National Character Area 3

Cheviot Fringe - Description

The Cheviot Fringe today

The Cheviot Fringe is a tranquil, agricultural landscape overlooked by the Cheviot Hills to the west and the Northumberland Sandstone Hills to the east, and extending northwards to the Scottish border. The softer mudstones, sandstones and limestones underlying much of this area have eroded to form a lowland corridor of valleys and plains between the more resistant volcanic rocks of the Cheviots (the eastern edge of which falls within this NCA) and the coarse sandstone of the Northumberland Sandstone Hills which rise dramatically on either side. The Fell Sandstone lies in an arc round the Cheviot Hills, along the eastern edge of the NCA, forming the aquifer which provides the public water supply for much of this part of Northumberland.

The landscape has been heavily influenced by glaciation and deposition; drumlin fields are frequently found within the Tweed valley lowlands while hummocky kettle moraines, sinuous eskers and kames are features of the gently undulating, lowland valleys of Coquetdale and Whittingham Vale to the south. The extensive layer of boulder clay that overlays the whole of the area, combined with the underlying sedimentary bedrock and alluvial deposits, gives rise to fertile agricultural land.

Three major river systems, all radiating from the Cheviot Hills, flow across these valleys and plains and are excellent examples of dynamic montane river systems, characterised by active meandering, large depositional features and connected and active flood plains. In the south of the area, the rivers Coquet and Aln flow eastwards across the broad, undulating valleys of Coquetdale and Whittingham Vale, and on through the Northumberland Sandstone Hills. The River Breamish, which eventually becomes the Till, also flows eastwards from the Cheviots, before swinging northwards at Powburn on a long meandering course in the centre of the NCA to join the Tweed, flowing through the Milfield Plain, collecting the waters of the River Glen and its tributaries en route. These rivers all have their steep headwaters draining upland heather and peat moors in the Cheviot Hills which means they respond quickly to rainfall; much of the valley floors form the natural flood plains of these dynamic, mobile rivers and occasional flooding of agricultural land and a small number of residential properties is an issue. The rivers provide important riparian habitats such as river shingle, wet woodland and grazing marsh, and support internationally and nationally threatened species such as Atlantic salmon, sea trout, otter, lamprey, water vole, water crowfoot and river jelly lichen, as well as being important for their invertebrate assemblages. Consequently, the rivers Coquet, Till and Tweed are designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest and the River Tweed is also a Special Area of Conservation (SAC).

Other small pockets of semi-natural habitat are scattered within this agricultural landscape: ice-age kettle holes have formed complexes of fens and raised bogs such as Ford Moss SAC, and where the NCA abuts the Cheviots and the Sandstone Hills, outliers of upland heath and blanket bog occur, while an area of lowland heath can be found near Whittingham.

Arable cultivation dominates much of the good quality farmland found in the Cheviot Fringe NCA and the area supports a nationally important assemblage of farmland birds. Within the ‘haughs’ or alluvial terraces of the intensively farmed Till valley, the landscape of the Milfield Plain is generally flat and open, with large fields enclosed by fragmented, largely treeless hedgerows. These flat, lowlying fields are important roosts and feeding grounds for wildfowl, especially geese, wintering on the coast. Woodland cover is sparse in this area and largely confined to deciduous woodland along watercourses and mixed coniferous belts and blocks associated with large estates such as Ewart Park and Fenton House; at Ford and Etal Estates these are managed for red squirrels which are still found in this area.

The vale landscapes to the south have a more varied appearance. Here the pattern of enclosure is still strong: regular, medium-sized fields, enclosed by hedgerows with many broadleaved hedgerow trees form a patchwork of arable land, grazing pasture and meadows cut for silage. Many rivers and streams weave their way across the vales and these are frequently lined with broadleaved trees and woodland, adding colour and natural variety to the landscape. Small, mixed coniferous plantations and mixed copses are prominent landscape features.

The western edge of the NCA incorporates the edge of the Cheviot Hills and falls within the Northumberland National Park. It contrasts with much of the rest of the area as the predominant land use is sheep farming rather than arable cultivation.

To the north lie the flatter, more open Tweed lowlands. The meandering River Tweed defines a rich valley landscape which is both varied and colourful; in places broad and open, in others enclosed and intimate, the valley combines farmland and deciduous woodland with castles, bridges, small settlements and large country houses such as Tillmouth Park.

Farmsteads, farm hamlets and small villages are widely dispersed, often occupying strategic locations such as river fording points, and parklands associated with the large estates are still scattered throughout the landscape. Buildings are traditionally constructed from local materials: single-storey cottages built from stone rubble won from the overlying glacial till deposits, larger houses constructed in dressed sandstone, blue-grey slates or stone slabs for roofs and, on the Milfield Plain, buildings constructed in sandstone of a pinkish hue and roofed in local orange clay tiles.

Wooler is the largest town in the area, located on the A697 which is a key route running north-south and linking Morpeth with Coldstream. Owing to its proximity to the English/Scottish border, this landscape features many historic defensive structures including iron-age hill forts, fortified castles, bastle houses and tower houses, and Flodden Field and Homildon Hill battlefields are important tourist attractions. The rivers also draw visitors from far afield as they represent some of the most important game fisheries in England; the River Tweed is world famous for salmon and the River Till is noted mainly for its sea trout fishery. Relatively little of the NCA is publicly accessible and access is predominantly confined to public rights of way. Wooler, referred to as ‘the gateway to the Cheviots’, is a popular base for walkers and St Cuthbert’s Way from Melrose to Lindisfarne and a national cycle route both pass through the town. The area scores moderately highly for tranquillity and remains little disturbed by modern development.

The landscape through time

The landscape of the Cheviot Fringe NCA has been greatly influenced by glaciation and owes much to a widespread mantle of glacial deposits. The ‘solid’ rocks – limestones, mudstones and sandstones – which underlie much of the area belong chiefly to the Ballagan Formation of Lower Carboniferous age, deposited in a peritidal or lagoonal environment. Pre-glacial erosion of these rocks, which lie between the more resistant volcanic rocks of the Cheviot Hills and the Northumberland Sandstone Hills, reduced most of the area to a low elevation.

Deposition of rock debris during the last glacial period has left an extensive mantle of boulder clay (till), some of which is moulded into characteristic drumlins. Glacial meltwaters cut channels into the underlying solid rock and transported sand and gravel which were deposited as vast spreads across parts of the area. The distinctive hummocky surface of these deposits commonly carries hollows known as kettle holes, fine examples of which may be seen west of Wooperton. Sinuous ridges, eskers and kames of sand and gravel are also distinctive landscape features.

The huge amounts of glacial meltwater released into this low-lying area became trapped locally, producing temporary lakes. Within these were deposited thick accumulations of sands and clays. Glendale on the Milfield Plain was formed in this way as the site of one of the largest hollows in England, in which more than 160 m of finely laminated lacustrine clay was deposited.

There is much surviving evidence of early settlement in the Cheviot Fringe; the Milfield Plain in particular is exceptionally rich in buried archaeological remains and is regarded as one of the most important archaeological sites in the British Isles, revealing extensive artefacts from the Mesolithic through to the early-medieval period. The Milfield Plain provided attractive sites for farmers from as early as the Neolithic period due to the fertile soils and shelter provided by the Cheviot Hills.

Enclosed settlements and farmsteads probably continued in use until the 7th to 9th centuries when villages were established in association with large, open, arable fields with associated hay meadows and common grazing. The pattern of small nucleated villages further developed through systematic planning in the 12th and 13th centuries. The three major river systems which cross the Cheviot Fringe from the Cheviot Hills have played an important role in the location of settlements; many of the villages are situated at fording points or at the break of slope between the Cheviots and Sandstone Hills and the vale floor, out of reach of flooding.

Proximity to the English/Scottish border has also strongly influenced the location of settlements and historic character of the area; many existing landscape features have their origins in the need for defence. These include the earthwork remains of iron-age hill forts, which line the break of slope between the lowland vales and plains and the surrounding high ground, and the defensive structures, such as Norham Castle, which form a chain along the frontier. The present A697 from Morpeth to Coldstream was originally a Roman road. It became an important military route during the three centuries of border conflicts between the English and the Scots, which continued until the accession of James I united the two kingdoms in 1603. It was along this ‘Kings’ Highway’ that most of the great battles of the Border Wars took place, including the battle of Flodden Field in 1513, during which James IV of Scotland was killed.

The present pattern of dispersed settlement, with isolated farmsteads and farm hamlets, dates from when the landscape was hugely altered, reorganised and redistributed in the late 18th and 19th centuries, driven by the large estates which formed the backbone of farming in the area. Grand country houses such as Pallinsburn House, Ewart Park, and Lilburn Tower, were built, surrounded by the estates’ farmland. These large houses sometimes incorporated older fortified structures into the fabric of the buildings, and were often set within parkland, much of which can still be seen. Farmsteads consisted of large fields well-fenced with quicksets and blocks of conifer plantation interspersed with some older deciduous woodland which is still prominent in the landscape today. Traces of the older Anglian and medieval strip fields can still be found, and in some places there are remains in the form of earthworks, and more rarely buildings of the village-based settlements that preceded these changes.

More recent defensive structures were erected during the 20th century, most notably the Second World War pillboxes that encircle the village of Wooler. Post-war demand for food followed by pressures to produce food more cheaply led to an intensification of production methods; more land was brought into cultivation, reducing broadleaved woodland cover, and fields were made larger by the removal of hedgerows to improve efficiency in arable farming. More recently there has been a reversal in these trends with some hedgerow restoration, woodland planting and grazing marsh re-creation undertaken through agrienvironment schemes and other initiatives. In a few places such as Fenton, work has been done to re-create active flood plains, creating important wetland habitats and restoring a more natural river morphology.

While there has been relatively little expansion of settlements, the 20th and 21st centuries have brought a number of other landscape-scale changes including extensive sand and gravel extraction on the Milfield Plain, the establishment of a number of caravan parks and the introduction of vertical structures such as electricity pylons, mobile phone masts and television masts which are now prominent features of the open landscape. Access to electricity and developments in lighting technology have increased the prevalence of light pollution; light pollution from the Cheviot Fringe has greatly altered the night-time landscape of the Northumberland National Park.