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The Winlaton Story

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Part 1.  Winlaton in the Beginning

At the beginning of history as we know it, there is not enough direct evidence to suggest the existence of a village community starting from the period of the stone age, but there is quite a lot of indirect evidence to show that Winlaton's commencement as a village began in the days when our ancestors were performing their daily chores wearing animal skins as clothing.

Flint scrapers have been dug up from time to time in various parts of the village, mostly in the area of Parkgate Lane and California. In the same area there has been found traces of what could have been a flint worker's workshop with flint chippings in great abundance lying as though they had just been dropped during the manufacture of whatever implement was being constructed.

If there was no settlement in Winlaton in the Stone Age, there have been plenty of archaeological finds in the surrounding district, indicating that man was already making his presence felt, and that the area was not unknown to him. A fine specimen of a stone age axe has been found at Whickham, with burials on Summer Hill at Blaydon, and various dug-out canoes and other sundry but interesting objects have been taken from the River Tyne from time to time. There is also to be seen today, on the north side of Ryton Church, a tumulus, or burial mound, which has never been explored. This tumulus and most of the objects taken from the Tyne probably date from the Bronze Age. If one feels energetic, a stroll through Winlaton Mill to Clockburn Lonnen will show a road which is pre-Roman. This road as seen now cannot have changed much since those days, leading as it does from the hill at Fellside down to the ford at Winlaton Mill, then up to Winlaton and across to the ford at Newburn. All ancient British roads conformed to this pattern, always going directly from hill-top to hill-top, allowing travellers to see if there was any pursuit after a raid or whether an ambush was prepared in the distance.

After man had entered into the Bronze Age, he found that with better tools he could cultivate more land with a bronze plough blade than he could with a stick which merely scratched the ground. As most of the country was covered with forest, this naturally had to be cleared, and the best and fastest way of doing this was to burn it. As the years rolled by and perhaps some migration occurred, re-forestation would naturally begin to take place. Now birch was the tree which grew again most quickly after forest clearance, and we have an abundance of birch woods around Winlaton, even the name is perpetuated in Birch Gate, on the road leading from Winlaton to Winlaton Mill. Is it possible that this covering of birch trees points to a settlement of Bronze Age farmers in the area? It is very probable that it does.

About 1934, a cup and ring marked rock was found embedded in a wall near to the road to Greenside, on what is locally known as Sandy Banks. These rocks are very common in Northumberland, but are practically unknown in County Durham. They are usually found on the site of prehistoric fields. The carvings inscribed on these rocks were no doubt, to increase the fertility of the soil and for the gods to grant good fortune and good weather. All is not known about other connections to the gods these rocks had, but it is possible something more sinister was involved including human sacrifice to ensure success to crops.

One local historian has upheld the theory that a branch of the Watling Street, ran from Coalburns through Winlaton, to connect up with the Wrekendyke at Gateshead. This theory, though very plausible, has never been proven. In the last few years we have had housing and opencast coal activities proceeding all around the villages concerned, but no traces of any Roman roads have been uncovered, which surely must have been the case if the roads had been there to discover. The Romans would not have been unfamiliar with the district however, being as it was then, near the frontier area. Indeed, anyone standing on the north side of Winlaton, would for hundreds of years, see the campfires of the garrison twinkling nightly on Hadrian's Wall. Probably patrols, or hunting parties from the wall's garrison made periodic forays through the countryside, especially in times of unrest. Possibly they would come from the cavalry station at Benwell, across the ford at Newburn, to patrol the Derwent Valley up to the station at Ebchester.

After the Romans' departure from these shores, from over the North Sea came, not an invasion, but a wholesale immigration, the Saxons. Finding that the soil of their own country could not support a growing population, these large limbed blonde men, who for many years had given Roman coastguards a lean time, packed up their household goods, and with their families arrived to form the basis of the English nation of today.

Although they came to settle, the Saxons did not, as is commonly thought, kill off all the local Celtic inhabitants. Some they would dispose of, if they wanted the land which was already occupied. Others would be kept as slaves, and others would probably intermingle with the invaders so that after a few generations they would all be classed as one race.

Settlements usually grew up on a low bridging point of a river. or on a cross-road, and likeliest place for a Saxon settlement in the Parish of Winlaton would be at Winlaton Mill. The Derwent was navigable as far as Swalwell Bridge, then a short expedition along the banks of the river would bring the immigrants to exactly what they were looking for, a sheltered, well-wooded valley, with a flat floor about a quarter of a mile wide, and most important, fertile agricultural soil which is still noted today for its qualities, also an abundance of fish and game with a plentiful supply of water. Usually the Saxons settled one family in one place, systematically spreading out into the surrounding countryside when the family grew up and increased in number.

The name of the River Derwent is Celtic in its origin, and finding it easy on the tongue and pleasant to the ear the new arrivals left it unaltered. Derwent, means in Celtic, abounding in oaks. In fact, Derwent is the only Celtic name left in our area, all of the other place-names being of Saxon or Norse origin. About the year 750-800 the men with the winged hats arrived (the Danes or Norse Men) first to loot, but when they saw how prosperous the Saxons were, many stayed. They brought with them more names which have remained with us to the present day. One of the names descending from them is Axwell, meaning sheds made from oaks, and all around Winlaton we have these Norse names, Norman's Riding, Barlow and Swalwell, and many others.

One of the most intriguing names of our territory is one that has caused many arguments. On the south side of Winlaton is a wood which is wrongly called by many local inhabitants Lamb's Wood. Its correct title according to the Ordnance Survey is Lands Wood. This itself is a corruption of the old Norse name of Launds Wood. Laund being translated into today's meaning gives the information that the wood was a sacred grove or copse where religious rites were carried out. Now this gives us another puzzle, was this a reference to something that happened in Celtic times, such as a meeting place of the Druids and had been handed down in folk-lore of the district, or was it referring to the Norsemen themselves - a place where they had their village Moot? Of course we will never know whether the Druids held religious rites here or whether the English dispensed their justice in this romantic little spot, for the first documentary evidence we have is in 1086 when reference is first made to the Manor of Winlaton, which we will look into in another edition.

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© Copyright 1971, R. Anderson

First published in The Bellman (the Blaydon Urban District Council newsletter) No 16, October 1969.