Rothbury is an extremely attractive small town in Northumberland. It is the main settlement in Coquetdale, the valley of the River Coquet, and focal point for a large rural area. It can be found some 13 miles north-west of Morpeth and 11 miles south-west of Alnwick. Rothbury is missed by the main through routes that traverse Northumberland and as a result is less well known than it deserves to be.
Some visitors do discover Rothbury while making their way from Redesdale and the A68 to the coast, but most who come here do so because of a house that stands on a hillside a mile to the east of the town. Cragside was the country retreat of William Armstrong, 1st Baron Armstrong, a man who made his name and his fortune in the manufacture of armaments and warships in Newcastle. Cragside was built during the 1860s, and Armstrong applied his engineering knowhow to the development of the estate. As a result, the estate became home to the world's first hydro-electric generating station, and Cragside became the first house in the world to be lit by power from that source. Today it is in the care of the National Trust.
William Armstrong was buried in Rothbury, in the graveyard on the opposite side of Church Street to All Saints Church. He also left his mark on the town in a number of other ways, and an "Armstrong Trail" allows visitors to explore his legacy, including the cottages built to house retired workers from the estate, and a row of almshouses. Perhaps the most striking reminder of William Armstrong, other than Cragside itself, is the beautiful Armstrong Cross, also sometimes referred to as the Rothbury Cross.
This stands in the small triangular park, traditionally the market place, at the centre of Rothbury. This had once been the location of Rothbury's market cross, an open sided building erected in 1722 intended to give shelter from the elements to those who had come here to trade. It was demolished as unsafe in 1827. Nearby was the site of the village stocks.
The Armstrong Cross was made from sandstone from the Cragend quarry on the Cragside estate, and stands 22ft 7in tall. It is beautifully and intricately carved, and carries an inscription commemorating William Armstrong and his wife Margaret. The triangular park in which it stands is a good place from which to begin any exploration of Rothbury. It stands at the eastern end of a very broad, open area, in which the High Street is divided into upper and lower levels separated by a wooded slope. Most of the shops are found on the upper side of the road.
If you continue to the west you pass the Library and Coquetdale Arts Centre, while nearby is the imposing Rothbury House. This is operated by the RAF Association and RAF Benevolent Fund as a respite care home, and when we visited, Rothbury's link with the RAF was reflected by the large set of RAF Association wings on display in the "island" between the two halves of the High Street. Also set between the two halves of the High Street is the town's war memorial.
If you head in the other direction, past the attractive Newcastle Hotel, the High Street becomes Town Foot. The north side of this is home to the Queen's Head. What is particularly nice is the survival in Rothbury of a number of independent shops, most notably J.R. Soulsby and Sons, a wonderful toy shop of the sort that was rather more common elsewhere 50 years ago. At the far end of Town Foot is Rothbury Motors, a garage which looks today very much as it did when it was built in 1913. Sadly when we visited it was carrying "To Let" signs. The original workshop of the garage was moved to become the garage at Beamish, the Living Museum of the North.
Extending south from Town Foot is Bridge Street. Here you find Rothbury's post office and the Railway Hotel, as well as the rather fine Harley's Tea Room. Bridge Street leads to Rothbury Bridge, which today carries the B6342 over the River Coquet and which has medieval origins under more modern construction. It is possible to loop back to your starting point from Bridge Street along Haw Hill and Church Street.
As the name implies, Church Street is dominated by All Saints Church. Though adopting a style suggestive of the 1300s, much of the building you see today dates back to a rebuild in the late 1840s. Its origins are, however, very much older. A short distance from the church, and almost back at the Armstrong Cross, is the fine building housing the Coquetdale Centre, which houses Rothbury's tourist information centre.
There seems a strong case for believing that an Anglo-Saxon village existed on the site now occupied by Rothbury as early as the years around 800. This is the approximate date of a wonderful stone cross, possibly the earliest to have been found in England, whose shaft still forms the base of the font in All Saints Church, and which strongly suggests that the first church on the site was at least as early as that. Rothbury first enters recorded history in about 1095, when it was a royal estate in the possession of King William II. At that time the name was given as Routhebiria. One (of several) theories for the origin of this is as "the town of Hrotha", after a local Anglo-Saxon lord of earlier centuries.
Some time in the early 1100s a royal castle was built here, on the north bank of the River Coquet guarding the point at which it was forded, and close to the church. This seems to have later been replaced by a tower house, parts of which were still occupied in 1850. All traces of the castle were swept away in 1869 to make room for a graveyard to the south-west of the church. In 1291 Rothbury was sufficiently important to be granted a charter by King Edward I allowing it to hold a weekly market. It appears to have thrived though the middle ages, despite the regular attentions in the 1400s and 1500s of border reivers, who turned a wide swathe of land on both sides of the border with Scotland into bandit country.
In the 1750s Rothbury benefitted from the development of the "Corn Road", a route for agricultural produce that began in Hexham and concluded at the port of Alnmouth. This led to improvements in 1759 to the medieval stone bridge over the River Coquet on the site of the still earlier ford. In 1788 Rothbury gained its own fire engine, following a number of serious fires in the town.
In the mid 1800s, Rothbury was still almost exclusively a town on the north bank of the river. This began to change in 1870 when it became the terminus of the Northumberland Central Railway, with a station on the south side of the river at the end of a line which linked back to Morpeth and beyond. The station was closed to passengers in 1952, and to all traffic in 1963. Today the site of the station forms part of an industrial estate.