In the Footsteps of David Dippie Dixon

In 1903, local historian David Dippie Dixon published his most famous book, Upper Coquetdale. Tracing the Coquet, that most Northumbrian of rivers, from its source high on the Scottish border down to Rothbury, it is full of tales of history, local people and folklore. Though the world in general has changed since then, not too much has changed up here in the past 100 years; the Upper Coquet Valley is still a place that delights the senses and it remains a place where you can find peace and solitude.

Today we will be following in Dixon’s footsteps as far as Alwinton, starting at the source of the Coquet. This is far from dramatic, seeping as it does from an area of marsh at the head of the valley. But the surroundings are anything but dull. Here we can find Chew Green, a Roman camp that, sitting on Dere Street, was a halt for the soldiers on their way between the garrisons of Hadrian’s Wall and the northern outpost of Newstead near Melrose. Never a permanent fort, we can, however, clearly pick out the mounds that were thrown up by the legions that used this as a resting place.

From Chew Green, we take the valley road as it follows the infant Coquet downstream. In Dixon’s time, this would have been a rough track with fords, which would have made it very difficult to access in all but the finest weather. Since then a good, though narrow, road has been built, with bridges. Today, we have no excuse for not experiencing this part of wild Northumberland.

Small streams join the growing Coquet. Each of these side valleys is a delight in itself, and the remains of a number of old illicit distilleries can be found in these remote places, the availability of cold water being an essential part of the process and the seclusion being vital to avoid the attentions of the authorities. Where the Rowhope Burn joins the Coquet, in the 18th century there was a notorious pub with the dubious name Slymefoot, where this raw spirit would no doubt have been consumed in quantity!

As we approach Barrowburn, on the north bank, opposite the farm of Windyhaugh, there was a fulling mill which was operated by the monks of Newminster Abbey. Fulling is a process whereby woollen cloth is pounded with fuller’s earth in order to remove oil and dirt. The remains of the mill wheel channel are still visible in the river bed, and a recent excavation has revealed much about these early times. It is here that we also find Wedders Leap, a deep channel in in the river, named from an incident where a sheep thief, while attempting to evade his pursuers, tried to leap the chasm with his stolen ‘wedder’. He failed and was drowned in the deep waters below.

A grand track, follows the Usway Burn upstream from where it joins the Coquet at Shillmoor, providing easy access into an even more remote part of the area. There are many spots where you can sit in peace beside a deep pool, while further upstream we can find Davison’s Linn, perhaps the most lovely of all Cheviot waterfalls, with the remains of one of Black Rory’s stills close by.

As we drop down towards Alwinton we pass a dramatic sight at Barrow Scar. To the north, the rocks are of volcanic origin, but to the south we can see the many layers of sedimentary rock that were deposited by a great river that ran down from Scotland into a shallow sea that once washed against the Cheviot hills.

Finally, we reach Alwinton with its pub, the Rose and Thistle evoking an earlier, less peaceful period, when the border was a much more dangerous place. Remembering these times, it is worth visiting the nearby Harbottle Castle. Positioned at the end of the Upper Coquet Valley, it provided some protection against raids from Scotland. So important was it for the defence of this part of the border that it was continually developed through to the time of Henry VIII, who had the walls adapted for artillery. The embrasures for these guns can still be seen.

So that completes our trip through the Upper Coquet Valley. If you are tempted to visit, it is worth looking at the firing times for the Otterburn Training Area as the road from Chew Green through to Redesdale is sometimes open, so completing a circular route through a wonderful part of our county.

If you manage to read Dixon’s work, you will find he frequently uses extracts from poems, so to end, it is perhaps fitting to quote an extract of a poem by local dialect poet James Tait

This is what I caal summer

Lookin’ doon ‘tween them hills

Wi’ the grass slightly bornt

How the stillness fulfills

A soul wont tae wander.

By the cool o’ the pine!

Ye’ll find rest up the Coquet

By the view I caal mine!