The Watchtower: Hexham's Forgotten Fortifications

Dr John Chapman, October 2008

“Rescue archaeology” is a term frequently used to discover and record archaeological evidence before it disappears under the remorseless advance of “progress”. This process affects Hexham, as elsewhere, and this note attempts to interpret photographic evidence, collected by Colin Dallison (of Hexham Local History Society) over the past thirty years, which, together with vestigial masses of masonry, suggests that Hexham was defended in mediaeval times by a substantial wall and gatehouses. These works were additional to the defensive wall around the Prospect House site proposed by Tom Corfe and Peter Ryder, and the Priory wall which was recorded by Hodges in his 1888 monograph "Hexham Abbey".

Watchtower fig.1

Figure 1 The “Watchtower” in 1994

The primary stimulus for this investigation is an enigmatic mass of masonry which stands within one hundred yards of Hexham Market Place. Despite its massive size, few people appear to have noticed it (Fig 1). After casual enquiries over twenty years I found Ken Steel, who told me that when he was living in Hexham as a boy, a butcher, located in the old Merchants' Houses in Market Street , told him that it was known as “The Watch-tower”. Little enthusiasm was aroused when I mentioned this fact to colleagues, as, like myself, they wondered how it was possible to prove that a mass of masonry, some hundreds of cubic metres in size, had this origin. I decided that the structure was too costly to have been a civilian object, and so it most probably had a military purpose.

Watchtower fig.2

Figure 2 Lines of sight to Haugh Lane and
Prospect House (B=Watchtower)

Several years later I realised that a watch tower would have been erected in a position giving a strategic field of view. Colin Dallison rapidly produced several aerial views and slides of the area from his collection of photographs and papers which attempt to document every conceivable facet of Hexham’s development over the past thirty years. Fig 2 shows that the position of the “watch-tower” would have enabled watch to be kept over the slopes from the Prospect House site to the west end of Haugh Lane. All of this land would be known in military parlance as “dead ground” because attackers, arriving from the Tyne, could not easily be seen once they reached the steeply sloping ground below Market Street and Gilesgate. The Priory wall would be particularly blind in this respect. The Watch-tower remedied those defects.

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Figure 3 A sketch of Hexham made by
the Buck brothers in 1728

Initially I thought that evidence for a watchtower was to be found in a sketch of Hexham made by the Buck brothers in 1728 (Fig.3). This shows an unexplained tower standing between the Abbey and the Moot Hall.Several photographs were taken by Colin Dallison from positions north of the Tyne, between the Hermitage and the Tyne Bridge, to establish that the position from which the Buck sketch was made was,in fact,to the north-east rather than to the north as stated by the brothers. This means that the tower in the sketch was probably located on the site of the "Forum" cinema and not in the position of the putative watchtower.This evidence, although disappointing, showed that there had been at least one unknown large tower in the area under investigation.

Watchtower fig.3a

Figure 3a A contemporary painting of
Hexham in 1815

A further tower is shown in the frontispiece to the 1919 book "Hexham and its Abbey" by Hodges and Gibson. The tower is positioned somewhere along Market Street or Haugh lane,and it appears to be cylindrical with a conical red roof. The date of the painting is 1815 (Fig.3a). It is impossible to say, at this distance in time, whether the tower is relevant to the present discussion.

The Watch-tower would not have existed in isolation. It would have had to be a part of a defensible system along Haugh Lane, which must have been integrated with the Priory and Prospect House systems.

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Figure 4

In Peter Ryder’s 1995 book (The Two Towers of Hexham) he accepts that there was a town gate straddling Hall Stile Bank. The location of the tower on the left-hand side of the road is shown in Fig 4.

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Figure 5 1950s aerial photo showing
possible old road line
(reported by a local resident)

I saw, when looking from Prospect House car park, many years ago, a square masonry tower base, with thick walls, some feet below. It is now completely obscured by shrub growth. This would have been matched by a tower on the opposite side of the road to give a defensible gateway. The location is suitably defensive, being backed by a steep rise up to the Market Place, while below is a steep bank, with a bend which obscures the gate from attackers. For the continuity of defence a defensive wall would have had to proceed westwards from the gateway in the direction of the Watch-tower.

Fig 5 is an aerial view of this area. Residual traces of a line proceeding in this direction can be discerned. Stan James, who lives nearby in Hall Stile Bank, informs me that he was told, when a boy, that a road went in the appropriate direction to the west. The area has been examined for me, by Scot Graham, a young and agile surveyor. He found that the erection of the Forum and, more recently, the Pudding Mews complex, have made it impossible to find definitive road traces in this area, which is made practically inaccessible by scrub growth. In particular, the spoil from Pudding Mews was bulldozed down the slope, obliterating all in its path.

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Figure 7

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Figure 6

Fortunately, Colin Dallison had old slides of the land below the Pudding Mews site, taken before the bulldozing took place. Figs 6 and 7 show remains of massive masonry walls which look seriously defensive. They follow the line to the Watch-tower. Fig 6 is a photo taken in January 1979. These walls were below the site now known as "Pudding Mews". They were called "Hexham Town Walls" by people working in this locality. Fig 7 was taken in April 198?. It shows substantial wall remains near to "Cove Cottage".

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Figure 8 1863 large-scale Ordnance Survey map of the area around the old wall

Fig 8 shows the large-scale 1863 Ordnance Survey map of the area. It shows some traces of walls along the proposed line, but, in addition, many walls are shown running down the slopes to Haugh Lane. These are separating what were originally “burgage strips” of property owners on Market Street. Such masonry walls would not have been built so liberally if a ready supply of cheap stone had not been available. This was the fate of much of the defensive wall. Several small loops of masonry wall, with no apparent purpose, can be seen on Fig 8, approximately on a line from the Hall Stile gateway to the Watch-tower. It is conceivable that these could be the remains of the bases of mural towers. However, the Watchtower is the one firm candidate for a mural tower base. Colin Dallison has made contact with people living in Hexham who used to work in the vicinity of the Watchtower. They told him that the stone walls above Haugh Lane were known in recent memory as "Hexham's walls" or "Hexham's boundary".

Watchtower fig.9 Watchtower fig.10

Figures 9 & 10 "Watchtower" north face. April 1987.

Figs 9 & 10 are old pictures taken by Colin of the face of the watchtower nearest to Haugh Lane. The two arches have rooms roughly ten feet deep behind wooden doors. The arches are lined with brick, which means that they were constructed post 1676 when brick was introduced to Hexham, and they are obviously modifications to the original tower, made after it was no longer required for defence. The stone staircase on the same face of the watchtower was probably a late addition for access. Close inspection is required to show whether the individual stair treads are built in to the masonry mass, or are merely butted against it. This question has not been investigated because access to the structure was not permitted.

Watchtower fig.11Watchtower fig.12

Figures 11&12 Possible remains of mural road outside defensive walls (see arrows)

Having satisfied myself that the hypothesis of a defensive wall from Hall Stile Bank to the Watch-tower is feasible, the assumption is inevitable that the wall must have continued to the west. Again, Colin Dallison’s photographs reveal that, at intervals along the proposed line, there are horizontal levels, at several feet above Haugh Lane, which make it appear that a continuous level, which could have been a mural road along the wall, once existed (Figs 11&12).

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Figure 13

The most interesting item, revealed by Scot’s continuing survey of this area, is the wall at the rear of Henry Bell’s 1885 building, which until recently was used as a swimming bath. The lower part of this high wall is made of old masonry. On top of this has been erected a brick extension. The character of the bricks, and the method of bonding, date them reasonably to 1885. This combination of brick wall on top of old masonry was presumably approached with some caution, as the two sections are reinforced by large buttresses made of ashlar masonry (Fig 13). It seems probable that the masonry wall has sufficient thickness for a brick wall to be perched on top of it.The wall could well have been part of the defensive line.

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Figure 14

Beyond this wall, to the west, are remains of what could have been a square tower base. I was told that a square tower base had been seen in this area, which is near the footpath descending from Gilesgate, some years ago. However, Scot found that, although traces of a thick-walled tower may remain, a large tree has done much to disrupt this area. Further west, a fragment of a three-feet thick wall was found on the west side of the community centre car park (Fig 14). This is too thick to be a remnant of the Presbyterian Chapel which occupied the site on the 1863 map. However, to the west of the chapel was mapped a rectangular enclosure with very thick walls which could have been an original tower base (1863 map). This tower, if such it was, would have been near the western limit of the defensive wall. My conjecture is that at somewhere near to this point the defensive line crossed Gilesgate in order to complete a defensive circuit.

Watchtower fig.15

Figure 15

Celia Fiennes recorded her travels from London to Newcastle in 1698. Part of the route took her from Haydon Bridge to Dilston via Hexham. She noted that there were two gateways in Hexham, connected by wide, well-paved streetes. The route from Haydon Bridge to Hexham passed up Gilesgate in those days, and I suspect that her first gate was encountered somewhere along Gilesgate. The word “gate” can be derived from “gata” meaning a “way”, but gate in the present-day sense can be an equally valid interpretation.

Possible evidence for a gate in Gilesgate is provided by massive masonry remains in the area, especially those to be seen in the Tanners’ Yard. These can be seen by entering the semi-circular, stone archway to the left of the entrance to the (brick) house built by Henry Bell (Fig 15).

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Figure 17

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Figure 16

Looking back, after passing through the entrance passage, a masonry wall about six feet wide rises up to the tops of the adjacent brick buildings (Fig 16). If this area is viewed from the pathway running down to the south of the Tanners’ Yard, there can be seen other masses of masonry built into the brick buildings (Fig 17). The masonry obviously pre-dates the brick buildings which stylistically date from the early eighteenth century, which is when town walls throughout the country were starting to be re-cycled, following the peace gradually increasing in the land. Wall re-use reached its peak throughout England in the last quarter of the eighteenth century.

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Figure 18

It is interesting to note that the house to the left of the Tanners’ Yard entrance is constructed of stones which are not cleanly-cut ashlar, but they have a rounded appearance (Fig 18). This I believe to be a sign of re-used stone, much weathered. Probably we are looking at the remains of a re-cycled gatehouse.

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Figure 19

A final point concerning the putative gatehouse by the Tanners’ Yard entrance is that this point is located at an increase in the slope of the road, down to the west. The road then has a sharp bend to the north. These features are typical of a defensive gatehouse location (Fig 19).

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Figure 20

Defensive works in Gilesgate, with a considerable drop down to the Tanners’ Yard would, logically, have been linked to the high wall at the east of the yard (Fig 20).

Watchtower fig.21

Figure 21 Charles Hodges' map of
Hexham (before Beaumont Street)
The strong defensive wall at "E" still exists.

Hodges’ Plan of Hexham (1888) (Fig 21) shows this as part of the remains of the wall surrounding the Priory grounds. This strong, defensive position would have been ideal for repelling marauders attacking under the cover of the Cockshaw Burn from the north, after they had forded the Tyne at the west ford. This position could have been outflanked, over the Sele, from further south along the Cockshaw Burn. However, John Lambert wrote in 1773 (Hodges 1888 p.33) that “the ground of this monastery has formerly been of large extent. The remains of the wall are yet to be seen a good way up the Cockshaw Burn, on the west side of the field called the Sele, having extended from the gate called the Abbey Gate, round the said field, and so by a street called Hencotes, but how far to the eastward I shall not determine, only ‘tis visible all the way behind the houses on the northside of Battle Hill down as far as the Globe Inn.”

Watchtower fig.22

Figure 22 Wood's 1826 Plan of Hexham
It shows probable ancient lookout point
on Sele perimeter

Scot’s investigations found no trace of Lambert’s walls. The interesting circle shown in the hachures, which denote the west edge of the Sele (Fig 22), was investigated, as it was the ideal place for a lookout scanning up and down the Cockshaw Burn which lies below. This feature no longer exists, and it was not shown on maps post 1826. The conclusion that there was thorough re-cycling of the easily accessible stone to the west of the Sele is inescapable.

Watchtower fig.23

Figure 23 A "listed" wall fragment
at No.2, Temperley Place

The wall along Hencotes may be represented by a small, listed fragment which appears in an appropriate position in the garden of No.2, Temperley Place (Fig 23).

A further clue was found in No.9, Hencotes, which is on the north side of the road near to Selegate House. Some years ago, I was inspecting the house interior, looking for dateable features. I noted in the centre of the house, parallel to the road, a plastered dividing wall about three feet thick. I now wonder if it was a remainder of the Hencotes wall noted by Lambert, as there was no apparent reason for such thickness. A survey of Hencotes houses may show some similar remainders – a future project for a Hexham Local History Society member?

Celia Fiennes’ second gate is still to be considered. Her route passed from Gilesgate, into the Market Place where she noted the Market Cross (since demolished). Her route would not have gone down Hall Stile Bank en route to Dilston and so she would not have seen that gateway. A route via Hallgate was probably not taken. She mentions "one place the sessions are kept for the shire, its built of stone and looks very well, there are two gates to it". There are, in fact, three gates to the Moot Hall entrance. This suggests that she had not passed through the Moot Hall entrance and so had no knowledge of Hallgate and the Gaol. Her route from the Market place probably went along Fore Street, which was likely to have been one of the "broad well-paved streetes" that she mentioned. Fore Street had been important since the fourteenth century, when it was known as Coastley Row. From the south end of Fore Street, Celia's route must have headed east along Priestpopple and hence to Dean Street and Dilston. The only location for the second gate seems to have been at the south end of Fore Street, opposite Eastgate Road. The widening of the road in passing from Battle Hill into Priestpopple is characteristic of the inner and outer sides of many town gateways (Town Walls p.46). Traders from outside the town clustered outside the gateway, probably to avoid the payment of “murage dues” levied on the goods of traders who entered the town. Murage grants could be levied, with the king’s permission, as a popular means of paying for the building of defensive walls.

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Figure 24

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Figure 25

Colin Dallison has researched the naming of Eastgate, using old maps and Post Office directories. On Wood’s 1826 map of Hexham (Fig 22), the road presently called Eastgate was named Bone Street, while the stream was named the Skinner’s Burn, no doubt referring to the activities of the large skinning and gloving manufactory higher up the burn at High Shield. From 1834 to 1879, the road was called Skinner’s Burn, but in the 1879 Directory there are references to Miss Golightly of 20, Skinnersburn, and Mrs Holliday of Eastgate. Later references only refer to Eastgate. Possibly there was a discovery of gateway remains at the bottom of Eastgate, when preparations were being made to re-build the “Beehive” inn as the “Criterion” (currently the “Tap and Spile”) in 1882. Peter Ryder has noted a small mass of residual old masonry to the rear of this site. Figs 24 and 25 were taken for me by George Blaylock to illustrate these remains, but inspection on site (rear of Oxfam Bookshop) is really necessary to appreciate them. Perusal of old copies of the Hexham Courant may reveal a record of remains found during the Criterion work. This conjecture is supported by the incongruity of naming a southbound road Eastgate (East-gata!). This possible gateway would presumably have been linked by a short wall up to the Globe Inn, where it would have joined the Priory wall. Remains of such a wall were reported to Colin by Peter Smith. A pipe or cable was being laid at the south end of Saint Mary's Chare some years ago, and a wall which was five feet thick was discovered, running in an east to west direction. It is difficult to conjecture how the other side of the gateway would have linked to Peter Ryder's proposed Prospect House site without detailed examination of the few masonry remains, and then a lot of thought about the strategic use of Skinner’s Burn as a barrier.

It is pertinent to consider the environment in which a wall would have been built. After the incursions of the Danes in 875 A.D., there are no mentions of attacks on Hexham until Edward I’s disagreement with the Scots in 1295 (HH21). This was followed by the 1296 attack which resulted in the burning of the Priory roof. Obviously, the Priory Precinct wall was inadequate at that time to prevent the close approach of determined attackers. Further raids in the first half of the fourteenth century resulted in the fortifying of Aydon Castle and the erection c.1330 of the Archbishop’s Gaol. The defensive machicolations were carried around all sides of the roof showing that attacks could be expected from all sides. The Archbishop’s Moot Hall was built about the middle of the fourteenth century. The provision of two doors on the side facing the Market Place, and only one on the side of Hallgate, suggests that by this time a perimeter wall had been built around the Prospect House site. The Market Place and Priory were obviously not included in this defensive circuit.

Although the Archbishop of York had jurisdiction over the Priory and town, he had no power to levy a subsidy for military purposes in the Regality of Hexham (Hodges "Hexham Priory" 1921 p.90) and so the Prospect House site represented the limit of the expenditure to be expected from the Church. However, the Priory bells were an important item in the defence of Hexham. The massive strength of the Abbey bell tower indicates that the suspension of bells was an important object and bells were probably installed by 1240, only to be pillaged by the Scots in 1296. References to the bells being rung in the event of an excommunication taking place, are recorded by the phrase “pulsates campanis” in 1311, 1467 and 1475. The largest bell (called “Mary”, not “Andrew” after the Priory dedication) weighed three and a half tons, and was probably a slightly later acquisition than “Andrew”. Its common name was the “Fray” bell. It was rung only in the event of a fire or an attack, and it followed, immediately, the ringing of the Town Bell on such an occasion. People have made guesses about where the Town Bell was hung. It now appears rational that it may have been hung in a watch-tower, nearby.

Before 1365, able-bodied men were required to keep their weapons at home and to attend an affray with their arms. After this date, weapons were supplied by the king. Presumably this measure and the restrictions on archbishop finances were judicious means of restricting any rebellious tendencies! At the time of the Dissolution (1586) the Prior of Ovingham is reported to have had archery equipment ready to repel the king’s men when they approached the Abbey, and so firearms had not become common in this area. Hexham’s walls would not have had to withstand artillery attack, as the haulage of cannon across the border would have been a mammoth task. This makes it likely that the proposed walls would have been defended by projecting towers, at intervals, to provide enfilading fire along the length of the walls.

Much more could be surmised about the erection and destruction of Hexham’s defences. A study of the dates at which areas such as the Cockshaw Tanneries, Holy Island House (1657 or earlier), and buildings in Market Street and Gilesgate were built, could indicate how the advent of peace gradually led to the demolishing of defences and the spread of peaceful activities outside the defensive walls. However, the main point of this note is to draw attention to the massive masonry structures, which, together with the evidence of the Buck picture, point inevitably to the early existence of major defences on the north side of Hexham. The artefacts recorded by Colin’s photographs are now largely destroyed, or buried, and so this is an appropriate point in time when we must record the probable conclusions which can be drawn from this invaluable evidence.

The numbers marked in yellow on this map of Hexham show the locations of figures 1-25
(click for a larger version)

Watchtower fig.0 - map showing the locations of figures 1-25


  1. The file for this project contains many pictures, copied from Colin Dallison's originals, which are not reproduced with this abbreviated summary. These and Colin's originals should be perused by anyone who might take an interest in Hexham's fortifications.
  2. The following two books were kindly given to me by Shiela Corfe, when disposing of Tom Corfe's vast library. They contain much of interest concerning old fortifications, including a comment expressing surprise that Hexham and Morpeth lacked fortifications despite the troubled state of the Borders in days gone by:
       Creighton and Higham, Medieval Town Walls. ISBN 0 75244 1445 3. Tempus 2005
       John R. Kenyon, Medieval Fortifications. ISBN 0 7185 12898. Leicester University Press 1990
  3. English Heritage were given the data in this note and were asked to consider whether the watchtower should be listed. After some months they replied as follows:
    "Its exact nature and date are not known, and its context is not understood. It therefore is not of sufficient special architectural or historic interest to merit listing."
    Despite this discouraging reply, I am confident that The "Watchtower" is worthy of further research, and I hope that this note will keep members of Hexham Local History Society alert to any finds which may occur in the future.
  4. Colin Dallison reported a further conversation with Peter Smith stating that Miss Lindsey's mother lived in Cove Cottage, which is just to the west of The Watchtower. She used to refer to it as " The Lookout". She had a low stone building on the top of the platform demolished in the interest of safety.
  5. A map of Hexham cellars was prepared by Peter Ryder a few years ago. It shows a large number of cellars under St Mary's chare, Market Street, and in the general area of the Market Place. Rumours exist about their use for defensive purposes, but as many of them seem to have been built in the late seventeenth century, using brick from that period, it seems most likely that they were to give extra storage.