The ocean called a siren song as I wandered along the narrow path on a perfect English summer’s day. Then there it was, shushing onto the sand in gentle curls, vibrant blue reflecting the cerulean sky. A crinkle of land floated on the horizon; the Farne Islands, home to a multitude of sea birds, including nesting terns, kittiwakes, eider ducks and the quirky puffins, known locally as the ‘Tommy Noddy’. The dramatic Northumberland Heritage Coast was looking its very best …
A glorious sandy beach stretched out on either side. I walked along the shoreline, past children paddling in the shallows, men playing football and a guy riding his horse. He stopped to chat – his horse was called Trigger and he exercised him on the beach as often as possible. Soft white clouds ambled across the sky. Seagulls drifted on the breeze. A couple relaxed next to a pair of red canoes. In the distance loomed the impressive outline of one of the most familiar Northumberland sights, Bamburgh Castle.
“Once the royal seat of the Kings of Northumbria, a castle has stood guard over this beautiful coastline for more than 1,400 years.
‘Bamburgh Castle – Iconic Fortress of the North’
As I was meeting my son and his Dad in Bamburgh village, I cut back across the sand-dunes, passing a colourful display of poppies. Some were the traditional wild red poppies but others were scarlet raggedy-edged ones, creating a lake of moving colour against the backdrop of the castle. Somewhere high above a skylark swooped and looped, singing its beautiful song of summertime.
With a decent hotel and bar, the Copper Kettle cafe and gift shop, attractive houses Bamburgh village is charming but it is the castle which attracts like a magnet.
“Bamburgh is a quiet and pretty seaside village built in the form of a triangle around a grove of trees which takes the place of the village green. The castle forms the apex of the triangle.”
‘Bamburgh: a short history and guide’ by Frank Graham
We walked back via the cricket pitch. A match was going on with both local teams dressed in an eclectic mixture of ‘whites’. From the tiny clubhouse and around the ground, people watched, clapped, ate picnics and relaxed in the warm midday sunshine. A blue clock on the castle walls kept an eye on the time.
The entrance to Bamburgh Castle took us past the ridged red sandstone walls to the Barbican, under the Constable Tower and into the grounds of the inner bailey. The grounds cover about eight acres and a quirky mixture of ancient and modern reconstruction of what a medieval castle should look like. The massive Keep is the oldest suriving building, dating back to 1164.
With a fascinating and at times, bloody history, the castle was eventually bought by William George Armstrong, Victorian industrialist, inventor, eco-enthusiast and philanthropist, in 1894. He began a series of renovation and construction projects which has resulted in the splendid edifice we were now visiting.
“Spanning five generations of our family’s history … Celebrate the architectural brilliance of Bamburgh Castle, which the first Lord Armstrong transformed from a decaying ruin into the glorious building it is today.”
My son had a go at the quoits game whilst we admired the view from the Battery Terrace across the beach to the North Sea. In the far distance we could see the outline of Lindisfarne or Holy Island, where St Cuthbert was Bishop in the 7th century. When Vikings raided and captured the monastery two hundred years later, the monks fled, taking his body with them. Now it is a place of modern-day pilgrimage for tourists and nature lovers.
Next to a number of different size cannons is a replica of an Armstrong Gun, a reminder of one of the many inventions of Lord Armstrong. His engineering company expanded into shipbuilding and became the internationally renowned Vickers-Armstrongs. (He is also remembered for building Cragside, now a National Trust property, which was the first house in Britain to be lit by electricity.) Before going round the rest of the castle, we had a quick look at The Armstrong and Aviation Artefacts Museum, housed in the old Laundry, which has plenty to appeal to aircraft and engineering fans.
The inside of the castle is a surprise. From the outside it looks like a classic medieval castle but the main buildings are most definitely 19th century and have a comfortable rather than imposing atmosphere. In the first few rooms there is a curious mixture of objects including old bicycles, medieval weapons, school chairs (a reminder of the days when the castle was a school) and in an alcove, a vivid painting depicting the story of the ‘Laidley Wyrme of Spindleston Heugh’.
But it is the magnificent ‘King’s Hall’ that has a real ‘wow’ factor. Most striking is the regal ‘hammer beam’ roof, made from Siamese teak. Its lovely carved ribs glow down onto a large room crammed full of fascinating objects d’art, armour, pottery, furniture and paintings, including one of Lord Armstrong in his red baronial robes. I loved the cabinet of Chinese ivory figurines and another of tiny jade pieces and elegant ceramic ‘milk-maids’ carrying dainty pails.
Throughout the castle there are reminders of the maritime history of this area including ships, telescopes, maps and designs for the world’s first lifeboat station. Lord Armstrong had a great affinity for the sea, which has pounded against the castle walls for centuries and plays such a key role in this region. Above the fireplace at the end of the Cross Room are two globes framing a large fireplace, above which hangs a copy of Theodor Rombout’s ‘The Card Players’ and Antwerp tapestries depicting the life of Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius.
Oak panels add to the warmth of the room as do the south facing windows. I could imagine the Armstrong family relaxing on the huge leather sofas in front of a roaring fire On a sideboard near the fireplace we admired a bronze carving of current owner Francis Watson-Armstrong as a child with his mother and sister.
From these impressive rooms we went on past the Captains’ Lodgings, through the Billiard Room and into the aptly named ‘Faire Chamber’ where the ladies of the house would have passed their time. The Armoury was originally the chapel; its stone vaulted ceiling is classically Norman. In the Scullery I admired the pretty ewers and jugs in the sinks, used for a variety of purposes including salting fish and meat.
According to the excellent guide ‘Bamburgh Castle – The Book’ Bamburgh is rated as one of the top seven Anglo Saxon archaeological sites in the world and it has some very significant finds. In the Archaeology Room, “The Stone Chair fragment may be the arm of the throne of the Kings of Northumbria.” and there is an Anglo-Saxon pattern sword thought to be the only one in existence.
After all this history and culture we were ready for something to eat and drink. Fortunately there is an excellent cafe where we had ‘Afternoon Tea’ – truly scrumptious! On leaving the castle grounds we went onto the beach for a last look at the sea. We came across this written in the sand; it sums up a perfect day in an idyllic location.
Other places to visit in the area include Lindisfarne (check the tides for access), attractive Seahouses for eexcursions to the Farne Islands, the quaint fishing village of Craster for tasty crabs and Morpeth, famous as the home of suffragette Emily Davison. For details of opening times and lots of useful information, visit Bamburgh Castle website and make a date to go. It really is “the finest castle anywhere in this country” Time Out Great Britain: Perfect Places to Stay, Eat and Explore 2009.