The “Cathedral” of Coquetdale, Northumberland
Rothbury or Rowbyre - origins and location
The small town of Rothbury, capital of Coquetdale, is to be found at the foot of the Simonside hills. It is situated just over 300 miles north of London and 30 miles from Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the County of Northumberland - (which has a population of 1.5 million sheep - people being less evident).
|Photo J. W. Cummings
Rothbury was one of the most ancient villages in all Northumbria and was a centre of population with a fortified burgh before the Norman Conquest. At that time it was known as Routhebiria or Rowbyre. Rothbury became a town with the signing of its charter by King John in 1201. In early centuries it was never prosperous due to Border warfare.
Thomas Doubleday in a preface to a book of Coquetdale Fishing Songs (1852) summed up the location and lack of prosperity better than I can:
Roihhury is cheerful at sunny midday, but dimly sober towards evening, for then the hills close in aga??nd in their gorge the town of Rothbury stands its? te is shut in by hills, save to the west. To the north the hills are steep and broken into crags, amidst which the goat, numerous here, alone finds footing To the south arc the hills forming a portion of the great Simonside-ridge. And the the east the crags close in and cross each other, as if determined to bar the Coquet from further passage.He goes on to dismiss Rothbury in a disparaging way as "a dim old border town - too insignificant to be defended and too humble to tempt the hand of the plunderer - a collection of grey old houses that might have been standing when Flodden Field was fought, or when the moon was shining over the conflict at Otterburn.”
Today Rothbury is a beautiful and prosperous town in a spectacular setting, heavily invaded by tourists in summer and for its annual music festival, but still remote enough to retain its unique character.
The early church
The first record of Rothbury Church is of its tithes being given to the Monastery at Tynemouth in 1090. In 1120 Henry I granted Rothbury Church and its revenues to his Chaplain, Richard de Aurea Valle. Following the Chaplain’s death it reverted to the Priory of St. Mary, Carlisle, where it remained until 1872 when an exchange was made between the Bishop of Carlisle and the Duchy of Lancaster.
It is believed that the original church was of split oak with a roof thatched with rushes. It had dormer windows into a leaded roof, doorways leading onto galleries, a sturdy four stage Edwardian tower and an ancient porch. High box pews, a three decker pulpit decorated with the King's Arms and wall tables displaying The Lord's Prayer, Ten Commandments and Creed complete the picture.
The church today is quite different having been rebuilt, with the exception of the chancel, in 1850. Prior to the rebuilding it was described as being “in a sadly ruinous condition, quite unfir for divine service”. A description of the early church would be incomplete without a reference to the font pedestal which is the lower part of a pre-Conquest cross, sculptured with knot work snakes and figures and dated approximately 800 AD. The bowl is more modern dating from 1664. The limbs of the cross were discovered at the time of the rebuilding in 1850 and now rest in a Newcastle museum.
Of hourglasses, sundials and clocks
The early Parish timekeepers were reliant on a pulpit hourglass, sundials and morning and evening bells. In the Church Warden’s accounts of 1667 is included the following item “ffor an houre glass, 00-01-00”.
Traces of two ancient circular vertical sundials can be seen in the south wall of the chancel. There are numerous others but the best example is probably a 12-inch diameter circular dial on the face of the east buttress about 6ft. above ground level.
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COQUETDALE - continued
In 1740 a church clock was erected and the Easter 1741 records refer to the following payment:
“Wm. Clark, 2 days and a half making a case for ye clock 0-3-4”.
However, as now, maintenance was always a costly business and this is evidenced by a 1769 entry in the accounts:
“To Joseph Harle for mending the clock where it was damaged by the blowing down of the Clok Face in a storm of wind, 2/-; To ale to the workmen at fixing the Clok Face in the church steeple, 1/-".
Notwithstanding these repairs the church clock collapsed between 1820 and 1830.
Bishop duped by Sextan Jack!
Although the clock collapsed at the time the facts were hidden from the then Bishop of Durham. Arriving at Rothbury Church for a confirmation service he was steered into the churchyard by the east gate so that he should not see the single clock dial on the west front of the tower. After the service the Bishop and Rector left the church together by the west gate. When the Bishop looked up at the clock and compared it to his gold chronometer, he is said to have remarked:
"What excellent time you keep here; your clock and my watch are alike to the minute".
As the two clergymen walked through the church porch Sexton Jack had crept up the belfry stairs and manually set the motionless hands of the old clock to the correct time thus saving the face of the Parish and Church!
Negative inflation and deadly feod
In these days when inflation year by year is an accepted fact of life, it is at first strange to discover that the taxation value of Rothbury Church was £133-6-8d in 1291 but by 1535 had fallen to £58-6-8d (i.e. a fall of 66% albeit in 244 years!).
The cause of this fall in value provides an insight into the very shaky early history of the church in this area, due to the unsettled situation of the borders during the Scottish wars.
Shortly after the Reformation the Rothbury living was held by Dr. Roger Watson, Prebendary of Durham Cathedral, who had previously been a monk at Durham Abbey. However, the inhabitants of Coquetdale and Redesdale, libving in the border lands, were so fierce that he never took up residence in Rothbury and avoided visiting the town. Lawlessness and fighting were a way of life to such an extent that many parishes were entirely destitute of clergy.
However to deal with the problem, Bernard Gilpin, Rector of Houghton-le-Spring, was one person who volunteered to preach in these wild districts. In his biography the state of behaviour, even in church, is described thus:
"the men being bloodily minded, practiced a bloody manner of revenge - termed by them 'Deadly Feod’. If a faction on one side did come to the church, the other side kept aw aybecause they were not accustomed to meeting together without bloodshed!”. On one occasion whilst preaching at Rothbury the Reverend Gilpin had to come down from the pulpit and separate the two factions, putting one side in the chancel, whilst the other remained in the body of the church, simply to stop the fighting. In time he became so well known and respected by his rude and barbarous congregation that he was esteemed by them to be a prophet. So well known became the story of Bernard Gilpin quelling the fray in Rothbury Church that it is the subject of one of the wall panel paintings in the National Trust property at Wallington Hall, Northumberland.
The early bells
The Vestry books made reference to the ringing of a bell at 6.00 a.m. and a curfew at 8 p.m. for which 5/- was paid per half year. The Church Warden’s accounts for 1731 suggest that two bells at least existed at this time by virtue of the following entry:
Early in 1893, prior to the hanging of the existing ring of bells, a bell was removed from the bell loft. It carries the inscription "John Thomlinson, Rector of Rothbury 1682" and the founder’s mark, three bells in a circle of leaves indicating J. Bartlet of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. This bell has been preserved and can still be seen today.
The present bells
The current peal was the gift of a single local and most generous benefactor who was over 80 years of age at the time. Miss Mary Dawson of Ripon stayed at Well Care House, Rothbury in December 1892 and decided to do something to benefit Rothbury and in memory of her late brother, Mr. William Dawson who had died at Thropton Hill. She contacted the Whitechapel Bell Founders, Messrs. Mears & Stainbank who agreed to a tight contract which required them to cast and install a rimg of eight bells and have them ready for ringing by Easter, April 3rd 1893. Considerable work was also required to the tower to make it ready to receive the bells. This is detailed precisely in the Rothbury Bellringers Record Book, started in 1893 and still in use today, from which I quote:
In the mean time, the Tower had to be put in order to
Bells. First a floor and sufficient beams had to be arranged The Beams
are 4 in number, best oak, 2 of 15 inches by 10, and 2 of 15 by 8, upon
this rests the flooring dials 2 1/2 inches thick, and below them for
ceiling 1 inch dials Between them is placed 3 inches of mortar to
deaden the sound into the Belfry resting upon 1 inch dials. The walls
were neatly plastered down, painted at the bottom, with a dado. Lights
were provided and windows to open. An extra floor was provided to the
Belfry with felt to deaden the noise into the Church. Miss Dawson also
provided matting, 2 forms, 6 chairs, table and clock, doing at her sole
expense all that was necessary to strengthen and improve the Tower, and
give ample comfort to the Ringers. Mr. Wake undertook the Marm's work,
with the difficult task of raising and fixing the 4 New Oak Beams,
which was all done without a hitch.
Photo: The Rector and ringers.
A brass plaque on the south pier of the tower records the gift of the bells thus:
"To the Praise and Glory of God. In affectionate remembrance of the late William Dawson this peal of Eight Bells was presented to All Saints Church Rothbury by his loving sister Mary Dawson, Easter 1893."The bells were dedicated by the Bishop of Newcastle on Monday April 17th. The 16th Annual Report of the Durham and Newcastle Diocesan Association of Ringers records that “The bells were formally opened by an excellent band of ringers from our Association who rang a peal of Double Norwich Court Bob - splendid striking - the effect along the valley of the Coquet, and amongst those Simonside hills was really magnificent, and will never be forgotten by those who heard it. Miss Dawson entertained a select party of friends, including the ringers, at luncheon at the Queens Head".
In the evening Miss Dawson provided an excellent supper for the ringers and others also at the Queens Head. (In view of this generosity it is understandable that the present band of Rothbury ringers consider it necessary to remember our benefactor by returning to the Queens Head at weekly intervals following the practices!).
Details of the bells are as follows:
The “new" clock - Rothbury Chimes?
The clock, now electrically wound, was installed by public subscription in 1897. On the afternoon of Sunday, 27th June 1897 a special service was conducted at the west door of the Church by the then Rector Canon Young. Following this the new clock was set in motion. Soon afterwards the Cambridge quarter chimes were heard for the first time followed by the striking of 3 p.m. on the tenor.
A recent visitor from the far south, after a practice, enquired of our current Rector whether the chimes were Westminster or Cambridge chimes. To the delight of the local ringers his reply was that “these are Rothbury chimes - which I understand are also used in Westminster or Cambridge!”.
The Rothbury Guild of Bellringers
Following installation of the bells. Dr. Barrow who had overseen the work, took on the job of teaching a local band. Local ringers were able to take part in ringing rounds almost immediately. Most ringing of methods was on six bells, although the first local ringing of Triples was done in November 1893.
The records are full and complete until the outbreak of war in 1939. Spasmodic entries are then found until 1974 although it appears that the bells were not always rung for service at this time.
During the Church Stewardship Mission in 1985, the Youth Group suggested to the Rector that it would be beneficial for the art of bellringing to be revived. At about the same time Colin Wheeler had written to the Rector offering to teach a band for the Church and suggesting that, with so few rings of church bells existing in Northumberland, it was a pity they were not regularly rung for church services.
On Friday, July 12th 1985, Colin and Patrick Wheeler, assisted by Ron and Sue Hanson from Embleton, started to teach bcllhandling on silenced bells to some 12 potential ringers. Other Morpeth ringers assisted from time to time and soon the Hansons had to withdraw due to an impending addition to their family.
However, the local ringers were able to ring open rounds at practice night on Friday, 13th September (lucky for some!). The bells were ringing open for service for Harvest Festival on 6th October 1985, and have been ringing regularly ever since.
On Friday, 1st November 1985, after the usual practice, the Rothbury ringers entertained their tutors from Morpeth (who by this time included Mr. Terry Williams - late of Edinburgh Cathedral) at a pie and peas supper at the Queens Head - “Dawson style". The Rector thanked Colin Wheeler and his helpers from Morpeth for their enthusiastic and committed help. The evening was beautifully rounded off w'ith Northumbrian accordion music played by Alan Murray, one of the new Rothbury ringers.
The band has continued to thrive and grow with a steady stream of new ringers being taught. Progressively the band are ringing first quarters and peals. Louise Bland, one of the most enthusiastic learners, is now educating Cambridge university ringers in the Rothbury way of doing things! Experienced ringers living roundabout or moving into the area have also been pleased to join the band. In 1987 (October) the stiff, worn and solid pulleys were replaced by Fred Pembleton - otherwise the installation is unaltered from 1893.
Two Morpeth and Rothbury ringers outings are organised each year, one in the Spring, the other in the Autumn. Support from Rothbury Church now necessitates the use of a 52 seater coach to accommodate the usual 30 ringers.
Morpeth and Rothbury ringers' sweatshirts have now become so popular (over 100 have been ordered so far) that at a recent ringing meeting a Newcastle ringer was spotted wearing a "I am NOT a Morpeth and Rothbury Ringer” sweatshirt. When it was discovered that the sweatshirt had been made for him by his girlfriend, a Rothbury ringer herself, he was however forgiven. Ceilidh dances, barbecues etc. have also been arranged.
Finally, as an indication of progress made, I must mention the performance of an all Rothbury band of ringers in the 8-bell striking competition at Bamburgh on 8th October 1988. Considerable practice had gone into their performance with coaching, ecouragement and conducting by Gordon Rothwell. Consequently they were placed third out of seven teams in the competition beating Morpeth Clock Tower (their tutors!), Durham Cathedral, Durham University and Gosforth. Newcastle in the process.
When the teaching started at Rothbury in 1985 many Association members were dubious of the chances of success. It was thought impossible to travel 16 miles each way from Morpeth and build a band from scratch. The enthusiasm of the Rector, the Reverend Francis Eddershaw must also be mentioned. We read a lot about non-churchgoing ringers.
Rothbury’s Rector supports our social events and attends practice nights every month or so to socialise with his ringers.
Given enthusiasm on both sides, Rothbury has proved that a thriving band can be built from scratch. In the 1987 Durham and Newcastle Diocesan Association report. Rothbury has 21 ringing members listed.
Why not try it in your area? I know of nothing more rewarding.
end of article