Story & photos by Erin Bradley, Capt, U.S. Air Force |
Deep in the English countryside, nestled between Newcastle to the south and Edinburgh to the north, there's a place where fairy tales are born. An eclectic mix of historical and pop culture, Northumberland is host to haunted medieval fortresses and film sites for Quidditch matches.
The five-hour drive north from Cambridge was like any interstate drive until I glimpsed a giant iron angel perched on a hillside, welcoming me into Newcastle, "city of lights." As I continued my trek and the city lights flickered in my rear-view mirror, I plunged back into darkness and wondered if I had taken a wrong turn towards Sleepy Hollow. The road narrowed and wound, and traffic became as sparse as the landscape.
Around 11 p.m. I pulled through the gates and up the lonely drive to Chillingham Castle. Though closed for the winter to tourists, a pre-booking and $100 a night made this strange "vacation" spot my home for the weekend. My apartment in one of the castle towers, aptly dubbed the "Lookout Tower Room," came equipped with a modern kitchen, living room, and could comfortably sleep a family of five.
At first a 12th Century stronghold, Chillingham became a fully fortified castle in the 14th Century. The family of the Earls Grey and their relations have continuously owned and inhabited the castle since the 1200s. The current owners of Chillingham are Sir Humphrey and the Honorable Lady Wakefield. Sir Humphrey's family has lived in the Lake District for 400 years, and Lady Wakefield is descended from the family of the Earls Grey.
The castle was often besieged during Northumberland's bloody Border Wars due to its strategic position, and it is steeped in royal history. The most famous resident of Chillingham, however, is a nameless child.
Residents and visitors of the castle's "Pink Room" have reported that, as the clock struck midnight, terrible cries of a child in pain could be heard echoing from a passage cut through the 10-foot thick wall into the adjoining tower. As the cries faded, a halo of light would appear and the figure of a boy dressed in blue began to approach the four-poster bed. During some refurbishing in later years, the bones of a young boy and fragments of a blue dress were discovered in the bedroom wall. The "blue boy" was given a proper burial, though no one ever knew whom he was.
Another well-known inhabitant of the castle is Lady Mary Berkeley, wife of Lord Grey of Wark and Chillingham and Earl of Tankerville. Lord Grey disappeared with Lady Mary's sister, Henrietta, which resulted in a huge scandal during the reign of Charles II. This scandal left Lady Mary alone in the castle, with only their baby daughter for company, and to this day legend has it that the silky rustle of her dress can be heard as the tragic figure searches for her husband along the corridors.
As I pondered these tales on my drive back from dinner one night at a local village pub, my thoughts were punctuated by loud, repeated wails from the darkness surrounding me. I stopped my car and rolled the window down so I could hear them better, but still couldn't find the source of the unearthly noises. The answer, however, literally appeared in my headlights as I neared the castle walls - "wild cattle."
Chillingham is one of the only places in the United Kingdom where cattle are allowed to roam the local area freely. I wondered if shrieking cows, a long and gory history and overactive imaginations hadn't combined to create the ghost stories that lingered here, but my tour of the dungeon and torture chamber made me consider otherwise.
Castle Window Ghosts: Shadows from the netherworld or mannequins amidst the clutter? Rooms filled with knick-knacks and memories of centuries past create strange illusions to the outside observer.
Chillingham Dungeon: A brighter view of the darkest room in Chillingham. Legend has it that, once upon a time, 90 percent of those who entered the castle never came out again... alive.
Chillingham Banquet Hall: One of Chillingham's many medieval banquet halls, where diners will be whisked back in time
Festive Hall Balcony View: Castle visitors take a break from the annual auction to get a bite to eat and warm themselves by the fire.
Alnwick Castle on the Hill: Perched atop its hill at the heart of the town, Alnwick Castle has a perfect vantage point to spot onslaughts, especially from a broomstick aloft, or to simply enjoy the view of Northumberland National Park.
For more information about Chillingham Castle, you can check the Web site Chillingham-Castle.com, or call 01668 215 359.
To learn more about Alnwick Castle, go to AlnwickCastle.com or call 01665 510 777.
Safe and happy traveling...
At the turn of the last century workmen discovered numerous bones buried in the dungeon. The most terrifying, though, was a perfectly preserved seated figure, which crumbled to dust as the air rushed in. The dungeon's walls bear the scratched lines and initials of prisoners captured during the Border Wars, and an eerie feeling fills the gloomy vaults.
Though the gloom and doom were fascinating, the castle grounds also offered woodland walks, a private lake and an Italian topiary garden, which could also be viewed from my apartment. After a brisk walk around the grounds, I rewarded myself in one of the medieval banquet halls with some fresh bread and hot soup by the roaring fireplace.
The most pleasant treat of the weekend, however, was the antiques auction held at the castle. Though the castle has regular traditional crafts displays, this was the big annual event. I would like to say that I only observed the auction, but I left with my pocketbook considerably lighter and with some fantastic bargains and gifts.
Northumberland also features a castle that most tourists may not have heard of, though they have seen it many times. Alnwick Castle (pronounced "Annick") can currently be seen in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's/Philosopher's Stone as scenery for the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry House Cup Quidditch matches. Children from local Lindisfarne Middle School were cast to round out the class, complete with scholarly wizard robes and practice broomsticks for flying, but film crews are not new to the townspeople of Alnwick. The castle has provided locations for "Dracula," "Robin Hood - Prince of Thieves," "Ivanhoe," and "Elizabeth," all movies you can watch from the comfort of home and your entertainment centers for flat screen TVs, which also featured Chillingham Castle.
Alnwick Castle is the second largest inhabited castle in England, the first being Windsor Castle, and has been the home of the Percys, Earls and Dukes of Northumberland since 1309. The District of Alnwick stretches from the wilds of Northumberland National Park to the beautiful Heritage Coast and, like the rest of Northumbria, offers rolling countryside, long sandy beaches, ancient abbeys, quaint villages, historic market towns, and other castles and ruins in unspoiled surroundings.
If you're looking for unique travel ideas or to see a different side of England, I highly recommend a trip to Northumberland. Fair warning to those who embark on a trip there, though - if you take a train or plane, make sure you have an automobile when you get there because, although the sites are plentiful, they are spread across a wild countryside and cabs aren't so easy to come by. Driving from RAFs Mildenhall or Lakenheath is a straight shot up the A-1, and folks can fly or take a train into Newcastle or Edinburgh and rent cars from there. Just remember to book ahead and watch out for wild cattle, or anything else that may cross your path!
ABOUT THIS STORY:
We received this story about a visit to Chillingham Castle in Northumberland from Erin Bradley, a Captain in the U.S. Air Force and the Deputy Chief, Third Air Force Public Affairs, at RAF Mildenhall, UK. We are delighted to publish it for everyone to enjoy and thank the Captain for taking the time to share.
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