Marvellous Morpeth - there's so much going on in this lovely town
PUBLISHED: 14:10 14 February 2012 | UPDATED: 21:02 20 February 2013
Morpeth has a remarkable naval, cultural and Olympic traditions, as Chris Titley discovers
When it came to writing a town motto, the people of Morpeth got it spot on: Inter Sylvas et Fluminas Habitans. Which as we all know means Between Woods and Rivers We Dwell.
If the residents had wanted a more comprehensive motto, they could have gone for Between Woods and Rivers We Not Only Dwell, but Shop at the Busy Market, Admire our Historic Buildings, put on Top Entertainment and Proudly Honour our Famous Forebears. Although they might have struggled to fit that on their coat of arms.
Morpeth sits in a curl of the River Wansbeck, and no fewer than five nature reserves are dotted around it, including Borough Woods, Scotch Gill Woods and Davies Wood.
The town began life as a crossing over the Wansbeck, but as the great architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner noted the major buildings, the castle and the parish church, developed south of the river, while the town itself grew on the north bank.
This is a curious quirk of history, explains Kim Bibby-Wilson, director of Morpeths heritage interest group.
It has a beautiful setting, in a very graceful meander of the River Wansbeck. The old town was established in the loop of the river after it had been up on the ridge.
King John decided to set fire to the town for some reason so we moved down to the river.
That has caused a few problems Kim remembers the flood in 1963 as well as that in 2008 when more than 900 homes and businesses were inundated with river water. But most of the time the river does nothing more than lend great charm to this ancient settlement.
For more than 800 years Morpeth has been a market town. You get the farmers coming in on a Wednesday for the market and the wives coming in to do their shopping, says Kim.
Its always had this sense of an agriculture centre, with market gardening, but also a little bit of industry we had an iron foundry.
Theres a lot of history here, a lot of activity here, a lot of culture here.
Morpeth looks back to the past but it also looks forward to the future.
Among the old buildings well worth a visit is the town hall, built in 1714 by John Vanbrugh, the man behind Castle Howard. In the middle of Oldgate, is the Clock Tower, still with bells in place first hung in 1706.
At the other end of Bridge Street you find the 13th century Morpeth Chantry. It was built as a chapel for priests to say prayers for the souls of the benefactors, says Kim.
If you like it was the first tourist information centre because it was the point where people were welcomed over the medieval bridge.
Now we do have our modern tourist information centre in there, and the craft centre down below.
On the first floor is the bagpipe museum where you can listen to Northumbrian pipes and their equivalents from around the world.
Another building inextricably linked with the fortunes of British history is Collingwood House on Oldgate. It was home to the great naval leader Admiral Lord Collingwood. When Lord Nelson was killed at Trafalgar, it was Collingwood who took command and saw out the victory.
When he was at home, he extended the house. He created this long walkway and called it his quarterdeck, so he could walk along and view the river as if he were on board his ship, said Kim. At the bottom he built a summerhouse which he called his poop deck.
Morpeth is also the last resting place of Emily Davison, the suffragette who died after being trampled by the kings horse in the 1913 Derby. In a funeral procession which drew huge crowds, her body was taken from the railway station to St Marys Church in a horse drawn hearse.
There are plans to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Emily Davisons death next year with a series of events in the town.
Before that, theres the annual cultural jamboree known as the Morpeth Northumbrian Gathering. Kims father was the chairman of the committee which organised the first event in 1968.
The Gathering is a festival of music, crafts, dance and storytelling, where the focus is on the native arts of Northumberland. Kim has succeeded her father as organiser and says the three-day extravaganza, taking place this year between April 13 and 15, celebrates the areas intangible cultural heritage things like the music, the dialect, social customs.
You cant turn back history but you can celebrate the things that are there and evolve new traditions.
One of these traditions is the Gathering procession. Ive been dressed up as Collingwood a few times during the parade through the town, says Phil Taylor. But I wont be dressed as Collingwood this year because Ill be taking the salute.
Thats because Phil is the mayor. And what a year to be in office when Morpeth gets one over on London 2012 by harking back to its own Olympic Games. They started in the 1870s, preceding the official founding of the modern Olympics by 20 years or more.
It was an annual athletics event which ran right through to 1958 and attracted competitors from far and wide, with prize money on offer to the winners. According to a poster from the games held in Mount Hags Field, Morpeth, in August 1928, winners of the 110 yards foot handicap stood to take home 100, with 45 going to the wrestling champion and 5 for the hop, step and jump victor.
This year the Gathering will adopt the Olympics as one of its themes. No wonder Phil describes Morpeth as very special.
The town has quite a heritage. We have the oldest working mace in Britain, from 1604. It was presented to the town by the Howards of Naworth.
We still use it ceremonially. If I go out of the town hall I have to be preceded by the mace bearer.
With so much history, a bustling market and a lively cultural life, it seems that theres a lot more to Morpeth than its motto.
Three things to do
The Sanctuary Wildlife Care Centre is open over winter for pre-booked tours and parties. The centre the largest of its kind in the North East is home to around 150 animals, both unwanted pets and others brought in from the wild, such as two young squirrels whose nest was blown out of a tree in winter storms. Go to www.wildlife-sanctuary.co.uk for more.
Take in a concert at the Methodist Church on Howard Terrace. On Thursday February 2nd Morpeth Music Society will present the London Haydn Quartet playing music by Beethoven Haydn and Mozart and on Thursday March 1st pianist Joanna McGregor will perform. All concerts begin at 7.30pm. For details go to www.morpeth-musoc.org.uk.
The Cheese Shop on Oldgate sells more than 150 types of cheese, as well as biscuits, chutneys, preserves and cakes.
For more information visit Morpeth Tourist information Centre in Chantry Place. 01670 535200.