It is always frustrating at this time of year because we are hoping winter has passed and we are waiting for summer. However it seems to take such a long time to arrive. This is certainly how I feel around March. If the weather is good a trip round the borders and Northumberland searching for castles can be quite exciting!
We chose a day when the sun was bright. White clouds sailed across the sky, and we took a motorbike ride through Northumberland and into the Borders. Norham Castle lies just on the English side of the border with Scotland. It is one of Northumberland’s beautiful hidden treasures. There is no charge for entry and visitors can amble freely around the crumbling castle walls while the River Tweed flows tirelessly below. The day we went the colours were bright and vivid. We sat on sections of the old stone walls and gazed into the shadows, we tried to imagine what life would have been like when the castle was full of life.
“In a corner of the ground where the shadows sweep around and ancient mortar keeps together stone from older times all bound.”
Castles in Northumberland
In 1121 Bishop Ranulph Flambard of Durham built the original castle, hoping to keep order along the border. The castle has a violent history. It was seized by Scotland four times. In 1318 Robert the Bruce succeeded in besieging Norham for almost one year. It repelled a further four siege attempts. The scots captured Norham a final time in 1513 just three weeks before the battle of Flodden. Norham Castle was given back to the serving bishop of Durham after the scottish defeat. It had however suffered greatly as a result of the final battle and by 1569 it was deemed unsound and the buildings fell further into decay.
Today Norham Castle is somewhat quieter, even peaceful. I can never resist the enticement to explore and made an unhurried investigation of each shadow and every worn stairway. Looking out of the windows I could almost picture, the hustle and bustle and the higher and quieter moments of it’s older times.
A touch of the Romantic
Standing on a rocky outcrop on the south banks of the Tweed the castle ruin is still an imposing sight. It towers above the small village of Norham, bearing its scars with a majestic pride. Norham’s romantic grace inspired Turner when he visited Northumberland in 1797. It was also the subject of choice for Sir Walter Scott in his opening of the epic poem Marmion published in 1808.
“Day set on Norham’s castled steep,
And Tweed’s fair river, broad and deep,
And Cheviot’s mountains lone;
The battled towers, the Donjon Keep,
The loophole grates, where captive weep,
The flanking walls that round it sweep,
In yellow lustre shone.
The warriors on the turrets high,
Moving althwart the evening sky,
Seem’d forms of giant height;
Their armour, as it caught the rays,
Flash’d back again the western blaze,
In lines of dazzling light.”
Marmion Sir Walter Scott
Back on the Road
I was reluctant to leave when pressed by my husband who was keen to continue our ride. I had been lost in the history of Norham. The presence of this historic stronghold stayed with me as we burbled through the border lanes. We tried to stay as close as possible to the base of the Cheviot Hills. This meant traveling down very small and little used roads. Sometimes the roads got so narrow that the bike seemed to fill their breadth. The gravel and occasional tufts of grass that grew down the middle meant that the riding space was confined even more.
On the wider roads we picked up some speed. We tipped our heels to the sun and our heads to the hedgerows. The day was ours, the road was ours, and the border countryside threw up delight after delight as we passed through. History records that the borders have known some bloodthirsty times. Under the fresh sun it was hard to imagine things had ever been any different, but every now and again a sense of unsettled times lying buried under the fields was thrown back at us. Northumberland and the Borders can leave one with a sense that it’s history still breathes in the shadows.
We stopped a couple of times along the lanes to soak up the atmosphere, enjoy the smell of ploughed fields and breath in the smell of the spring.
“The broiling wayside floral fragrance blasts with our approach, and then thins with our passing, a threading of essence running in the waving stems.”