One thing you learn after you’ve traveled around the UK long enough is that Brits aren’t very creative with their naming. I mean, if you look at the names that Brits gave to their colonized territories, you get some idea of how non-original they are. Just look at how many place names begin with the word ‘new’ in the American Northeast (New England, New York, New Hampshire, New Jersey… you get the idea). Back home, the names the Brits came up with were usually pretty on the nose. Think back to York: It was a place with yew trees, so, obviously, they derived the name from the indigenous languages’ words for place of the yew tree.
For another example, take Newcastle. Once upon a time, someone built a new castle there. So, in true British style, they named the place Newcastle. Given that the place was originally built in 1080, it’s no longer new, but we’ll overlook that – I have a feeling that renaming would be just as awkward the second time around.
Back in 1066, William the Conqueror came over to England from France and – spoiler alert – conquered it. After spending some time consolidating his power in London, William started making moves to ensure his power in other parts of his kingdom as well. In 1080, his son Robert Curthose (One wonders what it was about his hose that was curt) moved up to the north of England to further his father’s agenda and to fortify the border against the wily Scots. The way you fortified places back in the day was to build a castle, so that’s exactly what Robert Curthose did.
The castle as Robert Curthose built it actually stands on the site of an ancient Roman fortification – even in those days, they needed to fend off their warlike northern neighbors. As a matter of fact, Newcastle was often a flashpoint for disputes between England and Scotland all the way through the 17th century when it served as the first line of defense against the Scottish Covenanting army, which descended from the north to ally with the Parliamentarian army in the English Civil War.
But back to the castle itself. It was originally built in timber, but shortly afterwards was rebuilt as the more reliable stone structure we see today. After the English Civil War of the 17th century, Newcastle Castle was used as a prison. Starting in the 18th century, the prisoners moved out and civilians moved in, building houses on the property and refurbishing apartments inside the castle for private residence (but not luxurious accommodation, by any stretch). The castle essentially became a free-standing slum. It remained as such until the 19th century.
In the early 1800s, Britain started moving. Rail lines were built everywhere. Even today, you can get pretty much anywhere in Britain by train (it gets a bit spottier the farther north you get, but, generally speaking, trains are the way to go). By 1810, the residents of the castle had been ousted in favor of a full restoration. The newly-restored castle was endangered again in the mid-1800s, when it was proposed to put the new rail line through the old keep. This plan was eventually scrapped, but the train tracks still run right next to the castle – so close, in fact, the casual visitor would be forgiven for thinking that the rail bridge was originally part of the castle walls.
Today, Newcastle is a thoroughly modern city with all the comforts of a metropolis. Unlike the castles in places like Edinburgh or Stirling, the castle in Newcastle sits nestled in with the rail bridge, office buildings, pubs, and museums, and is quite easy to miss. It is a lovely castle, though, and is well worth seeking out – just be advised that the castle is not only guarded by iron archers on the roof. You may have to do (verbal) battle with the Geordies manning the admission office before you can wander the ancient hallways.
Visiting Newcastle Castle
Getting there: Newcastle Castle is easily accessibly by public transit. The closest metro stop is Monument, and the Q1 Quaylink bus drops right nearby. Downtown Newcastle is very walkable too, so don’t be afraid of taking a stroll.
Admission: Entry is £7 for adults, £6 for students (with valid student ID), and £4 for children. There’s also a family rate of £16.50 for four people.
Opening hours: The castle is open daily from 10am to 5pm.
Plan your visit: Find the Newcastle Castle website here.