Ninebanks Tower

Has been described as a Possible Pele Tower

There are major building remains

NameNinebanks Tower
Alternative Names
Historic CountryNorthumberland
Modern AuthorityNorthumberland
1974 AuthorityNorthumberland
Civil ParishWest Allen

The tower house at Ninebanks survives reasonably well despite some structural instability, and retains significant archaeological deposits and many original architectural features. It is an unusual example of its type as it has few defensible qualities and is thought to have served as a look out tower. It will add to our understanding of later medieval settlement in the region.

The monument includes a tower house of medieval date, situated on the right bank of the River West Allen. The tower is all that remains above ground level of a once much larger house, as it was originally attached to the eastern gable of an earlier building. The tower house is Listed Grade 2 star. The tower is thought to have functioned as lookout tower as its slight dimensions mean it is unlikely to have served as a defensible structure. It is rectangular in shape and measures 3.6m by 4m externally, with walls of rubble and dressed stone on average 0.5m thick. The tower, now roofless, stands four storeys high but it is thought that the topmost floor is a later addition. Access to the upper storeys of the tower is by a spiral staircase housed in a small, rectangular turret attached to the north western corner. There are windows, some now blocked, through most of the tower walls at all levels. These are largely of square-headed form, although there is a two-light lancet window at first floor level through the eastern wall. The lintel of the second floor window above the latter has the remains of carving upon it: two heraldic shields, thought to be associated with Sir Thomas Dacre, c.1520. Within the tower there are doorways through the south wall at first and second floor levels which originally gave access to the adjacent wing of the house. Both doorways have been blocked. At second floor level there is also a blocked window through the south wall. The upper storey retains an original fireplace and a series of nest boxes thought to have functioned as a dovecote

(Scheduling Report)

Tower, built onto east gable of earlier manor house in early C16, heightened and stair turret added later C16. Rubble with stone dressings, later C16 work more massive rubble. Roughly square in plan. 4 storeys; rectangular stair turret at west end of north face. Elevation to street (east): blocked rectangular chamfered loop just above ground level with small inserted window over, 1st floor window formerly of 2 lights, monolithic head with 2-centred arches, 2nd-floor rectangular chamfered window with a pair of raised inverted shields on the lintel. Weathering of a pitched roof or gablet above. Hollow- chamfered course carries oversailing 3rd floor with a pair of rectangular windows one above the other, and a corbelled cornice which formerly supported a parapet. Stair turret has 3 chamfered loops. Right return has blocked Tudor-arched door partly concealed by the stair turret, and a rectangular chamfered 1st-floor loop. Left return has chamfered loops to the 1st and 3rd floors and a small slit to the 2nd. 2 stone spouts project from the moulded parapet. To the left a buttress-like projection is part of the earlier house. Rear elevation shows inserted door and much patching; several doorways with chamfered surrounds, some blocked, in stair turret. To left of turret one jamb of a ground-floor window of the former north range.

Interior; at 1st and 2nd floor levels doorways with monolithic Tudor-arched heads, now blocked; to right of the 2nd-floor door is a blocked chamfered window, looking into the tower, i.e. part of the gable of the earlier manor house. At 3rd floor level the remains of a fireplace. Lower section of stair turret now infilled; upper part retains its stone newel stair, with near the top a circular gunloop on the north.

The heraldry on the tower, now defaced, is thought to relate to Sir Thomas Dacre, ruler of Hexhamshire 1515-1526. (Listed Building Report)

The very picturesque, though very diminutive, tower of Ninebanks is a mere fragment left standing between two considerable buildings that formerly stretched to the west and north. A pair of excellent water-colour drawings of the whole group, sketched from the east and south, are fortunately in the possession of Miss Ridley, close at hand. Roughly speaking, the little tower seems originally to have been a sort of fore-building attached to a larger tower or strong house to the west of it, with an upper story added at the same time as the wheel-stair at its north-west corner.

The east front, facing the road from Whitfield to Nenthead, is only 13 feet 2 inches wide at the external base. It represents four stories, but the ground has been so raised that the original slit of the basement is now nearly level with the road ; a square hole for shovelling in coals has been cut through the wall above this. On the line of the present first floor a two- light window, possibly of the early part of the sixteenth century, has been built up, and the room on this floor is now lit by a little oblong window, the head of which exhibits two small shields turned upside down. Happily, the Rev. John Hodgson made a sketch of the arms upon them on his visit to Ninebanks, 4th September, 1826. From this it appears, that when in their natural position, the shield on the left was charged with three escallops, and that on the right with a chevron between three bees. Sufficient traces of the arms are left to corroborate this sketch, but the shears or other emblems to be seen on the right cheek of the window in Hodgson's time have now disappeared, owing to the wasting nature of the stone. As it held the place of honour to the left, the escallop coat was, there can be little doubt, that of Sir Thomas Dacre, the ruler of Hexhamshire, 1515-1526, while the other seems to have been the conventional one of Bee, azure, a chevron between three bees volant or; a Bee very possibly holding the office of grieve of West Allen, under Dacre. The fact of the shields being reversed is, of course, evidence of the stone not being in its original position.

Externally, the altered character of this miniature tower is further shown by the plain string-course above being set out as is usually the case immediately below the battlements. This string-course rises in a step on approaching the south-west corner of the tower, from which it may be inferred that there was always a higher building to the west. The east window of the superadded story is now filled with pigeons' nests. The tower finishes in an elaborately moulded cornice, from which two gurgoyles project on the south side. With its high-hipped roof it has a singularly foreign look, much resembling the colombaio of a Lombard farm.

The original entrance to the basement seems to have been on the north side. A small segment of the arch of the doorway is now all that is to be seen of it, the ground having risen considerably, as has been said before, and the turret containing the wheel-stair having been built up against the tower at about 9 feet from its north-east angle, so as to cover the greater portion of the arch. A recess, 8 feet 5 inches wide, is left in front of the stair-tunet, between the tower and the modern house that has supplanted the old one to the north. The door of this latter, with the inscription above it, has been preserved, and now faces the tower.

The dark and uninviting basement of the tower is now entered by a breach made at the south end of the west wall, and contains no feature of interest. A passage, evidently cut through the wall, leads off the wheel-stair on to the present first floor, a room measuring 9 feet 9 inches west to east, 8 feet 10 inches north to south. On entering, an early Tudor doorway, only 4 feet high in the centre and 2 feet wide, is at once visible in the west wall at the level of the original second floor; an iron crook and hole for the bar still remain to show that it was secured from the west side. A small window of the same date to the right of it also looks out into the room, thus clearly proving that the present tower is an addition to the structure of which these formed part.

The passage and doorway of the uppermost floor are original, and of the same date as the wheel-stair. There is a fire-place, which has a mantel with two plain corbels, apparently Jacobean, at the east end of the north wall. The lower part of the wheel-stair has been blocked up, and access to it is gained by a hen-ladder. At the first and second floors there remain pairs of doorways that opened off the stair, right and left, into rooms that have disappeared. From the water-colour drawing previously mentioned, we see that the house to the west had a gable at its south end rising from the cornice of the tower and terminating in a high chimney.

Taking everything into consideration, it seems safe to conclude that a larger tower than the present was built at Ninebanks early in the sixteenth century, and was entered by a small door in its east wall at a considerable height above the ground; that the ladder or external stair leading to this was replaced by some sort of internal stair, to contain which the lower stories of the existing tower were built; and that subsequently, perhaps at the end of Elizabeth's reign, the wheel-stair and uppermost stories were added, and the internal arrangements of the lower story considerably changed. A very little excavation would probably explain this, and though it is but a small and altered fragment, the tower is so quaint as to deserve careful repair and jealous protection. (Hodgson 1897)

Not recorded in the C16 surveys of Northumberland fortifications and some sources state "Ninebanks is not classed as a defensible structure as the walls are considered too thin; it may have served as a lookout." (North Pennines AONB)

The tower measures 3.6m by 4m externally and is an addition to an earlier building c.6.8m wide; its walls are only 0.55m-0.65m thick. The tower has four floors. Access to the upper floors is by a newel stair in a rectangular turret, later than the tower, at its north west corner. Most of the windows are chamfered square headed loops (some blocked), although at first floor level on the east is a window with two lancet arched lights (its mullion gone). The stair turret has small chamfered loops except for a small circular opening, apparently a gunloop, on the north near the top.

Inside, blocked doorways with shallow triangular heads gave access to the tower from the first and second floors of the adjacent wing.

To the north of the second floor door is a square headed window, which must pre-date the addition of the tower. On the top floor are remains of a fireplace with a corbelled out lintel, and also a series of apparent nesting boxes, suggesting that the upper chamber has been adapted for use as a dovecote at some time.

The stair turret has also been altered, the lower part being sealed off; access is now through a doorway at first floor level; at first and second floor levels there have been doorways into the turret both from the east-west wing and from a second wing extending along the road to the north. This is shown in old prints; it had mullioned windows with round arched lights. One jamb of such a window remains, attached to the stair turret

This thin walled tower cannot be classed as a seriously defensible feature, although it might conceivably have served as a lookout. (Northumberland HER ref. Ryder 1994-5)

Gatehouse Comments

This is a late medieval solar tower, attached to a house built in, what was probably, a somewhat antiquated style designed to give kudos to the house and its owner by reflecting martial status. As usual descriptions of the thickness of the wall are naive. Thin walls, as opposed to thick walls, actual require more architectural skill and the best quality stone and mortar, particularly in tall buildings and, in this case, merely reflect this was the best quality of solar tower.

- Philip Davis

This site is a scheduled monument protected by law

This is a Grade 2* listed building protected by law

Historic England Scheduled Monument Number
Historic England Listed Building number(s)
Images Of England
Historic England (PastScape) Defra or Monument number(s)
County Historic Environment Record
OS Map Grid ReferenceNY782532
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Copyright Paul Heaton All Rights Reserved
Copyright Mike Quinn and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons license.

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  • Hodgson, John, 1826


  • English Heritage, 2010, Heritage at Risk Register 2010 North East (London: English Heritage) p. 31 online copy
  • English Heritage, 2009, Heritage at Risk Register 2009 North East (London: English Heritage) p. 41 online copy