We reached the outer wall of our lodgings at sunset. Above us, the vastness of Bamburgh Castle was just visible in the gloaming, the circles of fortifications, the turrets, the towers, the walls, the dolerite cliff.
For a thousand-odd years it dominated the region. It commands, after all, a stunning view of the North Sea coast stretching from Holy Island to the north to the now ruined fort of Dunstanburgh to the south. Looking up, it seemed impossible to imagine how first Saxons, then Vikings, then Normans and then, centuries later, both sides in the Wars of the Roses managed to breach the defences. Now it was our turn.
Bamburgh was our final way station on a tour of the Anglo-Scottish borderlands. It was that last precious week of late October before the UK’s rapid descent back into lockdown. All week my wife and I had treasured the empty moorland of the Cheviot Hills and the region’s brooding granite tombstones of history. Both had special appeal: the former given 2020’s months of Covid claustrophobia; the latter as a reminder of the long view — whether via the Roman occupation or the flickering light of Lindisfarne — and of the need to appreciate what really matters, and what will pass.
We had started 50 miles to the south-west, tramping Hadrian’s Wall. For two days we roamed the old frontier. On our first morning we encountered just one other walker and a farmer’s collie dog, which accompanied us for mile after mile on our way.
We stayed at an isolated former radio repeater station, built in 1951 and now converted into a bed and breakfast, a short walk from one of the most preserved sections of the wall. It was our base camp for exploring the fabled fort of Vindolanda, where the discovery in 1973 of the “Vindolanda tablets” — fragments of wooden leaf from the 1st and 2nd centuries AD detailing anything from shopping lists and military promotions to a woman’s party invitation — has transformed our understanding of the lives of Roman squaddies and their families.
We walked there in driving rain. Wonderfully, the clouds raced away as we came upon the foundations of the old town. That night I read the transcripts of the tablets. As the wind howled it was all too easy to imagine the legionaries — from Spain, Gaul, north Africa and elsewhere — anxious, homesick, ambitious, proud, lovelorn, uncertain, prey to all the emotions we feel today.
As with so many imperial powers, the Romans’ chroniclers appeared to show scant interest in their subjugated peoples. Of Bamburgh we know little from that period. It is in the post-Roman era that its history comes to life. Bebbanburg, as it was known in the Saxon age, was the stronghold of the kingdom of Northumbria. I cannot be alone among FTWeekend readers in having seen it on Netflix during lockdown in The Last Kingdom, the series based on Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon saga. In one scene, 9th-century Scottish besiegers run up the very ramp we had to drive along to reach our quarters.
On our arrival at the gates, I was roused from my brief Saxon reverie by the disappearance of the sun over the hills — and the need to make our own breach of the walls. Kings and queens had for centuries lodged at Bamburgh. We were to be among the very first members of the public to follow in their wake.
The castle’s capture by Warwick the Kingmaker in 1464, after a destructive cannonade, ushered in four centuries of decline. It seemed destined to share the fate of other ruins that litter the landscape. But in 1894 a Victorian industrialist and philanthropist, William Armstrong, arrested this narrative. After buying the remains for £60,000, as something of a retirement whim he spent the then vast sum of more than £1m on restoring the castle to its late medieval glory. After the second world war his descendants opened the dozen or so towering staterooms to public tours. The latest generation has gone a stage further, five years ago turning part of a gatehouse, the Neville Tower, into an apartment members of the public can rent, and now creating a second apartment, this time part of the main castle itself. For two nights we stayed there as latter-day chatelains.
The Clock Tower, which discreetly abuts a side wall, holds a spectacular position. Staying there is akin to lodging in a turret. You enter at the bottom and then keep winding up the staircase, past the bedrooms on the lower floors until you reach the central dining/sitting area at the top. From one side you can see the waves crashing on the long sandy beach stretching north to Holy Island. On the other side, you look out over the village of Bamburgh and the castle’s cricket pitch, at the foot of the perimeter wall, more than 100ft below.
On our first night we roamed the grounds and ramparts, alone under a starlit sky. We repaired to the warmth of our clock tower for dinner and to read, before falling asleep as the shutters rattled in the wind.
The next morning, with one eye for the tide that cuts off the causeway, we visited the ruined abbey and castle at Lindisfarne. We had it all but to ourselves. It was a privilege to rival our entering the deserted Pyramids in 2011 a year after the Arab Spring, or the empty Anatolian catacombs in 1990 during the Gulf war. With the sea licking at the road we returned to the mainland. There was just time to wonder at the carved figures surmounting the battlements at Alnwick Castle and then stride along Northumberland’s famed crisp beaches to the celebrated Ship Inn for a crab sandwich before we were due back in our castle to see the state rooms.
Our guides were the infectiously enthusiastic owner, Francis Armstrong, and his wife, Claire. We heard how the King of Siam came to provide Siamese teak for the cavernous dining hall; how children hid at the bottom of the old well; of the 16th-century wedding chest that needed cranes to be brought into the castle; of the vast chains that were used to drag ships from the surf; of the recent discoveries of Saxon jewellery, and much more.
On our last night there was a blue moon. It was the Saturday when Boris Johnson was due to lay out the next strictures. The time for the televised press conference came and went; the schedule slipped later and later. A thin silvery strip of light shone across the sea, arrowed at the castle. It seemed to be pointing at the clock tower window. We abandoned the prime minister, slipped out of the tower, and zigzagged down a steep sandy path to the beach. We walked to the sea and stood in the moonbeam and then headed south for 20 minutes in silence before returning to our eyrie. In all that time we did not see a soul.
Alec Russell is the editor of FTWeekend
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