Romans, religion & revolution
MUCH of the astonishing heritage of the North East was forged by a combination of religion and warfare.
That heritage includes more than 12,000 listed buildings and 1,300 scheduled ancient monuments.
But for centuries the region was a frontier land.
The Romans built the northernmost frontier of their empire – Hadrian’s Wall – which spans the country from the River Tyne in the North East to the North West coast.
It was spectacularly lit up in March, as about 1,200 volunteers manned gas beacons or held flares at 515 points along the 84-mile Hadrian’s Wall National Trail Path.
The wall was the dividing line between Roman civilization and the barbarian tribes of the North, built 2,000 years ago to strengthen an existing line of forts.
One such fort was Vindolanda in Northumberland – in fact, a site where nine forts were built over the centuries, one on top of the other, and where more than 1,600 wooden writing tablets have been unearthed, giving a direct line to voices from the past and showing how people lived a frontier life.
The Wall corridor was a cosmopolitan place. The coastal fort of Arbeia at the mouth of the Tyne was home to a detachment of Tigris boatmen, from modern day Iraq.
Major Wall forts in Northumberland, such as Chesters, Housesteads and Birdoswald, where remarkable remains have survived, were manned by regiments of Gauls, from France, Tungrians from Belgium, Batavians from Holland, Austurian cavalry from Spain, and Dacians from Romania.
With such a wealth of Roman history, set amid often spectacular and wild scenery, it is no surprise that Hadrian’s wall is a world heritage site.
After came the Viking invaders who pillaged religious centres like Lindisfarne Priory on Holy island off the Northumberland coast.
This led to the flight of the island’s monks, carrying the coffin of St Cuthbert, which eventually resulted in the foundation of Durham Cathedral, which houses the saint’s tomb, the region’s second world heritage site.
For centuries, the North East was also the battleground of the Anglo-Scots wars.
The English-Scottish battles of Otterburn in 1388, Halidon Hill in 1333, Homildon Hill in 1402 and Flodden in 1513 were not the only bloody clashes.
This history of strife had two major consequences.
It meant that vast tracts of the region, especially in Northumberland, remained undeveloped, so preserving a magnificent prehistoric landscape.
There are 50 Iron Age hillforts from 2,300 years ago surviving in Northumberland National Park alone.
On the summit of the 1,000ft hill of Yeavering Bell in Northumberland are the remains of a “city in the sky” hill fort – 130 timber roundhouses which were protected by now tumbled-down stone ramparts.
In Northumberland alone, there are more than 1,000 examples of prehistoric rock art – mysterious cup, ring and dot patterns etched into natural stone outcrops, whose meaning has long been lost.
The Anglo-Scottish wars bequeathed an astonishing number of castles which are a hallmark of the North East.
Tynemouth Castle and Priory at the mouth of the River Tyne is a spectacular example.
A 7th Century monastery first stood on the headland site with the priory built around 1,200, followed by fortifications at the end of the century, with Tynemouth becoming a royal castle.
Another religious-defensive arrangement is found on Holy Island, where St Aidan funded a monastery in 635.
Lindisfarne Priory is still a place of pilgrimage today while the 16th Century Lindisfarne Castle was converted into a country home by architect Edwin Lutyens in 1903 and is now in the care of the National Trust.
One of the most striking of North East fortresses is Bamburgh Castle, overlooking sandy beaches and the Farne Islands.
A short distance along the coastline are the dramatic ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle on its clifftop site which, like Bamburgh, was painted by one of England’s greatest artists, JMW Turner.
Alnwick Castle, home of the Dukes of Northumberland and with its gardens, has featured in a number of films.
Dilston Castle in Northumberland was the seat of James Radcliffe, 3rd Earl of Derwentwater, who was executed for his part in leading a rebellion against the Crown in 1715.
Chillingham Castle in Northumberland has parklands which for 700 years have been the home of a herd of wild white cattle.
Other imposing Northumberland castles are Norham, Etal, Mitford, Harbottle, Aydon, Prudhoe, Thirlwall, and Warkworth, while County Durham has Raby Castle with its deer herd, Auckland Castle, seat of the Bishops of Durham and Barnard Castle.
Only the wealthy and powerful, of course, could build castles, and farmers had to resort to constructing bastles, of which 200 survive from the 1,000 built in Northumberland.
Although a battleground, the North East was also a cradle of Christianity.
As well as Durham Cathedral and Holy Island, where the Lindisfarne Gospels were produced, there is Hexham Abbey in Northumberland and the 7th Century St Paul’s Church and monastery at Jarrow in South Tyneside was home to one of the greatest European scholars, the Venerable Bede, whose works are in print 1,300 years later.
Now Bede’s World centre and replica Anglo-Saxon farm is on course to be the North East’s third world heritage site.
The National Trust runs Wallington Hall and gardens and its 13,000-acre estate in Northumberland, dating from the 17th Century, and Cragside house, the first in the world to be lit by hydro-electricity and its 1,000-acre estate, plus the 18th Century Gibside estate near Gateshead.
English Heritage has Belsay Hall, with its 1807 Classic Greek Revival Hall, 14th Century castle and microclimate Quarry Gardens.
The Roman fort of Pons Aelius is now buried beneath the Norman castle which gave the town its name.
Newcastle is home to churches dating from the 12th Century, two cathedrals, 13th Century monastery buildings, medieval buildings and the early 19th Century Grainger Town, a 90-acre area of 640 buildings.
The bridges across the Tyne between Newcastle and Gateshead, including the Swing Bridge, 1850 High Level Bridge, landmark Tyne Bridge and the latest “blinking eye” Millennium Bridge, is now being talked about as a candidate fourth world heritage site.