North-East Coast - Bamburgh Coast


North-East Coast - Bamburgh

Nicholas Crane explores the link between Britain's coastline and its citizens. He visits Bamburgh in Northumberland, whose castle sits on a basalt crag.


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This is one of the most iconic places on Britain's coastline -

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the great Norman castle of Bamburgh -

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but we're also in the heart of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria.

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This castle was at its most powerful before there was even an England.

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During the time of the Anglo Saxons, Angleland, as it was then known,

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was divided up into seven major kingdoms,

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of which Northumbria was the most powerful.

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The 6th-century kings of Northumbria chose this rock to be their capital.

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And what a rock!

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The huge basalt crag that Bamburgh Castle stands on was chosen for its commanding position.

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Connected to the sea by a natural harbour,

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it was visible along the coast for miles.

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For the last two years, Graham Young has been exploring beneath its magnificent facade.

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Graham, I can look around and see all these lumps of masonry,

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-but presumably these are Norman or later?

-Yes.

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The majority of the standing structure is the last 1,000 years.

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So where's the Saxon?

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Well, under the ground.

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We know it's here because it's written about in documentary evidence.

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We've been excavating. We have a number of Anglo-Saxon features at this level.

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There are pits and post-holes and so forth.

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The evidence is that when we stop seeing pottery, we're getting back into the first millennium AD.

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Our prime dating evidence is the absence of things.

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-What about this wall...? I presume it's a wall?

-It is.

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It's a rubble foundation to what is a massive timber structure,

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probably part of the gate complex.

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The first documentary evidence of a fortress here is in the year 547

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and Graham's find may well date back to that time.

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The reason that there's so little of that Anglo-Saxon fortress left

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is that after pillaging Lindisfarne,

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the Vikings hit Bamburgh.

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In the year 993,

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the original fortress was razed to the ground.

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But it wasn't a ruin for long.

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William the Conqueror's forces arrived in England in 1066,

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and within 50 years, they had made Bamburgh Castle great again.

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That it's in such good condition today, nearly 1,000 years later,

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is not quite as surprising as it first appears.

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This may seem to be the quintessential mediaeval castle,

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but the only really genuine bit is this Norman keep.

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Most of the rest was rebuilt by the 19th-century industrialist, Lord Armstrong,

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as a fairy-tale castle,

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and that's this castle's secret.

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Because, despite its outward appearance,

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Bamburgh was last used in anger over 500 years ago.

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Attacked during the War of the Roses,

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it soon fell into ruins and has never regained its powerful status.

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Its final abandonment by James I reflects the decline in this area's fortunes

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at the beginning of the 17th century

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as the political importance of the border regions ebbed away.

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Nicholas Crane explores Britain's coastline and the relationship between citizens and the sea. He visits Bamburgh in Northumberland, whose castle sits on a basalt crag by the shore.