Thirlwall Castle and Greenhead

Like Don't move Unlike

GREENHEAD, a village, and a chapelry in Haltwhistle parish. The village stands on the Tippal burn, adjacent to the Carlisle and Newcastle railway, near the Roman wall, and has a station on the railway, and a post office under Carlisle. The chapelry is annexed to the vicarage of Haltwhistle, in the diocese of Durham; to the value of £90. The church is modern.

John Marius Wilson Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales 1870-72

Thanks to John Wilson’s uneventful visit in 1870, we know that this quiet village that sits astride the Roman Wall was called Greenhead. With only 2km separating the eastward flow of the North Sea-bound Tipalt Burn and the westerly River Irthing that joins the Irish Sea at the Solway Firth, this is watershed country, the backbone of England, at the green head of the Tyne Valley.

In 1794, the engraver John Cary was commissioned by the Postmaster General to survey England’s growing road system. Cary (c. 1754 – 1835) and his brother William were globe-makers in London though John Cary came to be regarded as one of the leading English cartographers.

Cary’s New Itinerary or an Accurate Delineation of the Great Roads, Both Direct and Cross Throughout England and Wales was created as part of the 18th century’s drive for knowledge, exploration and rapidly growing technology. Expansive record-keeping and itineraries were being made possible by advances in the printing press and guide books became hugely popular.


The extract below shows Cary’s itinerary following the old road from Newcastle to Carlisle. Where Greenhead should be, we have Glenwhelt, an old name for the village? Glenwhelt is still printed on OS Maps today, in bold under the larger Greenhead text. The steep road climbing out to Greenhead towards Hadrian’s Wall is Glenwhelt Bank. At the foot of the hill, Glenwhelt Bastle House and cottage, dated 1757, has a Grade II listing. There was a Glenwhelt Tollbooth and road here too.

Thirlwall Castle and Greenhead | John Cary's Road Book New Itinerary
John Cary’s Road Book New Itinerary, published 1798-1828. See Glenwhelt where Greenhead should be.

Thirlwall Castle

The origins of Thirlwall date to the period 1153-1165 when King Malcolm IV of Scotland created a barony here. The first baron took the name of his new barony and built a timber manor house.

In the 1330s, John Thirlwall built a stronghold that provided protection for his family and descendants for the next 300 years. The site chosen was a sheltered, wooded bank of the Tipalt Burn surrounded by hill-top positions that could warn of impending raids. Edward, I visited Thirlwall on 20th September 1306.

Other families were also building similar defensive castles in the area. These strongholds became an essential element in the defence of the English Border against Scottish raids. Several generations of Thirlwall’s survived the border raids and prospered. When Lionel Thirlwall died in 1586, he left an endowment to his wife and eight children.

After the Union of the Scottish and English Crowns in 1603, more peaceful conditions developed and border strongholds became redundant. The Thirlwall Castle Estate was sold to the Earl of Carlisle in 1748 for £4,000. The Earl was interested only in the land and allowed the Castle to fall into gradual decay. In the 18th century, the crumbling ruins of Thirlwall Castle began to attract the attention of artists and historians.

Thirlwall Castle and Greenhead | Photo © Dave Brooks
Thirlwall Castle, Greenhead | Photo © Dave Brooks

The Red Rock Fault

Thirlwall Castle and Greenhead | The Red Rock Fault

The Wem-Bridgemere-Red Rock Fault System is a complex zone of intersecting faults that defines much of the north midlands to Cumbrian geology.

To the east of the fault, coal measures abound of the Carboniferous period. Around Thirlwall Castle and Greenhead, the NW fault line has pushed the red basalt of the Whin Sill northwards and is the eastern terminus of the northern wave of hard rock. It is the Red Rock Fault that ended Roman use of limestone to build the wall, switching to turf wall in this sector.

The western stretch of Hadrian’s Wall, from the river Irthing to Bowness-on-Solway, was originally constructed from turf rather than stone. Even the milecastles were built of turf and timber, although the turrets were constructed of stone.

When the stone wall was built the turf was removed in most areas. However, west of Birdoswald, the line of the Wall was altered. Because of this, a stretch of the turf version can still be seen to the south of the later stone Wall’s line, especially from Milecastle 51 at Wall Bowers through Turret 50bTW, Turret 50aTW and Turret 50TW (High House).

The Dutch archaeologist, Eric Graafstal, has argued convincingly that the western turf section of Hadrian’s Wall was the first part to be constructed, perhaps as early as 119AD in response to a threat from native tribes in the northwest.

Alan Sorrell

Alan Ernest Sorrell (1904 – 1974) was an English artist and writer best remembered for his archaeological illustrations, particularly his detailed reconstructions of Roman Britain. He was a Senior Assistant Instructor of Drawing at The Royal College of Art, between 1931–39 and 1946–48. In 1937 he was elected a member of the Royal Watercolour Society.

Sorrell’s famous drawing of this sector of the Roman Wall, the Nine Nicks of Thirlwall (now seven due to quarrying) inspired this aerial style of historical interpretation. Alan Sorrell: The Man Who Created Roman Britain is a touching account of his life and work by his children Mark & Julia Sorrell.

Thirlwall Castle and Greenhead | An aerial reconstruction of Walltown Crags from Steel Rigg,
An aerial reconstruction of Walltown Crags from Steel Rigg, Hadrian’s Wall, by Alan Sorrell (1959)


Tipalt Burn | Burn, in standard English is bourn, as in Bournemouth, meaning well, spring or source. Scots Gaelic has the word bùrn, also cognate, but which means freshwater; the Gaelic for a burn is allt.

Bastle | A medieval fortified house, in northern England and the Scottish borders during the 16th and 17th centuries. See Border Reivers.

Thirlwall | Thirl [as verb] means “perforated-” or [as noun] “bored-wall”, from the Old English þyrelweall “perforated wall”.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *