There are castles strewn across the British countryside, but for my money those in Northumberland cannot be beaten for sheer beauty and romance. I recently spent a full day exploring the so-called Castle Trail from Tynemouth up to Lindisfarne in NE England, which takes in the medieval fortresses at Barnard, Prudhoe, Bamburgh, Warkworth and Dunstanburgh, and a most exciting day out it proved to be. Fresh air, exercise, sea views and medieval ruins – what more could you ask for?
William the Conqueror first introduced castles to England in 1066 as an essential element in the Conquest. At that time they were a matter of life and death, and the Normans quickly threw up hundreds of motte and bailey castles, consisting basically of a small hill and surrounding ditch, with wooden stockades and a timber tower, to control the rebellious Anglo-Saxons. Most of them were built by barons with royal permission, although ironically many of those in Northumbria were held against the King: in 1095 William II spent much of his reign besieging the castles at Bamburgh, Morpeth and Tynemouth.
It was only centuries later that castles acquired their now enduring poetic and romantic interest. They feature prominently in the Gothic literature of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and are in fact the main characters in classics such as The Castle of Otranto and The Mysteries of Udolpho. Many landowners built ‘follies’ on their country estates, and Sir Walter Scott lavished a small fortune on the construction of Abbottsford in the Scottish Borders.
Some castles have been continuously inhabited for 900 years or more, whilst others have long since gone to ruin or disappeared altogether. English Heritage manages many of them. At some, like Alnwick, visitors can relive the colourful traditions of yesteryear with displays of archery, jousting and mock sieges. War gaming societies continue to proliferate, and increasing numbers of books on heraldry, weapons and armour roll off the press.
For me, castles were an essential feature of my childhood and they took on an added significance when I discovered Gothic literature in my mid-teens. As George Crabbe put it:
‘Yet tales of terror are her dear delight,
All in the wintry storm to read at night’
I used to fantasise about touring the Crusader castles of Syria and Palestine on a bike, like TE Lawrence, but it looks like that cherished ambition may have to wait. Anyway, who needs Krak des Chevaliers and Kerak when you have Dunstanburgh and Prudhoe?
Outremer is for me a state of mind, a refuge from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.