Back in the early 1700s, the fabulously wealthy Delaval family commissioned starchitect of the day, Sir John Vanbrugh, to design and build them a grand residence at Seaton on the Northumberland coast. The project went well and the outcome was considered to be Sir John’s finest work. The family entertained there lavishly – until 1822 when, while they were spending Christmas in London, a fierce fire severely damaged the main hall. Word had been sent to the servants to warm the house prior to the family’s return and it may be that the servants had been over-zealous, or careless, or that one of them harboured a grudge and was out for revenge. The accepted story is that the fire was spread by the presence of crows in the chimneys, but I prefer the grudge theory: after all, the Delaval fortune came from the land that was given them by William the Conqueror, who had taken it by force. Inheritance of land is not a valid moral justification for ownership.
I had previously driven eastwards, following Hadrian’s Wall towards Newcastle, on the way noting the evidence of thousands of years of territorial disputes that permeates not only the landscape but also the place-names, such as Rudchester, where I turned north, to the walled town of Berwick-upon-Tweed. After the Romans departed, it straddled the contested border between Scotland and England, changing hands 14 times. Now, with its picturesque ancient buildings, remnants of its fortifications and a significant position at the mouth of the salmon-rich river, it remains a desirable place to live and I could not help peering into estate agents’ windows to indulge in some fantasy house-hunting – so much more enjoyable than the real thing.
Ruined castles and their ecclesiastical equivalent, abbeys, abound in NE England. If you are interested in getting a close look at them, however, there is a price to be paid, since they are often in the custody of an outfit called English Heritage, a charity devised to privatise and outsource conservation of the nation’s historically significant piles of stone. On this trip, I bit the bullet and subscribed to an annual membership, since the price of individual admissions would have been onerous. They gave me a map of England showing all their sites, so I can be sure to get value for money by calling in at each one as I pass. This, however, is challenging, since I am doing the same with my National Trust membership. At Lindisfarne, at least, there is an opportunity to bag two in one - the abbey on one membership and the castle on the other – or there would be if the castle were not currently closed for refurbishment. So, I used the time saved to walk around the bleak island and try to imagine the hardship endured by Cuthbert who, back in the 13th century, chose this sparsely populated, windswept spit of land as the launch pad for his mission to spread Christianity. Further down the coast, past the still-inhabited Bamburgh castle and the evocative ruins of Dunstanborough castle, the remains of another Cuthbert-inspired abbey, Whitley, perch high on a promontory at Tynemouth. Once isolated, it is nowadays at the edge of a conurbation, overlooking a cove that is home to Riley’s Fish Shack, where local seafood is prepared with respect and served with cool, contemporary panache.
But in the rich hinterland of Northumbria lurks another grand house built on the proceeds of land inherited from the Normans – Wallington. However, its last owner, Sir Charles Philips Trevelyan, declared himself a socialist and, believing that private ownership of land was inconsistent with socialist principles, gave the estate back to the people (via the National Trust) – albeit after he had lived out his life there. Despite his example, alas, Norman socialists remain thin on the ground.