Matfen lies in south Northumberland and has a range of archaeological sites, from the remains of Hadrian’s Wall to deserted medieval villages.
The oldest remains found in the parish are Mesolithic flint tools from around the lowland marsh area at Bog House and West Moorhouses, and at Wall Houses. More flints have been found to the south of Matfen village at West Moorhouses and elsewhere. They may have been used for hunting seasonal prey, such as wildfowl.
In the Neolithic people carved cup and ring marks on outcrops of rock. These were reused in the later Bronze Age when the rocks were erected as standing stones at Standing Stone Farm and the Warrior Stone, near Ingoe. Another, smaller stone, was found with cup and ring marks in a field wall at Ingoe.
In the Bronze Age people began to use tools made of bronze, such as an axe from Ingoe. This new technology was used alongside traditional stone tools, such as a stone axe found near Ryal. These people may have lived in settlements like that at Ingoe where three hut circles stand on crags. Evidence of the ritual side of life comes from some round cairns at Ingoe and Matfen.
The only evidence of Iron Age activity is cord rig from beneath Turret 18a beneath Hadrian’s Wall and where these early farmers lived is unknown. More is known about the Roman period when there were farmsteads and small settlements near the Warrior Stone and north of West Side.
The first Roman military presence is probably in the first century AD, when the Devil’s Causeway was built through the parish on its way to Low Learchild fort. Later, in the second century AD, Hadrian’s Wall was built across the south of the parish together with milecastles and turrets on the main wall and a temporary camp, south of the Wall, on Carr’s Hill. Archaeologists excavated Turret 18a in the 1930s and the results have been widely used as the basis of attempts to reconstruct the form of Hadrian’s Wall and its turrets.
Contact with the local population is suggested by a number of finds discovered north of the Wall, including bronze vessels from Ingoe, coins from north-west of Matfen, and a shield boss from south-west of Matfen. A quern found near Carr’s Hill shows that grain was being grown and ground into flour.
In the medieval period the population seems to have been much larger with villages and hamlets at Kearsley, Fulwell, Ingoe, East Matfen, Ryal and Fenwick. Many of these survive as earthworks and some of the most extensive are at East Matfen, where there is also part of its field system. During the wars with Scotland, people sought protection in buildings such as Fenwick Tower and Ryal Tower and a beacon at Mootlaw would have given warnings of attack to the community.
Protection was also needed in the 16th and 17th century, when Border reivers threatened this area with raids. Those who could afford it built defended farmhouses, now called bastles, at North Fenwick and West Fenwick.
The landscape was much altered in the post-medieval period when changes in landownership occurred after the English Civil War. New wealth from Tyneside led directly to changes in agricultural practices. Large, individual farms replaced some small villages and amalgamation of land led to the creation of large, regularly shaped fields.
The Agricultural Revolution of the 18th century saw new farms built in the parish, seeing the new ideas put into practice at High House, Moralees and East Matfen. Lime kilns were built to provide lime to improve the soil at Ryal and Cock Play and quarries developed alongside them. Coal was also mined, although never in great quantity, at Fenwick Colliery and Muckleridge Colliery. Clays were used to make tiles and bricks for the estate at Matfen Tilery and a mill was built at Burnside Farm. Elsewhere, an aqueduct was built to carry water across the parish from Hallington Reservoir, Colt Crag reservoirs and Catcleugh reservoir to the Whittle Dene reservoirs, before distribution to 19th century Tyneside.
Landscape improvement was not all agricultural and industrial in nature. The grounds around Matfen Hall were landscaped and formalised and shelterbelts of trees around the sides of the estate. An estate village was built at Matfen, including Standing Stone Farm with its false battlements.