Bamburgh Castle

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Bamburgh Castle is one of the iconic images of Northumberland built on top of a crag of the Whin sill above the North Sea.

The site has been settled since prehistoric times and their are ongoing excavations at the western end of the castle Flints have been found from the Stone Age, grave goods from the Bronze Age and pottery fragments from the Iron Age. The Anglo Saxons settled here and built a basilica to hold a reliquary containing the arm of St Oswald. The Normans built a castle on the site and it became the property of the English monarch.

It was the target of raids from Scotland and in 1464 during the Wars of the Roses, was the first castle in England to be defeated by the use of artillery at the end of a nine month siege.

Ownership was granted to the Forster Family and remained with them until Sir William died bankrupt in 1700 when the estate was sold to Lord Crewe, Bishop of Durham. The castle fell into a ruinous state and was bought in 1893, by Lord Armstrong, the Tyneside multi millionaire, for £60,000. He began to restore it as a convalescent home for retired gentlemen ‘persons of superior education in reduced circumstances.’ A village of wooden bungalows was erected for the workman and these can still be seen along the B1340, Seahouses Road. He spent one million pounds, but died before the work was completed. The family home of Cragside was transferred to the Treasury in part payment of death duties and the castle became the family residence. It is still owned by members of the Armstrong Family and much of it is let as private apartments.

We parked in the castle car park at a charge of £2 per day and walked up to the splendid gatehouse which was the first part of the castle to be built in the 12thC and now houses the ticket office. Beyond is Vale Typping, a narrow passageway which runs between the inner and outer curtain walls beneath the massive Constable tower. Steps lead up to the Battery armed with cannons in response to the threat of invasion by Napoleon. Below is the Battery Gate which was used by horses and carts as Vale Typping was too steep for them.

The massive Norman keep dominates the site. Work began in 1164 and it was built from stone quarried at North Sutherland, Its walls are 10-15’ thick. Inside is a well dating back to the Anglo-Saxon occupation on the site. The pinkish stone is from the original 12thC building. The grey/greenish stone dates from the Armstrong restoration and comes from a quarry on the Cragside Estate.

On the east side of the Keep in the inner ward are the State Rooms with the medieval kitchens and great hall. Along the curtain wall of the middle ward were the stables and domestic buildings which included store rooms and washroom. These divide the inner and middle wards from the west ward which is reached through the Neville Tower.

The west ward was the site of the prehistoric settlements. St Oswald’s Gate at the far end dates from Anglo-Saxon times and was the earliest entrance to the castle giving access to the harbour. The base of the windmill is all that remains of a mill built in the 18thC. Grain prices were high and the Lord Crewe trustees bulk bought grain which was stored in the castle, ground and sold at a reasonable rate to the local people.

The laundry building now houses the Armstrong and Aviation Artefacts Museum.

The state buildings were badly damaged during the Wars of the Roses completely restored by Lord Armstrong. Entry is into what used to be the medieval kitchen with the remains of three big fireplaces and a very high beamed ceiling. The Lord Crewe Trustees restored part of the building as a school room providing free education for local children. Armstrong completed the restoration and this became the refectory for the residents of the convalescent home. It is now furnished with a hotch-potch collection including a sedan chair, hobby horse bicycle, spinning wheel, dressers with china and pictures.

A doorway leads into the ‘first’ and ‘second’ small rooms. These were originally medieval store rooms with stone vaulted ceilings. Lord Armstrong intended the first to be the resident’s reading room but it was used as the estate office after his death. It is fitted with a 19thC form of air conditioning . The long thin wooden box on the wall by the fireplace brings in air from outside. The room has a gate legged table and chairs, grandfather clock, dresser dated 1711 and two big carved wood cupboards. Along one wall are glass fronted display cases with blue and white china. Another cupboard has late 18thC porcelain figures. On top of the fireplace is a big Chinese vase and a Victorian Tea Urn presented to Armstrong on the occasion of his marriage by the tenants of the Cragside Estate.

The second room served as the School mistresses sitting room in Lord Crewe times. It later became the sitting room of the convalescent room and then the office of the Second Lord Armstrong.

The Lord Crewe Entrance Hall was probably originally the pantry. It has a fire place with wooden high back settles. A corner display cupboard has more china. There is what is described as a ‘Cloisonné Enamel Plaque Jinqing’ which has a design of peacock, stream, mountains and flowers in blues, yellows, turquoise, white and black on a brown background.

This leads into the King’s or Great Hall, which must be the highlight of the state apartments with its glorious hammer beam roof with its elaborate carving and hanging bosses. This is made of Siamese teak and was a gift from the King of Siam who was a good friend of Armstrong who had supplied him with munitions. Along the back wall is a minstrel’s gallery part of the Armstrong restoration. Above is a lovely round stained glass window with the armorials of all the different families associated with the castle.

The base of the walls are panelled in teak. Above are pictures, pikes, spears and halberts. The only natural light is from windows on the wall overlooking the inner ward. Down the centre of the room are display cases with small arms. A bureau bookcase has a display of fans and small chinese or japanese figurines. Another display case has a silver mounted stationery case dated 1899 and examples of old lace. In another is a display of carved ivory. There are large glass fronted cases full of examples of Coalport, Minton and Sèvres china. There is a suit of armour, grandfather clock and an ormolu clock.

At At the end of the room three steps lead up into the Cross Hall. It is lit by large windows and furnished as a sitting area with leather settees, grand piano, round table and chairs and globes. On a long table is a display of silver and china. The monumental fireplace has a carved wood surround with carved stones flanking an oil painting. On either side are tapestries.

The billiard room was designed for use by the residents of the convalescent home. This has a wooden ceiling and half panelled walls with a carved frieze of flowers along the top of the panels. There is a big fireplace with a carved stone mantle and armchairs. Walls are lined with books with the billiard table in the centre. At one end is a table set with silver trays and crystal decanters.

The Faire Chamber is off and is a very feminine room. This has a 1740 painted wood settle and chairs in a shade of pale green along the walls. There is a small beautiful inlaid wood table and glass fronted display cases with Meissen and Berlin figurines, including a lovely one of a coach pulled by two white horses and coachman. A footman is opening the carriage door for the lady to descend. In the archway, chamber pots are hidden in cupboards. There is a tapestry on the walls and a blue frieze with pink roses and styalised gilt foliage along the top of the walls.

A passageway lined with carved wood chests, tapestries and modern copies of two panels of the Bayeaux tapestry leads to stone steps up into the armoury. This was originally the chapel and still has the round apse over the east end. It has coats of armour, chain mail, small cannons, flint lock guns and a ceremonial drum. On the walls are spears, halberts, swords and a shield.

Next is the court room with panelled walls and pictures. Again there are display cases with china. There are the boxes containing the coronets and ermine robes of Lord and Lady Armstrong and the two chairs used at the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. There is a Grandfather clock and a huge metal 16thC Tuscan marriage chest. This was bought by the 4th Lord Armstrong for his wife after he saw it advertised in a catalogue. It was too big for their London home and was sent to Bamburgh, where a window had to be removed before it could be lifted in by a crane.

Stone stairs lead down to the keep hall with its 145’ deep Anglo-Saxon well which was the water supply for the castle. There are more armour and weapons on display. This leads into the service passage with a bakery with wall oven, wood paddle for putting the bread into the oven, working table and shelves with a display of earthenware bowls.

Beyond is the scullery with a bank of sinks along one wall with stone and wooden sinks with a protective metal top. There are sinks without a plughole used for salting meat and fish. There are wooden drying racks for the dishes. The large marble top table used for making pastry now has wash basins and jugs on it. In a corner is a lead lined Victorian fridge and there is a metal warming cupboard with shelves and sliding doors. There is a knife sharpener, mangle and 1900s range with two large hot plates.

The last room on the tour is the dungeon complete with models in various states of agony. Wall recesses with a metal grille across contain bits of skeleton. It wasn’t particularly frightening and there was nothing to make you want to scream.

The tour ends as always in the shop which had little to interest us.

We headed to the cafeteria in the clock tower for a much needed cup of tea. This serves sandwiches, paninis, soup and a selection of reasonable size but not very inspiring cakes. The selection of herbal teas was limited. Afternoon tea is £8.95 per head.

We bought a copy of the £1 guide to the castle. This isn’t a glossy with pictures but I was hoping for detailed information about the castle and its history. We were very disappointed. It was very superficial with a bit about each of the rooms and architectural changes. There was little about the castle and even less about Lord Armstrong who restored the castle to its present appearance or mention of his philanthropy and plans for a convalescent home. There was nothing about the room contents. Don’t waste your money on this.

Proud Bamburgh standing high above its surroundings must be on most peoples tick list. We visited 7 or 8 years ago and had really enjoyed the visit as the room guides were knowledgeable and talkative. We were looking forward to the visit, but came away disappointed. There was little information in the rooms and room stewards made little attempt to talk or engage with visitors. We came away having learnt little about the castle. On a positive note, you are able to take pictures inside the castle. The setting ranks as 5* but the experience inside was only 3-4*. At £8.75 for seniors, it isn't cheap.

Perhaps it is another of those places which are much more dramatic seen from the outside set against the sky with the huge expanse of sand backed by sand dunes and the North Sea. 

We visited Bamburgh in January. Read my review of the town.

Having eaten our way through all the meat we brought home from the butcher, we can heartily recommend him and came back with another cool bag full of meat for the freezer. 

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