Secrets of a castle well hidden away

Environment Editor Tony Henderson goes downhill to a castle which has kept itself to itself.

Environment Editor Tony Henderson goes downhill to a castle which has kept itself to itself.

Think Northumbrian castles and it conjures up images of highly visible, massively imposing fortresses dominating striking landscapes.

Bothal Castle, then, bucks the trend.

Not only is it hidden away in a hollow beside the River Wansbeck, it is also on the edge of the former mining town of Ashington.

Charles Sample, who has an office to envy within the castle as agent for the Welbeck Estate Company, lists other peculiarities.

"It is one of only two castles in Northumberland on the north bank of a river and, as we are in a geographical bowl, it is a castle you come down to," he says.

That is part of the appeal of Bothal village and its castle.

Tucked away at the bottom of banks, Bothal has the appearance of a typical, rural Northumberland village, with its venerable church.

But as coal mining boomed, it became flanked by pit villages like Pegswood.

For most people who don't know Bothal, the first visit brings with it a sense of discovery. Bothal is built on a spur, overlooking the river, which rises to form a hill, and this was the spot chosen for the castle.

But the evidence suggests that Bothal has been inhabited for at least 1,500 years.

Botl is Old English for a dwelling, as in Bottle Bank in Gateshead, Harbottle (the army dwelling), Shilbottle and Walbottle (dwelling beside the Roman Wall). Bothal could refer to a particular dwelling, or hall.

The 13th Century Church of St Andrew in Bothal was found to contain fragments of Anglo-Saxon stone. This may have come from a church of that time.

Other local names indicate that this was once a heavily-wooded area - Hirst (wood), Longhirst, Stobswood, Woodhorn and Ashington, or its old name of Essendun, which means vale of the ash trees.

In 1095, Bothal was given by the King to Guy de Balliol, whose daughter Alice married William Bertram, Baron of Mitford, who probably built a hall house.

Several generations later, in 1343, Sir Robert Bertram was given permission to turn his manor house into a castle, including an impressive gatehouse. It was an opportune time to beef up the defences for, in 1346, Sir Robert was fighting in the Battle of Nevilles Cross outside Durham against the invading Scottish army.

The King awarded him £200 for capturing William Douglas during the battle but was less than pleased when Robert allowed the Earl of Wigton, who'd also been taken prisoner, to escape.

When Sir Robert's daughter Helen married Sir Robert Ogle, Bothal changed hands.

The family in the castle continued to live in turbulent times during which warfare was, for people in castles, an obligatory career choice.

Helen's son, also Sir Robert, fought at the Battle of Otterburn in 1388. When he died, he left his lands at Ogle to his older son, yet another Sir Robert, and Bothal to his younger son, Sir John.

And what bother that caused at Bothal.

Robert thought that he should have had Bothal and besieged his brother's castle for four days with "200 men at arms and archers, partly soldiers and partly Scotchmen". The displaced John appealed to the law and was reinstated by the King.

Ralph, Third Lord Ogle, fought in two Scottish campaigns in 1494 and 1496 while his son, Robert, took part in the Battle of Flodden.

In 1591, Catherine, Countess of Ogle, married Sir Charles Cavendish, of Welbeck. Their son, William, became commander of the Royalist forces in the North during the English Civil War.

So much for warlike residents. What about the residence?

The castle was a well-appointed place which, according to a 16th Century survey, had a grand chamber, parlour, six bedrooms, gallery, buttery, kitchen, bakehouse, brewhouse, stable, prison and porter's lodge.

Another description of the time dwells on the castle orchard "wherein grows all kinds of herbs and flowers, fine apples, plums of all kinds, and pears, damsons, nuts, wardens (cooking pears), black and red cherries, walnuts and licorices."

In 1828, the Sample family made their entrance and are still at the castle today.

William Sample was appointed land agent for the Duke of Portland's Bothal estates and part of his new job was to arrest the castle's decline. This included restoration of the gatehouse and the building of a Sample wing. Sample is mentioned as land agent in 1832 in an account which provides a snapshot of village life at the time.

The village's Castle Inn was run by Elizabeth Bootyman. There was a major change of use, and presumably of village lifestyle, when, in 1897, the inn closed and became the home of the curate.

From 1965-85 the castle was used for corporate purposes by Welwyn Electric. It is now partly-let as a private home and also houses the Welbeck Estate office.

St Andrew's Church dates from around 1200 and was expanded during the 14th Century.

It contains the alabaster tomb of Ralph, Third Lord Ogle, who died in 1513, and his wife Margaret Gascoigne. The Rev W C Ellis was rector of Bothal for 62 years until 1923. He was rector when 35 men of the parish were lost during the First World War, including his son, Capt Francis Ellis.

They are recorded - along with those who served in the Second World War - on a cross which stands in front of the church.

Over the centuries war was never far from village life.

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