Towering appeal

The house I visited with a 14th century peel tower still standing. The slits, through which residents would have fired arrows to defend themselves against their enemies, are clearly visible at the top.

As part of my travels recently I had the pleasure of visiting a house that still had an in-tact peel tower, a squarish fortified construction over three floors, with the third being open to the elements. Constructed in the 14th century, it was an essential tool for protection against any invaders, particularly the Scots, who regularly marched south in their quest to gain independence from the English in the 13th and 14th centuries. They are a particular feature of the north of England and Scotland, and especially prevalent along the border counties. Having said that, not many original full towers still exist, because when James VI of Scotland became James I of England in 1603, uniting the Scottish and English crowns, he ordered that they be destroyed as a symbol of the end of conflict. Many ruins now dot the landscape along the border.

Sometimes called a ‘pele’ tower, this building is like a small fortified castle, built specifically to aid defence. Often over several floors, the windowless ground floor would usually be used for storage, holding enough supplies to withstand a sustained siege, but also with room to keep livestock while under attack. The first floor would usually be a kitchen and dining room, and any subsequent floors would be living and sleeping quarters. The walls were incredibly thick, some up to eight feet, and the upper floors could only be accessed by a ladder which would be drawn up when necessary.

In the example that I saw, which was attached to a private house in Bolton-on-Swale, the top floor had no roof, but was surrounded by a high wall which would allow the residents to stay shielded while keeping a bird’s eye view on what was going on for miles around. Each of the four walls had two narrow slits integrated into them so that arrows could be fired down on any marauding enemies.

I did wonder how these towers came across their name, and pondered the question when I visited my family. As usual, my brother put forward an interesting suggestion. The top floor, he said, was equipped with a bell, and when the enemy was spotted approaching, the alarm would be raised by the peels of the bell ringing out across the surrounding land. The warning would be heard by nearby residents who would be alerted and so able to prepare themselves, and if they too owned a peel tower, they would sound their own bell, and so the message would be relayed from village to village.

However, I also read that the very early versions of these towers would have been topped by a tall fence called a palisade which was made from wooden spikes called ‘pales’ and that is where the words ‘peel’ and ‘pele’ come from. So which is right?

My research also revealed that it wasn’t just bells that were used to sound the alarm. Some homeowners would light fires at the top of the towers which would have the same effect as lighting a beacon at the top of hill, and the flames could be seen from miles around, warning your allies that the opponents were approaching.

Obviously, peel towers were not owned by your average man, but were the preserve of rich English landowners and Scottish lairds, and in later centuries, when the threats of invasion had disappeared, these towers became a symbol of wealth and were added on to a country house as a display of status, its original purpose no longer being necessary.

In my dad’s column from 27th June 1981, he talks about the Yorkshire dialect word ‘lair’ and I wondered if it was connected to the word ‘laird’ but it seems not. Laird means ‘landed proprietor’  and is the Scottish version of ‘Lord’ with no apparent no connection to our dialect word at all. On the other hand, ‘lair’ in Old English meant ‘bed’ or ‘resting place’, and similar words exist in Old Norse, Dutch and German. Barns would have a space at one end for the labourers to sleep on a wooden platform strewn with hay or straw. It was often separated by a wooden partition and was known as a ‘lair’.

Over time, the barns themselves were referred to as ‘lairs’ by Yorkshire folk, although the word has largely fallen out of use now. Unless you know different?

Contact me, and read more, at Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 2nd July and the Gazette & Herald on 30th June  2021

Never too old – A fond farewell to Hannah

Hannah Hauxwell, who has died aged 91
Yorkshireman Henry Jenkins is said to have lived until he was 169 years old
Henry Jenkins’ grave stone at St Mary’s Church, Bolton-on-Swale

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 16th February 2018, & the Gazette & Herald on 14th February 2018.

I was saddened to hear that Daleswoman Hannah Hauxwell passed away on January 31st. Hannah rose to fame in the 1970s following the Yorkshire Television documentary ‘Too Long A Winter’ which filmed her arduous existence on her remote farm in Baldersdale. Her everyday struggles against the elements with no running water or electricity touched the nation, and her lovely, engaging personality led to several books and further TV appearances.

She left the farm and moved to a nearby cottage in the late 1980s, but, because the land surrounding it had been cultivated using traditional methods for so long, it was taken over by the Durham Wildlife Trust and is now a nature reserve and Site of Special Scientific Interest, known as Hannah’s Meadow.

Hannah’s hardy lifestyle may have contributed to her living to the ripe old age of 91, but, as my dad reveals in his column of 16th February 1978, there is a legend of a Yorkshireman who outlived her by an incredible 78 years! Henry Jenkins is said to have been born in Ellerton-on-Swale in 1501, and the Bolton parish records show he died on December 9th 1670. Unfortunately, births did not have to be registered until 1538, so the claim cannot be verified, but there are several reasons why they are believed, and why Jenkins deserves his memorial at St Mary’s Church in Bolton-on-Swale.

We know most of his young life was spent in agriculture, and as an adult he earned a living as a thatcher and fisherman, although was always a poor man. The most reliable account comes from Anne Saville, who was visiting her sister, Elizabeth Wastell, at Bolton Old Hall. She was intrigued by the elderly gentlemen who wandered into the kitchen asking for alms. Anne, who was well educated, wrote a letter to Dr Tancred Robinson, fellow of the Royal Society, explaining what she had heard from the old man. He authenticated her account and published it in the Society’s Philosophical Transactions, suggesting further investigation into how Jenkins had lived so long.

Anne had asked Jenkins how old he was, and he’d replied that he was around 162 or 163. She writes: “I asked him what kings he remembered. He said Henry VIII. I asked him what public thing he could longest remember. He said Flodden Field. I asked him which king was there. He said , None, he was in France, and the Earl of Surrey was general.”

He went on to tell Anne how at the age of 10 or 12, he was sent to Northallerton with a cart full of arrows which was then given to a bigger boy to take to the army. Anne checked her history books and learned that the battle of Flodden Field had been fought 152 years earlier and that if he had been 10 or 12 then it really did make him around 163 years old when she spoke to him. She discovered that indeed, bows and arrows were used at Flodden Field, and that Jenkins was right about the Earl of Surrey, and that Henry VIII was indeed at Tournay in France. For an uneducated man who could neither read nor write, and one who had been questioned on the spur of the moment, his historical recollections were flawless. Anne went on to question other aged village residents, who said that since their own childhoods, Henry Jenkins had always been elderly.

Because of his age, he was often called upon to settle disputes over rights of way, and he was called to testify in such a case at York Assizes in 1620. He swore on oath to having 120 years of memory, meaning he was alive when the original dispute arose around 100 years earlier. The judge did not believe him, but after Jenkins said he was employed as a butler by Lord Conyers of Hornby Hall at the time, when they checked the records, sure enough his name was listed.

There is no way of knowing for sure how old Henry Jenkins was, but there are claims of a Bolivian living to 123 years old, an Indonesian to 145, an Ethiopian to 160, and an Azerbaijani to 168. But it is French woman Jeanne Louise Calment who holds the place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest person to have been proven to have lived for 122 years and 164 days before she died in 1997.