Newcastle, North East England
Castles: Tynemouth Priory
The first stop in our castle tour of Northumberland is the Tynemouth Priory and Castle. The site, at the mouth of the Tyne river, has evidence of occupation as a military stronghold and place of worship for over 2000 years. The ruins visible today date back to the founding of the Priory in the 11th century.
On this beautiful day one would imagine that living here, in a stunning castle on the coast, would be fantastic. But apparently not, as monks were sent here as punishment from the 13th century on. From the first known description of the Priory, approximately 1340:
“Our house is confined to the top of a high rock and is surrounded by sea on every side but one. Here is the approach to the monastery through a gate cut out of the rock so narrow that a cart can hardly pass through. Day and night the waves break and roar and undermine the cliff. Thick sea frets roll in wrapping everything in gloom. Dim eyes, hoarse voices, sore throats are the consequence. Shipwrecks are frequent. It is a great pity to see the numbed crew, whom no power on Earth can save, whose vessel, mast swaying and timbers parted, rushes upon the rock or reef. No ringdove or nightingale is here, only grey birds which nest in rocks and greedily prey upon the drowned, whose screaming cry is a token of a coming storm.”
Well, on this sunny day there’s nothing wrong with the sound of the breaking of the waves and watching the sea birds fly around, as we wander around the grounds marvelling at the beautiful stonework of the arches. From the remnants that are still standing, it is evident that this used to be a magnificent building, with huge, high arched windows, likely of stained glass. More at English Heritage. The priory was demolished during the 16th century during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, when Henry VIII took over the church of England.
Driving north from Tynemouth we visit Castle #2 today, in the town of Warkworth, Northumberland. Everything around here has ancient history, and the first record of this small town (around 1500 folks) is from 737AD.
Warkworth Castle is from the medieval period, and dates from the mid-12th century. The castle was passed to the Percy family in 1332, and the first Earl of Northumberland, one of several Henry Percy’s, did much work on the castle (1341-1408). In the early 17th century, Thomas Percy was involved in the famous Gunpowder Plot of 1605 (“remember, remember the 5th of November”), and was killed following the discovery of the plot and arrest of Guy Fawkes. By this point the castle was already in serious disrepair, and Henry Percy, the 9th Earl of Northumberland, was imprisoned from 1605 to 1621 and fined £30,000 (equivalent to over £5.5 million in 2013) as a result of his connection to Thomas. During this time, Warkworth castle was leased and then sold, fell farther into disrepair and was further damaged during the English Civil War in 1648.
According to the English Heritage page, by the mid 18th century, the castle was already a destination for tourists.
Small, twisty country roads lead us to the fishing village of Craster, where the ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle lie about a mile walk north up the rocky coast line. The village of Craster is very picturesque, with a small walled harbour and stone houses and inns. Unfortunately we don’t have much time to explore the town, as the time is late and we have a bit of a walk to get to the castle.
The walk up the coast is beautiful, one mile north through grassy fields full of cows and sheep, along the rocky shore, with the ruins of Dunstanburgh perched on a hill and dominating the area. The walk allows time for the environment to soak in and to contemplate the amazing castle in the distance. Being late in the day there are only a couple of other visitors, and we are mostly alone. The imagination roams back in time to the 14th century.
Unfortunately the castle is closed by the time we get there, so we walk around back, noticing the steep cliffs guarding the north side of the hill. We walk quickly around the grounds and then head out through the magnificent front gate, with it’s sandstone block walls, fantastically eroded after enduring 100s of years of coastal weather.
Dunstanburgh Castle is the largest castle in Northumberland, and was built between 1313 and 1325 by Earl Thomas of Lancaster, nephew of King Edward II. It was largely destroyed by cannon during the War of the Roses, 1455-1485, and its decaying walls were used a source of stone for other buildings during the 15th and 16th century.
More history of this stunning site can be found at English Heritage.
Aberdeen, City of Granite
The day I walked around Aberdeen was cloudy and threatening rain; typical Scottish weather.
This city really is built of granite. It is not an exaggeration that every house of any style and all commercial buildings are made of silvery-gray granite. Row upon row of houses, entire streets, new and old districts, cathedrals, commercial buildings, sidewalks and sometimes even front yards, all made of stone.
My Dad is a mason and my grandparents (Mom’s side) were geologists, so I must have a genetic fascination with rocks in general, and stonework in particular, and I found wandering through this city of stone to be fascinating.
Buildings constructed before the age of globalization were built with local materials, and architectural ideas spread slowly from one part of the world to another. The result is the fantastic variety of cultures and styles found in the old world.
The cloudy weather is just fine with me. It is authentic, and the soft, even light under the clouds is good for photographing smaller details of things.
There are two rivers flowing through Aberdeen: the Don in the north and the Dee to the south. Walking through a lush, green park that follows the Don River I was instructed, by a friendly local I ran into, to go see the old bridge.
The Brig o’ Balgownie was built in the 13th century and is just north of Old Aberdeen.
After crossing the bridge, and working my way down a muddy trail to the shore to get a better view of it, I came back up and walked through the old town, where there are some beautiful historic houses along the main road that really are as small as they look. And yes, they are all made of stone!
Just south of Aberdeen is the coastal town of Stonehaven, which claims to have the best fish and chips in the UK – a strong claim! Naturally we stop there for lunch, at Bays Fish and Chip, and it truly is amazing, certainly the best I have ever tasted.
Just when I thought that castles could not get more stunning, we go about 3km south of Stonehaven to and arrive at Dunnottar Castle. Sitting on a stunning, isolated headland surrounded by steep conglomerate cliffs dropping into the sea on three sides, it is clearly a perfect site to place a castle. A narrow strip of land connects the headland to the mainland, and a path leads down, across and up to the gate house. It has a long and interesting history, including being the hiding place of the Scottish Crown Jewels during an English invasion of the 17th century.
The history of the site goes back a 1000 years before the 17th century, being the site of sieges in the 7th and 8th century, and the site of one of the earliest big battles between the English and the Scottish. History trails has a brief chronology and Undiscovered Scotland has photos and background.
Glen Garioch Distillery
What trip to Scotland would be complete without a distillery tour? Glen Garioch Distillery was founded in 1797 in the town of Oldmelrum, just north-east of Aberdeen. In the Highland region of Scotland, it is the most easterly distillery in Scotland, and the name is pronounced “Geery” (rhymes with “cheery”) in the local Doric dialect.
The tour starts in the malting rooms, moves on to the fermenting vats (where malted barley is fermented with yeast, much like beer), then on to still room, with the huge, gorgeous copper kettles where the real action takes place. Then the cellar, where the golden spirits are allowed to rest and mature in oak casks for years before bottling.
And of course, the tour finishes in the shop where numerous vintages are available for tasting and purchase. So fun, and of course a bottle or two follows us home…
Jocelyn and I drive out to the Cairngorms, just west of Aberdeen, to check out climbing routes around Dubh Loch, where there is over 300m of granite in a massive wall overlooking the Loch. No climbing for us today, as we are just out for a hike around the lake and over the hills.
To get to Dubh Loch, we first have to walk around Loch Muick. The landscape looks like it should be forested, as there are groves of trees with straight edges scattered about, but most of the rolling hills are covered in grass and heather, oddly patterned in patches. The interpretive centre at the Spittal of Glenmuick explains the struggle to manage the ecosystem, the overabundance of deer, the extinction of apex predators like wolves and bear by humans, and the results of centuries of deforestation. Fortunately, there are efforts to bring back the forests to this rather distressed landscape.
Once past Loch Muick, we contour around to Dubh Loch, where we find a small tent on the shore and spot a couple of climbers up on the wall. We stop at the Loch to study the great granite wall, and then continue on, following a beautiful stream flowing over granite up from the Loch, and then aim right towards Lochnager peak, going around another granite wall with a stream flowing down it.
On the way we spook a herd of red deer, who bolt to attention at our approach and warily watch us as we walk past. Much hunting of deer occurs around here, and I’m surprised that they let us get as close as they did.
Lochnagar has an enormous cairn on it, and the trail that we follow down is a long stairway made of granite boulders. Many people, over many years, have put a lot of work into building this path. The trail continues down through a drainage with a waterfall, and gets us back to the Glas-allt Shiel house, at the far end of Loch Muick.
There is a pine forest plantation around the house, which was built by Queen Victoria as a quieter retreat from Balmoral Castle. The forest is clearly a managed ecosystem, as the undergrowth is all wrong, being far too neat and homogenous. A long walk back along a road on the north side of the lake, as the sun sets, gets us to the head of the lake, where a lone stone-walled and stone-roofed building that appears to be a garage sits on the shore.
One day I’ll have to go back in winter and experience the legendary Scottish weather.
So good to see my great friends Jocelyn and Annie again, and thanks for the tours and good times!
Darren Foltinek, 2013.