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.