Epic events echo down centuries in sweet spot

Tony Henderson on a church with echoes of past battles.

Tony Henderson on a church with echoes of past battles.

Deep in the heart of rural Northumberland, one never quite knows what might lie at the end of the quietest of country lanes.

Amid the trees where such a route runs its short course is what is believed to be the most perfect surviving early Norman church in the county.

The Church of the Holy Trinity is on the edge of the hamlet of Old Bewick in an area which, as we saw last week, is full of fascinating features.

The church is no exception.

This serene building, which has survived so many centuries, has links ranging from a slain king of Scotland to a war in a country not usually associated with bloody conflict - New Zealand.

The north wall of the church has stonework which suggests Anglo-Saxon, but the building largely dates from the 12th Century.

Old Bewick's Anglo-Saxon origins are possibly confirmed by the name, meaning bee farm in Old English. Such a farm would have merited being singled out by name, as in those days honey and beeswax were valuable commodities. Before the arrival of sugar in Britain many centuries later, honey would have been the only sweet taste many people ever experienced in their life.

From 1107, the church belonged to Tynemouth Priory, which provides the link with the Scottish king.

In 1091, Malcolm Canmore or Ceann Mor, otherwise Malcolm III, invaded the North-East, rampaging through Northumberland. Malcolm was cornered at Alnwick, where he and his son were killed in battle. Malcolm was buried at Tynemouth Priory.

His daughter, Maud, married King Henry I and he gave her the manor of Bewick. She in turn presented it to Tynemouth in memory of her father. Tynemouth Priory kept the land until the Dissolution in 1539. The Scots were back again in the late 13th Century and the church is believed to have suffered in this incursion.

The building was restored in the 14th Century. This could have been the work of the husband of the lady whose effigy lies in the church.

She is dressed in 14th Century costume. Her head rests on a cushion between two kneeling angels, and is covered by a handkerchief. She wears a tight-waisted gown with buttoned sleeves and a mantle. Her feet, in pointed shoes, rest on a crouching lion.

An arch is decorated with heads, which may depict the earlier pagan "Green Man". Near the vestry door is a 13th Century gravestone carved with a fruiting, floral cross.

Old Bewick was not always the tiny, sedate spot it is today. In 1253 it was granted a royal charter for a weekly market.

But later Border unrest caused the Prior to build a pele tower for the defence of the locals, but it was gone by the 19th Century.

Old Bewick was also a victim of the Border reiving days. An account sent to London in 1587 tells how 400 men from "East Tevedale took up Old Bewick and carried away 500 oxen and kyne (cows), 600 sheep and 30 horses."

It is believed that the church was again damaged by Scottish troops during the English Civil War, and in the 18th Century the roof was blown off.

The church was restored in 1866 by John Charles Langlands, who had become the tenant of Old Bewick in 1823 and lived until 1874. A brass plaque in the church commemorates him, his wife Mary who died in 1852, aged 47, and their son, also John Charles Langlands, who was killed at the age of 21 in April, 1864, in New Zealand. He lost his life in the New Zealand Wars, which lasted for 30 years from 1843.

New Zealand had been visited by the northern explorer Capt James Cook in his ship Endeavour in 1769 and he recommended it as ideal for European settlers. This migration began in earnest in about 1840 and sparked land clashes with the native Maori.

The Battle of Gate Pa, in which Lt Langlands was killed by a gunshot wound in the chest, was one of the most significant in the wars.

The harbour of Tauranga in 1864 was the only port open to the Maori to supply the Waikato region, which was in revolt. In April of that year, the Ngatirangi Maori built a pa - or fortified base - near the harbour.

This was a sophisticated structure featuring two redoubts and a system of underground chambers and rifle pits connected by trenches. The Maoris totalled about 240. Against this base the British sent a force of 1,300, comprising a naval brigade drawn from five ships, and soldiers from the 43rd Regiment, in which Lt Langlands served, and the 68th Durham Light Infantry, commanded by Lt Col HH Greer.

Gate Pa, which had eight underground chambers, was bombarded by the British, who had mortars, howitzers and five of the latest rifled, breech-loading Armstrong guns in an action that was a foretaste of the First World War.

A 300-strong attack column of four men abreast - two soldiers and two sailors - advanced into the pa, and were followed by a reserve force. But the Maori emerged from their gun pits and chambers, cutting down the attackers who were squeezed into the narrow spaces. British casualties were about 100 dead and wounded, and they withdrew.

A report after the action describes the pa as "such a complication of traverses, rifle pits, and underground holes that it was very difficult to get along and impossible to move in any numbers; in consequence of that difficulty and suffering heavily from the Maoris' guns fired from holes and cover where it was impossible to see the enemy, and with all their leading officers killed or wounded, the men were compelled to retire."

When the British returned the next day, they found that the Maori had slipped away in the night.

The defeat caused an outcry in Britain and New Zealand.

Greer got his revenge two months later, defeating the Ngatirangi Maori, who surrendered.

Today, a suburb of the city of Tauranga is called Greertown after the Durhams' commander, and the New Zealand city of Hamilton is named after Capt Farne Hamilton, who died at Gate Pa.

The battle left its mark on New Zealand - and on the rural church in Northumberland.

Another plaque in the church is a reminder of another war. Lt Alan Langlands, son of John Shakespear Langlands, a major in the 43rd Regiment, was killed, aged 20, in France in 1915.

In the church grounds is a tombstone to an RAF flight cadet, killed while flying, in 1918.

It says simply: "Sure winged at last, and free."

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