3,000 years as a wild spiritual home

Tony Henderson visits a remote spot redolent with the shades of the people who lived there over the centuries.

Tony Henderson visits a remote spot redolent with the shades of the people who lived there over the centuries.

Blawearie, in the heartland of wild Northumberland, is said to mean "tired of the wind".

It's open moorland, so no doubt the wind does whip across at times. But it is difficult to see how one could grow weary of such a truly atmospheric place.

Although it has to be conceded that living there in the depths of a howling winter - if we ever get one again - may temporarily change perceptions, for visitors looking to escape the whirl of the modern world it is a location which would never grow tiresome.

The starting point is the farm and cottages of Old Bewick. A short walk and it is up and on to Bewick Moor, with its sweeping vistas.

The walk skirts Bewick Hill, with its dramatic double hillfort.

Then on to the evocative remains of Blawearie House, fronted by a Bronze Age burial cairn.

The 19th Century house was the home of the Rogersons, a shepherding family, and is thought to have been abandoned before the Second World War.

The names of the family's children are in the log book of the former school at Old Bewick. It must have been a hard battle across the moor to school through the winter snows for the redoubtable young 'uns.

Today, the ruinous house is the only trace of habitation on the wide moor, and is flanked by trees and rocky outcrops.

This is the favourite landscape in Northumberland of Hexham archaeologist and author Stan Beckensall, which is saying something considering that he has spent decades criss-crossing the county in search of prehistoric rock art.

"Because there are very few trees on the moor, the cluster of specimens around the house give a feeling of an oasis. It is an enormously powerful place," says Stan.

The inhabitants of the house would have been surrounded by the burial cairnfields of the people who walked this landscape more than 3,000 years ago.

These cairns are the most visible of prehistoric remains in Britain, and it is estimated that there are about 700 early Bronze Age examples in the North-East.

There are about 20 cairns in a half-mile radius of Blawearie.

Stan was given permission to excavate the cairn near the house over a period of four years, with help from Northumberland high school pupils.

The army had used the area for training during the Second World War and with the pressing needs of those days, had little time to worry about the ancestors being affronted by the use of the cairn as a foxhole.

"It was in a very rough state. It was a mess," says Stan, who found spent bullets buried in a shallow pit in the middle of the cairn.

The centre of the cairn had been robbed even before antiquarian and historian Canon William Greenwell, from Durham Cathedral, investigated the monument in 1865.

The cairn consists of five cists - chambers made up of stone slabs into which were placed burials or cremations, and sometimes grave goods.

Canon Greenwell found a food vessel, a flint knife, and a necklace of 102 jet and shale beads. Stan's excavations revealed that an oak tree had once stood in the middle of the site, and may have been burned to remove it. Stone packing had been used which suggests that some form of "totem pole" may have been erected to replace the tree.

The builders of the cairn went to a lot of trouble to construct a perimeter of large kerbstones, placed individually in pits or in groups in trenches.

When later burials were made, kerbstones were used as cist slabs, but the perimeter was always replaced.

"Blawearie is a very dramatic and unusual cairn. The kerbstones, being part of the structure, must have had religious significance and were used to make the graves for the dead," says Stan.

The five cists had all been built at different times.

Stan's dig produced an amber necklace. "The pendant bead was almost worn through from its hole to the circumference, suggesting that it had been around someone's neck for a long time."

Another find was the remains of an adult and a child, and in an inverted urn were the partial cremations of two more people.

The last object to be deposited in the cairn, and recovered by the diggers, was a blue glass melon bead, indicating that the location retained its significance for a long time.

All of the finds from the cairn are in the British Museum.

The cairn was carefully reinstated and continues to be a powerful presence in the moorland landscape.

Soil analysis showed that the area had once been partially wooded. "It would have been good hunting country," says Stan.

Take the house ruins, the cairns, the rock art and the double hillfort and you have, remarks Stan, "a landscape which is just wonderful.

"It is one of the least disturbed landscapes in Northumberland. It is a magic place."

It bears the marks of the people who once lived there. But today, when the population has exploded in what is held to be a crowded island, this is now an empty place - of people, anyway.

"Youngsters want to live in towns where the action is, and agriculture is mechanised and does not employ as many people," says Stan.

"Nobody wants to live there any more."


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