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Horsley, its environs and The Redesdale Arms Hotel
To learn more Horsley and its links with the Mitfords, the deserted village at Evistones and other stories, read on . . .
About three miles past Otterburn, the A696 gives way to the A68 at a farm called Elishaw (pronounced ‘Lisha’). There was once an important village here and a hospital providing accommodation for weary travellers crossing the wild lands of Redesdale.
Just a mile and a half further on lies the hamlet of Horsley, where there is a well-known hotel and pub called The Redesdale Arms. It is also known as ‘The First and Last’ because it’s the first inn in England after leaving Scotland and the last before crossing the border travelling north. Originally a fortified farmhouse, or ‘bastle’, it was converted into an inn when the Otterburn to Carter Bar road was made into a toll road in 1779. Horsley Inn was a halting place supplying food, beds and fresh horses for passing stage-coaches for many years. Converted into a hotel in the twentieth century, it was badly damaged by fire in 1993 but has since been rebuilt. It provides excellent accommodation and cuisine and is popular with locals and visitors alike.
The line of the Roman Dere Street runs across the land behind Holy Trinity church but it isn’t a public right of way. The Romans following it north would have gone past the Roman cemetery of Petty Knowes and from there to the Roman fort of Bremenium at High Rochester. Dere Street crosses the A68 just south of the Redesdale Arms and then re-joins it further south as it heads towards Corbridge.
It’s quite unique to find a Roman altar inside the porch of an Anglican church, but there are two in Holy Trinity. The smaller Roman votive altar is portable and may have been used for household worship. It is now stored in the vestry for safekeeping.
The large altar was found near the Featherwood Roman camps, which lie about three miles east of Byrness village. The inscription on the altar reads:
ET PACI IVL(IVS)
V(OTVM) S(OLVIT) L(IBENS) M(ERITO)
“To Victory and Peace Julius Melicanus for the public good willingly and deservedly fulfilled his vow.”
Julius Melicanus mentioned may have been a Commander of one of the Roman armies marching north. Perhaps he was celebrating the fact that his troops had got this far and giving thanks to the gods he worshipped. It seems fitting that both altars have come to rest in Holy Trinity Church, as Roman troops would have marched along Dere Street, north of this location, on their way to Bremenium fort in High Rochester.
The Mitford family have been associated with the Rede Valley ever since Sir John Mitford (1748-1830), a noted lawyer and MP, bought the Redesdale estate in the 1790s. Sir John had lived most of his life in the south of England, but decided to buy this estate because it lay not far from his ancestral home at Mitford, near Morpeth. Sir John became Lord Chancellor of Ireland under Prime Minister William Pitt, and was created Baron Redesdale in 1802.
His only son, John Thomas Freeman-Mitford (1805-1886), the 2nd Baron Redesdale, was also active in the House of Commons. In 1877 he was created Earl of Redesdale. The Earl bore the cost of renovations to the tiny church at Byrness and in 1844, had the Church of the Holy Trinity built for his tenants, who previously made a long, fifteen-mile journey to Elsdon church for worship. The house above the church was once Horsley Vicarage, built for the resident vicar of Holy Trinity and funded by the Earl in 1883. It passed into private ownership in the 1960s.
The Earl never married and on his death in 1886 both the titles of Baron and Earl became extinct. The Earl bequeathed his substantial estates to a cousin, the diplomat, politician and writer Sir Algernon Freeman-Mitford (known as ‘AB’). The Redesdale title was revived when AB was raised to the peerage as Baron Redesdale on 15 July 1902.
He was succeeded by his second and eldest surviving son, David Freeman-Mitford, 2nd Baron Redesdale. David is chiefly remembered as the father of the famous Mitford sisters, Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity, Jessica and Deborah. His daughter Nancy immortalised him as the eccentric Uncle Matthew in her early novels (The Pursuit of Love). David’s only son, the Hon. Thomas Freeman-Mitford, was tragically killed in action in Burma in 1945, just at the end of the Second World War. After David’s death, the title passed on to another brother.
Various plaques and memorials to the family can be seen in Holy Trinity Church where they worshipped when in Redesdale. The fifth Baron Redesdale, Clement (1932-1991), is buried in a quiet corner of the churchyard. The current Lord Redesdale, Clement’s son Rupert, inherited the title and estate in 1991.
The original estate was around 11,900 acres and further properties were added to this over time, until the entire estate extended to well over 16,000 acres. It was managed by a popular land agent, Edward Lawson, during the Earl’s lifetime and many modern farming methods were introduced. Donations by Redesdale’s tenants commissioned the stained glass windows in Holy Trinity, which were erected to Lawson’s memory. He is buried in the churchyard.
In 1911, a considerable amount of the estate was sold to the War Office by Lord Redesdale for military training, and this was expanded during the Second World War. Other land adjoining Redesdale was also acquired over time by the Ministry of Defence, and it has been increasingly used for fire, manoeuvre and artillery training by infantry units to the present day.
The Redesdale family originally lived at Birdhopecraig Hall, their country house, situated high above the River Rede and just on the north side of Rochester. Its lodge can still be seen beside the A68 , just outside Rochester, but the house itself was used by the Army during the war for senior officers’ accommodation and the Officers’ Mess. Junior officers lived in tents on the front lawn. Unfortunately, the house was burnt down on 20 August 1957 when a log fell out of the fireplace onto the wooden floor. It was demolished in 1963.
Stand on the steps of Holy Trinity Church and absorb the wonderful view across the valley. You will see some grey chimneys rising above the trees on the opposite side of the river. These belong to Evistones House, a hunting lodge built in 1860 by Sir Walter James and in the possession of that family for more than 200 years. The house and its estate have now changed hands.
To the right of Evistones House, you will see some ruins. These are what remains of the deserted village of Evistones, built some time in the 15th century and inhabited until the late 17th century. The remains comprise a bastle tower, cottage steadings, garths and enclosure banks. Evistones was a strongly-walled village and the walls are well preserved; part of the old tower still stands and has an interesting vaulted chamber. The surrounding area is covered with rig and furrow cultivation, probably contemporary with the village. The village seems to have been deserted around 1693 but the reason for this remains shrouded in mystery.