The approach road is black shale and pot-holed – you instantly know this is not a prettified National Trust or English Heritage property. Parked at the end of the long drive is a green Austin bus dating from the 1950s – in dark green with gold lettering, it proudly displays the castle emblem. Inevitably it is a bat. Count Orlok would feel at home here but the castle is more Gormenghast than Transylvania. It is haunted by a variety of not entirely benign characters.
This is Border Reiver country, just fifteen miles south of Scotland, lands which have been fought over for hundreds of years. It is a classic Border stronghold which has been occupied for nearly a millennium. The castle was abandoned in the 1930s and Sir Humphry Wakefield has spent over forty years returning it to its former glories. The castle was the ancestral seat of the Gray family, the Earls of the Tankervilles; Sir Humphry is related by marriage.
The Castle guide is not the glossy over-priced brochure so beloved of the National Trust, but forty-two pages of closely printed text, over-flowing with the history of the Castle and stories about it’s occupants and their possessions, written by Sir Humphry. I have never been good at absorbing facts and figures but some things stand out because I can make a connection, usually automotive – not something to be expected from Chillingham. In the Plaque Room Library there is a portrait of Lord Wakefield of Hythe – Lord Mayor of London in his day, his armorial chairs are in the Great Hall and his medals in the showcase below him. He gave a solid gold coin, marked “Well Hit” to any gunner who shot down a German Zeppelin Balloon as they threatened to destroy London. Wakefield gave famous awards for speed trials, aviation and for the war effort as well as inventing Castrol Oil. He sponsored Campbell’s Bluebird land speed record clocking more than 300mph way back in the 1930s. I take delight in knowing that one of Sir Humphry’s predecessors was directly responsible for creating one of the best smells known to man – Castrol R.
A studied tour could take days – there are nineteen separate rooms open to the public, every one of them overflowing with possessions, accumulated from well-lived lives. Nothing is tied down and security is lax because you are watched over by the Spanish Witch in the Still Room – she casts her spell and curses those who steal from the Castle. Wandering the dimly lit corridors and spiral staircases, it feels like a film set. Not surprisingly it has been used for various minor TV series and the 1998 British biographical period drama, Elizabeth, directed by Shekhar Kapur and starring Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth I of England, with Geoffrey Rush, Christopher Eccleston and Joseph Fiennes. Some of the props remain – the chimney pieces in the Great Hall are made of that well known medieval material, fibreglass. Tap them and they ring hollow – they cover vast Baroque white marble carvings from the huge Wanstead House, a mighty palace built for the Child banking family by the French King, Louis Philippe. I do not think they are suited to the early look of the castle, but future owners may think differently. The chimney pieces from the film first appear in the video at 2 minutes, 35 seconds.
It is the perfect location for any number of horror films and it is perhaps surprising that Hammer Films never thought to call. The torture chamber contains all the necessary props – the iron rack, thumb screws, a wood-block scaffold, an iron maiden, the scold’s bridle, an impaler’s spike; the list goes on and on. It is fitting to end with more words from Sir Humphry – it is difficult to imagine a National Trust or English Heritage guide containing such observations: There are many ways to hurt. All of them so carefully considered by clever men today and yesterday, and constructed by skilled and educated craftsmen. Guantanamo Bay Prison, in Cuba, illustrates those skills currently in action and presents arguments for and against torture used to this day, maybe for the safety of mankind. Does the occasional saving of mass slaughter justify pain to a few with just some of them innocent? The respected Bayer Aspirin Company supplied gasses for the German Concentration Camps but now saves pain for us all. Civilised minds take such different views on all these things.