Starlight Castle – Northumberland’s Ruined Folly

Tammy at Starlight Castle Seaton Sluice Holywell Dene
Queen of The Castle

Starlight Castle is an intriguing name. It sounds like a Romantic castle or a Gothic house perched high on a hill in a novel by Mary Shelley or Bram Stoker.

But what’s the story behind this mysterious castle not far from where I live in North East England?

Starlight Castle Seaton Delaval Northumberland
Starlight Castle

A Strange Tale

I’m lucky that I live near many beautiful castles in Northumberland, but this is one is different. It’s an imposter!

The first time I clocked Starlight Castle was when I spotted its name on an old map of Seaton Delaval, a coastal village near Blyth.

I knew that it was perched high above Holywell Dene but it was unclear how to get to it.

Many visitors had tried to find it without success, and were forced to retreat after getting tangled up in the undergrowth and woods.

Holywell Dene
The route to the castle – Holywell Dene

A Google search revealed very little information so there was no other choice than to go and find it myself.

We drove to Seaton Sluice, parked up and took the public footpath along the top end of Holywell Dene, a steep sided ancient woodland crossed by a small river known as the Seaton Burn.

At the start of the footpath there’s an information board which tells the story of the area’s history.

There’s also a mention of Starlight Castle with a picture dating from the 1920s but there are no signs to it along the walkway.

Holywell Dene Starlight Castle plaque
Holywell Dene information board

Looking at the latest Ordnance Survey map we found the ‘exact location’ so headed up a path which looked like it might lead to the castle.

Unfortunately it got steeper and steeper – and when we scrambled to the top, we found ourselves in an overgrown thicket.

But worse was to come – the path down was very slippery and there were few trees to cling onto. I thought that I was going to tumble down the bank and die horribly!

Holywell Dene Northumberland
Holywell Dene’s peaceful beck

Eventually I slid down slowly on my backside with a little help from my partner, Tony who used the ‘jammed foot’ technique to stop me rolling down to the bottom.

Breathing a huge sigh of relief, I looked at my war wounds. Just a few bruises, prickled arms and a very muddy bum!

After brushing myself down, I was adamant that we had to find the real route up. The OS map was clearly inaccurate so we started looking for other clues.

Starlight Castle in Holywell Dene
Ruins of Starlight Castle

Then we spotted a huge pile of old stones in Seaton Burn by the path along the beck. It was a clue that even Sherlock Holmes would’ve been proud of!

The boulders looked like they were probably the ruins of the castle’s original walls.

Not far from the stones we found a muddy path to the top of the bank and set off in the hope of finding the castle. This time we were in luck…

Starlight Castle in Holywell Dene
The overgrown Starlight Castle

Suddenly the castle appeared from behind the vegetation and I gave a little cheer that we’d discovered this secret place. What a great find!

It’s weird that this small chunk of the castle had survived the ravages of time. It was clearly once much bigger and visually prominent. But today it’s quite small with just an archway and the outer wall.

The mystery behind the castle was still puzzling me… so I searched for more clues.

Starlight Castle Holywell Dene
Starlight Castle archway

Searching for Starlight

The truth behind Starlight Castle is stranger than fiction… and like any good mystery, there’s a surprising story behind it.

Much of Holywell Dene lies within Seaton Delaval Hall and the Delaval Estate which was once owned by the wealthy Delaval family,

The family were known as the ‘Gay Delavals’ and were renowned for their flamboyant lifestyle and eccentric behaviour.

Seaton Delaval Hall
Seaton Delaval Hall

They were also known as pranksters. One famous jape was to turn a guest’s bedroom ‘upside down’, fixing the furniture to the ceiling.

Sir Francis Blake Delaval was one of its most colourful characters. He was a well-known womaniser who kept a string of mistresses.

With a bit of research, I learned that his most famous jape involved a female companion who was due to visit his estate in 1750.

Starlight Castle Holywell Dene
Lovers’ graffiti

Francis was stuck for somewhere to accommodate his mistress without drawing attention to his adulterous behaviour.

He came up with a brilliant idea. Why not build a hidden castle not far from his family’s country estate?

But his friend, the actor Samuel Foote, reminded him that castles couldn’t be built in a day.

Sir Francis Delaval c/o British Museum
Sir Francis Delaval c/o British Museum

Sir Francis was not a man to turn down a challenge.

He was a gambling man and renowned as ‘The Prankster’ for his love of practical jokes.

Francis made a wager of 100 guineas that he could build a castle in a day before the end of the month.

Inside Seaton Delaval Hall
Dir Francis’ family home

The wager was accepted and the race was on to build the structure in time. Sir Francis drew up plans and issued orders for a castle to be built.

Everything was done to win the bet. The building materials were made ready in advance, and there was a tight schedule.

A team of builders worked under the cover of starlight, and within 24 hours they’d completed the castle.

Holywell Dene
Staircase to Starlight Castle

Within 24 hours, a castle had been built on top of the hill above the dene. Starlight Castle was born.

Against the odds, Sir Francis had won the wager!

There was just one catch – and the final joke was with Sir Francis… the castle was really an elaborate hoax. It was a folly.

Starlight Castle
Remnants of a folly

Today only its few ruins remain, almost hidden amongst a tangle of brambles and trees.

Over the centuries the castle fell into disrepair and there is now little left of the original building.

It’s a small footnote to one of Northumberland’s strangest historic stories but the legend still endures.

Ruins of Starlight Castle
Ruins of Starlight Castle

It’s said that Starlight Castle was so named because it was builtwhen the stars were shining” and it was “completed by daylight”.

Whether this is a Romantic myth isn’t known, but it’s a fun story, even if it does sound implausible.

The structure is also referred to as Sterling Castle on some old local maps which might suggest that its name was altered later?

Holywell Dene
The tangled, tricky path to the castle

Nobody knows whether Sir Francis’ mistress ever stayed in the castle or if it was used by other visitors.

It was certainly a talking point for Sir Francis’ wealthy friends on their walks around the estate in the 1700s.

And what happened to Sir Francis? He spent much of his life in debt whilst enjoying extravagant parties. His life ended with a theatrical funeral.

Today his castle is abandoned, but it’s still a great conversation piece with a cracking yarn to be told.

Visiting the Castle

Starlight Castle
Starlight Castle from above

Starlight Castle is a little tricky to find but it you take the footpath along the top end of Seaton Burn, it’s relatively easy to locate.

Don’t trust the latest OS map… it’s wrong.

Walk along the footpath for about 350 metres and look for the pile of large stone blocks in the beck. Turn right and scramble up the path to the top of the hill where you’ll see the castle ahead of you.

Alternatively, for a gentler walk, proceed a little further along the footpath to the ‘pipeline’. You’ll see a proper staircase which winds its way gently to the castle.

Holywell Dene Starlight Castle path
Staircase to Starlight Castle

Turn right at the top of these steps and it’s a short distance along this path to the ruins of the castle. This is much easier-going under foot.

Return the same way – or take the path next to the castle down to the footpath below, being careful not to break your neck on the slippery bank.

The walk to Starlight Castle from Seaton Sluice and the nearby parking areas takes about 12 minutes one way.

Holywell Dene
The Seaton Beck footpath

On your return to the village of Seaton Sluice, take a walk around the interesting harbour with its pretty boats and sea views.

There’s also an old pub called the King’s Arms serving craft beers, the Tower House Art Gallery , and a fantastic fish ‘n’ chippie called The Harbour View.

It serves the best fish and chips on this coast in my humble opinion.

Seaton Sluice Northumberland
Seaton Sluice seafront

There are lots of good walks along this coastline… and there’s a good coastal bike path if you’re cycling.

There’s also an easy walk along the cliff tops in the direction of Whitley Bay and St Mary’s Island.

In the old harbour area, there’s a small museum and interpretation boards telling the fascinating history of Seaton Sluice and the Delaval family.

Seaton Sluice Northumberland
Seaton Sluice

Seaton Delaval Hall is located nearby – this National Trust is well worth a visit for its stunning architecture and fascinating family history.

Sir Francis Blake Delaval is just one of the Delavals buried in the Chapel of Our Lady within the grounds.

Seaton Delaval Hall
Seaton Delaval Hall

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