On the edge of the Chillingham Estate, the ruin of Hebburn Bastle is little noticed.
Square, solid and stoic, its walls are full of secrets that owner Sir Humphry Wakefield hopes to share.
The first references to a “stone stronghold” date from the 15th century, when the term “bastle” (fortified farmhouse) first appears.
According to historian Philip Davis, it probably dates back earlier than the records imply, with evidence of 14th century ‘pointed’ or ‘dabbed’ ashlar work and the thickness of walls suggestive of medieval architecture.
The current structure is a gentrified version of what was likely built in the 13th century. Its north was more fortified, the south having much thinner walls and larger windows.
It had one entrance for people and animals, the former living on the first floor. The stonework indicates there may have been a second floor. In the 1500s the undercroft was converted into a kitchen, and references shift from ‘towerhouse’ to ‘mansion house’ by 1564.
A small room on the ground floor contains a shoulder-width hole, leading to a room below. English Heritage identified it as an oubliette, or perhaps a floor safe. However, the doorway and stonework shows that it locks from the inside, suggesting that it was for people to hide in. Below there seems to be a water channel, and it may have been an escape tunnel to Chillingham. Sir Humphry has invited English Heritage to undertake another survey.
The bastle was abandoned after the death of Robert Hebburn in 1755, when the Rev Edward Brudenell part-demolished it. Listed as an ancient monument in 1994, Sir Humphry plans to open it to visitors. He envisages a base for forestry walks, a stop between Ros Castle and Chillingham, and a space for banqueting.
Currently, the walls are open to the elements, much of the roof taken in 1808 for kennels. Should approval and funding be given, one plan would be to keep the bastle as it is, but make it safety-compliant, with a glass roof, or a gabled roof to match what would have existed.
If Sir Humphry can capture the imagination of English Heritage, more of us will be able to share in the beauty of the spot and its history.