Changes over time give tower surrealistic feel

Cuthbert, the 7th and last Lord Ogle, died at Cockle Park in 1598. The Bothal estates, of which it forms a part, passed to the dukes of Portland, but the Tower continued for an unknown period of time to be occupied by Lord Ogle's female relations.

Monday, 23rd January 2017, 1:11 pm

It was briefly held by one of the factions during the Civil War, but by 1695 was occupied by a farmer called Milburn.

Eneas Mackenzie, writing in 1811, says the then tenant was “Mr Bean, a respectable farmer.”

In 1828 the estate became the Duke of Portland’s experimental farm. In 1855 the Tower was occupied by his land-steward William Dickinson, and in 1895 the ground floor housed the farm dairy.

The present experimental farm dates from 1896, when the university, then Durham University, took it over with the support of the county council.

Mackenzie describes how the southern wing was burnt down “about 400 years ago”, but is now "elegantly repaired”.

The date of the fire is doubtful, but that of the repairs can be inferred from two pictures of the Tower. In 1774 it still had Tudor-style mullioned windows, while in 1830 or so, when Edward Swinburne drew it, it had arched windows. Whatever their date, such major alterations would only be done for a specially valued occupier.

The Tudor-style windows were certainly put in for the benefit of members of the Ogle family. But the late 18th or early 19th century ones must have been for an ordinary farm tenant, or perhaps for the agent.

There is a marked disparity in floor levels between the north and south wings of the Tower. When Bibby saw it in 1978, the two parts were separated by a solid wall of old, hand-made bricks, as shown in his north-south cross-section.

Observing that the ground floor at the north end was barrel-vaulted, he proposed that this vault used to extend through the whole length of the building, but that the interior of the southern half was remodelled to raise the height of the ground floor, with a knock-on effect on the floors above. Except on the ground floor, the two wings were separated with solid brick walls, each side having its own staircase.

He admits that his theory raises as many questions as it answers. The Tudor-style windows are at the same level as the later arched windows, which suggests that the alteration to the floor levels may have been done in the 16th or 17th century, despite the fact that cross-border raids were still going on.

As part of a major structural renovation between 2007 and 2012, the brick walls at first and second floor levels were breached to allow access between the two sides so that short sets of steps now block the doorways on the downward side.

Normally when you visit a castle, everything is starkly medieval. But here, medieval fireplaces and window seats share space with Bakelite light switches and patterned wallpaper.

The effect is surrealistic — hooks that might have been used for hanging venison stick out of the ceiling, a fireplace stands in front of a window, a coal-burning stove in cream enamel, circa the 1950s, occupies a 19th century fireplace.

The rooms are divided off with stud walling, one decorated with 1970s wallpaper, another with brightly coloured modernist rectangles.

This is not to say that the Tower feels lived in. It doesn’t, and it’s interesting to compare it with Chibburn Preceptory.

Chibburn was rebuilt as a dower house in the 1550s, at about the same time as the first modernisation at Cockle Park. The dower house there still has its massive medieval-style fireplaces, but at some point, possibly in the 18th century and probably coinciding with the insertion of the arched windows, the southern half of Cockle Park had ‘modern’ fireplaces installed.

While kitchens and pantries might still have stone walls, with strings of onions and sides of bacon hanging from the ceiling, parlours and bedrooms had plastered walls and were hung with wallpaper and pictures. Fireplaces had tiled surrounds and elegant mantelpieces in marble or wood.

This is a matter in which Bibby was a staunch medievalist. The ancient fireplaces are “great”, “cavernous”, “superb” and “a noble sight”. The modern ones, by contrast, are “small and unnoteworthy”, “simple iron fireplaces”, “a mean iron unit”.

But the farmers and their wives who occupied the Tower in the 18th and 19th centuries were no doubt glad of their iron fireplaces. Such a fireplace, lovingly black-leaded in its regency surround, will burn coal, and not only was it more refined, but the coal gave out more heat.

There are plans to bring the building back into use, perhaps by making it into a venue for seminars and exhibitions, but no money to do the work.

Acknowledgments: My thanks to the Farm Manager David Watson for a conducted tour of the interior, and to Kim Bibby-Wilson for permission to use quotations and diagrams from the late Roland Bibby’s articles in Northumbriana.