Castles, Christianity and Conquerors
Northumberland and The Boarders is a quiet and tranquil region now, but for centuries it was one of the most turbulent locations in Europe.
Both politically and culturally, this part of the world has had a major impact on world events and in many ways has changed the course of UK and European history.
Known as England’s Cradle of Christianity, the region north of the River Tyne was also an area of conflict for hundreds of years as first the Romans then successive English monarchs fought to keep the warring Scottish clans over their side of the River Tweed. As a result, the present-day landscape and cultural history can claim to have been shaped by centuries of Roman occupation, tribal clashes and royal and aristocratic ambition.
The Emperor Hadrian left his mark with Northumberland’s most iconic ancient monument – and England’s largest World Heritage site – the 73-mile long wall named in his honour which stretches from the River Tyne in the east to the Solway Firth in the west.
Debate still rages as to the true purpose of the wall. Was it built to keep out the warring Picts in the North, the most northerly frontier of the Roman Empire? Or was its purpose more prosaic; nothing more than a customs post, another means by which Rome could fill its coffers and stamp its authority on the people it had conquered?
Whatever its true function, nearly 2,000 years on Hadrian’s Wall still dominates the landscape – and it is no less inspiring today in its ruined state than it would have been when it was first build in AD 122.
The Emperor Hadrian would have no doubt been much displeased to hear that the next man to radically influence Northumbrian culture was a Christian – St Aidan in AD 635. It was he who founded a monastery on Lindisfarne – now also known as Holy Island – on land granted by Oswald, a king and saint of Northumbria.
Aidan is said to have chosen the tidal island because of its proximity to the Northumbrian capital at Bamburgh and its isolation – perfect for Christian reflection and meditation.
It was Aidan with the help of Oswald who began the conversion of the pagan Northumbrians to Christianity and so began a golden age of cultural flowering that lasted until Lindisfarne witnessed the first Viking raid on the coast of Britain in AD 793.
Hundreds of years of discord were to follow as invaders from both the land and sea were fought off with varying degrees of success, one of the reasons why Northumberland has more castles than any other county in England.
“Weather, water, cross-border warfare and the birth of the English country house with their grand gardens, have all helped shape the Northumberland we know and love today”
These centuries old edifices are still impressive today. Many, like Dunstanburgh Castle which sits on a craggy outcrop on the coast just north of Craster, are now spectacular ruins, while others, such as the magnificent Bamburgh Castle which has its origins in the 6th century, and Alnwick Castle, the home of the Dukes of Northumberland and considered to be one of the finest Medieval structures of its kind in Europe, are still lived in.
It’s not just warfare that has shaped the landscape, however. The Act of Union between England and Scotland in 1707 finally brought peace to this disputed land, and allowed a cultural flowering of another kind – the birth of the country house with their grand gardens.
Northumberland was the birthplace of landscape architect Capability Brown, so it is apt that the county should boast some of the nation’s finest gardens from Wallington at Cambo and Cragside at Rothbury, both now in the hands of the National Trust, to Howick Hall and Gardens near Alnwick, once the home of Earl Grey. And yes, the tea named after him is served to visitors!
The golden age of garden design is far from over, though. Alnwick Garden – home to one of the world’s largest tree houses as well as a breathtaking water cascade – is the brainchild of the current Duchess of Northumberland, and is a magical must see for people of all ages.
Northumberland has much to offer from its history to its breathtaking landscape full of natural contrasts to its food and even its people, who are among the most welcoming you will find anywhere.
But don’t just take out word for it – come and see for yourself.