The Deep Dive
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Dear Visitor: Forgive any disorder by thinking and knowing that I rescued a roofless, floorless wreck of castle with jungle having taken over the garden and grounds. You are very welcome. Sincerely, Humphry Wakefield.
So reads the guidebook available to guests at Chillingham Castle. This eccentric, stately pile, which dates back to the 13th century and is about an hour’s drive north of Newcastle, in Northumberland, is quite possibly the best bargain in all the United Kingdom. The seven apartments here start at just $185 a night; flats sleeping four begin at only $300.
“I’m a harlot—love hunting, shooting, polo. But I need to pay for it,” says Sir Humphry Wakefield, a tall, lean 73-year-old Englishman, explaining his motivation for renting the apartments in the crenellated towers and wings of his extraordinary home.
Chillingham sits in the lee of an old Roman fort in what was once quite lawless country near the Scottish border, where an angry North Sea confronts a dramatic and sparsely populated coast. But despite its remoteness, there are plenty of reasons to visit, history not the least among them. King Edward I stayed at the castle on his way to vanquish William Wallace (aka Braveheart), and nearby Flodden Field saw the brutal defeat of about 30,000 Scotsmen during a famous 1513 incursion. Also in the area is Alnwick, where the Duchess of Northumberland’s new $63 million garden is open to the public. And for sportspeople, the location is absolutely peerless, with Sir Humphry able to put together grouse shooting and fly-fishing arrangements for what he calls “the right sort.”
Just what sort might that be? I ask.
Chillingham, it turns out, has attracted some unlikely visitors. In 2007 they included five tribesmen from the South Pacific achipelago of Vanuatu. (“Couldn’t have been more charming,” says Sir Humphry. “Must get out to see them.”) During my visit two American filmmakers show up, having heard that this is England’s most haunted house. Perhaps. Sir Humphry tells a lot of stories, his grandest being the tale of Chillingham’s 28-year restoration.
Sir Humphry has a discerning collector’s taste, a magpie’s eye, and an inspired disregard for formality. There can’t be many places where you find living quarters filled with elephant armor, 18th-century Wakefield family livery uniforms hanging from doorknobs, a 2,000-year-old Chinese horse statue, and a cooking pot bigger than most Manhattan kitchens (it was once used to feed the castle’s 200 horsemen). There are cheetah skins slung across sofas, a 1.5-million-year-old fossilized bull’s head, some striking Augustus John paintings, and a dungeon. There are the Marquis of Bath’s baths and a ladder from Edmund Hillary’s 1952 Everest expedition. And lots of saddles. “I won my first one sitting on a bucking bronco for thirteen seconds, so now I collect them,” Sir Humphry explains.
The grounds are no less eclectic, with gardens put together by Capability Brown in the 1750s and redesigned by Jeffry Wyatville in the 1820s. (Today that would be like having Frank Gehry redo a house by Frank Lloyd Wright.) Among the yew hedges is a white Christ sculpture crowned with barbed-wire thorns by contemporary artist Mark Wallinger. The main gates are a copy of those of the Alupka Palace in Crimea. (“I went to see it when I joined the Charge of the Light Brigade,” says Sir Humphry. You charged with the Light Brigade? “Sort of. Love horses, love hunting.”) There’s also Europe’s last remaining herd of wild cattle: “I’m sure they’d be delicious,” Sir Humphry says. “Wild salmon is better than farmed. But to eat them, I’m told, would be politically incorrect.”
Chillingham is open to the public from Easter through October. And Sir Humphry leads tours by request when he isn’t traveling. But to get the true experience, you need to take an apartment.
These are not for the fainthearted, so don’t expect a polished country house hotel like, say, Cliveden in Berkshire, which many consider the quintessential example of luxury living. At Chillingham the self-catering apartments are largely warmed by fireplaces. Some of the windows have the odd piece of broken glass. But never has a place oozed more soul, with exquisite Queen Anne antiques sitting with 1960s divan beds and original Oliver Messel set designs. The suite we’d recommend is the Grey, which sleeps five in two twin rooms and a single. Its Great Salon, cluttered with hunting trophies, antiques, and comfy sofas long past their prime, was originally built for King James I’s visit—in 1603.
As for the ghosts, Sir Humphry seems to have made his peace with them. “A priest I brought in to exorcise the place said there were too many for him to deal with,” he says. “But he told me not to worry; they were all rooting for me. Absolutely right, of course. If I get chased by the taxman, the taxman suddenly gets sick. And the ghosts keep the guests coming, so I’m happy.”
$ A visit to Chillingham Castle can be arranged by calling 44-16/6821-5359 or going to chillingham-castle.com.
$ Establishment accepts no charge/credit cards or accepts cards other than the American Express Card.