Archaeologists Unlock Hidden Past Of Dunstanburgh Castle

By David Prudames | 17 March 2004
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Shows a photograph of Dunstanburgh Castle. A long thin line of stone ruins, which leads to a large tower, the castle is perched on a raised grassy plateau, above a rocky shoreline.

Photo: built in 1313, by the Earl of Lancaster, the castle was one of the most impressive in the realm. © North News and Pictures.

An archaeological survey into the wild landscape around Dunstanburgh Castle has uncovered its wartime secrets and new evidence of its medieval past.

Owned by the National Trust and managed by English Heritage, Dunstanburgh was built in 1313 by Earl Thomas of Lancaster and sits dramatically on the North East coastline.

Back in November 2003, archaeologists from both English Heritage and the National Trust spent three weeks conducting a high-tech survey of the area around the castle.

As well as uncovering new information about Dunstanburgh, they found a top secret Battle of Britain radar station and a Mediterranean terraced garden created by homesick Italian POWs.

"Over the course of three weeks, our investigation put paid to a number of old myths, but produced some amazing new discoveries, which have led to a completely new understanding of Dunstanburgh’s purpose and importance," explained English Heritage archaeologist Stewart Ainsworth.

"Not least of all the part it played in the defence of Britain in the early, dark days of World War Two," he added.

It seems the population of the nearby village of Craster knew very little about the radar station at the time.

Shows a photograph of two men standing, holding a piece of paper, in a grassy field against a backdrop of a stone pillbox and the sea in the distance.

Photo: local man William Archbold (right) tells archaeologist Stewart Ainsworth his memories of POWs interned in the area. © North News and Pictures.

When the local quarry’s aerial runway was dismantled, villagers were told that the enemy might have used it as a navigation marker. But, it now appears that it was taken down because the moving metal scoops would have looked like low-flying aircraft on a radar screen.

When the radar station closed down, Italian POWs were moved in and when the archaeologists cleared a mass of bushes, they found the remains of garden terraces similar to the vineyards and olive groves of the POWs’ homeland.

More than 70 locals recently took a guided tour of the area to see the team’s findings and were able to add their own pieces of information to the Dunstanburgh jigsaw puzzle.

William Archbold, 69, and his sister Winnie Hogg, 76, have lived in Craster all their lives and were able to recall the Italians vividly.

"I remember how the Italians had painted the huts with scenes of home, including a man sitting looking out across a lake at sunset," said William.

The coastline between the village and castle was protected by barbed wire, so villagers couldn’t get down to the sea, and the fields in front of the castle were sown with anti-personnel mines.

Both William and Winnie remember their father accidentally wandering into the minefield while out shooting rabbits and having to find his way out again very carefully.

"Foxes kept going in there, too, and setting the mines off," added William, "and every time there was an explosion, we all thought the Germans had invaded!"

Shows a photograph of two people walking in grassy field against backdrop of the ruined Dunstanburgh Castle and stone pillbox.

Photo: © North News and Pictures.

Using GPS (Global Positioning System) technology, the survey also examined land around the castle.

Three shallow medieval ornamental lakes or meres, a lost roadway with a stone entrance and the remains of a stone-built harbour were all found, as well as evidence of a much earlier prehistoric settlement underneath the castle.

"We now know that the castle, with its triple-gated outer perimeter, was larger and stronger than we first thought," said Stewart Ainsworth.

It is commonly believed that Dunstanburgh was built in response to Scottish raids, but Stewart says it was more likely to have been created as a showpiece for Earl Thomas, the richest man in England after the King.

"Silhouetted on the cliff edge, surrounded by its ornamental meres, with its elegant, modern towers, the castle was the perfect combination of architectural flamboyance and a dramatic setting," he said.

"Above all, Dunstanburgh was a political statement, a symbol of Earl Thomas’ wealth, power and status."

The team still want to talk to anyone who remembers the radar station or POW camp and National Trust archaeologist, Harry Beamish can be contacted on 01670 774691.

For more information about the three-week survey click on this link to visit the English Heritage website and read the archaeological team's diary.

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