The west-facing flanks of the Cumbrian Pennine hills are known as the East Fellside. You might think this is a bit puzzling, but the name relates to the geography of the Eden Valley and not the Pennines.
The Pennines run from north Derbyshire to the Cheviot Hills of Northumberland, with the highest point being Cross Fell at 893 m.
A low ridge of land lies between the river Eden and the Pennines. Along it can be traced the ghostly footings of several prehistoric stone circles and standing stones. Sometimes, these circles can be seen in their entirety as at Long Meg and Her Daughters, whilst others have almost entirely disappeared because of agricultural clearances. Examples of these lost circles include Broomrigg, Glassonby and the once huge Grey Yauds circle, of which only one stone remains.
At the foot of the slope is a string of villages – Castle Carrock, Cumrew, Newbiggin, Croglin, Renwick, Gamblesby, Melmerby, Milburn, Knock, Dufton, Murton and Hilton – all located near fast-flowing streams tumbling down from the fellside. Their names are redolent of the first inhabitants of the area – ancient Britons, Anglo-Saxons, Norse settlers and the Normans.
Life was tough on the East Fellside. The soils were of poorer quality than the fertile loams of the river Eden, and villagers also had to contend with the notorious Helm Wind. This meteorological phenomenon is peculiar to the Pennines. Under certain conditions, a long cigar-shaped cloud forms (called the Helm Bar) that gusts down the escarpment with a characteristic roar or howl. Doors were barred and windows were shut to keep out the noise and the wind. Many houses face away from the wind and often have no rear windows facing the fellside.
BANISHING THE DEMON
And there’s more… Cross Fell was not the original name of the highest point. It was previously known as Fiend’s Fell because of the belief that only the devil could inflict such climatic torture on the villagers. It is said that in the early 7th century, Saint Augustine erected a cross on the highest point to banish the demon. Thereafter, Fiend’s Fell was known as Cross Fell.
THE NEED FOR DEFENCE
In later years, first marauding Scots and then gangs of Border Reivers regularly plundered the fellside − rustling cattle, looting property and burning houses. In response, the villagers built fortifications to deter attacks. These included peles or defensive tower houses at Croglin, fortified castles at Castle Carrock and Cumrew, and bastles (fortified farms) at Newbiggin.
Several villages were designed with defence in mind. Features included a large central green to accommodate cattle and other livestock in times of trouble. Dwellings huddled together for mutual protection and narrow approaches were inserted that could be barricaded off. Farms were often located within the village bounds for security reasons.
Perhaps it was in response to the ever-present threat of attack that chilling tales of vampires and monstrous bats were generated to keep would-be invaders at bay.
The Tale of the Croglin Vampire
According to local legend, the daughter of a family living at Croglin Grange (now Low Croglin Hall) in the 1870s was attacked by a creature with a ‘hideous brown face and flaming eyes’. The family fled in fear and stayed away for several months. On their return the ‘vampire’ made a second appearance, but this time it was shot in the leg before disappearing into a nearby crypt. The next morning the crypt was opened to reveal a corpse with a fresh bullet wound in one leg.
The Tale of the Renwick Bat
When the old church at Renwick was being rebuilt in 1733, it is said that an enormous bat flew out of the ruins and scared the villagers. One man, braver than the rest, attacked it with a branch from a rowan tree and killed the creature outright, but the bat allegedly continues to haunt the churchyard to this day. Today, inhabitants of Renwick are known as Renwick Bats.
Today, the East Fellside has a peaceful serenity that belies its turbulent past. But tantalising vestiges of its historical past are there for anyone who seeks to discover them – although, in all honesty, the vampire or monster bat may be more elusive!