Lane problems and a tale of the Derwentwaters

We’ve had heavy heavy rain in the UK over the winter – particularly bad in the west of the country with serious floods in Cumbria and Yorkshire. In the North-East we have had nothing to compare with those troubles, thank goodness.  But it has caused particular problems with the rough farm track we drive along to get to our house.deep runnels

The farm track has always been a bit dodgy.  But this winter’s lane problems were new. Heavy, heavy rain meant the surrounding fields were waterlogged, with old duck ponds and boundary brooks reappearing.  Finally, yet more rain over Christmas meant the land could take no more and water poured off the fields down the only path it could find: our lane.water coming off field

Deep runnels, pits and channels appeared.  The rain continued.  The runnels got deeper, the lane more pitted and craggy.deep pits and channels

Driving became precarious.  Those of our neighbours who had 4-wheel drive came home with confidence.  Those with sports cars and low-slung suspension travelled much more cautiously.  Our little Suzuki Alto did not like it at all.  When temperatures dropped and the water froze, we decided it was far too tricky to drive home, and took to leaving our car in the car park near the sea, at the bottom of the hill.  Hard work carrying shopping up from there!water freezing in runnels

We hit crisis point, and some neighbours decided action must be taken. But it is very complicated because we do not know who owns parts of this lane.  Such land ownership problems are not unusual, but ours have a particular history behind them – which is romantic and tragic.

The surrounding farms belong to the Greenwich Hospital Estate – and they used to own our cottage (in the old farm steading) and most of the old cottages about.  Yes, we live in the most northern part of Northumberland, just a few miles south of the Scots-English border, and yes, Greenwich Hospital is in East London (some 400 miles away).  (You can read more about the Greenwich Hospital and its responsibilities and functions in its 2012-13 annual report here)

Before Greenwich Hospital owned these lands they belonged to the Earls of Derwentwater. Their family home was at Dilston, near Corbridge, in the south of Northumberland.  But the Derwentwaters owned large parts of North Northumberland.  They were said to be the wealthiest and most powerful Jacobite family in the north of England.

Tragedy struck for the 3rd Earl of Derwentwater, who (a devout Catholic and Jacobite) was one of the leaders of the 1715 Jacobite uprising.  The British had deposed their Roman Catholic King  with the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and replaced him with his Protestant daughter, Mary, and her Dutch husband, William.  But many longed for the return of Roman Catholic Jacobite rule, among them the Earl of Derwentwater.

The rebels were defeated at the battle of Preston, and Derwentwater and the other rebels were captured and taken to London where they were lodged in the Tower of London.  Despite the reprieve of some of the other leaders, the King was determined to make an example with the Lords Derwentwater and Kenmure, and they were beheaded on Tower Hill on 24th February 1716.   (Below detail of print showing the execution.)IMG_0120

This story of Derwentwater’s fall is told in Devil Water by Anya Seton. She’s a rather forgotten historical novelist these days, but I read – and loved! – all her books when I was young.  I re-read Devil Water when we came to live here and there is no doubt her historical research was excellent.  Her writing about this area of Northumberland is accurate and evocative.Anya Seton Devil Water

With his execution, Derwentwater was stripped of his honours and titles, and his estates confiscated. In 1748 the Derwentwater Estates were granted by Act of Parliament to the Royal Hospital at Greenwich.

The Derwentwaters are almost forgotten here, though the odd (mis-spelt!) street sign about still remembers them.Derwentwater road sign

But Greenwich Hospital is still very much part of the area.  They continue to manage a Northumberland Estate of 8,000 acres – and that includes the farm fields around us. Their name is also common in the locality.North Greenwich road

So how does this tally with our lane problems?! Well, the old farms here were very small – completely impractical for modern farmers – so as farming families came to the end of their leases and moved on, the fields were given to other farms and the houses and buildings sold on.  Life has changed so much – in sales of the last century, people didn’t always have their own cars to drive to their home, there were vegetable-growing allotments where modern owners might want enclosed private gardens, and old pathways with habitual rights of way were thought sufficient for new owners.

We know half the lane is co-owned by the four steading cottages at its end.  It is the other half – the bad part! – whose ownership is unknown. The cottages alongside have sometimes done some repairs – and Northumberland County Council has even visited recently and made vague encouraging noises.

But we can’t wait for the Council’s deliberations – the track was almost impassable! Initially, a small group of neighbours gathered with a digger and a massive delivery of tarry road chippings, which were helpfully deposited in large piles along the troubled parts of the lane.dumper truck and hard coreThe idea was to run a pipe across the lane and under the new chippings, channeling the water further down the hill, out of harm’s way.water pipe and hardcoreThere was just the simple task of spreading the hardcore.digger and spreading hardcoreI never saw myself working as a navvy …spreading hardcoreUnfortunately – another night’s heavy rain, and all our good work was washed away.deep runnels againThe water completely overwhelmed our nice little pipe arrangement.  So much for amateur engineeringmore rain, more damageOn a recent weekend, an another impromptu neighbourly working party was assembled, pick axes were mounted on unpractised shoulders …pickaxingtrenches were dug …shovelling – and water was diverted with a new larger pipe! Yeay!new pipeMore gravel was spread over the damaged lane …more gravel burying pipeWe haven’t had any serious rain yet to put the working party efforts to the test, but for the moment the lane is passable. At least we can drive home!

But before I finish this post, I want to return to the story of the Derwentwaters.  It was only when I started writing, and checked my facts that I realised the relevance of the date on which James Radclyffe, the 3rd Earl of Derwentwater was executed: 24th February 1716 – by some strange coincidence that’s 400 years ago this week.  So, it seems appropriate to mark this anniversary.

What I hadn’t realised was that Derwentwater was only 25 when he found himself the leader of the uprising in 1715 – 26 when he was executed the next year.  So very young.  According to some accounts he was a very decent man.  His contemporary, the Scottish writer, Tobias Smollett, called him “brave, open, generous, hospitable and human.”  The Reverend Mr Patten’s description was even more glowing: ” [Derwentwater was] formed by nature to be universally loved for his benevolence was so unbounded that he seemed only to live for others.” (Patten was another contemporary, and the chaplain to the other uprising leader, Thomas Forster).

Fine comments indeed.  Some dismiss them saying this was only propaganda by reactionary writers, and actually he was a person of little importance and weak character.

What I can definitively say is that he was brave indeed at his execution.  I’m going to quote here some of the very moving description of that event from Christopher Sinclair Stevenson’s book, Inglorious Rebellion:

“At ten o’clock […] he drove in a coach to Tower Hill and then walked through the ranks of
soldiers to the scaffold draped in black.  his face was ashen as he mounted the steps to the block, but he retained his calm composure.  A few prayers were followed by his speech.  It was an extraordinarily moving address in which he retracted his plea of guilty made at his trial, spoke with great warmth and feeling of James III, and assured his audience that the country could have no lasting peace or happiness until the restoration of the Stuarts.  His last words were devoid of bitterness: ‘I die a Roman Catholic; I am in perfect charity with all the world, I thank God for it, even with those of the present Government, who are most instrumental in my death.  I freely forgive such as ungenerously reported false things of me; and I hope to be forgiven the trespasses of my youth, by  the Father of infinite mercy, into his hand I commend my soul.”

His body was taken to Dilston, where he was buried in the family vault.

There’s a nice little accompanying story to his end.  Apparently, the Northern Lights were particularly brilliant at the time of his beheading, and in some places they became known as the Earl of Derwentwater’s Lights.  As it happens, there have been some fine showings of the Northern Lights in recent days (though we haven’t actually seen them here) – who knows?  Perhaps there will be a magnificent replay of the Earl of Derwentwater’s fabulous lights to mark the 400th anniversary of his death …

Whatever, James Radclyffe, 3rd Earl of Derwentwater,  RIP.James_Radclyffe,_3rd_Earl_of_Derwentwater_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_20946Picture of James Radclyffe, 3rd Earl of Derwentwater reproduced from Wikipedia (public domain)

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