TRAVEL / From Newcastle to some of the old ones: Frank Barrett, children in tow, heads for the castles of the north

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The Independent Travel
For anyone inclined to visiting castles, what more appropriate place to start than Newcastle? The Tyneside city's castle unfortunately suffered the indignity of having a railway line put right through its site, but Newcastle is still a good place to use as your base: lots of good hotels offering cheap short-break deals (and good shops in the Metro Centre and Eldon Square).

For the real castle pleasures of Northumberland, you need to head farther north. At Warkworth you will find one of the most magnificent castles in England. It looks good, with a superb location over the Coquet river, and faces the sea - it even gets a mention in Shakespeare.

Harry Hotspur, who was born at Warkworth, and his father, the first Earl of Northumberland, played a prominent role in getting Henry IV installed on the throne in 1399. The Percy family then rebelled against the king and young Hotspur died at the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403. Shakespeare described Warkworth as 'a worm-eaten hold of ragged stone'.

Warkworth is a child's paradise, full of rooms and cellars to be explored by feeling your way down dark staircases: easy to imagine prisoners languishing here in chains. In the Grey Mare's Tail Tower you can see small crucifixes and apostles' heads carved in the stone in a discreet place near a window opening; these may have been the work of a bored crossbowman or more likely a prisoner held captive for his post-Reformation Catholic beliefs.

A walk along the river and a short boat ride will take you to the nearby Hermitage, an extraordinary chapel and sacristy hewn out of the cliff in the 14th century.

From this Wednesday to Friday you can hear the music of the Cavaliers and Roundheads at the castle; and next weekend, the English Civil War Society is presenting its pageant, The English Civil War Comes to Warkworth, with 'craftsmen and camp-followers and the Scots garrison carrying out their duties'.

Dunstanburgh Castle, further up the coast, is a mile-and-a-half- long walk along the seashore from Craster. It would be hard to imagine a more beautiful setting for a castle. It is certainly popular with birds; a 60p leaflet, Natural History of Dunstanburgh Castle, explains how to spot a cormorant, fulmar, guillemot, puffin, shag and common scoter. In the cliffs below the castle we saw kittiwakes nesting.

After Warkworth and the long trek out and back to Dunstanburgh, the children were showing signs of fading. We stopped for lunch in Seahouses, a traditional charabanc-party seaside town which seems to have more fish- and-chip shops per square foot than anywhere in England.

A few miles north lies the substantial pile of Bamburgh Castle (sub-headed in its glossy brochure as 'The Home of Lord and Lady Armstrong and Family'). This is indeed no ruin but a proper family home, albeit with immense battlements, a king's hall and armoury.

Restoring castles to use as family homes was clearly the fashion at the end of the last century. Lindisfarne Castle, perched high on its stubby hill overlooking Holy Island, was built in 1550 to protect the harbour from the Scots. However, it was given a new lease of life when Sir Edwin Lutyens, the architect, was commissioned in 1903 to convert it into a private house.

After visiting the castle (avoid Fridays when it is closed), take a look at the nearby Lindisfarne Priory, one of the most important early centres of Christianity in England with its famous 'rainbow' arch over the nave of the priory church.

Holy Island is reached from the mainland by a causeway which is impassable at high tide (half-way across the causeway is a signal-box structure, presumably a refuge for the hapless traveller who gets his tide times wrong). Check in advance for times when it is possible to cross (0289 307283).

The final stop on our tour was Alnwick Castle, sub-titled in its glossy brochure as 'Home of the Duke of Northumberland'. However, the duke was not at home, I was told; in the summer he occupies his other home in London - Syon House, opposite Kew Gardens (being a duke is clearly nice work if you can get it).

The children were by now cowering in the back seat, whimpering: 'Please, not another castle - we've had enough.' The gods were smiling on them: we arrived at 4.35pm, five minutes too late for the last entry of the day. The ticket office was even in two minds as to whether to sell me the glossy brochure.

From the brochure - and from the outside - Alnwick looks extremely impressive: not so much a castle, more a stately home, with grand staircases and paintings by Titian, Canaletto and Van Dyck, a collection of Meissen china and other valuable treasures.

But underneath the Van Dycks and the Canalettos, Alnwick is just a plain old-fashioned motte-and- bailey castle with plenty of towers, battlements and greenswards. The Duke of Northumberland's Percy motto is 'Esperance ma Comforte'. Looking at his treasures, it would be fair to say that he has considerably more than hope as his comfort.

The children slept like dormice all the way back down the A1 to Newcastle.

Further information

Alnwick Castle (0665 510777): Until 11 October, open daily 11am- 5pm; pounds 3, OAPs pounds 2.60; children pounds 2; family ticket pounds 8. Bamburgh Castle (066 84 208): Open to 25 October, daily midday-6pm; pounds 2.40, OAPs pounds 2.00, children pounds 1.10. Dunstanburgh Castle (0665 576231): Until 30 September, open daily 10am- 6pm; 1 October to 31 March open Tuesday to Sunday 10am-4pm; pounds 1.10, concessions 85p, children 55p; English Heritage members free. Lindisfarne Castle (0289 89244): Until 30 September daily except Friday, 1-5.30pm; October open Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday 1-5.30pm; pounds 3, children pounds 1.50, National Trust members free. Warkworth Castle (0665 711423): Until 30 September, open daily 10am-6pm; 1 October to 31 March, open Tuesday to Sunday 10am-4pm; adults pounds 1.10, concessions 85p, children 55p; Hermitage until 30 September, open weekends only 10am-6pm; adults 75p, concessions 55p, children 40p; English Heritage members free.

English Heritage (071-973 3400): Annual membership costs pounds 15 for adults; pounds 25 for two adults living at the same address; pounds 30 for family groups; pounds 17 for single- parent families.

National Trust: Annual membership costs pounds 23 for adults ( pounds 13 for each additional person living at the same address); pounds 42 for family groups. Further information: 081-464 1111.

(Photographs and map omitted)

FACT FILE

OTHER countries have castles - some good fairy-tale jobs down the Rhine, a fair sprinkling of fortresses in France - but nowhere has quite as many, or ones that are quite as good, as Britain. Ours are the best preserved, too.

This rich heritage results partly from our need at various times in history (from the Iron Age to the Napoleonic wars) to be an island fortress. And if the English weren't worried about invasions from across the Channel, they needed castles to defend themselves against the Scots, the Welsh, and other local uprisings.

Cromwell knocked our castles around a bit and the locals were fond of using old ones as a cheap source of stone for building houses. But astonishingly, thousands of British castles have survived, with a surprising number completely intact and still inhabited.

While elsewhere in Europe, castles are left to go to rack and ruin, in this country they are lovingly preserved by the likes of the National Trust and English Heritage (which has no fewer than 80 prime specimens under its care).

Wherever you are in Britain, you do not have to venture far for a good day out to a castle. Even in the centre of London you can explore a magnificent castle, arguably the best in Britain: the Tower of London. Here is my selection of the Fab Fortresses:

UK TOP TEN

Caernarfon Castle

(0286 77617)

This is not just one of the finest castles in Britain, but one of the greatest medieval fortresses in Europe. The distinctive bands of stone in the walls follow the style of the walls of Constantinople. It was here that Prince Charles's Investiture as Prince of Wales was held on 1 July 1969.

Dover Castle

(0304 201628)

All of British history is here: a Roman lighthouse, a Saxon church, a Norman keep, Napoleonic defences and the underground command centre from the Second World War. A good place to go if you have time to kill before getting your ferry.

Lincoln Castle

(0522 511068)

A handsomely preserved castle in a beautiful spot with magnificent views over the cathedral and the city of Lincoln.

Raglan Castle

(0291 690228)

Ruined but still exceptionally splendid castle in a beautiful part of Gwent - often used as a film location for its Robin Hood-style medieval grandeur. You will have to drag the children away from here.

Skipton Castle

(0756 792442)

One of the best preserved and most complete medieval castles in England with massive round towers and a delightful central court with a famous yew tree.

Stirling Castle

(031 244 3101)

Reckoned to be Scotland's finest castle - better even than Edinburgh. Its high point on a crag provides a dramatic setting with stunning views to Ben Lomond and the Ochils.

Tintagel Castle

(0840 770328)

Was this Camelot, where King Arthur reigned with his Knights of the Round Table? The answer is no, but it is a nice idea. The castle's location on the wild, windswept Cornish coast has a fairy-tale quality worthy of any medieval romance.

Tower of London

(071-709 0765)

What child (or adult for that matter) can resist the Bloody Tower and the sight of the chopping block and the executioner's axe? You can also enjoy the Crown Jewels and the finest collection of armour in Britain.

Warwick Castle

(0926 495421)

This may be part of Madame Tussaud's empire but there is nothing waxwork about it. There is a dungeon and torture chamber, a collection of arms and armour, furniture and delightful gardens.

Windsor Castle

(0753 868286)

American visitors are said to wonder why HM the Queen built a castle under the flight path to Heathrow. You may not meet royalty but you can look at the exhibition of the Queen's presents and royal carriages, Queen Mary's dolls' house and the State Apartments (when the Queen is not in residence).

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