I had not intended to share another castle with you today, in the midst of my castle trilogy of walks, but the owners of Brancepeth Castle touched me deeply. How can such a monumental castle remain so unknown? And how much more effort can a man and wife put into the preservation of their home? Had it not been for the Heritage Open Day events, I should never have known this story.
Brancepeth is a tiny and delightful village, just 5 miles south-west of Durham City. A Norman castle was built here, on a fine lookout point across the valley. It was rebuilt by the Neville family in the late 14th century, then confiscated by the Crown, in 1569, for their involvement in the Rising of the North. A succession of owners followed, the last major restoration at the hands of the architect Anthony Salvin in the mid-19th century. The castle has never seen conflict, but in 1939 became the headquarters of the Durham Light Infantry. They left in 1962. And then the current poignant phase of the castle’s history began.
In 1978, Margaret Dobson, wife of publisher Dennis Dobson, bought the castle to store the company’s stock of books, the lease on their Notting Hill property having expired. Her husband died before the move north, but she and her 7 children inhabited the castle. Mrs. Dobson did much to restore fabric and interiors but, you can imagine, such a property is a money pit. The lead roof had been stripped by a previous tenant. The resourceful lady refurbished the main function rooms to generate income from craft fairs and auctions. Shakespearean plays were staged in the courtyard, and rooms let to students at Durham University. Since her death, aged 86, in October 2014, family have carried on the work as best they can. Her daughter, who led the tour, explained that metal supports had been used in the most recent restoration. The rusting of these necessitated rebuilding, at the cost of £86,000 for just one of the vital towers.
The building is astounding. Everything from the huge chapel to original medieval vaults below ground. The contrast between the beauty I’ve shown you, and the incredible amount of work still to be done couldn’t be greater. Ceilings and paintwork peel, draughty corridors and flights of stairs proliferate. But the building is loved, and nurtured, by a couple no longer young, but dedicated. I wish them well. Please go and attend one of their events, if you can.
The cause must have its champions up and down the country, but none is more committed than Becky. As another Heritage Open Day weekend begins, join her In the Pink, and then get yourself out and find something interesting in your area.