Morpeth is weathering the storm

PUBLISHED: 14:20 14 January 2013 | UPDATED: 22:37 20 February 2013

The River Wansbeck at Morpeth

The River Wansbeck at Morpeth

Morpeth has had more than its share of misery as a result of flooding in recent years but, as Andrew Smith discovers, the town is determined not to sink under the deluge

Nowhere in the North East do residents and traders look more closely at the weather forecast than in Morpeth. For this attractive and popular market town is living under the constant fear of the next heavy rainfall.

After being devastated by the worst flooding in living memory in 2008, during which 950 residential and business premises in the town were engulfed by the swollen River Wansbeck and serious flooding again as recently as last year the people of Morpeth are spending a nervous winter waiting for the promised flood defence scheme to grind its way through the planning process and for work to begin.

Lesser places would have battened down the hatches, reinforced the blockades of sandbags and waited for the normally tranquil river to be pinned back by higher and stronger fortifications.

But not Morpeth where, despite the misery of seeing homes, shops and offices ruined by putrid flood water, there remains a defiance that life should go on as normal.

Fortunately for Morpeth, it is prosperous a desirable place to live and work and the preferred choice as home for many well-to-do businesspeople from Tyneside and across Northumberland.

The spending power of residents and visitors alike helps to ensure that the shops, restaurants and other commercial outlets dont stay boarded up for long, whether by necessity through an act of nature or by design as premises change hands.

In the run up to Christmas Morpeth was every bit as thriving as in previous years and the choice for those looking for, well, anything, was as wide as ever.

Most of the quality retailers of the High Street have outlets in Morpeth, alongside a host of bespoke suppliers of everything from clothing to cream cakes.

While the beautiful Sanderson Arcade town centre development offers some degree of mall shopping, Morpeth mostly boasts a traditional kind of shopping typical of many of the regions older market towns. It brings people on to the streets in a much less samey environment than the large modern shopping centres can provide.

Theres something different and unique around every corner in Morpeth and the towns buildings and public areas are rich in history.
Along the main shopping thoroughfares of Bridge Street, Newgate Street and Oldgate can be found established businesses that have been in town for generations, notably the stylish department store of Rutherfords, founded in 1846 and still run by members of the founding family, a wide choice of pubs, hotels and restaurants, and many niche shops and boutiques, offering a choice of the unusual in services including home decoration, floral arranging, printing, photography, butchery and many more craft-based outlets.

Thankfully, the congested A1 now bypasses Morpeth but for centuries the town was an important staging post for coaches and drovers plying the Great North Road between London and Edinburgh.

Morpeth was granted to right to hold it first market in 1199 and markets continue to be held in the Market Place, opposite the Town Hall, every Wednesday. A farmers market takes place on the first Saturday of every month, maintaining a much-treasured link with the days in the mid-19th century when the cattle market at Morpeth was one of the largest in the country.

When rail travel developed, Morpeth station was one of the earlier stops to be constructed, in 1847, and it continues to offer daily services on both the East Coast main line and Cross Country services, as well as commuter services to Newcastle and the MetroCentre.

At the lower end of Bridge Street can be found the Morpeth Chantry, one of the towns most historic buildings and also one of the most vulnerable to flooding, given its proximity adjacent to the main bridge over the River Wansbeck. This also qualifies the Chantry as one of the most resilient buildings in the town it has survived for 800 years and always bounces back.

Built in the 13th century as a place for worship of the Mass and as a toll house for those wishing to cross the river by the original and long-since-replaced bridge, the Chantry was also previously a school, cholera hospital and mineral water factory.

Today it houses a unique bagpipe museum, dedicated to the Northumbrian small pipes, a craft centre, Tourist Information Centre and tearoom.

History and heritage may set Morpeth apart. However, the topic of conversation that unites everybody in this town, as in all others across the UK, is the weather. Here, of course, it will continue to be so much more important than a means to start engage in conversation until the flood defences that are promised and so urgently needed are put in place to protect this beautiful town for a further Millennium.

Until then, well continue to hold our breath.

Famous names

Notable former residents of Morpeth include Admiral Lord Collingwood, who served with Lord Nelson and who led the British fleet to victory in the Battle of Trafalgar after Nelson had been killed. His former home, Collingwood House, now serves as the presbytery for resident priests of St Robert of Newminster Church.

Emily Davison, the suffragette who died when she threw herself in front of King George Vs horse during the Epsom Derby of 1913, is buried in St Marys churchyard, Morpeth. Miss Davison was born in London but both her parents were from the Morpeth area.

Noted ornithologist and botanist William Turner, who is known as the Father of English Botany, was born in Morpeth and is remembered in a garden bearing his name in part of the towns beautiful Carlisle Park.

England international rugby player Toby Flood attended Morpeth Chantry School and Joe Robinson, who played for Blackpool in the 1948 FA Cup Final, also hailed from Morpeth.

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