The finest castles in the country?

To celebrate Castles: Paintings from the National Gallery, London coming to Sunderland Museum & Winter Gardens, local architectural writer and broadcaster, John Grundy, takes us on a tour of some of the beautiful castles of County Durham.


How many castles do you reckon there are in the North East? Go on, have a guess. Well I’ve been checking up and the answer, as far as I can make out, is lots.

There are really lots and lots of castles in Northumberland and Durham and the reason isn’t hard to work out. The area was on the front line of a war against the Scots that went on for more than 300 years, and while it was still going on the chaps in charge were reluctant to give up their nice, safe castles. Other safer areas of the country lost most of their castles and replaced them with comfier country houses but that happened less and later up here in the wilder and woollier north.

What I’ve just written is truer in Northumberland than in Durham because it was even wilder and woollier up there, and as a result Northumberland is often described as THE castle county of England – partly because there are lots of them of so many different types and partly because so many of them are sited romantically on crags and isolated by the sea.

But…I have a but and it’s a big but…nobody interested in the history of buildings in England should risk ignoring the castles of County Durham, because they are among the finest (and least well known) in the country. Let me remind you about a few of the high spots:

  • Raby Castle, a marvellous survival from the Middle Ages, Brancepeth, ancient also but extensively rebuilt in the 1800 (by Matthew Russell from Sunderland), and Lambton Castle (not ancient at all and built from scratch in the 19th century) are all marvels of picturesque splendour, wonderfully placed in the landscape.
  • Barnard Castle, romantically ruined and also superbly sited above the River Tees, played a huge part in the history of Britain. It was the home of John Balliol, who became king of Scotland in the late 13th century, refused to kneel down before Edward I of England and so brought about the endless wars that followed.
  • Lumley…a top of the range 14th century castle altered in the early 1700s by Sir John Vanburgh. You don’t get better than that…and all with added breakfast if you can afford to stay the night.
  • Durham – you have probably noticed that Durham has quite a nice cathedral but what gets noticed less is that the bishop’s castle next door is one of the very greatest castles in…where? England? Europe? It is magnificent from the outside and forms an unforgettable group with the church next door, and it is packed with 100s of years of enthralling interiors from the earliest Norman times to the 1700s.
  • And finally…Hylton Castle in Sunderland which was begun in the late 1300s and completed in 1410. The Border wars were still raging while it was being built, with major invasions and massive battles in 1380, 1385, 1387, 1388, 1389 and 1402. However, the castle clearly wasn’t built with safety in mind; it was built with pride, confidence and with heraldry. It is being restored at the moment and the interior, which was just a shell, will get a contemporary and exciting new look, but the outside which bristles with battlements and corner turrets, with carved shields, heraldic devices and achievements of arms will be as good a reminder of the romance of the Middle Ages as you could find anywhere.


If John’s tour has inspired you, why not visit Sunderland Museum to see the exhibition? Alongside Old Master paintings from the National Gallery’s collection featuring castles, both real and imagined, you’ll find watercolours, drawings, prints and oils of Northumberland and Durham castles from Sunderland Museum’s own collection. Or you can take a virtual tour right now:

Film credit: Produced by Art Matters Now

Banner image: Detail from Bernardo Bellotto, The Fortress of Königstein from the North, about 1756-8 ©The National Gallery, London


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