A Busy few Days in the North-East

Having found a fantastic little camp site near Belsay (Bolam West Houses Farm), we ended up staying for 4 nights and using it as a base to visit some of the English Heritage sites in the area.

First up was Warkworth Castle, a ruined 12th century castle near the coast just South of Alnwick:

Warkworth was owned by the Percy family (Earls of Northumberland, who also owned Alnwick). After the unification of England and Scotland in the early 17th century, they no longer needed two big castles in the area, and Warkworth was allowed to fall into disrepair.

Belsay Castle, just down the road from our camp site, was initially a fourteenth century fortified house (Pele tower) that was later built onto over time by the Middleton family.

Despite the additions, improvements and modernisations undertaken, though, the castle must still not have been quite up to scratch… A later incumbent, inspired by a honeymoon spent in Greece, had Belsay Hall built in the grounds and the family moved in on Christmas Day, 1817.

The design is more inspired by Greece than a faithful reproduction of anything. The Doric columns above and Ionic below in the hallway are a particularly unusual arrangement:

The big selling point for me was that the principal reception room was also the library…. Unfortunately the books are long since gone, as is all the furniture (sold to pay death duties in the 1960s). One of the conditions the family attached when handing the property into the guardianship of the State was that it had to remain unfurnished. It’s a pity to see a nice building like that (with well-proportioned rooms and large windows giving it a light and airy feel) sitting empty.

We then took a detour back to Roman times and Corbridge Roman Town. As at Birdoswald last week, the museum here is also closed for works…. Perhaps English Heritage could have organised things so that one museum was closed one year and one the next rather than closing both at the same time?

Corbridge was a supply town for the nearby forts along the wall. Only the middle part of the town has been excavated, but we saw two big granaries, remains of workshops, houses etc and a LOT of drains, which just goes to show that it rained a lot around here back in Roman times too.

The nearby town of Hexham was fantastic. There’s free parking next to Waitrose and Tesco within just a few minutes’ walk of the town centre, which is very pretty.

Hexham has the first purpose-built jail in Britain (dating back to 1330):

Unfortunately the museum was closed when we visited, so we’ll have to go back another time.

Hexham Abbey was a highlight of our trip so far. It’s free to go in (though donations are welcome) and was a very welcoming place.

A lot of the stones used in the construction of the abbey were “recycled” from Roman sites in the area:

We particularly liked the headstone discovered during building work in 1881, which had been used face-down in the Abbey:

To the spirits of the departed, Flavinus, trooper of the cavalry regiment Petriana standard bearer of the troop Candidus, aged 25, of seven years’ service, he lies here

It seems that riding over a local barbarian on your horse isn’t enough; you have to kick him up the bum in the process!

Hexham Abbey was founded in 673 by Saint Wilfred and amazingly, the crypt from his church survives and can be accessed down a steep staircase from the main church:

There’s a modern exhibition area with lots of great exhibits. This has to be my favourite though: paper found during building work that had fallen between the floorboards of the choir and dates back to WW2. You can just imagine the young choirboys scoffing chocolate and drawing planes, tanks and the like during the sermon!

It was now time to leave our camp site near Belsay and head South towards Durham, stopping on the way to gave a look at the Angel if the North, the huge steel sculpture by Antony Gormley erected in 1998.

We’re planning to have a day wandering around Durham before continuing to the coast at Whitby.

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