Cheese and treacle on the drover's road to Scotland

History is all around us - literally, if you live in Blanchland. Even just a brief glance around the Square reveals some oddly-shaped stones and huge boulders edging the main road and the area in front of the White Monk Tea Rooms.

The Square in the 1960s
The boom in motoring created parking problems in the Square in the 1960s.

For thousands of years, hard, heavy, versatile stone has been used to create everything from basic implements such as water troughs, to magnificent feats of architecture and World Heritage Sites such as Durham Cathedral. They may not be on the same scale as the Easter Island statues or the enigmatic Cairo Sphynx, but as with all carvings from stone, these solid blocks dotted around Blanchland are an enduring record of the people who created them - their world, their times and the activities that made up their everyday lives.

And what on earth are those enormous cubes of stone to the left of the door of the Post Office?

Pat Wilson, a resident of Slaley and local historian, can shed light on how all of the stones got there - and why some of them have been cut to those strange, jigsaw-piece shapes.

A 'jigsaw' stone
A 'jigsaw' stone
A 'jigsaw' stone

In the 1960s car ownership rocketed, and Blanchland found itself having to cope with a boom in the numbers of daytrippers enjoying an afternoon's drive along leafy lanes and a stop for an ice-cream in the picturesque Square.

Visitors could park up anywhere, and - in the summer months especially - the village's peaceful character and ancient beauty was in danger of being swamped by Ford Anglias and Austin Healeys. The stones were put in place in April 1967 to create a low wall to prevent people from parking too close to residents' houses.

Pat takes up the story: "My father, Albert Edwin Robinson, who was born in 1920, was employed by the Lord Crewe Estate to move old blocks of stone which had held the mine shaft winding gear into the village to create this wall, and it was at that time that he was approached by Miss Cissy Forster who lived in The Square, who asked if he could perhaps do something with Baybridge's old cheese press."

Cissy remembered that while she, her sister Vicky and their parents had lived at The Miner's Arms pub in Baybridge in the early 1900s, the old cheese press had been used as a mounting block for horses. Cissy's mother had been a Maughan, and George Maughan and his son Thomas were innkeepers at Baybridge for at least 50 years in the latter half of the 1800s.

The stone cheese press
The stone cheese press, now sited by the Post Office

The press - consisting of two dressed sandstone blocks - was found lying on the roadside, next to the wall to the north-east of the old inn building.

Pat explained how she thought the press had worked: "The upper had a rounded hollow at its base, and up each outer side deep grooves which must have had something to do with the movement mechanism. The lower block was wider and had a circular channel and a spout. Below the spout the block had a curved recess, presumably to allow some kind of collection container to stand. There was a deep circle either side of the channel, and most probably the movement mechanism fitted into these holes as they are located directly below the grooves of the upper block. "As I understand it, the cheese was placed on the lower block in its cheese cloth bag and the upper stone lowered onto the bag, causing the whey to be squeezed out, collected in the channel, fed into the spout and ran into a bucket or similar container underneath. Whether the upper stone was lowered by pulley or turned by a wheel is not certain, as it had long since lost its original function and siting when found."

On the east side of the road, 100 yards south of The Miners' Arms is a small garth where, it is understood locally, that during the 18th Century, cattle being driven from the Midlands to Scotland were kept while drovers quenched their thirst at the inn before continuing to Penny Pie - then over the fells to Slaley and onwards to Corbridge.

Pat said: "I've always wondered if the 'cheese' of the 'cheese and treacle' associated with Slaley's 'Trekking Well' might refer to the cheese that was available to the drovers at The Miners' Arms before continuing to Slaley's reputed well? I have no evidence to support this but it's certainly a compelling theory..."

The trekking well at Slaley

The 'Trekking Well' is recorded on old maps, says Pat Wilson: "It is off the B6306 going up Curlew Bank before the Townhead entrance into Slaley village to the east of the road. 'Treacle' referring to dark peaty water seems a probability. The well is so far from the road that it seems less and less likely that the drovers drank at it, especially when Jameson's Well much closer to Slaley was so easily accessible. Like so many of these names, the file is left open and frequently something comes to light that sheds another possibility on its origins."

So that is how Baybridge's cheese press comes to be outside the Post Office, raised on stone slabs with small wedges inserted at each corner so that people can see the hollows, channel and spout. Locally there is a second cheese press built into a wall at Nookton Farm and another at Whitelees Farm.

Pat says her Dad was always disappointed that there was no plaque explaining what the stones were and where they had come from: "It always irritated him when talking to people who had visited Blanchland and had puzzled over the strange stone blocks by the Post Office, and left the village without any idea at all that they had been looking at an old cheese press."

From an article written by Pat Wilson of Slaley in 1995