Penshaw Monument

The Grecian-style Penshaw Monument is one of the North East’s most striking structures, seemingly entirely at odds with the rolling hills and pastures that surround it.

Built in 1844 in memory of John George Lambton, 1st Earl of Durham, Penshaw Monument is a symbol of Victorian architectural confidence, dominating the horizon to the south west of Sunderland.

110 steep steps uphill take you to this stone monument, which is surprisingly intimidating up close, despite the many carvings which have blemished it over the years, as well as it’s location close to the distinctly unglamorous A19.

Penshaw Monument Steps
The view of the Monument from the steps

On a cold autumnal afternoon, busy with dog walkers and families, the Penshaw Monument provides the perfect spot to take in incredible local views, with Newcastle to the north and Sunderland to the west.

1st Earl of Durham

Born in 1792, John Lambton was heir to a vast Durham estate, including a number of mining properties, which granted Lambton a huge fortune. Lambton was elected to Parliament at the age of just twenty, representing County Durham. In 1828, Lambton became Baron Durham, of the City of Durham and of Lambton Castle in the County Palatine of Durham.

Lambton’s political ascendancy reached new highs in 1830, when his father-in-law, Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey, became prime minister. Lambton was appointed to the Privy Council as Lord Privy Seal, which saw him support the drafting of the 1832 Reform Act. A year later, Lambton was made Viscount Lambton and Earl of Durham.

The later 1830s saw Lambton extend his political career to international responsibilities, serving as Ambassador to Russia between 1835 and 1837, and becoming Governor General of Canada in 1838.  It is in this role that he is best remembered, due in large part to his recommendation that Canada introduce a form of responsible government, and that Upper and Lower Canada be unified.

Lambton died in 1840, aged only 48 and was buried in Chester-le-Street. Soon after the Earl’s death, a suggestion was made that a monument be built on nearby Penshaw Hill to commemorate his life, with around £6,000 soon raised for the construction of the Penshaw Monument.

Penshaw Monument Dedication Plaque
The plaque commemorating the 1844 foundation ceremony for Penshaw Monument

Construction

In August 1844, four years after the Earl’s death, construction began on Penshaw Hill. The foundation stone was laid by Thomas Dundas, 2nd Earl of Zetland, a prominent Freemason. Around 400 Freemasons and 10,000 local spectators attended the ceremony.

The construction of the Monument was led by the Sunderland stonemason Thomas Pratt. Measuring 100 feet (30 metres) long, 53 feet (16 metres) wide and 70 feet (20 metres) high, each column is 6 feet and 6 inches (2 metres) in diameter. A spiral staircase is encased within one of the columns, allowing access to a walkway at the top of the Monument.

Penshaw Monument Pillars
Columns of Penshaw Monument

1926 Accidental Death 

On Easter Monday 1926, a teenage boy from Fatfield, Temperley Arthur Scott, was killed after falling from the top of the Monument. Visiting with three friends, Scott went several times around the walkway, eventually falling 70 feet (20 metres) to the ground.

An inquest into the death was held on 7th April, with the Sunderland Echo reporting on the proceedings:

“Hind, and a boy named Mitchell, were sitting down watching Scott and another boy following. Scott, while walking, appeared to stumble forward, witness and Mitchell, who were then sitting in the middle of the peak, thought he had caught his foot on the masonry. Scott was hurrying to reach his companions, when he stumbled and fell, he rolled over once and then disappeared over the edge of the monument.

“It was quite an ordinary thing for people to go to the top at holiday times. There was nothing to prevent a person slipping off the peak and rolling off the end of the monument, and from the worn appearance of the stonework on the top of the peak quite a number of people had crossed from one side to the other. Although not called as a witness, Mr. J. Colpitts, who has the charge of the keys of the monument, informed the Deputy-Coroner that the monument had been erected 82 years and it was the first fatal accident that had occurred.

“In returning a verdict of Accidental Death, Deputy Coroner Boulton said that it was a terrible accident to have occurred and they must have the greatest sympathy with the parents of the boy. He suggested that iron railings with spikes should be put up at the sides to prevent people getting round and if that could not be done then he could only suggest that the place be locked up and the public not admitted.”

As a result, the door leading to the walkway was locked, reopening only in 2011, when the National Trust – custodians of the site since it was donated by John Lambton, 5th Earl of Durham, in 1939 – began public tours from Easter to September each year.

Penshaw Monument Today

The Monument is now known as one of the most famous landmarks of the area, even featured on the club badge of local football team Sunderland A.F.C. A breath-taking example of classically-inspired Victorian architecture, it is a must-see for any history enthusiasts or budding architects passing through the area.

 

Bamburgh Castle

Located right on the very tip of the North East English coast, Bamburgh Castle is one of the UK’s most stunning historic landmarks. Known as the ‘King of Castles’, this dramatic building is perched atop an outcrop of volcanic rock, with sandy dunes below leading to the choppy North Sea.

We visited on an unseasonably warm October afternoon, when the village of Bamburgh was crowded with flocks of half-term tourists. Having recently read Max Adam’s fantastic The King in the North: The Life and Times of Oswald of Northumbria, and a fan of the BBC adaption of The Last Kingdom, both of which feature Bamburgh, it was high time we made a visit for ourselves.

Bamburgh Castle
The view from the dunes

Bamburgh Castle has undergone a number of face lifts in its long and illustrious history. Bamburgh’s recorded history begins in AD547, when it was chosen as the capital of Northumbria, also known as Bernicia, the ancient Anglo Saxon kingdom covering much of southeastern Scotland and North East England. Northumbria was known as one of the most powerful of Anglo Saxon Britain’s seven kingdoms, known for being the site of both fierce battles and some of the most exquisite early Christian works. The stunning Lindisfarne Gospels, one of the most precious artefacts of early medieval Britain, was written at the Holy Island of the same name, only miles offshore from Bamburgh.

Meister_des_Book_of_Lindisfarne_001
The Lindisfarne Gospels

During this period, the kings of Northumbria made Bamburgh their home. Close to the North Sea, the site was in an ideal position for trade and defense, and was known as ‘Din Guayrdi’, from the meaning of ‘Din’ as ‘fortress.’ At this time, Bamburgh Castle as we know it now was likely a wooden fortress.

With the fort destroyed by the Vikings in the late tenth century, the conquering Normans later built their own building on the site. With power seized from the Anglo Saxon earls, the Normans establish Bamburgh as one of many military outposts along the northern border.

For centuries, Bamburgh remained as a vital strategic site for the English monarchy’s battles with the Scots. The castle was refortified on several occasions, with serfs and tenants forced to work on the Castle, or face heavy fines. The famous Great Tower, which stands at the heart of the Castle to this day, was built in 1164, ensuring Bamburgh Castle towered over the surrounding land, beaches and Farne Islands.

The imposing atmosphere remains at Bamburgh, even on a sunny autumnal afternoon. Despite various additions made by Lord Crew in the eighteenth century, and the local industrialist William Armstrong (whose family still own the property) in the nineteenth century, Bamburgh Castle retains a dark, brooding charm. It’s no wonder it’s been chosen as a filming location for Elizabeth, Macbeth and The Last Kingdom, among others.

For any budding historian living or visiting the North East, Bamburgh Castle is a must-see. To take in the full effect of the Castle as a defensive fortress – its original purpose – it’s recommended that you take the short walk across the dunes down to the beach. Look behind you, and you’ll see exactly how intimidating this magnificent castle really can be.