I'm a Victorian freelance writer & photographer living in the Macedon Ranges north of Melbourne.
Published September 21st 2016
England's Castle County
A sedate drive along the narrow, winding roads of England's northernmost county offers visitors a picture post card vista of rolling green hills and manicured estates bordered to the East by a rugged North Sea coastline. But it's a place where present day beauty and serenity belie the past, for this is Northumberland - the County of Castles and better known for its long history as a battlefield than for its scenic attractions.
For almost five centuries prior to the unification of England and Scotland the border between the two changed frequently, more often than not defined by the progress, or lack of it, of the invading Scots. Even when the two countries weren't fighting, many local families took advantage of the lull in international hostilities to sort out local feuds. Not surprisingly the majority of aristocratic households in the area were fortified. Some survive as homes or museums today, many remain only as ruins and still others have vanished completely. Those that are left combine with the region's tempestuous history to form a magnet for visitors from far and wide.
The home of a succesion of the Dukes of Northumberland, Alnwick may be better known to many as Hogwarts Castle in the Harry Potter movies or for scenes from others such as Elizabeth and Robin Hood - Prince of Thieves. Photo: Ian Gill / Footloose PhotoBank
Beautiful Alnwick Castle is currently the home of the 12th Duke of Northumberland. Its origins go back to the reign of William the Conqueror, having been erected by one of William's Barons in 1096. The castle visitors see today has stood more or less in its present form for the past 700 years, half that time as the seat for a succession of the Dukes of Northumberland.
In stark contrast to Alnwick are the ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle. Standing on a remote stretch of coastline, Dunstanburgh played little part in Northumberland's pre-unification hostilities but was destroyed by several artillery barrages during the War of the Roses and finally abandoned in 1540.
Like many of Northumberland's castles Dunstanburgh has been derelict for hundreds of years but is a favourite with visitors from around the world. Photo: Ian Gill / Footloose PhotoBank
One of my favourite Northumbrian ruins is Etal Castle.
The home of Robert Manners, Etal was initially a small, undefended Manor House which was fortified in 1341 as a result of increased incursions into northern England by Scots raiders. Manners initially constructed a fortified residential tower followed by the Gate House and the surrounding defensive wall.
The remains of Etal Castles three storey accommodation tower. Photo: Ian Gill / Footloose PhotoBank
Etal was captured by the Scots in 1513, taken by the armies of Scotland's King James IV as they moved south to engage the English. But their victory was short-lived and shortly afterwards the Scots, estimated to number between 40,000 and 60,000 men, were defeated at the nearby Battle of Flodden by a much smaller English force of just 26,000.
Etal's fortifications date back to 1341 aimed aimed at residents against marauding Scottish raiders. Photo: Ian Gill / Footloose PhotoBank
Today Etal Castle has an excellent display and audio tour detailing the taking of the castle, as well as the Battle of Flodden and Branxton Hill. The site of the battle is just a short distance away.
Etal Castle Gate House. Comparitively small, Etal's defences were no match for James IV's invading armies but, once they were defeated at nearby Flodden, it was used to store captured Scottish artillery. Photo: Ian Gill / Footloose PhotoBank
Perhaps the most historically significant and best preserved of Northumberland's castles is Banburgh, dating back to 567 AD. It was then that the Anglo-Saxon King Ida built a wooden fortress on Whin Sill, the volcanic outcrop on which Banburgh stands today.
His ancestor, King Oswald, reigned from 633 to 642 AD, a period in which the kingdom of Northumbria was ruled from within Banburgh, and the castle and its surrounds became a centre for both education and the arts. Oswald also sought to convert his subjects to Christianity and supported the construction of a monastery on nearby Lindisfarne. But all this came to an untimely end when, in 993 AD, marauding Vikings left the castle in ruins.
Banburgh Castle sits atop Whin Sill, a rocky and windswept volcanic outcrop. Photo: Ian Gill / Footloose PhotoBank
Reconstruction, this time in stone, took place throughout the 11th century until, by 1272, Banburgh was very much as visitors see it today. Again destroyed, this time in 1464 during the War of the Roses, the castle remained in ruins for centuries until acquired by William, the First Lord Armstrong in 1894. A restoration program initiated by him was completed in 1903 and Banburgh has been the Armstrong family home since that time.
These and a variety of other castles highlight Northumberland's unique heritage and colourful history which is on show for all to see thanks to the wonderful work of English Heritage.
And, despite the county's bloodthirsty past, visitors are assured a warm welcome from the modern day population. The largest city in close proximity to the majority of Northumberland's castles is Newcastle upon Tyne.
No visit to the north of England would be complete without a discovery tour featuring Northumberland's castles and its war-torn history. Photo: Ian Gill / Footloose PhotoBank