Hermitage Castle

My first impression of Hermitage Castle is that you’d have to really want to be there, to be there. Hidden deep in Border Reiver country, you have to go through narrow winding roads that disappear before inexplicably starting again until you pass by a lonely sign telling you to walk across the bridge and the castle would be somewhere over there.  Yep, that way, and a bit to the right. You can’t miss it, mate.

It’s  the most difficult place to find, rivalled only by the location of the bathroom in a stranger’s house party, and isolated in a “no one will hear your screams” kind of way.

Hermitage Castle c13th Century "The Strength of Liddesdale"

Hermitage Castle c13th Century.
“The Strength of Liddesdale”

Once considered as the “guardhouse of the bloodiest valley in Britain,” Hermitage Castle has a history of being owned by distinguished noblemen no one seemed to like or trust, suspected of everything from treason and attempted regicide to witchery.

I’ve never seen a stronghold that reflected its history so much. It’s routinely described as one of the most “sinister and atmospheric”  castles in this country and, according to Radio Scotland, the embodiment of the phrase “sod off” in stone.

"Sod Off"

SO not going in there, dude.

Hermitage stands in the lordship of Liddesdale, held by the de Soules family in the 12th century. The first lord held the prestigious position of butler at the court of David I and the family moved to Hermitage after the second lord, Ranulf “the wicked Lord Soules”, was murdered in 1207 by his servants in nearby Liddel.

WP_002789 (2)

Castle Court and Zombie Apocalypse Refuge Centre

Because of its strategic location in the Middle March, Liddesdale was a sought after place during the Wars of Independence in 1296. Hermitage quickly fell into English hands, and so started the dispute of its ownership between the de Soules and their English enemies. But that’s not enough drama, so in 1320 William de Soules was accused of plotting to kill King Robert the Bruce and was sentenced to perpetual imprisonment, forfeiting his lands and titles to the crown.

In 1338, Sir William Douglas, “Knight of Liddesdale”, seized Hermitage and was described by the monks of Durham as “not so much valiant as malevolent.” He was a skilled knight and captured many castles for Scotland. His vaunted malevolence showed itself when his rival and compatriot, Sir Alexander Ramsey, started to become more liked by the king after Ramsay recaptured Roxburgh Castle in 1342, and the king took the office of Constable and Sheriff of Roxburgh from Douglas to bestow it upon Ramsey.


In a hissy fit, Douglas led a large force of men to Hawick, where Ramsey was holding court, seized Ramsey and tied him to a mule to take him to Hermitage. Here, Ramsey was imprisoned in the dungeon and starved to death, lingering for up to 17 days without food and water. His body is believed to have been found in the 1800s, when a mason broke down the walls and came upon a sealed dungeon, where a skeleton laid over a rusty sword.

cc060e91-8d10-4deb-beb9-551c1358cef2 (1)

By 1346, Sir William Douglas was captured in the Battle of Neville’s Cross and imprisoned in the Tower of London, where he agreed with his captors not to impede English armies marching through Liddesdale if they let him keep Hermitage. Unfortunately, the Scottish King David II knew of the pact and gave Hermitage to his godson and namesake, who was already Lord Douglas (and future Earl of Douglas). Lord Douglas killed the Knight of Liddesdale in 1353, during a confrontation in the Ettrick Forest.

Eventually, Hermitage passed to Lord Douglas’s illegitimate son,  George, the Earl of Angus, and this guy built the corner towers we see today. Maybe it was like doing superficial renovations to a house before selling, because during James IV’s reign, the 5th Earl was involved in some intrigues with the English, and the castle was given to the Bothwells, who later also proved untrustworthy when the 3rd earl, Patrick, made a deal with the English that he’d hand over Hermitage in exchange for marriage to a princess. He didn’t marry a princess, but his son James, the 4th Earl of Bothwell, married Mary, Queen of Scots.

James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell (1534-1578)

James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell

No one liked this guy either. Sure, it didn’t help that he was a prat, but to be honest, by now any Hermitage owner could spend half his fortune to give away food to the poor and people would just mutter, “Bloody show off. Typical, if you ask me–which you didn’t, but what a slimey toff!”

Jimmy here bore the brunt of trouble with the borderers. In particular, there was this encounter in 1566 with famous reiver Little Jock Elliot who could care less that Bothwell was an earl. Elliot was so famous there’s a ballad about him that highlights his “screw you” attitude.  The refrain goes, “My name is Little Jock Elliot, and wha daur meddle wi’ me!” Bothwell might not have understood Elliot’s accent or why this cattle lifter was singing during battle, but when the earl returned to Hermitage injured and barely hanging onto life, only to discover he couldn’t get inside the castle because the Elliot clan had taken it over while he was away, we can assume he got the message.

So did his future third wife, Mary Queen of Scots, who in the middle of her annual progress (tour), heard of her rumored beau’s injured state and rode the 25 miles of difficult terrain to be with him. She only stayed a couple hours to quell the gossips and protect her reputation, but on the way back to Jedburgh , her horse stumbled on a bog and she contracted pneumonia which nearly killed her. Fortunately, she recovered from the illness so she can attend her beheading about a decade after Bothwell went insane and died in a Danish dungeon.

Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587)

Mary, Queen of Scots

So, clearly, the borderers won this round, and the last family to own Hermitage was headed by the “Bold Buccleuch” and notorious reiver, Sir Walter Scott, a descendant of whom was the writer of the same name whose historical novels revived interest in medieval Scotland. So much so that in the early 19th century, the  5th Duke of Buccleuch, Walter Montagu Douglas Scott made certain that Hermitage Castle was preserved so it could still creep people out even after the property went into public ownership in 1939.










The Ladies of Llangollen

I wasn’t so sure about Wales. I’ve been there a total of once in my life before this trip, and from what I remember, all things were written in Welsh and then English, but everyone talked with a Northern accent. So you walk around feeling like you’re in the middle of a weird documentary about remembering one of your past lives. Only… in this particular lifetime, you were the village idiot and you can’t pronounce place names so you ask everyone to just meet you near the local Tesco. It’s like you’re in a foreign country where everything seems vaguely familiar.

It’s only “down the road” from Chester, yet driving past the sign welcoming you to Wales is accompanied by a sense of achievement that you got this far and as a reward, great events now await to redefine your life. Still, the voice in my head says I should trust this reassuring feeling as much as I would the statement “We’ll be welcomed as liberators.”  So, when I found out the exotic-sounding Welsh Rarebit is essentially cheese on toast, I have only myself to blame for ignoring the voice in my head as I bite into the delicacy that tasted a lot like disappointment.

welcome to Wales

But, it’s Welsh cheese on toast, see?

I wonder if things felt as peculiarly adventurous to the aristocratic ladies, Lady Eleanor Butler (1739-1829) and the Hon. Sarah Ponsonby (1775-1831), when they arrived in the Welsh town of Llangollen to start their life together after eloping from Ireland, scandalizing their prominent families and 18th century society.

The Ladies of Llangollen, Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby

The Ladies of Llangollen,
Lady Eleanor Butler and the Hon. Sarah Ponsonby

Eleanor was 39 and Sarah was 23 when they eloped. Their first attempt wasn’t successful, but they eventually managed to escape unwanted advances from guardians, forced marriages and the prospect of a life in a convent.

They had to rely on the allowance given to them by family members, but they were free to live their lives as they pleased. And what they pleased was to live in a house in the country, so that’s what they did. If they’d been men, they’d probably have just made the requisite improvements to their new pad and spent their days hunting, but these were ladies, so of course they transformed the cottage up on the hill into an architectural marvel, renamed it Plas Newydd (New Hall) and did some gardening.

Plas Newydd (New Hall)

Plas Newydd


View from Lady Eleanor’s Bower

Then as now, people were fascinated by their lifestyle. History books and contemporary accounts invariably describe their lifestyle as “eccentric,” and speculated on the nature of their relationship. They called each other “My Beloved” and “My Better Half”, habitually wore men’s clothing, had short hair and slept in the same bed. It wasn’t uncommon for people during that time to have “romantic friendships,” so no one can tell with absolute certainty if they had a sexual relationship or not, and this seems to be the main draw for people visiting them.

Quote from the Ladies' Journals posted at the garden's gates.

Quote from the Ladies’ Journals posted at the garden’s gates.

They were accepted in the village and were referred to as “the ladies,” but pretty soon they had celebrity status all over Britain. People such as Wordsworth, Byron, Lady Caroline Lamb, Percy Shelley, Sir Walter Scott, the Duke of Wellington, Anna Seward, and even the royal family became friends and visitors. They entertained daily, showing off their house and their devotion to each other. It wasn’t until last week, however, that they would have been able to say they had the great honor of having me there.

The pleasure is yours.

The pleasure is yours, Ladies.

Having servants, fine wines, loads of books and constant house remodelling meant they were often in debt to maintain their lifestyle, which, to me, is a more “eccentric” aspect of their lives than whether or not they had sex with each other. Most of us (even some priests) have sex at some point in our lives, but these ladies had an allowance of £300 a year (more than most people could expect to have during that time) and still they managed to get into debt. It’s a common theme in aristocratic families, and considering these were the people who were expected to reign over the masses, you’d think the least they could do is learn to balance the books.

Sarah and Eleanor spent the rest of their lives together in Plas Newydd. They never did learn to budget during their more than 50 years together. The house is now run by the Denbighshire County Council, and people still go here to learn about them and be inspired because, whether they were in a lesbian relationship or not, it’s clear that these women managed to defy social convention and live their lives in a manner that few others in their lifetime could have imagined possible.









St. Michael’s Mount

It could have been a dragon’s lair. At the very least, it should have been the headquarters of a company owned by an evil gazillionaire genius who tries to avoid dealing with his daddy issues by screwing with the world.


St. Michael’s Mount, Low Tide.

St. Michael's Mount, High Tide

St. Michael’s Mount, High Tide

But this was Cornwall, so the legend surrounding this castle/priory/country home situated on a tidal island off the town of Marazion, needed to threaten elements close to the Cornish heart, if the story were to have any impact on the population.

When I found out that the resident mythical being preying on the village’s sheep was a giant, I admit to being a little disappointed. Dragons and evil geniuses meant dramatic fight scenes and maybe a heart-wrenching back story, but a mutton-loving giant called Cormaron? It couldn’t have been more trite if the hero was called David. Unless he was called Jack. And he was. Considering the pattern of stories involving giants and boys named Jack, Cormaron didn’t stand a chance.

Sure enough, the poor sod was dead two paragraphs into the story, when he fell into a pit that Jack was able to dig without waking him up. Perhaps Jack had a magic shovel instead of beans, but we just don’t know and there’s no explanation why no one thought of digging up a pit before, and it’s even more impossible to find someone who cares to find out. Considering that the brilliant writer/journalist Edward St. Aubyn is part of the family that still lives in this National Trust-managed property, I somehow expected a more captivating tale than the half-baked one about Jack the Giant Killer.


The buildings date back to the 12th Century, making me wish for a conical head dress.

St. Michael’s Mount was occupied by Perkin Warbeck  in 1497, and owned by Sir Robert Cecil during Elizabeth I’s reign. It was where the first beacon to warn of the Spanish Armada’s approach in 1588 was lit, but since all that achieved was give Sir Francis Drake enough time to finish his game of bowls, it’s not really enough of a history highlight to take the focus away from the screwed up St. Aubyn family, who have owned and occupied it since 1659.

Edward St. Aubyn

Edward St. Aubyn
(Has Daddy Issues)

Another Edward St. Aubyn (1799-1872) was a “Sir” in the nineteenth century, and is the ancestor of the Barons St. Levan of St. Michael’s Mount.  Although Sir Edward wasn’t repeatedly raped by his father or became a heroin addict like his journalist/writer descendant,  he did become a baronet in his own right because he was illegitimate and couldn’t inherit his father’s title.

Sir Edward’s father, Sir John (5th and last Baronet St. Aubyn of the first creation), is one of the most distinguished members of the St. Aubyn family. He had a keen interest in science and the arts. Having ascended to the title by the age of 14, he served as High Sheriff of Cornwall at age 23. He was a well-known fossil collector and constant patron of the painter John Opie. Sir John was a fellow of the Royal Society, the Linnean Society, Society of Antiquarians, the Geological Society of London, the Society of Arts, was a Member of Parliament and a Grandmaster of the Freemasons.

He was smart, rich and cloaked with a sensitive aura evidenced by his appreciation of the arts and his eclectic taste in women. He had 13 (acknowledged) illegitimate children from the two women he lived with (5 children born to a woman from an old, respected Cornish family named Martha and the others–including Sir Edward–were from the woman Sir John eventually married in 1822, who was a blacksmith’s daughter named Juliana). He died without a legitimate heir, since the only child (his 14th kid) who was born after his marriage in 1822 was a girl. Considering that this was only 6 years before Sir Edward’s own marriage and Sir John was 63 and his wife 53 at the time, this was no mean feat.

It’s quite impressive, actually, but also confusing. What would have been the point of marriage at that late date?  If he intended to marry her all along, why didn’t he do it sooner so that his children could inherit without problems? Was he just unconventional or was he a brilliant but self-indulgent arse? Strangely enough, it’s the same questions people ask about the journalist/writer Edward St. Aubyn.

Sir John St. Aubyn, 5th Baronet 1758-1839

Sir John St. Aubyn, 5th Baronet

Maybe the giant Cormaron had it easy, after all, with his simple pleasure of feeding on sheep. Freed from the worries of poverty and survival, the St. Aubyns seemed to start worrying about everything else, heaping problems upon problems on each others’ lives. Having too many options can be just as daunting as having none at all. St. Michael’s Mount is a beautiful property, but I guess growing up in a place like that, with the remains of ancestors’ lives and expectations in every corner, makes it difficult for a person to appreciate the magnificent coastal view that it offers. Instead of waking up everyday grateful for the inspiring sight of the ocean, you see nothing but the glare from the crashing waves that surround you.

Still, you’d be able to have anything you want for breakfast. Anything at all–it’s your stomach, just be brave enough to make a decision and stand by it.









Dunstaffnage Castle

It’s as difficult to find as it is to spell, but its location made it an ideal prison for the Jacobite heroine, Flora MacDonald.

Flora MacDonald 1722-1790

Flora MacDonald

Flora helped the incompetent halfwit Bonnie Prince Charlie to flee back to France where he came from after his defeat at the Battle of Culloden. Disguised as Flora’s maid, “Betty Burke,” the Young Pretender managed to escape, but because he was so lousy at his disguise (lifting his skirt high enough to expose his gender when crossing a river, etc), Flora was arrested on her way back home. Her imprisonment in Dunstaffnage defines its role in Scottish history. It’s a place associated with Scottish royalty, who were always either at war with the English or with other Scottish nobles.

Situated on a platform of conglomerate rock and surrounded by the sea on three sides, Dunstaffnage Castle is one of the oldest stone castles in Scotland (dating back to the 13th century), and it’s unique because it has a history of being run and occupied almost exclusively by middle management.

Dunstaffnage Castle

Dunstaffnage Castle

The first clue that the castle’s owners are not the “hands-on” type of boss is its half-arsed welcome sign, located near a nondescript parking lot that leads to a path which takes you to the castle.

Blink and you miss it.

That’ll teach you to delegate.

It’s a historically strategic spot, but it hasn’t been a family’s principal seat since Robert the Bruce took it from the clan MacDougall during the Battle of the Pass of Brander in 1308, so ownership of the castle went to the crown during the Wars of Scottish Independence. A hereditary Keeper (from clan Macarthur) was left in charge of it, a post which must not have been easy, because during this tumultuous time the crown had an on-again-off-again relationship with England, made complicated by a third party called “Other Scottish Nobles,” who regularly flirted with both Scottish and English Monarchy.

As a royal stronghold, this ever-changing relationship status with England must have been hell for the castle staff. They never knew whether they were going to be served Spotted Dick or Haggis at meal times. And then the hereditary Keeper ran out of male heirs, and control of the castle passed on to that Keeper’s daughters, both of whom married into the Stewarts of Lorn. To add anxiety to the staff’s confusion, the MacDougalls never ceased trying to regain their stronghold. At one point they attacked a Stewart Keeper, John, while he was on his way to marry his pregnant mistress to make the child legitimate. He managed to make it to Dunstaffnage chapel, living just long enough to recite his wedding vows. John had a younger brother, Walter, but with the child’s legitimacy in question, no one knew who was in charge. The child had the locals’ support, and the disputes lasted six years, until Walter decided to bail.

No wonder the whole thing’s now a ruins.

Inside the ruins

Inside the ruins


In 1470, ownership went to Colin Campbell, 1st Earl of Argyll, who was married to a daughter of the last Stewart Keeper, the murdered John. Colin never stayed here, but he appointed a cousin as hereditary Captain to oversee the castle as it was used as a base for government expeditions.

It stayed in the Campbell family until 1958, when it was handed over to Historic Scotland, who tries its best to recreate the castle inhabitants’ pervading sense of bewilderment by hiring people who go on extended lunch breaks, leaving visitors with no one who could accept their entrance fee payment.

If you’re lucky (like us), you could end up going there for free, and you will leave feeling like you had the authentic “castle history experience” , when you go back to your car with a sense that you were part of something that occurred that just wasn’t right.






Hoar Cross Hall

There is nothing new about royal affairs.

It’s easy to be riveted by titillating details of an affair when staying at a place connected with someone who had extramarital relations with a future King. But we have to ask ourselves if this fact is really anything of import in the grand scheme of things–did it change the course of history? Is there more to what happened than just broken hearts and stained sheets?

Not these sheets, thankfully.

Not these sheets, thankfully.

Hoar Cross Hall Ex-Tory seat, now a hotel and spa.

Hoar Cross Hall
Now a hotel and spa!

The real scandal is not that there was a royal indulging in sexual relations outside of marriage with a woman who was part of the Ingram family (headed by the Viscount of Irvine) that owned Hoar Cross Hall, but that society expected this girl who married a man seventeen years her senior when she was just 16, to be faithful. Or, how about the fact that she is mostly blamed as the reason her lover, the future King George IV (1762-1830), turned Tory and abandoned his Whig friends, like Charles James Fox, during such a time when Catholic emancipation was being debated at Parliament, and yet it’s almost impossible to find quotes from her so we can hear her side of the story?

The Prince.

I just can’t get enough. Of everything, really.

It’s like we’re taking it for granted that this woman who had the Prince of Wales’ ear had nothing going for her but sex sex sex, so let’s focus on the fact that contemporaries described her as handsome, tall and elegant (if a little portly), and never mind what she has to say.  That, surely, is the real scandal here, and is worth a blog post more than any details of a married prince’s sex life.

Anyway, so the Prince Regent apparently liked big butts, because he was with Isabella Ingram-Seymour-Conway,  Marchioness of Hertford, from 1807 to 1819. They most likely met through Isabella’s husband, Francis (1743-1822), who noticed the Prince was smitten with his wife and sent her to Ireland to give the man’s ardor some time to cool.

(Bad) Dramatization of Affair.

(Bad) Dramatization of Affair.

We can only imagine what heated dreams the Prince of Wales had to get him through the nights. And man, would we like to imagine them, because his “love” showed no signs of abating, and soon enough he was a regular guest at Manchester House (family’s London home and Tory headquarters). He gave her lavish gifts like Chinese wallpapers and the Moses Tapestries, and slept over on several occasions, even when the marquess was in residence.

The lady had a crowded marriage.

All the (not so) single ladies…

I don’t think Lady Hertford’s affair was solely to blame for the failure of passing any bills regarding Catholic Emancipation during the Regency. The lady was against it, for sure (unlike her husband), but it’s a bit of a leap to lay the failure on one Tory woman’s vagina. If we do that, we’re forgetting that around the Prince were many powerful people who had their own ambitions, interests and prejudices.

Anyway, they never took their affair to Hoar Cross Hall, though they should have. Because if not for this affair, the only thing that makes the place’s history interesting is that it was home to a man who is considered to be the father of modern fox hunting. Now, would you like to hear about that? I don’t.









Hampton Court

I thought I’d go all techno savvy and start my research for Hampton Court by checking out what people say about it on Twitter. I was expecting to read things like, “Spending the day with the kids at Hampton Court. Henry VIII was fat.” or “Chills down my spine at Hampton Court’s Haunted Gallery. Hang in there, @CatherineHoward! #beheading”

Those comments wouldn’t have any info I didn’t know already, but it would have given me an insight to what people thought of the place. Instead, I get hit with tweets like these:

“Hampton Court! HoooOOooOOooo!”


“I spent a cute day at Hampton Court!”

I was looking for information and I got it: these guys and I should NEVER hang out. I had no idea what they were talking about! I imagine the first tweet is some kind of code that is not worth breaking, and what is a cute day? Was the sun wearing shades? Were there puppies and kittens running around the palace? Was it fluffy?



The palace is most associated with Henry VIII of England, who visited the place when his right-hand man Cardinal Wolsey owned it and in true Henry VIII style, he figured he’d have it for himself. This guy was not kidding around. Just ask his wives. Well, those who still had their heads attached to their necks.  No alimony for the Larry King of Renaissance England. He’d have fit right in today’s dog-eat-dog world.

He'd have EVERYTHING for himself, because screw you.

I’ll have EVERYTHING I want, because screw you. I’m fluffy.

This wife-murdering king wanted sons to continue his line and silence the Plantagenets who’d been biding their time since the Wars of the Roses to take over once more. The fact that Henry VIII had six wives is not really historically significant, but how he achieved this feat is. Henry led England’s break from Rome during the Reformation–a government program that really took off because, as in all successful government programs, those in charge had lots to gain from it. It swept through England in a wave of new found patriotism. The British didn’t have to throw money and swear fealty to a corrupt Church to save their souls any more. Instead, they’d have to throw their money at a corrupt king. How their nationalistic hearts must have swelled with joy.

It is said that when Henry VIII died, his coffin burst open and dogs lapped at his blood. Because that’s what you get for being such a git. But as hard as it is to believe, Hampton Court represents something bigger than the larger than life (fat), ulcerous lecher who followed convention by having extra marital affairs because no self-respecting king would be expected to have sex with just his wife for the rest of his life. Never mind that this dude had six wives and 2 of them didn’t retain custody of their heads in the divorce proceedings. A king’s supposed to be a playa’!

The palace is divided into 2 parts: One represents the reign of the Tudor dynasty, and the other the reign of King William III and Mary II. The part that Parliament played during these two eras helped shape the country as we know it today.

“Really, Ivory? How’s that?”

I’ll tell you. Don’t interrupt.

During the Tudors, the King controlled Parliament–there can be no session until the King (or Queen) calls it. By the time of William III and Mary II, you can’t be King of Anything unless Parliament says you can. As with most things, it had to do with religion.

The notion of having a personal choice for what “spirit in the sky” to blame and pray to for all the stuff you get in life, then peacefully agreeing to disagree with other people so as not to seem racist, is something we still haven’t mastered today. Except back then, instead of merely starting wars, you also have the personal risk of getting a good burning at the stake in a morbid version of a state bbq. There were no two ways about it–England needed to be free. Of all Catholics. Including the Stuart King, James II. Stories involving fake heirs and bed pans were circulated and the King was effectively fired from rule during the hip-sounding event known as the Glorious Revolution. It is “glorious,” so don’t be a spoilsport and point out that England now has a foreign king with a foreign agenda.

William III and Mary II's side of Hampton Court.

William III and Mary II’s side of Hampton Court.

Mary II is James II’s daughter, and when Parliament decided Catholicism is out, it solicited the help of Mary’s husband, William of Orange. Since it was Mary who had the claim to the throne, William was willing to go Dutch (haha) and so started England’s first and only affair with a dual monarchy. In truth, Mary had very little say in decisions that did not involve color schemes for the bedroom and kitchens. Parliament thought this would be fine since the heir, once born, would have legitimate claim to the throne and meanwhile the country will be protected by a great military leader as intent on Protestantism as Parliament is. This plan went to the dumps when Mary died less than five years after coronation and William himself died in 1702, after his horse tripped on a molehill. Glorious.

The Great Hall at Hampton Court.

The Great Hall at Hampton Court.

hampton court great hall ivory

I’m not an active Catholic, can I sit on the throne? No.

This is probably why even though law books in the UK have nothing stating the separation of church and state (in fact, technically those two are one and the same), you wouldn’t see so many people going mental when laws like gay marriage are passed. The country seems to have had enough with tossing off policies in the name of religion. What is the point of killing each other for something no one is sure about because no one can prove/disprove it? Is there really a need to die in order to prove you’re right?

I mean, seriously, doesn’t an act like that just prove the opposite of right? I’m still not sure what a “cute day” is, but I’m pretty certain it doesn’t involve this.







Lowther Castle

I fell in love last weekend.

I was in Tesco, regretting buying a pork pie and browsing brochures when the one for Lowther Castle and Gardens hit me with this:

“There are no ‘keep off the grass’ rules here… we want you to explore, follow your nose, take away your own memories… We shan’t be rewinding the clock, restoring to what might have been. Lowther is made of many layers and that’s the challenge. Finding new layers for Lowther to reinvent its future.

I gotta hand it to them. I was SO there, as sold as the pork pie I ate and still trying to block from my memory like a shameful one night stand.

My castle is your castle.

My castle is your castle. Literally.

Anyway, I think I’ll put the bathroom over here…I’m sorry, what? Entry is £8? I see. So, not literally my castle then. Thank goodness I didn’t go there hauling tiles or it would’ve been awkward. That wouldn’t have impressed my new love.

The castle’s romantic ruins is still part of the Lowther Estate, owned by the Earl of Lonsdale. Obviously, he doesn’t live here any more, but why is he giving visitors free rein? Why leave the management of the grounds to an independent charity that lets commoners do things like this?



The Lowthers are a very rich family, like, “actually-owned-the-town-of-Whitehaven” kind of rich. Their family tree can be traced right to the time of Henry II (12th century), and from the time of Edward I (1239-1307), each successive head of the family in the medieval times was knighted.

Unlike their political rivals from Hutton Hall, however,  the Lowthers allow people to ramble through the thousands of acres that comprise their estate for free (just close the gates and keep dogs on leads so they do not scare the sheep), and they do not hide their dirty laundry. There’s a possibly necrophiliac ancestor. Another one would put Michael Jackson’s shopping habits to shame, and yet another who hated the castle and all it stood for so much that only petitions from the townspeople stopped him from demolishing it.

Now, that’s what I call “layers.”

And it’s haunted!

The restless soul is purported to be the 1st Earl of Lonsdale, Sir James Lowther. And no wonder–this man was bullied as a child and grew up to be known as “Wicked Jimmy”, “The Bad Earl”, “Jemmy Grasp-all, Earl of Toadstools”  and according to Alexander Carlyle, “A madman too influential to lock up.”

"Wicked Jimmy" 1736-1802

“Wicked Jimmy”

I guess some people just give off bad vibes. That can’t be helped if just part of your inheritance is worth more than £2 million and you control 9 Parliamentary boroughs in the Northwest (the Lowther “Ninepins”), but you leave an employee like Wordsworth’s dad to die while owing him £5000 in wages.

If this happened today, I’m sure his PR advisers would be able to put some positive spin on this with some photo-ops at an orphanage or making him a patron of some charity that has a mission of saving cats from tall trees. When he fell in love with the daughter of one of his tenants, made her his mistress and kept her in high luxury for the rest of her life, they could’ve been the century’s Wills and Kate. But this was the 1700s, and Britain had an equally loony king in the form of George III. When the earl’s mistress died, he wasn’t given a pamphlet entitled “How to Move On: The Art of Letting Go.” Instead, he went from being “wicked” to just plain “weird.”

He couldn’t accept that she was dead, and his servants weren’t allowed to point out this fact when he kept her body, dressing her himself and propping her on the dinner table and kept her lying in bed until the putrefaction became unbearable. Then she remained in a glass coffin for 7 weeks before finally being buried. No word on what her family thought of this.

Hard to believe he’s not the most (in)famous Earl of Lonsdale. No, that would be Hugh, the 5th Earl. Known as “Lordy” or the “Yellow Earl,” he was a second son who never expected to inherit and so joined the travelling circus. No, really.

The Yellow Earl 1857-1944

The Yellow Earl

When he inherited the earldom, he was like a lottery winner who couldn’t handle the “success.” He had scandalous affairs with actresses like Lillie Langtry, who’d also been mistress to Edward VII. Queen Victoria told the earl he must leave the country until the scandal died down. He went to the Arctic in an expedition so gruelling over 100 guides died,  gave the Lonsdale Belt to boxing, built a hot-house to grow the yellow gardenias for his button hole, had the Lowther coat of arms reproduced every day in the stable yard with colored chalk and freshly laid sand, and he also extended the estate (flattening 20 farms in the process). But there was still some money left, so he bought cars.

Many cars.

Many cars.

He founded the Automobile Association , so we can thank him for the indecipherable route finder maps that have caused countless arguments between couples on a road trip. He lived a long life and kept spending without making money, and it makes one wonder.  In the words of the band Cake,  “How do you afford your rock n’ roll lifestyle?”

The answer, of course, was he couldn’t. He died with millions of pounds in debt which was shouldered by the 7th Earl, a D-Day veteran who was a successful businessman and engineer before he inherited the Lowther estates from his grandfather, the 6th Earl.

James Lowther, 7th Earl of Lonsdale and the key to my heart.

James Lowther, 7th Earl of Lonsdale,  1st of my heart.

Maybe fighting along peasants in the war opened his gorgeous eyes, because when he came home, he made his contempt for the castle known:

“it was a place that exemplified gross imperial decadence during a period of abject poverty”.

He  offered the castle as a gift to 3 local authorities but they all turned it down. He would have completely demolished it, but the townspeople petitioned him not to. So he removed the roof and some smaller wings, but left the silhouette intact as a romantic ruins. He didn’t forget the tenants–for some years the front courtyard was used as a pig pen, part of the gardens was used as a chicken farm and the rest were planted with timber. He had a passion for land, and he was an avid conservationist–he led the battle to prevent Ullswater from becoming a reservoir for Manchester and later he became one of the main supporters for preserving the Lake District.

He's the reason I can do things like this.

He’s the reason I can do things like this.

He died in 2006, forever depriving the world of his sexy hotness. If ghosts are real and there is one haunting the castle, it wouldn’t be his. For those interested in numbers, The Sunday Times Rich List stated his net worth was around £80 million, and he is quoted as saying  that he anticipated his death would result in a payment of

“somewhere between £3 million and £5 million to the Treasury because it’s high time society had its chunk.”

Well, he won’t get any argument from me on that one.










I’ll start with a conclusion: we paid £9, and our tour guide hid something from us.

My awareness of this fact came at the end of a journey through one of the estates purported to be the house of the Green Knight from Arthurian legend.


The Green Knight’s “Castle of Hutton” in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a 14th Century romantic poem.


In the poem, Sir Gawain rode “into a deep forest that was wonderfully wild.”

Now, I understand bad family history does not need to be dredged up over and over. Guests invited to the family reunion don’t want to hear about how Gran fell out with her mother again. It’ll make people feel awkward, they’ll be obligated to take sides and it will only cause a row. But the guests only feel that way because what happened between Gran and her mom does not affect them. If it’s revealed that Gran fell out with her mother over how to properly dispose of a live bomb that’s sitting in the attic, I doubt anyone would say, “Gran, will you stop talking about the possibility of a bomb exploding in the attic? It makes people feel awkward. Now, please can we just sit down and have a good time until it detonates and blows us all into smithereens?”

Yet, by not acknowledging even the existence of bad blood, this was essentially what our tour guide wanted us to do. Sure, it’s amusing to speculate whether or not the enigmatic Green Knight was a good guy, considering he sent his wife to seduce Sir Gawain just to “test” him. And yes, I’m glad to be informed the owner’s ancestor was a younger brother to Parliamentarian leader Sir Henry Vane the Younger, who fell out with Oliver Cromwell and was beheaded during The Restoration because Charles II considered him “too dangerous a man to let live.”

Sir Henry Vane the Younger (1613-1662) Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Sir Henry Vane the Younger (1613-1662) Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

But when the house’s current owner is Lord Inglewood, and the barony is so named because the baron’s ancestors ruled in the second largest royal forest in England that covered most of mid-Cumberland, the question of legitimacy becomes everyone’s concern. And by “everyone,” I mean those families living in the villages deep in the Royal Forest of Inglewood, at the onset of the Highland clearances just a few miles up north. Those people trying to pretend they weren’t there because living there was illegal. The ones whose lives depended on the clemency of whoever is leading the Fletcher-Vane family in Hutton. Those who feared the mantraps spread on the estate, yet braves it out in a bid to prevent death by starvation, poaching the deer these nobles loved to hunt and mount on their walls.

If it was a matter of life and death, yes, I would like to know if the gentleman deciding my fate actually had the right to make such a decision. So, anyway, the bad blood starts here:

Sir Frederick Fletcher Vane, 2nd Baronet (1760-1832). Photo unavailable.

Sir Frederick Fletcher Vane, 2nd Baronet of Hutton and Armathwaite Hall (1760-1832)

There is a portrait of him in Hutton’s website and guidebook, where he is succinctly described as a “colourful, if not disagreeable” character. When our tour guide pointed to his portrait in the house, gave us the same description, and then hastily moved on without elaborating, it was clear something was off. Immediately, I made a mental note to look this up as soon as I got home, right after I finish playing a game called “Where is that smell coming from?” with the back of our fridge. Like the unfinished and forgotten takeaway from a long-ago Friday night I found behind the yoghurt, Sir Frederick Fletcher Vane’s story only stinks because everyone in the house pretends it’s not there.

So, this guy was apparently a lazy and corrupt representative of Carlisle who was hardly ever in Parliament. Okay, that won’t raise eyebrows–he was an MP, so he was required to be those things. But he wasn’t supposed to marry his mistress.

On the 9th of March 1797, Sir Frederick married Miss Hannah Bowerbank, who demanded he finally fulfil his oft-repeated promise to do so. Distraught and heavily pregnant with their third child at the time, she threatens to take the children and leave him if he reneges once more. Ever the gentleman, he produces a special license and tells a surprised Hannah to get ready because they would marry the next day. The news shocks Hannah. She starts experiencing what looked like labour pains. Time slows, and everyone is guilty of overacting as they anxiously stare at each other. The credits run and a rousing theme tune plays to signal the beginning of our costume drama series’ pilot episode.

BorderTV presents: The Bastard of Hutton Hall.

BorderTV presents: The Bastard of Hutton Hall.

The next scene opens in a courtroom in the year of our Lord 1876. A wig-wearing judge strides in, then sits in a no-nonsense fashion as he sends a warning glare to the crowd in a wordless reminder to be silent, while the clerk utters the first line.

“All rise!”

Our main character, Sir Henry Ralph Vane, stands while the clerk drones on about the proceedings. Visibly struggling for dignity, Sir Henry’s pained gaze shifts to his accuser, his own dear Uncle Fred. He is claiming to be the rightful heir to Hutton Hall estate, which Sir Henry inherited at the age of 12 when his father, Sir Francis, died.

Uncle Fred’s claim rests solely on proving that the late Sir Francis was born out of wedlock. If Sir Henry’s father was illegitimate, Uncle Fred would be the oldest legitimate son of Henry’s grandfather, the late, “colourful” Sir Frederick Fletcher Vane. There’s no doubt of Uncle Fred’s legitimacy–he was born several years after his father finally deigned to marry Hannah Bowerbank, who at the time was pregnant with Henry’s father. The emotional Hannah exhibited signs of oncoming labour and Sir Frederick married her the same day.

Although Sir Francis was raised as heir apparent, there had always been rumours of his alleged bastardy. In the official documents, it’s stated Sir Francis was born almost four weeks after the marriage, but the date of birth on the certificate was written in a different-coloured ink to the rest of the document, leaving the possibility that it had been tampered with. Witnesses were called and cross-examined, but just as the audience began to lose interest, Uncle Fred suddenly concedes that he was in the wrong and apologises for all the inconvenience this whole debacle caused.

The costume drama is then abruptly cancelled. Sir Henry retains ownership of the estate, plants topiaries and remains childless but through him, Hutton eventually passes to his heir, the current Lord Inglewood’s father. No one hears of Uncle Fred ever again. What happened to him, and the reasons for his sudden recantation, no one knows. The story is not mentioned in any of the official merchandise, or brought up in the tour of the house.

It stinks, and no one acknowledges the stench. I feel cheated, especially when I think how much places like this charge for tea. But I console myself with the knowledge that, in our ignorance regarding the rest of Sir Frederick’s tale, at least, we and our tour guide remain equal.












Alnwick Castle

Upon entering Alnwick Castle, I wasn’t thinking how popular a choice it is for filming locations even before it became Hogwarts in the Harry Potter movies, or that it’s one of the top 10 most visited stately homes in England and welcomes around 800,000 visitors a year. Like many people, I entered the cobbled courtyard that housed the principal rooms looking a little dazed and conflicted.

There’s nothing particularly bewildering about Alnwick Castle’s layout, even if it’s one of the oldest castles to never have a square keep. No, our strange expression was caused by an experience we all shared immediately before being granted access to what has been the Percy family’s principal seat for over 700 years.

Entrance is £14.50

Entrance is £14.50, and that’d be £26.25 each if you also want to see the garden. Enjoy!

Well, thanks a bunch, Your Grace. Being the Duke of Northumberland, you’re probably strapped for cash and after all, “we are all in this together.” Poor thing, it must be dreadful living in the country’s biggest inhabited castle save for Windsor and being one of the major landowners in England. Maybe that’s why castle visitors only have access to the one restroom? Of course I’m willing to pay to see some of your priceless collection of art. At least it’s cheaper than Warwick Castle. No, Alnwick doesn’t have knights jousting or the world’s largest trebuchet, but it’s just as historical and it really is my pleasure.

The castle is the birthplace of the brave but kinda dim teenage knight Henry “Hotspur” Percy (20 May 1364 – 21 July 1403), who was immortalized in Shakespeare’s Henry IV. It also houses 3 museums and in one of them I saw Elizabeth I’s bespoke gloves (proving she had elegant and long, tapered fingers) and Oliver Cromwell’s nightcap showing the man had not only the famed “warts and all” but also an unusually tiny head.

For his speed and readiness to attack, they called him Hotspur.

For his speed and readiness to attack, they called him Hotspur. Naturally.

The castle is situated just below the border to Scotland, and under constant threat of invasion from the north. So, by necessity the earliest Percys  had to be skilled in warfare. For simplicity, they were also mostly named Henry. Hotspur was the 2nd Earl of Northumberland. Too impatient to wait for the Bishop of Durham’s troops during the Battle of Otterburn in 1388, Hotspur launched an attack on the Scots headed by Douglas, under cover of darkness.

It was a fearless move, the Scots would never see them coming. Unfortunately, Hotspur can’t see in the dark either so his troops mistakenly attack camp followers and servants instead of the soldiers. Amazingly, some of these Scots fought back and alerted the main forces. So Hotspur lost about a thousand men and was captured because of his impatience, while the Scots only lost 200.  Luckily, Douglas is killed in victory and Hotspur, along with his brother Ralph, were ransomed back to England.

To show his appreciation for being released, Hotspur betrayed his savior Richard II and put Henry IV on the throne.  Together, the two Henrys successfully fought against the raiding Scots but Hotspur really was a “loose cannon” and during an argument about what to do with the Scottish prisoners in the 1402 Battle of Humbleton Hill he rebelled against Henry IV and in 1403 Hotspur made his best move yet by dying in the Battle of Shrewsbury in hand to hand combat.

Probably learning from his ancestor’s folly, Henry, the 6th Earl of Northumberland (1502-1537), was “a lover, not a fighter.” Oh, he did engage in border warfare, but he wasn’t like his brothers, Sir Thomas and Sir Ingelram, who just like their ancestor Hotspur rebelled and were leaders in the Pilgrimage of Grace even while heartbroken Henry remained loyal to the King.

Today, Henry Percy is mostly remembered as being Anne Boleyn’s loving fiancé who was forced to break their engagement when Henry VIII became interested in Anne. Percy was then immediately wed to Mary Talbot, and so started a marriage so bad that within 4 years the couple separated and refused to see each other forever. And then a few years later, he was ordered by the King to be one of the jurors at Anne Boleyn’s trial. Percy collapsed after the verdict was announced and had to be carried out. He died just one year after Anne’s execution.

Anne Boleyn's first Henry, 6th Earl of Northumberland.

Anne Boleyn’s first Henry, 6th Earl of Northumberland.

Through the next  Percy generations, over and over remnants of  the passionate and foolish Hotspur would emerge. The 8th Earl was found dead in the Tower of London after being imprisoned for plotting to marry Mary, Queen of Scots. And then there was 9th Earl of Northumberland, also called Henry and known as The Wizard Earl, who was a long time prisoner in the Tower because he employed Thomas Percy, who was one of the conspirators in the Gunpowder Plot.

How hard could it be to learn from the mistakes of others? The issues that are fought about change with the times, but the reactions and arguments are always the same. The lessons learned seem as lost as the £14.50 I will never get back, but at least I got to laugh at Cromwell’s tiny hat.










The Tower of London

For a ghost, there is probably no better gig than haunting the Tower of London.

Competition is tough. One has to be an exceptionally cunning ghost to co-haunt this fortress. Please, don’t even attempt vying for a spot unless your name should be chosen by some kid hoping against hope it’s the right answer to a history exam question. Don’t feel sorry for that kid.  She had plenty of time to study for said exam yet decided to cram the night before and fell asleep instead.  If that kid ever tours the Tower of London, I bet she wouldn’t be there showing proper appreciation for the fact that it’s the setting for many of the most pivotal, notorious events in history. I bet she’d be doing things like this:


This site has been standing since the time of William the Conqueror, and right from the beginning, no one has been able to take control of Britain unless they controlled this stronghold. Even the unfortunate Wat Tyler knew this when he led his homies during the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381. With Lollard priest John Ball’s catchy sermon of “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?” spinning  in their heads like the medieval equivalent of a Last Song Syndrome, the peasants stormed the Tower in their quest to end serfdom (and also to make fun of the young King’s sister and mother).

For a fee, peasants can still enter the Tower uncontested today.

For a fee of about £20, peasants can still enter the Tower uncontested today if they form orderly queues.

Once inside, you can let this awesome thing hear YOU roar!

Once inside, you can let this awesome thing hear YOU roar!

The peasants eventually managed to have Richard II concede to their demands, but for all their talk of equality they forgot to shrug off the notion that a King is noble and naturally more trustworthy than a common criminal. So they lowered their arms, began to disperse and shrugged their heads off instead, which ended up on pikes to serve as an example to future detractors.

Perhaps being an indicator of who controls the country is the reason that just thinking of this UNESCO World Heritage Site conjures images of imprisonment, torture and execution. It seems a recurring pattern in history that the interesting people die first, then inspire others before any real change can occur. One needs a bit of control to change things, and those in charge will not be willing to give it up. By the 16th century, being “sent to the Tower” meant you’ve become a threat to the rulers and the lifestyle to which they’re accustomed.  It was like a rite of passage–you can’t get any street cred until you’ve been “acquainted” with the Yeoman Warders who guarded prisoners in the Tower. It was a classy sort of capital punishment and it makes sense in a world where (depending on the circumstances, of course) people get to decide when and how to end another’s life because that’s justice but God forbid if something ever happens to those Tower ravens…

A Yeoman Warder.

A Yeoman Warder.

Naturally, everyone who was anyone had to be associated with the Tower in some way, and they would usually have these wonderful options to claim as their reasons to stay: imprisonment, torture, execution, murder. Now, with all those choices it can be a bit daunting.

Thankfully, they didn’t have to choose just ONE of these reasons and the simplicity of the system seemed to work because it became all the rage. It’s the surest way to draw attention if you ever get to the point when you want to finally speak out and declare that the Emperor isn’t wearing any clothes. Here’s some of the lucky few to belong in this exclusive circle of Tower prisoners: William Wallace, James I of Scotland, Richard II, Roger Mortimer, The Princes in the Tower, Henry VI, Sir Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell, Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard, Lady Jane Grey, Elizabeth I, Sir Walter Raleigh, Guy Fawkes, Samuel Pepys, Sir Robert Walpole… if any one of this select group of people doesn’t at least sound familiar, then no worries! You can look them up now (you’re welcome).

She'd be the one doing things like this.

See, I told you not to feel sorry for that kid, lol.







Warwick Castle

She’s had over 36 individual owners, but with her latest incarnation as a top tourist destination, Warwick Castle continues to demand that her master either moves with the times or she moves on!


You’re not ready for this jelly.

She’s come a long way from being an Anglo-Saxon burgh fortified by Ethelfleda (yes, THAT Ethelfleda)* in the year 914. By 1068 she’s caught the eye of William The Conqueror and kept under the protection of the first Earl of Warwick, Henry de Beaumont. Ah, but Warwick Castle is highly coveted and she knows it. She doesn’t waste time with a prospective owner unless he has the money, clout and cunning to play a major supporting role in most of the turning points in English history. In fact, in 1153 the 2nd Earl of Warwick’s wife was tricked into believing her husband was dead so that Henry of Anjou (future Henry II) can lay claim to Warwick Castle and all she has to offer. Henry II looked after her and made her into a stone castle complete with curtain wall. She was only given to her next keeper after the nobleman supported Henry II’s mother, Empress Matilda, during The Anarchy (1135-54).

It wasn’t always all fun and games for Warwick Castle, she was attacked by Simon de Montfort in 1264, later he became the de facto ruler of England, establishing the Model Parliament that serves as the basis for parliamentary democracy today. Worse was to come, in 1312 she witnessed a power-hungry master sentence Edward II’s lover, Piers Gaveston, to death and in 1431 her owner supervised the trial and execution of Joan of Arc.

You don't look a day over 900!

She looks great for her age.

By the 15th century, no less than Edward IV was reduced to being her humble prisoner. During her tumultuous association with Richard Neville, he rose to prominence in the Wars of the Roses and became known as The Kingmaker, putting not one but two men on the throne. During this time King Richard III gave her two gun towers. She is also associated with a major player in the Tudor era, when during the reign of King Edward VI (son of Henry VIII), her owner was John Dudley, aka 1st Duke of Northumberland, up to the point when he was beheaded for treason after his plan to put his daughter-in-law, Lady Jane Grey, on the throne fell through. Somehow Warwick Castle managed to survive the Tudors, being acquainted with Queen Elizabeth I during her Tour of the Country.


Scheming, Dallying and Murder: Only one of us here will live long enough to tell the amusing tale we shared this day.

She showed signs of ageing during the reign of James I and VI, and was adapted to become a country house for the poet, dramatist and statesman Sir Fulke Greville, who spent lavish amounts of money on her until he was murdered by his servant. Perpetrators of the Gun Powder plot are rumoured to have stolen horses from her stables.

During the English Civil War, the Parliamentarians had her and Royalist forces became her prisoners. Centuries of plotting and greed have left their mark on her features, but for her status she was still considered worthy to host King William III in 1695. In 1749, Lancelot “Capability” Brown landscaped her gardens, gaining the admiration of Horace Walpole. Warwick Castle’s walls have weathered much through the ages, her secrets and failings are exposed, but this is the price of glory and attention.

Since the Victorian period, hordes of tourists have been willing to pay for the privilege of visiting and spending time with her. They try to hear each other through the shrieks of excited children and pretend they don’t mind paying £10 for parking or £5 for a charred burger from surly staff in unconvincing medieval garb, as they relive her stories and watch pretend knights joust. They understand there is nothing to be gained by judging the fallen, and content in the knowledge that after 950 years, she has finally acknowledged those who couldn’t gain anything from her.

* Daughter of Alfred the Great