Northumberland is world-renowned for its vast collection of castles. Alnwick, Bamburgh, Warkworth, Dunstanburgh, Lindisfarne, should I go on? These castles, in various states of repair and disrepair are the most widely known because of their historical importance and their prominent locations either directly on the coastline or in important towns.
Whilst we love everything about Northumberland, and have visited these honey pot attractions, they don’t really fit with our away-from-the-tourist-trail exploring ethos. There is, however, a castle almost on the doorstep of our home which is little-known, and probably even lesser visited.
I say ‘castle’. It certainly wasn’t built as a fortification or stronghold of any kind. It’s a folly; a whimsical ornamental building with no significant purpose. We love follies. We’ve visited dozens of follies around the region but finding one within such close proximity to our home was a real treat; I’ve lived in the area my whole life and had no idea it was there until a couple of years ago. Funny the things you overlook isn’t it.
Starlight Castle sits high on the banks of the Holywell Dene as it flows through Seaton Sluice and out into the North Sea. Where once it commanded a prominent position on the grassy slopes, now it is shrouded in trees and shrub so high and overgrown it’s difficult to find unless you know it’s there. At some distant point no longer in the memory of any living locals this folly was vaguely intact. I found this grainy but interesting image on a website which shows how it looked at that distant point. It looks fairly impressive and dominating, but in fact it’s a very small structure.
Photo Credit: Spirit of Place
It may be small, and not even a castle, but its story is worth telling. It was built in 1750 by Sir Francis Blake Delaval. He was the successor to the Seaton Delaval Hall estate, taking it over two years later from his father. Francis was a keen gambler, and the tale of Starlight goes that someone wagered that he couldn’t build a ‘dwelling fit for a lady’ in a day. Construction began on one night by the light of the stars and was completed the following day, hence the name Starlight Castle. Whether this is pure folklore or there are any grains of truth is unclear; it’s certainly a fun story and Francis Delaval’s reputation as a man of some frivolity certainly gives it credence. Delaval’s obituary described him as “‘the very soul of frolic and amusement (who) overbalanced a few foibles by a thousand amiable qualities”.
Photo Credit: Wikipedia
Very little remains of the folly nowadays. A corner of wall with an archway is all that’s left to see of this 260 year old wager. When Gordon and I visited it was very overgrown and difficult to get any photographs of, so I’ve had to use existing photos to show it. Ordinarily I wouldn’t want to do this, but I love the tale of Starlight so much I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to tell it.
Photo Credit: Great British Bike Rides
Continuing along the dene at the foot of the bank there’s evidence of the gradual submission of Starlight to the elements. 260+ years of harsh coastal winters and the slow repossession of nature sees dressed stones now tumbled down the length of the burn like haphazardly laid stepping-stones. It’s a shame this folly was never salvaged. It will no doubt continue to degrade until nothing remains of it but the stepping-stones and folk tales of the estate’s namesake. For now though, it stands; the inconspicuous outsider to the Delaval estate. The comedy addition to the rather grand country house that is Seaton Delaval Hall. Francis Delaval junior’s very own 18th century tree house.