Historian hopes dream of building Berwick Castle can become reality

It is nearly 500 years since Berwick Castle was finally abandoned, a crumbling relic of the wars between England and Scotland that saw the town change hands on 13 occasions.

Saturday, 24th September 2016, 7:30 am
Updated Wednesday, 5th October 2016, 2:00 pm
Model of the castle at Berwick Museum

Only a tiny portion of it remains today, best viewed from the railway station which now stands in its place.

However, Berwick historian Jim Herbert has come up with an idea which might seem fanciful to some and fraught with difficulty to others but which is intriguing nonetheless.

Berwick Castle

He wants to build Berwick Castle – and we’re not talking about something the size of the 3D model housed in Berwick Museum and Art Gallery where he works.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

His dream is to build a full-size replica as close as possible to the current site, possibly upstream towards Castle Hills.

“It’s an idea I’ve had knocking about in my head for quite a while now and I’ve always thought of it as a Euromillions pipe dream,” he admits.

“But I was chatting to someone during Heritage Open Days (which he organises) and they thought it was a great idea so I thought I’d put it out there on Facebook and see what happened.

Berwick Castle

“It’s a test of the Six Degrees of Separation theory. If it appeals to people, you never know who might pick it up and run with it. Some philanthropist with several million pounds going spare might fancy it!”

The idea is not quite as far-fetched as it might initially seem.

Across the Channel, there is a project at Guédelon in northern Burgundy where a team of 50 master-builders are building a castle from scratch using medieval techniques and materials.

Visitors from across the globe have witnessed the building of the curtain walls, the Great Hall’s roof timbers, the antechamber and its mural paintings, the castle kitchen and storeroom, the rib-vaulted guardrooms and a crenelated wall-walk.

Guédelon also provides practical lessons in sustainable building and training in traditional skills.

Jim has a similar vision for Berwick, providing the town with a major visitor attraction but also a much-needed source of employment.

“I would challenge any town in the country to have as facinating a story to tell as Berwick but unfortunately it doesn’t have much on the ground to show for it,” he said.

“People say we should make more of Berwick’s history as a way of encouraging tourism and that’s what I do when I’m organising tours of Berwick Castle for Heritage Open Days, by bringing the past to life.

“What Berwick needs is something that will bring people here. There are lots of things that people love about Berwick when they’re here, things they didn’t know about before they arrived, but we haven’t got that focal attraction like Alnwick has with its castle and gardens.

“Yes, we have the Elizabethan walls which are magnificent but they’re not so easy to market.

“My idea is to make something that really puts Berwick on the map. Remember the interest when the steam engine ‘Tornado’ was built? That’s the kind of buzz I’d like to create.

“We can also take inspiration from Guédelon. It’s in the middle of nowhere yet attracts 300,000 visitors a year and it’s still a work in progress.

“Not only is it a tourist attraction but it’s educational. I love the idea of creating a heritage college where people can come to learn traditional craft techniques such as stonemasonry, working timber and old-style engineering.”

Berwick Castle was built on what was then an isolated hill, probably by King David I of Scotland in the 1120s. The first verifiable record is dated 1165 when it seems like a substantial stone-built fortress.

The White Wall, known locally as the Break-y-Neck Steps was added by Edward I after his assault on Berwick in 1296. It underwent many repairs and modifications over the years to adapt to changing military technology.

The 18m high walls were lowered in the early 16th century and two gun towers added by Henry VIII in 1541.

Never being a family home, it was largely abandoned after the Elizabethan ramparts were built in the late 1560s and the stone robbed out. Much of it had long disappeared by the time the railway arrived in 1840.

“I drew up the plans for the model built by the late Iain Cameron in the museum so I have a pretty good idea of what it looked like, both from written records and evidence on the ground,” said Jim.

“It’s a completely crazy idea, I know,” he admits. “People want to know where the money would come from? The answer is that I don’t really know. It’s also fraught with obstacles like planning permissions and environmental concerns. But wouldn’t it be good if it worked?”

If anyone has any serious offers of assistance, financial or otherwise email buildberwickcastle@gmail.com or search Let’s Build Berwick Castle on Facebook.