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By the Way: King of Castles


Some people dream of imaginary castles in Spain. My dream castle is real. It lies on the northeast coast of England.

I am a writer, but I also am a voracious reader. Particularly at this time of year and when the temperature is sub-freezing, evenings will find me installed on our comfy sofa with a book or a Kindle while my husband is mesmerized by what I call shoot ’em ups on television..

In this case, the show I’m referring to was basically a hack ’em up because it was set in early Medieval England, an era pre-dating firearms. My husband was watching “The Last Kingdom,” and waves and waves of Saxons were banging their heads against Danish shield walls.

The show’s fictional hero, one Uhtred of Bebbanburg, a conflicted Saxon kidnapped and reared by the Danes, was slugging and suffering his way through Anglo-Saxon England.

All this was playing in the background until I heard the word, Bebbanburg. It was the former name of Bamburgh in Northumberland, and during a trip to England we had visited Bamburgh Castle.

I put down my book and joined my husband before the television set, only to watch hours of tribal brutality. I hated the violence but connected with the people who had walked the ground at that castle.

I majored in English lit in college and was fascinated by that fabled island’s early days, usually recorded only by Christian monks whose eyes rested more heavily on the heavens than on history. Enough facts had drifted through, though, to intrigue me.

My interest recently was piqued even more after reading Mercedes Rochelle’s books, “Heir to Prophecy?” and her three-book series, “The Last Great Saxon Earls.”

I interviewed the Stockton author a year or so ago and loved her books. Alas, she has now left that era behind and moved to King Richard II with her new series, “The Plantagenet Legacy.”

Last time I saw her she was studying the Peasants’ Revolt, dealing with the complexities of a more sophisticated and united kingdom and trying to sort out the characters, some of whom were called by their given names sometimes, but also by their titles. (Our current Prince Harry, for example, could be referred to as Harry, Windsor or Sussex.) I’m sure she aced it all before writing.

What caught my attention as the bloodied troops slashed their way through my living room was that men in fur robes were wreaking havoc in Northeastern England. We were there for several days when our son was spending his junior year in Glasgow.

The three of us had driven south from Scotland to Carlisle and on to York and Durham.

Then we stopped at Bamburgh Castle. Bamburgh had once been called Bebbanburg and was the fictional Uhtred’s stomping ground. Archaeologists say the site has been occupied for 10,000 years, and it is considered the King of Castles. Once a Celtic fort, it had been burned by the Vikings in 993 and a little more than a century later was rebuilt by the Normans. It stands guard along the North Sea towering 350 feet above the sandy beach, a formidable sight to invaders.

We spent an entire morning touring the castle, its living room filled with photos of the family who live there, a distinct contrast to the terrifying dungeon. We roamed the grounds absorbing the history of the place and feeling the wind off the sea.

Later from a nearby town we saw the castle from a different angle, and we walked and walked and walked along the beach and never seemed to get any closer. For me it was a magical experience – magical enough for me to keep a framed photo of the castle in my little office.

I never dreamed of being a princess or a queen but I have always loved castles, wondering about the loves and hatreds, the intrigues, the plots born in dark corridors, all that history has assigned to them. I suppose I am indeed a romantic, having more interest in a happening just because it took place in a stone-walled alcove or tunnel instead of a 21st-century dry-walled room or garage.

But then I am certainly not alone. We weren’t the only tourists climbing that English hill; nor was it the only castle drawing thousands of people like us every year.

I love that photo because it shows the castle just the way it looked to me that day as we walked along the North Sea beach. It still fascinates me. It stood there in the distance, misty but bold, unreachable, and it still holds secrets I know I’ll never hear.