On the northern side of the Wooler to Kirknewton road (B6351), where it crests a small knoll rising amidst midst bare Northumbrian fields , stands a monument marking this as the site of one of the most evocative archaeological sites in Northumberland. It is also a record of one of the most remarkable archaeological discoveries of the 20th century.
Around 1300 years ago timber halls stood here marking the site of the royal residence of early Anglo-Saxon kings. In AD731, and shortly after its abandonment , the scholar and saint, Bede, records that while king Edwin and his queen were residing here, the queen’s bishop, Paulinus, baptised many in the nearby river Glen.
Thereafter the precise location of the settlement was lost, and it passed into legend.
In 1949 Professor J. K. St. Joseph was employing the relatively new techniques of aerial photography to search for Roman military camps in the region. A severe drought made conditions ideal for aerial archaeology. As he flew over the Glendale area he noticed, and photographed, an impressive series of crop marks in an otherwise undistinguished field. More crop marks were seen further north near Milfield. In time a full aerial survey was made.
Between 1953 and 1962 a detailed archaeological excavation to the site was undertaken by a young Cambridge scholar, Brian Hope-Taylor. Although marks of buildings were observed to both the north and south of the present day road it was in the field to the north of the road where attention was focussed. Here the land rises and forms a gravel whaleback which would have stood clear of the marshy terrain present in the area when Gefrin was conceived. This area would have been the natural through route for travelers at the time. Today, with efficient field drainage, the Milfield plain is a lot dryer than it once was.
The excavations revealed a complex of great halls or palaces, some over eighty five feet (26m) in length, of timber construction and built to a very high standard. Ancillary buildings such as kitchens, a weaving shed and what the excavator believed to have been a pagan temple converted to Christian use. The palace complex was designed to accomodate elements of the earlier landscape notably two burial monuments and the massive 'Great Enclosure'.This Great Enclosure's prime function is thought to have been as a kraal for cattle brought to the site perhaps as taxation or to be consumed during feasts. It is equally possible that it's use was related to horses. Enormous quantities of horse bones, including complete skeletons, were found outside the main entrance during the construction of the railway in 1885.
A large timber grandstand or outdoor assembly building is one of the remarkable features of the site. The graphic here is adapted from an illustration by Brian Hope-Taylor. Although referred to as 'The Theatre' you will note from the size of, what would be, the stage that this was, in all probability, the seventh century equivalent of a modern lecture theatre, perhaps a parliament building.
The King and his retinue would move around the kingdom staying at a number of settlements like Ad Gefrin. Sprouston and Thirlings may be other local examples.
Building work began in the 6th century, the foundations of the timber halls cutting through the remains of religious monuments and the cemetery of Neolithic and Early Bronze Age people living here some 3000 years earlier.
The site was in use for over 150 years and there were distinct phases of construction, the grandstand, for example, being extended at one point from six to nine rows of seats, thereby doubling its capacity. Some of the halls were modified and some demolished entirely. The excavator believed that the buildings had been attacked, destroyed by fire and rebuilt on two separate occasions.
The diagram below illustrates the extent of the site in relation to the modern road. The building labeled Main Hall was, in this phase of the site, connected with King Edwin of Northumbria and a full size replica is due to be built at Bede's World at Jarrow.
I have to mention an Arturian connection at this point. The story of the Ad Gefrin site is fascinating but there should always be room for a little touch of legend...
Arthur's first battle is at the mouth of the River Glein. This traditionally suggests two candidates: the River Glen in Lincolnshire and the River Glen in Northumberland. With its many fens and swamps, Lincolnshire seems an unlikely place for Arthur's battles. There is evidence from the Gododdin poem that the British used horses in battle as cavalry, ineffective in such terrain. Northumberland seems a better option. That Arthur may have decided to fight in this Anglo Saxon heartland to check their progress into Scotland is tactically sound. There is a question mark as to whether this battle is actually that of Arthur's; there was a historical battle recorded here in 632 AD when King Edwin's palace on the River Glen (Glein) was burnt down by Penda of Mercia and Cadwallon of Wales. It is perhaps this battle that Nennius has mistakenly attributed to Arthur.