What’s new for Heritage Open Days? A whistle-stop tour through Northumberland

What’s new in Northumberland?  Well, ironically because we have such a wealth of old stuff, quite a lot!  My problem is where to begin?  Northumberland is a big county with so many different types of culture and history. By my reckoning, out of the hundred or so places and events in this year's Heritage Open Days programme, about forty sites participate for the first time or are established venues with a new exhibition or other activity. So get out a map and join me on a whistle-stop tour of my county!

© Jim Herbert - The heritage volunteers of the future at the Northumberland Heritage Open Days launch at Newbiggin

Oh I do like to be beside the seaside!

Let's start down at the beach at Newbiggin by the Sea. The Newbiggin Maritime Centre recently hosted the launch of Northumberland Heritage Open Days. It's a brand new place in a beautiful sandy bay staging an event called Newbiggin – Our Past, Our Future. It'll be very hands on. The fabulous staff and volunteers will be demonstrating how fish is prepared and cooked and fish fingers made. You'll be treated to stories of the Viking invaders and how King John granted a charter to Newbiggin. There’s lots to do for all the family. Go!

Near Newbiggin is Woodhorn Church, a beautiful Grade I listed church, reputedly the oldest on the Northumbrian coast. There will be guided tours of the church and graveyard on Friday, and a concert on Saturday evening. Just down the coast is Blyth, Seaton and Seaton Sluice where there are a host of fascinating sites and events. Examples are Blyth Battery and Roberts Battery which explore the 20th century coastal defences and I recommend the small Watch House Museum and Seaton Delaval Hall. A welcome addition to this well-established programme is Seaton Delaval Masonic Hall. The Temple will be open to explain the history of Freemasonry and a tour of the temple will include a display of the regalia worn by Freemasons and explanations of the various offices within the Lodge.

Also in the south-east of the county, on the site of Woodhorn Colliery, is the flagship Woodhorn Museum and Archives and they have three new activities this year, one of which is the Winding House Opening. Following renovations, enter the last Victorian engine house in Northumberland and see demonstrations of some of the workings in action.

Bedlington Mini Heritage Fair offers an opportunity to learn more about the town's fascinating heritage and planned regeneration with a range of free entertainment.  The Sustrans' Portrait Bench Unveiling celebrates the new cycle routes in Bedlington and commemorates three local heroes including Sir Daniel Gooch, a railway engineer who worked with both Robert Stephenson and Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Nearby Morpeth has surpassed itself again with a host of new events. The Morpeth Chantry, worth a visit in its own right, is hosting two exhibitions. At Memories of Morpeth you can share your memories of living, visiting and working in Morpeth over the years. The Curious Yards and Alleyways of Morpeth is a chance to see a copy of the 1852 plan of Morpeth and how the town's yards and alleyways have developed from medieval beginnings over the years. Those who know me wouldn't be surprised about my interest when I read about Colourful Morpeth and The Last Chance Saloon. The walk will focus on the colourfully named pubs of Morpeth and there'll be time to savour drinks in three of these. Walkers and railway enthusiasts will be chuffed with the Wannie Line Walk. As well as hearing the story of Wansbeck Valley Railway and Rothbury branch, walkers will visit Tut Hill limeworks and Fairnley Bastle.

For those who prefer a gentler approach to history, why not have a go at proggy matmaking with the Woodhorn Matters: Matmaking Group. What sounds like a blast is This Sporting Life: Historic Field Sports of Northumberland, an interactive lecture on the history of field sports with practical demonstrations of archery, black-powder shooting, boar hunting and field-craft!  Or join Sanger's Circus Heritage Trail, in which local pupils have worked with a performing arts company to create a special heritage trail inspired by visiting circuses, and The Caprians in the Courtyard, singing a selection of Northumbrian songs at Whalton Manor House and gardens.

Go west, young man!

And everyone else should as well. Bellingham Heritage Centre, situated at the old railway station and run entirely by volunteers, tells the story of rural and industrial life in the North Tyne Valley. 

If you like your heritage wild then take the Otterburn Bastles Tour of three of Northumberland’s best preserved bastles. These were fortified houses, built to protect family and livestock in the lawless days of the Border Reivers. I’m wanting to get to this one.

At the heart of rural west Northumberland lies Hexham. Here you can see the medieval Moothall and the Hexham Riot of 1761 exhibition. This tells the forgotten story of 250 years ago this year, when ordinary people throughout Tynedale marched to Hexham to protest against the selection of men for service in the County Militia.

But if you like you're really heritage wild then try two of the (possibly) most remote Heritage Open Days sites in the country!  High in the North Pennines is the Scientific Stranger Arts Exhibition in Allenheads, a contemporary visual arts exhibition exploring the 19th century innovations in the lead mining industry that dominated Allenheads and the radical social reformation plans of the time. Another lead mining link is St Mark's Church, Ninebanks with magnificent views across the West Allen Valley, St Mark's Church has a fascinating history linked to lead mining... and tea?

Travelling north once more we come to the Brinkburn Heritage Walk which takes in not only the remains of Brinkburn Priory, but Brinkburn Iron Works and Healy Cote Works. And you must visit Cragside near Rothbury, famous as being the first house in the world lit by electricity, and if you can bring along a cherished souvenir or object from the past the better. Then go on to Biddlestone Chapel, near Netherton, a private chapel adjoining Biddlestone Hall, the demolished home of the Selby family. There are remains of a 14th century pele tower and a thick-walled, barrel-vaulted undercroft below, and the chapel is furnished in mid-Victorian Gothic Revival manner.

The Northern (High)lights

Four craft lodges meet at Alnwick Masonic Hall, including a lodge for Lady Freemasons. The Temple has a large sideboard depicting the "Chevy Chase" carved in 1889. There are many other artefacts and a ceiling showing the constellations. Brethren will be on hand to answer questions. Near Alnwick, Around the Point is a guided walk in and around Low Newton by the Seapassing, the former Coastguard Watch House, St Mary's Church, a Cold War complex, a late 18th century planned settlement for fishermen, the former coastguard station and Rocket House.

Drive up the A697 and just south of Wooler it's getting artistic. Print & Paper: Paper Conservation Studio and Print Workshop is where Vincent Lomenech and his wife, Olivia Lomenech Gill, practice their skills. Olivia, an award-winning printmaker, has now set up an etching studio and is currently working on an illustration commission for the writer Michael Morpurgo. Vincent runs a business offering both paper conservation and specialist framing services to a wide range of clients. He specialises in early printed maps and books from 15th-18th century. Visitors to the workshop will find the paraphernalia of two rather specialist enterprises and an exhibition of Olivia's recent work with examples of Vincent's bespoke picture framing. There may also be some printmaking demonstrations over the course of the event. 

Welcome to Norham! Taking part for the first time, the Norham History Society are doing sterling work and have laid on three events for us in this pretty border village on the banks of the River Tweed. Netfishing on The Tweed is a photographic exhibition illustrating the centuries-old story of net fishing for the world famous Tweed salmon. Discover the charms and secrets of this pretty border village on the Norham Village Tour. The village is dominated by the castle that made JMW Turner famous. The future of Scotland was decided here in 1292 and Walter Scott set parts of Marmion here. And then climb up to Norham Castle, the most northerly stronghold of the Prince Bishops of Durham. Commanding a vital ford over the River Tweed, Norham was one of the strongest of the border castles, and the most often attacked by the Scots. Besieged at least 13 times - once for nearly a year by Robert Bruce - it was called 'the most dangerous and adventurous place in the country'. But even its powerful 12th century keep and massive towered bailey walls could not resist James IV's heavy cannon, and it fell to him in 1513, shortly before his defeat at Flodden.

And so to the northernmost outpost on the HODs map - my home town of Berwick-upon-Tweed. Along with a host of old favourites we have some great new events here. 44 Ravensdowne is a must. This is probably the only time this property will be open to the public. This early Victorian town house built in 1840 has been largely untouched for the last 80 years. It boasts most of its original interior architectural details. Later alterations include Art Nouveau panelling in the stairwell and wallpaper, albeit very faded, dating to the 1930s. The back garden contains evidence of the west wall of the Edward VI citadel, and a mysterious carved stone, thought to date to the early 17th century, has been discovered, built into a doorway! The Penny Lodging House is a semi-derelict building that has a rich and varied history. Built possibly as a fashionable home in the late 18th century, it was used as a cheap lodging house in the early and mid-19th century, before becoming a shoe shop for much of the 20th century. The eerie, desolate space that you see today shows remains from the shoe shop and graffiti from the last two centuries.
Berwick Magistrates' Court, finished in 1901, is a beautiful example of architecture from this period with much of the timber panelled court room intact. The Magistracy is celebrating its 650th anniversary this year, and the magistrates will be recreating an 18th century trial and a modern trial. Contrast and compare.

OK, so it's not new - I’m just using this as a shameless plug for one of the events I am leading - The Tower Tour. On this short walk we will explore the medieval fortifications of “the most fought over town in Christendom save Jerusalem” including going into two towers normally locked, one of which is so hidden you can walk by it without knowing it's there! 

At the north end of town relax at Castle Vale Park which was given to the town in 1928, so the people of Berwick might have a “pleasure ground". Join members of Castlegate Area Residents Association for a stroll in the park to discover its history, the plans to improve the facilities and all aspects of community gardening.
Returning to my favourite period in history I claim to be taking the most northerly Heritage Open Days event on the Berwick Castle Tour. Berwick Castle was one of the most important fortresses during the Anglo-Scottish Wars. Probably built about 1100, it held King David's royal mint and was the scene of a decision made by Edward I that would make legends. Find out about the forgotten Jacobean palace and did the railway really demolish the castle?

If that’s not enough, photographer Jan Randwanski has teamed up with all the Tourist Information Centres in Northumberland. He is organising exhibitions of old photographs he has collected from each area, as well as his own work in each of the fifteen Tourist Information Centres. He will be on hand to talk with the public at some centres.

So, there you have it. That's almost all of this year's Heritage Open Days events in Northumberland. My sincere apologies to anyone I may have inadvertantly missed out. Don’t forget all the “old favourites”, which have been opened by volunteers for many years and I can’t give a mention to in this post. Lastly, a huge thanks to all the organisers and volunteers who make this event such a success in Northumberland. Let’s hope for good weather and a good turnout and show off the best our county has to offer.