Monday, August 22, 2011

Sophie Keates-Gazey on Northumberland's Castles

I have selfishly requested my friend Sophie to write a post about the area in which she lives. She had told me that the northern English coast is littered with castles, and I thought it only fair that she share them! Besides Sophie's having delighted me with her writing (a favorite poem is on her blog), it turns out that she is married to an amazing photographer. He has been willing to share some of the incredible work he has done with us all. I know that you will want to visit his site to see more.

And now, Sophie's post:

I was delighted when Debbie invited me to write a guest post for her lovely blog. Apart from being a huge compliment, it also gave me an opportunity to reflect on my immediate environment, and to appreciate it anew.

Northumberland is the northernmost county in England, having a border with Scotland and a beautiful, spacious, sandy stretch of North Sea coastline. It is one of the largest counties in England, but one of the most sparsely populated, due mainly to much of its landscape being composed of rugged moorland, more suited to our hardy breeds of sheep than to human habitation!

This is a county rich in history, vulnerable over the centuries to attacks by Viking raiders from Scandinavia, and, closer to home, by clans of brutal livestock rustlers along the Scottish border, known as 'reivers'. One testament to this turbulent history is the concentration of castles on and near its coast. They are in varying states of repair, but each has a unique story to tell.

The craggy remains of Dunstanburgh Castle, on its cliff-top

Of all the castles in the area, Dunstanburgh Castle is the least well-preserved, and arguably the most atmospheric. See it on the horizon and you can understand why it is often described as looking like a mouthful of ravaged teeth.

Dunstanburgh Castle was built as a response to regular and punishing raids from the Scots in the 14th century. Its thick walls, and its position - much of the castle sits on top of cliffs with a sheer drop to the sea - provided excellent protection from attack.

The castle actually fell into ruin centuries ago. As early as 1538, it was described as being a 'very reuynus howsse and of smalle strength'. As its decline continued, its stones were plundered for new building projects.

Ruined it may be, but JMW Turner celebrated Dunstanburgh in watercolour, and today it stands noble and romantic on a beautiful coastal walk between Craster and Embleton Bay.

Another of Northumberland's castles which withstood raids by the Scots was Bamburgh, further up the coast from Dunstanburgh. The first fortress was actually built on this site in the 6th century, though nothing now remains of it, and the existing red sandstone structure, which sits on top of a volcanic outcrop, was begun in the 11th century.

Bamburgh Castle, basking in afternoon sunlight

Bamburgh holds the dubious honour of being the first castle in England to have been breached by gunfire (during the Wars of the Roses - 1455-85), and this was the beginning of its decline. However, thanks to a series of forward-thinking owners in the 18th and 19th centuries, it was restored. It was eventually purchased by the industrialist William (later Lord) Armstrong, who completed the restoration.

The castle still belongs to the Armstrong family, and makes for an interesting
visit. Unlike Dunstanburgh, this building is intact, and the visitor can explore
finely-decorated state rooms with their ornate furniture, tapestries and paintings, as well as humbler (and perhaps more interesting) domestic rooms such as the kitchen and laundry.

Further inland, the magnificent 11th century Alnwick Castle has been the principal seat of the Dukes of Northumberland since 1309. Familiar to many as Hogwarts School in the Harry Potter films, it is still very much a family home. Walk into the beautiful library, for instance, and there are family photographs on the occasional tables, along with much of the paraphernalia you would expect in a room which is regularly used and enjoyed.

The majestic Alnwick Castle, from across the River Aln

Alnwick Castle is warm and inviting, and it really is possible to imagine living here, in contrast with many other castles and stately homes, which can feel big, remote, intimidating and far from homely.

But for situation, romance and cosiness, the prize must surely go to Lindisfarne Castle, the most northerly of those featured here, and not far from the Scottish border at Berwick-upon-Tweed.

Lindisfarne Castle, perched on its rocky outcrop

Lindisfarne (also known as Holy Island) is connected to the mainland by a causeway which is only accessible twice a day, at low tide. And disaster awaits anyone silly enough to ignore the (large, graphic, unmissable...) warning signs at its entrance: every year lots of people do, and their cars are usually engulfed, and written off, when the North Sea suddenly sweeps in. (Drivers have become stranded 15 times so far in 2011, and a staggering 180 times since 2000, at massive expense to the rescue services.)

Lindisfarne Causeway, complete with rescue hut!

Anyway, to the Castle. It was built in 1542, on a massive rocky outcrop, giving it the perfect position for defending the surrounding harbour. In 1902, the Castle was acquired by Edward Hudson, a former editor of Country Life magazine, who employed Sir Edwin Lutyens to undertake a programme of restoration and improvement.

And what improvements! Hefty wooden roof-beams and solid stone archways support the ceilings of herring-bone patterned, brick-floored corridors; and the beautiful windows, many of them containing pieces of stained glass in their neo-gothic tracery, look out over the North Sea, or down over the charming walled garden, planned by legendary plantswoman Gertrude Jekyll.

This is a fairy tale castle if ever there was one, and it is even possible to get
married here. The small rooms, many of them with vaulted ceilings, are full of intimate decoration and design in the Arts and Crafts style, and seem to summon the ghosts of ancient knights on white chargers, and the damsels awaiting their arrival.

Here, as at all the castles along this coast, a sense of individuals' lives and changing fortunes is as tangible as the very fabric of the buildings themselves.

For the visitor, the castles along Northumberland's coast offer varied and atmospheric architecture, and stunning surroundings. And if you listen carefully, the very stones will whisper to you of centuries of history, violent destruction and beautiful, imaginative revival...

Many thanks to both Sofie and her husband, the photographer, David Taylor.
Sophie Keates-Gazey's Blog
David Taylor's Website

See also the Country Life Magazine Website.

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