Norham has a long and interesting history and what better place to find out more than the records of the Norham and Ladykirk Local History Society.
Today, sleepy little Norham, hugging the southern bank of the Tweed, doesn’t seem worthy of such a violent description as ‘the most dangerous place in England’. It is now the epitome of the quiet English village with a church, school, pubs and shops. But the lanes echoed for centuries with the tramp of soldiers’ feet and the clink of mail shirts as men came to defend the most northerly lands of the Prince Bishops of Durham from the marauding Scots.
The castle, now an imposing ruin, its age old stones fading from pink to grey in the changing sunlight, still watches protectively down the main street and once caught the eye of Turner, who painted it several times in his inimitable style. He considered that these pictures had helped secure his growing popularity and success and so ‘tipped his hat’ to the village in appreciation.
So long the stronghold of the English, it rarely fell into he hands of the Scots but briefly, before the Battle of Flodden it was taken by James IV, not with deeds of chivalry or bombardment by their legendary cannon but by the treachery of a groom within. Any hope of reward for his evil deed was misplaced. He was dragged outside the walls to Hangman’s Land where he paid with his life. No one trusts a traitor.
There has been a castle guarding the ford across the Tweed since 1121 when a motte and bailey was built for Flambard, Bishop of Durham, Norham being part of North Durham until 1844.
In less than forty years it was destroyed by King David and the Scots from North of the river. Such a vital key to defence was soon rebuilt; this time as a stone keep whose formidable silhouette still dominates the skyline.
Edward Longshanks, King of England, came to Norham in 1291 to arbitrate between the claimants to the Scottish throne and settled it on John Baliol, temporarily dashing the hopes of Robert the Bruce. The decision was proclaimed in Berwick, at the time in the hands of the Scots, but the royal entourage returned to the village church where the new monarch swore fealty to Edward. Five years of insurrection followed, John was forced to abdicate and Scotland became a province of England.
The Scottish Wars of Independence followed with William Wallace at the head of the rebellious army. Later, Henry VIII’s chaplain and librarian, John Leyland, wrote a poem retelling the story of a noble knight from this time, Sir William Marmion, who in great splendour, wearing his gold crested helmet, rode from the castle to confront one hundred and forty Scots under the command of Sir Philip Mowbray from Berwick. Sir William was unhorsed, had to be rescued and carried back to safety inside the gates.
The poem was based on ‘Scalachronica’, the contemporary account by Sir Thomas Gray, son of the Constable of the Castle during the reign of Edward II, when Norham was beseiged by the Scots in the first quarter of the 14th century. It was Gray who coined the description ‘the most dangerous place in England’.
The union of the English and Scottish crowns under King James in 1603 left Norham without a border to defend, and the castle slipped from the stage of conflict, no longer under the spotlight of history.
When Oliver Cromwell and his Roundhead soldiers were billeted in the village in 1642 they might have whiled away the hours with musket practice in the Churchyard, with a target suspended below the chancel window, where the wall was pockmarked by the balls that went wide of their mark.
There has been a church in the village since the earliest times. The first stone structure belonged to a monastery, built in the ninth century, on the site of a previous timber one. The oldest part of the present building, dating from the Norman period, shared an architect with the castle and has arches that have the widest span in any church in England from that period.
The church has reflected the changing events in the village, having been fortified by Robert the Bruce who used it as his headquarters when he unsuccessfully besieged the castle. At one point the nave and was left open to the stars, roofless for a hundred years, when the Scots were raiding the surrounding countryside.
To mark Queen Victoria’s Jubilee the tower was fitted with a clock, affectionately known locally as ‘Charlie’ after the Northumbrian maker. Its chime still rings across the churchyard where the craftsman is buried, close to his favourite time piece. In recent times some of the internal mechanisms have been modernised to ensure accurate time-keeping and reduce the workload that used to be required to wind it manually.
Also laid to rest here is Piper Daniel Laidlaw, awarded the Victoria Cross for his role at the Battle of Loos in 1915. He played the pipes, leading the soldiers over the parapet of the trench while under fire and gas attack. He was wounded in the ankle but continued on to inspire his comrades. Later in life he was a local postman.
Norham’s more peaceful side is reflected in the Tweed flowing by. In the past it was of major economic importance to the village, providing work for six fisheries catching the sparkling silver salmon and sea trout, in the same way, for more than a millennium.
One story, recounted in the middle ages as an old legend by Reginald of Durham, tells of Haldene, a small boy who, like so many, did not like school, which was held by the priest in the church. In order to avoid his lessons, and a beating for being absent, he threw the key to the stout oak doors into a deep part of the Tweed. The poor vicar was admonished in a dream by St. Cuthbert for not educating the boys, but on hearing that the key was lost, directed him to the fishery at Pedwell (pronounced Peddle) and to ask for the first fish of the catch. On being presented with a fine salmon, the priest put his hand into its mouth and pulled out the church key.
The last fishery left, that at Canny, was still working the river in the Summer until 2010 after which it was closed. The fish were caught by the age old method of boat and net, used by the men at Pedwell all those years ago. One man on the bank holds the tow rope attached to the net piled onto the back of a boat. As it is rowed away in an arc, the net falls into the water and encircles any fish. The oarsman makes for the landing and the net is pulled ashore. For every shot that brings home salmon there are many fruitless attempts.
In recent times the fishing was a part-time job, but in the past it provided employment for many men during the season from the bitter frosts of February through the balmy nights of summer, to the autumnal mists of September. The crews lived in sheils next to the fishing grounds. These small buildings, equipped with bunk beds and huge black kettles constantly boiling on the stove, were the men’s homes from Monday morning until Saturday afternoon, working through the night when the fish were moving up stream.
The net fishing attracted Beatrix Potter’s attention and she recorded what she saw in her journal. Unfortunately she didn’t have a good word to say about the village, declaring it to be “a dirty little town where every tenth house is a public”. Today’s visitors would have to disagree with her. Only two public houses remain on the broad main street, still dominated by the castle standing guard over a tranquil village.
It’s a stark reminder of its turbulent past, when it truly was ‘the most dangerous place in England’.
Norham is just one spot surrounded by an area steeped in history, both north and south of the Border between Scotland and England. Histories of two nations intermingled over many centuries. Our Local History Society is a great place to find out more and you will find a few details about us below:-
The Society meets on the second Monday of the month in Norham Village Hall at 7.30 pm. Speakers cover a variety of subjects both north and south of the Border. In the summer months we go on one or two outings to places of historical interest.
Entrance to a meeting costs £1.50, or you can pay the annual membership fee of £6 which gives access to all meetings.
Secretary Heather Lough 01289 382060
Treasurer David Heywood 01289 382061