Estate's passing to this well-established, eccentric clan

Whether one is travelling East to West from Bamburgh or Holy Island toward Cornhill and Coldstream, or North to South from Berwick to Wooler, Barmoor is, either way, a significant landmark.

By The Newsroom
Saturday, 10th March 2018, 11:25 am

In each case there is a sharp bend in the road and, although the castle is not immediately visible from the road, the unusual, rock-hewn war memorial by the Eastern gate is not easily ignored.

The history of the castle is fascinating, taking one back to the period immediately after the Norman Conquest when the Muschamp family built a tower house here.

Huge pieces of rock create this war memorial. It was commissioned by General Sitwell of Barmoor and made from Whinstone. It is a simple but striking First World War memorial erected in 1920 and was an unusual and controversial commission at the time. Picture by Jane Coltman

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Tower houses and pele towers are relatively common sights hereabouts – Crawley Tower next to Powburn, and, effectively, Ancroft church, both served military purposes.

As the historical material produced for the Flodden 1513 Ecomuseum indicates, the castle had been a key milestone for the English military on their way to Scotland, all the way back to the time of Edward II.

This role for the castle continued all the way through to 1745 (the ’45 rebellion) and beyond.

Indeed, the modern gates were erected in 2010 to commemorate the part played in the battle as the site of the English camp on the way to Flodden.

Huge pieces of rock create this war memorial. It was commissioned by General Sitwell of Barmoor and made from Whinstone. It is a simple but striking First World War memorial erected in 1920 and was an unusual and controversial commission at the time. Picture by Jane Coltman

The battle took place only four or five miles to the West, on Branxton Hill.

Edward III allowed the castle to be crenellated in 1341. Then, ironically, a survey exactly 200 years later found the castle to be in a semi-ruinous state.

It passed out of the Muschamp family in 1649 when the estate was sold to William Carr, of Etal, to pay off debts.

Thereafter the castle changed hands frequently until it was at last inherited by Francis Hurt Sitwell, from his cousin, Samuel Phipps, in 1791.

Francis Hurt Sitwell, the great-great grandson of ironmaster George Sitwell – who first put the Sitwell family on the map, had been born Francis Hurt, but took on the name Sitwell when he inherited the Barmoor estate.

It was the Sitwells who built the substantial castellated mansion that we now know.

The architect of the scheme was one John Paterson, of Edinburgh. He used some of the stonework of the earlier house in this new construction.

In being acquired by the Sitwells, the estate fell into the hands of an ancient and well-established English family.

This old established family had been well-known as iron founders, and also landowners, in Eckington in Derbyshire, just south of Sheffield.

In 1808, Sitwell Sitwell, by then MP for West Looe, was made a baronet.

Later, the family inherited estates from two other wealthy families – the Reresbys and the Sacheverells.

And in the 20th century, the Sitwell family gained fame and even notoriety. So much so that D.H. Lawrence based Wragby Hall, in his classic novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover, on Renishaw.

Also, in the 20th century, the Sitwell clan itself could claim a fair degree of talent and creativity.

Those of us of a certain age may still remember the chiselled features, and then also the bangled arms and ringed fingers, of Dame Edith Sitwell.

She was a writer. Perhaps her most famous piece was Façade, a collection of poems set to music by Sir William Walton and styled as An Entertainment.

It is an eccentric and abstract set of poems. Walton further added eccentricity with his modernist, jazz-influenced score.

In a literary piece, which she titled The English Eccentrics, Edith Sitwell wrote: “Eccentricity exists particularly in the English and partly, I think, because of that peculiar and satisfactory knowledge of infallibility, which is the hallmark and birth-right of the English nation.

“This eccentricity, this rigidity, takes many forms.”

One might add that there were few at the time better qualified to write on eccentricity.

From whence had this strand of eccentricity originated in such a well-established family?

Well, first of all, relationships with the parents were dire.

The father, Sir George, wrote a series of unpublishable books – A Short History of the Fork and Acorns as an Article of Mediaeval Diet.

Edith lived almost her entire life with her governess. She never married, and became passionately attached to a gay Russian painter.

Osbert, her elder brother, was a writer and also gay.

Sacheverell, the youngest, was once again a writer. He did marry and was arguably the least eccentric of this extraordinary trio.

So it was this same Sitwell family that had earlier on in its long history inherited Barmoor Castle.

Brigadier Sitwell, inheritor of the estate in the early 20th century, commissioned the extraordinary piece of rock which was to be the war memorial for those from Lowick village who had lost their lives in the Great War.

Indeed, in an earlier article in this column, I referred to the controversy whereby the villagers commissioned their own, rather more conventional, memorial.

They then deposited the Brigadier’s commissioned piece outside the Eastern gates of his castle.

Arguably the castle occupies a less exotic and less eccentric role now than at any time in its history.

It currently sits near the heart of a well-designed and well maintained ‘holiday village’.

Recently, however, Barmoor still retained a certain sort of infamy.

It sat near to the top of Historic England’s (formerly English Heritage) ‘Buildings at Risk Register’.

Reasonable access to the exterior of the building has been ensured.

What now might its future be?

Are there perhaps some further eccentricities just around the corner?