Medieval times (AD1066 – 1600)
The origins of Alston are not known, but by the twelfth century it had replaced Epiacum as the main settlement in the region. Alston developed primarily as a market town and as an administrative centre for the lead industry, but site of Epiacum was perhaps never completely abandoned. Earthworks of medieval and post-medieval field systems surround the fort, demonstrating that the land here was under the plough for considerable periods of time over the past 1,000 years. Well-preserved ‘ridge-and-furrow’ field systems can be seen to the east of the fort, in some places overlying the line of the Maiden Way. The wide ridges, forming a reverse S-shape and averaging 7 metres in width, result from the ploughing of the land in long strips using an ox-drawn plough. These fields are probably of 13th century date, and were presumably used to grow barley and oats. To the south of the fort, the ridge-and-furrow is narrower and straighter; this results from the use of a horse-drawn plough and is probably later in date, perhaps 17th century in origin. To some extent, the creation of this ridge-and-furrow may have been to ease drainage and thus improve pasture, rather than to create arable fields.
The Anglo-Scottish border?
The nineteenth century antiquarian John Hodgson wrote ‘A History of Northumberland’. In it he says
“Whitelaw, or Whitley (Whitlow), is a hamlet, the antient enclosed grounds of which are situated in the angle formed by the left banks of the Gildurdale Burn and he Tyne; and to this place, in 1222, the sherif of Northumberland, by royal mandate, was directed to take with him the bishop of Drurham, or his bailiff, with three barons, Hugh de Bolbeck, Richard de Umfraville and Roger de Merlay, and other discreet and loyal knights of his county, and by their view and advice to fix the marches there between the kings of England and Scotland, as they had been in the time of king John, and his predecessors, kings of England, because Robt. De Ros and the prior of Kirkham had lodged a complaint of encroachment having been committed there upon the king’s land”
At Whitley Shielings, 2.5km south-east of the Roman fort, on the north bank of the Gilderdale Burn, the remains of twenty shielings have been recorded. Sheilings were small houses, used during the summer months by shepherds who moved up into the hills with their flocks each spring, perhaps also undertaking other tasks such as mining and peat-cutting, before returning to lowland settlements in the autumn, where the stock would be over-wintered in the enclosed fields. Shieling was the normal way of life for communities throughout the uplands of Northumberland in medieval times, but seems to have died out by about 1600. The chronology of the Whitley Shielings may one day be established through excavation, and local historian, Alastair Roberts has published a study of the Epiacum Shielings.