Hilary Macaskill tours the ancient ruins of Northumbria and discovers why this is a favourite location for filmmakers
THE IMPACT of the first gruesome scenes of Elizabeth, directed by Shekhar Kapur and currently on general release, was rather wasted on me. I was straining unsuccessfully to see which Northumbrian castle they were shot in. Only later did I start recognising things: the lake by Raby Castle; Alnwick Castle masquerading as Mary of Guise's Scottish stronghold; and the vast sweeping spaces and towering columns of Durham Cathedral.

Warkworth was just one of the castles of Northumbria used as a location in the film. "They took two or three weeks to prepare for four or five days filming," said Jeremy Coles, deputy custodian at the castle, describing the foam matting that looked like slabs of stone, the polystyrene rocks to supplement the real ones, the care - and brown paper - that went into covering up the signs.

The wine cellars became cells; the beer cellar a torture chamber, with bars inserted in the windows, a rack installed and chains attached to the walls. The crypt of the uncompleted church in the Outer Bailey was transformed into the cell of Robert Dudley (played by Joseph Fiennes). "They brought in 20 rats, too," added Jeremy. "All trained - they just returned to their keeper at a whistle."

Alas, the rats seem to have been spiked, though the torture scene is still there. And so is Eric Cantona - a lot of Manchester United fans turned up during filming, hoping to see the one-time footballer who keeps cropping up in the film as the French ambassador - though not identifiably at Warkworth.

Shakespeare, as well as Shekhar Kapur, knew Warkworth, and chose it as one of the settings in Henry IV, Part 1, describing it as "this worm- eaten hold of ragged stone". The ruins, with delicate pinnacled tower and sturdy gatehouse, come as rather a surprise when arriving from the south, along a road lined by semis. From the north, passing by the fortified bridge (one of the very few in England - now a footbridge), the castle seems more of a piece with the village, which is looped round by the River Coquet. The massive keep dominates the main street which is lined by Georgian houses. By the miniature market place is St Lawrence's Church,, apparently medieval, but - as becomes evident inside - actually a Norman church, the most complete in Northumberland and heavily influenced by Durham Cathedral.

There have been other films shot at Warkworth Castle. The great hall, now open to the sky, became a convent for a BBC Omnibus dramatisation of the life of Hildegard of Bingen, with Peter Vaughan, Patricia Routledge and Amanda Root.

Elizabeth is just the latest of many films to be made in Northumbria. The dramatic castles and coastline are hard to beat: centuries of keeping marauding Scots at bay has left a rich heritage for the film industry. Other castles starring in Elizabeth are Raby and Alnwick. Raby Castle is the solid home of Lord Barnard, surrounded by walled gardens and farmland with grazing sheep and cattle. The lake, overshadowed by the towers of Raby, served as the Thames. The hall was the setting for the gay orgy.

The Scottish battle scenes took place on The Pastures, below the towering walls of Alnwick Castle, now home of the 12th Duke of Northumberland. Alnwick is well known to location managers. Other productions filmed there include Robin, Prince of Thieves, starring Kevin Costner and Alan Rickman, the BBC comic series Blackadder, and even a Walt Disney film, King Arthur and the Spaceman.

The best approach to Alnwick is from the east, for the castle quite suddenly appears on the brow of a hill, astonishingly complete. The road sweeps down into the valley and across the River Coquet by the Lion Bridge, with the Percy lion - the family emblem - standing full face on to the motorist (a replica of the 18th-century original, due to an encounter with a 20th-century lorry a couple of years ago). This is a bridge designed - as are the surrounding meadows, woods and parklands - by Capability Brown, a local man.

Alnwick Castle dominates the town, with its curving streets of Georgian houses and gateways still intact, in more ways than one.

"The Duke's a good landlord," says Stuart Manley of Barter Books, which occupies the old railway station. "Everyone is eager to work for him because it is a job for life." Barter Books is one of the biggest second- hand bookshops in the country: with a fire blazing in what used to be the stationmaster's office, a constant supply of coffee and cookies, a model railway continually trundling on an overhead circuit, and bookshelves stretching along what used to be the tracks, it provides sufficient reason to visit the town in its own right.

One of the most impressive castles is now but a ruin - Dunstanburgh - three times painted by Turner, and accessible only by walking along the cliffs. After lunch in Craster at The Jolly Fisherman, justly famous for its crabmeat sandwiches, I trudged past the tiny harbour, erected as a memorial to a son of the Craster family who was killed in battle in the early part of this century, along the cliff top with the waves crashing below. The skeletal remains of the castle were just visible ahead, jutting out of the mist on top of a 100-foot outcrop of basalt cliff. An eerie sight on such a day, and a fitting backdrop for Dracula - though in fact that was provided by Alnwick, again, and it was Ivanhoe which made use of Dunstanburgh. But it is Bamburgh on the coast which gets into all the films. The splendid sweep of sands with the complete castle on the cliff is irresistible to location managers, and has starred in Ivanhoe, Kidnapped, The Secret Life of Ian Fleming. Derek Jarman made his acclaimed film The Tempest here. Even El Cid, starring Charlton Heston, has a shot of Bamburgh Castle. Inside the entrance hall is a plaque recounting the films: Hunting Tower 1927, Becket 1964, The Devils 1969, Mary Queen of Scots 1972. Naturally, it had a bit part in Elizabeth as well.

Then, just down the road from where we were staying, was Brinkburn Priory, which would, I assumed, be a picturesque ruin. From the car park there was a 500-yard walk through the woods above the tumbling River Coquet down into its valley - and suddenly, round a corner, was a Gothic roof straight ahead. The path descended steeply to the rushing river, beside which appeared to be a complete church, with striking sculptures hewn from tree trunks scattered inside.

Almost needless to say, Brinkburn also had a part in a film, Robin of Sherwood. Such star quality is always recognised.

FACT FILE

northumbria's castles

Getting there

Go by train and then hire a car. GNER (tel: 0345 225225); National Car Rental (tel: 0990 365365).

Where to stay

Todstead Cottages, near Longhorsley, have been refurbished and one has been converted for people with disabilities. Rural Retreats (tel: 01386 701177).

Waren House Hotel, Waren Mill, Belford (tel: 01668 214581), is set in wooded grounds with views of Budle Bay and Holy Island.

What to visit

Warkworth Castle (tel: 01665 711423). Alnwick Castle (tel: 01665 510777).

Bamburgh Castle (tel: 01668 214515). Dunstanburgh Castle (tel: 01665- 576 231).

Brinkburn Priory (tel: 01665 570628).

Further information

Northumbria Tourist Board, Equal Heads, Durham DH1 5UX (tel: 0191-375 3004).

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