On a rocky promontory above a river separating England and Scotland, Naworth Castle looks every inch the border stronghold.
The imposing towers, gatehouse and quadrangular courtyard, surrounded by curtain walls up to 8ft thick, must have been a daunting sight for prisoners brought here.
For more than 300 years the Dacre and Howard families dispensed justice as Lord Wardens of the Marches from this stronghold above the River Irthing in the turbulent border country near the Cumbrian town of Brampton.
“Ranulph Dacre was granted a special licence by Edward III in 1335 to crenellate the walls,” said Philip Howard, the present owner, whose ancestors have lived at Naworth since 1560 when Thomas Howard, the 4th Duke of Norfolk, married into the Dacre family. “There’s still the stump of a tree in the grounds where reivers – lawless family gangs for whom raiding and extortion was a way of life – were hanged,” said Philip. “One of my hero ancestors, Lord William Howard is said to have strung up 63 Armstrongs in two years.”
“It’s a shame if historic collections are discarded and estates broken up”
Power politics continued to figure large in the Howard story. Six generations spent time in the Tower of London and two were beheaded, while the castle faced its own trials, including a disastrous fire in 1844.
Grantor Philip bought the property and its 2,000-acre estate in 1994 from his father the 12th Earl of Carlisle, a decorated WW2 war hero, who had faced ruinous losses as a result of being one of the so-called ‘names’ at Lloyds of London.
“To keep the Castle I had to buy it,” said Philip, who has invested a huge amount of money and time to remodel the estate and make it commercially viable for the modern era.
After the death of the 12th Earl in 1994 it was necessary to sell a number of important family heirlooms in lieu of inheritance tax– including fine tapestries and the famous Dacre Beasts (see panel right).
As the custodian of the Castle Philip is determined to restore it to ‘good heart’, reversing a century or more of relative neglect.
In his study is a framed quote from German philosopher Johann Wolfgang Goethe. “That which Thy fathers bequeath thee, earn it anew if thou wouldst possess it”.
Not that he is sentimental about landed estates. “It’s a shame if historic collections are discarded and estates broken up, but if owners can’t look after them they should get out and let somebody else get on with it.”
Naworth is not open to the public, although Philip has been happy to host private tours, as well as visits by schools and charity events. The Castle has also been hired as a wedding and corporate event venue, as well as for films. The courtyard was used for a scene in the 2005 TV mini-series Elizabeth: The Virgin Queen where Latimer and Ridley are burnt at the stake. “I was allowed to play the executioner which was fun,” said Philip.
The property costs £150,000 a year to maintain and well over £2 million is required on future restoration – including repairs to large areas of the roof. A grant from Historic England has recently helped restore the Grade I-listed gatehouse.
There are at least 84 rooms at Naworth, including the Great Hall which stretches for nearly 100ft. Many retain fine decorative features including wood panelling, William Morris patterned wallpapers, tiles and paintings.
Other parts, such as the old Victorian kitchens, are described by Philip as ‘knackered’. Here workmen have stripped back the wood and plaster to the bare stone to remove generations of dry rot. To raise funds for his restoration projects, a key priority has been to maximise the estate’s rent roll.
Philip bought out the numerous small tenant farmers and has split the 1,400 acres of farmland into larger more efficient economic units, which have been relet. He has also gone into the 26 properties on the estate, reroofing them and putting in amenties such as central heating. These are now re-let separately, some as commercial ventures, including B&Bs and a livery.
A flagship project, completed in 2009, was the £1.5 million redevelopment of a former farmstead at Lanercost into three Grade II listed residential cottages, as well as six holiday cottages, a farmhouse that is now a B&B, tea room and shop.
The widespread flooding in Cumbria last year resulted in a 30% decline in booking enquires for the holiday lets, and Philip has decided to convert them for residential purposes.
“I love it here, and not a day goes by when I don’t think how lucky I am”
It’s a tribute to the development that it does not look out of place against the backdrop of the 12th century Lanercost Priory on an adjoining site, now managed by Historic England.
Currently Philip is ploughing his energy into a new venture which he hopes will generate additional income – hosting ‘high end’ weekend parties at the Castle for well-to-do American tourists.
He is in the midst of creating eight bedrooms for his transatlantic guests equipped with luxurous ensuite bathrooms, period decoration and wood burning stoves. The first guests are scheduled to arrive in September.
Despite all the challenges Philip remains remarkably upbeat. “I love it here, and not a day goes by when I don’t think how lucky I am,” he said. “I’m determined not to be the first Howard to sell up after 650 years. It would be wonderful if one of my children were to take it on, and part of my motivation is that I don’t want to bequeath them something that would ruin them.
“But neither would I like them to ruin it!” he adds.
- Vision in white – Like any self-respecting castle Naworth has its ghost. The mysterious white lady is said to the spirit of a local girl seduced by one of the Lord Dacres, who then became pregnant. On discovering his rank and social standing, she realised they could never be together. She threw herself into a stream on his wedding day and drowned, whereupon her mother put a curse on the family. The sounds of a woman sobbing have reportedly been heard in parts of the castle.
- The Dacre Beasts – In 1999 Philip Howard reluctantly sold four remarkable six-foot high carved oak heraldic carvings – known as the Dacre Beasts – to the Victoria & Albert Museum, in lieu of death duties incurred by his late father. The creatures – a bull, gryphon, ram and a crowned salmon – are symbolic of the baronies of Dacre, De Moulton and Greystoke and stood for 400 years in the Great Hall at Naworth. Experts say they were probably made from a single oak felled on the estate to commemorate Thomas Lord Dacre’s part in the victory at Flodden in 1513.
- Hide and seek – Situated behind blind panelling in the private chapel high in one of the towers, Naworth’s priest hole even has its own window. It was built by Lord William Howard, who was a devout catholic.
Pictures courtesy of Roy Kilcullen