According to local legend, the Brinkburn Bells now ring in Durham Cathedral. Or do they?
As with any legends, other versions exist that place the bells in the river Coquet. Perhaps the water carries the ringing of bells as it winds its way through Northumberland.
Either way, several tales of the Brinkburn Bells resound through local folklore. So let’s take a trip to the quiet spot in Northumberland. Let’s see what we can find.
Where is Brinkburn?
Brinkburn refers to the Priory now run by English Heritage. It is the remains of an Augustinian monastery founded in 1135 by Sir Bertram de Mitford. The value of land in the area plummeted after a series of Scottish raids that devastated farms and villages.
During one such raid, the monks gathered in the priory. They knew the raiders didn’t care about divine retribution. Gold and silver were gold and silver, no matter the source.
They hoped their remote location in the valley might prove useful. Perhaps the raiders would simply pass by.
They watched the columns of smoke that marked each raided village. To their surprise, the columns started appearing further and further away. Apparently, their prayers had been answered.
Naturally, the Prior was grateful the raiders had passed them by. Unfortunately, one young brother, seized by gratitude and enthusiasm, ran to rang the great bell that marked their services.
But a smaller group of raiders were on their way to mop up after the Scots.
The prior dragged his young charge away from the rope, but it was too late. The raiders heard the bell and made their way to Brinkburn.
The monks fled across the river Coquet. The Scots arrived and plundered the abandoned Priory.
The bell was the greatest victim of the raid and it ended up in the river. No one really knows for certain what happened.
Some tales suggest that the Scots started a fire. The flames licked higher and ate through the timbers of the bell tower. The wood gave way and the bell fell, rolling into the river.
Others think the monks took down the bell to throw it in the river as punishment for betraying them. (If that’s the case, I dread to think what they did to the young monk that rang it)
A third variation claims the monks actually put the bell in the river to save it from future raids. A deep part of the Coquet, overlooked by the bell tower, is known as the Bell Pool.
As late as the 1880s, local children swam in the Bell Pool, diving for the bell. And why wouldn’t they? The bells were the lost treasure, after all!
Strangely, it’s not the only local legend about the Brinkburn bells.
After a series of financially inept priors ruined their funds, the Priory was finally taken under the direction of the monastery at Durham. Under the agreement, the Bishop of Durham would pay Brinkburn’s debts and repair the damage caused by the raids.
There was one condition.
The Brinkburn Bells were the envy of the north. The Bishop of Durham wanted them for his own monastery, in exchange for his aid.
The Brinkburn monks agreed and workmen removed the bells from the tower. A long, winding road leads out of the valley.
While the men took the bells up the road, the horses pulling the carts went into a frenzy. During the fracas, the carts overturned and the Brinkburn bells fell into the river.
The men and the monks mounted several rescue attempts but to no avail. The river Coquet retained its prize.
There is an alternative version of this story. In the other tale, the men got as far as the River Font. The waters ran faster than usual, swollen by heavy rainfall, and the horses lost their footing in the middle of the river. The Brinkburn bells fell into the water.
The monks tried to rescue the bells, but try as they might, they couldn’t reach them. They reported the disaster back at Brinkburn. The prior sent a message to Durham to explain what had happened. The Prior of Durham arrived and the pair of them rode into the river.
Divine assistance remained on their side and the monks recovered the bells. Wallis confirms that the bells ended up in Durham in his History of Northumberland.
Who knows if the bells remain in the river, or now hang in Durham Cathedral?
The local fairy population favours the area too.
They’re particularly fond of the dark chasm where the Brink Burn flows into the river Coquet. While it’s rare for a fairy to die, they use the area as a graveyard when one of their number passes on. Local tales tell of funeral processions to carry the dead to Brinkburn.
An 1888 guide to Northumberland noted Brinkburn’s own grounds as the burial place of the fairies, rather than the chasm.
The Faery Folklorist wonders if the peeling of the bells actually killed the fairies in the area.
In 1844, Moses Richardson claimed that “the little people vanished as soon as the clergy said their prayers at a spot”. Perhaps the Priory marks the death in the belief in fairies, rather than the death of the fairies.
Either way, Brinkburn Priory is a quiet, tranquil little spot. It’s easy to see why a belief in fairies would flourish in the area. Or even why they might choose to be buried here.
And who knows? Maybe they engineered the fall of the Brinkburn Bells into the river to get some peace?
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