Norham Castle

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Norham Castle is set on a mound above the River Tweed guarding the Scottish border. It is at the opposite end of the delightful village of Norham to its Norman church.

There is a large off road parking area on the far side of the castle from the village. This does involve quite a walk along a mown path through grassland which in June was knee high in waving grass spreading its pollen. Hay fever sufferers may prefer to park in the small space by the main gateway through the wall nearer the village. The walk is shorter too….

The castle stands on the south bank of the River Tweed, high above the river, so that the north side is protected by a steep slope. A deep ravine protected the east side and an artificial moat was dug round the west and south sides to complete the protection. The castle had an inner and outer ward. The inner ward stood on a mound and was separated from the outer ward by a moat, crossed by a drawbridge, now replaced by a bridge..

The main entrance to the castle was the strongly fortified West Gate leading into the outer ward. There was an additional gate to the south of the outer ward, known as the Sheep Gate but little of this is left.

A motte and bailey was established here in 12thC by the Prince Bishops of Durham who were representatives of the King and responsible for maintaining law and order. It has been enlarged and strengthened many times. Commanding a vital ford crossing on the River Tweed, it was one of the strongest border castles and besieged at least 13 times, changing hands several times. It has been described as the ‘most dangerous place in England”. It fell to heavy cannon attack by James IV in 1513, shortly before his defeat at Flodden Field which caused great damage.. Following this, it under went a major rebuild to adapt it for use of artillery and became a powerful military fortress.

The lower courses of the outer ward were covered with earth to absorb the impact of cannon fire. Gun emplacements were added to the north wall above the river. The keep was heightened and given a flat roof for heavy artillery. This allowed the whole area to be covered by gunfire so preventing the enemy from getting close to the castle.

Elizabeth 1 refused to spend money on the upkeep of the castle and when more settled times arrived after the Union of the Crowns in 1603 when James VI of Scotland became James I of England, it was no longer needed and fell into a state of disrepair. Stone was taken for building material. Much of the outer wall has gone and internal buildings apart from the keep, a roofless shell, are low walls.

Buildings in the outer ward included a brewhouse and malt kiln. Water for domestic use was brought by an aqueduct from a nearby spring and fed into a shallow well. This had steps letting people fill buckets. The overflow from the well flowed down a sloping paved floor which was probably used for washing items like woollen fleeces produced on the Bishop’s estates. The water left the castle through a sluice gate.

There is another well inside the inner ward which had buildings against the walls including kitchens, hall and the private suite for the Bishop and his household which would have been more comfortable than the keep.

The keep has been enlarged over the years to provide extra accommodation for officials and guests. There are vaulted storage areas on the ground floor. A spiral staircase built during a later extension leads from the outside to the first floor. (Watch out for bird droppings.) The centre of the keep is now open to the elements with the remains of doorways, fireplaces and windows.

The castle is no longer manned, there are no facilities and entry is free. It is open 10-6. It is now a lovely spot and well worth visiting.

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