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Gateshead : Still in Newcastle’s shadow?

Gateshead is a town that is arguably growing slowly in confidence and status. Could it one day even challenge the city status of its historic neighbour across the Tyne? DAVID SIMPSON explores Gateshead’s transition from an apparent ‘backwater’ to a major centre of northern culture.

Angel of the North
Angel of the North Photo copyright © 2009 David Simpson

In times past Gateshead was once unflatteringly described in parliament as a ‘dirty lane leading to Newcastle’. It has also been described in more chauvinistic times as ‘Newcastle’s wife’ and then there’s that oft-told story of a stranger asking a native Geordie for directions to Gateshead. The reply is something along the lines of “gan ower the bridge and ye’ will say ‘this canna’ be Gyetsid’, but it is”.

Things are a lot different today of course, at least for those parts of Gateshead that face the Newcastle waterside. Gateshead has been a town and borough in the shadow of Newcastle since medieval times and often willingly or unwillingly under its neighbour’s direct control. Since 1882 Newcastle has held the status of a city, reinforcing Gateshead’s role as a ‘suburb’ despite the two places belonging to two quite different counties for so many centuries.

Gateshead Millennium Bridge
Gateshead Millennium Bridge : Photo © David Simpson

There is, almost, dare I say it, a sense that modern developments and future plans could, in decades to come, bring about a turnaround in this status. Gateshead, as it grows and develops might well become the sparkling modern city of glass and steel while Newcastle might come to serve the splendid role of ‘the old toon’, a kind of beautiful historic quarter with charming old buildings, streets and bars so typically found in many of the most frequently visited continental cities.

I regularly listen to Radio 2 these days – I’m showing my age here – and I often hear them announce forthcoming tours of prominent performers to major cities. Through the splendid work and fabulous event programme of the wonderful venue that is Sage Gateshead it is often Gateshead that you hear listed amongst those cities, rather than Newcastle. It’s quite an astonishing thing, when you think about it, given the almost ‘backwater’ status that Gateshead once held.

Sage Gateshead
Sage Gateshead. Photo © David Simpson 2018

And there’s more. What is the most iconic symbol of the region today? The Tyne Bridge? Well maybe, but if it is so then Gateshead can certainly claim its share of this wonderful eminence of solid steel.

However, arguably the most internationally recognised symbol of the whole region, let alone Tyneside today, is Gateshead’s own Angel of the North. In fact it might even be described as the symbol of the entire North of England and it’s right here in Gateshead. Well, where else?

St Mary Gateshead Tyne Bridge
Church of St Mary, Gateshead and Tyne Bridge : Photo © David Simpson

Even down on the river, the Tyne Bridge is now somewhat challenged in the admiration stakes by the Gateshead Millennium Bridge which tellingly includes Gateshead in its name. Its modern elegant gleaming white arch certainly seems to connect with the companion buildings of Sage and BALTIC on the south shore a little more so than perhaps it does with even the most modern quayside buildings on the Newcastle side.

Being a pedestrian bridge it is also, in human terms, the most effective link between the two ‘toons’ if we are to insist on that humbling dialect term for a community’s civic status. By comparison the magnificent Tyne Bridge, though undoubtedly the greatest symbol of ‘home’ for many a Tynesider, seems designed, despite its symbolism, to carry traffic through and away from the two places as much as it serves in bringing the two communities together.

BALTIC viewed from the Gateshead Millennium Bridge
BALTIC viewed from the Gateshead Millennium Bridge : Photo © David Simpson

Of course it is the central business districts or retail centres that are often most identified as the heart of any city. Northumberland Street and Eldon Square, which though both pleasing, could, let’s be honest, be located almost anywhere, as much-loved as they are. They are as seemingly as popular as ever but it is reasonable to ask what they might look like in fifty years time considering the new era of online commerce which we are, in generational terms, still only just entering.

In fairness, retail seems to be one area where central Gateshead is unlikely to challenge Newcastle. The modern Trinity Square in Gateshead town centre is certainly not on a scale intended to do so, although Gateshead’s out-of-town MetroCentre has given Newcastle town centre more than a run for its money for some decades now.

Trinity Square, Gateshead
Trinity Square, Gateshead town centre : Photo © David Simpson

We often hear the two places now described under one name ‘Newcastle-Gateshead’ and the initiative to market and develop the two as one seems to have been broadly accepted, at least for now, but might there come a day when the modern ‘city’ of Gateshead demands recognition and perhaps even a senior status in its own right, distinct from its grand, handsome but ageing partner across the water?

Well, maybe not, but who would have thought thirty years ago that Gateshead could have developed into what it has become today?

 

SOME FACTS ABOUT GATESHEAD

  • Gateshead Borough is home to around 200,000 people.
  • It stretches from Whickham and Blaydon in the west to Pelaw and Felling in the east and south to Birtley.
  • Sage Gateshead stands close to the site of Gateshead’s medieval streets including Hillgate.
  • Hillgate or ‘Hellgate’ was where the Great fire of Newcastle and Gateshead began in 1854.
  • Gateshead Millennium Bridge can tilt to 40 degrees.
  • BALTIC gallery occupies a former flour mill established in the 1930s but was not opened until the 1950s.
  • Rank who owned the mill often named mills after foreign seas.
  • BALTIC stands on the site of the Hawks’Iron works (1858-1890). One Hawks’ employee was Geordie Ridley who wrote ‘Blaydon Races’.
  • A painting of the Blaydon Races can be seen in Shipley Art Gallery.
  • Underhill, the first private house in the world to be lit by electricity is now a care home in Kells Lane, Low Fell.

Read more about the story behind these facts at https://englandsnortheast.co.uk/gateshead/

Gateshead in early times

  • According to the Venerable Bede, ‘Gateshead’ was ‘Goat’s head’.
  • A family called the Gategangs dominated Gateshead in the 1300s
  • Gateshead was the site of a medieval hospital.
  • For centuries in medieval times Newcastle tried to take control of Gateshead. It finally succeeded in 1582 in the reign of Elizabeth I in a grand lease that lasted 99 years.
  • There was a Roman-British settlement at Gateshead roughly where the Gateshead Hilton hotel is now located.

Read more about Gateshead in more distant times here https://englandsnortheast.co.uk/medieval-gateshead/

Land of Oak & Iron

The Land of Oak & Iron is a vast region rich in natural and industrial heritage and is right on the doorstep of some of the most populous parts of the North East. DAVID SIMPSON explores.

Aerial view of Allensford in the Land of Oak & Iron.
Aerial view of Allensford in the Land of Oak & Iron. Photo: Michael Ball

Have you ever visited the Land of Oak & Iron? Perhaps you have without realising. This is after all a land covering around 177 km2 of North East England and features a wonderful wealth of ‘heritage, history, heroes and habitats’.

Focused on the beautiful Derwent Valley this land encompasses parts of County Durham, Northumberland and the Borough of Gateshead and is a superb part of the region to relax and explore on foot or bike and all within easy reach of Tyneside and many of the most populous parts of the North East.

Land of Oak and Iron Heritage Centre
Land of Oak & Iron Heritage Centre. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Recently we visited the plush new Land of Oak & Iron Heritage Centre and the adjoining independent café Shrub which are very easy to reach just off the A694 at Winlaton Mill between Consett and Gateshead. In the sunny Autumnal sunshine there were plenty of people enjoying good food in the café – much of which is sourced from North East producers, while others were trying their hand at wood-engraved print-making in the heritage centre, courtesy of visiting demonstrator, Shona Branigan of Salmon Jam Press.

Wood-print engraver, Shona Branigan.
Wood-print engraver, Shona Branigan. Photo © David Simpson 2018

The centre and café look out onto the beautiful wooded Derwent Valley with its extensive network of pathways that are popular with cyclists, dog walkers and families out for a stroll. Formed as a landscape partnership, the Land of Oak & Iron is hosted by Groundwork NE & Cumbria and with £3.4 million of secured funding, is undertaking a programme of fourteen interconnected projects to conserve, enhance and encourage accessibility to the area’s unique cultural and natural assets. The developments began in 2016 and will continue all the way into 2020.

Land of Oak and Iron Heritage Centre
Land of Oak & Iron Heritage Centre. Photo: landofoakandiron.org.uk

The opening of the café and heritage centre in October 2018 has been an important milestone in these developments and the centre is a good starting point to explore the whole area. However it’s about much more than just one place. This is the heart of a region that stretches north west from the wooded valley of Allensford near Consett along the beautiful Derwent to where the little river joins the Tyne at Swalwell. From there the region stretches west along the Tyne to Cherryburn the one time home of famed eighteenth century engraver, Thomas Bewick.

Bewick is just one of the many local heroes associated with the Land of Oak & Iron. Others include the fraternity of seventeenth century German sword makers who settled at Shotley Bridge; the renowned industrialist, Ambrose Crowley; the ‘Unhappy Countess’, Mary Eleanor Bowes of Gibside and the ‘pitman poet’ Tommy Armstrong.

Wonderful wonderland in the Land of Oak and Iron
Wonderful woodland in the Land of Oak & Iron. Photo: landofoakandiron.org.uk

In terms of heritage, the landscape speaks for itself. Extensive woodland includes Chopwell Wood, Milkwellburn Wood and the Thornley Woodlands which are typical landscape features of the district. In fact in the old Brythonic tongue of the Celts, the name Derwent means ‘oak river’ and is testament to the long-established sylvan nature of the district.

Improved access to woodland, encouraged through the work of Access & Woodlands Officer, Peter Downes, works to assist and support local owners of small woodlands and is another successful aspect of the Partnership’s work, bringing owners of adjoining woodlands together. According to Kath Marshall-Ivens, Community Engagement Officer at Groundwork NE and Cumbria, the area covered by the partnership has a 13% woodland cover which is higher than the national and regional average. It includes a number of PAWS (Plantations on Ancient Woodland Sites), which are sites that were ancient woodland but have been replanted in more recent years. Ancient woodland is that which has existed continuously since 1600 or before.

Country parks, Land of Oak and Iron
There are four country parks within the Land of Oak & Iron. Photo: landofoakandiron.org.uk

There are four country parks within the whole area, namely Derwent Walk, Derwenthaugh, Allensford, and Tyne Riverside and there are additional visitor centres at Thornley Woods and The Lodge Heritage Centre at Consett and Blackhill Park.

The numerous landscape features and habitats across this beautiful region include wildflower meadows like Blaydon’s Shibdon Meadow which lies in close proximity to the MetroCentre, adjoining the Shibdon Ponds nature reserve. Further to the west near Prudhoe are the intriguingly named ‘Spetchells’ to the south of the Tyne which in the North East form a unique chalk meadow landscape created from the spoil heaps of a former chemical works that stood on the site. As well as interesting fauna the Spetchells form a special habitat for solitary mining bees.

Industry has certainly played a role in shaping the landscape of the Land of Oak & Iron. The Derwent Walk pathway that forms the primary walking and cycling route through the whole area follows the course of a Victorian railway that linked the former iron town of Consett to Tyneside. Many of the smaller pathways of the network follow the routes of colliery wagonways some of which date back to the 1700s and 1600s.

Major heritage features in the region are often reminders of its important links to the iron industry and include the early eighteenth century remains of Allensford Blast Furnace near Consett and the impressive Derwentcote Steel Furnace of the 1730s near Hamsterley Mill. We also have the rare and curious Whinfield Coke Ovens near Chopwell Wood, built by the owners of the Victoria Garesfield Colliery in the 1860s.

Derwentcote Steel Furnace
Derwentcote Steel Furnace. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Other heritage features within the Land of Oak & Iron include two major National Trust sites in the form of Thomas Bewick’s cottage at Cherryburn which stands in a splendid rural setting and of course the wonderful parkland of Gibside near Rowlands Gill including the magnificent Palladian chapel and much else besides. Somewhere between the two we have a major English Heritage site in the shape of the twelfth century Prudhoe Castle, reputedly the only castle in the North East never to have been captured by the Scots.

A lesser-known heritage site that forms a lovely independent attraction is the Path Head Water Mill, a restored operational water mill complete with a working water wheel and adjoining mill pond. Parts of the mill were salvaged from mills at Acomb and Guyzance in Northumberland and it forms a super attraction in lovely grounds near the valley of the Blaydon Burn.

Path Head Water Mill
Path Head Water Mill. Photo: landofoakandiron.org.uk

Perhaps a more surprising heritage feature of the Partnership area are the remains of the thirteenth century medieval manor house called Old Hollinside Manor near Whickham. It was known as the ‘Giant’s Castle’ because the men folk of the Harding family who once resided here were noted for being so tall in stature.

Old Hollinside Manor
Old Hollinside Manor. Photo Gateshead Borough Council

The River Derwent and Tyne are of course an important aspect of the area’s cultural, industrial and natural heritage. In recent years improvements have been made to the Derwent as a habitat for fish and this has been one of the partnership’s most publicised projects. Salmon and Sea Trout can now migrate much further upstream to lay their eggs after the development of a rock pool fish pass at Lintzford, overseen by the Tyne Rivers Trust.

Opened in November 2016, the new fish pass complements the existing 300 year old weir that had previously blocked the migration of the fish. Another fish pass will be created upstream at Shotley Grove and this will open up the whole river for spawning and have a positive impact on trout and salmon numbers in the valley and even out at sea.

Fish Pass, the Land of Oak and Iron
Fish Pass, the Land of Oak & Iron. Photo: Julia Richardson

Towns such as Consett, Rowlands Gill, Ryton, Whickham, Blaydon and Prudhoe all lie within the Land of Oak & Iron as well as several smaller villages. The proximity of neighbouring Tyneside make this all the more important as a region of natural and industrial heritage in close proximity to so many thousands of people.

Community involvement has been a major factor in the success of the Land of Oak & Iron Partnership and has included outreach programmes to local schools with sessions aimed at exploring the industrial and natural heritage of the area.

Notable creations associated with links to schools include the composition of a song and also the creation of an orchestral piece both inspired by the landscape of the area. In addition there has been much work in partnership with Gateshead College aimed at engaging with the landscape, with projects including photography and work for building students in the conservation of the industrial heritage sites.

Although the projects will be completed in 2020, the legacy and community involvement will continue far beyond with a ‘legacy group’ ensuring that the wonderful Land of Oak & Iron can be explored, enjoyed, understood and appreciated for many generations to come.

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LINKS

Land of Oak & Iron website:

landofoakandiron.org.uk

 

On Twitter: @LandofOakIron

On Facebook: www.facebook.com/LandofOakandIron

Café Shrub, Winlaton Mill: cafeshrub.co.uk/

Path Head Water Mill: gatesheadmill.co.uk/

Cherryburn: nationaltrust.org.uk/cherryburn

Gibside: nationaltrust.org.uk/gibside

Prudhoe Castle: english-heritage.org.uk/

Salmon Jam Press: salmonjampress.co.uk/

Main Partners Land of Oak & Iron Partnership: County Durham Community Foundation; Durham County Council; Durham Wildlife Trust; English Heritage; Gateshead College; Groundwork NE and Cumbria; New Visions Heritage; Northumberland County Council; Tyne and Wear Building Preservation Trust; Tyne River Trust; The Woodland Trust. Other partner organisations include: Blaydon Youth and Community Centre; Friends of Chopwell Wood, Heritage Lottery Fund; Industrial Heritage Networks; Newcastle Gateshead Initiative and Visit County Durham.

Have you visited the Land of Oak & Iron?

Please tell us about your favourite places to visit in the district or anywhere else that you like to explore across the North East of England.

Leave your comments below, we’d love to hear from you.

Majestic marvels: the castles of North East England

DAVID SIMPSON looks at the fantastic variety of castles found in North East England.

Newcastle Castle Keep
Newcastle Castle Keep Photo © David Simpson 2015

‘Northumbria’, the historic kingdom of North East England has an extraordinary variety of wonderful castles and fortifications. Even the three cities of the region: Durham, Sunderland and of course Newcastle have a castle each, while Northumberland has more castles than any other county in the whole of England. Several are pretty spectacular too.

The castles range from fortified tower houses called ‘pele towers’ and fortified farms and barns called ‘bastles’ to grand medieval fortresses like Alnwick. Today a handful of castles are nothing more than a mound in the ground but there are still plenty more that stand as magnificent ruins or even as the complete article, though often with architectural additions of differing ages.

Some castles are private residences, some are hotels while others are major visitor attractions drawing people from far and wide. Here we thought we’d take a quick wander around the castles of our kingdom.

Three cities :  Three castles

It still takes me aback when visitors express surprise that Newcastle has a castle – yet the clue is there, in the name. Newcastle’s castle of course gave its name to the famed city upon the Tyne and dates from Norman times. Before then the town was known by its old Anglo-Saxon name of Monkchester.

Cathedral and castle Blackgate Newcastle
The Blackgate and St Nicholas Cathedral, Newcastle : Photo © 2015 David

It was Robert Curthose, the eldest son of William the Conqueror who built the first castle here of ‘earth and wood’ on the site of a Roman fort overlooking the Tyne. It was replaced later by another new castle on the same site that was built in 1172 during the reign of Henry II.

Today the castle survives in two parts, namely the formidable Norman keep which dates from the 1170s and the beautiful Blackgate which dates from 1247. The two parts are separated from one another by the Victorian railway that cut the old castle site in two halves. Great views of the setting of Newcastle can be found from the top of the castle keep and logically there is perhaps no better starting point to explore the history of ‘the toon’.

The castle protected the development of the early town of Newcastle but its importance in the defence of the place became less significant following the development of the medieval town walls from 1265. Nevertheless when Newcastle came under siege during the Civil War in the 1640s it was the castle that was the last place to hold out.

Castle gateway
Castle gateway.Photo © David Simpson 2017

Durham Castle in Durham City stands on the neck of the peninsula formed by the River Wear and dates from Norman times. There was an earlier Saxon fortification on the same site and it successfully defended the little city and its neighbouring Saxon minster. It seems to have fulfilled its defensive role rather well as Durham held out against the Scots in 1006 and 1038.

William the Conqueror ordered that a new castle should be built here in 1072 and it developed from thereon with much of the older parts of the present castle dating from the reign of Bishop Pudsey (1153-1195). The castle keep is the most imposing part of the building and houses students of Durham University but the keep is in fact largely a nineteenth century restoration with the original having fallen into a ruinous condition. The keep was rebuilt in the 1840s at around the time the castle became part of Durham University.

The castle keep, Durham
The castle keep, Durham Photo © David Simpson 2017

Much of the main body of Durham castle is, however, genuinely medieval, notably the great dining hall, though later parts of the building date from the Tudor and Georgian eras. Of course today, the castle is part of a World Heritage site that includes the neighbouring Durham Cathedral. A curious fact is that the whole river peninsula of Durham was once considered to be ‘the Castle’. So, the cathedral technically lay within the castle which is why the castle bailey that now takes the form of two streets called the Baileys runs along the cathedral’s eastern flank.

It is sometimes forgotten that the City of Sunderland has a castle too though it lies away from the city centre to the west, where it gives its name to one of the Sunderland suburbs on the north side of the River Wear. Hylton Castle was built around 1400 by a William de Hylton on a hill overlooking the Wear and guarded a nearby ferry that was in operation from the 1320s.

Hylton Castle
Hylton Castle Photo © 2017 David Simpson

Hylton – the hill settlement – was the name of the nearby village from which the Hylton family took their name. Currently the castle is undergoing an exciting transformation into a living, working building that will benefit both the local community and visitors. The Hylton family had owned an earlier manor house on the site and became a powerful local family of note. Interestingly one member of the family later became a Governor of Tynemouth Castle.

Castles of the Coast

Tynemouth Castle is one of four splendid castles to adorn the North East coast between the Tyne and the Tweed.  It stands high above the mouth of the Tyne and forms a splendid backdrop to the neighbouring sands of King Edward’s Bay. In a similar way to Durham Cathedral being enclosed within Durham Castle, the castle at Tynemouth enclosed the Priory of Tynemouth.

Tynemouth Castle and the bay
Tynemouth Castle and the bay Photo © 2018 David Simpson

In the reign of Henry VIII when Tynemouth Priory was closed for all time, the castle remained an important place of defence against the threat of Spanish, French or Scottish forces. Today, the priory and castle form a magnificent romantic ruin and a superb historic focal point for the fabulously genteel and lively seaside town of Tynemouth.

However, as far as romantic coastal ruins go Tynemouth has a great rival further north up at Dunstanburgh near Craster on the Northumberland coast. This enigmatic castle was built in 1313 by Thomas, Earl of Lancaster and was extended by John of Gaunt in the 1380s. It occupies the largest site of any castle in the region and is a strong rival to Tynemouth for being the best-known coastal castle in the region. In truth both are overshadowed by the stupendous Bamburgh Castle, which is arguably one of the best-known castles in the world. For its setting, history and occasional movie appearances, Bamburgh is hard to beat when it comes to the North East castle hall of fame.

Built on a site occupied since prehistoric times, Bamburgh can only be described as iconic such is its fame and magnificence. It was the site of the northern capital of the Northumbrians, consisting of a communal fortress and citadel but the building we see today is not the Bebbanburgh of Anglo-Saxon times as the place was refortified as a castle in Norman times.

Beautiful Bamburgh.
Beautiful Bamburgh. Photo © David Simpson 2018

The huge keep at Bamburgh is twelfth century and much of the surrounding walls are medieval though the castle underwent much-needed restoration during its ownership by the famed Victorian industrialist William Lord Armstrong who also resided at Cragside. One unusual feature of the castle is that it has its own windmill (though no longer with sails) which can be seen at the western end of the castle.

Of course, equally romantic to Bamburgh and Dunstanburgh is  Lindisfarne Castle first built in 1550 on Beblowe Rock, the highest point on Holy Island which lies off the coast to the north of Bamburgh. This castle was beautifully restored and converted into a private residence by Sir Edwin Lutyens in 1903 and seems to almost grow out naturally from its rocky base. It is now owned by the National Trust.

Lindisfarne Castle
Lindisfarne Castle : Photo © 2015 David Simpson

Percy and Neville

The grandest castles were often the homes to the most powerful barons and in the North East the Neville and Percy families ranked highest of them all. Brancepeth Castle near Durham was a Neville stronghold and one of the places at which the family plotted the Rising of the North against Queen Elizabeth I along with the Percys. However, it is Raby Castle with which the Neville family is most famously associated in the region. Situated near Staindrop in County Durham, Raby Castle stands within a beautiful deer park in Teesdale and is a quite breathtaking site when seen passing on the neighbouring road.

Raby Castle
Raby Castle © David Simpson 2018

Raby is stunning but is rivalled by Northumberland’s Alnwick Castle, the famous stronghold of the Percys who were the Earls of Northumberland. Famous Percys included Harry Hotspur (1364-1403), the war-hungry son of the First Earl of Northumberland.

Alnwick Castle
Alnwick Castle Photo © David Simpson 2018

Today, however Alnwick is perhaps more closely associated with another Harry, Harry Potter, ever since the famous quidditch scenes of the movie were filmed here.

The Percys also owned Warkworth Castle near the mouth of the River Coquet, a castle that features in Shakespeare’s Henry IV and with which Hotspur has the strongest connection. Another castle,  Prudhoe Castle, where the Tyne Valley meets Tyneside was yet another Percy stronghold and holds the distinction of apparently being the only major medieval castle in the North East that was never taken by the Scots.

Warkworth Castle
Warkworth Castle. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Lumley, Langley

Lumley Castle in County Durham and Langley Castle in Tynedale, Northumberland are two particularly beautiful medieval castles which now serve as hotels. As hotels both often celebrate their historic roots by holding themed medieval banquets. Interestingly both also have a similar square-shaped design with four corner towers.

Langley Castle
Langley Castle. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Langley Castle’s owners in medieval times included both the Percys and the Nevilles although other powerful families included the Radcliffes and Umfravilles. Lumley Castle once belonged to the Lumley family who were often involved in political intrigue in times past.

Lumley Castle
Lumley Castle Photo John Simpson

Another lesser-known castle that now serves as a hotel is Walworth Castle near Darlington which was built by a Thomas Jennison, Auditor of Ireland in 1603 but traces its earlier origins back to 1189.

Walworth Castle
Walworth Castle. Photo © David Simpson 2018

County Durham castles

On the whole castles are much less numerous in County Durham and the Tees Valley than they are in Northumberland to the north because it is that bit more distant from the Scottish Borders.

Ruins of Barnard Castle
Ruins of Barnard Castle’s castle above the River Tees : Photo © David Simpson

Barnard Castle in Teesdale is the best-known ruin in the county of Durham. It was historically associated with the Baliol family whose members included Bernard Baliol from whom the castle and neighbouring town both take their name.

A lesser-known Durham castle is Witton Castle in lower Weardale which now forms the centre of a caravan country park near the pretty village of Witton-le-Wear. This castle was commenced from the conversion of a manor house around 1370 but much was rebuilt around 1700.

Witton Castle.
Witton Castle. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Fortified tower houses or peles, which are so numerous in Northumberland are rare in Durham, though we can see the ruins of such houses at Ludworth east of Durham and at Dalden near Seaham.

Auckland Castle chapel
Auckland Castle chapel. Photo © John Simpson

Several castles in County Durham were historically associated with the powerful Prince Bishops. Durham Castle, we have mentioned but others included Bishop Middleham near Sedgefield of which only a small mound remains. The bishops also held a castle at Stockton of which there is nothing remaining and of course they owned Auckland Castle, often termed Auckland Palace which is still one of the most stunning buildings in the county. Another site of interest is Bishopton, a village near Stockton which has the rather impressive earthworks of a ‘motte and bailey’ castle nearby but which despite its name belonged to a baron called Roger Conyers rather than the bishops.

Earthworks of motte and bailey castle at Bishopton
Earthworks of motte and bailey castle at Bishopton. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Northumberland Castles

In 1415 a list of over one hundred castles was compiled in Northumberland showing the importance of defences in that county in medieval times. These castles varied in scale from simple fortified tower houses to grand castles on the scale of Alnwick and Bamburgh.

Aydon Castle
Aydon Castle. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Amongst the list is Aydon Castle near Corbridge, which is still one of the county’s finest medieval fortifications but on a larger scale are castles such as Ford and Chillingham both in the valley of the River Till in north Northumberland.

Chillingham, a fine medieval castle is a popular attraction today as a rather unusual castle noted for its rather eccentric ‘Aladdin’s Cave’ displays and its exhibition of medieval instruments of torture. Chillingham is also noted for its ghosts – the most haunted castle apparently – though many Northumberland castles such as Blenkinsopp and Bellister in Tynedale also claim to have resident ghosts.

Vicar's Pele at Corbridge
Vicar’s Pele at Corbridge. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Pele towers and bastle houses of note in Northumberland include the vicar’s peles at Corbridge and Elsdon. These kind of pele towers (pele is pronounced peel by the way) were built specifically to protect local clergymen who might have been seen as easy and relatively wealthy prey for raiders in times since past.

Many other pele towers throughout the county were associated with local Border Reiver families. The same was true of the bastles of which examples can be seen in the main street in Haltwhistle or at Black Middens in North Tynedale where we can be impressed by the thickness of the defended walls.

Vicar's Pele, Elsdon
The village of Elsdon in Redesdale showing the vicar’s pele Photo © David Simpson 2019

Many of Northumberland’s castles lie in ruins, notable examples being the impressive remains of Norham Castle which overlook the River Tweed and neighbouring village of Norham. Surprisingly Norham Castle belonged to and was built by the Prince Bishops of Durham as Norhamshire formed an outlying part of their territory.

Norham Castle
Norham Castle Photo © David Simpson 2018

Further north still the town of Berwick upon Tweed was once the site of medieval castle that stood on a site now occupied by the town’s railway station but the main remaining historic defensive feature in that town today is a system of defensive walls that date from Elizabethan times.

Castles, bastles, towers and peles are of course just as much a feature of the border landscape when we cross the border into Scotland to the north: Floors, Duns, Smailholm, Hermitage, Ayton, Cessford and Fatlips are notable examples of castle and peles and there is a similar variety of fortifications to what we will find in Northumberland.

The biggest difference is that across the border we will find many fortifications that have been modified over time to take on that distinctly Scottish, architectural style which has echoes of castles found on the continent in Germany and France but which are not a feature of the Northumberland and Durham landscape.

 

Black Middens bastle
Black Middens Bastle House, North Tynedale. Photo © 2005 David Simpson