The beautiful village of Elsdon stands on the winding B6341, some three miles east of Otterburn, and ten miles south west of Rothbury. What you find is a ring of light honey coloured stone buildings set around the perimeter of a huge teardrop shaped village green that slopes gently downhill from north to south. Set within a walled enclosure in the northern half of the green is St Cuthbert's Church.
Most of the village stands on the west side of the Elsdon Burn as it flows towards its confluence with the River Rede, a couple of miles to the south west. As you approach from Otterburn, one of the striking features of the village is its setting, within a natural amphitheatre formed by the surrounding low hills. Immediately to the north east of Elsdon, on the far side of the Elsdon Burn, are the earthworks of a motte and bailey castle which marks the entry of the village into recorded history. This is sometimes referred to as Elsdon Castle, though in the absence of any structures above ground, the area is more usually referred to as the Mote Hills.
There is evidence of settlement in the area from prehistoric times, and the Romans also left their mark on Redesdale. Nonetheless, the starting point for the story of Elsdon can be taken as 10 July 1076. This was the date on a charter granting the Lordship of Redesdale to Robert de Umfraville, Lord of Tours and Vian, who was a kinsman of William the Conqueror. The Normans were keen to secure their grip on northern England in the decades following the Conquest, and much of it was parcelled out to supporters and relatives of William I.
Robert de Umfraville, also known as "Robert with the Beard", set out to dominate Redesdale by building Elsdon Castle in around 1080. At about the same time he built St Cuthbert's Church in Elsdon, on the site now occupied by a replacement built mainly in the 1300s. Today's Elsdon seems something of a backwater. It wasn't always so: in medieval times it stood on the main overland route from Newcastle to Edinburgh.
Elsdon Castle's original wooden structures may have been partly replaced in stone in the early 1100s, but it seems that the castle fell into disuse after Henry II regained Northumberland from Scotland in 1157. The de Umfraville family was asked by the king to build a new stronghold at Harbottle Castle, seven miles to the north, in 1160, and once it was completed Elsdon Castle no longer had a role.
In the 1300s the church was rebuilt, on a scale which suggests it served a significant local population. At around the same time a "vicar's pele", or fortified tower to house the vicar, was built nearby at the north end of the village. This was rebuilt in the 1500s and in this form it survives today as Elsdon Tower. Elsdon remained a significant focal point of a large rural area, and an important staging post on the main road into Scotland. Large droves of cattle en route from Scotland into England would pass through the village, and graze on the huge village green. A relic of this time is the pinfold, a circular enclosure at the south end of the green used to house stray sheep and cows. The droving trade diminished significantly in the first half of the 1800s, before virtually disappearing altogether with the coming of the railways.
Elsdon found itself bypassed when a new road to Scotland was built in the 1830s, on a line later followed by the A696 which passed a couple of miles south of the village. Until this happened, Elsdon had been a significant coaching halt. A cottage on the south east side of the green carries a large statue of Bacchus sitting on a barrel above the door. This was originally "The Bacchus", a coaching inn.
Both it and another coaching in, "The Crown", are long gone, but today's Elsdon still offers those passing through a pub, the "Bird in Bush", offering food, drink and accommodation; the excellent Elsdon Tea Room which doubles as a local tourist information centre; and The Coach House, another tea room, whose name suggests a coaching heritage.
On the green not far from the Bird in Bush, a plaque stands in front of a tree marking the site of the village bird-fighting pit. Here birds would have been set to fight one another for sport and to provide opportunities for gambling. On another part of the green is the bull baiting stone, to which bulls would have been tethered while "baited" by dogs. Both activities were outlawed in England in 1835.
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