The rocky route of Devil's Causeway

Environment Editor Tony Henderson visits a landscape of crags and cliff grottoes.

Environment Editor Tony Henderson visits a landscape of crags and cliff grottoes.

To the Anglo-Saxons, the straight and unyielding route which cut across their lands must have been the work of supernatural beings.

So the Roman road that runs through Northumberland to the River Tweed became known as the Devil's Causeway.

Today, the ancient route connects all manner of nooks and crannies in the landscape.

Crossing the A696, it traverses Shaftoe Crags, between Belsay, Bolam and Wallington.

The crags include an impressive array of rock formations, including the Devil's Punchbowl.

This is a basin cut into the top of one of the most prominent sandstone rocks on the crags, which is balanced on the cliff edge.

The punchbowl is so called because what was probably a natural feature was enlarged so that it could be filled with wine or other liquor to celebrate the wedding in 1725 of Sir William Blackett, of Wallington - which can be seen from the crags - to Lady Barbara Villiers, daughter of the 2nd Earl of Jersey.

It must have been some party, because the capacity of the punchbowl ran to several gallons.

Reports speak of bonfires and a "drink-maddened crowd" who danced to the music of the pipes.

More than 1,000 pairs of kid gloves, then a traditional gift to wedding guests, were handed out.

The enlarging of the punchbowl is said to have been carried out by stone carver Thomas Whittell who is reported to have ridden on the back of a ram into the village of Cambo.

The crags are the site of ongoing archaeological investigations, which have found evidence of rock shelter use by early prehistoric hunter-gatherers.

Next to the punchbowl is another rock formation called the Piper's Chair, and nearby are the remains of an Iron Age hill fort which made the most of what is a commanding and elevated position.

The path around the crags leads to Salter's Nick, which is a gap in the rocks and part of the Salter's Road.

This trackway is believed to have been used for smuggling salt, produced in the pans sited on the North-East coast, into Scotland, thus avoiding the salt tax.

In Elsdon churchyard is the tombstone of Thomas Wilson, who is described as on officer for the duty of salt and who died in 1778.

It is likely that the cargo on the return journey would have been illicitly distilled whisky.

A 1904 painting of Salter's Nick by Caroline Trevelyan of Wallington is in the National Trust house.

The Devil's Causeway continues towards Bolam West Houses and passes another atmospheric prehistoric setting.

On a ridge in a field next to the bridleway is a Bronze Age burial mound, measuring 28 metres in circumference.

The mound was excavated in 1718 by a Mr Warburton, an excise officer.

Warburton wrote to a friend saying that he "found a stone coffin and in it several lumps of glutinous matter ...pieces of the dead heroes' flesh".

There are likely to have been a number of burials over many years.

Next to the mound, which is on private land, is a prehistoric standing stone with the lyrical name of Poind and his Man.

The stone is aligned with Simonside, which stands out on the horizon.

The second stone which stood on the site was removed to Wallington, at a time when an interest in antiquities was fashionable, and it can be seen today at the China Pond.

The mound was used in medieval times when watches were kept to warn of the approach of Border Reivers or Scots invaders.

In 1552 the warden of the English East March ordered that vigils be held by two men "at the two stones the Poind and his Man".

The Devil's Causeway Roman road preceded Hadrian's Wall. Just north of Corbridge it branches off the main Roman route of Dere Street, which ran from York into Scotland.

The causeway emerges near Tweedmouth and is thought to have served a military port or landing place.

There is speculation that the causeway could have linked up with a road from what was to become Newcastle, on the line of the present Great North Road.

Tyneside-based archaeologist Paul Bidwell believes that the name of Devil's Causeway is likely to have come from the Anglo-Saxons.

"There was a tendency in the Anglo-Saxon period for people to attribute any large Roman remains or structures to the work of giants, devils or the supernatural," he says.

"The Devil's Causeway would have been very evident in the landscape but with no obvious settlements along the route it would have been very mysterious to the Anglo-Saxons."


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