In The Companion Guide to Northumbria Edward Grierson describes Warkworth as “one of the most exciting small towns in Britain”. After a stroll through this settlement of 1000 people I’d probably have chosen the word ‘relaxing’ or perhaps ‘picturesque’ rather than ‘exciting.’
Yet if you flick through history books you’ll soon learn why Grierson deems Warkworth exciting. Few places of this size – I’d be tempted to call Warkworth a village – can claim so many tales of pillage and murder and rebellion and war. Vikings wreaked havoc in 875 and in 1174 King William the Lion of Scotland’s army slaughtered 300 people here while heading south.
Rumour and Warkworth in Shakespeare
Locals like to tell visitors that Rumour, scene setting in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part II, refers to Warkworth’s castle as a “worm-eaten hold of ragged stone.” The Bard, it seems, was employing a healthy dose of poetic license. The keep, now under the management of English Heritage, looks to be in decent shape even today. Opening times vary, according to the season, so it’s worth calling +44 (0) 1665 711423 to check when the castle opens to the public
Warkworth is 36 miles (58 km) north of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s base for autumn performances. It takes little more than 30 minutes to drive here from Tyneside. That opens possibilities for weekends featuring an afternoon or evening at the Theatre Royal plus walks along the region’s desolate, beautiful beaches or up in the greenery of the Northumberland National Park.
Harry Hotspur and Warkworth
For Shakespeare, Warkworth was the stronghold of Harry Hotspur. His character was based on Henry Percy, who plotted to overthrow King Henry IV and died in 1403 at the Battle of Shrewsbury. The castle was of strategic value during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, a period in which the Scots and English frequently clashed.
Exploring on foot, I discovered another couple of other fascinating remnants from the medieval period in Warkworth. One is a rare, fourteenth century fortified bridge, which once controlled entry to the town over the river Coquet. A road bridge built in 1961 allowing drivers to catch a glimpse as they sweep past on the A1068.
Into the riverside Hermitage
Far fewer people lay eyes on the riverside Hermitage. Local legend suggests the Hermitage, which hosts a chapel hewn into rocks, was established by a penitent knight. Lord Berthram de Bothal is said to have killed the woman he was betrothed to and his brother. You’ll see a Latin inscription reading Fuerent mihi lacrymae peres nocte et die which translates as ‘tears have been my portion day and night’. Wooden rowing boats provide transport to the medieval site, across the swirling Coquet.
Likewise, the Church of St Lawrence also has a long history. The original Anglo-Saxon building was rebuilt in stone after the Norman invasion and is notable for its twelfth century vaulted chancel dedicated to St Waleric. For me, the most fascinating part of this church is the well-maintained stone effigy of a crusading knight. The life-sized sculpture, dressed in armour, lies in silent prayer to the left of the church door.
The Old Pretender in Warkworth
James Stuart, the Old Pretender, attended a service at the church in 1715 as he pushed south into England while attempting to claim the crown. At the market cross, on the town square, he was proclaimed King James III of England. The commander of the Jacobite army, the third Earl of Derwentwater, dined in the Mason’s Arms while in Warkworth.
Hearty, home-cooked food and hand pulled beers are the signatures of the pub. You’ll be able to choose from dishes such as chicken breast wrapped in bacon and a hefty mixed grill, including steak, lamb chops, sausage, black pudding, mushrooms, chips, tomatoes and onion rings. The desserts include sticky toffee pudding and spotted dick, should you still have the appetite.
After hours of fresh air and oodles of history, a pint of real ale seemed as good a way as any to round off a pleasant day out in Warkworth.
I stayed at Roxbro House (5 Castle Terrace, tel: +44 (0) 1665 711 416), a luxury bed and breakfast in a stone-built Victorian house opposite Warkworth castle. The breakfasts here are outstanding. I chose locally sourced Craster kippers served with a poached egg, toast and pot of Earl Grey tea. After eating, Claire, the Roxbro’s proprietor, provided me with a useful list of suggestions on places to see in the surrounding area.
Find out more about the surrounding area on the Visit Northumberland website.
See the Visit England website for more about the rest of the country.
Photos illustrating this post are by Stuart Forster.
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