Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 12:08 pm
I’m gazing up through the empty keep, where long-dead feet once paced across floors that have themselves long-since vanished, rotted away. Here’s Brougham Castle, scenically sitting on the south bank of the River Eamont a couple of miles outside Penrith, just off the A66. Someone should write a song about that road… get your kicks, on the A66… I’m sure they have.
Brougham means something like ‘village by the fort’ and Brougham Castle was built, sometime in the early 13th century, next to and partly on top of, the buried remains of a Roman fort, Brocavum. The Roman fort was established in the late 1st century AD at the confluence of the Lowther and Eamont rivers and on an important crossroads. It was a strategic location, part of a network initially designed to keep the local Brigantes tribe in check and eventually connecting York (Eboracum) east-west across the Stainmore Pass and Carlisle (Luguvalium) in the far north. Troops stationed at Brocavum included a unit that originated from what is now Portugal during the 1st century and, in the 3rd century, a unit raised in Anatolia – modern Turkey. The Romans left sometime toward the end of the 4th century, by which time the Romano-British civilian settlement which had grown up around it was extensive, stretching either side of the Eamont.
Much of Brougham’s story remains buried and it is certainly not clear what happened there after the Romans departed. By the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066, it was in the British-Scots Kingdom of Strathclyde – until the area as far north as Carlisle was taken by King William Rufus of England in 1092. Eight hundred years ago, this wild part of Britain was bandit country.
The castle’s medieval founder, Robert de Vieuxpont (or Vipont) was a loyal friend of King John and, at one time, was High Sherriff of Nottingham; perhaps he knew Robin Hood. Anyway, the location was just as strategically important in the 13th century as it had been twelve hundred years earlier, albeit the main foe by de Vieuxpont’s time was the Scots. Brougham passed to the Clifford family by marriage and, sometime around the year 1300, the 1st Baron de Clifford refortified it and constructed a new accommodation block, known as the Tower of League. Its ruins hint at the luxury that must have been; sometime in the early 14th century, Edward I popped in to Brougham, and may well have stayed there.
It’s an odd shape, is Brougham; but it does have a large and imposing keep, open to the elements, its walls long since fallen in. You can read in the blurb about the place that “From the keep top enjoy panoramic views over the Eden valley and the earthworks of the adjacent Roman fort.” It surely does but, on our first visit, we climbed all the way up those steep, narrow, spiral staircases, round and round, leaning into the old walls, gasping and wheezing, until… we came to a locked gate. The blurb lies! The only rewarding aspect to this pointless exercise was spotting a Roman tombstone in the ceiling; clearly, the medieval builders weren’t going to waste perfectly good pieces of dressed stone that happened to be conveniently lying around nearby.
However, on our most recent visit there was no barrier and we gingerly made our way up worn stairs to the very top. Here, a corridor ran round inside the walls. It felt very exposed and the views were indeed terrific. Just as impressive was the quality of the stonework, which more than hinted at past luxury. What a place it must have once been.
Moving on, the 1st Baron de Clifford was killed at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. In 1388, Brougham Castle was captured and sacked by the Scots. But the Cliffords had other, safer, castles they preferred and Brougham apparently fell into disrepair. It must have been back in a reasonable condition by 1617, though, because in that year King James I (VI of Scotland) was entertained there. It received more attention after it was inherited by the remarkable Lady Anne Clifford in the 1640s. This amazing woman restored a number of Clifford castles, including Skipton, Pendragon, Appleby, Brough and Brougham, rotating her attendance and holding court at each. Brougham must have been a favourite, though; her father had been born there and her mother, to whom she was particularly close, died there. Lady Anne erected a pillar not far from Brougham, the Countess Pillar, to mark the spot where she and her mother last saw each other. And it was at Brougham that Lady Anne Clifford eventually died as well, in 1676, aged 86, and in the same room in which her father had been born. She had even created a garden on the site of the old Roman fort, where the remains of a summerhouse have been found. From Roman stronghold and village to rough border fortress to gentile country seat…
But, by the 18th century, Brougham had become an empty shell, then a ruin and tourist attraction. Wordsworth featured it in a poem, “Song at the Feast of Brougham Castle Song at the Feast of Brougham Castle upon the Restoration of Lord Clifford, the Shepherd, to the Estates and Honours of his Ancestors” (a snappy title; to be honest, I was asleep by the end of verse two):
High in the breathless Hall the Minstrel sate,
And Eamont’s murmur mingled with the Song,
The words of ancient time I thus translate,
A festal strain that hath been silent long…
And, perhaps inevitably, Turner sketched and painted it. Today, Brougham Castle is an impressive, attractive and fascinating ruin, with families picnicking in the cobbled courtyard that once echoed with the sounds of a busy fortress, and kids exploring its intriguing nooks and crannies. There is no hint of the violence or hardship that its walls must have witnessed and the babble of Imperial Roman auxiliaries has been replaced with shrieks of childish pleasure. In the sunlight, the red-brown sandstone seems deceptively soft and, if you visit in spring, the formidable walls are speckled with little outcrops of bright purple aubrietia. It’s actually a beautiful and peaceful spot, with the lovely old bridge (wrecked by Storm Desmond in 2015) spanning the Eamont, a few scattered high-end properties beyond and the hum of traffic from the A66. It would have been much busier at Broughton eight – or eighteen – hundred years ago.