Wooler is a small town standing on the line of the A697 from Morpeth to the Scottish Border at Coldstream, which forms a scenic alternative to the more usual routes north or south through Northumberland. Wooler is known as the gateway to the Cheviots, the line of rounded hills which rise to the west and whose highest point is the 815m or 2,674ft summit of The Cheviot, exactly seven miles south-west of the town.
The Cheviots arguably form the northern end of The Pennines, the hills which run the length of the spine of northern England. As such they are traversed by the northernmost section of the Pennine Way long distance footpath, and while this concludes at Kirk Yetholm, on the north-western side of the hills, Wooler is a focal point for those wishing to explore the eastern side of the hills on foot.
It is also an ideal base from which to tour the northern section of the Northumberland National Park, whose boundary passes within a mile of the western edge of the town.
Wooler is the only market town serving Glendale, the valley of the River Glen, which flows down from the Cheviots before meeting the River Till in the unusually flat Millfield Plain, which opens out to the north of Wooler. In prehistoric times this fertile area was home to the Lake of Glendale.
The town of Wooler itself is laid out on a hillside on the west side of the Wooler Water, another tributary of the River Till. These days anyone driving along the A697 follows a bypass built around the east and north of the centre of the town, which as a result is pleasantly relieved of through traffic but remains very bustling nonetheless. Taking the slight diversion into the centre of the town is very worthwhile, if only to enjoy a place of considerable charm and character.
The focal point of the town is the Market Place, which broadens out from the south-eastern end of the High Street. The combined car park and bus station stands off to one side of this, opposite The Red Lion and next to the equally imposing Black Bull Hotel. If you want one really obvious sign of Wooler's importance as a market town and a waypoint on an important routes into Scotland, it is the number of good looking traditional pubs and hotels to be found in the heart of the town.
Today's visitors pausing in Wooler are as likely to be attracted by the cafes on offer. Two stand on the north side of the Market Place. The Terrace Cafe is one. We found ourselves enjoying an excellent breakfast in the other, The Market Place Cafe, which comes complete with free WiFi, simply because it was the first we stumbled over after parking at the end of an early morning drive down to Northumberland. It can certainly be highly recommended.
One of the especially nice things about Wooler is the range of traditional shops lining the High Street. The names you expect to see adorning pretty much any high street in the UK these days are largely absent, barring a small Co-Op shop, and instead you have shops such as "James B Bird, The Glendale Pharmacy"; "Brand Bookseller, Stationer and Newsagent"; "Hamish Dunn Antiques and Curios" which seems to double as a second hand book shop; "Glendale Paints, Household, Electrical and Ironmongery"; "The Chocolate Box, Sweets and Confectionery"; and "Thompson Opticians" which actually appears to be a clothes shop. We would be hard pressed to think of anywhere else which retains such a high proportion of independent "non chain" shops.
There is more to Wooler than just shops, pubs and cafes, however. Standing on the lower side of the Market Place at the top of, appropriately, Church Street, is the Church of St Mary, built in 1765. A little further uphill, in Cheviot Street, is the United Reformed Church, built in 1784. This stands close to the Glendale Hall, once the town's Methodist Chapel. Near the north-west end of the High Street is St Ninian's Roman Catholic Church, built in 1865. Close to St Ninian's is Wooler's most imposing house. "Loreto" was built in about 1800 for Sir Horace St Paul of Ewart Park, who became Member of Parliament for, oddly, Bridport in Dorset.
Settlement in the area can be dated back to the Bronze Age, but the origins of Wooler itself seem to date back to the early years of the 1100s. It took the Normans some time following the Conquest of 1066 to impose their authority on northern England, and the route they chose to do so was to divide the countryside up into baronies, each of which was awarded to a follower of Henry I.
Northumberland was carved up into 21 feudal baronies. The Barony of Wooler was awarded in 1107 to Robert Muschamp, who must have had mixed views at being awarded one of the most dangerous places in England. Not only did he have the native Anglo-Saxons to gain and maintain control over, but there was also the ever present danger of Scottish incursions over the nearby border. Muschamp would have arrived in Wooler accompanied by a group of trusted knights. His first step would have been to gain firm control of the barony, an area measuring almost 20 miles from east to west and nearly ten from north to south.
In typical Norman fashion, one of Muschamp's first moves was to build himself a secure foothold in the form of Wooler Castle. This stood on what is now known as Tower Hill or "The Tory", a steep sided promontory which can be found just downhill from St Mary's Church. Today this forms a small public park topped off by the town's war memorial. Lying close to the top of the hill are large chunks of masonry, which appear to be all that remains of a stone tower house built on the site in about 1500.
Wooler was ideally placed to suffer from the attentions of passing armies or simply of cross-border raiders during the three centuries of Anglo Scottish conflict between about 1300 and 1600, and the Battle of Homildon Hill (or Humbleton Hill) took place two miles to the north-west on 14 September 1402. The town nonetheless continued to grow over the centuries, despite a serious setback when fire destroyed much of it in 1722.
It was rebuilt on a bigger and better scale, and by the 1821 Census, Wooler had 1830 residents, living in 315 houses. It held weekly markets for the sale of agricultural produce, particularly corn and there were also less frequent markets for the sale of livestock. In 1887 Wooler gained a railway station on the Alnwick to Cornhill branch line, which remained in use until the closure of the line on 29 March 1965.