Medieval Northumberland used to be a dangerous place to be. Today, you can plunge back into medieval times through historical reenactments and a liberal dose of your own imagination.
The year is 1346. I am standing by the mighty entrance and drawbridge of Warkworth Castle (main picture above) in the English county of Northumberland. Suddenly there’s a cry from the guard’s tower above, “Lower the bridge, prepare for his grace, the Earl of Northumberland.”
Within moments the air is filled with the beat of horses hooves and I can smell the sweat of man and beast as the Earl’s colourful cavalcade charge by. What is this medieval vision? A past life resurfacing? No, I am simply using a digital castle audio tour, and a flick of the stop button plunges me from the medieval dark ages back to the 21st-century.
English Heritage has done a fabulous job with their tours and booklets in encouraging visitors to imagine the way of life, sounds and sights, and even smells, within each area of Warkworth Castle. It is just one of the many imaginative ways to explore the dozens of castles in this historically rich region.
For 400 years from the time of Edward I until the Union of Parliaments between Scotland and England in 1707, Northumberland was the scene of one of the longest running border conflicts the world has ever known. The region known as ‘The Borders’, was continually raided by the marauding Scots and even the occasional English king.
These were dangerous times and as a result, there are more castles and other fortified buildings than any other English county.
From magnificent castles with their baileys and keeps, drawbridges and moats to grand manor houses, solitary peel towers and fortified farms, all offering an insight into the society and politics of Northumberland in medieval times.
Within a landscape of green rolling hills and rugged coastline, the wide variety of fortifications make an excellent focus for car touring and most historical sites are well marked on the UK road atlas.
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There’s an abundance of Bed & Breakfast, Airbnb’s and pub accommodation, and with the ample choice of restaurants and tearooms for refreshments en-route, driving Northumberland distinctively narrow laneways (called B roads) is pure pleasure.
For a look at how the present day Duke of Northumberland lives compared with how his ancestors the Percys lived in Warkworth, I had only to drive 8 miles to the town of Alnwick and Alnwick Castle.
In a truly sublime setting on the banks of the River Aln, stand the foreboding curtain walls and towers of one of England’s finest Norman castles. It seemed incomprehensible to me as I walked the river path, that portions of this mighty castle were built as early as 1062.
In the 14th-century, the estate was given to the Percys by Edward I, and the family has lived at Alnwick Castle ever since.
I had no problems imagining the invading Scottish armies attacking the castle walls. The day before my visit, film crews had been filming and as a result, the surrounding riverbank was strewn with the bloodied fibreglass bodies of hundreds of soldiers and horses. I had stepped into a scene of medieval carnage.
Film crews are commonplace at Alnwick Castle. That very same stretch of riverbank saw a much younger Rowan Atkinson (Mr Bean) riding a black steed in the opening scenes of Black Adder. The castle was used in Ivanhoe and there have been numerous other movies and films made here over the years including Harry Potter.
The main entrance to the castle grounds is through an impressive gate-tower, where once a drawbridge and drop portcullis were used to keep unwanted visitors out.
Today, visitors are very welcome, and you can tour the castle grounds, the outer and middle baileys and parts of the family residence in the central keep.
A modest entrance foyer leads to the grand marble staircase, with its groin vaulted ceiling and Parian arches giving a glimpse of the magnificence to come. You can wander leisurely through the library, music, drawing and dining rooms where numerous famous works of art by artists such as Canaletto, Titian, Van Dyck and Turner are displayed, alongside the very finest period furniture.
Within the vicinity of one hour’s drive of Alnwick you can also explore the fabulously restored Bamburgh Castle, standing on its rocky headland overlooking miles of England’s best beaches, or mystical Holy Island Castle and Lindisfarne Priory accessible only at high tide.
The elegant Chillingham Castle located in the nearby Cheviot Hills is an afternoon must, when a tour of its deepest dungeons can be followed by a stroll through the gardens and topped off with a cream tea in the tea rooms.
If you are feeling a little more energetic, the wild and lonely ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle perched high on a cliff-lined headland, can be accessed from a number of scenic coastal walking paths, and there are literally dozens more historic homes and castles to explore.
No car tour of Northumbria’s amazing castles would be complete without a stay at Langley Castle. This beautiful and romantic castle, built in 1365, is one of Europe’s few fortified medieval castle hotels, and it’s surprisingly affordable. Using it as a base for part of my tour, I got to fully experience what it’s like to be a ‘lord of my own castle’ without experiencing any medieval discomforts.
On offer are sumptuous rooms with four-poster beds and medieval window seats set into the seven foot thick walls, suits of armour, a fully licensed restaurant in its great hall, and an opulent drawing room for holding court around an immense open fire.
So, if your thinking of medieval time travelling on your next UK holiday, Langley Castle with its unique fortified accommodation, the National Trust and English Heritage’s historical reenactments and guided walks and a liberal dose of your own imagination can plunge you back to the Northumberland of medieval times.