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The Castle Keep (Newcastle)

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Castle Garth, Newcastle, NE1 1RQ. Tel: 0191 261 5390.

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      15.11.2002 00:46
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      The Castle Keep nudges into Newcastle's post-industrial skyline between the fluttering flags of the Vermont Hotel and the twin-decked High Level Bridge. Standing at the very top of the northern bank of the Tyne, the Keep has survived rebellion, siege, fire, civil war and near decapitation at the hands of the railway, remaining one of the foremost landmarks of the city to which it gave its name. HISTORY The Romans were the first to recognise the strategic importance of the site, building an earth and timber fort called Pons Aelius (Bridge of Aelius, which was Emperor Hadrian’s family name) to guard the bridging point on the river below. The second station on Hadrian’s Wall, the fort was abandoned to the Dark Ages and three centuries of decay when the Romans withdrew from Britain in the 4th century. The 'New Castle' of Robert Curthouse, the eldest son of William the Conqueror, was built on the Roman ruins and a later cemetery for the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Monkchester, burying 462 graves and the old frontier stronghold beneath a royal fortress that was soon caught up in the power struggle for the throne that followed. Held by the rebellious Earl of Northumberland, the castle was besieged and eventually recaptured by King William Rufus in 1096. Refortified in stone by King Henry II seventy years later, Newcastle withstood an attack by King William the Lion of Scotland in 1173 before its stone defences were finally completed in the 13th century. For the next one hundred years the castle served as a military stronghold, housing monarchs on royal tours or campaigns against the Scots to the north, and imprisoning rebellious noblemen on their way to be executed in the south. By 1589, however, the 'New Castle' was "old and ruinous" and its defensive ditch had become a rubbish dump, holding a dung heap that measured 98 yards long, 32 yards wide and 10 yards high. Aside from a brief period during th e Civil War, when the dung was used to reinforce the crumbling walls and the castle was defended for the King against the Scottish Army for three days, the site was allowed to degenerate. In 1808 the Corporation of Newcastle purchased the Keep for 600 guineas and opened it to the public four years later. The remainder of the castle grounds, cluttered with residential dwellings, were effectively vandalised by the building of the railway between 1847 and 1849, leaving the Keep stranded between the river and the main line to London and Edinburgh. After narrowly avoiding destruction, the building was eventually acquired by The Society of Antiquaries, who cleared the surrounding land and added a host of Victorian touches to the Keep itself. THE BLACK GATE The principal gateway to the castle was constructed between 1247 and 1250 as the final addition to the medieval defences. By the mid nineteenth century, as the ruined castle fell into disrepair, the barbican had been converted into a slum tenement building housing sixty people and a public house, The Three Bulls' Heads. Restored by the Victorians in the 1880s and landscaped in the 1970s, the Black Gate, which takes its name from one of its old tenants, now stands between a railway viaduct and St Nicholas Cathedral at the top of a bank leading down to the Quayside. A reconstructed wooden bridge leads under a high, pointed arch and into the old walled passage. Bending to the right between vaulted chambers that lead to guardrooms and the Society of Antiquaries library, a second bridge continues over open excavations towards the cobbled streets under and around the railway viaduct. In a postcard perfect juxtaposition of old and new the Castle Keep suddenly appears behind overhead cables and wire netting, fronting a view across the river to the jumbled grey of a multi-storey car park squashing Gateshead’s concrete centre. THE CASTLE KEEP Steep stone steps lead up and left to the small entrance room. Opposite the cramped reception booth stairs wind up to the roof and down to the high-ceilinged Garrison Room. The original function of the latter is unclear, though it is assumed that it housed a garrison of troops, but we do know that between the 16th and 18th centuries it was used as the county gaol, as evidenced by the rusting rings along the eastern wall that prisoners awaiting trial were once chained to. John Howard, a noted prison reformer, famously deplored the state of this "dirty, damp dungeon" at a time when it was completely open to the elements and thronged with visitors who paid 6d to witness the humiliation of the prisoners. More recently used as a WWII air-raid shelter, the room contains parapet figures from the Town Walls, two stone balusters from the 18th century Tyne Bridge, a large, slightly eroded Royal Arms of England, which dates from the 14th century and was once set on the front of the barbican at the Black Gate, and the arms of both the Bishop of Durham and Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The weatherbeaten arms of the city once bore the motto 'Fortiter Defendit Triumphans 1646' (She Defends Bravely and Triumphs), which was awarded by a grateful King Charles I before his defeat and execution. Occupying the whole of the basement underneath the main staircase, the old Norman Chapel is reached by climbing two thick steps. A long room with high arches and intricate craftsmanship, the nave runs north to south with the chancel at right angles to create extra space. The chapel was extensively renovated by John Dobson in 1848, though the ornamentation around the windows and vaulted ceilings is original 12th century Norman. From here the central staircase circles its way back up to the entrance level where a small museum documents the history of the Keep and the surrounding Castle Garth area. The informative displays include pictures of the castle, 17th century Scottish rapiers and broadswords, a scale mo del of the Keep including floor plans and a larger conjectural model of the entire castle site made in 1852. Framed documents provide a host of useful information on the construction of the castle and its Keep, which was evidently built between 1172 and 1177 at a cost of £911. Excavated artefacts such as coins, roof tiles, pottery and implements are exhibited alongside 15th century German stoneware imported from the Rhine and 13th century decorated jugs from France. A series of wall displays detail the history of the castle from Pons Aelius, the remains of which now lie two metres below ground level, through to the present day. The Queen's Chamber, reached by a small labyrinth of narrow corridors and tiny staircases, is also on this floor, though the life size display of what appears to be a servant preparing food suffers from a lack of explanation. Back on the staircase, and just around the next bend, a straight set of stairs branches off to the left. Both options lead up to opposite ends of the Gallery, a narrow walkway overlooking the hall via a series of openings, and ultimately the roof, while the opening at the foot of the straight staircase is one of five doorways to the Great Hall itself. The fireplace inside the hall is another Victorian reconstruction as is the vaulted ceiling, as shown by the still visible beam slots three quarters of the way up the wall that supported the original. Much of the room is empty, though there are some interesting displays devoted to World War I and the Scottish siege of the castle in 1644. Other doorways lead to the King's Chamber (now empty save for a Norman gravestone, an ornate metal trunk and an original fireplace), latrines, a well that drops 94 feet down to the riverside and a claustrophobic, dimly lit vaulted chamber that served as a post-medieval prison. THE ROOF At the blustery top of the Keep, Victorian turrets frame fantastic views in all directions. The spire of St Mary's Cathedral rises to the west alongside the curving Central Station and the International Centre for Life. Trains screech and scrape along the tight bend that cuts between the Keep and the Black Gate. To the north, the lantern tower of St Nicholas' Cathedral towers above the Black Gate. Grey's Monument soars above the splendour of Grainger Town and St James’ Park is a mass of cantilevered angles to the left of Eldon Square. South is Gateshead and the combination of rolling hills and concrete superstores on the southern side of a river spanned by the High Level and Swing Bridges. But best of all is the view to the east where the Quayside sweeps past the Tyne Bridge, curving gently around the Baltic and the Millennium Bridge before racing towards the North Sea. This is Newcastle in all its glory, and while the absence of any real text or signposting hampers recognition of some of the landmarks, the overall effect is simply inspirational. DETAILS The Castle Keep is open daily from 9.30-5.30 April to September and 9.30-4.30 October to March. Admission costs £1.50 for adults. Concessions are 50p. Metros and trains both arrive at the nearby Central Station. From the main entrance, turn right and continue along Neville Street past the Royal Station Hotel. Follow the road as it bends to the right and the Black Gate is straight ahead. The walk takes no more than five minutes. WEBSITES http://www.timarchive.freeuk.com/html/body_castle.htm http://www.ejayar.ndo.co.uk/Nclekeep.html

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        18.08.2002 23:36
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        I’ve eventually reached my fiftieth opinion on dooyoo and a momentous occasion it is for me so I’ve thought for quiet a while about what this special opinion should be about and really feel it should reflect who I am. Well I have a very keen interest in all things historical, I enjoy visiting or re-visiting places of interest or local beauty spots in the area, as those of you who are regular readers of my opinions will have gathered and I adore my home city Newcastle so what better topic to write about than the Castle Keep and City Walls, there historical, local and in Newcastle. Newcastle has always been a river crossing and the Romans originally built a castle, Pons Aelius, on the banks of the Tyne, this Roman fortification is thought to have been the original starting point of Hadrian’s Wall, however the city’s name derives from the “new” castle, which overlies Pons Aelius and was built in 1080 by Robert Curthouse, eldest son of William the Conqueror. Nothing now remains of this Norman Castle and the Castle Keep we see today dates from 1172 when Henry II ordered the destruction of Robert Curthouse’s castle and the building of another castle with a gate house and city wall to strengthen defences against the Scots. Newcastle had always been a part of Northumberland however in 1400 it became an independent county but the castle remained a part of Northumberland and the Great Hall of the castle served as the assize courtroom with the castle dungeons used as the county gaol. Felons from Newcastle were able to gain refuge in the castle because Newcastle authorities had no power of arrest there due to its status as part of Northumberland. During the thirteenth century further building work took place to enlarge and strengthen the castle and city walls and add further gate houses, two of which were Black Gate and Gallows’ Gate, and the Great Hall were added but by 1589 the Cast le was described as being obsolete and in ruins and to ensure no more law breakers from Newcastle were able to escape being brought to justice Queen Elizabeth I issued a charter to put an end to this situation. In 1810 Newcastle Corporation acquired the site and private dwellings, shops and the derelict bailey were demolished to make way for the present Moot Hall; “Moot” is an old English word meaning “meeting” and this new building served as the Crown Court house and is still used today as an overflow for court cases when the Quayside Law Courts are very busy. The architect of the Moot Hall was William Stokoe and the style reflects the vogue for recreating a fanciful version of ancient Greek building style. Newcastle Corporation used the Black Gate as a “poor house” and planning permission was submitted to the Corporation to demolish the remaining ruins of the castle and build a city abattoir on the site. The Society of Antiquaries objected strongly to these plans and Newcastle Corporation, not having the foresight or funds to restore the remains gave the Castle to the Society. The Society of Antiquaries restored the Castle Keep and added the turrets to the top, what we see today is in the main Victorian restoration work and not a great deal of original thirteenth century architecture but it is still a majestic site largely hidden within a modern city. Enough of the history, time to get down to what’s at the Castle Keep now and how to get there. Well the best way of visiting the Castle Keep is to arrive in Newcastle by train or metro and get off at the Central Station. Turn right as you leave Central Station and follow the street, the street curves to the right, after walking for about five minutes you’ll reach the site of the Castle Keep. Visitors to the Castle Keep are able to see displays about the history of the castle and exhibits of artefacts discovered during restora tion work on the site. The castle is rich in history and when you wander around you get the feel of what has happened over the centuries on the site ranging from the arrival of the Romans, Anglo Saxon burials, Civil War fortifications to the neglect of our city forefathers. You can climb the steep steps of the Castle Keep and admire the Victorian Turrets as well as gaining a good vantage point for the views of the quayside. The original Great Hall of the castle is now buried beneath the Moot Hall and you are able to gain entry to the Moot Hall at certain times of the day. The Castle Keep is open from 9.30am-5.30pm (4.30 in winter), Tuesday to Sunday. Across from the entrance to the Keep, and just to the left of the Bridge Pub, are a set of stairs which wind down through some of the remains of the castle to the Quayside. During the Victorian era the High Level Bridge was built, this was the world's first road and rail bridge and was designed by Robert Stephenson son of George Stephenson, the railway pioneer, a great feat of engineering but unfortunately it was positioned right through the centre of the Castle fortification and walls. The bridge was opened by Queen Victoria in 1849 and today rail passengers entering Newcastle from the south have a magnificent view of the Castle Keep as trains and metros cross the Tyne For a view of the West Wall, the best remaining section of Newcastle’s medieval defensive fortification (built in 1265) walk from the Castle Keep towards St. James’ Park football ground, passing Old Eldon Square and the Cenotaph on your right, cross Percy Street, follow the road to the left of Barclays Bank and take a left immediately in front of Gallowgate Coach Station you'll see a pub called Rosie's standing at the entrance to Stowell Street, which is the city's Chinatown area, you will have walked under the arch of Gallows’ Gate between the Coach Station and Rosie’s pub, the West Wall runs parallel to Stowell Street. At the bottom of Stowell Street and opposite Friar Street junction you can see one of the remaining Wall Towers. Friar Street itself is distinguished by Blackfriars, a former monastery dating from the 13th century. The complex has been renovated and now features several craft shops, restaurants and a small tourist information centre. Probably the most peaceful spot in the city centre, Blackfriars is well worth at least an hour or so of your time. It's open daily (except Sunday and Monday in Winter) admission is free and you can quiet easily feel as if you have been transported back in time as you walk along the cobbles. The Castle Keep is a listed building and therefore any work or modernization is carefully vetted and because of this it is not yet suitable for people with mobility problems however plans are in the pipeline to open the ground floor of the building and install ramps, video and computer equipment to allow limited access for those with disabilities. Admission to The Castle Keep is £1.50 for adults and 50p for children and concessions. Further information about the Castle Keep can be obtained from: The Society of Antiquaries, Castle Keep, Castle Garth, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 1RQ Telephone (0191) 232 7938

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          12.04.2002 22:41
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          Strange as it may be, it seems many people in Newcastle don't actually realise that the city has a castle. But then, I expect that quite a few of you who have never been to the city are a bit surprised that there is still one as well. When I mentioned to people that I had been to the castle keep, I tended to get blank stares, puzzled looks or suggestions that in fact I meant Alnwick castle - but there is actually the remains of a castle in the heart of the city. To be perfectly honest, I didn't know there was a castle either until we were taken there on a field visit just before Easter. And that is after 6 months of living in the city as a heritage student! So, I think it is fair to say that the keep is something of a well-kept secret. I find it odd that the Society of Antiquaries who run the site don't advertise it more; the only promotional leaflets I have seen for the place were in the castle itself! The castle is situated on the banks of the Tyne, just a short walk away from the railway station - in fact you can see it clearly if you cross the Tyne Bridge or railway bridge travelling north. - A bit of history The origins of the castle go back to 1080, when the eldest son of William the Conqueror founded a city at the old site of the Roman fort of Pons Aelius - this new castle gave the city its name. This was a motte and bailey castle, consisting of a fortified enclosure (with a timber palisade and enclosure ditch) - the ditch between the gatehouse and railway are the only parts of this structure that can still be seen today. The castle was rebuilt in stone in the late 12th century by Henry II, who constructed the keep, gatehouse and enclosing wall. Later in the 13th century, an ailed hall (now buried beneath the Moot Hall) and a bigger gatehouse (called the Black Gate) were added. Within the keep itself are a storeroom and fine vaulted Norman chapel (which I unfortunately did not see much of due to the fact the Songs of Praise were filming on the day we visited), and two floors of accommodation suites. The castle was briefly refortified during the Civil War, but by this time it had long been derelict and after the conflict was returned to this state. Fortunately for archaeologists though, the ditch was being used as a local midden at this time, so remains of pottery, leather, textiles and glass all survive from this period. The castle was originally owned by the city council, with the Black Gate being used for a time as a place to house some of the poor of the city. When a plan was raised in the nineteenth century to demolish the remains and turn the area into a massive abattoir for the city, the Society of Antiquaries protested. The end result of all this was that the city washed its hands of the castle, and the society was left with a crumbling ruin that nobody quite knew what to do with. - What the Victorians did for us The thing about the castle is that what you see isn't entirely authentic 13th century. When the Society of Antiquaries got its hands on the site in the nineteenth century, they did the done Victorian thing and restored it to how they though a medieval castle should look - the prominent castellations along the top of the keep almost certainly never existed in the middle ages. There is also the thought that some of the original paintwork on the inner walls had survived until this time - only for the "restorers" to remove it as dirt in an over-enthusiastic cleaning spree. The Victorians also thought nothing of placing their new railway bridge to go right through the middle of the fortified area, thus removing large chunks of the remaining wall, damaging the archaeology and condemning the castle and its contents to a future of being shaken every time a train passes along the line outside it. While some wonderful pieces of original architecture do remain (most notable the chapel), a lot of the b uilding is fabrication. Further restoration work was conducted by the society in the 1970s - at least this time they deliberately used different coloured stone so that it is obvious which parts are the modern ones. The society have also moved their library into the restored Black Gate around this time. - My opinion This was certainly a worthwhile visit - but then, we had the advantage of being taken around the site by our tutor and being told first hand about the archaeology in this area. So much has happened within the castle walls (ranging from Roman and Anglo Saxon burials to important Civil War fortifications), but there is nothing outside the keep to actually tell you this. It is such a pity, as this is the most archaeologically rich area of Newcastle, and could be transformed into a real tourist attraction with a bit of money and the will to change things. Inside the keep, there are a number of displays on the history of the castle - from the Roman fort to the restoration work of the society - as well as a collection of artefacts found during work at the site. Interpretation is quite basic and looks a bit old fashioned, but will tell you what you need to know to understand the building. At present though, there is no disabled access as this is a listed building; there are plans to open up the ground floor with ramps for disabled visitors and provide computer models of the rest of the castle, but it will be a long time before any of this takes effect. The main body of the castle can only currently be accessed via an awful lot of stairs, so it is difficult for elderly visitors or anyone not too good on their legs to see the keep. I would highly recommend it to history lovers and to families as it is the sort of place that kids will love. It is also a cheap visit - it only costs £1.50 for adults and 50p for children, students, pensioners and the unemployed. The castle is open every day, from 9.30am to 5 .30pm April to Sept, and 9.30am to 4.30pm October to March. If you take the train or Metro to Central Station, it is less than 10 minutes walk away; just turn left and head down Neville Street, then follow the signs. For further information, you can contact: The Society of Antiquaries Castle Keep Castle Garth, Newcastle NE1 1RQ Phone: (0191) 232 7938

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