Northumberland's location on the border of England and Scotland makes it an area with a turbulent past—an area of constant border raids between the peoples of Scotland and England. The prize was cattle and horses, and, sometimes, women.
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All the fighting between the two countries resulted in more than 113 castles and pele towers being built by the early 1400's in Northumberland. Most lie in ruins, but enough survive to make an interesting castle trail, a rewarding experience that brings some of this history alive.
First on the agenda is the 14th century Etal Castle, located in sparsely settled countryside. Little is left of the castle—just a gatehouse and keep. It was captured and destroyed by the Scots just before the battle of Flodden Field in 1513. This small border castle was built by the Manners family as a home. Quarrels with both the neighbors and the Scots resulted in a somewhat ruined state for the castle, which the Manners eventually vacated. Other families occupied it, repairing it as the need arose, and the Scots captured and destroyed it just before the battle of Flodden Field in 1513.
In 1908 the castle and village were purchased and restored by the 1st Lord Joicey. There is an excellent interpretive centre at the site where you can spend an interesting and informative hour learning about the castle, border warfare, and the Battle of Flodden Field. The nearby village boasts a narrow gauge railway, water-driven corn mill, and the Black Bull, Northumberland’s only thatched pub.
Head down the B1342 and Northumberland’s Heritage Coast to windswept Bamburgh Castle and its dramatic setting perched on a rocky basalt outcrop overlooking the North Sea. It’s a breathtaking, if stormy, view. I can see why it was built with extra thick walls—if not for defensive purposes, perhaps to keep warm in winter winds.
This dramatic spot with its sweeping sand beaches was a strategic spot from prehistoric times. Once occupied by the Romans it became, in 547, the capital city of Saxon King Ida. Sir Walter Scott described it as “King Ida’s castle huge and square” although it would have been a wooden structure at the time.
The kings of Northumbria were once crowned at Bamburgh, but it became prey to Mercian invaders in 642 and the Vikings in the 9th century. The fortress mostly dates from the end of Norman times when it was built in stone for better protection from the invading Scots. Its immensely thick walls make it an imposing site.
It saw many battles and sieges through the years. One of its most famous constables was Hotspur, who led the army that defeated the Scots at Homildon Hill and then plotted against King Henry IV.
In 1704 Lord Crewe purchased and restored the ruins, damaged in the War of the Roses. Lord Armstrong, a Victorian inventor and industrialist, added Victorian adornments—to the distress of historians—and this is the castle we see today, still the home of the Armstrong family.
The castle boasts collections of china, porcelain, paintings, arms and armour, and a ghost. The story goes that a poor girl called Jane went to the castle to beg for food and was turned away by the guards. Overcome with weakness, she stumbled while descending steep steps from a small postern gate north of the clock tower. She and the baby in her arms fell to their death. Visitors report hearing the guards’ laughter and the cries of Jane. Others report sensing something in the air or seeing furniture being moved around.
Now for Chillingham Castle, hidden in woodlands amongst the scenic grandeur of the Cheviot Hills. Built as a stronghold in the 12th century, it was added to in the 14th. Often besieged in its early history, always owned by the Earls Grey family of tea fame, deserted by the family in 1933, it had fallen into such disrepair over the years that the ceilings caved in, and the rooms were knee deep in pigeon droppings which sprouted mushrooms.
Fortunately for us, Sir Humphrey Wakefield, reoccupied the courtyard castle and set about restoring it. The great halls and state rooms now reflect their past with some rooms stripped back to their medieval origins and others restored to their 1800’s glory. It is particularly intriguing to see the different layers of time as they are peeled back to reveal the centuries of change. In one room a secret staircase was revealed, in another a collapsed tunnel, possibly leading to a hidden dungeon. Other dungeons and torture chambers are on view as well as paintings, furniture and tapestries.
This castle, too, has its share of ghosts. One is the “Radiant Boy” who comes from the fireplace in the Pink Bedroom, often in a blue flash as if there were an electric spark. This may have arisen from the fact that, when the fireplace was being enlarged, the bones of a young boy were discovered therein. Another ghost is Lady Grey, Countess of Tankerville, who committed suicide after her husband ran away with her sister. She is said to leave her portrait to wander the Castle in search of her husband.
The tearoom in the castle is a delight. A roaring fire throws out warm fingers as you sit, with history all around you, indulging in hot tea and freshly baked goodies. Very atmospheric. Play lord or lady of the manor here by taking a room for the night or a self-contained apartment for the week.
Nearby are the famous Chillingham wild cattle. These cattle are the only survivors of a herd that once roamed Britain’s forests. For over 700 years the descendants of these wild cattle have been enclosed and left undisturbed in the 365 acre walled park. Considered extremely dangerous, all visits must be accompanied by a warden.
Near the castle is the tiny church of St. Peter with a beautiful 1450 tomb of artistic merit. It is dedicated to Sir Ralph Grey and his wife Elizabeth. Their carved figures still carry a trace of the original color.
Driving back to the coast, I search out Preston Tower, built around 1392 as a home for Robert Harbottle, Sheriff of Northumberland, to protect his family from border raids by the Scots. These towers---there were 78 in the early 1400’s—are known as pele towers. As in the case of Hadrian’s Wall, once danger no longer existed, many of these towers were pulled down by local people to use the stone for their own building purposes.
Only two turrets remain at Preston. Primitive, but well suited to the troubled times, each tunnel-vaulted room is unaltered and gives a picture of life in the 1400’s under the threat of Scottish invasion. The ground floor contains a guardroom and prison, the first floor a bedroom and living area. On the second floor there is information about Flodden Battle, interesting stories of the border country and even songs of the times. Climb to the top and out to the roof for a magnificent view over the countryside and the park below. It would be easy to spot the enemy on the horizon from this vantage point.
Continuing on the castle trail, I wend my way south to Dunstanburg Castle. Located 1 ½ miles down a coastal footpath, this skeleton of a 14th century castle is sited like Bamburg on a basalt outcropping overlooking the ocean. A large gatehouse and curtain walls are survivors of the weather and time. Dunstanburg is the largest ruined castle in Northumberland, covering eleven acres. A sight of the waves clambering on the rocks below gives an understanding of why this location was ideal in terms of safety from sea invaders.
Henry III’s son, the Earl of Lancaster, built the castle, and the Lancastrians used it during the War of the Roses. This accounts for the damage done and the state of ruin in which it now finds itself.
My next stop is Alnwick Castle, located in the town of Alnwick. The Percy family emblem, the lion, greets me at the gate along with stone figures of warriors perched around the battlements, as if the castle were still being defended. But it would have to be a shortsighted enemy to mistake these figures for the real thing. Fortunately, they were never put to the test, not having been added until the mid 1700s.
Although Gilbert Tyson, standard bearer to William the Conqueror, originally owned Alnwick, it changed hands a number of times before coming into the ownership of the Percy family in 1309. Because the Percys didn't take sides during the Civil War, the castle was not destroyed and we can see it in its full glory.
The castle's elaborate 17th and 18th century Italian Renaissance interiors are quite a surprise after viewing the medieval exterior. The large English crystal chandeliers and the mirrors particularly impress me.
Leaving Alnwick castle, I take the A1068 road south to Warkworth Castle, the other chief baronial castle of the Percys. The Earl of the castle, a Catholic, joined the uprising against Queen Elizabeth. Her servants pillaged the castle, thus starting the process of decay and ruin, which we see today.
The castle sits high on a hillside with its village tucked below. The castle took shape over a number of centuries and was the result of the joining of two castles. One of these was the keep, and one was around an outer bailey. The first castle built in 1150 by the Earl of Northumberland, son of David 1, King of the Scots, eventually ended up in the hands of the Percys in 1332.
Entering through the 13th century gatehouse, I use the excellent audiotape and guidebook from English Heritage to develop a realistic picture of life at the time. Only the ruins of the chapel, hall, solar, church—never finished— stables, and other outbuildings exist. I spot a worn and weathered Percy lion on the central boss of the vault under the Lion Tower arch.
The three-storey keep is fascinating as it is largely intact, making it easy to imagine living there as I explore. An early skylight contains spaces that let in air and daylight to parts of the dark keep. This skylight served as a channel for rainwater flowing into a large tank at the foot of the lightwell or into a pipe to flush out the latrine shafts. Luckily, this water was not used for drinking.
Walking around to the north side of the keep, I spot another Percy lion facing the village of Warkworth—a reminder to its inhabitants where their allegiance laid.
From Warkworth, I take an inland route on the A1 heading south towards Newcastle. Turning off on the A69 west, then driving south at Horsley I reach Prudoe Castle, located on a steep slope of the Tyne River. It is a less well known Percy castle under the care of English Heritage. A video presentation of its history is provided.
Built during the reign of Henry II by Odinel d'Umfraville the Percys acquired it by marrying into the family 400 years later. The extensive castle ruins have an unusual gatehouse, barbican, and keep, one of the oldest in Northumberland. Entering over the drawbridge, the air of gentle decay is striking, as if Prudhoe is frozen in time.
South of Hadrian’s Wall near Corbridge, Aydon Castle stands in a wooded area overlooking the steep valley of the Cor Burn. It was built as a manor house in the late 13th century during peaceful times, but was fortified shortly thereafter. The Scots pillaged and burned it in 1315, English rebels seized it, the builder was left impoverished, and, finally, in the 17th century it was converted to a farmhouse.
Etal Castle: English Heritage. On B6354 at the village of Etal, 10 miles southwest of Berwick upon Tweed.
Bamburgh Castle: 6 miles east of Belford by B1342 from A1 at Belford.
Preston Tower: minor road off coastal B1340 at Chathill, 7 miles north of Alnwick (follow the signs). Phone: (0) 1665 589227
Chillingham Castle: at Chillingham, Wooler, Northumberland. From south take off Al, then A697, follow signs from Wooler—6 miles southeast. 12 miles northwest of Alnwick—from north take A1 south and follow tourist signs. Shop, tearoom, woodland walk, Italian topiary garden. All night ghost vigils, especially at Halloween.
Chillingham Wild Cattle Park: Phone: (0) 1668 215250.
Dunstanburg Castle: owned by National Trust and under care of English Heritage. 8 miles northeast of Alnwick on footpath. From the north off the A1, take the B6347, then right on the B1340, follow minor road to Craster village at the head of a path to the castle (parking lot). Phone: (0) 1665 576231
Prudhoe Castle: English Heritage. In Prudhoe, on minor road. Phone: (0)1661 833459. Brass rubbing; picnic spot; exhibition and video presentation
Aydon Castle: 1 mile northeast of Corbridge on minor road off A68 or B6321.
© Text and photos copyright Barbara Ballard