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How Hurworth's history inspired a famous poet

CASTLE HILLS was a mysterious mound to the west of Northallerton which the East Coast Main Line ploughed through in the 1830s. It has long been thought that the Romans used the mound as an encampment or a beacon – Agricola, the Roman general, is said to have stayed on the hillock in 82AD when trying to pacify the Scots.

Throughout the centuries, Roman artefacts have turned up in the area. In 1743, an urn was dug up at Castle Hills which inspired the vicar of Northallerton, the Reverend John Balguy, to write a poem which began:

“Trifling mortal tell me why
Thou has disturbed my urn.”

When the railway went through in 1838, urns and coins come tumbling out, as well as a “votive altar”, left as an offering to a god. Michael Riordan, in his History of Northallerton, records that the stone had a Latin inscription carved on it which read: “Being present Flavius, Hyronimianus, of the Sixth Legion, Victorious”.

The Sixth Legion came to England in 122AD, but the whereabouts of its altar have been unknown since the late 19th Century.

However, two sarcophaguses were discovered at Castle Hills and they have ended up in Darlington.

The Northern Echo:

In Hurworth, the Rockliffe estate (above), in the shadow of the Tees Viaduct, was effectively the builders’ yard for the construction of the line down to Northallerton, so the sarcophaguses were probably taken there and then they became the possessions of the two leading railway families, the Peases and the Backhouses.

We believe the Peases’ sarcophagus went to the Beechwood mansion in the centre of Darlington. When it was converted into the United bus headquarters (it is now the site of the Sainsbury’s supermarket off Victoria Road), the sarcophagus was taken to West Cemetery, where it can still be seen.

The Northern Echo: The sarcophagus at Rockliffe Hall in Hurworth is believed to have come from Castle Hills at Northallerton

The Backhouses’ sarcophagus remained at Rockliff, and is now in the grounds of the five-star hotel beside Middlesbrough FC’s training ground.

The lavish Rockliffe estate was the home of banker Alfred Backhouse. He didn’t have any children of his own, but when his brother died young, Alfred adopted one of his sons, James Edward. Indeed, when James Edward married into the Barclay family on October 2, 1873, Alfred gave James Edward an extravagant wedding present: Hurworth Grange, a classic Victorian mansion designed by Alfred Waterhouse, the leading architect of the day (below in 1955).

The Northern Echo: Hurworth Grange in 1955, where Rudyard Kipling is said to have stayed in 1890

Because the winters in Hurworth are so famously harsh, James Edward had a villa in Bordighera, in north-west Italy, where he wintered for the sake of his health. There he fell in with a romantic, literary set, which gave him a connection to Rudyard Kipling (below) who we believe stayed with him at Hurworth Grange in 1890.

The Northern Echo:

James Edward took Kipling, 25, to visit his family in Rockliffe and there Kipling clapped eyes on the Castle Hills sarcophagus. It inspired him, as we mentioned last week, to write a poem entitled The Roman Centurion’s Song, which was published in 1911.

“A minor quibble,” says Joanne Aston, Thirsk. “You state that Kipling's poem is about a Roman soldier "left to die ... when his legion went home".

“Actually, the poem is a desperate plea by the solder, who is now "rooted in British soil", to be allowed to stay. The last verse is:

Legate, I come to you in tears – My cohort ordered home!
I've served in Britain forty years. What should I do in Rome?
Here is my heart, my soul, my mind – the only life I know.
I cannot leave it all behind. Command me not to go!”

Joanne is, of course, completely correct, and Kipling, nowadays a controversial figure because of his imperialism, was thinking as much of the British Empire as he was of the Romans when he wrote his poem.

She could have raised a major quibble about whether there is any truth in the story. It has certainly been oft repeated down the years in Hurworth circles, so it would be nice to think that a railway find from Northallerton has a place in literary history.