Origins of the town's name

The name of Haltwhistle has nothing to do with a railway stop. Early forms of the name are Hautwesel (1240), Hautwysel (1254), Hawtewysill (1279), Hautwysell (1381), Haltwesell (Speede 1610).

The first part , 'Hal', is probably derived from an Old English word meaning 'hill-top', 'head', 'headland', 'summit', 'upper end' or 'source of a stream'. If so, it describes the hill-top on which Holy Cross Church and the oldest part of Haltwhistle was built, enclosed on the north-east and west by Haltwhistle Burn and on the south by the South Tyne.

The second part "twistle" relates to two streams or rivers. It derives from two Old English words 'twicce' or 'twise', (meaning the division into two), and the word "wella" (meaning a stream or brook). The second word is reduced in the compound word to ull, making twicculla, twisella.

The combination of the two parts suggests the meaning to be a high tongue of land between two streams where they join.

The town's development

Haltwhistle was probably in existence in Roman times, as it is one of the closest approaches of the River South Tyne in its upland reaches to Hadrian's Wall. The old Roman road or 'Stanegate', passes just two miles to the north of the town.

The development of the town was based on its position on the main Newcastle to Carlisle road and on the Newcastle and Carlisle Railway line. It was a market town for the exchange of local goods. In the 18th century two Quakers set up a baize manufactury and there was a weaving establishment. On the Haltwhistle Burn were fulling mills, dyeing and spinning mills. A walk along this stream to the Roman Wall, shows that it must have been a hive of industry with quarries, coal mining and lime burning kilns. The Directory of 1822 (Pigot) gives a whole range of craftsmen, shopkeepers and traders ~60 in number, including makers of clogs. The weekly market was held on Thursdays and there were fairs on 14 May and 22 November for cattle and sheep.

The expansion of Haltwhistle in the 18th and 19th centuries was due to coal mining in the area and to a lesser extent the use of Haltwhistle as a loading point for metal ores coming from the mines on Alston Moor.

In 1836, while some workmen were quarrying stone for the Directors of the Newcastle and Carlisle Railway, on the top of Barcombe, a high hill in the township of Thorngrafton and Parish of Haltwhistle, one of them found a copper vessel containing 63 coins, 3 of them gold and 60 copper. The gold coins were, one of Claudius Caesar, reverse Nero Claudius Drusus Germanicus; one of Nero and one of Vespasian. The find is known as the 'Thorngrafton Hoard', and the empty arm-purse can still be seen in the museum at Chesters Fort.

More recently, paint manufacture became a major commercial force in the town, but has now stopped major production. Current local employers include factories making plastic bottles and de-icing products.

In present times, tourism dominates the economy, with Hadrian's Wall and the beatiful Northumberland countryside counting among the many attractions, with walking and cycling being exteremely popular.

The Border Reivers

"Reive" is an early English word for "to rob", from the Northumbrian and Scots verb reifen from the old English rēafian, and thus related to the archaic standard English verb reave ("to plunder", "to rob"), and to the modern English word "ruffian".

Border reivers were raiders along the Anglo-Scottish border from the late 13th century to the beginning of the 17th century. Their ranks consisted of both Scottish and English families, and they raided the entire Border country without regard to their victims' nationality. Their heyday was perhaps in the last hundred years of their existence, during the time of the Stewart Kings in Scotland and the Tudor dynasty in England.

Scotland and England were frequently at war during the late Middle Ages. During these wars, the livelihood of the people on the Borders was devastated by the contending armies. Even when the countries were not at war, tension remained high, and royal authority in either kingdom was often weak. The uncertainty of existence meant that communities or people kindred to each other would seek security through their own strength and cunning, and improve their livelihoods at their nominal enemies' expense. Loyalty to a feeble or distant monarch and reliance on the effectiveness of the law usually made people a target for depredations rather than conferring any security.

There were other factors which promoted a predatory mode of living. Among them was the survival in the Borders of the inheritance system of gavelkind, by which estates were divided equally between all sons on a man's death, so that many people owned insufficient land to maintain themselves. Also, much of the border region is mountainous or open moorland, unsuitable for arable farming but good for grazing. Livestock was easily rustled and driven back to raiders' territory by mounted reivers who knew the country well. The raiders also often removed easily portable household goods or valuables, and took prisoners for ransom.

The attitudes of the English and Scottish governments towards the border families alternated from indulgence and even encouragement, as these fierce families served as the first line of defence against invasion across the border, to draconian and indiscriminate punishment when their lawlessness became intolerable to the authorities.

The raid on Haltwhistle

The name Haltwhistle, earlier Hautwysel, is believed to be derived from its location, signifying either ‘The high hill by two rivers’ or ‘The watch on high’. In either case this would have much to do with the oval shaped mount called Castle Hill, which was fortified from ancient times by an earthworks and castle, parts of which remained until the mid sixties.

From Edward I to Henry VIII, English Kings spent much of their time trying to hold on to their Dukedoms in France, leaving England open to Scottish raids. In 1601, there was a raid on Haltwhistle by the Scottish Armstrongs, who carried away prisoners and all their goods. Following the initial raid on Haltwhistle, Carey invaded Liddesdale with two hundred horse and reclaimed the goods stolen which were divided and given back to the people they had been stolen from. As the English left Liddesdale with goods (probably cattle, sheep and 'insight', the word used for household goods), one of the leaders of the raid, Sim Armstrong of the Calfhill, braver and much rasher than the rest of the raiders who had been hiding within their strongholds at Carey's coming, chased back but in his rage he was run through with a spear wielded by one of the Ridleys of Haltwhistle. He died from the wound.

The Liddesdale clans then vowed revenge, stating that they would devastate Haltwhistle and the surrounding area. They returned to Haltwhistle to carry through their murderous intentions and set many houses on fire and again took away all the goods of the people. As they were running up and down the streets determined to fire the whole town, yet another Ridley, holed up in one of the bastle houses, let loose an arrow on them and killed another Armstrong, one of the sons of Sim of Whitram.

Fortification

In 1513 the English defeated the Scots at the Battleof Flodden Field in north Northumberland and in 1598 the infamous Armstrongs of Liddesdale fired and plundered Haltwhistle. The Border ballad, 'The Fray of Haltwhistle' recounts the event which was followed by years of feuding between the Armstrongs and the Ridley's of Haltwhistle.

The local people could only survive by defending themselves in fortified Manor houses, Pele Towers and Bastles against Scots or English raiders. Haltwhistle has the highest number of surviving Bastles (16th/17th Century defensible houses) in England. If you look closely at the tops and backs of the buildings around Haltwhistle, you will spot those that have been converted from Bastles.

The legacy of the Border Reivers can also be seen in the local culture and people. The family names of the Reivers can be found all around the area - Armstrong, Ridley, Bell, Graham, and Robson, are just some of the names still with us today. You'll see them in the church yard of Holy Cross.

Military might

The whole of the population of the English Middle March lived in fear of further reprisals from the Armstrongs and the other clans of Liddesdale. They were even contemplating leaving their houses and ekeing out a precarious living in the hills before the next winter, the time when reiving, feud and revenge would reach its yearly heights.

Carey deliberated on what to do next and called the gentleman of the country to his presence to seek their advice on what should be done to counteract the very real threat that there would be more raids on the Middle March, and not just Haltwhistle. To a man they advised Carey that he should petition a further hundred horse from Elizabeth1 and the English Privy Council. These could be added to the forty already in his pay and serve as a military deterrent to the Liddesdale clans during the following autumn and winter. Only then would the poor folk of Haltwhistle and its environs find the courage to remain put and carry on with their normal lives.

Haltwhistle's historic buildings

The 13th century Church of the Holy Cross stands at the back of the Market Square. This is the oldest building in Haltwhistle and one of only a few early 13th century churches still functioning as a working church in England. The oldest part of the Church is the chancel erected in the 12th century. Various features of interest include a 6th century old Water Stoup and a tomb of the crusader Thomas de Blenkinsopp who died in 1388. Much of the Church was decorated by the Pre-Raphaelites, including excellent stained glass windows by William Morris and Burne-Jones and the Chancel ceiling which was decorated by Burne-Jones.

Follow the Reiver Trail around the town and you will see five Bastle Houses (defensible houses) all of which date back to the town’s Reiving past, and the Centre of Britain Hotel with its Pele Tower incorporated into the building.

Haltwhistle today

Set at very heart of more than 2000 years of history, Haltwhistle is the geographical the Centre of Britain (mid-point of the longest line of longitude that can be drawn through Britain with its centre on land and equidistant from the sea, as measured along the principal points of the compass), and it’s at the centre of everything that keeps visitors returning to England’s most dramatic countryside year after year.

Nestling beside the River South Tyne, Haltwhistle is the closest town to the stunning central section of the Hadrian’s Wall World Heritage site and the Northumberland National Park, both of which are only about 2 miles (3kms) away.

As a base to explore the magnificent surrounding area, Haltwhistle couldn’t be better positioned. Within one hour’s drive to the west are Carlisle, Gretna & South West Scotland. To the North are Kielder Water, Redesdale and the English & Scottish Borders. To the East are the historical attractions of the Northumbria Coast and the city of Newcastle. To the south are the wonderful open spaces of The Northern Pennines, an area of outstanding natural beauty.

Haltwhistle Burn runs between the town and Hadrian's wall. The remains of Haltwhistle Castle and the series of Bastles, as well as Haltwhistle Tower can still be seen today. There are also many historic properties nearby, including Featherstone Castle, Blenkinsop Castle, Unthank Hall, Bellister Castle, Coanwood Friends Meeting House, and Thirlwall Castle. Haltwhistle Viaduct lies to the south of the railway station and was the first major feature on the Alston Line to Alston, Cumbria.