Why a Local Photographer is Capturing the First Photographic Record of Every Castle in Northumberland
The border land between Scotland and England, which acted as a landing ground for Viking invaders, every inch of Northumberland is steeped in history
Jim explains he was quite late to photography and only took it up after a knee injury meant he could no longer take part in his regular fitness training. Looking for a new hobby to get him out and about, he turned to photography. ‘I’m an earlier riser anyway so have always got out early to take the dog to the beach, and I thought I could combine seeing the sunrise with my new hobby,’ he says. Investing in a camera, Jim began focusing on local sunrises and castles.
When he saw an advert for The Northern Photography Prize he decided to enter one of his photos. ‘I sent a picture in and sort of forgot about it and wrote off [winning] but got a message to say I was shortlisted. I ended up winning the competition and my photo was part of an exhibition at The Biscuit Factory. It’s also been featured in photography magazines,’ he explains.
After scooping the landscape prize (Spirit of the North East) for his image Early Birds of Lindisfarne, Jim felt spurred on to capture more of the North East, with particular focus on our castles. ‘It was earlier this year when I thought I was starting to exhaust the castles I was already aware of, so I decided to see if there were any I hadn’t been to before. I did a bit of research and found that it was really hard to find a list of all the castles in Northumberland, but I kept seeing the statistic that there are more castles here than in any other county in England,’ he says.
There are in fact a total of 70 castles, ranging from small, isolated ruins to grand fortress strongholds. Having initially struggled to find a list of where all the castles were, Jim has since found two books, one of which is from the 1970s. Realising how important it is to have a record of what the castles look like today, he decided to launch The Northumberlander Project, using his skills as a photographer to capture each of the 70 castles which remain.
‘To the best of my knowledge, nowhere is there a photographic record all of the castles,’ he says. ‘I’m Northumberland born and bred, and have lived here all my life, and think the more you get out into the county the more you appreciate what it’s got to offer, especially its history.’ Not only has Jim begun photographing each castle, he has also researched their past, and he shares details on his website. ‘When you start photographing the castles, you realise the county has a fascinating history. A lot of people don’t appreciate that side, they look at the pretty pictures and the coastline, but I think the heritage is overlooked.
‘I haven’t gone into loads of detail, but I have given enough [background] on each castle to try and outline when it was built, what it was used for and what part it played in the history of the North East,’ he explains. Since starting the project, Jim has been updating his website and social media every time he captures a new castle. ‘When I launched the interactive map it went crazy, the Facebook group which I set up went from having 16 members to 2,500 members in about a week.’
Pinning the exact locations of all 70 castles on the map allows people to click on the pins, open up Jim’s photo and read about some of the history. ‘I will be adding the peles, towers and bastles in there too, but the map started by pin pointing where the castles were so I could find them,’ he says.
One of the most interesting things he’s learnt so far has been the placement of the castles across the county. ‘If you look at the map of the pinned castles you can clearly see where it was necessary to defend along the border, and it’s obvious why the castles are there. There isn’t as much concentration of castles in the middle of Northumberland, but down the coastline and across the border there are lots of them.’
Taking on a big project such as this is time consuming, but Jim wants to ensure the castles are captured perfectly. ‘For places like Bamburgh or Lindisfarne, there are millions of photographs of them, so what I have tried to do is find a different angle, one that isn’t as commonly seen. I’ve also tried to keep the aesthetic similar across all the photographs, as you’ll notice the skies are often cloudy and moody – that’s deliberate, because I think that’s more representative of the North East.’
Jim is now halfway through completing The Northumberlander Project, but getting access to the remaining castles has become more challenging as many of them are privately owned or have restricted access. ‘I always knew it would get to this point, but I started with the low-hanging fruit first. The second half [of the project] will probably take a lot longer,’ he says.
Jim also wants to ensure the images he takes are a perfect record and reflect the castles as well as possible, and that’s why he has decided to go back to retake some of his shots. ‘The photo I've taken of Prudhoe Castle for example is on the website, but I’m not happy with it because the castle was closed and I know there is a better shot there to be taken. I need to go on a day when it is open, have a look around, find the right composition and take a more considered image. It is still a record of the castle, but it’s not photographically what I would want it to be,’ he explains.
Travelling around Northumberland, as well as researching the history behind the castles, has allowed Jim to discover more about what’s on his doorstep. ‘Bamburgh has always been my favourite castle and still is, but there are some really interesting ones I've come across which I didn’t even know existed. Featherstone is a good example of that. It’s a beautiful looking castle and not many people have heard of it. There’s another called Blenkinsopp which is a working farm now and not a grand castle or strong hold, it’s a very humble looking building, somewhere you might drive past and not realise that it was a castle, but has lots of history behind it,’ he says.
Jim says the overall aim of The Northumberlander Project is to capture the castles as they are right now, before they deteriorate further. ‘A lot of the castles are in a bad state of repair and won’t be around forever. It would be such a shame if they aren’t recorded and documented as they are now, as a big storm, like some we’ve seen in recent years, could completely change their structure and they will never be the same.’
Jim has been working on The Northumberlander Project since March and hopes to be able to capture all the castles by the end of the year. ‘What I would also love would be for The Northumberlander Project to encourage people to appreciate the history of the county a little more. And it would be amazing if the project encouraged those outside Northumberland to visit,’ he says. ‘No other county in England is ever going to have more castles than us and it can’t be done better or bigger anywhere else.’