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  • Writer's picturekc dyer

Research Trip Ride Along: Coo & Castles

Okay — turns out my last cave post gave quite a few people claustraphobia, so today I offer some relief in the form of a little stroll through a few ancient above-ground locations. I’ve got a rampart, a tidal island, a ruined priory, TWO castles, and a poison garden for you. A lot of material to get through in one post. Really — I shouldn’t spoil you so, but … I like you.

Let’s head north first to Scotland, shall we?


Reinhardt, Hieland Coo, musing.

My daughter lives in Scotland now [moral of the story — when hauling one’s children around on research trips, make sure they wash up somewhere you like to visit, in the end…], and she and her lovely boyfriend know how much I like visiting Interesting Places, so on this trip they bundled me into the car and we headed south towards ‘the borders’. This is the much battled-over region between England and Scotland.

Know that feeling that you’d like to be in Scotland? So do the people of Berwick-Upon-Tweed. Located about 4 km south of the current Scottish border, they’ve been under the purview of both governments several times over the years. Even as recently as 2008, many have called to have the border moved south of town.

Regardless of where the border lies, taking Berwick by force has never been an easy proposition. The battlements are not only broad enough to walk along, but to grow a full lawn upon!

Berwick battlement small

Berwick battlement

To get to Berwick by train, you cross the Tweed on this amazing viaduct.

Berwick viaduct small

It’s a lovely old place to stop for tea. So we did!

Next on the agenda is the Holy Island of Lindesfarne. We crossed the causeway [more on that in a minute] and our first stop was the ruined priory.

Lindisfarne Priory

Here’s a detail of the chapel stone-work — taken from the sea…

Lindisfarne chapel stone detail

From the graveyard of the priory, we got our first view of the castle. In my first book SEEDS OF TIME, Darrell visits the Castle Ainslie, just as the plague is sweeping through Scotland. [Ainslie also shows up in FINDING FRASER, if you were paying attention…]

I based my fictional locale on the teeny 14thC Castle Tioram in the West Highlands. It was a tidal castle at the time, perched on the edge of a loch. Lindesfarne Castle is not much younger, being of 16th century vintage, and is also very small in size. It has to have one of the coolest profiles I have ever seen.

Holy Island Castle small

Holy Island Castle

I took this picture of the castle from inside the graveyard of the nearby ruined priory. The castle is perched atop it’s wee tidal island, completely inaccessible twice a day, based on the tides, which, unlike Tioram, still cut it off from the mainland. And when I say it gets cut off, I’m not kidding…

Holy Isle warning sign

My mother grew up on Prince Edward Island, and I was struck by how similar the landscape of Lindisfarne tidal flats are to the long, red beaches of PEI.

Holy Island causeway

Holy Island causeway

The tide was returning swiftly, and we were only able to view the castle from afar, so we beetled across the causeway and headed south again, this time for Alnwick, home of a lovely castle and a brilliant poison garden.

Sir Henry Percy [Hotspur]

Sir Henry Percy [Hotspur]

This dude here was Henry Percy, the second Earl of Northumberland, and he led THE most exciting life ever. Likely born at the castle, he fought so many adventures that the Scots named him Harry Hotspur. When he was knighted in 1377, it was alongside two future kings: Richard II and Henry IV.

It was this other Henry who would prove his undoing, in the end, sadly. Hotspur supported Henry IV in his successful pursuit of the throne, but once in place, he grew discontented with his new king. Henry IV didn’t always pay his bills and neglected to cover the ransom for Hotspur’s brother-in-law Edmund Mortimer, who had been imprisoned in Wales. Hotspur gathered his own forces and took up arms against his king, and was ultimately killed in battle at Shrewsbury. He was posthumously relieved of his head, declared a traitor and all his lands were forfeited to the crown.

However, Alnwick Castle is still the seat of the Duke of Northumberland, and the current [12th] Duke and his family still live here. [Their liquor cabinet is fetchingly on display in one of the mammoth drawing rooms…]. He is Hotspur’s ten-times great grandson, and is in fact, still a Percy!

Alnwick is second in size only to Windsor Castle in Britain’s list of inhabited locales. Walking through it feels very familiar, as the current Duke has happily let the place out for filming a number of familiar scenes in BlackAdder, Harry Potter, and most recently Downton Abbey.

Alnwick Castle battlements

Alnwick Castle battlements

The castle is in fine form still, and the wee glimpse we got of the occupied parts of it shows it has been renovated with all the mod cons. But the figures adorning the battlements that you can see here date from the 13thC.

Next to the castle is a large, modern garden established by the wife of the current Duke in 2001. Jane Percy, the Duchess of Northumberland, has also served as the Lord Lieutenent of Northumberland in her own right, and she oversees the design and implementation of the gardens, which are not yet completed. My fave part, of course, is the lovely poison garden, added in 2008.

poison garden sign

My buddy Lee Edward Fodi visited this garden a couple of years ago, and I was delighted to be able to follow in his footsteps. The garden is small but lethal, growing poisons that can kill you by taste, touch and even scent alone. Foxglove, poppies, apple seeds, hemlock, laurel — all plants that seem innocuous, unless you know what you are doing.


Even at this early time of year, plants were beginning to flower — I saw lily-of-the-valley, stinging nettle and others lifting their vicious leaves to the sky. I especially loved this gate, carefully wrought of iron and glass, that protected one end of the garden:

So, there you have it.

I can assure you we made it safely out of the garden back to Scotland in time for dinner in North Berwick, which is, as it should be, on the right side of the border. I will leave you with one final shot, taken in the cemetary on the Holy Isle — a cemetary still in current use, I might add. It’s my favourite shot of the journey so far.

Lindisfarne graveyard tree med

Next, I am off to Iceland for a few adventures there. Once I make it safely, there will, as always, be more soon…!



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