Life on the edge

Chillingham CastleChillingham Castle
Chillingham Castle
Other great historic sites may be nearby, but David Overend finds Chillingham still has much to shout about.

The Borders have always lived close to the edge. One day they were English, the next they were Scottish – there was a fluid feel to life (and death) by the river Tweed.

It was, quite literally, a battle of life and death. Win, and you were rich and powerful; lose, and you were dead and...Get the picture?

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Thankfully, times have changed, although there is still a battle raging with the mighty castles of the North-East fighting it out for mastery and the title of the best.

The ancient edifices of Alnwick and Bamburgh tend to steal the limelight when talk turns to the history of the mighty. They are old, they are highly visible and they have marched resolutely into the 21st-century with great PR for attracting huge numbers of visitors – from Scotland, England and the rest of the world.

And although Bamburgh certainly wins the points for position and magnificence (not least thanks to the fortune spent by the Victorian industrialist, William Armstrong), Alnwick has made itself a must-see. It has links with the world of Harry Potter and a multi-million-pound garden to help it in its bid to become one of Britain’s greatest visitor attractions. It also knows how to make it a great day out for kids.

But while these two giants of the historic world of Northumberland 
castles continue to go head to head to see who’s best, some 20 miles to the west, there’s another castle – slightly smaller and far less prominent – which, nevertheless, cries out to be visited. Chillingham.

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It all starts with a cow. Well, 120 cows or thereabouts. And not just ordinary cows. These are wild cows and among the rarest in the world.

The Chillingham wild cattle don’t look very wild, but they have spent several hundred years perfecting their way of life; and if you stray too near, you’ll probably not live to regret it.

But this exceptional breed, unpampered, unpolluted, unparalleled in their environment a few miles south of the Scottish border, are well worth paying to see.

Centuries ago, they were hunted for sport. Now they have become the genetic product of bovine isolation. They (and, in particular, the calves) are instantly likable, if not adorable, and far removed from the spotty milk-bearing Friesians or the beefed-up meat-producing Herefords. They are living history with attitude.

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Enjoy seeing them in their splendid isolation and then pop down the road to see the castle, which is itself the result of several hundred years of breeding, plus a fair bit of building and one heck of a lot of collecting.

From the outside it looks sturdy, reliable and reasonably well ordered. Inside, however, it’s a chaos of time travel, a Tardis containing the history of one family’s journey from the Middle Ages almost to the present day.

This 12th-century stronghold was the seat of the Grey family and their descendants, the Earls of Tankerville, from the 13th-century until the 1980s. It was the ‘base-camp’ for the 1298 attack on William Wallace by the ‘Hammer of the Scots’, King Edward I.

The castle was given permission to add battlements by King Edward III in 1344. The Elizabethans then added Long Galleries, and Capability Brown designed the park in 1752. An Italian garden was laid out in the 19th-century, but it is the castle which grabs the imagination and holds it in thrall.

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While the mighty Alnwick and Bamburgh entice thousands of visitors to gasp at their size, their age, their heritage and their admission prices, Chillingham attracts a much smaller audience.

But they are in for a real treat; a marvellously eccentric glimpse of things ancient and modern – from medieval bits and bobs, to tales of Arctic adventure with heaps of deadly weapons.

Fancy wielding a one-handed mace? 
At Chillingham, you could get your chance because this is a castle where a measure of hands-on is actively encouraged.

Want to know what an armoured elephant looked like? It’s there, staring down from above one of the cracked and ancient fireplaces. Numerous more heads, skulls and antlers are nailed up with gay abandon.

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There’s nothing to discourage visitors handling artefacts; nothing, in fact, to deter them from taking them home – other than a witch’s curse on anyone who helps themselves.

Steal from the castle and you’re guaranteed a miserable existence until you repent and return the booty.

The witch is just one of a plethora of ghosts who have made Chillingham the most haunted castle in Britain.

They also include the Blue Boy, poor, wandering, Lady Mary, a tortured child, and the castle’s cruel and sadistic torturer John Sage who is said to have tortured to death more than 7,500 people in the space of three years.

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Every bit of Chillingham screams of an ancient lineage and perhaps, today, in those chilling rooms, it’s still possible to hear the distant screams of the victims... Or it could be just my imagination?