As a former County Archaeologist for Northumberland, I feel that I ought to pick a Northumbrian site as my favourite archaeological site – and what a lot of treasures there are to choose from. However, the site I am going to choose is in County Durham, and before 1974 was actually in Yorkshire. Scargill Castle was a very derelict ruin and listed on English Heritage’s Buildings at Risk Register in 1999 when it was bought by my husband-to-be as a wedding present for me! How can anything else compete with that?
While the place name ‘Scargill’ is Viking and suggests there was at least a small farm here from the perhaps the 10th century, Scargill Castle’s known history starts in the 12th century when it was constructed by Warren de Scargill while he was overseeing building work for the King at the nearby Bowes Castle. Scargill was rebuilt c.1550 as a Tudor dowager house for Mary Scargill the last of the direct family line. This consisted of a three-story gatehouse with extra mural stair which gave access to the buildings around a central courtyard.
Scargill fell into decline to become a farm labourer’s cottage by the 19th century and then became a target for the practicing Home Guard in the Second World War, thus rapidly increasing its decline. Although the castle was designated as a scheduled monument because it was considered to be nationally important, the roof had collapsed and the chimney smashed through the floors as a result of the target practice and the lack of subsequent maintenance.
Once the castle was bought as my wedding present, a long programme of restoration started with financial help from English Heritage, the European Union, and Teesdale District Council. As part of that restoration, the site was partially excavated by Channel 4 television’s The Time Team in 2009. Tony Robinson and his team set about uncovering the medieval origins of the castle through geophysical survey, excavation, and research into historic archives. It was during those frantic three days of filming that the medieval barmkin which surrounded the site was found, the medieval walls unpicked from the later Tudor ones and the later evocative remains of the last game in front of the fire uncovered – a pile of long cold ashes, two gaming dice, and a farthing of James I. You could almost feel the heat of the fire and hear the sounds of dice being thrown on a table, long since removed.
Scargill Castle’s restoration was completed in 2012 when it was transformed into a romantic retreat for two using traditional building skills and powered using the renewable energy sources of sun and air. So you can now stay at my favourite archaeological site – just visit the Scargill Castle webpage.