Our border county boasts a wealth of stunning castles

If you pull over on any road in Norfolk, you will probably be able to see at least half a dozen church towers. One might say something similar about Northumberland and its impressive castles.

Friday, 19th October 2018, 4:20 pm
The beautiful display of spring flowers at Bowburn Park beside Alnwick Castle.
Picture Jane Coltman
The beautiful display of spring flowers at Bowburn Park beside Alnwick Castle. Picture Jane Coltman

Not only are they there in quantity, but the quality of the buildings is equally remarkable.

Of course, we do live in frontier country so castles and fortresses were built to defend the ‘Marches’ against marauding bands from both nations.

An iconic view - daffodils blooming at Warkworth Castle. Picture by Jane Coltman

Fortresses were often built on high points, which had earlier been occupied by Iron Age, or earlier, hill forts.

So, then, the border is the obvious starting point.

In the tiny village of Wark are clear remains of a motte and bailey castle, now little more than a conspicuous mound.

Nonetheless, it was here that King Edward III of England assisted the Countess of Salisbury with her garter. From this incident sprang the country’s highest order of chivalry, the Order of the Garter.

The castle and gatehouse were demolished in 1549.

Just a few miles further North West one encounters Berwick’s major fortress, a witness to the to-ing and fro-ing of the town in the battle for the border between Scotland and England.

Founded by King David I of Scotland in the 12th century, it was rebuilt by Edward I of England, who fortified the entire town.

Queen Elizabeth I’s Quay Walls are built on Edward’s foundations.

Edward’s walls enclosed a larger area to the North, and the ruins on Northumberland Road, upon which the later watch tower was built, remain a testimony to this.

Berwick Castle was much diminished by the ‘Philistine’ railway builders of the Victorian age; the present platforms sit bang in the middle of the Great Hall, within which Edward I, known as the ‘Hammer of the Scots’, took the oaths from the Scottish nobles in 1296.

However, I understand that the railways are now working with English Heritage to make the castle ruins more accessible and better interpreted.

Before leaving Berwick, a short walk to the end of the pier brings our next two fortresses into view.

The twin silhouettes of the much photographed Holy Island and Bamburgh Castles command the horizon.

Travelling down the coastal route, Holy Island, the most recent of these two landmarks, comes first.

Built atop an outcrop of the Great Whin Sill, the castle owes its origins to Henry VIII’s large scale fortifying of England, which included Deal, Walmer, Southsea and Pendennis Castles.

It was completed just after his death in 1550.

Strengthened in 1570-72, the one-time fortress eventually became a ‘country house’.

Edwin Lutyens re-fashioned it for Edward Hudson, the founder of Country Life magazine, in 1902.

The castle has recently re-opened after a radical refurbishment.

Over on the mainland, Bamburgh Castle dominates the village known for St Aidan, and later rescue heroine Grace Darling.

The castle sits on another massive outcrop of the Whin Sill, on the site of an Iron Age hillfort.

Later, it became a royal palace for the Northern Saxon Kingdom of Bernicia.

Records from 1164 show the existence of the castle, which was later fought over in the Wars of the Roses in the 15th century.

In 1704, it was bought by the then Bishop of Durham, Lord Crewe.

In the 1890s, the trustees sold it to the Victorian inventor and industrialist William (later Lord) Armstrong, who had also built the mansion at Cragside.

Lord Armstrong’s family retains ownership of the castle, which is surely one of the most panoramic of all English fortresses.

Only a short drive down the coast brings us to the gaunt, but striking ruins of Dunstanburgh.

Again, a Whinstone outcrop is the powerful platform for the fortress, which also occupies the site of Iron Age defences.

The Scottish victory at Bannockburn in 1314 led to the building of the castle, which was also caught up in the Wars of the Roses.

Thereafter it was left partly ruinous, from whence it continued to decline – the remains are haunting.

The coast road crosses the Aln, bringing us to our penultimate fortress in the attractive village of Warkworth.

Edward II rebuilt the castle, which was first established in 1139 by Henry, son of David I of Scotland.

In a coastal position, near to the estuary of the River Coquet, the castle later passed to Henry Percy, the first Earl of Northumberland.

The Percy connection brings us to our final and, in some ways, most remarkable fortress, Alnwick Castle.

This is best approached by turning right off the A1, onto the B6341.

Just past the remains of a leper hospital on one’s right, the castle stands resplendent before you, defending the valley of the Aln and the approach into Northern England.

Built on the site of a motte and bailey wooden fort, its first recorded owner was Yves de Vescy, Baron of Alnwick.

Captured by King David of Scotland in 1136, it was later bought by Henry Percy, and it has remained with the family ever since.

Like its momentous neighbour at Bamburgh, Alnwick also featured in the Wars of the Roses.

The castle, which is home to the Duke of Northumberland, was much remodelled in the 18th and 19th centuries by Robert Adam and Anthony Salvin.

And it is, perhaps, one of the three most dramatic castles in England.

Borders, of course, are defended inevitably on both sides, and the fortresses at Dirleton, Fast Castle and Tantallon are but three Scottish equivalents. But that must be the story for another day.