Chillingham castle: A splendid recovery


A crumbling northern castle with a proud history has been rescued by an English eccentric, whose whimsical collections have breathed new life into the building

Northumberland holds many of England’s finest castles, but the most eccentric may be Chillingham, packed to the brim with curiosities. For 30 years it has been home to Sir Humphry Wakefield and his wife, Katharine. But before this, since its 13th-century construction Chillingham had been in the hands of the Grey family and their descendants, the earls of Tankerville.

It is thought that escalating running costs led to the castle being abandoned in 1932. Its contents sold, the building fell into decay: roofs caved in, the gardens became overgrown and silt filled out the lakes. Not put off by the half-century of neglect, Sir Humphry bought the castle and lands from the Tankervilles. Both parties were delighted that Katharine, the daughter of the former Lady Mary Grey from nearby Howick Hall, was a descendant of the family that established Chillingham.

While Sir Humphry’s refurbishment of the castle would preserve the accomplishments of the Greys, he also saw it as a chance to commemorate his family’s history. With no family estate left, he wanted to ‘invent a Wakefield base from nothing’. Initially his zeal was not shared by his wife, who thought Chillingham a waste of good money. ‘Totally absurd,’ Katharine had said. ‘He should stick to the hunting field.’ But after 10 years of extensive work and refurbishment, she, too, fell in love with the castle’s magic.

Chillingham Castle dates back to a single tower, taken by storm in 1246. A century later the building’s footprint expanded when Edward III granted a licence to build fortifications, which remain largely unchanged today. Later, with an impending visit from King James on his way south to the English crown, the Elizabethan Greys linked the four massive stone battlemented towers with highly decorative ‘long galleries’.

With phenomenal vision, and without the coffers of English Heritage or the National Trust, Wakefield has saved Chillingham. Today it is not only his family’s home, and home to reputed ghosts, but the castle and its grounds are also open to the public six months a year. It has become a popular venue for weddings and functions. Further helping pay for its upkeep are eight self-catering flats that are dotted around the castle (including one in the towers) and outbuildings. A 365-acre parkland remains home to the historic Chillingham cattle, which are said to be the only remaining wild cattle in the world. Although they graze here, they are merely tenants, owned by the Chillingham Wild Cattle Association.

Entering the arched 16th-century doorway, visitors pass a Chillingham wild bull’s head and an iron mantrap on the wall on the way to a large central courtyard. It is a scene evocative of an Oxford college, overlooked by large mullioned windows. Spiral stone staircases ascend the four corner towers to various living-rooms, which overlook the courtyard. The towers to the west overlook splendid Italian gardens that were designed by Sir Jeffry Wyatville in 1828 around decorative urns presented by King Louis Philippe of France. The reinstatement of these once-overrun gardens is a visual triumph, but the cost? Wakefield sighs, ‘Katharine is a very determined lady.’

Formerly a captain in the 10th Royal Hussars, Sir Humphry served in Jordan, Germany, Cyprus and Malta. He also worked at Christie’s in the furniture department, initiating two new departments, musical instruments and ethnology, before becoming a director of Mallet of Bond Street and New York. A life otherwise spent as an antiquarian, aesthete, horseman and explorer means the home is filled with extraordinary collections gathered from around the world. His natural flamboyant style leaves little room for understatement.

In the Minstrels’ Hall hang prehistoric elk horns that are 16ft across, and were found in a bog near another castle that Wakefield restored in Ireland. A sledge, hanging from a ceiling, comes from an Antarctic expedition in which he took part in 1999. There are tiger skins, bison skulls, relics of the Wild West, ancient machine guns, armour and Indian carvings everywhere. It forms part of the castle that is both open to the public and truly conjures up the rich medieval history of the site.

Sir Humphry and Katharine’s private rooms are more in the ‘grand country house’ style. It is all totally magical and charmingly dotty. The grandest room is the King James I room, whose walls are lined with yellow silk designed for Chatsworth. The complex 16th-century ceilings were determinedly restored by Sir Humphry. It is a great room for the family’s private parties: family portraits abound, including one of Countess Grey, the wife of the prime minister who inspired the Reform Act of 1832, but is now rather more famous for his Earl Grey tea.

More spiral stairs lead to the west wing. Here a more intimate drawing-room features an unusual chimney piece veneered with chippings of blue and white china collected on Sir Humphry’s world travels. ‘I hate thinking how many hours it took me to cement each piece in the right place,’ he says. A scarlet and green 18th-century footman’s uniform (a Wakefield winter livery) hangs decoratively on the door.

Also overlooking the garden is the stone-vaulted kitchen and beyond that the breakfast room. With its racing-green Aga and sporting-themed engravings by John Wootton, it is used as the dining-room when the family is not entertaining. Its oak panelling was salvaged from Howick Hall, where it had been condemned by English Heritage as dangerously rotted. Sir Humphry thought it was more than adequate.

Facing north is the music room, a fine long gallery painted in ‘pebbled-white’ and rubbed with blue-grey by Sir Humphry himself. He tells me, ‘It’s where I work until it’s too cold, then I happily rush to Katharine’s cosy orange drawing-room and spread my office mess there.’

There are examples on display from the Stately Homes Collection that Sir Humphry created for Baker Furniture. This range of replicas is based on originals from great homes of Britain, ranging from the splendour of England’s Blenheim, Burghley and Chatsworth to the Scottish castles of Mellerstain, Floors, Blair and Inveraray. He is pragmatic when it comes to these copies, believing a great replica spreads beauty worldwide, ‘just like a CD’. He also believes ‘beautiful things from diverse ages and cultures thrive together with a great life of their own’, which is certainly the case at Chillingham Castle.

Since Chillingham is in private hands, Sir Humphry can retain his very own showman touch. Just before he went on his daily ride (always bareback) on the day I visited, he handed me a copy of John Jolliffe’s book Eccentrics, published in 2001. Fittingly, Wakefield has his own chapter, which illustrates how his rescue of Chillingham is a reminder that conservation, and maybe life, relies on individual courage and inspiration.

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