Elsdon : Site Morphology
In plan, the village core resembles the shape of a teardrop, comprising two rows of houses laid out on either side of a broad green, which tapers to form narrow access corridors at both its north and south ends. The tower house occupies a dominating position at the northern apex of the settlement, whilst the church sits within the northern half of the green. In contrast the earthwork castle is situated on the opposite (east) side of the burn, at the southern end of a low ridge extending down from the surrounding moors.
Extensive work by Brian Roberts (e.g. Roberts 1990) focussed in particular on the villages of County Durham, has shown that the two-row village with an intervening green or broad street was the most characteristic form of planned settlement associated with a widespread reorganisation of the agricultural landscape in the 12th century implemented by the new Norman feudal lords.
The basic layout of Elsdon village, which we see today, may therefore date from this period and reflect the activity of the Umfraville lords. However the more irregular form of green suggests that here the plan was adapted to accommodate earlier settlement features, in particular the church of St Cuthbert which, as previously noted, is located in the wider part of the green. The orientation of the site was doubtless determined by its location alongside the burn.
Comparing the Inclosure, tithe and various estate maps with the 1st edition Ordnance Survey suggests the extent of settlement changed little between the early 18th and mid 19th centuries, although the layout of approach roads to the north and south of the village was significantly altered with the construction of turnpikes and various roads skirting the Mote Hills.
The medieval settlement may have been similar in extent, but this cannot be determined with certainty. It is clear that Elsdon was, in commercial and ecclesiastical terms, the most important settlement in the dale in the late 13th century, not only forming the site of the parish church but also possessing two markets and two fairs.
It thus appears to have been on the cusp of borough status. Indeed it would probably have acquired such privileges had the Umfravilles not abandoned the castle site, perhaps at the end of the 12th century, and had the economy of upland Northumberland not gone into a prolonged recession from the end the 13th century, which saw many established boroughs ultimately fail. It may, therefore, conceivably have been more populous at this stage than later on, in which case there may have been more messuages surrounding the green than is apparent on the 18th and 19th century maps, although equally there may not.
It is noteworthy that Elsdon preserves relatively few of the long strip-like messuages or burgage plots typical of medieval boroughs, with just two evident to the north of the church (the plots north east of the pinfold are of modern date, cf. Conzen 1969, 73), which might suggest that the village was not so intensively built up, but such survival-based evidence is not necessarily decisive. In the 1604 Border Survey, Elsdon does not appear much, if any, more populous than neighbouring farmsteads, which might imply that it had declined in population since the zenith of its medieval prosperity if that survey provides a representative picture (1604 Survey, 87-8, 100-1; see Selected Sources and Surveys).
However, whatever vicissitudes the settlement endured during the late medieval and early modern periods, the basic layout of the settlement - arranged around a leaf-shaped green with a church in the northern half as described above - appears clear and is unlikely to have undergone radical transformation. Outlying elements include the mill to the north, the two fair grounds to the east and west of the village (evident on the Inclosure and tithe maps), the presumed site of the gallows on Gallows Hill to the SSW, and the various farmsteads which ring the the village e.g. Hudspeth, Landshot, Todholes, etc. Hudspeth at least can be traced back to the medieval period and many of the other farmsteads may have originated then. Several of these components are discussed in more detail below.