Four Castles and a Naturalist

We’ve just got back from a couple of weeks away, so I thought I’d wrap up some of the things we got up to.

First of all, we had a long weekend in Sligo, in the Republic of Ireland, with a bunch of friends.  As well as going yarn shopping and finishing a pair of socks, we hung out, ate too much and caught up with people.  Co Sligo has a high density of neolithic and megalithic remains, including stone circles and barrows, so we also found some time to go to Carrowmore, which is the largest megalithic cemetery in Ireland.

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At the end of our holiday, we also stopped at Birdoswald, which is one of the best preserved Roman forts along the length of Hadrian’s Wall.

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Sheep grazing on the site of Birdoswald Fort


The fort is on the longest stretch of the wall still in existence.  At various points over the last 2000 years, the stones have been taken by local people to build their houses and other local buildings such as Lanercost Priory.

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Hadrian’s Wall


It was also a four castle holiday: Carlisle Castle, Wray Castle, Bamburgh Castle and Lindisfarne Castle.  Of these, only Carlisle Castle really counts as a ‘proper’ castle.  It’s a classic Norman motte and bailey castle that has been besieged many times.  Wray Castle is a neo-gothic Victorian country house that has been left to the National Trust.  They clearly don’t know what to do with it, so after having leased it out for a while, they’re offering it as pretty much a building for play, where children can dress up and draw on the walls.  Both Bamburgh and Lindisfarne have been ‘proper’ castles, but both have undergone extensive renovation to turn them into private houses.

If you look through the window on the right of this picture of Lindisfarne Priory, you can just see Lindisfarne Castle.

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Lindisfarne Priory


And here’s a close up for you:

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Lindisfarne Castle


In the case of Bamburgh, it was converted by Lord Armstrong, a famous engineer, though part of me was mostly excited to see Bamburgh Beach, where part of my favourite episode of Blakes 7 (Aftermath) was filmed.  Lord Armstrong was also responsible for the glorious country house of Cragside that we also visited.  Cragside is full of Heath Robinson-style mad inventions such as a water-powered turbine that turned the spits for meat in front of the range.  It had its own hydro-electric plant and was the first house to be lit exclusively by electric lights.

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All of these visits had me reflecting on the way history and pre-history is layered onto our landscape.  If you look closely enough, you can see those layers, and how they borrow from and interact with each other.

But it was also a holiday that let me find out more about two remarkable Victorian women.  The first was Beatrix Potter.  Although most famous as a writer and illustrator of children’s books, she was also a ground-breaking naturalist, specialising in fungi.  The Armitt Museum in Ambleside has many of her botanical paintings.  They are stunningly beautiful things.  During this trip, we went to Hill Top, the house she lived in as a single woman, which includes the study where she worked.  Potter was also one of the leading lights of the early National Trust.  She bequeathed over 4000 acres of the Lake District to the Trust, and it is probably because of her that rare breed sheep such as the Herdwick continue to survive in Cumbria.

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Swaledale sheep in Cumbria


The second was Grace Darling, a lighthouse-keeper’s daughter.  She and her father rowed over a mile each way, in a storm, in an open boat, to rescue the crew and passengers of the SS Forfarshire, which had lost engine power and foundered on rocks.  Her courage and bravery caught the public imagination and is probably responsible for the creation of the modern RNLI.  The lifeboat at nearby Seahouses is named “Grace Darling” for her.



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