Three secrets revealed of a picturesque border village
The road from Berwick-upon-Tweed to Wooler runs almost due south from the Great North Road, just outside Scremerston.
After a fairly straight stretch past Oxford Farm, with its farm shop, the road snakes its way into the village of Ancroft.
Although the civil parish has a population of about 900, the centre of the village is now tiny, focusing on the former Lamb Inn, the former school, the church and the fine former vicarage.
The tower of the church, standing as it does on the edge of the fields, defends the north of the village.
Ancroft church tower has a touch of stardom about it, frequently appearing on calendars and in photographic topographies of England.
The village itself is a place of secrets, situated as it is on the farthest outskirts of England.
It remained English, however, even when Berwick was batted to and forth in the battles and skirmishes between the two nations whose borders run so nearby.
Three secrets are perhaps as many as we can accommodate in a short piece like this.
Let us begin, then, with that remarkable church tower.
It is remarkable on account of its sheer strength and proportions. It stands on a very broad base, with little decoration and only moderate height.
It is not the oldest part of the church still visible, for to the right of the main door is a very fine blocked Romanesque doorway. That doorway is an essential piece of evidence tracing the church’s origins back as far as the arrival of William the Conqueror in the 11th century. William and his Norman invaders brought the Romanesque style with them.
The tower was added some 200 years later, as much for defensive as religious reasons.
In some ways, it resembles a pele tower, of which there are many scattered along the Northumbria border.
Indeed, this part of Northumberland, including Norhamshire, with the great fortress there, was part of the Palatinate of Durham, the territory of the Prince-Bishops until the early 19th century. Some old maps still mark this area out as ‘Part of County Durham (Detached)’.
The nave of the church is a good piece of plain, but noble, Victorian architecture, recently greatly enhanced by the inclusion of fine plain glass windows. An excellent example of a local history exhibition is there at the back of the nave.
Making our way out of the main door, down the path past the old school on our right, we arrive in the centre of the old village.
Pausing to look across the road, we can see very clearly the bumps and hummocks of the former village and its main street.
In 1667, two years after the Great Plague, so almost exactly 350 years ago, the plague struck Ancroft.
Following this tragic outbreak, corpses were carried out into the fields and buried beneath shelters made of broom – one area is still known as Broomie Huts.
After this futile attempt to stem the tide of the disease, more drastic measures were taken.
The entire village was razed to the ground.
This secret is well revealed in that now empty field opposite the track leading to St Anne’s Church, the saint’s name presumably giving her name to the village.
The third fascinating, and partly tragic, secret of Ancroft is yielded up by walking in the churchyard.
Turning right out of the main door, make your way to the west of the tower. There you encounter a sad, but interesting headstone.
Part of the inscription reads: “To the memory of Mary Catherine Smith, deceased the 20th January, 1799, in whom were joined virtue and religion to prudence and affability of manners, by which she gained universal esteem and was superior of the religious community, who by the bounty of Sir Carnaby Haggerston Bart, were received and lodged in his castle during 12 years after the French Revolution.”
Below are listed a further nine members of this community of Poor Clares there buried.
The Poor Clares were the ‘Second Order’ of Franciscans, established as an enclosed, contemplative community by St Francis of Assisi, under the tutelage and leadership of his friend St Clare of Assisi.
Having been established in England in the 17th century, they moved to Rouen in France for greater safety.
From 1789, following the French Revolution, their lives were greatly imperilled.
Having been ejected from their house in Rouen, their petition to return was rejected, and by then the position of Roman Catholics in England was improving.
They thus came first to London, to a house in Manchester Square. Some time after, Sir Carnaby Haggerston offered them space in his own baronial home.
Eventually, they moved to Scorton Hall, in North Yorkshire.
Olive Trewick, of Fenwick village, describes this in beautiful detail in an excellent leaflet available in Ancroft church.
This tiny hamlet, then, with its august church tower and tumbled remains of a plague village, forms a fascinating entry into England as one crosses the once fraught border county patrolled in earlier times by the squadrons of Durham’s prince-bishops.
Here are salutary reminders of troubled times, alongside the devotion and steadfastness of a tiny refugee religious community.