Bamburgh Castle, A Rugged Reminder Of Times Gone By

Today’s post is by George Cuthbert. If you would like to guest post on the AirTreks Travel Blog click here for guidelines.

Painting of Bamburgh Castle by R D Mcinnes

I’ll never forget my first sight of Bamburgh Castle. I was driving towards the village of Bamburgh along a narrow, twisting, country road, its edges defined by broken hedgerows.  Through the gaps in the hedges a tantalizing glimpse of the North Sea flickered in and out of sight. The car straightened out from one of these twists and there, straight in front of me, was this huge monolith towering over the tiny village below. From my viewpoint in the car it seemed to be as big as a mountain.

It was so unexpected and so imposing that no-one in the car spoke for a moment or two. And then one of my companions ventured to say, to the amusement of everyone else, “That must be the castle…” I have visited Bamburgh many times since and I still feel that same sense of awe when I round that final bend and see the castle there in front of me.

The castle at Bamburgh is situated amidst the lovely, unspoiled countryside of Northumberland, England’s most northerly county. It stands perched high on a volcanic outcrop of rock overlooking the North Sea, completely dominating the landscape for miles around. It’s the only place I know where, from the castle’s battlements, two other ancient fortresses can be seen: those of Holy Island and Dunstanburgh. A potent reminder of the turbulent past of this area.

The castles of old Northumbria were not built for their looks; they were built as a stronghold where the owners and their comrades-in-arms could hold out against the enemy. Bamburgh was no exception. It has served many masters during its long and violent history as it was once the stronghold of the ancient kings of Northumbria. Nothing remains of the castle of those times; however, the oldest building that stands today is the massive Norman Keep, built sometime in the 12th century following the Norman Conquest of Britain.

In the 1890s the castle was acquired by the first Lord Armstrong, a wealthy Victorian industrialist. Shortly after his acquisition he began a project to rebuild the structure and what the visitor sees these days is largely the result of Lord Armstrong’s efforts.  Members of the Armstrong family still occupy part of the castle.

What is there to see?

As you would expect Bamburgh Castle is a hugely popular tourist attraction and not without reason as there is plenty for the sightseer to enjoy. The best way to experience the castle is to join a guided tour. Tours take place throughout the day and allow a fascinating glimpse of Victorian high society. From the huge Reception Rooms to the King’s Hall, and from the Bakehouse to the Victorian Scullery, you are surrounded by the many facets of life as it was when Lord Armstrong presided. The King’s Hall plays another romantic role today – it is the venue for lucky brides who have chosen to have their wedding ceremony held in its magnificent surroundings.

As befits an ancient English castle there are ghosts who haunt the place when it suits them – or so the guide told us as we joined his tour. I must admit I did feel a distinctly odd chill when visiting the dungeons, even though it was a warm and sunny day. Children particularly will love the dungeons as they are full of the most evil looking instruments of torture. This part of the castle serves as a particularly chilling reminder of the violent history of this old fortress.  To offer some welcome relief from the slightly scary reminders of Medieval England there are many other rooms that are open to the public which contain a fascinating range of fine china, furnishings, tapestries, arms and armour.

The dramatic and picturesque setting of Bamburgh, high on its rock and overlooking fine sandy beaches, makes it the perfect choice for film makers. Many scenes from “Becket” were shot here in 1964 and, 40 years on, the castle had a role in the 2004 movie “King Arthur”. It has also starred in a great many TV productions.

Somehow when talking about Bamburgh Castle the topic of war and battles keeps cropping up. This being so, no visit would be complete without venturing into the 12th century Keep which is home to the Armoury. Here the tourist with a fertile imagination can conjure up visions of what it was like to be a soldier in those hostile times as he or she views the superb collection of arms and armor; many pieces of which still carry old battle scars. The pikes, halberds and muskets which were issued to local militia in readiness for an expected Napoleonic invasion in the early 1800s, are an intriguing glimpse into the strategic importance of this old fortress to the country’s security.

Yet another “must visit” when you are in Bamburgh Castle is the splendid King’s Hall, intended by Lord Armstrong to be the castle’s pièce de résistance. Among its many glorious features is a false hammer beam ceiling made with teak from Siam (present day Thailand). The then King of Siam (probably not the one from The King and I!) is reputed to have had a hand in carving some of the elaborate designs during a visit to the castle.

For aficionados of more modern warfare there is the Armstrong and Aviation Artifact Museum. This dual purpose display features a selection of exhibits of the first Lord Armstrong’s accomplishments in the field of engineering as well as presenting aviation artiefacts from World War I and World War II.

The charming village of Bamburgh is a bonus visit for the visitor to Bamburgh Castle. A typical Northumbrian settlement, it has a number of quaint houses, the inevitable “Olde Tea Shoppe” and several pubs, where a refreshing glass of locally-brewed beer can be had.

There is another reason to take a stroll around Bamburgh village, however, and that is to pay a visit to a museum dedicated to local heroine, Grace Darling. Grace Darling is famously remembered for bravely rowing out to sea in a fearful storm to rescue survivors of the shipwrecked HMS Forfarshire, in 1838. Grace was only 22 when she accompanied her father, a local lighthouse keeper, on this perilous rescue mission. She never really recovered from the rigors of that night and died from consumption four years later in one of Bamburgh’s little cottages.

If you are planning a trip to Northumberland be sure to find the time to visit Bamburgh and its castle. You won’t regret the time you spend there.

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George Cuthbert is a travel writer for Low Cost USA – a specialist Las Vegas holidays supplier based in the UK.