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Gilsland is a small village that straddles the border between Cumbria and Northumberland, with most of its houses in Northumberland. It is situated on Hadrian’s Wall, and is ideal for exploring the North Pennines, Eden Valley and the Scottish Borders.
The River Irthing rises in the hills around Paddaburn Moor in Border Forest Park, and for the first 15 miles of its journey south it defines the border between Northumberland and Cumbria. At Butterburn, the river flows over the ten-metre high Crammell Linn waterfall and into a sandstone gorge. After flowing through Gilsland, its course as it turns west is lined with sites from Roman Britain, including Birdoswald Fort, at the top of the steep gorge carved out by the river.
Milecastle 48 nestles between a swift-running stream, and the Tyne Valley railway line. It has always been known locally as “The King’s Stables”, and is a short walk from a small car park beside the Samson Inn, though there are 2 long sets of steps to negotiate.
The Poltross Burn is a tributary of the River Irthing, which rises on Denton Fell and flows north-east, joing the Irthing at Gilsland. The milecastle stands on the south bank, and a water mill, which probably goes back to mediaeval times, used the burn’s water to grind corn.
Apart from the Roman forts of Birdoswald and Housesteads, there are numerous other castles in the area, some occupied – Naworth and Featherstone, but most in ruins including Blenkinsopp, Thirlwall, Bellister and Bewcastle.
In 2001 a new metal bridge was built over the River Irthing at Willowford, to provide a continuous route from Gilsland to Birdoswald.
Just north of the village is Gilsland Hall Hotel (previously Gilsland Spa Hotel), much frequented in the summer, on account of its beautiful scenery, and the chalybeate and sulphur springs that issue from the rocks. The building, originally known as the Shaws, was rebuilt by George Gill Mounsey in 1865.
Gilsland Spa was established in 1901 as a convalescent home for Co-operative society members in the North of England.
Within the grounds is the Popping Stone – a group of three rounded sandstone boulders located in the Irthing Gorge. The hotel welcomes the use of its large car park and the enjoyment of the wooded grounds by visitors, particularly if they decide to take advantage of the excellent hospitality available.
Sir Walter Scott visited Gilsland in 1797, and probably stayed at Wardrew, just across the valley, from the Shaws, but would have spent a lot of time there, as that was the place where they had dances etc. After a whirlwind courtship with French émigré Margaret Charlotte Charpentier, Scott is said to have proposed at the Popping stone. They married in December 1797.
St Mary Magdalene’s Church is built in Early English style. It is set in beautiful rural surroundings and was built and partially endowed by George Gill Mounsey who also erected what is now the Gilsland Spa Hotel.
About three miles north of Gilsland in Spadeadam Forest is RAF Spadeadam, an electronic warfare training base, where aircraft attempt to approach without being picked up on various kinds of radar. There is a bombing range, although this is rarely used now. The site was previously the Spadeadam Rocket Establishment. This was opened in the 1950s as a test area for the British Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile (Blue Streak). The Blue Streak rocket program was initiated in 1954, and cancelled in 1960, with the first firing in 1959.
Orchard House was built around 1653 – “once used as a house of entertainment, fronted with flowered parterres, and facing the broad south” said Dr Granville in 1841. In 1877, Jenkinson said “At Orchard House, half a mile from the station, there is private accommodation for a large number of visitors. The house is charmingly embowered by trees, and is a favourite resort of private families and young ladies.” In 1913, Bird said it was a “boarding house or temperance hotel”. Today it is divided into flats.
Upper Denton Church is about a mile south west of Gilsland.
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