We recently spent a thoroughly reinvigorating day in the heart of Northumberland when golden Autumn sunshine, a wild child on a high-energy day during cancer recovery and a need for nature immersion on my part tempted this trip to see some ancient cows and maybe visit a castle (if energy levels held out)…
They’re not just ANY smelly old cows, and it is no ordinary castle.
With wild cattle and woodland walks, manicured gardens and a Minstrel’s gallery cafe, dungeons, a torture chamber, armour and weapons you can actually touch and hold, a chapel, real skeletons, a vast collection of historical memorabilia, ghosts, curses, prehistoric fossils, a gift shop and self catering apartments (probably haunted too!), a museum, cannons, Kingly visits, Capability Brown and a brilliantly informative personal visitor’s guide written by the owner, Sir Humphrey Wakefield Bt, himself, it’s hard to beat this unique 12th century castle (built on pre-Christian cave foundations) for a hands-on foray into grim, grisly and engagingly real history at it’s most accessible. A brilliant family day out (and I’m not being paid for this adulation!!)
Chillingham Castle and Chillingham Wild Cattle are two separate organisations sharing the same land which can be visited individually or both together, easily achieved in one day though you’ll doubtless want to return once you’ve experienced either! But which to visit first?
Castle or Cattle?
We agreed to explore the haunted castle later, heading first for the cows, a 10-15 minute walk from the car park to the visitor centre across fields with tantalising glimpses of the wild cattle.
You can’t enter unaccompanied so plan your visit around a guided tour – times here – by Chillingham Wild Cattle Association’s very first female warden, Ellie Crossley.
Wild Cattle Guided Walk
Ellie’s talk and walking tour is educational and fun for all ages and her knowledge on the beasts and the land seemingly inexhaustive!
These white cattle have been wild for 700-800 years, the only such herd in the world.
The land they graze on is not managed by humans, they never receive veterinary treatment, the bulls fight over territory, to the death if necessary, and they have bred themselves into an incredibly resilient, unique gene pool.
See Wild Beasts of Chillingham for more fascinating information and photos.
Woodland and Wildlife
We spotted fab fungi and inquisitive wrens amongst fallen trees trunks until Caroline suddenly tired so we drove to the castle car park (3 minutes drive or 10 mins walk from the original car park), intending to eat before returning home.
There’s a further short walk to the castle along a delightful woodland trail. This brief time forest-bathing lifted Caroline’s spirit no end.
Feeling re-energised along the woodland trail
In the castle’s Admissions Office, the Armoury, she was enthralled by the eclectic collection of memorabilia, which you can touch and feel, and from this point there was no way we were going home after lunch!
Caroline was engaged from the word go, forgetting food and fatigue until we had explored the ‘oubliette’ dungeon with its wall scratchings made by former prisoners abandoned there to be ‘forgotten’, and the fascinating gallimaufry of goods on display in the Still Room.
Gallimaufry indeed, check out the immense iron cauldron cooking pot for the 500 soldiers once garrisoned here.
The room includes the first mention of ghosts and a curse along with the last ever dog sled used in the Arctic. Not your average medieval castle.
We ate lunch in the fantastic medieval dining room cafe with its Minstrel’s Gallery and a huge open fire sufficiently heating the massive room. The food was delicious and substantial.
Swords and Skeletons
After lunch we explored the rest of the castle, wielding maces and swords in the Great Hall, nervously sidling past the torture implements and real skeletons, admiring prehistoric auroch skulls and in awe of the gigantic antlers of a prehistoric Irish Elk, dwarfing the surrounding red deer antlers, see photo below (one antler is a genuine fossil, the other reproduced and the skull is far smaller than the original would have been).
Caroline said that she loved being able to hold the swords and things and wished all castles were like this..
Garden and Grounds
Our excellent family day trip was completed with more outdoor time; we explored the knot garden and grounds from above and below, examined cannons, ventured through an eerie archway into dark woods, climbed trees and crossed a stream on a rickety log after examining more fungi, with a grand finale family rolling race down the grassy slope outside the castle gate!! An enriching, eerie and exciting day out!
Top Tips for Visiting Chillingham
- Check guided tour timings in advance to ensure you don’t miss the wild cattle
- Turn your phone off when visiting the cattle, to avoid a stampede!
- Wear good walking boots or sturdy shoes due to fields, grounds & uneven flagstones
- Pay a little extra for the eminently readable, if eccentric, castle guide-book; well worth reading as you go round
- Joint tickets are available for both sites
- CPRE members get half price admission to the castle
- Dogs are not allowed at either site
- We didn’t have time but don’t forget to visit the church
Read Wild Beasts of Chillingham for more on the fascinating herd of cattle. You’ll want to return!