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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

Kynren is truly epic

DAVID SIMPSON attends the opening night of the much-lauded Kynren and is astounded by its truly epic scale

The Saturday evening sunlight softly illuminates the glorious Gothic splendour of Auckland Castle as it awaits the unfolding of a great event from its lofty vantage point amidst the neatly manicured trees of the ancient bishops’ park. Close by, the ornate spire of the Franco-Flemish town hall peers above the treeline adding another beautiful backdrop to the verdant setting of an almost fairytale landscape.

Auckland Castle : Photo, John Simpson
Auckland Castle chapel : Photo, John Simpson

Only the occasional chill of a July evening  breeze sweeping across thousands of knees and the stark outline of a 1970s office block high above the valley (far enough away not to intrude) keep you grounded with a sense of reality in the present time and place. Yet even the office block seems like some extravagant addition to this extraordinary setting in which an epic two-thousand year tale of England is to be told.

Welcome to Kynren – an epic tale of England.

We wait, not quite sure what to expect, comfortable in the back row of the tribune. It’s the grand name for an auditorium of some 8,000 people but this is after all a daringly grand event.  The wooden facade looms like some grand medieval citadel as you walk the winding yellow road to reach the setting, leaving your car behind, at the bottom of the hill  – in Toronto. It’s just the beginning of a wonderfully implausible adventure.

It’s nearly 9.30pm. The moment approaches and an announcement is made: there will be a delay of ten minutes. A rumble of polite laughter rolls across the crowd. They know that this is the very first night for the volunteer performers, drawn from across the local community, children and adults alike. The expectant crowd is prepared, perhaps, to forgive the occasional glitch. They need not worry for despite the delay we soon see that the show, the spectacle, whatever we may call it, is in very safe hands.

“What’s this thing called again?” my eleven-year-old daughter asks, in slightly half-hearted fashion before it begins. She was looking forward to a friend’s birthday the following morning so this “history thing” had received little interest up until now. “KYNREN” I say, spelling it out not once but twice as she texts friends to explain where she is with a rather puzzled look on her face.

Kynren is Anglo-Saxon for ‘generation’, kindred, family’ and this epic show is designed to tell the story of generations of England’s history over two millennia, with much local flavour thrown in to taste. It’s an extraordinary challenge if ever there was one but we would not be disappointed.

And so the dream commences and a dream it surely is. The Kynren concept had all begun with the visionary dream of a City of London investor and philanthropist, Jonathan Ruffer, now the owner of Auckland castle, whose plan was to recreate the spectacular French outdoor shows of Puy du Fou, right here in the North East of England.

Ruffer, born in Stokesley in North Yorkshire, just a little outside Middlesbrough, hopes to bring regeneration and a new sense of pride to Bishop Auckland and the surrounding area and in this he will surely succeed.  ‘Bishop’ as it is affectionately known, is the focal point for much of what was once the coalfield of south west Durham and was a place much affected by the rise and fall of coal mining. It is also a place with much potential and like many  towns across the region, has seen something of a rebirth.

It is a town with quite obvious medieval roots just like its medieval neighbours at Durham and Barnard Castle and it lies in beautiful surroundings too with a history stretching back to Roman times. Sadly, it is too often overlooked by visitors who mistakenly believe it to be just another mining town as they head out towards Bishop’s historic neighbours. With millions of pounds invested, this is Bishop’s chance to shine.

In both the execution and storyline, Kynren is something of a dream in itself. Perhaps it is even a dream within a dream – a spectacular stream of multicoloured consciousness, where the amazing events of twenty centuries, both local and national, flow swiftly from one into another at a captivating chronological pace. Let’s be clear, though, this is no history lesson, it’s much more magical than that.

Surprisingly, the River Wear is the setting for much of the story and in often unexpected ways. It serves as the sea in several  scenes and when it comes to technical effects has a major starring role in the show. It’s a role that it comfortably fulfils along with the grand castle that overlooks its river banks. It’s not the real river, though, but a  magical man-made lake and it’s not the real castle either. Yet dreamily, the whole of the Kynren site is set within a broad loop of the real-life River Wear itself overlooked by the real-life castle. Don’t be confused and you won’t be. As I said, this is virtually a dream within a dream.

Kynren. Photo: John Simpson
Kynren: Photo, John Simpson

When the show finally kicks off, in football fashion, the audience is instantly captivated. I’m delighted to see my daughter immediately relates. She is enthralled. It’s a story told through the dream of a young Bishop Auckland boy, a miner’s son during the inter war years of the last century. Befriended by Hensley Henson, the Bishop of Durham, after accidentally breaking the window of the bishop’s lodge, the boy’s fascination for history is quickly kindled by the bishop’s passionate knowledge. The boy’s name is Arthur, the first hint that Kynren is to be as much a tale of legend, mystery and magic as it is a one of history.

As a historian and father to a girl who says she finds history disappointingly dull, I am rather relieved. There’s no need for me to constantly assess the accuracy of the facts – though most prove to be broadly true – and I don’t feel I have to inspire, or bore, with my insights or quiet narration as events unfold. This is a dream after all. It is theatre not a lecture. And yet the questions fall one by one: “who’s going to win this battle?” or more often “who are the bad guys? who are the good ones?” I explain, pragmatically that it’s usually the good ones that win or so history often tells us.

So how much should I reveal about this truly wonderful spectacle? Well, firstly you simply must go and see it for yourself and hope that it does not rain – though it would take much to dampen the spirit of Kynren. What I can say though is that you should expect the unexpected and also expect, with so much happening, to miss almost as much as you will see. In fact you may want to watch it all over again. There will be bangs and the flashes of fireworks too, so you’ve been warned.

Romans, Angles, Vikings, Normans, Tudors and a whole assortment of kings, queens and common people of many different eras will come and go in scene after scene as whole epochs flash past your very eyes.  Scores upon scores of colourful, costumed characters, children, armies, live goats, sheep, geese,  slaves, soldiers, peasants, knights, show-stealing horses, carriages, carts, ships and even a steam train will  appear and disappear from nowhere and into nowhere as you count down the years and move closer to the present.

Kynren: Photo John Simpson
Kynren: Photo, John Simpson

Distracted by colourful events in one corner of this splendid seven and a half acre stage, you may turn to see that you have missed the appearance of a whole building in another corner or perhaps a ship or an army. It is really quite something, like an epic Hollywood movie set, with a wonderful technicolor cast of some 1,000 souls.

You will see live battles, fabulous fireworks, water effects, magnificent creative lighting of a kind with which Durham is now so familiar and you will soon take for granted the magic of people walking on water – Dynamo style – or a whole ship emerging from the water complete with its Norman crew. “How did they do that?” you will wonder and you will surely ask yourself “am I really in Bishop Auckland?” Often you will utter to yourself “this is just plain mad”.

The amplified stories of the past are spoken by actors of all ages but this story as it is told is almost incidental to the whole visual effect and the accompanying, specially composed music. It is unashamedly and rousingly patriotic in places but never in a jingoistic way. It will leave you feeling good and is perhaps just the tonic if you wish to escape from the weary world of present day politics.

If you love the costume character magic of Beamish, or the lighting effects of Durham’s Lumiere, or the atmosphere of open air theatre and especially if you enjoyed the wonderful absurdity of the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics, then you are in for a very special treat here. It’s not just me that thought this though. The standing ovation that brought the show to a close is a great testament to the many months of planning and work that have gone into this magnificent event.

As we drove back home towards the midnight hour, my daughter confessed with brutal honesty that history was her most boring subject at school and apparently even the way I explain it is rather boring too. “This was amazing though”, she declared, “it made history so exciting and so real” she then continued listing her favourite parts of the show one by one by one in yet another stream of flowing dreamy consciousness. For such inspiration, Kynren,  I am eternally grateful.

 

This year there are a total of fourteen performances of Kynren – An epic tale of England on selected weekend days from July 2 to September 17. For booking and more details, contact the organisers, Eleven Arches at elevenarches.org