But it is also the lifeblood of the Ford and Etal Estates. Meandering through the estates in great loops, it is the reason that settlements grew up in this area, and its water allowed agriculture to flourish. The names of settlements along the river make reference to its importance. The modern village of Ford sits on a hill above the river, but the Medieval settlement was lower down, and this was probably a key crossing point. The likeliest origin of the name of Crookham village is ‘settlement at the crook of the river’ – an appropriate name, since Crookham lies at a large horseshoe-shaped bend in the Till, above another crossing point with the descriptive name of Sandyford. The wide, flat plains created by the river’s meanders still provide good grazing land for animals, and the river is still a good source of irrigation for crops. The local word for these riverside meadows is haugh, and farm names such as Linthaugh hark back to the days when flax, known as lint, was widely grown here. Etal itself may be derived from the same root word, the Old English ‘healh’, its meaning originally being ‘healh of Eata’. Milfield probably refers to an old mill on the river, for in the days of cottage industry, before technology and large-scale production, there were many mills along the Till.
Most of these mills have disappeared, leaving little trace. At Etal, one of the two stone buildings by the side of the river is thought to have connections to an old cornmill, referenced in documents in the early nineteenth century, but possibly with a much longer history. The other building, known as the Power House, was built in 1924 and housed a turbine producing electricity. These are now the premises of Taylor and Green, furniture makers whose beautiful wooden items can be seen on display in their show room. There is a ford at the river here, although it is only passable at low water, and is closed to public traffic, and just downstream was once the site of the Etal ferry, a small boat that carried people across the river. From the ford, it is possible to take a pleasant walk or bike ride along the banks of the river, which forms part of Sustrans Route 68. Along the route you’ll find the remains of an early 14th century chapel built by the Manners family of Etal Castle, which itself overlooks the river just downstream.
The only working mill on the estate is Heatherslaw Cornmill, which still stands in splendour on the bank of the river, its great wheel turning. There has been a mill on this site since at least 1306, when records show that it was held by the widow of Nicolas Graham for £4 a year. The current building, made of stone and standing three storeys high, dates to the 1830s, and the wheels continued to turn until 1949, when the mill fell out of use. Today, however, it has been restored and is back in production. Visitors can, for a small admission fee, enter the mill and see it working just as it would have done when it was built, still powered entirely by the water of the Till, and producing flour and pearl barley. The mill site includes a tearoom, gift shop, where the mill produce is available to buy, craft shops and visitor centre, where you can find information about all the attractions on the estate and wider area, as well as maps of walks and cycle routes.
There are a number of marked footpaths along the river, from Etal and from Heatherslaw, where it’s possible to catch glimpses of the rich variety of wildlife to be found in and around it. There is an abundance of river fowl, and swans, sand martins and oystercatchers nest along the banks and on the small islets in the river. If you’re lucky you might even catch the orange and turquoise flash of a kingfisher, or spot one of the otters that are flourishing here since a successful conservation project in the 1990s. The Till is designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest, and is managed in association with Natural England and the Northumberland Wildlife Trust. Many of the willow trees that line the river and create such a pleasant view have been deliberately planted to help prevent bank erosion, and measures have been taken to increase the insect life, which in turn helps the fish and bird populations. Fishing is allowed by permit along several beats of the river, and it is a popular spot for canoeists and kayakers, who can enjoy the wildlife and the quiet reaches from the water.
Wildlife and Conservation:
Activities on the River:
Place Names of Northumberland: