Tour date: 10th-12th September 2010
September had us, passports in hand, headed south of the border for a trip round northern Cumbria and the edge of the "debateable lands", long notorious in Borders history. We based ourselves in Penrith, and our first visit was a gathering on the Friday evening at Brackenhill Tower, restored by SCA members Andy and Jan Ritchie, who took the tower and ancillary buildings on as a project after seeing it on the BBC "Restoration" programme.
The most southerly outpost of the Border reivers, and one of few surviving reiver towers within the debatable lands, Brackenhill was one of 13 towers held by the Grahams, built by Richie Graham in 1584. The Grahams were a particularly troublesome family, with Richie reputedly among the worst of them. Some 60 Grahams were outlawed for murder, robbery and other crimes, and many were later transported from Scotland, and their lands and property seized.
Situated defensively above the river Lyne, Brackenhill is significant for being a Scottish vernacular tower in an English setting, much like its neighbour at Kirkandrews, and also one of the best preserved in its original state. Built in red sandstone and set on a chamfered plinth, it is a 3-storey tower of 3 chambers over a vaulted basement, and was probably free-standing in its original form. Access to the upper floors is by a spiral staircase in the south-east angle. The extensions to the tower date from the early 18th and mid -19th centuries. The whole building was restored between 2002-2010, and is currently in use as holiday accommodation.
First stop on Saturday was Prior's Tower, in the grounds of Carlisle cathedral. This is a late 15th Century tower, built in the time of Prior Simon Senhouse , between 1494-1521. It is a 3-storey tower of red sandstone ashlar, up to 6ft thick, and may have been built on the site of an earlier pele tower. The basement is rib -vaulted.
The tower was extended and remodelled in the 17th and 19th centuries, with some further work in the mid-20th century. It is currently used as a schools education centre by the Cathedral.
Our walk back to the coach gave us an opportunity to see parts of the city walls and the external defences of Carlisle Castle.
Scaleby Castle dates back to Norman times, when the lands were granted by Henry I to the de Tilliol family, and it is they who built the original pele here. The building shows subsequent development through 400 years from pele tower, to moated castle, and then to manor house. It is constructed of red sandstone.
Robert de Tilliol fortified the house by royal licence in 1307. Once surrounded by 3 moats, Scaleby was not a strong fortress. It was taken by parliamentary forces in 1645, and again 3 years later, when it was surrendered after a single shot, and was severely damaged afterwards, to eliminate it as a threat. It was restored in 1685 but 100 years later it was again ruinous. Further repairs and remodelling were carried out in the late 1830s.
The tower in the north-east corner has the usual features of a pele tower, including a vault at ground level and spiral staircase. The hall is tunnel vaulted, rare in England, though less so in Scotland. Substantial repairs have been carried out to the unoccupied parts, including lead capping to curtain walls, masonry repairs, repointing and underpinning. The house is privately occupied.
Ranulph de Dacre was granted a license to crenellate Naworth Castle in 1335, though an earlier building, destroyed by the Scots, is said to have been here from about 1270. This original pele tower - the Dacre Tower - is 5 storeys high with corner turrets. It flanks the original gateway though it does not project from the curtain wall. The door into the vaulted ground floor retains its iron yett.
The castle in its current layout forms an irregular quadrilateral courtyard with a curtain wall up to 8ft thick. Additional living accommodation was provided round the courtyard in the early 16th century and includes an impressive first-floor hall and a chapel. These were the work of Thomas, Lord Dacre, on the winning side at Flodden.
Naworth was neglected over the centuries and badly damaged by fire in 1844. It was heavily restored by Anthony Salvin who added an additional tower, the Morpeth Tower, with the result that much of what we see today is his work.
The castle passed in 1601 to the Howard family, later Earls of Carlisle, and is still in the family.
First stop after lunch was Great Salkeld Church, a fine example of a Vicar's Pele, doubling up as a church tower. The first church was built around 800 AD when the body of St Cuthbert found temporary refuge here on its travels to avoid the Vikings. The church is dedicated to him.
The entrance door dates from a late 11th century rebuild, and the tower was added in 1380 as a defence against Scots raiders. This is broad and massive with an iron yett and narrow staircase. This yett follows the English fashion of an iron grill with an infilling of wooden panels. Its narrow 2'7" entrance made entry additionally difficult. A similar yett can be seen at the Vicar's Pele at Corbridge.
In 1480 a chancel was added and the church has remained unaltered since.
The earliest part of Catterlen Hall began as a pele tower built around 1460, and was a property of the Vaux family. The sandstone walls are over 5' thick. The tower has two floors with a vaulted basement and a flat roof reached by a spiral staircase. Stone water spouts project from a crenellated parapet. A wooden defensive platform once existed on the west side.
Roland Vaux added an L-shaped building in 1577, and a further wing with an external staircase was added by a later descendant in the 1650s. The door is in the baroque style and has a pedimented gable. The house is privately occupied, and serves as a farmhouse.
On the nearby mound are the remains of a 12th century motte.
A bonus visit on our journey back to Penrith was Blencowe Hall. We had thought this would be only an external photographic visit, but we were warmly invited inside by a group of American ladies staying there, on one of their regular visits "across the pond".
Blencowe Hall dates from the last quarter of the 15th Century with later additions. It is a good example of a fortified mansion house, with crenellated pele towers at each end of a hall range.
The north-east tower dates from circa 1480 with walls 4 and a half feet thick. The central hall range was rebuilt in 1590, the south-west tower and wing probably being added in around 1620. There is a Tudor arched stone doorway entrance to the Hall with carved lintel above, inscribed in Latin with the arms of Henry Blencow, and dated 1590. The later tower is said to have been severely damaged by Parliamentarian forces in 1648, leaving a massive gash in the eastern wall. Rare agreement between the owners, archaeologists and English Heritage has resulted in a unique restoration of the tower, making it fully habitable, yet retaining the gash as a feature. The restoration was awarded the Building Conservation Award by RICS in 2010. Nearby are the earthwork of an earlier motte.
Sunday saw us start just along the road from the hotel at Penrith Castle. A license to crenellate was granted in 1397 to William Strickland, later Bishop of Carlisle and Archbishop of Canterbury. To defend against Scots raiders, he strengthened an existing pele tower – Strickland's Tower – on the north-east from, and created a walled quadrangle from here. A second licence, in 1399, appears to have been acted on by Ralph Neville, 1st Earl of Westmorland, who inherited the castle in 1419.
The castle, built of red sandstone, passed to Richard, Duke of Gloucester (later King Richard III) who extended the building further, and transformed it into a Royal residence. Most of what remains is from his tenure. It seems to have been largely ruinous by the mid-16th century, described as in "utter ruin" and "not repairable" in 1572. Even so, it was briefly used as a Parliamentary HQ in 1648, before being finally slighted after the English Civil War. The castle passed through various hands over ensuing years, and is now in the care of English Heritage. The ruins are freely accessible.
Dacre Castle is a free-standing early 14th century pele tower, again in red sandstone. Unusually for a pele, it has been augmented with 4 corner towers, 2 of which are substantial square towers, the other 2 smaller, and projecting at a diagonal.
William de Dacre was granted licence to crenellate by Edward II in 1307, although this castle was destroyed by the Scots in 1317.
What we see now was built after the Scottish raids, and before 1354, when a licence to hold Mass was granted for the castle. As it now stands, it is a strong building some 66ft high, with walls 7ft thick. The ground floor is divided into 2 vaulted chambers, and access to the upper floors is by a turnpike stair in the south-west tower. The tower seems to have been abandoned for most of the 16th and 17th centuries until restored by 17th Lord Dacre (later 1st Earl of Sussex) whose arms can be seen above the door. Neglected once more by the early 19th century, it once again fell into disrepair until careful restoration (begun in 1961) converted it into a comfortable home.
Next stop was Yanwath Hall, consisting of a 14th century pele tower and a 15th century hall. The addition of stable blocks in the 17th century form an internal courtyard. The tower has walls of large blocks of pink sandstone on a chamfered base with a string course, crenellations and projecting water spouts. It has a barrel vaulted basement, a spiral staircase, and stepped-up battlements at the corners.The hall is enhanced by a bay window and a plaster ceiling displaying the arms of Elizabeth I.
The tower was probably built soon after 1300, when John de Sutton was lord of the manor, and apart from the Elizabethan windows, has changed little in appearance since then. It passed to the Threlkelds, and later the Lowthers, and has been described as the finest manorial hall in England. It has been, and remains, in use as a farmhouse since the late 17th century.
Regular travellers south on the M6 motorway will have noticed our next destination, though may not have known its name.
Clifton Hall is a small pele tower, and all that now remains of a larger manor. Added to an existing farmhouse, the tower was probably built by William Wybergh around 1500. They moved out to a nearby farm in the mid -18th century, itself replaced by a newer building in the 19th century, and most of the early manor was demolished. The tower is not particularly strong, 3 storeys high with a crenellated parapet. The chambers are provided with large windows though the floors have gone. Neglected, it was put in order in 1979 by English Heritage, in whose care it remains.
Historically, Clifton was the site of the last 'battle' on English soil in 1745. This was a successful skirmish by the Jacobite army on its return to Carlisle.
There are war graves nearby at the local church, which may itself stand on the site of an earlier motte and bailey.
The penultimate visit of the weekend was Newbiggin Hall, near Temple Sowerby (to distinguish it from its namesake at Carleton, nr Carlisle). Newbiggin is a castellated mansion, comprising a number of buildings, rather than a single property. The northeast tower is thought to have been built by the Crackenthorpe family around 1322, just after they obtained the lands by marriage.
The Jerusalem Tower was added around 1460, and a hall and third tower during major remodelling in the 1530s. The hall block was rebuilt in 1796, and both it and a west wing from 1564 were remodelled by Salvin in 1844. Further enhancements were carried out in the 1890s. The tower is built very close to the small church of St James which may have served as a private chapel.
Last, but by no means least, was a visit to Howgill Castle, home to SCA members Tom and Olive Clarke, who have also restored Lochhouse Tower, near Moffat, and Kilmartin Castle in Argyll.
Near to the medieval fortified village of Milburn, Howgill was built by John de Lancaster in the early 14th century. The initial Georgian appearance is deceptive, as it consists of 2 oblong pele towers linked by 17th cross-wings, with a Georgian frontage of about 1733. The vaulted towers have walls 10' thick incorporating garde robes, stairs and mural passages, the whole flanking a central hall. The front is faced with sandstone, leaving the rear as coursed squared rubble. The house was used as a farmhouse until 1851, and then left to decay, until rescued and restored by Tom and Olive in 1967.
Once again, our grateful thanks go to all those who welcomed and invited us into their homes. Special thanks to Andy and Jan, not only for hosting the Friday reception, but working with Tom and Olive Clarke and organising the weekend of visits to a varied range of castles.
Adrian Pettifer English Castles; A Guide by Counties
Robert Hugill Borderland Castles and Peles
Mike Salter Castles and Tower Houses of Cumbria
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