Sunday 29 December 2013

A trip to Northumbria - Part 2: Bamburgh Castle and Gefrin

I thought it was time to write up the second part of my trip to Northumberland, otherwise I ran the risk of writing about it next year!
Read about Part 1 here.
I drove up the coast through the rain to Bamburgh Castle. It is not that far from Dunstanburgh and it didn't take long. It is an extremely important place, both in terms of my novel, The Serpent Sword, and for the history of Bernicia, the more northerly kingdom of Northumbria in the seventh century. It was the seat of power of the Bernician kings. It is situated on an imposing crag, overlooking the Farne Islands and Lindisfarne. The site is incredible, its location makes it practically impregnable and it is an amazing vantage point over the surrounding land and sea.
Bamburgh Castle from the southern approach
Today it is a beautiful castle and well worth a visit. But, despite being the actual location where some of the events in my story take place, it did not impact me in the same way that Dunstanburgh Castle did. It is too sanitised. The whole structure is a reinvention of a medieval castle, rebuilt just over a hundred years ago.
The castle is an impressive, but sanitised, reinvention; removed from the real history
It still has the great views and some very interesting items in the halls and rooms, and a very nice cafe, where I had to stop for a cream tea (it would have been rude not to!), but it is lacking the ruggedness, the rawness of the castle just a few miles south down the coast.
Standing on the wall of Bamburgh Castle
It is a tourist attraction, first and foremost, and in being so popular, it has managed to lose that which attracts the tourists, or at least that which attracts me. It is somehow removed from the real history of the place.
Bamburgh Castle cream tea - it would be rude not to!
It was a documentary about a graveyard at Bamburgh, where they have found Anglo-Saxon remains, that got me started writing The Serpent Sword in the first place. The programme was called Meet The Ancestors, and there are lots of references to it in the museum in Bamburgh Castle, but I have not seen the programme since that very first time in 2001. I'd love to see it again, but I cannot find it on YouTube or online. If anyone has a copy, give me a shout!
After checking the time and realising I had less than three hours left until I needed to be back in Newcastle to meet my wife, I jumped into my little hire car, set the sat nav on my phone for a location on a small road in the middle of the Northumberland countryside, and sped off into the rain.
I was heading to one of the key sites in my novel and in the Bernicia of early seventh century - Gefrin. It was the site of one of the royal vils of King Edwin of Northumbria. Bishop Paulinus baptised the members of Edwin's court in the river Glen near there. It was destroyed by fire in 633, rebuilt several times, but ultimately disappeared and was lost in the mists of time until some aerial photos of the site in 1949 showed the outlines of  buildings in the fields.
The archaeologist Brian Hope-Taylor carried out many digs at the site and made several interesting finds. The site is now owned by The Gefrin Trust. It has placed some plaques and signs at the entrance to the field, but there is little else there to show its historical importance.
I arrived in the late afternoon and the rain finally decided to give me some respite. It was overcast, with broken cloud. The sun was attempting to shine through, but failing.
Gefrin lies north of the B6351 and there is a small lay-by where I parked. The road is small and quiet, with only a few other cars passing every once in a while.
Welcome to Ad Gefrin - informational sign
The gateway into the field is carved with goat heads and is evocative of the gables of the great hall that stood there in the Dark Ages. (Gefrin means "hill of the goats".)
The gate to the hill of the goats
As I stepped over the stile into the long, plush, rain-soaked grass, I was struck by the stillness. The large area is surrounded by brooding hills. Grey clouds billowed over the peak to the north. To the south, a farmer burnt some refuse on a bonfire, the smoke wafting on the slight breeze.
Surrounded by brooding hills
I traipsed through the grass, the rain drenching my trousers and feet (as I discovered that my hiking shoes were not at all waterproof!). A small brown bird, surprised at my approach, burst from the foliage and flew away, squeaking angrily.
Moody selfie in Gefrin
I stood there, dimly aware of time ticking by, and that I'd need to head back towards Newcastle and civilization soon. But as I surveyed the land around me, I could imagine the wooden buildings of Gefrin surrounding me. The smoke could have come from the forge, where Strang, and his daughter Sunniva, worked the metal for spear points and tools. The view of the hills could have been partially blocked by the great hall, its wooden-shingled roof, bejeweled and glistening with the remnants of the rain. The unusual, tiered, amphitheatre-like structure, where it is possible Paulinus preached to his recently-converted Christians or King Edwin addressed his subjects, would have cast its shadow over the grass.
The same flowers would have grown there. The same grass. It was easy to imagine how it would have been nearly 1,400 years ago.
I didn't have long to soak up the atmosphere. My shoes were sodden and making me uncomfortable. A car sped by on the road, breaking the silence. I had to leave this place and rush back to Newcastle.
The drive back was uneventful and I made good time. I drove through hills, small villages and forests, all the time thinking of the characters in my story walking these same lands, traversing tracks and old, crumbling Roman roads. Nothing has changed, but everything has changed.
I arrived back at Newcastle to find that Newcastle United was playing Inter Milan and the city was heaving with football supporters. I was pleasantly surprised that I was only a few minutes late back to our hotel, despite the stadium being right across the road.
I ended the day with a lovely meal with my wife at the wonderfully historic Blackfriars Restaurant. It was a perfect ending to a long, inspiring day. I hope to be able to return to Northumberland soon for more hands-on research - especially of the great food and beer!
Beer at Blackfriars Restaurant


  1. Beautiful Matthew. What an exciting adventure and to return to where you had your original inspiration.

    Necessity and commitments have forced me in some cases to resort to photographs of places in my books, though I am taking some trips in 2014 to rectify that. For my second book, I am aiming to visit places in advance of diving into the second draft, so that I have something to work with.

    Everywhere we place our feet is steeped in history. If we cannot see it, being able to imagine it is the next best thing I feel.

    Happy travels and happy writing into 2014.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Elaine. It was moving to return to Northumberland after all these years. I'm starting book two of my own series now, and hope to get up to see some of the other places that will appear in that story.

      Good luck with your writing and your own travels in 2014.

  2. Thanks for your comment about Heavenfield and visting - come again - and good luck with the book!!