Sir Walter Besant, novelist and historian was the son of a Portsmouth wine merchant who went on to enjoy a very successful academic and literary career. He lived largely in London and published an impressive body of non-fiction books, many of which are detailed studies of various districts of the City. Besant was also one of the most widely read of nineteenth century fiction writers, with forty-six novels to his name. Of all these titles, his own favourite, was ’Dorothy Forster’ (1884) about a Northumberland heroine whose family estates included Blanchland.
The village of Blanchland is a picturesque cluster of cottages set in a remote corner of the Derwent valley. It was developed around 250 years ago on the site of a medieval monastery, using the same layout and incorporating the remains of the original buildings. The Lord Crewe Arms was partly the Abbot’s Lodge, partly the guest-house, and partly the abbey kitchen. The vast fireplace in the present-day lounge was used by the monks for smoking meat.
The early sections of Besant’s novel are set here in Blanchland, although the author takes some liberties with the events of Dorothy’s life. Dorothy’s brother Tom, known as the ’General’ of the English army, had enlisted to fight for the Stuart cause during the 1715 Jacobite rising. When government troops who were searching for him, arrived at Blanchland he is said to have hidden in the priesthole, inside the great fireplace. However, he was later captured and taken to London’s Newgate Prison to await trial for treason.
Disguised as a servant, Dorothy rode pillion to London behind a village blacksmith and extricated her brother in a daring operation involving duplicate keys. Her adventurous escapade enabled Tom to flee to France. The resourceful Dorothy then further outwitted the authorities by arranging for a coffin (purporting to contain Tom’s corpse) to be filled with sawdust and placed in the family vault at Bamburgh.
Dorothy’s aunt and namesake married Nathaniel, Lord Crewe, Bishop of Durham (1674 - 1721), whose portrait by Kneller hangs in the Lord Crewe Arms. It was the Crewe trustees who fashioned the idyllic village you see today. The inn has a unique interior and its 12th Century links with the past are widely visible. Stunning stone fireplaces, ancient timber beams, stone flag floors and many more period features contribute to the authentic atmosphere and individual charm. And, as you might expect, Dorothy’s ghost is said to haunt the Bamburgh Room – you have been warned.