In the mid-1980s I studied at Newcastle University and in our free time we loved to ride up into the wilds of nearby Northumberland, which (after North Yorkshire of course) has to be one of the most beautiful of our counties. Maybe the fact that it has its own share of remote hills and moors is why and I liked it so much.
In his column from 26th July 1980, Dad writes about a family visit there in which we saw various places, including Alnwick, Warkworth, Alnmouth and finished our day with an evening walk along the beach by Bamburgh Castle. This imposing fortress sits atop a great rocky hill rising 150 feet above sea level, its nine acres commanding views stretching miles over the surrounding land and ocean.
It is little wonder that this coveted spot was chosen by the sixth century Anglo-Saxon kings as their capital of Northumbria. Ida the Flamethrower was the first to build a significant wooden structure there in AD547, and when he died, his grandson, Aethelfrith, took over, sending his sons Oswald and Oswi to the Scottish island of Iona to be baptised and educated by the Christian monks there.
It was Oswald who became the most famous Anglo-Saxon king of Northumbria. Born in AD604, he was king from AD634 until his death in AD642. During his reign he was considered the most powerful king in Britain and is credited with promoting the spread of Christianity across the north. He was defeated and killed at the Battle of Maserfield on 5th August AD642 by the pagan king of Mercia, Penda.
The Venerable Bede, writing around 100 years after Oswald’s death, provides the only record we have of his life and reign, and he describes him as a very ‘saintly’ king, citing his generosity to strangers and the poor. A story goes that a servant came to tell him that the poor were in the streets begging for alms. He ordered the food from his table to be distributed among them, and also that the silver platters from which his gathering were eating be broken up and distributed.
As a devout Christian, Bede’s version of the king is likely to be a rather biased, and he glosses over his reputation as a seasoned warrior. After Oswald was killed, the myth of his holy stature quickly gained momentum so that the place where he fell became renowned for inspiring miracles. It is said that so many people took a handful of earth from that very spot that a hole as deep as a full-grown man was left behind.
St Oswald was supposedly killed near the Shropshire town of Oswestry, or ‘Oswald’s Tree’, so-called because legend has it that a raven took one of Oswald’s severed arms and perched on a nearby tree, which then became associated with miracles. The raven is then said to have dropped the arm, and a sacred spring appeared at the very spot that it hit the ground. Whatever its true origins, that spring is still there to this day and goes by the name of St Oswald’s Well. However, according to historians, his true place of death is more likely to be much further north.
In days gone by, church floors were nothing more than earth, and so were covered in sweet-smelling rushes to absorb the muck and odours that were brought in on the feet of the faithful. These rushes were changed once a year in a ceremony known as a ‘Rush Bearing Festival’. Parishioners would parade through the village, usually on or around the church’s saint’s day, and the new rushes would be placed in the church, followed by a special service. The practice died out in the 19th century as stone flags replaced earthen floors. However, it survived in some villages including Kirkoswald in Cumbria, where St Oswald is reputed to have preached. Incidentally, my dad was village bobby in Oswaldkirk, which means ‘Church of St Oswald’, and became ‘Aidensfield’ in his ‘Constable’ (Heartbeat) books.
Today, though, only five Cumbrian villages still have a rush bearing festival and these are Ambleside, Great Musgrave, Urswick, Warcop and Grasmere, whose church is also dedicated to St Oswald. In fact, William Wordsworth and his family are buried in the graveyard, and while he was alive, the great poet himself is said to never have never missed a rush bearing ceremony.
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This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 24th July and the Gazette & Herald on 22nd July 2020