On the north side of Haltwhistle's Main Street stands the imposing, butter-coloured Centre of Britain Hotel. The name is significant, for the town of Haltwhistle lays claim to being at the centre of Britain. It isn't the only place to make such a claim, and it is possible to come up with different centre points depending on your starting assumptions. But if you include the Western Isles, North Rona and all of the Orkney Islands (and exclude Shetland), then you can indeed conclude that Haltwhistle is at the centre of Britain.
Haltwhistle is an attractive town standing back a little from the north bank of the River South Tyne. The name is fascinating, but sadly has nothing at all to do with the arrival here of the Newcastle to Carlisle railway in 1838. The considerable age of the town is reflected in a variety of early spellings of its name: Hautwesel in 1240; Hautwysel in 1254; Hawtewysill in 1279; and Haltwesell in 1610. This probably reflects the early tendency to write names, of both places and people, as they were heard by the person doing the writing.
The real origin of the name probably lies in the Old English heafod twisella meaning something like a "high tongue of land overlooking the confluence of two rivers". This is a pretty good description of the location of Haltwhistle, on ground rising from the River South Tyne to the south and the Haltwhistle Burn to the east. The Old English origin of the name suggests that there was a settlement here in Anglo-Saxon times. This also ties in with the suggestion in some sources that the Church of the Holy Cross, though in its current form largely built in the 1200s, might stand on a site used for religious worship as far back as as the 600s.
At the heart of Haltwhistle stands its Market Square. Haltwhistle was granted the right for weekly markets to be held by King John in 1207, and in 1306 King Edward I, who stayed in the town while en route to hammer the Scots, added the right to hold two fairs each year. As a result Haltwhistle became an important regional trading centre. The Market Square was also the location of the town gallows. These were most recently used in 1597 when a young local girl was hung for the crime of marrying a Scotsman. Her husband was also hung.
Conflict between England and Scotland had flared up at the end of the 1200s, and continued for centuries. By the late 1500s the main problem was less about the relationship between these two neighbouring nations, and more about the complete breakdown of the rule of law and order across the areas on both sides of the border. The result was "the border reivers", a romantic description for bands of Scottish and English bandits who indulged in raids across the border (and on neighbours on their own side of the border) to steal livestock and anything else of value. In 1598 the Armstrongs of Liddesdale descended on Haltwhistle and caused considerable damage.
A widespread response on the English side of the border to the insecurity was the building of "bastle houses", well built stone houses intended to be easy to defend and provide accommodation for a family and their livestock. Haltwhistle has the highest number of surviving bastle houses in England, though you would be hard pressed today to spot them, as most have long since been significantly altered and incorporated into apparently more modern buildings, especially in the area of the Market Square. The last well preserved bastle in Haltwhistle, on Castle Hill (the name being all that remains of Haltwhistle's castle), was demolished in 1963.
The arrival of the railway in 1838 transformed Haltwhistle. Quarrying and mining had taken place in the area at least as far back as the Romans, who had built Hadrian's Wall a mile and a half to the north in the years from AD122. But the availability of cheap transport meant that the valley of the Haltwhistle Burn underwent an industrial revolution all of its own. At the height of activity there were limekilns, quarries, coalmines, woollen mills, dyeworks, a gasworks, a brewery and even, from 1856 to 1860, a short lived ironworks complete with blast furnaces. This heritage is reflected in the presence of a large whinstone block in the Market Square. In more recent times Haltwhistle's industry has been located to the south of the centre of the town itself, on the north bank of the River South Tyne.
Until as recently as 1997, the main A69 went through the southern side of Haltwhistle, though it avoided the heart of the town. Since then a new bypass has carried through traffic in an arc to the south of the river, leaving a quieter and more pleasant town behind it.
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