt
Gipsies too and smugglers bold
So our village tale is told.
Corn road comes at last to rest
Open doors from harvests blest
Little ships along the quays
Take the grain across the seas.
Quiet now and full of grace
Welcome arms for every race
Proudly resting on our past
Alnmouth, fulfilled at last.
Laved by summer seas and lashed by winter storms at the mouth of the picturesque river Aln, in a sandy bay skirted by low rocks on either side, lies the lovely village of Alnmouth or Alemouth as it was called, unique on an isthmus between the river and the North Sea, and tumbling higgledy-piggledy from the hills behind. An ancient place - so old that its history is lost in the mists of time. An unfinished stone axe found at Hipsburn belonged to the folks of 6,000 years ago, and is now in Alnwick Castle. The Roman Legions, who tramped the bleak moors and shivered as they built Hadrian's Wall, had a settlement in Alnmouth and used the harbour for the embarkation of troops and the export of corn. Its Roman name was Woodchester and Maclauchin, the investigator into Roman occupation engaged for the purpose by Duke Algernon, dates this period from 55BC to 428AD. A century later, when the Romans had left our shores, the Saxons appeared and King Ida built his castle at Bamburgh in 547AD.
A Saxon church was built on Church Hill when King Egbrid and his nobles with Bishop Trunwine set sail from Alnmouth to beg of St. Cuthbert, at his retreat on Lindisfarne, to become the Bishop of Lindisfarne. Cuthbert agreed to their request and a Synod was held at Twyford, the place of two fords, this place was recognised as Alnmouth, one ford being below the church hill running west and the other at Pan Leazes to the north of the church hill.
In 793 the long ships of the Norsemen appeared on the horizon and the remains of the earthworks for their winter shelter are in the Nightfold. The Norsemen left a lot of their words here - bumla for bee, gildert for a bird snare, siping for oozing, muck, graip (fork) and midden to mention but a few.
The Saxon Church upon the hill
St. Waleric was its name.
St. Cuthbert was crowned Bishop here
Of Lindisfarne's great fame.
The Normans came and built their church
Upon the self same place
And even now the burial ground
Still shows its grisly trace.
The Village held its burials there
And rowed across the tide
In 1806 the floods arose
And the hill was swept right to the other side.
The Press Gang worked without pity. They arrived without warning and took away all the men they required until they were no longer needed. When the Press Gang arrived the women chanted a dancing rhyme :-
Dance the tittery tan Margery
Dance the tittery tan
Here comes the tender
To take away our man.
Smuggling was rife and was worked in two channels; one where contraband was landed on the beach by boat by fast sailing luggers at sea, the other from ships in the harbour where ruses were adopted to get goods ashore without paying duty. In the lugger smuggling there was a well developed code of signals. Women mainly took the smuggled goods by pony crossing the ford at the Pan Leazes on their way to Rothbury.
The corn trade was so important that a new road was built in 1753 from Hexham to Alnmouth. Northumberland Street was Hexham Road and at Hexham there is still an Alnmouth Road. The old bank was the old bakery - possibly to be near the flour mill, which was where the Grange garden is now. The Brewery was possibly where the old gas-works were (now occupied by the boat yard).
The old lamplighter, who still went on rounds in my day, went by the name of Gassy Archbold. This was his only vocal expression, otherwise he was never known to speak at all. He lived with his sister, who bred pug dogs and who looked exactly like them!
A school existed, held in the Old Chapel, of 50 scholars, for which the freeholders paid 15/- a half year rent. Boys who intended going to sea were helped towards their navigation. Three became rather famous sea captains. They were known as the three R's; Runciman who founded the Moor Line, Rochester and Robinson, all of whom prospered exceedingly.
The girls worked the tides discharging the guano ships. History does not record how they smelt!
The houses were lit by tallow candles, and the family sat round the sea coal fire listening to the lore and legends of their elders - mixed with scraps of local gossip. On Alnmouth Fair days, in March and November, the elders brought home fairings. The children trooped to the Hurly Burly gate on the old road to Foxton and eagerly awaited their gifts. As they received them they chanted "Fair Folk, fair folk, give us wor fairs; Yor pockets is full and wors is bare."
The church was gone and so at last
The services were held
In the old town hall of granary fame
Where a high old tower was belled.
And then a few good men and true
In their earnest honoured search
Were given a site by good Duke George
Where they could build their church.
Dedicated to Baptist John
It stands for all to see
A hundred years of worship
Now till eternity.
(written by Ella in Centenary Year)
As children we played on the church hill. We often found human bones. I myself once found a skull and brought it proudly home, only to be severely scolded and told to "plodge back at once and put it back just where you found it".
When William the Conqueror landed in England in 1066 he divided the country into baronies and de Vesci became the overlord here. The Percies who have always played a most important role in our history also came over with the Normans. De Vesci built a Norman church on the Church Hill on the site of the old Saxon edifice. The Normans commanded the bailiff of Alnmouth in 1316 to send ships victualled and armed to Gascony. In this way, Alnmouth, already a fort and noted for its ship building, developed to become a thriving port.
In 1765 the Brittania, Coquet Lass and Duchess of Northumberland were the names of three ships known to have been built here. In addition to the ships built here a number of locally owned ships traded regularly, bringing general cargo for Alnwick merchants and also slates, guano, wood and bricks.
As time went on the country was continually raided by the Scots. The Beacon Tower was erected on Beacon Hill in the Nightfold and fire pans were lit to give warning of the Scots invaders. Border strife lasted from 1293 to 1707 when the Union between England and Scotland took place.
After 1707 the village began to prosper and a record runs like this:-
"This town consists of near one hundred burgesses and the inhabitants have begun to build houses and granaries."
For the next 150 years Alnmouth reached its greatest prosperity and a new road was made from Hexham to Alnmouth, bringing the corn which was stored in the granaries. A flour mill stood on the site of the Grange and water was pumped from the Howle Kiln, (which is the march on the green).
A local brewery existed but the site is not known. The wood trade and ship building were also considerable.
Alnmouth was the port for Alnwick. An amusing story is told about the lad who ran all the way to Alnwick when the ships arrived after having been storm-stayed for weeks. The boy, in a state of exhaustion, almost collapsed in the shop of a well known merchant (now Reed's T.V. shop). "Please, sir," he gasped, "the ships are in." "Good news", smiled the grocer. "Give the boy a raisin."
Alnmouth at that time was full of inns. The Ship Inn, now the Post Office; the Scotch Arms, now Seafield; the Tailors Arms, now Waleric Cottage; the Seven Stars, now Victoria Terrace.
Another unusual industry had developed, the burning of kelp. The kilns for the burning, just below the battery hill. Bricks were made in the Kiln field just below Lovaine Terrace. A very thriving sawmill was just to the west of the church hill and continued till the first World War. I remember as a child seeing the men go over the river to work in the sawmill the wood from which went to Alnwick to a famous cabinet maker, William Robertson.
Slates were stored from Boskenna corner to the pin fold (which is now the public lavatory). All stray animals were put into the pinfold until claimed.
The last guano shed still stands in a field on the west of church hill. When the guano ships came in the wind was easterly, everybody knew. It was not exactly "the perfumes of Arabia!"
There were about 20 fishermen engaged in salmon fishing in summer and white fish, crabs and lobsters in winter. I can remember as a child seeing the cobles going down the river on the tide and hoisting sail when they got into the bay. Many ships were wrecked. As soon as the signal was heard, even in the middle of the night, the villagers turned out to pull the life boat into the sea.
Alnmouth has many strange place names. Lint Close, where the Friary now stands, was the place where the lint or linen was bleached. The Nightfold next to it was where the livestock was folded at nights when most burgess holders had some kind of beast to feed. The High Links, now called Bracken Hill, was high as opposed to the golf links which were flat. The highest point of the High Links is the Divers Knowe. The marsh was known as the Howk Kilne (corruption of Howle Kiln) where the kelp was burned for iodine. The trough just a few yards North of the fountain is the Far Cast and what used to be a well at the corner of the Wynd is the Pant. Peases Park was known as the The Old Boats because disused and worn out boats were left there to decay. The Pan Leazes is the stretch of marsh and the jutting piece of land (covered at high tide) pushing into the river below Lover's Walk. At one time Oysters were cultivated on the point. It was known as Oyster Point. The remains of these oyster beds are still to be seen. Opposite, on the other side of the river, are the North Goose Batts, probably Batts for wild fowling.
At the beginning of the century Alnmouth was a quiet place, and a car was a phenomenon. Northumberland Street was then called Hexham Street being the end of the famous corn road which began in Hexham and ended at Alnmouth. Many of the stint holders had cows which grazed on the village green and in the night fold at nights they were looked after by a herdman who was paid by the stint holders. Each day the lowing herd came ambling through the street going down one by one to their respective byres. This went on from May 12 to Nov. 12th when all livestock had to leave the night fold, to enable the grass to recover until the following May.
The street was cobbled and the delivery vans were horse drawn. A man came from Warkworth once a week to collect the rubbish from the dust bins by horse and cart. Most trade vans came from Alnwick but once a week a tripe seller came, clad in spotless white and wearing a straw hat, carrying his basket of tripe and calling "D'ye want any tripe on me the day?". Out came his prospective customers with plates and dishes. He travelled by train. Another cart was laden with pots and pans of all descriptions. His method of attracting attention was to clash two basins together. These folks always had a spanking horse and a very highly decorated flat cart and came from Longframlington. Twice a year a knife grinder came and we all gazed with admiration as he sharpened scissors and knives. Another street trader was the chair mender and he sat in the street with his tools. One decrepit old man pushed a box on wheels, crying "Bottles, bottles, bottles" and we all ran with our old bottles. I never knew where they went!
We had quite a lot of tramps and they were generally treated kindly and given tea and something to eat. On cold nights they slept in the old gas works, where the boat yard is now. Most people had a baking day and a washing day and the clothes were spread out on Fisher Hill and the links to dry. It was amusing to see the owners of the various washing going round to see what other folks washing was like!
Most people owned cows, looked after by a herd on the common. Every afternoon the cows ambled their way to their respective byres. The folks with cows made their own butter and also sold milk in the village.
Another interesting feature was 'The Percy Volunteers' called from the local villages, with Headquarters in Alnwick. A battery manned with cannons, mounted on wood blocks, stood on the top of the links. The Volunteers practised firing at the target in the sea from time to time until the great day came for the final competition when rivalry was great. This day stirred the villagers into almost frontier excitement and Alnmouth was roused into a frenzy. An amusing story is told of this event. The officer is charge ordered the men to "elevate the gun" to get it sited. A corporal hearing the word "elevate" decided to use it at the first opportunity, which came next day when he was given charge of the firing squad. "Elevate her", he shouted, in this his finest hour. "Elevate her, elevate her" till the cannon was pointing to the sky. "Ye fyels", he shouted, "ye fyels, elevate her doon a bit!".
Up until this time, 1895, the village had had no policeman, but in that year Alnmouth won the firing competition. The disgruntled Amble men went home by coble, got uproarously drunk, and returned for revenge. As they came up the beach, they gathered stones and smashed every window in sight and did as much damage as they could. This got so much out of hand that the Riot Act was read and a messenger sent to Alnwick for the police, who arrested the culprits and put them in gaol. Alnmouth then received its first 'bobby', Charles Martin, whose sons lived in the village until their deaths. (George Martin died in 1977).
Before the Village school was built in 1870 a school was held in the Old Chapel, where John Wesley once preached. His comment on Alnmouth was not flattering. "A place full of all kind of wickedness". When he came later we seemed to have reformed slightly.
From the present Post Office south to Little Croft the place was known as Croftlands. On that area were stabling, barns etc. for the monks who were attached to St. Walerics Church. The Post Office was the priests' house, according to the deeds in possession of the owner of one of the houses.
Alnmouth had many independent characters. One washerwoman, Bessie, lived in Crows Nest Lane and was famed for her laundry, always wore a flat cap and smoked a small black clay pipe. She always "possed" with three poss-barrels. One day I asked her why she always used three barrels. She removed the "cutty" to say "Aa waddent poss the vicar's claes wi' the school maister's, nor yors wi' mine. Not healthy!" whereupon she spat out a stream of baccy juice which landed on a daisy.
The golf courses opened in 1869 attracting many visitors, including famous names like Vardon and Taylor.
From about 1880-1914 Alnmouth became a very fashionable seaside resort, bringing the 'nobility and gentry' of those days, who took houses for the summer and brought their whole staff, including their carriages and pairs and riding ponies. It was literally "Mayfair on Sea" and to we children radiated a kind of magic. The beautifully gowned ladies - the men in full evening dress. They foregathered each evening after dinner at the bottom of the village which we named 'Piccadilly Point'. I can still sense the mingled excitement of lovely perfumes, aroma of cigars, the smell of the sea and the scent of garden flowers, an alchemy of delight never to be forgotten. After the first world war, times changes and the advent of the motor car brought people for shorter holidays and day visits. Today Alnmouth attracts more visitors than ever, including many from abroad. I have asked many visitors why they come to Alnmouth. "Because it is unspoilt, a lovely unique village". Long may it remain so. for those of us who 'belong' and love it are proud of its past and hope to remain as proud of its future.
"Those hills are dearest which our childish feet
have climbed the earliest, those streams most dear at which our childish lips
were wont to drink."