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The Castle Keep (Newcastle)
Member Name: collingwood21
The Castle Keep (Newcastle)
Date: 12/04/02, updated on 12/04/02 (225 review reads)
Advantages: Quiet, as noone seems to know its there, cheap entry, shop, supports the Society of Antiquaries
Disadvantages: Lots of steps, the surrounding area is not interpreted at all, no toilets on site
To be perfectly honest, I didn't know there was a castle either until we were taken there on a field visit just before Easter. And that is after 6 months of living in the city as a heritage student! So, I think it is fair to say that the keep is something of a well-kept secret. I find it odd that the Society of Antiquaries who run the site don't advertise it more; the only promotional leaflets I have seen for the place were in the castle itself!
The castle is situated on the banks of the Tyne, just a short walk away from the railway station - in fact you can see it clearly if you cross the Tyne Bridge or railway bridge travelling north.
- A bit of history
The origins of the castle go back to 1080, when the eldest son of William the Conqueror founded a city at the old site of the Roman fort of Pons Aelius - this new castle gave the city its name. This was a motte and bailey castle, consisting of a fortified enclosure (with a timber palisade and enclosure ditch) - the ditch between the gatehouse and railway are the only parts of this structure that can still be seen today.
The castle was rebuilt in stone in the late 12th century by Henry II, who constructed the keep, gatehouse and enclosing wall. Later in the 13th century, an ailed hall (now buried beneath the Moot Hall) and a bigger gatehouse (called the Black Gate) were added. Within the keep itself are a storeroom and fine vaulted Norman chapel (which I unfortunately did not see much of due
to the fact the Songs of Praise were filming on the day we visited), and two floors of accommodation suites. The castle was briefly refortified during the Civil War, but by this time it had long been derelict and after the conflict was returned to this state. Fortunately for archaeologists though, the ditch was being used as a local midden at this time, so remains of pottery, leather, textiles and glass all survive from this period.
The castle was originally owned by the city council, with the Black Gate being used for a time as a place to house some of the poor of the city. When a plan was raised in the nineteenth century to demolish the remains and turn the area into a massive abattoir for the city, the Society of Antiquaries protested. The end result of all this was that the city washed its hands of the castle, and the society was left with a crumbling ruin that nobody quite knew what to do with.
- What the Victorians did for us
The thing about the castle is that what you see isn't entirely authentic 13th century. When the Society of Antiquaries got its hands on the site in the nineteenth century, they did the done Victorian thing and restored it to how they though a medieval castle should look - the prominent castellations along the top of the keep almost certainly never existed in the middle ages. There is also the thought that some of the original paintwork on the inner walls had survived until this time - only for the "restorers" to remove it as dirt in an over-enthusiastic cleaning spree. The Victorians also thought nothing of placing their new railway bridge to go right through the middle of the fortified area, thus removing large chunks of the remaining wall, damaging the archaeology and condemning the castle and its contents to a future of being shaken every time a train passes along the line outside it. While some wonderful pieces of original architecture do remain (most notable the chapel), a lot of the b
uilding is fabrication.
Further restoration work was conducted by the society in the 1970s - at least this time they deliberately used different coloured stone so that it is obvious which parts are the modern ones. The society have also moved their library into the restored Black Gate around this time.
- My opinion
This was certainly a worthwhile visit - but then, we had the advantage of being taken around the site by our tutor and being told first hand about the archaeology in this area. So much has happened within the castle walls (ranging from Roman and Anglo Saxon burials to important Civil War fortifications), but there is nothing outside the keep to actually tell you this. It is such a pity, as this is the most archaeologically rich area of Newcastle, and could be transformed into a real tourist attraction with a bit of money and the will to change things.
Inside the keep, there are a number of displays on the history of the castle - from the Roman fort to the restoration work of the society - as well as a collection of artefacts found during work at the site. Interpretation is quite basic and looks a bit old fashioned, but will tell you what you need to know to understand the building. At present though, there is no disabled access as this is a listed building; there are plans to open up the ground floor with ramps for disabled visitors and provide computer models of the rest of the castle, but it will be a long time before any of this takes effect. The main body of the castle can only currently be accessed via an awful lot of stairs, so it is difficult for elderly visitors or anyone not too good on their legs to see the keep.
I would highly recommend it to history lovers and to families as it is the sort of place that kids will love. It is also a cheap visit - it only costs £1.50 for adults and 50p for children, students, pensioners and the unemployed.
The castle is open every day, from 9.30am to 5
.30pm April to Sept, and 9.30am to 4.30pm October to March. If you take the train or Metro to Central Station, it is less than 10 minutes walk away; just turn left and head down Neville Street, then follow the signs.
For further information, you can contact:
The Society of Antiquaries
Phone: (0191) 232 7938
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