40. Explore Castle Keep

If I am completely honest with myself, I am not convinced that I actually knew there was a castle in Newcastle before I moved to the city. And yes – this is despite growing up in Northumberland and despite the very significant clue in the city’s name. I suppose if I had given it any thought I would have assumed that there had been a castle at some point, but that it no longer existed today aside from perhaps a few old ruins.

It came as some surprise to me therefore to discover that Castle Keep (as I now knew the castle was called) was located just a short walk from Newcastle’s rail station and that, far from being a pile of ruins, consisted of two buildings both in really quite excellent shape. In the past there would have been many other buildings making up the castle in its entirity, but the two that remain today  – the Black Gate and Castle Keep (a keep is generally a fortified residence in a tower) provide more than enough opportunities for exploration on their own.

The first castle built on the site where Castle Keep stands now was built by Robert Curthose, son of William the Conqueror, in 1080. It was rebuilt in stone by King Henry II in around 1170 who was eager to regain authority of this part of England which had been difficult to control due to its close proximity to Scotland. The castle’s keep was completed in 1178, but it took until 1250 for the last part of the castle to be completed – the barbican or, as we know it today, the Black Gate.


When visiting the castle it is necessary to buy tickets from the reception which stands inside the Black Gate. This then naturally leads a person to explore the Black Gate before they explore Castle Keep. This, however, is slightly confusing if, like me, you prefer to learn history chronologically. The Black Gate was extensively remodelled in the 1600s and so the museum located inside the Black Gate focuses on this era. The small, but informative, room explains how the Black Gate got its name – it was named after Patrick Black, tailor to King Charles I, who owned it although, probably, never lived in it. It also provides information about life in the area around the castle during the 1600s and shows some newspaper articles about the castle during this period. These include bizarre anecdotes such as one about a man who made a donkey “fly” from the roof of the castle and thus caused serious injuries to numerous people including the death of one very unfortunate girl.

From the Black Gate you walk through the grounds of the castle passing, on your way, the  infamous Heron Pit. This was an underground prison built by the cruel and brutal William Heron – High Sheriff of Northumberland and all round unpleasant sounding chap.


From the Heron Pit you carry on walking, past some chapel ruins and then take the stairs into the Castle Keep. We were encouraged, by a lovely man working at the castle, to first head up on to the roof and then to explore the inside of the castle.

Now I accept (albeit reluctantly) that my love for history is not necessarily shared by all others and that for many, therefore, a visit to a castle may not seem particularly enticing. In the case of Castle Keep, however, I urge you to reconsider, because even if its history doesn’t appeal to you, the views from its roof undoubtedly will. Astrid and I wandered around the roof happily capturing photographs of our glorious city from numerous different angles. No doubt we would have stayed much longer had we not had a lunch date in a short amount of time and so needed to ensure we gave ourselves enough time to explore the rest of Castle Keep.


Castle Keep, unlike the Black Gate, does start at the beginning of the castle’s history and provides you with a fascinating overview of all that has happened here. Obviously I am unable to recount here all that we learned (partially because this would be the longest blog in the world and partially because I don’t want to ruin the experience for anybody planning to go) but I will mention a few of my highlights:

There are a few prison cells in the castle – many of which were relatively comfortable and thus thought to have been used to host prisoners of importance. Amongst the many prisoners to be held here was Mary Bruce, sister of Robert the Bruce, who was held capitve in Castle Keep from 1310 to 1314 when she was exchanged for English prisoners.


In a separate prison cell there is graffiti clearly visible on the wall, which was written by two prisoners, Thomas Cuthbert and John Danby, during the Siege of Newcastle in the Civil War of the 1600s.


The Great Hall is also well worth a visit – a large and impressive room, it is here that feasts would have been held and, as it is known that Edward I spent winter in Newcastle in 1292, there is speculation that he may have hosted his Christmas feast in that very room.


I have only touched upon the various anecdotes and sights of the Black Gate and Castle Keep here. Our aforementioned time shortage meant that we had to be fairly speedy on our journey around the castle and so are both eager to go back another time to catch up on any aspect of the castle we may have missed. Adult tickets for the castle are just £6.50 and if you’ve ever a spare hour or two in Newcastle and are eager to know more about the city’s history or just to enjoy some phenomenal views then there are fewer places more worthy of your time.

 

 

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39. Dine at Blackfriars

Blackfriars is, for a history nerd like myself, undoubtedly the most interesting restaurant in Newcastle. It is the oldest dining room in the whole of the United Kingdom with a fascinating history that dates back to 1239.

Blackfriars began life as a Priory for Dominican Friars who were travelling the world in an attempt to establish their order. They were able to build Blackfriars thanks to donations from the then Mayor of Newcastle, Sir Peter Scot, as well as three sisters who, unfortunately, remain anonymous to this day.

As well as having the impressive accolade of having hosted King Henry III on several occasions when he was fighting the Scots, Blackfriars may also be responsible for the famous black and white kit of the Newcastle United football team! It is said that the Dominican Friars wore white tunics and black cloaks and that this uniform influenced the football club into choosing black and white for their home strip.

The Dominican Friars were forced to leave Newcastle during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1500s under King Henry VIII and only returned in 1860. Today there are just five left in the city.

There are many options for dining at Blackfriars and for various other cooking events which look absolutely incredible but which are, for the time being at least, very much out of my price range. The restaurants hosts traditional medieval banquets in its historical banquet hall, provides wine, beer and whiskey tasting and also has a range of other rooms where you can go just to enjoy some absolutely excellent food.

Neil’s parents were visiting us last weekend and to celebrate Neil having passed his most recent exams they very kindly took us for Sunday lunch at Blackfriars. We began with some drinks – I had the GeordieJack (hugely recommended for gin lovers), Corrinne and Paul opted for wine and Neil decided to try something traditional and got himself a mead based drink. He expected it to come in some sort of tankard and was slightly sheepish when it turned up like this…


Food wise I went slightly rogue for a Sunday lunch – beginning with a beetroot risotto, followed by salmon and then lemon posset for pudding. Neil was more traditional with fishcakes and roast lamb. He didn’t get a pudding – inexcusable really.

 




The food was just delicious and the service and atmosphere of the restaurant superb. Eating at Blackfriars on an evening can cost around £20 for a main course, but Sunday lunch is just £21 for three courses and honestly it is so bloody good. I am genuinely now just sat here reminiscing happily about it and trying to work out when I can next find an excuse to go back!

36. Climb to the top of Grey’s Monument!

Anyone who has read my blog in its entirety (I think that’s essentially my mum, Neil and Molly – thanks guys!) may recall that a while ago (blog post 22) I wrote about eating lunch on the steps of Grey’s Monument. I did this because I really wanted to include the Monument in my blog and I had missed my chance last summer to buy tickets to climb it. These tickets are honestly like gold dust – they only cost £4, but it’s only open around 8 weekends a year with a small number of tickets available each weekend. 

I’ve tried every year since moving here to get the tickets and failed every time until this summer when I put an alarm on my phone for the day they went on sale. Even then we still almost missed our chance when there was an admin error at the other side – thankfully they not only sorted this out, but actually gave us our tickets for free – cheers guys! Anyone else looking to do this (and you really should) the tickets go on sale on this website: 

http://www.shopnewcastlegateshead.com/tickets/greys-monument/

Obviously they are all sold out for this year, but it’s well worth keeping an eye out for when they’ll be on sale for next year!

We made our way to Monument at midday today, scrambled through a tiny little door in its side and clambered our way up a 164 step spiral staircase before reaching the top. I am normally okay with heights, but I felt seriously dizzy when we first got up there and had to kind of casually cling to the side whilst pretending I was absolutely fine.

Luckily my little spell of fear calmed down pretty soon and I was able to enjoy the incredible views of our beautiful city. I chatted a lot about the history of the Monument and about Earl Grey in my other Monument blog so in this one I’m just going to let you all enjoy the views too!

Tiny doorway…
So many stairs!

12. Bessie Surtees House

Bessie Surtees House is the name given to two beautiful, five storey houses built in the 16th and 17th centuries in the Jacobean architectural style. They are situated just along from Neil’s favourite eating place in Newcastle (Redhouse – pies and mash – smashing!) meaning I’d seen them loads of times, but had never really given them a second thought.

The houses are famous for being the location of Newcastle’s very own Romeo and Juliet story. Back in the 1770s, a lady called Elizabeth (Bessie) Surtees lived here with her family. Bessie fell in love with John Scott, a coal trader, but her father, a banker, disapproved of the relationship and refused his permission for their marriage.

Rather than let a little thing like fatherly approval hold them back, however, John and Bessie instead decided to elope. They did this in a rather spectacular style – on the night of November 18th in 1772, John Scott turned up to the house with a ladder and Bessie escaped through the window and ran away with him.

Today a blue pane of glass has been fitted to show you which window Bessie climbed out of.


Naturally Bessie’s father wasn’t thrilled with the news of his daughter’s elopement but, to give the man credit, it took only two weeks after the wedding for him to invite his daughter and her husband back home. They were married again in a rather more ceremonious way in St.Nicholas Cathedral in January 1773.

John Scott is a rather intriguing man. When I first read his story I thought he seemed incredibly romantic, but I learnt that there was much more to him than that. An ambitious man, he studied at Oxford and after many years working his way up the political ladder he actually went on to become Lord Chancellor of England. His name by then was Lord Eldon; a name which lives on in Newcastle thanks to Eldon Square Shopping Centre. I always assume that people whom we choose to name things after were pretty popular, but apparently Lord Eldon was actually a pretty hated man – at least by the point when he was made Chancellor anyway. Much of the hatred is to do with the terrible events of 16 August 1819. On this day approximately 80,000 people gathered peacefully in Peterloo near Manchester to hear the orator Henry Hunt discuss various issues around social reform. This happened shortly after the French Revolution and, panicking that similar events might unfold in Britain, the government ordered for the arrest of the leaders. Consequently Yeoman cavalry were sent into the crowd where they killed eleven people there and then and injured many more. Five more people died from their injuries.

Lord Eldon was, along with other members of the cabinet, blamed for the killings and indeed is mentioned by name in a poem written by Shelly about the event: The Mask of Anarchy. Why then he was honoured in the building of Old Eldon Square only 21 years later, and continues to be so today, is somewhat beyond me. I actually went to Old Eldon Square shortly after visiting Bessie Surtees House and saw a plaque about Lord Eldon. It more or less stated that he was one of the most important Chancellors of our time, but didn’t give any real details. Anyone interested in Lord Eldon and Peterloo can read more here.

Despite the rather controversial career of Lord Eldon, I love the original story of Bessie Surtees and John Scott and definitely recommend a visit to the house. It’s not very big – you probably only need around half an hour to an hour (and that’s if you’re being very thorough) to explore it, but it’s a pleasant and interesting way to kill some time in Newcastle and it’s also completely free. When I visited with my brother, two of the rooms were home to a “Picturing England” exhibition, displaying a number of photographs from the Historic England Archive, which showed how much England had changed since the 19th century. This exhibition is only on until August, however, and is then being replaced by a Post-War Public Art exhibition.

The other three rooms in the house permanently exhibit the story of Bessie Surtees. They are beautiful rooms with many original period features and, as well as providing information about Bessie Surtees, they also provide a timeline of the history of the house and of significant events both in Newcastle and in England as a whole. Within the rooms are collections of old photographs and old maps of Newcastle, which are pretty interesting to just sit and browse through.


Last but not least, the house also provides a number of costumes, which SOME of us, despite not so subtle signing, couldn’t quite resist…

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