Amberley Publishing - Transport, Military, Local and General History

Defensive Northumberland by Colin Alexander

A fine stretch of Hadrian's Wall looking west over Hotbank and Crag Lough. (Defensive Northumberland, Amberley Publishing)

I was born in Northumberland, at the end of the Roman Wall, and grew up in a coastal village whose clifftops are crowned with evocative mediaeval ruins. Little wonder then, that I shared an interest in local history with my father.

Northumbrians are very aware that their land has always been frontier territory, a county of contrasts, with Iron Age hill-forts scattered all over the north, and the rich Roman heritage in the south. Dramatic castles and pele towers can be found throughout, making it a fascinating area to explore.

Before the Roman invasion, what is now southern Scotland and northern England was a land of small-scale skirmishes between rival tribes and clans. For hundreds of years subsequently, the position of the border changed repeatedly, either the cause or the effect of large-scale conflicts. Eventually the Union of England and Scotland made the border an administrative line on the map.

The ancient St Oswald's Gate at the north-west corner of Bamburgh Castle. (Defensive Northumberland, Amberley Publishing)

In addition to border warfare, Northumbrians have, from the time of the Vikings until World War Two, lived with a constant threat from hostile nations across the North Sea. We appreciate the county’s place geographically and historically, acting for centuries as a buffer-zone between Scotland and England, much closer to Edinburgh than far-off Westminster. Two-thousand years of turmoil and threat have left a fascinating legacy on the unique landscape of this remote corner of England, combining hilltop Iron Age settlements and the great Roman infrastructure with many centuries’ worth of later fortifications of all types and sizes. These include humble fortified farm dwellings, massive castles, town walls and Berwick’s incredible Elizabethan ramparts.

Northumberland’s ancient hill-forts and mediaeval castles were regular destinations for family outings and school trips for as long as I can remember, and with my two sons I have walked the length of its greatest defensive monument – Hadrian’s Wall. I am fortunate that I was able to spend much of my childhood exploring the steep grass banks and ruins of Tynemouth Castle, a place to fire the imagination with its centuries of military history intertwined with a fiery monastic past.

Berwick ramparts, looking down into one of the positions for cross-firing artillery. (Defensive Northumberland, Amberley Publishing)

For purposes of this book, ‘Northumberland’ refers to the historic county as it existed for centuries before 1974 when its populous south-east corner was grafted onto part of County Durham to form the faceless and short-lived political entity of Tyne & Wear.

This book attempts to show some of the variety in Northumberland’s rich legacy of defensive structures from prehistory to modern times. Tales of Border Reivers, ancient tribes, great battles, sieges, Zeppelin raids bring to life the story of our great fortifications.

Taking the photographs for the book was an adventure in itself. I spent many happy days walking some of England’s least-frequented landscapes in search of the past. Hills were climbed and the remains of Iron Age settlements photographed. I realised early into the writing that ground-level photography would not do justice to these hill-forts. I contacted a gentleman who had some impressive aerial photos of these locations, seeking his permission to use some of them in the book. He replied that he could do better than that, and took me up in his light aircraft with my camera. A couple of the spectacular results appear in the book. I could easily have filled a book double this size and still not exhausted this topic, and was a little sorry when I was finished, so enjoyable was its making.

Colin Alexander's new book Defensive Northumberland is available for purchase now.