Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Chillingham Castle is not all chill

I held my hand in front of my face in the darkness and marveled that I could not see one detail, not so much as any movement or shadow. My trusty flashlight stood at the ready on the table by the bed in case I had to get up. There I lay in pitch blackness that would normally not be anything out of the ordinary, but I happened to be in a bed in the Lookout apartment at the very top of the northwest tower of Chillingham Castle.

Dubbed the "most haunted castle in England," sightings of various supernatural phenomenon have been reported there. I did not know quite what to expect. Three friends and I had arrived late on this cold night of December, 2002, so late in fact that the main gate was closed. One of my friends banged on the window of the caretaker's house by the gate for several minutes before anyone responded. We received directions on how to go into the grounds via a back road.

The groundskeeper met us at the door and escorted us inside. The steep, circular, rough stone stairway went up and up a long way before we got to our rooms. The groundskeeper helped to get our suitcases up there, otherwise we would have had to take only necessary items in a smaller bag and leave the rest in the car.

Space heaters soon had each of our rooms and the bathroom feeling cozy. The beds were comfortable with lots of warm covers. We were the only visitors staying in the castle that night.

The groundskeeper told us that we could explore some of it, but other areas were off limits because they were protected by alarms. So at 9:00 p.m., we set out to see the open areas which included the courtyard, torture chamber, and dungeon. I must say the atmosphere in the torture chamber was most oppressive, especially toward one end of the building. The Iron Maiden, rack and other instruments of torture are a collection from all over England and brought to Chillingham for display.

The skeleton visible through a grate in the floor of the dungeon may have been left there for effect, but I wish they would give it a proper burial.

I maintain, however, that Chillingham Castle is not all chill. This castle is too lovely to be known only for ghosts, torture and past misery. Information Britain says "situated spectacularly, the castle is the finest example of fortified domestic architecture in the country." The castle grounds include an Elizabethan topiary garden, a private lake, lawns and woodland. Recent restoration has provided seven apartments where people can vacation. Chillingham also hosts weddings!

Owned by the Grey family for over 700 years, the castle is also famous for its wild white cattle, the only such cattle in England. The origin of these cattle remains a mystery. They roam in Chillingham Park in an area of about 300 acres. Their genetic makeup has been found to be unique among western European cattle. A small reserve herd of these animals was started in Scotland after the outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease in 1967. The Chillingham Wild Cattle Association inherited the ownership of the cattle in 1971 upon the death of Lord Tankerville, then owner of Chillingham.

Without a doubt, Chillingham has quite a history. Part of the castle is built over a 7th century abbey, and it has changed little since the 14th century. This has been the site of bloody feuds as well as a place visited by royals.

Since 1536, the castle has undergone reconstruction of one sort or another. In 1956, however, the Historic Buildings Council declared it to be past the stage in which it could be restored. By the time it was sold to Sir Humphrey Wakefield in 1982, the castle was in a sad state. A massive emergency reconstruction program was launched, and Sir Wakefield is responsible for the magnificent building that is open to the public today.

When morning came during our visit, we took the tour of the main parts of the castle some of which house a mini-museum. The rooms are spectacular examples of what we would expect a castle to be. Then we watched deer graze on the lawn from the window of our apartment and on the way out, listened to the groundskeeper explain how he cut the beautiful hedge designs in the garden. In case you are wondering, he measures it by his hip.

Chillingham Castle is well worth seeing. I slept like a log. Don't be put off by its reputation. It is not all chill.

Chillingham Castle is open May through September and all year by arrangement. To find the castle from Wooler on the B6348 or from Alnwick on the B6346, the castle road is located between the A697 and the A1, a few miles southeast of Wooler in Northumberland.

The official website: Chillingham Castle.

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