Recently I had the luck to visit Bewcastle in Cumbria, a fabulous borders location in the wild back-roads north of Hadrian’s Wall. Previously, I have written about the fabulous t-shirt and mug I purchased from the church here.
Bewcastle is famous for its Anglo-Saxon cross-shaft or pillar (indicative of a minster church from at least the eighth century AD) located south of the church. Monument and church are both situated within the surviving earthworks of a polygonal Roman fort. Here I want to blog about the surviving medieval fortification: Bewcastle Castle to the north of the church and utilising the NE corner of the Roman defences.
Originally thought to date to the 12th century, and said to have been destroyed by the Scots (presumably a timber structure?) in 1327, much of what you see are curtain walls likely to date to the mid-14th century. It was first mentioned in 1378. The walls survive best on the south and the west.
The castle was briefly captured by the Scots in the early 15th century and declined into the early 16th century. It is unclear from the heritage board when precisely the western gatehouse was added.
Bewcastle was briefly refortified by Royalists and destroyed by Parliamentarian forces during the English Civil War.
Through this duration, its strategic position guarding routes north from Carlisle made it a key node in persistent raids and conflicts down the centuries.
What is there? If you are visiting, the Roman fort, church, Anglo-Saxon cross-shaft (not pillar, sorry, I don’t buy that argument) and little museum are worth viewing together with the castle. To get to the castle, simply walk north from the church around the farm to the field.
Bewcastle Castle itself is a rectangular fortification surrounded by a moat. It is in a most ruinous state. There was a western rectangular gatehouse which survives to a degree, as do the south and west curtain walls.
These walls display fissures and the classic evidence of stone-robbing of ashlar blocks, thus under-cutting the outer wall-face. It is thought that the castle was built from the ruins of the Roman fortifications but no mention is made of diagnostically Roman sculpture.
What is the visitor experience like? This site is managed by English Heritage. In addition to the small museum beside the church which has a display panel discussing the castle, the experience is straightforward and uncluttered. There is simply a kissing gate and two signs, both warning of the inability to ensure adequate wheelchair access. There is a single heritage board inside the castle itself. Oh yes, and there was a warning sign: do not climb on the stonework!
The joy of this simplicity! With a kid in tow, particular dimensions of this pleasure included being able to forego a gift shop, financial investment of an entrance fee, but also the condescension from on-site personnel (most people are really nice at castles, but I am getting worn down by running the gauntlet of a patronising minority of employees of heritage sites: castes, abbeys and the rest.
What beasts did we meet? I’m glad you asked! Distinctively, the site is patrolled by many birds and beasts. On our visit, it was guarded by sheep, chickens, ducks and… llamas. The llamas seemed very wary of us and we kept our distance, with one of their number repeatedly peaking over the ramparts to check on our perambulation. Still, they added a new world vibe to this ancient locale in the British landscape.
There was no particular archaeodeath theme about this visit. For me, castles are pleasure, not work as such. Still the castle is situated on a site that for military and symbolic reasons, was a powerful locale over the longue duree in the British landscape.