The high sandstone ridge of the Simonside Hills is a place of legend and myth. Archaeological work here suggests that it has always been a ‘special’ place. But what are the stories and what does the archaeology tell us about what looks, from a distance, like Australia’s iconic Ayers Rock? Where does the name come from and what might you see if you visit the Simonside?
The hills themselves were under ice during the glacial periods. The action of the ice and later natural erosion has resulted in the weird rounded rock shapes and crags that are characteristic of the area today and which add to its sense of mystery.
These are overlain in places by peat up to 1m in depth and this has probably masked features of archaeological interest. Peat coring immediately to the south of Beacon Hill within Caudhole Moss indicates peat presence to a depth of 10m.
Historic Land Use
Today Simonside appears as an open expanse of wilderness, with a great deal of modern forestry planting in evidence. It is however a managed landscape in the truest sense and regular burning of the heather in the interests of promoting a healthy game bird population lies at the heart of its maintenance as a ‘wild’ open space. In 1553 however, the hill slopes were recorded as common pasture. Traces of cultivation have been noted around the lower slopes near Tosson, and elements of the medieval field system around Lordenshaws, including boundaries and ridge and furrow ploughing which post-dates the Deer Park (see below) have been recorded by Peter Topping. These fields may well have been abandoned before 1800. Narrow rig and furrow overlies the broad rig, early ploughing, and this activity may relate to enclosures made within the area known as ‘Rothbury Forest’ in the 18th century. The upper slopes of Simonside seem to have remained unenclosed at this time. Mckenzie, writing in 1825, recorded that Simonside was unenclosed even though most of Rothbury Forest had been taken in. During 1785 uncontrolled fire ravaged 1000 acres of Simonside.
What’s in a Name?
As early as 1279, we have a documentary reference to ‘Simundessete’; by 1580 this had become ‘Simontside’, and it is thought by many that this is a corruption of ‘Sigemund’s - (ge)set, seat or settlement’. W.W. Tomlinson, writing in his ‘Comprehensive Guide to Northumberland’ in 1916 mentions ‘Simon’s sete or settlement’ and goes on to say the “Simon of mythology was, it seems a domestic brewer to King Arthur, identical with the German Sigmund, and very fond of killing dragoons.” Unfortunately there appears to be no Sir Simon in Arthurian legend and it might be that this is a very late association made by the Victorians. It has also been suggested that the name may come from ‘seaman’s sight’ - the fact that the hills can be seen by mariners at sea!