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 …