The bleak ruins of medieval Brough Castle perch on the western edge of Church Brough, a peaceful collection of attractive, solid, old dwellings huddled round a small square with St Michael’s church in the background. The village of Brough is divided by the busy A66. The larger portion, Market Brough to the north of the road, dates from the 12th century, but Church Brough is older, lying on the main Roman highway that linked the fortresses at York (Eboracum) and Carlisle (Luguvalium) across the desolate Pennines. And here the Romans built a fort, Verteris, which along with nearby Brougham (Brocavum) and the cavalry camp at Kirby Thore (Bravoniacum) protected this remote corner of their vast Empire, the western end of the Stainmore Pass, from unruly local natives, the Brigantes. The medieval castle was built on part of the site of that fort almost 700 years after the last Roman left. What happened in the area during those intervening years, when shadowy warlords and kingdoms came and went, is uncertain; but by the early 10th century the land had come under the control of the King of the Scots. In 1092, the Norman King of England, William II (Rufus), forcibly shifted the border northward to Carlisle. The fortress that was constructed at Brough at around that time to help defend this new part of his realm went on to have a role in the border wars between England and Scotland. The Scots attacked Brough Castle on at least three occasions, devastating it twice. It was rebuilt, refurbished, and went through periods of neglect and decay before being completely restored by the remarkable Lady Anne Clifford in the 17th century. In the 18th century, parts of the castle were dismantled and the materials re-used or sold. A period of inevitable decline followed, until care of the property passed to the state in 1920; it is currently maintained by English Heritage.
Even now, in the 21st century and with the relatively luxurious temptation of Brough Castle Farm ice cream parlour next door, Brough has the feel of a castle on the frontier. Even the children’s playground looks basic. There is nothing remotely beautiful about the place – except for the subtly different colours in the stonework and the views over lush rolling farmland to the high fells. The Roman fort was of course a military building and, until Lady Anne’s day, its descendant was primarily functional too.
The Roman fort was built in the first century AD, was substantial enough to house a force of some 500 troops and appears to have been in use for the duration, up to the late 4th or early 5th century. Its earthworks are still visible. A civilian settlement grew up outside its walls, the distant ancestor of Church Brough. There was a cemetery. This was a busy place over a considerable period, but we know precious little about what happened here. It is possible that soldiers from Thrace, now in Turkey, were garrisoned inside during the 3rd century, by which time Verteris may have had an administrative function alongside, or instead of, its military one. According to the excellent Roman Britain website, one of the fascinating finds during excavations was a swastika broach – a reminder that this ancient symbol of good had been around for a long time before being kidnapped and corrupted by the Nazis.
The medieval castle would originally have been wood and earth – and portions of the Roman ditches were used in its construction. Stone came later in the early 12th century. It is a little amusing to think of the mighty Norman invaders, building on the backs of the classical giants that went before them. The present ruins date from pretty much every century since then, up to the 17th. Hard to imagine the noise of battle here, when the Scots attacked; hard to imagine men dying hereabouts – as they probably did. One of the castle’s owners, Robert de Vieuxpont, was a favourite of nasty King John. Another, Robert Clifford, 1st Baron Clifford, was killed at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314; his castle at Brough was devastated by a Scottish raid that same year.
Hard to imagine, too, the great feast that was held at the castle to celebrate Christmas in 1521. Hard to imagine the devastating fire that broke out shortly afterwards, which left nothing standing but the bare walls.
Lady Anne Clifford set about repairing her Castle of Brough in 1659. The work included stables, kitchen facilities and an adjoining bakehouse and brewery, as well as improvements to accommodation. For some four years, the castle and its surroundings resonated with the sounds of saws, chisels and hammers as the builders did their stuff – presumably in much the same manner as they do today, though without the help of power tools. Lady Anne paid several extended visits thereafter, always occupying a chamber at the top of the round tower, known as Clifford’s Tower.
Brough is intriguing, but I wanted it to tell me more. Great chunks of masonry lie where they have fallen on the hillside. There are no roofs, no sign of the people who lived and worked here, though the outlines of their buildings are clear enough. Yet cold walls stare blankly and it is hard to sense, let alone hear, any ghosts. If they speak at all, it is only to the sheep.