Community digs up fascinating facts

Upper Coquetdale is rich in the archaeology left behind by the generations who lived in this beautiful part of Northumberland for thousands of years.

Upper Coquetdale is rich in the archaeology left behind by the generations who lived in this beautiful part of Northumberland for thousands of years.

That history has been turned over to local people who have enthusiastically joined in the Upper Coquetdale Community Archaeology Project over the last two years. It has been run by Northumberland National Park, with the National Trust, Northumberland County Council and Rothbury Local History Society.

Last year locals joined archaeologists to investigate a 50ft long mound above Harehaugh Iron Age hillfort, which dates from 2,300 years ago.

The heavily-defended hillfort dominates the confluence of the Grasslees Burn and the River Coquet - a strategic point for movement between Redesdale and Coquetdale.

Fifty people took part in the dig, which revealed the mound is a long burial cairn from the earlier Neolithic period.

The Neolithic people, no doubt impressed by the panoramic views, had added material to the existing rock ridge to create a lengthy, pyramid-shaped structure in which burials were made.

This year's excavation, just completed, examined the site of a deserted medieval village on National Trust land at Low Trewhitt.

On a south-facing slope above Thropton, Low Trewhitt farm sits at the confluence of two burns which flow into the River Coquet. But the farm, part of the National Trust's Cragside estate, is in a landscape full of platforms, bumps and troughs below the grass.

This was a setting that had provided a good living for thousands of years, as suggested by a nearby prehistoric burial mound, excavated at the turn of the last century.

Historical records indicate that a village existed here in the medieval period. Next to the site, a field with the visible remains of medieval ploughing - ridge and furrow - show as bold corrugations in the pasture.

Under the direction of Peter Carne of Durham University's Archaeological Services, local volunteers began to investigate the site to see if there was a village at all and, if so, how old it was and why it was abandoned.

Large stone-based platforms and cobbled streets laid out in a grid pattern were revealed, along with over 100 pottery finds dating to the 12th and 18th Centuries.

This indicates that the site was probably laid out in the 1100s and at some stage, most likely the 15th Century, it fell into disuse, only to be re-occupied again as a farm in the 18th Century.

Low Trewhitt is one of scores of deserted medieval villages in Northumberland.

County archaeologist Chris Burgess says: "A lot of farms and smaller villages are what remains of much bigger settlements.

"We know a lot of deserted villages existed from documentary evidence. The house platforms at Low Trewhitt, the grid of roads which had drainage and metalled surfaces, means it must have been quite a community."

The dig was a limited excavation and there are hopes of a follow-up.

According to Chris, a number of factors could have contributed to villages going out of existence.

These may include conflict, disease and changes in land ownership and management.

As agriculture became more sophisticated and smaller tenancies were absorbed into bigger farms, there was less need for manpower.

"People gave up and moved on," says Chris.

"At places like Low Trewhitt, you stand and think about what must have been quite a bustling community, and now it's gone."

National Trust archaeologist Harry Beamish says: "Whether Low Trewhitt ended suddenly or dwindled gradually, we don't know.

"The new information, together with that from the field walking undertaken by group members on the farm earlier in the year, are adding new chapters to the story of this landscape."

Dr Rob Young, Northumberland National Park archaeologist says: "The real value of these projects is in increasing awareness of people in and around the national park about their heritage and the area in which they live.

"I'm sure they will value their historic sites and landscapes all the more as a result of involvement in the work, and it's great to know that we're helping promote the active conservation and a broader understanding of the historic environment."

There will be a guided walk to explore the landscape at Trewhitt on Saturday.

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer