Imagine a castle so mighty that in 1318 it withstood a siege by Robert the Bruce for a year, he only briefly got as far as the outer ward. In 1497 it withstood an attack using the cannon Mons Meg, which can now be found at Edinburgh Castle. Attacked at least 11 times*, the castle was only taken 3 times, several times invading Scottish armies avoided it. The castle controlled a ford across the river Tweed, and was one of the most dangerous places on the English/ Scottish border. The castle was finally taking and nearly destroyed in 1513, before the battle of Flodden, it was later repaired and refortified in case of future invasion.
So what was the fate of this castle that was once so important to national security?
After Elizabeth the 1st came to the throne the castle was allowed to fall into disrepair following peace with Scotland. Later some of the stone was stolen for other building projects. There was enough left to inspire Walter Scott in 1808 though when he wrote his poem "Marmion" about the battle of Flodden, and a romantic entanglement.
"Day set on Norham's castled steep,
And Tweed's fair river, brood and deep,
And Cheviot's mountain's lone,
The battled towers, the donjon keep,
The loophole grates where captive's weep,
The flanking walls that round it sweep,
In yellow lustre shone.
The warriors on the turrets high,
Moving athwart the evening sky,
Seemed forms of giant height;
Their armour, as it caught the rays,
Flashed back again the western blaze,
In lines of dazzling light"
From "Marmion" by Walter Scott 1808
Norham castle was founded by the bishop of Durham, ranulph flambard in 1121 to protect his northern lands, it was built to withstand heavy attacks, and had an inner and outer ward, and battlements. It was first attacked by the Scots only 15 years later.
So is there much left today?
Surprisingly there is quite a bit, which I think is testament to how strong the castle was before it was abandoned following peace. The castle was much altered and added to during it's use and parts of it that stand were added following the battle of Flodden, but as to how much is left, well put it this way if Scotland gets independence and decides to attack Norham castle won't be protecting anyone :)
Getting on with the neighbours
As many of you will appreciate sometimes you don't get on with your neighbours, some of people even a lot of the time don't get on with their neighbours :), and it is in this last catagory that England and Scotland fell up to 1603, when England got a Scottish King :) Obviously for a Scottish king to inherit the throne there were marriages (James the 1st or 6th depending on which side you stood was Henry the 7th's great great grandson) and truces, but in general they didn't last and English and Scots liked to invade each other. The problem was further complicated by local border families on both sides fighting each other. Northumberland then as now stood in the firing line on both sides, and as such has it's fair share of castles and defensible buildings, Norham in it's day was one of the most important. It was always owned either by the crown, or the bishops of Durham, depending on whether the bishop was in favour at that time.
I visited with my mum and dad on a hot sunny Friday just over a week ago. Norham was actually the second castle we visited, as my Dad wanted to visit another while we were in the area (this will be a future review), as it's about an hours drive from where we live.**
Norham is a small village on the border, with it's dominant feature being the castle ruins. Lovers of the artist Turner have probably seen paintings of Norham Castle.
Norham Castle is an English Heritage property but is free to get in and has free car parking. Having been to Norham in the past I knew that this was a fairly recent development and questioned the man who runs Etal Castle and he said English Heritage castles have to be self funding so Norham is now opened and closed by volunteers from the village. I'm guessing the lack of paying visitors is due to Norham's location, it's just out of the way enough that it probably doesn't attract a lot of tourists, and the village itself doesn't feel touristy.
We drove past the front of the castle and parked in the small gravel car park, and then walked back to the castle. This is slightly uphill and takes about 2 to 3 minutes. We entered via a gate in the south wall.
The Outer ward
This is grass which is kept short and on the right is the keep and the left the main gatehouse, and bridge over the moat. We visited the gatehouse and bridge first as we were curious about the photo of Norham Castle on English Heritage's web site which is took from this angle. Left of the gate house is the arch, and a small wooden bridge over a very deep moat, this must have replaced the original drawbridge. The arch provides a lovely frame for photos of the keep, and looking back to the village.
On the left is the outer wall with arches in for cannons to defend the crossing, these were a later addition following repairs after Flodden. We went up the hill towards the bridge over the inner moat, stopping to admire the remains of the brewhouse, and water system from the river. Across the inner moat is again a wooden bridge, which again I assume replaced a drawbridge. The remains of a chapel are also on the north side of the bridge.
The castle was protected on the north side by a steep bank coming up from the river, and on the east side by a ravine.
The Inner ward
This is the ruins of the keep, and several outer buildings including the kitchens, hall, bishops lodgings and Clapham Tower. There is enough of all of these that you can make them out, and information boards help to explain what different parts were. The keep is in good enough repair that you can go under part of it, into vaulted rooms (with mud floors!), and can go upstairs to part of the first floor. I love castles and am always excited when there's enough that you can go in them, and upstairs :) It was in the tower that the constable of the castle (him in charge), or visiting nobles would have resided. The tower itself only has 3 walls, but this has the advantage of you being able to see where the floors, and windows would have been. The keep when finished (it was originally 2 floors which were added to) stood at 88 feet high, and was 84ft by 60ft. Today you can see 4 levels, but the picture on the information board shows there was originally 6.
We rounded of our visit with a look at the south wall, which had buildings added to in the nineteenth century and housed the old visitors shop. The whole visit took maybe an hour, that's taking into account I like to see everything and read all the information boards :)
Now here is a negative, now Norham isn't manned there are no facilities, no gift shop, no coffee machine and perhaps worst of all no toilets! It is wheel chair accessible, but it is hilly.
The castle is in the village of Norham which is about 6 miles from Berwick, the village has a pub and I believe public toilets. I can't vouch for either as we used the toilets and cafe in Etal before going to Norham as we weren't sure what was there (it's 5 miles away).
My love of castles and Norham
I love castles, I particularly like ruins as you can imagine how things were in the past. For me Norham Castle is one of my favourites, it has enough walls left to imagine what was there, and with it's imposing keep, which I can climb inside of, for me it's just great. If I lived closer I would probably visit it more often, and I have to say at the lowly cost of nothing it's an absolute bargain, and if you're in the vicinity of Berwick upon Tweed I recommend a 6 mile detour to see this gem of a castle.
*English heritage website, "undiscoveredscotland and wikipedia :)
** To regular readers of my reviews wondering my husband gets invites but isn't bothered by castles and is usually busy fixing cars :)
Ps Flodden was a great battle between England and Scotland during which the Scottish king was killed, Norham castle fell to cannon bombardment before the battle.