Chillingham castle in the spring
I first visit Chillingham Castle in blazing month of June. Despite the fields being filled with glorious summer poppies, it was rainy and chilly both outside and in. Things were to prove not much different when I return for a second time in April. This is North Northumberland.
It was chilly and rainy again with the added atmosphere of a lovely damp dense fog. The fog thickens as the afternoon progresses.
As one of the most haunted castles in England (it’s been on the ‘Most Haunted’ programme) I suppose it was quite appropriate really.
Aristocrats I’m told are use to living in draughty piles. They know it’s all a bit pointless to try and warm up a castle with walls of stone several feet thick. Not for them the easy dial of the central heating thermostat. Suffice to say I was prepared this time. With my ski jacket on top of my all weather fleecy, I remained cosy.
An Aladdin’s cave of a castle
Chillingham Castle is an Aladdin’s cave of memorabilia, historical items and fascinating objects from throughout the ages.
Sir Humphry, the owner of Chillingham Castle, recently acquired some new items of interest including several impressive African bongo drums. They had apparently been left over after Lady Mary’s birthday party last week.
Other additional eccentricities are spotted which I missed during last visit. The jockey weighing machine for one, the automatic gun re loader and the beautiful golden bat weather vane.
The castle bats
Bats appear on the Wakefield family crest and appear all over the castle. Apparently Sir Humphry is a big bat aficionado and there are many types of bat hanging about the estate.
Visitors had reported strange rustlings, squeaking and movements in the drawing room over several months and it was assumed that it was another ghostly presence making itself felt. It turned out to be a small colony of bats roosting in the curtains.
‘They’re still there.’ one of the stewards tells me ‘ but it’s not so bad now that we know what the noise is.’ I asked if Sir Humphrey had a Bat mobile too, but he didn’t seem to think that was funny.
The steward says he was the gardener at the Castle for thirty years and retired three years ago. He got bored at home and has come back to the castle as a guide. He cleaning the silver plate in the dining room which he says helps to pass the time.
He’s only seen a ghost once at the castle in thirty years. She was an old lady in a long dress who just appeared and then walked into the wall. A poor ghost hunting record record for thirty years I thought. Although to be fair he probably spent most of his time in the herbaceous border.
Chillingham’s great hall
The great hall is a medieval affair which has a real Minstrel’s Gallery. Minstrels sang to entertain the company below and Sir Humphry’s family continue to use it for this purpose at evening functions.
On the wall are real antlers which belonged to the biggest giant Elk in the world. An incredible pre-historic specimen, he eventually died out as he ‘cast’ his antlers each year and had to find food to grow them again bigger and better every year. Eventually there was not enough food around to support this impressive animal.
The two huge fireplaces have huge turning spits for roasting wild animals and the family still use them for this, ‘only if Health and Safety are out of the way,’ says Sir Humphry.
The great hall is now the Tea Room in the tourist season. It comes back to family use in the Winter and for occasional week-ends, concerts and plays.
The dungeon and torture chamber display a collection of gruesome exhibits. There are executioners blocks and an Iron Maiden, with her vile interior spikes, and a ‘scold’s bridle’ for gossips and a set of very nasty thumb screws.
Things with spikes seemed particularly popular back in the days of war. Here is also a spiked wheel which people would be strapped to and turned on, adding dizziness no doubt to the already unpleasant fate of bleeding to death.
This 12th century stronghold has played its part in the history of England. In 1298 it became ‘base-camp’ for the conquering attack on William Wallace by “Hammer of the Scots”, King Edward 1st. Wallace had raided the previous year, burning the women and children to death in the local abbey.
The Castle, originally a stately home, was given permission to add battlements by King Edward III in 1344. You can still see the actual License for this in the Castle. The Elizabethans added ‘Long Galleries,’ and Capability Brown designed the parklands in 1752. There have been many royal visits here including our own esteemed Duke of Edinburgh, a personal friend of Sir Humphry’s.
The castle as a family home
Chillingham Castle is a real family home as well as a piece of living history and Sir Humphry has done much to salvage its fabric. Both the ceiling and floors needed replacing when he bought the property from his wife’s brother in a state of disrepair. There were even trees growing through the wall! Lady Mary is a Grey of Earl Grey fame.
The things that appeal to me the most are the domestic details and the eclectic collection of random curiosities. We are in a world where everyone obsesses about the new, the latest craze, gadget, gizmo or fashion. Chillingham castle is the antithesis of this. This is a place where the past is a part of the present and is appreciated. Everything here is celebrated in a charming, if higgledy piggledy, way.
I love the hat and boot room which I actually quite covet – I do love boots. I love the dog collar rack where there is a display of fearsome and rather cool dog collars. They must have been big, impressive hunting dogs retrieving things from about the estate and biting intruders. No Shih tzus or labradoodles here!
I love the playroom stuffed with toys and comics and ‘Boys Own’ paraphernalia. And I do like the tiger’s head which growls out of a large copper bowl. I wouldn’t want it in the living room mind you.
Functions and events at the castle
You may marry in the castle, hire it for functions or stay in the grounds in the adjoining apartments. You can go on an evening ghost walk or stay up all night on a vigil hoping for a supernatural encounter.
The castle, largely unaltered structurally since its ancient battling days, retains its ghosts who have never been disturbed. The Blue boy. Poor, wandering Lady Mary, a tortured child, and even a Royal procession are all said to have been seen and heard at one time or another.
Chillingham castle is a fascinating and unique place to visit full of incredible eccentricities and character. Sir Humphry is a lucky man.
Check out the fabulous story of Lumley Castle