Another one of those scenes from Northumbrian history that Walter Bell Scott chose to paint in Wallington’s Central Hall commemorated an event that took place on September 7, 1838.
Twenty-two-year-old Grace Darling looked out of an upstairs window of Longstone Lighthouse, a lighthouse on the Farne Islands which her father, William, ran. She spotted the wreck of the SS Forfarshire on a nearby island called Big Harcar. The vessel had hit the rocks during bad weather and broken in half, and one of the halves had sunk overnight.
Grace and her father jumped into action to rescue the survivors. Since the water was so rough, they decided to take a rowing boat, called a coble, instead of a lifeboat. When they reached the wreck, Grace held the coble steady in gale-force winds while her father helped the first five of nine survivors climb aboard.
News traveled about Grace’s bravery while risking her life to rescue others, and she soon became famous. She earned the Royal National Lifeboat Institution’s first Medal for Gallantry to be awarded to a woman. “The girl with windswept hair” was immortalized in 1839 by Jerrold Vernon’s Grace Darling, or the Maid of the Isles, and by William Wordsworth in his poem, Grace Darling. Porcelain figures of Grace, the Longstone Lighthouse and the rescue were cast. She and her father even appeared on Lifebuoy soap wrappers. Four years later, she died of tuberculosis and was buried in the churchyard of her hometown of Bamburgh. The Grace Darling Museum opened in Bamburgh in 1938, and continues to tell her story through personal artifacts, including letters, family portraits and the famous coble.
Bamburgh is also home to a castle that traces its roots back to around 420. Ida the Flamebearer, an Anglo-Saxon king who was a widower, lived here with his teenaged daughter, Margaret, while his son, Childe Wynde, sought adventure abroad. Ida remarried, choosing a woman named Behoc who, unknown to him, was a sorceress who was so jealous of Margaret that she decided to cast a spell on her, and no one saw Margaret again. In the years that followed, a scary dragon settled on a nearby hill, terrorized the kingdom, and became known as the Laidly (loathsome) Wrym (dragon). One day, the news reached Childe Wynd, and he returned on a ship with a keel made from the rowan tree, which offered protection against magic. Queen Behoc saw the ship coming and started a storm, but the rowan keel kept the ship safe. When he docked, Childe Wynd overtook the dragon and was going to kill it until he saw it was crying. The dragon told him that it was under a spell, which could be broken if he kissed its face three times before the sun set. He did, the dragon turned into his sister, Margaret, and they went back to the castle, where they found Queen Behoc, used her own magic against her, and turned her into a toad that still lives in a cave below the castle. The Laidly Wyrm of Spindlestone Heugh is told through a series of ceramic rubbings created by local potter Graham Taylor that visitors can work on at the castle and take home with them.
The castle passed to King Ida’s grandson, Aethelfrith, who named it Bebbanburgh for his wife, Bebba, then to Aethelfrith’s son, Oswald, who would play a significant role in Northumbrian history by bringing a monk named Aidan from Iona to establish a monastery on Lindisfarne.
A piece of stone found during archaeological excavations in 2010 is thought to be part of an Anglo-Saxon throne or “gift stool.” Based on the style of the carvings, it dates from around 800. The original is on display in the castle’s museum, but the castle grounds include a replica of the throne that was made by a local stonecarver.
The Vikings destroyed the original building in 993, and the Normans built a new castle there. After an unsuccessful siege in 1095, the castle belonged to the reigning English monarch, and the Forster family of Northumberland governed it for 400 years, eventually coming to own it until they became bankrupt.
In 1894, the castle was purchased and restored by William George Armstrong, a successful and famous Northumbrian engineer who designed a hydraulic engine used in cranes and lifting mechanisms, like the one originally used at the Tower of London. During the Crimean War, he developed a field gun that was much lighter and easier to maneuver, leading him to be knighted by Queen Victoria and regarded as the inventor of modern artillery. Armstrong’s Northumbrian home, Cragside, was the first house in the world to be powered by hydroelectricity, with power generated from its five surrounding artificial lakes.
One of the many rooms on view at the castle is the magnificent King’s Hall, which Armstrong built on the site of the castle’s medieval Great Hall as a place to host grand balls and other social events. The intricately carved ceiling is made of Siamese teak, and musicians performed in a minstrel’s gallery.
For more on Grace Darling, William George Armstrong and Bamburgh Castle, see Grace Darling: Victorian Heroine, by Hugh Cunningham; Emperor of Industry: Lord Armstrong of Cragside, by Ken Smith; Armstrong: The Life and Mind of an Armaments Maker, by Kenneth Warren; and The Laidley Worm of Bamburgh, by Steve Chambers. Bamburgh Castle is the setting of Bernard Cornwell’s The Saxon Stories, Matthew Harffy’s The Serpent Sword, and Anne Thackery’s Ragnarok. It also been featured on film, including A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1949), Elizabeth (1998), Robin Hood (2010) and Macbeth (2015). Historian Michael Wood’s “In Search of Eric Bloodaxe,” an episode about the last ruler of Northumbria from the 1981 BBC television series, In Search of the Dark Ages, includes a visit to the castle.