A rocky ride through the foundations of our county

Many years ago now I was doing basic work to the first house we ever owned, a former farm worker's cottage in Glendale.

Sunday, 28th August 2016, 12:00 pm
View of Cheviot from Doddington. Picture by Jane Coltman

Funds were short so I aimed to do all I could myself, even including the fixing of new skirting boards. It was a mistake.

The electric drill I’d borrowed burnt out within the first 10 minutes. That was but my first embarrassment.

Cup and ring marks at Roughtin Linn. Picture by Jane Coltman

It took hours to fix the boards – the stone seemed to be as hard as diamond. Whatever was its origin?

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The answer was Whinstone, cut, doubtless with great effort, from one of the outcrops of the Great Whin Sill.

This hard, dolerite, volcanic rock has helped fashion some of the most outstanding sights in the county.

Both Bamburgh and Lindisfarne castles are built on outcrops of the Whin Sill, as indeed is Dunstanburgh.

Cup and ring marks at Roughtin Linn. Picture by Jane Coltman

The craggy coast near Howick is part of the same formation.

Much further south, parts of Hadrian’s Wall rest upon another intrusion of the Great Whin Sill.

Dolerite is close to basalt in composition, and the cliffs near Howick are almost as dramatic as the basalt hexagons of the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland.

Moving further inland, one of the most outstanding features in the landscape are the Cheviot Hills.

The main core of these is again volcanic, and the enormous ‘sugar loaf’, which is the Cheviot itself, is underlain with granite, an impervious hard rock.

In Northumberland, however, it is overlain with later sedimentary deposits of a far softer quality. These form peat moors. Any walkers who have climbed the Cheviot will know that in wet weather the flat plateau-ish summit is waterlogged to a degree.

Stepping stones have been laid into the boggy ground. The granite beneath is impervious and so these newer rock deposits cannot drain effectively.

The other summits of Hedgehope, Windy Gyle and Bloodybush Edge form a beautiful, dramatic, if somewhat sombre landscape to this border county.

Tales of highwaymen, sheep stealers and Border Reivers abound in this remote countryside.

Geology determines the landscape.

But there is still greater variety in the rocks which fashion North Northumberland’s landscape.

The coal measures, which were exploited as far north as Scremerston, give their name to the Carboniferous period of geological history, which includes limestone and sandstone.

The abandoned lime kilns on Holy Island and elsewhere are clear signs of the limestone deposits found across the county.

The attractive pinkish stone of many of the buildings in Berwick and elsewhere nearby are evidence of Old Red Sandstone from this same geological period.

The splendid reddish coloured roads which used to criss-cross the county were signs of volcanic deposits used to give a durable surface of chippings to the county’s roads.

Already then, we can see how a variety of geological formations help form the character of this most north easterly part of England.

But rock and stone has yet more to tell us.

Make your way up on to Weetwood or Doddington Moors, or to Hunterheugh Crags, south of Kimmer Lough near Eglingham, and you will discover ‘cup and ring’ marked rocks.

These appear fairly commonly in moorland areas elsewhere in England and Scotland.

They consist of a series of dimples in the rocks, generally with a larger depression (the cup), surrounded by smaller dimples (the rings).

We still have no idea of their use or origin.

Some have suggested that they were the result of fashioning stone tools and axes; others have seen them as a basis for early measurement; still others hint at a religious origin. They are fascinating to track.

They are not, however, the best playground for young children, as we found out to our cost many years ago on a blustery, rainy day on the moors to the east of Wooler.

But there are more dramatic survivals too.

Just north of Pallinsburn House, to the east of Branxton village, stands The King’s Stone, a large prehistoric megalith. This was almost certainly a trysting stone, or a place marked out for tribal gatherings.

Further east, near Duddo, are The Five Stones. Again, the precise origins of this stone circle are lost in the mists of time.

Another stone circle (or the remains of a circle) survive at Dod Law on the moors near Doddington.

This journey across the North Northumberland landscape then has shown how stone and rock have shaped the character of our county in landscape, in buildings and through artefacts – both great and small.

Indeed, it has shaped the culture of the region over as long a period of 5,000 years of geological time. Interpreting this for our own age can be both a fascinating and productive activity as we welcome visitors and tourists.

How might we see more than just the very tips of the surface and dig deeper into a rich and even mysterious past?