Saturday, February 2, 2019

The Embattled Headland: Tynemouth Castle & Priory

During my forays into the north for conferences at the University of Sunderland I twice visited Tynemouth – just half an hour on the bus (the N56 from Roker, as I recall) up the coast, then the passenger ferry across the Tyne and a walk of a few kilometres around some very picturesque areas. I’ll come back to this a time or two for the vistas of the estuary by evening or a look at other attractions, but this time I’d like to touch down on the historic north headland, a high promontory guarding access to the river. No wonder the Normans built a castle there.

These photos were taken on my 2010 trip. I had pressure-related problems with my right ear while flying and spent the entire trip very ill, I twice visited doctors, once a free clinic in London, the other a local surgery in Whitby, arranged by the boarding house I was staying at. I slogged through the trip and was not well for months, but I certainly gathered some photographs while I was there, four flashcards worth.

November is a very changeable month in the UK, the last sunny days presaging the coming of snow in some years, at other times it’s really just rain. In 2010 the sun was shining through the wind was chill, and the pictures benefited from the light.

After leaving the ferry one walks east on the river bank through picturesque old sea-village areas, quaint pubs that drip history, past the memorial to Admiral Collingwood – more about that in another post – until coming to the headland. The ruins are not very impressive from a distance but up close they have much to offer, and are administered by British Heritage, whose red and white flag flies over the castles they preserve.

According to both history and legend, three kings are buried somewhere on that headland, including Malcolm III of Scotland. To walk that ground is to remind oneself of the depth of antiquity surrounding it – that people have looked out to sea from that rock since time immemorial, Celt, Saxon, Dane and Norman alike. Thousands of years of continuity lie beneath one’s feet, and it is with a certain reverence one views the salt-eroded stone. Truly, the sea wind does amazing things to building stone, chemically altering it as well as abrading it with gale-driven particles, so what was a fine-built structure seven, eight centuries ago is now a bizarre abstraction, the stone reduced to organic-seeming blobs. There are headstones reduced to this state in the churchyard on the cliffs of Whitby.

The original fortification was a wooden structure built by Duke William’s invaders (though I find it likely there were earlier structures on the site), while the extant ruins are of the extensive rebuilding that occurred in the centuries following. Tynemouth Priory also occupies the headland, protected by the castle from the landward side, and again not much survives. It would have suffered during Henry VIII’s crusade of 1539, known historically as “the dissolution of the monasteries,” when the church was stripped of much of its wealth, power and influence, and so many magnificent ecclesiastical buildings fell rapidly into disrepair and eventually ruin. Only a single internal chamber remains, the “chantry,” complete with stained glass windows, and this was used in later centuries as a magazine to keep gunpowder dry.

The military heritage of the headland is everywhere – not merely the medieval fortress but the guns that guarded the river mouth in much later times. A canon of 1859svintage is preserved in a firing embrasure on the north side, but the real link with past turmoil is the battery of light model 1893 naval guns in their concrete and steel emplacements which look out to sea as a historic exhibit. These guns were manned in the First World War by the Tynemouth Volunteer Artillery, though the closest the German High Seas Fleet came to Tynemouth was Hartlepool, about twenty miles south, in the early morning of December 16th, 1914.

I stood alone on that headland, looking at the autumn afternoon sea as ferries came and went on their routes to Scandinavia, and imagined how it must have been for the gunners on that bitter night, seeing the flashes to the south as Hartlepool took over a thousand German shells. My late grandmother, aged four, was in that town at the time, if I remember my family history aright. That night Whitby was also hit, and its famous abbey was damaged in the process. So in Tynemouth the gunners must have shivered in their greatcoats and peered into the darkness, nerves on edge and strung out for a sighting. Not that their already-antiquated guns would have been of any effect had the German actually shown up, but the defiant gesture would certainly have been made – and perhaps Tynemouth Castle and Priory would have also come off worst against the poorly-directed gunnery of the pre-electronic age.

One other aspect of local lore about the headland must be mentioned, the ghost of the Viking. Actually a Dane, a warrior named Olaf was left for dead after a 9th century raid but was cared for by the monks. In time he took orders and joined them, but many years later during another raid, he saw his brother killed, and died praying for his lost kin. Locals know him as the Black Monk, and his spectre, so the story goes, has haunted that headland for a thousand years, watching the horizon for the longships to return.

English Heritage has an information office and giftshop in the castle, and one can buy a day ticket to wander the headland and view everything from the graveyard of the priory to the monks’ latrine pits, walk the remaining walls of the fortification and wonder where those kings lie. If you have a feel for history, a sense of the gulf of human experience that has flowed by, this is an excellent spot to visit, and you can grab a good meal in the high street opposite the entry of the castle – try the Turk’s Head pub, I can vouch for their fish and chips!

Some useful links for further reading:

Mike Adamson

That's a stone pillar in the mid-ground, not a modern waste bin!

Late afternoon light, as I was leaving -- it would be full dark before I was back down the coast in Roker.


  1. Brilliant piece! Love the photos, too.

  2. Many thanks! It's a lot of fun to remember these events and write them up, and great to give the photos an airing. It's time I was putting a third together! M


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