It was nice to be back in magnificent Morpeth, there are so many things to do for a small town and we always enjoy our time here. Originally a mediaeval market town Morpeth is a great place to base yourself to explore Northumberland. Situated about 15 miles from Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, it’s close enough to the hustle and bustle of the city but still rural. There’s also a lot of places to see just walking around Morpeth.
The name Morpeth actually means “murder path”, although the reason behind the name is lost in the recesses of time. However, Morpeth was the death path for many sent up from the court in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne to meet the hangman. Fair Moor was the site of executions until 1868 when public executions were ceased. From then on executions were conducted in private behind the closed walls of the gaol. The public executions drew such a crowd that when they were transferred into the gaol the crowds would still gather on the hill overlooking the gaol. The gaol was forced to dig a pit so that gallows could be erected at ground level. The old courthouse and gaol complex is quite an impressive building which almost looks like a castle itself. However, the old courthouse has been closed for some time and it seems not likely to open anytime soon. It seems to be one of those buildings which just can’t be transformed into something else.
Things to do-Morpeth Castle:
The hill from which the spectators would watch the hangings from was actually the old castle motte. The old castle was built overlooking the river Wansbeck in 1097. It was a motte and bailey castle built by the de Merley family who were granted the town of Morpeth after the Norman conquest.
Although Morpeth Castle was destroyed by King John in 1216 the motte is still visible above the old bridge across the river Wansbeck. The bailey was converted into a castle in the 1340’s. In 1644 the castles parliamentary garrison of 500 Scots held off 2,700 Royalists troops for 20 days.
These days just the gatehouse of Morpeth Castle survives and is rented out as a holiday rental.
Things to do- William Turner Gardens:
Below the castle motte is William Turner Gardens on the edge of Carlisle Park. William Turner is one of Morpeth’s favourite sons and is known in England as the father of botany. He was the first to record the names and uses of medicinal plants in English. The William Turner Gardens contain the various types of plants which he collected on his tour through Europe.
Things to do-Steppy Stones:
Carlisle Park runs along the river opposite the Main Street. It’s not so much a sculptured gardens as such but rather tree covered parkland with kids play areas. With the onset of cooler autumn temperatures the trees along the river are all changing colour and dropping leaves. It’s a nice time of the year to be out and about. Carlisle Park stretches up to the Oldgate bridge where just beyond are the “steppy stones”. The “steppy stones” are stepping stones which stretch across the river. A local legend says that you’re not a true local until you’ve slipped in the river off the “steppy stones”.
Things to do-Millennium Gardens:
Crossing the steppy stones is a precarious process but it’s well worth it as it leads to the Millennium gardens, a secret garden near the Old Bakehouse. In 2000 the local residents of Morpeth converted a small scrap of wasteland behind the High Street shops into an escape from the hustle and bustle.Tucked in the alleyway between the high street and the gardens is the Bakehouse Tearooms. A lovely old style tearoom it’s a lovely place for Tea and Scones or Full English for breakfast.
Things to do-Market Square:
Along the high street is a mixture of lovely old buildings which give the town a pleasant unhurried feel. On Morpeth’s market square bronze plaques laid in 2003 honour the former guilds of the town. Cordwainers (shoemakers), tanners, skinners, butchers, glovers, weavers, smiths, armourers, saddlers, merchants, tailors, fullers, dyers, carvers, and hatters, are all commemorated with plaques. Morpeth was a major centre for cattle trade so many related trades are represented. Many of the trades have faded in history much like Morpeth’s place as a market town. However, Morpeth still holds a weekly market in the market square. The market square is overlooked by the old town hall, old city gate and public fountain.
Morpeth Food Festival
Recently the Morpeth hosted the annual “Morpeth Food and Drink Festival“. The whole main street was transformed into a marketplace with vendors offering all sorts of food and drink. Beer, cider, cheese, bread, salamis, smoked hams, chocolate, all sorts of food and sweets were on offer throughout the market. The smells of curries, bratwurst, and cooking meats wafted through the marketplace adding to the scene. The Morpeth Food and Drink Festival was officially opened by the mayor dressed in 18th-century costume. The opening ceremony commenced with the band of the Northumberland Fusiliers marching down the High Street. Resplendent in their scarlet jackets, black trousers and black bearskin hats they were met and challenged outside the old Town Hall by the mayor. After the official ceremony, the mayor declared the Festival open and the Northumberland Fusiliers played some stirring marching songs.
Around the streets, a few bands played different types of music from Dixieland Jazz and Classical to rock and roll. An African group was also singing, along with dancing and banging drums adding some real spice to the festival.They were part of a Ugandan charity who are involved with the Morpeth Methodist Church. They held a charity event at the Methodist Church later in the evening which we were lucky enough to attend. The charity raises funds to support a few schools in Uganda. It also sends a student choir to England as part of a cultural exchange. The students absolutely love their time in England and put on a cultural display with traditional drumming, dancing and singing. The costumes and dancing was just stunning. It seems quite surreal to be here in the north of England with African music and dancing.
Despite being a small town Morpeth has a healthy nightlife and a few hotels host bands and live music. We were able to check out a few bands at the Collingwood Room at the Riverside Lodge. In aid of charities both bands drew a fair crowd and we had two great nights out. One of those bands was the Kast off Kinks who featured a former member of the Kinks. They played a lot of The Kinks hits dating back to the 60’s. It was funny having a local ask us when we were in a local supermarket whether we enjoyed the show. People say the further away from London the more friendlier people are. I suppose that’s part of the Northern hospitality.
The name Collingwood features a bit around Morpeth, on street signs, businesses, and function rooms. It refers to Lord Collingwood, Admiral Nelsons second in command at the battle of Trafalgar. When Admiral Nelson was killed during the Battle of Trafalgar Lord Collingwood assumed command. His house in Morpeth is aptly named the “poopdeck” and his yard the “quarterdeck”. Although he spent most of his time at sea it’s said that he loved walking the hills around Morpeth.
From the Quarterdeck, it would’ve only taken a few minutes to cross the Oldgate bridge and be walking through the hills above Carlisle Park.
There are four bridges across the river Wansbeck including two road bridges and two footbridges. The Oldgate and Carlisle Park footbridge date from the 70’s. At the bottom end of town, towards the old castle, are the other two.
The Old Bridge was built in the 13th century and consisted of two stone arches and a toll house. By 1831 the old bridge was no longer safe to support the amount of traffic. With the increasing amount of accidents including carriages slipping off the side of the bridge into the river. An act of parliament was raised to build a new bridge. Thomas Telford designed the new bridge which was built in 1834, with a toll house. Meanwhile, to stop the locals from using the old bridge to avoid the toll, charges were laid and the bridge blown up.
After the explosion, all that remained of the old bridge was a single pier and abutment.
In 1869 after a bit of public persuasion, the mayor raised a public subscription to build a footbridge. The money was raised and a steel footbridge using the central pillar of the old town bridge was erected and remains in use today.
The Telford bridge and nearby footbridge lead to the St Georges church and Chantry.
Chantry Bagpipe Museum
The Chantry is home to the Tourist Information Centre and Morpeth Bagpipe Museum. The museum is housed in the top floor of the Chantry. It contains history of various forms of Bagpipes, including Scottish, Irish, French bagpipes and Northumberland Small pipes. The museum was fascinating and we were very lucky to hear some Northumberland Small Pipes which aren’t blown but instead use a bellows being played live. They had a totally different sound to Scottish bagpipes and the hypnotic tune had a real Elizabethan feel.
St Mary’s Church
Also whilst in Morpeth, we visited St Mary’s Church. The church was built around the 12th century. Strangely it was built about a mile from the centre of the town. It has a large cemetery attached and also a watch-house. The churchwarden lived in the cemetery watch-house and carried a rifle to deter grave robbers. Recently we did a walking tour in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne and heard stories about the body snatchers. One of the local hotels was a former coach stop where it was discovered bodies passed through as coach luggage. In Georgian times there was a trade in bodies. A body fetched about £15 when sold to universities and labs(quite a nice earn if you don’t mind digging up dead bodies and being shot at occasionally)
Emily Davison, Suffragette
St Mary’s Church has a memorial to Emily Davison, an important figure in the suffragette movement (women’s right to vote) inside the church. Emily was passionate about getting the vote for women. She was arrested numerous times and also force-fed while on hunger strikes. In 1913 she was tragically killed at the Epsom Derby. She ran out onto the track in an effort to attach suffragette colours to the Kings horse. Unfortunately, she was trampled and died from her wounds. Her death along with the suffering of many others finally led to women over 30 in Britain, getting the vote in 1918.
Morpeth is a great place to visit. It’s close enough to Newcastle-Upon-Tyne to visit all that the city has to offer but also close to lots of Northumberland’s attractions. There’s some great history in the town plus around the area there are castles, numerous National Trust properties, Lindisfarne and the Farne Islands. Maybe next year we’ll get back during Puffin season again.