Northumberland - Pubs and Inns with a Literary Connection

Walter Besant (1836 - 1901)

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.

Blanchard  The Lord Crewe Arms  Walter Besant

This impressive coaching inn built around a cobbled courtyard dates in part to 1545. From the eighteenth century it was an important stop on the old York to Carlisle mail coach run. Charles Dickens and his illustrator friend Hablot K. Browne (Phiz) stayed here at Bowes in the Ancient Unicorn in February 1838 when researching the rumours of the cruel Northern boarding schools where unwanted (often illegitimate) children were abandoned to an unknown fate.
Five minutes walk away from the pub is Shaw's Academy - now converted into flats. It has a plaque which confirms it as: 'Dotheboys Hall' immortalised by Charles Dickens in Nicholas Nickleby. The wicked Wackford Squeers is modelled on William Shaw, the former headmaster. In the nearby churchyard are the headstones of Shaw and a boy called George Ashton Taylor, of Trowbridge, Wiltshire who died suddenly aged 19 years in Mr. Shaws Academy. Dickens later wrote: "I think his ghost put Smike into my mind on the spot".
Dickens was travelling incognito with documentation presenting himself as an agent for someone who wished their child to attend the Academy. It is said he met a local farmer here who tried to dissuade him from sending a child to the school. At that time the inn had a reading room which Dickens and Browne used when collating their material. There were 15 such Academies in the immediate area, 2 of them in Bowes - both now private residences located at the extreme ends of the village. Six months after Nicholas Nickleby was published a large majority of the Northumbria and Yorkshire schools closed down.
A second literary connection with the pub concerns the Scottish poet David Mallet who in 1760 published the Ballad of Edwin & Emma about a son and a daughter of rival innkeepers of Bowes - the son of Roger Wrightson fell in love with Martha Roulton to the chagrin of their families. Roger fell ill with fever and died and Martha died a few days later of a broken heart. They were both buried in the same grave much to Roger's sister's disapproval
Oak beams, a roaring fire and a handsome portrait of Charles Dickens add to the charm of the cosy bar. There is a wide range of bar snacks on offer and an a la carte menu in the candlelit dining room.

Ancient Unicorn - Bowes - Northumbria
Greta Bridge

In a letter sent to his wife in January 1838 from the Morritt Arms, Charles Dickens wrote: "We had for breakfast toast, cakes, a Yorkshire pie, a piece of beef about the size and much the shape of my portmanteau, tea, coffee, ham and eggs and we are now going to look about us " His going to look about us was a reference to his impending fact-finding mission. Dickens and his illustrator friend Hablot K. Browne (Phiz) were researching into the cruel Yorkshire boarding schools where unwanted (often illegitimate) children were abandoned to an unknown fate. The author used his experience of the winter coach journey and the material he discovered locally as background for his novel Nicholas Nickleby.
The Morritt Arms was originally called the George & New Inn - and chapter six of the novel ends: "The day dragged on uncomfortably enough, and about six o'clock that night he (Nicholas) and Mr Squeers, and the little boys, and their united luggage, were all put down together at the George and New Inn, Greta Bridge. The wicked and greedy Wackford Squeers is modelled on William Shaw, the former headmaster of Shaw's Academy in Bowes 6 miles away (see separate entry for the Ancient Unicorn Inn).
Dating back to the 17th century this solid grey-stone inn was sold as part of an estate to the Morritt family who changed the name. Built on a Roman settlement that is still visible today, the inn was the second overnight stop for the London/Carlisle mail coach. The Dickens bar has a wonderful happy atmosphere, inspired by the remarkable set of murals around the walls painted by John Gilroy (of Guinness poster fame) for his close friend Major H. E. Morritt. The work began on the 1st February 1946 and was completed within10 days. When Gilroy and his assistant proudly displayed the walls of the bar decorated with Dickensian figures, closer inspection revealed them to be caricatures of local people and staff from the hotel.
Such was the influence of Dickens's social reforming through the power of his pen that six months after Nicholas Nickleby was published a large majority of the Yorkshire boarding schools went out of business.

Morrit Arms - Greata Bridge - Northumbria

Copyright T.W. Townsend - the opinions expressed herein are those of the author and any observations were correct at the time of the review.

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