Hermitage Castle

No, not the one in St Petersburg. Nor the one in Perthshire. The Hermitage in the Borders is what we’re talking about today…

Oh Hermitage, Oh Strength of Liddlesdale…

The keep that is the jewel of the bloodiest vale of Britain is well worth visiting. I will first tell you about what got me to go there… I ended up discussing with a Historic Scotland person in one of their other sites which places were worth recommending. And what the guy said was that he recommends Hermitage as the feeling he got there was something different. I cannot remember the exact words he used, but spooky works. Or eerie.

I knew I had to go there after that conversation… and how happy am I to have gone!

Hermitage is not the largest castle you’ll ever visit. Indeed, it is likely to be one of the smaller ones. It is not one of the mightiest or most imposing. There’s not moat, there’s hardly any buildings to the outside of the keep (there is a chapel which I actually forgot to go to, I realised afterwards).

What does exist is this keep. A mighty stonework that stands proud amidst the moors. The approach to it is fortunately forested, and that helps a bit, adding to the sense of mystery.

What I felt at the place was this eerieness that had been mentioned by my unknowing guide. I cannot put my hand on it, but I imagine it has to do with the history these stones have seen. So many years have passed, and Hermitage has been a visible landmark through many difficult struggles. Or, even when official struggles were not about, the Border Reivers no doubt were.

The state of disrepair inside helped. It was not complete, but rain — for indeed this was a rainy day — soaked through everywhere. There were no dry places even though masonry extended to metres above in every direction.

Absolutely amazing, but I think you need the weather to help you with the visit. The Borders in sunlight is almost unimaginable…

Hermitage

Dunstanburgh Castle

Moving southwards on the coast, there’s Dunstanburgh. Or, rather, what was Dunstanburgh. With the castle being so closely tied to the fate of its lords, the fact that the Lord, Thomas of Lancaster, earned royal displeasure by killing Piers Gaveston, did not help Dunstanburgh rise through the times. Thomas was often on the wrong side of any argument after that, and it was not long before he died. It is not even known whether the Earl ever made it to his castle.

The final dagger through the heart of Dunstanburgh was, of course, its destruction in the Wars of the Roses when Lord Warwick’s artillery decided that the castle’s masonry was of the previous century. As expected, it did not hold out.

What is clear, however, and what stood through the times, is that the king’s men in Bamburgh could see the defiance inherent in Dunstanburgh. Even now, when one stands facing north, the mighty keep at Bamburgh is clearly visible. When the great walls of Dunstanburgh were still intact the sight would have been similarly majestic from the other side. Majestic, I say, by which I mean the king’s men would always have known that their vigilance was required.

Dunstanburgh Castle

What is not noticeable from this photo is the fact that as one goes further along the coast (or the walls), the coastline develops into a massive sea-cliff. Thomas chose this position very very well. It is a pity it doesn’t survive better, but in a lot of ways, ruins can be more spectacular than the full thing.

The other bit worth mentioning here is the John of Gaunt gatehouse. John is well-known to readers of 14th century as the instigator of a massive raid into France in the Hundred Years’ War, and he came to own Dunstanburgh for a while in the late 14th century. He clearly also left his mark on the grounds though indeed I don’t know much about it.

What is also interesting but what I cannot really comment on is how the Edwardian fortification construction lessons from Wales were applied in the next set of castles. The plentiful placards on the site note that Harlech and Conwy resemble certain works on this site, and I imagine people who have visited both will have more to draw on. Maybe when I visit them, I’ll take another guess at comparing these…

Bamburgh Castle

I wish I could say I visited Bebbanburgh, but regrettably as yet we can still travel only in space and not in time. If we could… Until then, I visited Bamburgh.

Northumbria’s ancient seat of power had been in my list of places to see. Firstly, because I have taken an interest in early English history (5th to 9th centuries), and, secondly, because it has lately been popularised by the writings of Mr Bernard Cornwell. Indeed, it was the latter which built in me the enthusiasm for the former.

The present castle is of course not the one we would have seen in the 8th or 9th centuries, nor is our understanding of what those castles looked like particularly good. But, it is ever my principle than in experiencing the places people previously have experienced one can grasp an idea of what they may have thought.

However, one should also think about what Bamburgh symbolised for all of the years after then. It is steeped in history, like so many of the other local fortifications. Bamburgh rebelled against William II when the third Norman Earl of Northumbria, Robert de Mowbray thought he had found a better king than William. After the castle submitted, it became a property of the king, and the royal standard flew from the keep for centuries after then.

Indeed, the various stages of fortification would have added to the keep so that people all around the local area would unrecognisably see the power and authority of the king. And, he was powerful. But, power is always contested. More on this elsewhere (namely, when I’ll get to writing about Dunstanburgh)…

But back to Bamburgh: I found the complex environment of the dunes of the beach and the rock of the castle a very curious mix. The castle from the beach was striking, and the beach from the castle looked like an integral part of the landscape. The dunes seemed to comprise more of a landscape than the entirety of the landward countryside.

And though we shan’t know how exactly Bebbanburgh looked like, but if you’re as curious as I am to see what the people there could have made of it, go and take a look.

And, for a second, back to the Anglo-Saxon Northumbria. How would a lord of this castle behave? What would he think? Would he have looked in admiration onto the Holy Island and the monks there; the very same monks who turned Northumbria into a centre of the Christian culture? What would have been the limit of his aspirations?

Bamburgh Castle

Lindisfarne Priory

The Priory was close to the Castle. Apparently, it was out of use and being slowly dismantled by the time construction started on the castle, which is why it is in such a state of disrepair. Although, the one thing I noted was that the main object standing is a massive arch even though it had barely any support. The monks (and masons and assisting people) built those arches well, or rather, figured out clever geometry for the arches to support themselves well!

Though this priory carries very little in itself of the original 7th century centre of all Christian learning (or, well, most of it in the former Western Empire), I can sense why this place was chosen for the monastery.

Well, of course, let’s step back — firstly, one of the reasons was the proximity to the seat of the kings of Northumbria (Bernicia / Deira) across the water in Bebbanburgh. But, more than that, I think if St Aidan had to have chosen after coming wondering around Northumbria, the sheer beauty of the island would have made him want to make this place it. The beauty, but also the tranquillity. It must count as one of the more peaceful places I have experienced.

I think the present-day islanders follow the wish for peace, firstly, by still being secluded from the mainland by the tides, but also by preventing too many mainlanders coming across at any one time (same tides, limited accommodation, defined parking areas for outsiders, restricted access to some places, etc).

Lastly, I was particularly gifted in visiting the place during a day which was dry and sunny. I also heard that, similarly to every other region and county, Lindisfarne is meant to be the driest place in the British Isles (version Northumbria).

I’d like to go back.

Lindisfarne Priory

Lindisfarne Castle

I read some books on early Northumbrian development last year (7th century), and it only reinvigorated the wish in me to see the places which gave life to its original greatness. Finally, my  journeying this weekend took me to the Holy Island. Lindisfarne, it is known by others, but, I think, especially after having been there that the name of the ‘Holy Island’ is perfectly suitable.

Admittedly, the castle is presently in the process of reconstruction which should be over by the March of 2018. Hence, entry to the castle was forbidden and all visitors can do is walk about here and there. Therefore, I did not actually stay for too long, but I still got a sense of the area.

Now, before I continue too far, this castle was begun in 1550 and hence some of what I will say below will not readily apply. Warfare on the borders and internally had (with some notable exceptions) ceased by this point, and the kingdoms on this island would soon be unified. However, even so there would have been a period of at least thirty to forty years when it was militarily relevant.

The castle has also been portrayed in several films and thereby has claim to an iconic status. What I considered more iconic, however, was the view across the bay to where Bamburgh rules the skyline. What the people garrisoned here must have thought, seeing their comrades-in-arms so close (and yet so far). What must have the people in Bamburgh thought when the Norsemen raided and pillaged in Lindisfarne to begin with…

The rest of the island, and particularly the priory, are probably more thought-inspiring but even so, this was worth visiting.

Lindisfarne Castle

Gariannorum, Litus Saxonicum

The system known today as the Saxon shore forts was a Roman defensive system for the coast of what later became East Anglia. Not much is known about the full extent of the fortifications, and even less remains. However, one of the few remaining stations is what is known as Burgh Castle, possibly identified as Gariannorum.

Firstly, one must keep in mind that the East Anglian shoreline has changed considerably in the last few thousand years. Great river deltas have disappeared, to be replaced by new ones further south or north. This has happened both in present North Norfolk as well as at the River Yare. The Burgh Castle area is one of the affected zones, with a former site of a very good port having been replaced by an intertidal zone less suitable for marine traffic.

Indeed, it is possible that the present Caister-on-Sea was located on an island, connected to other local stations (Burgh Castle and Reedham) by the water. Venta Icenorum (Caister St Edmund) was a great port by the same influence, with the river there being considerably deeper and wider than it is now. The site at Caister St Edmund is similarly interesting, though the Burgh Castle one is perhaps more reminiscent of the past glory with the ruins being considerably better preserved.

The fact that approaching the site, all that one sees are the walls, still standing strong after 1600 years, is enough to create a impression. Of course, later fortifications have also been positioned there, with the Normans building a castle of their one as well as monastic efforts by the early Christians. The Norman ruins, however, have not sailed through the time as well as the Roman stonework.

Overall, then, what a place: the sheer accessibility and scale of these ruins makes one want to visit, even if the site itself is relatively empty of plaques and explanations. The missing information, however, allows for imagination. What was here before? Who was here before? Can your mind’s eye picture the ships about to dock at the wall that is no longer there? Is a turma riding out for a patrol of neighbouring region?

Any of these things could have happened, any of these will have happened at some point in the past. And it is up to us to imagine life here as it was then.

Gariannorum

Newstead Abbey & Gardens

A few weekends back I had the chance to visit Newstead Abbey. Or, rather, I should say I happened upon that place by chance on the way somewhere else. The Abbey and the Gardens around it looked so wonderful though, that I took the time to look around and discover that new terrain. Apparently, I learned later, it is a relatively well known place in England, and there definitely were many visitors when I was there. I suppose that its central location between Nottingham and Mansfield would guarantee that it is relatively close to a few population centres…

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Anyways, the more important bit than the Abbey itself was the Abbey Gardens. These were a truly magnificent site, and I would very much enjoy a return visit. What was maybe most interesting about that was how it had been organised — the entire site operated based on a plan, and the sections were all styled differently. The gardens were also appropriately named; thus there existed a Japense Garden, an American Garden, a French Garden, a Spanish Garden, and so forth. One of my favourites, most assuredly, was the Japanese Garden — it did make me think of a more typical Japanese garden, and it was very well styled.

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The lake that made up half of the property border was also most considerable. I can imagine many Lords, still while the entire House and Garden were in process of construction, walking by it and trying to visualise the result that was so clear in their minds. There are a few more pictures, I would add, some of which show the House (Abbey, as it stands now) and others the gardens behind it, designed quite separate from the rest of the domain.

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Also, it is worth mentioning that this house has its position in the literary history of Britain, for it was the ancestral home of the poet to become Lord Byron. The place never looked as good when he was there, from what I was made to believe, but soon afterwards (early 19th century) it was restored and built back on a far grander scale. The place also seems to have been open to public from an early day (mid-19th century) when people could enter and take a look around for a small sum.

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I am looking forward to when I can visit the place again.

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Norfolk & Getting About — Walking

Norfolk is really a wonderous place — although it comes to mind that perhaps everywhere is when you spend time there. The beauty of Norfolk that I am talking about today can be ascribed mainly to nature, and the possibility of spending time in nature. Walking is the preferred way for me to do this, but there are obviously many others. But, just to give an idea of the different walks that can be taken here, consider this :

Marriott’s Way, Wherryman’s Way, Weavers’ Way, Peddars Way, Boudicca Way, Angles Way are just few of the intra-county long walks. These connect Norwich, Thetford, Great Yarmouth and many other smaller cities to each other, the sea, and Suffolk. I have thus far walked a small distance on the Marriott’s Way as well as on the Weavers’ Way (from Aylsham to North Walsham. So, I have made contact with two and got many to investigate still.

What might be my point here is that I am trying to visit these trails and do that more often now it is slightly summery. And when I do, I shall try to phrase my thoughts on those trails as well!

Note that I am sure that other counties have similar opportunities, but I simply don’t know about those. Can’t do anything about that really — there is always so much to see when one does get out and looks about!

Note furthermore that there are few really good places to get information on their exact routes. However, the Norfolk County website is a good place to start from for anyone interested.