Revisiting Yeavering Bell

It was Vibeke Vasbo’s The Song of Hild (1991) that took us back to Yeavering. We were last there in 2017, and we’d always talked of revisiting sooner, but somehow other walks and climbs got in the way …I’d read a review which praised this book highly, and as I’ve always been interested in the northern saints, I added it to my reading list.

Vibeke writes a good story about the life of St Hilda of Whitby (c.614 – 680 AD) – but it is very much a story. Almost all that we know of the life of St Hilda is from St Bede, and he certainly did not describe her marriage to Penda, the Mercian king! Nor did Bede recount that she spent her childhood at Edwin’s court of Ad Gefrin at the foot of Yeavering Bell.

But part of the delight of Vibeke’s novel is that she writes delightfully about Hilda’s youth there:

“Ad Gefrin was the children’s favourite place, and a very safe spot when Edwin first imposed peace in the region …Best of all was a spot just beyond the stream at the foot of the Hill of the Goats. Before you reached the next stream there was a little meadow with the most glorious thick grass … On a summer’s day, when the sun had been shining for a while, it was the most blissful feeling, eyes closed, listening to the beck alongside and the skylarks and curlews above.”Later, as an adult, Hilda revisits her childhood home:

“[Hilda]  had reached the summit of the Hill of the Goats … there was a fierce wind blowing, and she had to sit in the lee of the wall … she wanted the vista for herself!”

I can see why!It’s quite a racy and very graphic read, but oh – how I struggled with this book at the early stages! The history is new to me, and I was particularly confused by the names – so many Æ names! I really struggled to distinguish Ædelfred from Æthelfrith,  Æthelberht from Ædelthryd. And as for Oswald, Oswine and Oswy! So I filled the back pages with notes, trying to give myself a grounding in basic dates and characters of the time …When I’d finished The Song of Hild,  I wanted to read a proper history of these times, and turned to Max Adam’s The King in the North (2013) – another challenging book at the start! This isn’t just a book about St Oswald, King of Northumbria (604 – 641/2 AD). Adams begins with pre-Bedan history – Colm Cille and Iona – and his sources are difficult and obscure for a beginner to this world like me. But once he’d gathered pace with Oswald’s life, I found it riveting.When he describes the court of Oswald’s royal predecessor, Edwin, Adams too takes us to Yeavering, to the royal estate of Ad Gefrin at the foot of the mountain:

“The place where hundreds of Bernicians underwent the rites of  salvation was another royal residence, one with the strongest heathen overtones: Yeavering … Yeavering is pre-eminent among the excavated settlements of Early Medieval Britain, investigated in the 1950s and 1960s by an archaeologist of rare talents … Here Hope-Taylor believed that he could actually identify structures commissioned by the historical King Edwin … “And Adams take us back to Yeavering again when describing Oswald’s life as an established king:

One of the most important [ancient routes] linked the ancestral seat of the kings at Bamburgh with the tribal holy mountain and cult centre at Yeavering. I imagine Oswald and his court making that journey of twenty miles or so towards the end of April because May Day, or Beltane in the British calendar, seems to have been the date when cattle renders from subject kingdoms were collected … At Yeavering the infrastructure for such ceremonial taxation was present in the great palisaded enclosure, a corral enclosing nearly three acres …

Here looking down on the now-completely-vanished township of Ad Gefrin with its huge corral (located in the centre of this picture) from the summit of the hillfort on Yeavering Bell …Now I was getting my teeth into this history, I was not to be stopped! After all, I was filling in some of holes of the history I had been taught at school. I raided our bookshelves, libraries, abebooks, and came up with a bookpile …Hillforts. Prehistoric  strongholds of Northumberland National Park by Al Oswald, Steward Ainsworth and Trevor Pearson (2006), was particularly useful because it focussed on the Iron Age hillfort …It’s only human to wonder – as you pass through the great entrance to the Yeavering hillfort – what this place was like those thousands of years ago when earlier humans lived here  …What was life like in the round houses spread over the enclosure – some 125 at least identified by surface traces …And Hillforts fills in some of the gaps. It is thought that by the Iron Age there would have been relatively little of the original wildwood left. So looking down to the valley with our imaginary ancestors standing beside us we guessed we would have seen an agricultural landscape too – but certainly rougher and less managed than ours (definitely no rectangular tree plantations!) …Yeavering. People, Power and Place by Paul Frodsham and Colm O’Brien was my final read, and a good choice for that as it draws together so much.  It was written in 2005 so is of a time with Hillforts, but it draws all the archaeology of the site together.  This was particularly important for me because I was struggling to hold all the timelines together in my mind.On the one hand there is the Iron Age Hillfort, dated variously to some time in the first millennium BC,  and situated on the summit of Yeavering Bell …Then there is the site of Ad Gefrin, on the whaleback below Yeavering Bell, and dated to Edwin’s rule in the 6th century AD. Brian Hope-Taylor’s excavation of this site ran from 1953-1962 … And in addition to all of this there is plenty of Bronze Age archaeology in this environment as well. Quite a lot to hold in the mind – each element of these stories is full of interest and history.

And Yeavering touches on all of them – not least the remarkable 20th century tale of the chance discovery of the Ad Gefrin site from the air in 1949.

All of this history filled our minds as we set out on a extraordinarily sunny late September day to ascend to the summit of the Bell …The ascent was just glorious …Though steep at times, still that springy soft turf underfoot …The sun catching the top of the hillfort ahead of us …Climbing up through the heather …Approaching the fort entrance …Reaching the cairn at the top …And glimpsing the view beyond …That view looking over the walls ..Finding a good picnic spot …A little piece of heaven …Cheers to that!Then – down from the heights, at the entrance to Ad Gefrin …Of the mighty royal estate of Ad Gefrin, there is now no evidence…But the Hill of the Goats remains …

Yeavering Bell

I have long wanted to walk more in the Cheviots, but one way and another it always seems to get put on hold.  Which is silly, because the Cheviot Hills are only some 30 minutes or so away from us.

Last week, an opportunity for such a walk presented itself – and we headed off  to Yeavering Bell.  It wasn’t that nice a day – and the photos weren’t that brilliant because the day was so overcast, so I’ve dithered about writing a blog or not.

But I’ve decided finally to write the blog after all, if only as a record of the wonderful sensation of being at the top of Yeavering Bell.  Bear with the photos, please. I hope an account of the magnificent Bell will compensate.

We set off with this nicely-produced leaflet from the Northumberland National Park in hand.  The pictures are nice, but the map – and the text – is a bit fanciful, and gave us some grief.We parked at the foot of Yeavering Bell, and set out past the few cottages there to find the track this leaflet recommended.You can climb straight up the very steep face of Yeavering Bell as this walker in front of us had chosen to do …But we had decided to follow the map inside our leaflet, and that instructed us to ignore the steep permissive path straight up the hill and take the slower and more gentle approach round the side where we would join St Cuthbert’s Way.So we set off up the gentle track – very pleasant walking …… a gurgling brook in the dip beside us …But very soon we began to hit problems because we needed to find St Cuthbert’s Way for our turn to the left – and we just weren’t sure which turn that was!!We had several opportunities to turn off the track, but there were no way markers.  So we continued.  Eventually, we arrived at this confusing sign ….. looks like we could go any which way …. but none of them were St Cuthbert’s Way! We puzzled, and puzzled …. and then happened to walk round this very tiresome waymarker, and lo and behold ….… the direction to the Hillfort Trail was also the St Cuthbert’s Way by another name!  Relieved to have made sense of our route, we set off more confidently.And luckily, after our initial problems, our route was well-marked.Leading up and up … the path getting markedly steeper …But good waymarkers now.  We were clearly on track …Worryingly Yeavering Bell was still looming up very much on the left of our path with an increasingly deep gorge of bracken (and a stream…..?) opening up between us.At this point we stopped for a break. No pictures, I’m afraid, because this is where I had what can only be called a paddy. I had realised – actually we had both realised, but Stephen had accepted it in a phlegmatic fashion – that, having already climbed quite a steep incline, we were now going to have to go right down into the valleyand then start the climb proper to Yeavering Bell. Aagh!!

Stephen – in command of the situation as ever – found the next waymarker …And I had to laugh …And I laughed and I laughed and I laughed …And I laughed hysterically!As I worked out the route going down … and down … and watched Stephen disappear into that forest of bracken …Eventually we came out at the small stream at the bottom of this valley …Then it was only onwards and upwards to the top!Our spirits (well, mine especially) soared as we passed another waymarker …A harsh reminder placed by a fellow walker perhaps …?But the sheep had left more friendly marks – a bit of fleece and softly-worn wood where they had scratched their backsides …We were beginning to approach the summit … the sheep warily watching us …Through the gates of the Yeavering Bell hillfort …It is perhaps easier to take in the massive scale of this Iron Age hillfort (constructed about 500BC) and its remaining defences, if you look back on the stone wall surrounding the summit and the gate through which we had just passed.  This wall – once over three metres thick and two-and-a-half metres high – still surrounds the iron age hillfort which was at one time peopled with over 130 stone hut circles.  The imagined illustration inside our leaflet (image on right below) gives an idea of what life was like in the fort. The aerial shot on the left  shows the wall as it is now.So many questions about this hill fort and the people who lived there. Despite excavations of the site we still know very little. But what we do know is that it is jaw-droppingly extraordinarily amazing there.

Back to our climb. We were nearly at the top.Wow! did it feel good to finally get there! Top of the world is the only thing to say here!It wasn’t Sunday and we weren’t on Bredon Hill but otherwise Housman had it just about right:

Here of a Sunday morning
My love and I would lie,
And see the coloured counties,
And hear the larks so high
About us in the sky.

Because you are looking down on all that patchwork of little coloured fields stretching on and on as far as the eye can see … serenaded by birdsong …That’s Scotland glimpsed on the northern side …And there are more of the Cheviot Hills looming darkly behind us …Craning our necks just a little bit further to the east, we can see our car ( a tiny white blob) far far down at the bottom of the hill …More importantly we can see – right in the very centre of this photograph above – the honey-coloured field of Ad Gefrin from where Yeavering Bell acquired its name. It is Old Welsh and means the Hill of the Goats.In the 7th century there was a township in this very field, and it would have been busy, busy, busy. Just as – in a still earlier age – the Iron Age hillfort on the top of Yeavering Bell would have been a populated and active village.  It is truly the hugest stretch of the imagination to think of these wild empty places like this, but the Ad Gefrin trust have put up useful information boards and have a website to help tell the story.  Perhaps most effectively of all, they tried to show by mowing shapes on this field the size of the buildings that were once here.Back to July 2017, and we were struggling to find the steep path down the face of Yeavering Bell.Eventually Stephen found the track, and we headed down to the stone wall enclosure.The path going down wasn’t easy – rutted …and very steep …But on the way down we saw the wild goats after whom the hill is named! Not a brilliant photograph as they beat a hasty retreat when they saw us, but we were thrilled to see them.  They are completely wild, have been here for centuries and are hefted to their life on this hill.Time to say goodbye to these remarkable places, but I don’t think it’ll be long before we’ll be walking here again.