Bamburgh Castle can be seen for miles, and as you get closer to it you can see that it sits on top of an outcrop of igneous rock which forms part of the Great Whin Sill – a geological formation that for anyone who has been along Hadrian’s Wall will probably recognise.
The site was occupied by Ancient Britons even before the Romans arrived, and when the Romans left in the early 5th century the Celts were back in control – but not for long.
The Dark Ages brought an influx of invaders from the continent which resulted in the land the Romans called Britannia being carved up into various kingdoms – Anglo-Saxon Northumbria being one of them.
The first Anglo-Saxon King to rule from Bamburgh was King Ida who took control from the Din Guarie tribe in 547 and even though there must have been a fortress here before, it was from this time that we have the first written record of one.
The castle was of wooden construction and, according to that great early historian the Venerable Bede, it didn’t get its name of ‘Bebbanburgh’ until King Ida’s grandson, Æthelfrith, passed it on to his wife Bebba.
The original wooden fortification was destroyed by the Vikings in 993, but William the Conqueror could see that he would have the same trouble as the Romans if he didn’t build another one to keep the Scots at bay and the northerners in check, but this time it was built in stone.
Being so far away from William’s seat of power in the south it needed to be sturdy, especially as he gave Northumbria independence and left it in the hands of the Earls, which no doubt seemed a good idea at the time, but wasn’t the long-term answer. Ultimately, Henry II brought the North of England back under royal control in 1157, and oversaw the completion of the Great Keep at Bamburgh which is still at the core of this imposing fortress today.
The castle remained impregnable until it was taken by the Yorkists from the Lancastrians during the Battle of the Roses in 1464, but like so many castles after they have outlived their usefulness, it was allowed to just crumble into a ruin until Lord Crewe, the Bishop of Durham, embarked on a restoration programme in the18th century.
The great industrialist, the 1st Lord Armstrong, acquired it in 1894 and continued the restoration. On his death he left it to his family to be the “Keepers and Protectors” of Bamburgh Castle, which they have been ever since.
So much for a brief history of the castle, but what is there to see? Well, with such a commanding position, the views for a start.
Entry is via the impressive looking Gatehouse, which although harks back to the 12th century, is one of the parts of the castle that had an 18th century makeover.
From here the path known as Vale Typping leads up to the Battery Terrace via the ticket office and Constable Tower. As its name suggests, the Battery Terrace has some fabulous views, especially across to the wonderful Farne Islands.
If views interest you as much as they interest me, then you may want to make your way down to the West Ward which has views northwards towards Lindisfarne and beyond into Scotland. The West Ward is also where archaeologists have been digging for Anglo-Saxon relics since 1959. Some of what they’ve found can be seen inside the castle.
Now that you’ve got an overall idea of the castle’s layout, it’ll be time to head back up to the Inner Ward to visit the castle’s interior.
You would have already passed the impressive Keep on the way down, but it’s worth having another look at it on the way back up. The Keep is the most authentic part of the castle because much of the interior has been turned into living accommodation, mainly by the 1st Lord Armstrong.
Viewing the interior of the castle is by a self-guided tour so you can take as much, or as little time as you like.
Some State Rooms (as they’re called) are more interesting than others, but without doubt the highlight has to be the King’s Hall, with its hammer beam roof commissioned by Lord Armstrong.
A passage leads from the state rooms into the 12th century keep where it definitely feels more like a castle with walls that are 11 ft thick. There’s also a small collection of armour and an Anglo-Saxon well. Exit is via a dungeon, which gave me the impression that it had been installed more to keep the kids amused rather than for any real historical accuracy – but who knows?
Before leaving the rooms inside the castle make sure that you don’t miss the Archaeology Room which I was talking about earlier.
Among the finds from the West Ward are two small gold artefacts, one of which has been nicknamed the ‘Bamburgh Beast’. Found by Dr. Brian Hope in 1971 it has been adopted by the castle as its motif. It’s only small, and would be easy to miss, but it’s worth checking it out as it’s dated to the time of the Northumbrian kings and based on Celtic artwork.
The West Ward also includes a museum dedicated to Lord Armstrong. It’s worth leaving this part of the castle until last because it won’t suit everybody.
Having said that, if time and inclination permits, I don’t think it should be overlooked.
The 1st Lord Armstrong was one of those great British Victorian inventors that made his fortune in heavy engineering, shipbuilding and armaments, and the museum is more about his industrial inventions than the man himself.
It’s not large, but it does give an insight into the man’s ingenuity – and whatever your thoughts are on his involvement in making armaments – a large chunk of the money he made from the business was spent on restoring the castle to how it looks today.
Northumberland, it has to be said, is blessed with some magnificent castles. Some, like Alnwick, have a great history, and others, such as Lindisfarne have a great location – Bamburgh has both – don’t miss it!