Today, Northumberland is the least populated county in England and yet it has the most castles per square mile of any. It is a part of the UK which has a turbulent past, experiencing occupations by both the Romans and the Vikings at different times in history. It’s nearly April here now, and we live in hope that spring is just around the corner. The daffodils are struggling through but look a bit half –hearted, but there was definite evidence of blue sky as we set off for a morning walk from the village of Craster, along the rugged coast to the ruins of Dunstanburgh castle set high on a hill overlooking the North sea.Craster is a fishing village famous for the family business of L Robson and sons who still smoke the herrings landed here in the traditional way over fires of oak sawdust.
No room at the Inn
Craster kippers have been treated this way for over a hundred years and are exported internationally. The pub in Craster, the Jolly Fisherman, specialises in local seafood dishes, and I did have in mind to land ourselves there for lunch after our walk, but it was so busy that we could hardly get in through the door. And of course we hadn’t thought to book a table. So no delicious crab soup with cream for me alas. Or any kippers either for that matter.
The walk along the cliff top from Craster village to the castle is a very popular one. Numerous families and dog walkers had the same idea as us and it was a pretty busy route this weekend. The grazing sheep were definitely slightly grumpy at the number of people wandering about on their territory and a few black-sheep looks were noted, especially given to those folk who did not stick to the prescribed path.
Get off my cliff!
The sea still had that chilly North Sea look which it has here for approximately 360 out of our 365 days a year, but the hedges of bright yellow gorse were defiantly in full bloom, fringing the coast line. My Aunty used to say ‘When gorse is out of bloom, kissing’s out of fashion,’ a saying which apparently dates back to the mid-19thCentury. So it’s not a sign of spring – it just means it pretty much flowers all year round anyway.
Pucker up, people!
Dunstanburgh castle is just ruins now, but in its heyday it must have been a formidable fortress. Situated on the ‘Whin sill’ which is a massive hard seam of igneous hardened magma formed many years ago, it now sits atop a sheer and impregnable rock face.
It was constructed by the powerful Thomas, Earl of Lancaster between 1313 and 1322. At the time, Thomas was the second richest man after the king. No one is quite sure why he built it however. It could have been as retreat from the violent North South civil war or just a very visible status symbol – after all who wouldn’t like their own castle if they could have one?
Dunstanburgh Castle – down, but not out
The castle was granted a ‘licence to crenellate’ which granted the holder permission to build fortifications. It’s the sort of phrase that doesn’t get used much in general conversation today. A shame really as I may have very well applied for one for my semi detached house. Originally, the structure had a stone curtain wall, a massive gatehouse (still seen) and six towers round the outside. The castle subsequently passed to John of Gaunt who strengthened it against the Scots and it was the focus of fierce fighting during the Wars of the Roses, twice besieged and captured by Yorkist forces. Phew! Things are a lot more peaceful up there these days. Of course, the brief spell of sunshine and blue sky was short lived and squally showers started to roll in from the horizon. Typical Northumberland weather really. I have been avidly watching Robson Green’s Tales from Northumberland series and have realised how much there is on my doorstep here in the North East, that I haven’t explored or appreciated as much as I should. I think everyone probably thinks that sometimes, but it has made me more determined to get out and about and connect with this wild and beautiful landscape whenever I get the chance.
What do you call a woman with a castle on her head?