Local Historical Stories


Early in 1996 Alastair Robertson - one of our local historians was asked if he would write a couple of historical articles for the Alston Moor Newsletter. He thought he could manage three or four but in the event, over 20 years later, they were still going. Once, and only once, he received an unsolicited article from an outside source, this was the reminiscence of a school for wartime evacuees at Nent Hall that came from Mr. Michael Dickinson and it was gratefully included in the series.

They’re a real mixed bag, too random to put into a book, but they’re still worth keeping in a more permanent form, so the Historical Society website seemed the perfect place to have them.

Material for the articles came largely from local sources, from the Alston Moor Historical Society Archives, St. Augustine’s Church Records, Alston Library, the Cumbria County Records Office in Carlisle and the County Records Office Northumberland.

There has been editing in some cases that will be noted at the beginning of each item, otherwise the articles have been left as they were written, complete with occasional references to such things as cement lorries, the millennium, and foot and mouth disease, which are themselves now things of the past (?).
Read on …

Story No 48: The Boundary Crosses of Alston Moor

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Short's Cross above Middle Cleugh on Killhope.


In the Middle Ages at least five crosses were placed around the boundary of Alston Moor - and why? In many ways Alston Moor has a history different from that of its surrounding areas. For example, before the time of the Norman Conquest Alston Moor was probably part of Northumbria, not Cumbria where it is now. Then for about 150 years from the middle of the twelfth century, it was part of the Scottish kings’ Liberty of Tynedale, quite separate from England and governed more or less as part of Scotland from its administrative centre at Wark in the North Tyne valley.
In the days before land was enclosed and metalled roads appeared with walls or hedges and fences on either side, travellers simply took the route that was safest and most convenient for them. The crosses of Alston Moor were mostly located on accepted routes on the boundary of the medieval manor. Those that are known to have existed are Hartside Cross, Long Cross, Blacklaw Cross, Killhope Cross and Shorts Cross. All of them, except for Shorts Cross, were on moorland tracks over natural watersheds.
Only Hartside Cross is to the west side of Alston Moor, the other four sites lie along the north east and east side. This leads to the question, ‘What about the south eastern and northern boundaries?’ After all, routes do leave the area in those directions, so why are there no crosses? Perhaps there were crosses at one time that disappeared before records began, and there could be some sites yet to be discovered.

Although Hartside is now outside the parish of Alston Moor in the parish of Glassonby, given the history and topography of the area, it certainly formed part of the boundary at some time in the past and it was at Hartside that a clue was found for the purpose of the crosses.
In May 1929 the shaft of a cross of red sandstone, measuring 15 inches long and 10 inches by 11 inches in section, was found. The cross had been wedged into the soil using shards of sandstone. When the shaft was raised from the mud, a small silver coin fell back into the hole. It was found to be a coin of King Alexander III of Scotland, who reigned from 1249 to 1286. The bottom end of the shaft was finished in a carved tenon joint, an indication that the cross had once been socketed into a stone base that had shattered and disappeared. I believe that a possible date for the re-erection of the cross is 1279. That was the year when an enquiry by King Edward I into a dispute as to the lordship of the Manor of Alston Moor finished, and the manor was restored to King Alexander III and his tenants in chief, the de Veteriponts. Since at least the middle of the previous century Alston Moor had been part of the Scottish king’s Liberty of Tynedale and it is likely that, because his word had been doubted, King Alexander would wish to make doubly sure that this did not happen again. So, on the restoration of his lands it’s likely that he would want to secure them against all further argument.
Then, at some time in the distant past, the parish boundary of Alston Moor was moved eastwards down the Black Burn valley, so that Hartside Cross no longer served as a boundary marker.

The other crosses survived as manor and county boundary markers perhaps until as late as the 1700s, when two of them were moved “for the convenience of travellers”, by then it would appear that their main purpose was to serve as way-markers. Some of them still provide good walking destinations.

There are only the sites of these crosses named on the map on the county boundary with Northumberland, on green lanes that lead to the West Allen valley. Nothing is known about either of them.

This cross, 32½ inches high by 12 inches by 8 inches in section, is in a vulnerable location adjacent to the A689 road on the top of Killhope. There is undecipherable lettering visible, almost certainly graffiti. The cross is in a fragile condition, the face nearest the road face is spalling due to road salts combined with snow and water spray by traffic in freezing conditions. It is in danger of being irretrievably damaged.

Shorts Cross, or ‘The Bishops Stones’, at Middlecleugh above Nenthead, has also been called ‘Calvary’, and is in fact a group of three crosses, one central cross flanked by two broken shafts of former crosses, all set into one large base stone. The pieces of Short’s Cross were found by lead miners in 1908, they informed the vicar of Nenthead, who then had the pieces reassembled. Maybe another cross head lies somewhere nearby. It is possible that the three crosses marked the boundary between the land of the Bishop of Durham, the Manor of Alston Moor, and the land of the Priors of Hexham, who were given Priorsdale about the year 1209 by the Lord of the Manor of Alston, Ivo de Veteripont. If this is so, it gives a possible earliest date.

There are written records of another cross that does not form part of the boundary of the perimeter of Alston Moor but was a boundary marker within the Manor.
In 1339, the twelfth year of the reign of King Edward III, a wooden cross is referred to on Middle Fell as part of the boundary to the property of Christopher Richardson. The same site is referred to in 1713, when a boundary was ridden from the River South Tyne, up Crossburn to Hunderbridge Sike then to the top of the fell, “where there was a wooden cross”.

Although the most obviously named site for a cross is Cross Fell, there is no evidence of there having been one up there. A gentleman called George Smith wrote an account of his ascent of Cross Fell on 17th August 1747 but he made no mention of a cross. Surely he would have done had there been one to see.
Having said that, a local legend recounted in 1908 by Caesar Caine, the curate of Garrigill, tells that, “… evil spirits are said in former times to have haunted the summit of the hill, and continued their haunts and nocturnal vagaries upon it, until St. Austin (Augustine), as it is said, erected a cross and an altar whereon he offered the Holy Eucharist by which he counter-charmed those hellish fiends and broke their haunts”.
But St. Augustine of Canterbury never came here, if there had been a holy man it would have been St. Paulinus, who converted many Northumbrians to Christianity.

Unfortunately, after the shaft of Hartside Cross was unearthed in 1929 both it and the coin disappeared, and although Killhope Cross and Short’s Cross have both survived to the present day they are not in their original positions.
As boundary marker stones to the Scottish king’s estate, if that is in fact what they were, the crosses of Alston Moor became obsolete as early as 1296. In that year Edward I defeated the Scottish king, John Balliol, and annexed all the Scottish king’s estates in England. So Alston Moor became wholly a part of England. After this, there would be no doubt as to who owned the Manor and the boundary markers became irrelevant.

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About Us
Alston Moor Historical Society was founded in 1973 and, due to the nature of Alston Moor, it is a member of both the Northumberland Association of Local History Societies and the Cumbria Federation of Local History Societies.
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