The Craa Trees - ASH, 'The Venus of the Woods'.
Updated: Aug 26, 2022
The remaining Craa Tree at Beggar’s Rigg Spring 2022
There were once three very special ash trees growing at Beggars Rigg. David Dippie Dixon, Coquetdale’s beloved Natural Historian, wrote, in 1903, in Upper Coquetdale, Northumberland: its History Traditions, Folk Lore and Scenery:
“‘Beggar Rigg’ is that green slope on the north side of the road beyond the County Hotel, while three venerable ashes growing on the south side of the road are known as the ‘Craa Trees’. Various traditions as to the meaning of Beggar Rigg are extant, but probably the real origin of the name will be found in the term ‘Big rig’, where ‘big’ a coarse sort of barley, has been grown in former years.”
As Dixon describes the trees as ‘Venerable’, this suggests that even then they must have been a good age. Experts I have asked, suggest they were probably planted about 1780.
Over the years we have lost two of these special trees. Now the remaining one, a huge and impressive specimen, measuring 520cm, illustrates all the characteristics of an ancient tree. It has dead wood, hollows and water pockets, and epiphytic growth. Thankfully, at the moment, there is no sign of the dreaded ash dieback, and the many other nearby ash trees are also free from this terrible disease.
Looking down Gravelly Bank, Beggar's Rigg on the right. Courtesy of Jeff Reynalds.
This Craa tree will have witnessed many changes during its long life. It overlooks the River Coquet, and land which is now the Golf Course, but was once, and for most of the tree’s life, a race course.
The first recorded races at the course were in 1759. It was an annual race, usually held in the second week of April, and for many years, on a Wednesday. The Newcastle Courant of 7th February 1761 declared: “We hear that Rothbury Races will be held this Year as usual, in the Middle of April”.
Each year the three Craa trees would have noticed the great excitement of the people who gathered around them, bringing their picnics, to watch the thrilling sight of the racehorses galloping around this, notably difficult, course.
This is the oldest known photo of a racehorse, ‘Voltigeur’ winner of the Epsom Derby and St Leger Stakes in 1850. Picture Credit: @horseracingpics
By 1854 The annual Rothbury event was a firm favourite.
Newcastle Journal 18th March 1854:
1862 Lady’s Day
In 1862 the weather was pleasant and a large crowd attended Rothbury Racecourse – ‘…it was a huge event in the social calendar and pulled in crowds of many thousands for what was known then as a ‘Lady’s Day’ as it featured the Ladies Plate on the card, and the slopes of Beggars Rigg (named after the Beggartick plants that grew there) were packed with well-dressed ladies enjoy picnics and unparalleled free views along the river and course” ‘For a Purse of Gold: The Rothbury Races’ Jon Tait.
The Craa Trees may have wondered if those ‘well-dressed ladies’ were hot and uncomfortable. The 1860s was the time when the cage crinoline was worn underneath the dress, to allow the skirts to billow out. Indeed, instead of the discomfort and heat of the many layers of undergarments previously worn, the cage was meant to be modern and freeing!
The fashion landscape was changing – Parisian Couture was becoming ‘a thing’ and technologies – sewing machines and dyes – were creating the conditions for ever more elaborate costumes to be the latest ‘must have’ fashions.
Picture credit: Setareh Janda www.ranker.com
Picture credit: justsomegirlblog
Horse breaks its neck
One hundred years later, in 1954, when the trees were about 175 years of age, the race was held on a bright and sunny day. It attracted one of the biggest crowds ever to attend. A new grandstand had been built with a capacity of 1000 spectators. The Craa Tree would notice no doubt that the women felt more comfortable in the fashionable clothing of the 1950s compared to the 1850s. It would certainly have been easier to sit for a picnic near to the Craa Tree, in the clothing of the 1950s, than the 1850s!
Royal Ascot fashion in 1951. Picture Credit: Getty Images
Women’s Day June 1954’ Picture Credit: File Photo Digital Archive
“On race day crowds used to picnic on “Beggar Rigg,” a natural grandstand on the North side of the Rothbury to Thropton road for a free view of the action on the course. Rodney Yule, a local contractor, would ensure the fences and hurdles were secure and safe with a covering of thick birch gathered from nearby woods.” David Thompson, Hands and Heels.
In amongst the excitement of the 1954 event was sadness: it must have been a horrible sight for the Craa Tree, and the viewers from Beggars’ Rigg, when poor Hispaniola fell and broke its neck in Carside Novices’ Hurdle. Our tree would have heard the gasp of folk upset and horrified at this awful death .
“This unique course in the heart of Coquetdale was an extremely tough one to ride in more ways than one. Local jockeys, Stan Hayhurst, Cheltenham Gold Cup winner on Kerstin in 1958, and George Milburn, three times Northern Area National Hunt champion, told me how the course itself was an absolute nightmare to ride. The bends were so sharp there was very little room for error. In Stan’s own words he described it as “desperate, seriously desperate” David Thompson, Hands and Heels
Picture courtesy of Jeff Reynalds
At least one person was pleased when the racecourse closed, however:
Daily Mirror. March 7th, 1974
The Refugee Situation – the continuing Kindness of Coquetdale Folk
Coquetdale folk have a long history of helping others less fortunate than themselves. At the time of writing (June, 2022) many Coquetdale people are doing all they can to support refugees from the horrendous war which is raging in Ukraine. The community as a whole wants to welcome these traumatised people with open arms.
The same was true in 1960, when there were still many thousands of people displaced by the second world war. 1959-1960 was declared The World Refugee Year. This was set up by the United Nations General Assembly. Committees were formed in more than 60 nations across the world to endorse this event.
(Journal of Jewish Communal Service) THE WORLD REFUGEE YEAR 1959 - 1960.PDF (bjpa.org)
The problem was discussed in Parliament in February 1960
The North East of England, and in particular Northumberland, wanted to do all they could to help. Baroness Elliot of Harwood spoke:
Your Lordships will doubtless recollect that the idea of a World Refugee Year came of British initiative. It was started in this country and was accepted and passed at the United Nations by an overwhelming majority; and it has now been taken up by a great many countries throughout the world.
It was because for three years I was the delegate responsible for the refugees at the United Nations that I undertook to be chairman of the organisation here; and the committee which was set up, composed of a number of very distinguished people and representatives from fourteen voluntary agencies working for refugees has now been working ever since June 1. We have tried, first, to create a climate of opinion throughout the country which would arouse interest in this problem and gain as much support as possible from the public. Secondly, we have tried to co-ordinate and to encourage a very diverse approach to the subject through innumerable organisations of all kinds; through all the political Parties, through the trade union movement, through the Civil Service and through a vast variety of societies and organisations throughout the whole country—and a really remarkable response has come from everywhere. Thirdly, we have suggested—and I shall suggest very humbly again—that it might be possible for Her Majesty's Government, in view of the great generosity shown by the public, to consider a slight increase in the contributions which they have been making to World Refugee Year. Fourthly, we have put forward schemes to the Government for bringing in some of the handicapped refugees, who are the hard core, as it has been called, of the refugee problem to-day.
The problem then was enormous: Lord Shackleton remarked:
It has been estimated—and figures in this matter are apt to be rather staggering—that since the war something like 40 million people, one in 70 of the people born into this world, have become refugees. Most of these refugees, of course, have never come into the official reckoning of the refugee organizations, the international bodies, because they have become immediately the responsibility of the country to which they have gone. As an instance, I would point to the Volksdeutsche, the ethnic Germans in Africa. I should like to echo the plea the noble Baroness made for further help for some of those Germans who have not yet found a satisfactory home. There are, of course, many other refugees, like the refugees of the troubles on the Indian border at the time of independence, with we ourselves have never really been concerned at all.
The role of Rothbury Racecourse in helping the Refugees
Newcastle Evening Chronicle 7th April 1960
The story reads:
A Race to Aid the Refugees Four pretty girls will be stepping out at Rothbury racecourse during Saturday’s steeplechase meeting – to raise money for refugees. The idea comes from Lady Armstrong of Cragside Hall Rothbury who is planning to set up a stand in the paddock. There will be posters and collecting boxes.
And the girls who will take the boxes among the racegoers are Lady Coriande Bennet, daughter of the Earl of Tankerville of Chillingham Castle Northumberland. Miss Joan Newbolt, secretary to the Duchess of Northumberland and Miss Julia Vining, 18 and her 17 year old sister Clementine, daughters of Colonel and Mrs F E Vining of Trewhitt Hall, Thropton, Northumberland. Two boys from the village school are to take collection tins around the course.
Of course, as long as there are wars, droughts, and catastrophes, there will be people who need to move from an unsafe place to a safe one. We are extremely fortunate in our community. So it is heartening to know that we will always do what we can to help those who are not so fortunate.
When and WHY did the racecourse close?
According to the Duke of Northumberland at the time, Hugh Algernon Percy, 10th Duke of Northumberland (Known as Lord Hugh Percy)
ROTHBURY (was) KILLED TO ‘FEED THE GREEDY’.
This is what happened.
In 1961 The Horserace Betting Levy Board (HBLB) was established. This public body is required to collect a statutory levy from the horseracing business of bookmakers.
The original intention of establishing the Levy, and therefore HBLB, was to provide a means of compensating racing for the loss of attendance that was anticipated when off-course betting shops were legalised in 1961. www.hblb.org.uk
Hansard of 9th July 1964 records a debate: Racecourses (financial assistance).
Mr Brooke said:
I understand that the turf authorities have informed the managements of Bogside, Lewes, Lincoln and Rothbury racecourses that they do not intend to allocate fixtures to these courses after next year. The Horserace Betting Levy Board has submitted proposals to me under Section 25(2)(d) of the Betting, Gaming and Lotteries Act, 1963, for offering compensatory payments to these courses for the withdrawal of the financial support which the Board had previously undertaken to give them up to the end of 1966. I am prepared to approve such payments. (Hansard)
Captain Scott Briggs, Chairman of the Committee for Rothbury Racecourse fought hard to save the racecourse. “The fight is on to save Rothbury racecourse after the crushing blow dealt by the withdrawal of the bookmakers’ levy”, the Newcastle Journal reported in April 1963: Cpt Briggs said: “I consider the cold blooded murder of Pontefract, Stockton, Sedgefield, Rothbury and Edinburgh racecourses the greatest folly ever perpetrated by any governing body of any sport in my lifetime”
Newcastle Journal July 1964
Lord Hugh Percy wrote to the editor of the Newcastle Journal in July 1964 to argue against its closure. He made the point that there was enough local support for the one-day-a-year event to need only £1000 per year from the Levy Board. He goes on to quote the Home Secretary who had written to him to say:
“…after considering the cost of maintenance of the course and making all the necessary security arrangements, they (the stewards) remained firmly of the opinion that this small course should be closed down”. Lord Percy declares that:
“..These are faceless men, not the Levy Board, who from their London office are destroying a day’s sport in Northumberland which has been enjoyed for more than 100 years by thousands – not only of farmers, shepherds and countrymen, but also of miners from the Northumberland coalfield and sportsmen of every trade and description who still think of racing as a sport, and not solely as an industry…So now in sport, as it has been till latterly in industry, the North-East is expendable in order that a one day fixture in a wild part of North Northumberland can be fed into the greedy mouth of some course a little nearer London.”
The fight was lost, however. And the final race meeting was held on 10th April 1965.
“…the last winner to pass the post at Rothbury was Golden Boy, the 3-1 favourite, who captured the Coquet Novices Chase over the extended two miles, for Northallerton owner Lieut Col J. H. Courage. Today after two hundred years of steeple chasing history, sadly very little evidence of the racecourse exists. Work is currently underway on a new clubhouse along with an expansion to the nine hole golf course, scheduled to be opened in Spring 2007. The viewing section of the grandstand is now all that is left of Coquetdales country racecourse, Hopefully this will be preserved as a reminder to the locals of what wonderful days were held at Rothbury Races” Hands and Heels Racing
The Craa Tree now overlooks the beautiful Rothbury Golf Course
Rothbury Golf Course was incorporated as a private limited company in December 2003. It became an 18-hole golf course with a new clubhouse in March 2007. The 18th hole, is, quite rightly, called ‘Craa Trees’
So, our one remaining Ash Tree, went from watching the annual excitement of the huge event which was the Rothbury Races, to seeing the area turned into the most beautiful golf course, with spectacular views of the Coquet Valley and the Simonside Hills.
The Craa Tree, now not so noticeable perhaps, amongst all the other, younger, trees, can take time to watch visitors and residents alike, as they enjoy a peaceful walk along the riverbank. The corvids which enjoy squabbling among its branches, rise as a group occasionally, making the branches bounce and bringing to mind the reason why this magnificent tree has been so named.
The Craa Tree is an ash tree – one of our most favourite and common trees in the UK. Fraxinus excelsior is also known as the Venus of the Woods. Fiona Stafford writes charmingly about it:
The ash tree is known as the Venus of the woods, and it seems to stir powerful feelings in those who gaze on its graceful form. Whether it is standing in spacious parkland or in an unkempt, November hedge, or rising naked from a sea of bluebells, the ash’s curvy limbs taper to an end with tips pointing to the heavens. A young ash is often like a half-open peacock’s tail, not quite ready to display its beauties; the branches of a mature ash, once fully fanned out, will slope down toward the earth, before sweeping up again, as if to send the buds flying. Through the summer the boughs cascade in all directions, wave-shaped and covered in green sprays. There are no angles on a young ash tree—everything is rounded and covered in fluttering foliage, soft as the feathers in a boa or the fur of a chinchilla. The boughs gain a few inches and furrow with the passing years, but with maturity come striking attitudes. In winter their silhouettes stencil clear skies like a row of unframed stained glass windows. The ebullient black buds stand proud, as if impatient for the spring, but in fact the ash is usually the last to come into leaf and the first to shed its seasonal foliage. The uncovered form of the ash, though, is just as compelling as the full-dress splendor of more eye-catching trees. The Paris Review - Celebrating the History of the Beloved Ash Tree
The immense value of Ash Trees
Did you know that ash trees provide a habitat for almost 1000 organisms?! It can be a very long-lived tree (as we know! Our Craa Tree is about 250 years old). Ash can live up to 400 years, so although this remaining tree seems very ancient, it is only a little bit over halfway through its potential life span.
Scandinavian mythology holds the Ash as the Tree of Life, and as a ‘Healing Tree’. Druids in Britain always preferred the wood from the Ash to make their wands.
Ash wood is also loved by craftsfolk. It makes fine furniture and is also often used for making the handles of sports equipment.
Our Craa Tree, lovely ancient Ash, is in good health. It is regularly checked and will soon be protected in law. Do go along to Beggars Rigg to say ‘hello’ to it. This venerable tree repays some quiet contemplative time spent in its presence.
Although, when I say ‘quiet’, that includes the lively squawks and squabbles of the intelligent but argumentative corvids who love the tree so much!
Here you can read more, and see some photographs, about Rothbury Racecourse: Rothbury racecourse (greyhoundderby.com)
You can read more about the racecourse also in Midden Ratcher, by Jon Tait
Midden Ratcher: Found Northumbrian Histories: Amazon.co.uk: Tait, Jon: 9798506501015: Books
Thank you to Jeff Reynalds, Jon Tait, David Thompson, Nick Johnson for their input and help with the research of this piece. An adapted version of this blog will soon be available as part of Rothbury's Tree Trail, which is coming soon!