The History of Haltwhistle

Pre Roman

As Britain began to reappear from under the ice about 10,000 years ago the South Tyne flowed north from the Pennines until it hit the hard rock of the Whin Sill and met the Tippalt Burn flowing in from the west and so it turned east to the North Sea creating, from glacial waste, the alluvial haugh land south of the river and building up a platform of higher land against the rock on the north side where Haltwhistle now stands. About a mile east of the Tippalt/Tyne confluence the fast running Haltwhistle Burn flowing south off the Whin Sill meets the Tyne where its shale shards of eroded rock have built up the Castle Hill creating a wonderfully defensible ‘look out’. The first hunters and gatherers venturing this far inland following their prey probably camped there and as they began to cultivate the land (of which there is evidence in the Bardon Mill area in about 1000 BC) and domesticate animals this ‘high place’ (‘Haut Wheutl’, then ‘Haltwezell’ and now ‘Haltwhistle’) would become a settlement with outlying camps on the upland summer grazing grounds (the ‘Sheilings’ which give their name to the ‘Shields’). Along much of the north valley side of the South Tyne River the hard Whin Sill south sloping rock formation created dry land which enabled people to make a rough east/west track forming the Stanegate Road and Tyne Gap.



The Romans followed this track linking it to the Maidenway which gave access to the lead and silver mineral deposits of the North Pennines. To safeguard this valuable commodity when in transit from road thieves and raiders and to keep the North of England and Pictish tribes apart Hadrian strengthened the frontier wall following the natural defensive crags of the Whin Sill north of the Tyne Valley. Haltwhistle itself seems to have been off the beaten track of the Roman roads and settlements but some pottery (probably Roman) shards were found recently when the A69 bypass was being built in the buried remains of a round house occupied by indigenous Britons in the valley (approx. 600 metres north east of Bellister Castle).


“Dark Ages”

The Romans abandoned the Wall in the 5th century and the local population carried on remarkably untouched by the former Roman civilisation until St Aidan brought Christianity in the 7th century. Haltwhistle found itself as a very small inland settlement on debatable land between the Kingdoms of Strathclyde to the west and Northumbria to the east, their peace and isolation interrupted only by a few travellers following the dangerous overland route between these kingdoms and by local rivalries.


The Normans

An influx of militant and organised Normans were eventually granted, by the King, Feudal Rights over these uninviting inland upland areas overriding any local rights and creating strong sheep and cattle ranches around Haltwhistle but allowing the population in Haltwhistle to utilize its position at a junction of routes to develop a trading and servicing centre and which later led to it being granted the status of a ‘Market Town’ by King John in 1207 when the new town around the Market Place and Church were developed. During most of the prosperous 12th and 13th centuries relations across the borders were reasonably amicable.


The Scots Wars

Surrounding Manor Houses only began to be fortified after about 1270 when Edward I (The Hammer of the Scots) and land hunger (caused by increasing population) led to National and Border conflicts. From Edward I to Henry VIII English Kings spent much of their time trying to hold on to their Dukedoms in France leaving England open to Scottish raids. In 1285 the Scottish Border towns were plundered by the English; in 1307 Edward I stayed over at Braidley Farm on the Roman Wall on his way to Scotland via Lanercost and the Solway taking all the stock off the neighbouring farms to feed his army. He then died near the Solway in 1308; in 1314 Edward the II lost the Battle of Bannockburn.


In 1514 the English defeated the Scots at the Battle of Flodden Field in North Northumberland and in 1598 the Scots fired and plundered Haltwhistle known as ‘The Fray of Haltwhistle’ which was followed by a few years when the Armstrongs of Liddesdale and the Ridley’s feuded.


The local people could only survive by defending themselves in Pele Towers and Bastles against Scots or English raiders.


Although Haltwhistle had been in England the Regality of Tynedale was held by a Scottish King for a time and Haltwhistle Church had been built by the Monks of Arbroath from Scotland.


The Middle Ages had been a tough and confusing time.


The 17th Century

The Union of the Crowns in 1603 brought some peace and prosperity with James VI of Scotland (James I of England) disowning the Armstrongs and Jacobean farm architecture shows that some domestic comfort could be allowed and Haltwhistle was able to diversify its farming by further developing its cottage woollen industry using the fast clean cold water of the Haltwhistle Burn for cleaning and washing the wool and the Stanegate and Tyne Gap to move the product to markets.


Although some of the neighbouring Landowners were affected by the Civil War in the 1640’s Haltwhistle’s primarily woollen farming expanded through the century with 2 Enclosure Acts.


The 18th Century

Further Enclosures Acts in 1713 and 1780 is evidence of an expansion of farming when the enclosed land spread up the Comb Hill to Portobello and up the Shield Hill to Herding Hill, The Doors and The Common House (now the Milecastle Inn)


The 1715 and 1745 rebellions of the Old Pretender and Bonnie Prince Charlie seem to have passed Haltwhistle by perhaps because, as a Trading Town there was no feudal tenure and thus allegiance to a great Aristocrat such as the Earl of Derwentwater whose tenants at Alston, Haydon Bridge, Wark and Corbridge were obliged to fight for the Jacobites with him. However in the late 18th century Agricultural and early Industrial Revolutions Haltwhistle seems to have lost out to a growing Haydon Bridge when the Alston Minerals were taken by new Turnpike roads across the fells to the smelting works at Langley and no longer down the Maidenway.


In 1790 the travel writer Hutchinson visited Haltwhistle and was much shocked at being exposed to infinite perils because the ferryman could not be found and he had to ford a deep and broad river. Despite this he describes Haltwhistle as a pleasant village in a lofty situation commanding a fine prospect of the valley through which the Tyne meanders. He remarks on the rich tints of summer and the happy effects of cultivation all of which he compares to Alston which was in a “mountainous, barren and inhospitable country inhabited by miners”. He mentions that Haltwhistle has an ‘Infant Manufactory of coarse baize to which the situation promises prosperity’.


The 19th Century

Haltwhistle had missed out on the lead boom created by the Napoleonic Wars and the Tyne/Solway Canal designed in 1810 but was superseded by the Newcastle Carlisle Railway in 1840 made prosperous the exploitation of Coal in and around Haltwhistle and with the building of the Haltwhistle Alston line in the 1850’s Haltwhistle’s population trebled expanding from an Agricultural Market Town into a prosperous Mining Town by 1860. Even so agriculture remained important and the final Enclosure Act taking in Broomhall, Lees Hall, Portobello, The Doors and the riverside lands (the riverside lands were drained into 1 channel by agricultural conduits and by the new railways) and also all the land between the river and the Shields on the Whin Sill became enclosed. Haltwhistle had become known for the sale of Blue Grey and Galloway Cattle.


The wool and cloth industry also grew because of the accessibility to markets created by the railway and by the turn of the century the Sweet family, Foster and Robinsons, the Hastewells and Milligans were supplying made to measure suits from Gateshead to Kendal.


The 20th Century

The Alston Railway had linked up again with the lead mines of Alston and lead based paint was manufactured at Greystonedale in Haltwhistle.


Haltwhistle became a natural centre for haulage firms.


The depression saw the Plenmeller Colliery close in 1931 causing 50% unemployment until Hadrian Paints built a factory by the railway and found a market for paint to preserve the naval ships being built and renovated at Newcastle, Glasgow and Barrow in anticipation of the Second World War. The Paint Works and some quarrying and coal mining including opencast at Plenmeller and Greenhead has continued into the 1990’s. The remote situation during the Second World War led to Kilfrost (vital to the war effort) being sent here. The clean air encouraged Cascelloids here in the 1960’s when there was an employment crisis at the time of the closure of Waltown Quarry


The partial bypass in the 1940’s had created sites for depots and garages between the town and the railway developing the town’s status as a service centre but the growth of the Carlisle and Hexham marts led to the closure of the cattle mart in the 1980’s linked to a decline in the Agricultural Supply trade.


The 21st Century

As the 20th Century drew to a close the paintworks and the last remnants of coalmining closed leaving Haltwhistle needing to adapt and change for the 21st Century. The improvements to the A69 at Haltwhistle and Haydon Bridge; a recently built Sports Hall with the region’s only outdoor swimming pool; a brand new Library; extra car parking and variations in shopping patterns make the town more attractive to commuters and small businesses. Its position in the Tyne Gap linking the M6 to the A1, the Roman Wall and the North Pennines, the lead mining heritage to the south and Kielder Forest and Water to the north provides an exciting Educational Tourism for young people and the connoisseurs. It also provides an attractive home for small family businesses because it is not only central for recreational access to the Lake District, Scottish Borders, the Roman Wall and North Pennines but also for business links with Tyne and Wear, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds and Manchester.