Wearside Echoes: Over the hill

OLD SCENE: Humbledon Hill waterworks
OLD SCENE: Humbledon Hill waterworks
Have your say

A PROMINENT Sunderland landmark has been saved for the future – thanks to its past.

Humbledon Hill, home to the remains of a Bronze Age defended settlement, has been added to the list of scheduled ancient monuments by English Heritage.

The move, backed by Sunderland City Council, will safeguard the historic hill from future development and was today welcomed by campaigners.

“I am absolutely delighted,” said local historian Stuart Miller. “Humbledon Hill dominates the Sunderland skyline and any further buildings there could ruin it.

“This site is of great prehistoric significance. The decision to schedule the hill as an ancient monument means that an important part of Sunderland’s history will now survive.”

Details of Humbledon Hill’s ancient past first came to light in 1873, when three Bronze Age burial urns were unearthed during the construction of a waterworks at the site.

One of the urns contained bones, which “fell to pieces when being lifted out.” Other discoveries included a second “heap of bones,” buried without an urn, and an iron knife.

The historic importance of Humbledon Hill did little, however, to stop the march of progress. A reservoir was built on the site, later followed by scores of houses around the edge.

But plans to create flats and houses in the shape of a castle on top of the hill, unveiled by Bowey Homes in 2000, saw dozens of Wearsiders unite to fight further development.

The controversial scheme – branded “an eyesore” by campaigners – was eventually shelved in 2002, after an archaeological survey revealed a potential Bronze Age burial site on the hill.

“It should never have had to come to a campaign to save the hill, but at least we have been successful. The future of this site is now secure,” said Stuart, one of the original campaigners.

“If the castle development had gone ahead, the loss of historic Humbledon Hill could have become another Town Hall-type issue – with people still regretting its loss many years after.”

A geophysical survey has since uncovered the remains of a defended settlement, while a 2006 archaeological evaluation confirmed the presence of a double ditched enclosure.

“If the hill has been built on, this history would have disappeared,” added Stuart. “I have to pay tribute to the council for being prepared to give their support to save the hill.

“We should now be looking towards protecting other Sunderland landmarks, such as Hasting Hill and Tunstall Hills. One of Sunderland’s greatest attractions are our historic hills.”

John Kelly, a Sunderland Council cabinet member with responsibility for safer cities and culture, is also delighted with the decision to list Humbledon Hill as an ancient monument.

“I’m actually over the moon,” he said. “This is one of the earliest settlement sites in Sunderland and, as such, is very rare. Some of the very first ‘mackems’ visited here.

“It precedes both Bede and Roman times, and I would now like to see further archaeological investigations of the site. Hopefully community and local history groups could be included.

“I would certainly be very interested in finding out more about the history of the area.”

Sidebar: A brief history of Humbledon Hill

HUMBLEDON Hill – or Humbledon Bank as it was often known – was once a favourite spot for an afternoon ramble in Victorian times.

But, although the land was originally the site of Bronze Age burials, it was later included within the ancient manor of ‘Hamddon Tunstall’ – owned by the Lumley family.

The late historian James Corder stated: “It seems quite unknown how the Lumleys obtained possession, but it was held by that family, which claimed almost prehistoric descent.”

Humbledon Hill – also known as Homeldon, Hamdon, Hamylden and Hamildon – was later at the centre of a boundary dispute between the Lumley family and Cardinal Wolsey in 1528.

Wolsey, then Bishop of Durham, laid claim to part of the “ancient manor of Hamdon” – specifically Bainbridge Holme – as it had been held by the Dalden family for many years.

“It was described as the “manor of Hamyldon, consisting of a messuage (house) with the appurtenances (accessories), called the Barnes etc,” the Echo later reported.

Speculation still remains as to how the hill was named, however, with Echo writer Leo P. Crolly – drawing on the thoughts of local historian George Bain – revealing in the 1950s:

“The etymology of the name might mean ‘hill with the hovel,’ with ‘ham’ being Anglo-Saxon for homestead, ‘hammill’ northern for hovel and ‘don’ the Celto-Saxon name for hill fort.”

In 1907, according to Bain, a former tenant of an ancient hill farmhouse revealed a “secret place of worship connected to the Catholic Religion” had been uncovered during renovations.

It was thought that the prayer room might have been sealed by the Lumleys, a Catholic family, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I – and it remained hidden for hundreds of years.

Sadly, details of the find were not brought to light for many years afterwards, and no official records or photographs were made of the hidden oratory.