Friday, 17 September 2010

Warkworth Hermitage (NU241059)

One of the most famous – and curious – of beauty spots in the whole of the North-East is the hermitage hewn into the sandstone bank of the River Coquet near Warkworth. This fascinating corner of the region is accessible only by boat, following a short walk westwards along the river from the castle.

Ascending a short flight of stone steps brings the visitor to the spot in question, amounting to a chapel (complete with ribbed vaulting and an altar), a sacristy and a couple of small rooms presumed to be the hermit’s old living quarters. A quick image search of the internet will bring adequate results for the curious reader, and far more information than I could by way of written description. Either way, one may wonder just how this place came to be. The answer, naturally, lies in legend. Or so we are encouraged to believe.

Sir Bertram of Bothal, one of the Earl Percy’s knights, was betrothed to Lady Isabel, the daughter of a local noble. Wounded in battle, he sent for Isabel, but was dismayed when she failed to show. When he had recovered, he made for her home, only to find that she had set off to meet him upon his original call – so must have been kidnapped. Sir Bertram and his brother then set off in different directions to search for her, and eventually the former tracked her down to her place of captivity – a tower in a remote castle. During a night-time vigil, Bertram spotted a shadowy figure helping his betrothed from her tower and down a ladder. He drew his sword and leapt to her defence, unaware that the other man was his brother. Isabel threw herself between the men in an attempt to prevent the clash, and the sword swept through them both, killing them instantly.

Wracked with guilt, Bertram returned to his Warkworth home and gave all his property and land away to the poor. He built the Hermitage with his bare hands, and there he lived in solitude for the rest of his days in self-imposed penance. Over the doorway he carved an inscription, which, translated, reads: “My tears have been my meat night and day”. The original hermitage was greatly added to by subsequent occupiers over the centuries.

It is now thought that the tale was compiled by a chancing bishop who wanted to be accepted by the Percy family as one of their own. He failed in his aim, though his yarn has survived through to the present. In all truth, the place was more likely built as a simple chantry in the fifteenth century, and was known to have been occupied by a series of clergymen in the decades leading up to the Reformation. But that’s just plain boring.

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