Hidden gem in England

OFF TRACK

Hidden gem in England

A Northumbrian breakfast of Craster Kippers, eggs, coffee and orange juice

Warkworth rarely appears on the itineraries of tourists visiting the United Kingdom. London, tours of Scotland and trips to Stratford-upon-Avon, William Shakespeare’s birthplace tend to dominate such lists. By comparison to those internationally renowned destinations, Warkworth, in the northern county of Northumberland, is very much one of England’s hidden gems.

Edward Grierson, author of ‘The Companion Guide to Northumbria’, is so passionate about Warkworth’s charms that he describes it as “one of the most exciting small towns in Britain.” With just a handful of pubs, a couple of restaurants and a sprinkling a boutique shops, “exciting” may not be the adverb that most people would choose to employ. “Relaxing” or even “romantic” would strike many visitors as more obvious choices.

To people passing through, this is simply a picturesque small town with a little more than a thousand inhabitants and a landmark castle that dominates the surrounding greenery. You have to leaf through the history books to understand why Warkworth might be deemed exciting. But anyone going far enough back through the annals will be rewarded with tales of pillage, murder, war and rebellion.

The Mason’s Arms pubHow many of the Shakespeare fans that head to England, booking accommodation in Stratford-upon-Avon, would consider spending an autumnal night in Warkworth and driving half an hour, 36 miles (58 km), south to Newcastle-upon-Tyne in order to enjoy one of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s (RSC) performances on Tyneside? That’s a distinct possibility, as the RSC spends a season in Newcastle every year.

And anyone familiar with the works of the Bard will recall his references to Warkworth, for Shakespeare opens the history play ‘Henry IV’, Part II at the town’s castle. His character Rumour sets the scene and refers to the fortifications as “this worm-eaten hold of ragged stone.” Even today, more than four centuries after Shakespeare penned those words, that description seems unduly harsh. Yes, the castle now stands in ruins, but the shell of the once great keep is well preserved and, dare I contradict England’s greatest writer, far from ragged.

For Shakespeare, Warkworth was the stronghold of Harry Hotspur — the popular name for Henry Percy — who plotted to overthrow Henry IV and died at the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403. These days the castle is under the care of English Heritage (tel: +44 (0) 1665 711423). Due to seasonal variations in opening times it’s worth calling ahead to check when visits are possible.

I stayed at Roxbro House (www.roxbrohouse.co.uk), a luxurious bed and breakfast in a stone-built Victorian house, located opposite the castle. After a good sleep I woke to a sumptuous, locally sourced breakfast of Craster Kippers and poached egg. A regional speciality, the kippers are produced in the coastal village of Craster, 8.5 miles (13km) to the north of Warkworth. The herring are smoked using traditional methods in an old stone building. The breakfast and a handful of insider tips from the Roxbro’s proprietor, Claire, were just what I needed to set me up for a day of exploring the locality on foot.
In addition to the “must see” attraction of the castle, which was of major strategic value during the 13th and 14th centuries, when the Scots and the English frequently disputed the border, I learned that this small town has a couple of other fascinating remnants from the medieval period. The most obvious is the 14th century fortified bridge, from which sentries once controlled entry to Warkworth over the river Coquet. It’s one of only two such bridges in the country. These days most people see it as they sweep along the A1068, on the road bridge built in 1961.

Far fewer people lay eyes on the Hermitage; a quiet site with a mysterious aura, tucked away down by the river. To some it might sound as if it comes straight from the pages of a Dan Brown novel. According to local legend, the Hermitage, which has a chapel hewn from the rocks, was established by a penitent knight, Lord Berthram de Bothal, who had killed both the woman he was betrothed to his brother. A Latin inscription “Fuerent mihi lacrymae peres nocte et die” (which translates as ‘Tears have been my portion day and night’) can be seen there. Wooden rowing boats provide transport to the medieval site, across the swirling waters of the river Coquet.

Likewise, the Church of St Lawrence also has a long history. It was originally constructed in Anglo-Saxon times and rebuilt in stone after the Norman invasion. Dedicated to St Waleric, it’s 12th century vaulted chancel has been described as “one of the finest of its type in Britain,” but, to me, the most fascinating part of this atmospheric church is the life size and well-maintained stone effigy of a crusading knight, dressed in armour, lying in silent prayer to the left of the church door. I’m not the first Stuart to have laid eyes on him, for in 1715 the Old Pretender, James Stuart, attended a service here as he pushed south into England in what would prove a failed attempt to claim the nation’s crown.

Close by, at the market cross on the town square he was proclaimed King James III of England. Before leading his army south, the commander of the rebel Jacobite army, the third Earl of Derwentwater, dined in the Mason’s Arms. Hunger, rather than a sense of history, compelled me to follow his lead. I contemplated choosing the chicken breast wrapped in bacon but went for the mixed grill, a hefty combination of steak, lamb chops, sausage, black pudding, mushrooms, onion rings, tomatoes and chips. The pub’s home-style cooking and hand pulled beers were satisfying in all but one sense, I had no room left for a Sticky Toffee Pudding or a Spotted Dick, traditional but filling English desserts.
Good food, good walking and decent helping of heritage; what more could a visitor want?
   
Rich in history

In 737 AD King Ceolwulph of Northumbria donated the land situated around the river Coquet to the monks of Lindisfarne (Holy Island).

In 875 Danish raiders — Vikings — destroyed the settlements which had been established around what is today Warkworth.

Almost 300 years later, in 1174, King William the Lion, of Scotland, led his army south. 300 villagers were slaughtered during the pillage and destruction that followed his assault on Warkworth.

King John - popularly portrayed as the evil antithesis of good king Richard in Robin Hood movies - stayed in Warkworth in 1214, just a year before he was forced to sign the Magna Carta.

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