“Whittle dean is a deep woody dell which stretches southwards & joins the Tyne east of Ovington. The waters of this dean (peculiarly soft & clear) are the most celebrated in the north of England for whitening linen cloth.” (Mackenzie 1825).
From T.H Rowland, Waters of Tyne
Whittle Dene Folklore and History
Whittle Dene CIC are piecing together the rich history of the woodland and glade, from its faery folklore, to its industrial heritage as both a place for milling corn and for bleaching cloth.
We are a group of volunteers rather than professional historians, so please let us know if you spot any errors. Likewise, if you have any additional stories, memories or photographs to share then we would love to hear from you! Our aim is for this to be a community project.
The history we have gathered so far is presented with special thanks to:
The Local History Group set up by cabin/ bungalow owners at Whittle Dene in the 1990s, some members of which are now part of Whittle Dene CIC and have shared the extensive research and photographs compiled in the 90s.
The Prudhoe Local History Society for the excellent resources on their website
The North East Mills website for pointing us towards useful sources
“The little township of Whittle contains only Whittle farm, Whittle Lodge and Whittle Mill. Its chief feature is the beautiful valley of Whittle Dene, along which the western boundary of the township runs for a mile and a half, beginning in the open glade where stands the picturesque old building of Whittle Mill. Behind the mill are large mill ponds”.
A History of Northumberland , Volume XII (1926)
The now-ruined mill buildings at the north end of the glade are remnants of a working water mill that existed since at least the 1560s  and were still occupied or in use as late as the 1920s and beyond. It is still possible to see the remains of a wheel bay at the ruin's south-west end and two overgrown mill ponds nearby. The most detailed description of the mill we have uncovered is this from the Report of Visitation in 1805:
“The building of a dwelling-house, a water corn-mill, with two pair of stones and a kiln for drying oats; and a detached barn and stable, all in tenantable condition.”
An entry on the Prudhoe Local History website then also helps to shed light on the mill's use and relationship to the reservoir further north, as well as the reason for its gradual decline into the 1900s.
"The mill was situated in Whittle Dene half a mile north of Ovingham by direct footpath but accessible by horse and cart only from Ovingham and Whittle Farm. The Mill (and Dye Works and Bleach Works) were affected by the lack of constant water as a result of the construction of the first Whittle Dene Reservoir in 1848 which drew from more than half of the area drained by the Whittle Burn. The last bleaching was about 1865. The mill struggled on until well into the twentieth century at times when there was sufficient water."
Taken from Prudhoe Local History Images of Ovingham and Ovington
 A History of Northumberland Volume XII pg. 195
Whittle Mill, 1904
This Thomas Eyre Macklin Painting of Whittle Mill is currently exhibited at Shipley Art Gallery. Is this Mrs Rutter and her 'rosy-cheeked children'?
Artists & 'Excellent Fare'
"When the foliage is in full leaf, the place is much visited by the artistic fraternity, and many are the pictures that have been secured here, some of which have been afterwards seen on the walls of the Bewick Club Exhibition and also at the Royal Academy. It is not unusual for artists to take up residence for several weeks at Whittle Mill, and to complete large canvases on the spot. Of course, this would be impossible without the hearty co-operation of Mr Davie Rutter, the tenant of the Mill whose good wife has quite a reputation for the excellent fare she places before her guests. Mr Rutter's rosy-cheeked children have featured in many a dainty drawing"- William Irving, Newcastle Weekly Chronicle, 19th June, 1897 alongside sketch of Whittle Mill
A magazine article passed on to us by the Dene's local history society entitled 'An Old Mill By a Stream', written by Marshall Hall, reveals how Whittle Mill, its tenants and the surrounding Dene were popular subjects for local artists throughout the 1800s and beyond.
The wood engraver Thomas Bewick, most famous for his 'A History of British Birds', had strong links with Ovingham, and was buried in the village churchyard upon his death in 1828. Members of the Bewick Society, which formed after his death, were regular visitors to the Dene where they would paint and draw the mill and surrounds.
According to Hall's article, Ralph Hedley, Robert Jobling, John Atkinson, George Horton & Thomas Eyre Macklin were 'amongst the better known local professionals who painted the mill.'
Folklore and Legend
Whittle Dene has a long-established reputation for being home to the magical beings of English lore and legend, most notably the 'little people' or fairies. An account from the 1800s reads:
"Among the romantic thickets, the projecting rocks, and the deep whirling pools of the sequestered ravine of Whittle Dean, near Ovingham, Northumberland, spots are still pointed out by the neighbouring villagers, as the favourite retreats of harmless fairies and weeping lovers."
Local Historians Table, 1846
On a walk through this ancient wood with its bluebells in spring and toadstools in autumn, its easy to imagine where some of these spots might be. In the exposed root cavities of old oak trees maybe, or at the magical spring and pool known as Eddybroth (pictured above) where crystal-clear water chuckles from the ground and flows down to Whittle Burn.
A more recent reference to the fairies likewise suggests that local people have known of their presence in the Dene for some time:
"Local legend says Whittle Dene is inhabited by fairies, who perhaps by now, have driven out the evil spirit of Long Lonkin." Nancy Ridley's Northumbrian Heritage, 1968.
As for Long Lonkin, his is a chilling tale! Lonkin was said to be a local villain whose terrible deeds eventually became a well-loved folk ballad that has been passed down through the generations and sung by various modern folk artists including Steeleye Span. Lonkin was said to have resided at Nafferton Tower, known locally as Lonkin's Castle. The ruin of this lone tower, built in 1217, can still be seen today in nearby woods.
Long Lonking's Treasure Map
Part of a treasure hunt organised by the CIC directorate for local school children
The Whittle Dene Hornpipe is a traditional Northumbrian tune. But who wrote it, and what was their association with the Dene? If you know more about this tune and its history/ composer, we would love to hear from you!
Alistair Anderson also included the tune on his 1979 album, Dookin’ For Apples.
The above sheet music has been kindly provided by the local history society.
The Woods and Glade
Whittle Dene itself has passed through various hands over the centuries, but much of it must have remained a thriving woodland due to its current 'ancient woodland' status (woods where there has been continuous tree cover since at least the 1600s)
We believe that Whittle Dene was part of the estate of the Earl of Derwentwater in the 1600s and 1700s. This Earl was a Northumbrian Jacobite and, after the 1715 Jacobite rebellion in Scotland, apparently gathered together a group of fifty or so rebels to join a larger Jacobite army in northern England. This army was defeated by government forces at Preston. The Earl of Derwentwater was then executed along with another Northumberland landowner 'Mad Jack Hall of Otterburn'. The Earl's lands, including Whittle Dene, were then given to the Commissioners of the Greenwich Hospital, London.
According to the Northumberland County History, Whittle was sold to a Henry Hinde some time after 1828 and his trustees still held it in 1926.
In 1951 the southern tip of the land, which includes the glade and cabin site, was purchased by Professor J Allen of Newcastle University as part of the Bleach Green Farm estate. Professor Allen's obituary notes "A special interest of Allen's outside his professional work was the farm in Ovingham in Northumberland to which he moved in the late 1950s and where he was successful in building up a herd of Jersey cows and Welsh ponies."
History of the 'Huts'
A small group of chalets, cabins, bungalows, huts or summer houses as they are variously known are nestled in the glade at Whittle Dene, and are considered to be one of the site's many magical features.
This area of Northumberland around Ovingham and Ovington has been home to these unique cabin sites since the early 1900s, when the cabins were likely built as countryside getaways by working-class people from Tyneside's industrial areas. Several other cabin sites remain in the region, including Ferry Landing and Overdene. We found this excellent blog by one of the 'bungalow' owners at Ferry Landing, which provides some fascinating historical information.
Each of the little abodes in the glade at Whittle Dene is unique and characterful, off-grid and low-impact. Find more images of the 'chalets' throughout the ages on our Photographs page. Do you have any historic photos of the chalets, or memories of spending time in the glade? If so, we would love to hear from you!
Subscribe to Our Newsletter
Subscribe for seasonal updates and news about upcoming activities and events