Exploring England 2015, Part 5 – Castles and Grand Houses

Saturday, Dec 19, 2015 at 16:08


England is awash with castles and grand houses. They have simply accumulated over the past 10 centuries, built and rebuilt over the years. Some are small and functional, while others are lavish beyond imagination. Many are in ruins but many too are still occupied, sometimes with part of the building open to the public to help defray what must be horrendous maintenance costs. Even a short visit to these varied places provides a fascinating walk through British history. A visit brings life, perspective and meaning to that which was previously barely comprehended or found only in the pages of dusty textbooks.
In our 2 month visit we visited a number of castles and houses. All would require numerous return visits to properly see all that they have to offer, so what we saw is only a superficial glimpse.
Within an easy drive of Cambridge we saw four very different places.
Madingley Hall, was built in 1543 and occupied as a family residence until the 1860s. It is surrounded by beautiful gardens and parkland. Queen Victoria rented the Hall in 1860 for her son Edward (the future King Edward VII) to live in while he was an undergraduate at Cambridge University. It is now used by the University so we only saw the exterior of the house.

Nearby Oxburgh House sits square and proud, surrounded by a moat. Half the house is occupied. The rooms that are open to visit are very dark with wood panelling and leather “wallpaper”. We saw many opulent carved pieces ranging from furniture to ivory pieces (pity the poor elephants). A tiger skin - complete with head, looked sad, a reminder that some things at least have changed for the better. We enjoyed lunch in a sheltered part of the garden followed by a walk in the woods.

Castle Rising is a ruined medieval fortification built about 1140. It is now largely in ruins although it is surrounded by massive earthworks and double ditches. This Norman motte-and-bailey castle is a fortification with a wooden or stone keep situated on a raised earthwork called a motte, accompanied by an enclosed courtyard, or bailey, surrounded by a protective ditch and palisade. There is a very pretty little village adjoining the castle.
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Blickling Hall is part of a large Estate. This Jacobean house was built in 1625 and shows Flemish influences in its architecture. It has gone through many changes to reach its present Victorian form with dark wood panelling making the rooms very heavy looking. On display are many superb tapestries; one is so large a special room had to be built to accommodate it. There is a magnificent library with thousands of significant books from the 18th century. Anne Boleyn was born at Blickling in an earlier house on the site.

In Kent we spent a day at beautiful Hever Castle where Anne Boleyn spent her childhood. Anne was the second wife of Henry VIII and Mother of Elizabeth I. A moated castle, Hever dates back to the 13th century and formed the unlikely backdrop to a sequence of tumultuous events that changed the course of Britain’s history, monarchy and religion. The castle was refurbished and extended by the William Waldorf Astor in 1890s and a section of the Castle is dedicated to its more recent history, containing pictures and memorabilia relating to the Astor family and the Edwardian period. To get beyond the ground floor it was necessary to climb the narrow spiral stairs – however did ladies wearing long skirts manage? Once upstairs there are fascinating displays, including armour and gruesome torture devices as well as a prayer book used by Anne at the time of her execution.

A week in Dorset gave us time to explore some impressive buildings there. The first were the old and new Sherborne Castles. The old castle, in ruins since the Civil War dates from the 12th century. The new castle was built by Sir Walter Raleigh as a country lodge. In the First World War the house was used by the Red Cross as a hospital and in the Second World War as the headquarters for the commandos involved in the D-Day landings. On the day of our visit we encountered heavy traffic around the site and found that a country fair was being held in the castle grounds. The house was closed and the grounds were crowded but despite that we had a great day seeing an unexpected side of English country life.

We were reminded again of the D-Day landings when we visited Portland Castle on the coast near Wymouth. This small sturdy building was one of a string of coastal forts built by Henry VIII as protection against an invasion by Catholic Europeans, including the French. His many marriages and quest for a male heir certainly had far reaching consequences. The D-Day link there is in the form of huge concrete caissons that were towed to Normandy to make temporary harbours during the landings.

Further east, Corfe Castle is an impressive sight despite its ruined state. Sitting atop a natural motte it is surrounded by massive stone walls with round defensive towers. Although the site has a long history of occupation, the castle was built in 1086 by William the Conqueror and was held by royalty until 1572. This was home to Kings, a place where a King was murdered, intrigues were plotted, prisoners of state were held, and for a while it was the stately home of wealthy and important families. Under the resolute leadership of Lady Mary Bankes the castle supported the Royalist cause during the Civil War. It withstood sieges and assaults for 3 years until it was finally captured, looted and partially demolished in 1646. From the remaining sections of the castle still standing there are wonderful views over the rolling Purbeck Hills and the adjoining village that is built all in stone with unusual slate roofing.

Along the Welsh borders near Bristol noble Raglan Castle is possibly the finest late medieval fortress in Britain. Raglan was one of the very last castles built in Britain and shows strong French influences in its design. It was begun in 1435 and built on a lavish scale, creating a sumptuous, richly embellished palace with formal state apartments and the Great Gate. For all its opulence Raglan was built for defence as well, for it endured one of the longest sieges (11 weeks) of the Civil War. When the castle eventually fell Cromwell's engineers did their best to destroy the massive Great Tower, but failed.

A couple of snippets: the cellars – were made to hold about 500 casks of wine. The worn but still beautiful carvings high on the walls are all that remains of the long gallery. If the carvings are anything to go by, it must have been a very impressive gallery indeed.

In the same area is impressive Goodrich Castle. The original 'Godric's Castle' was established in 1095 by Godric Marplestone who held the manor at the time of the Domesday Survey of 1086. Standing high on a rock outcrop above the River Wye, Goodrich Castle is a striking ruin. A red sandstone keep was constructed in the middle of the 12th century. Today the keep is 60 feet tall but it was originally much higher and would probably have had battlements. During the latter part of the 13th century four immense walls were built around the keep and at three corners were built cylindrical towers with square bases, a feat of geometry, and architecture, and a tribute to the stone mason’s craft. On the fourth corner a great gatehouse was constructed. This led out to a semi-circular barbican which was designed to force any attackers to make a right-angled turn to reach the gateway leaving them vulnerable to the missiles and arrows of the defenders. The castle was also provided with drawbridges and great doors and portcullises well supplied with loops for the castle's bowmen.

Goodrich Castle became the scene of one of the most desperate sieges during the English Civil War. The castle was one of the few remaining Royalist strongholds supporting Charles I. It suffered the loss of its horses when the stables were burned down. Then Parliamentary attacks broke the pipe carrying water into the castle, and the cisterns in the courtyard were destroyed by exploding shells. The siege was finally broken when the Parliamentary forces constructed an enormous mortar called "Roaring Meg", able to fire a gunpowder-filled shell of 85–90kg. Roaring Meg, (which is on display in the courtyard) was used in a close-range attack on the NW tower, which collapsed. Down to their last four barrels of gunpowder and thirty barrels of beer the Royalists surrendered.

Further east near Oxford we spent a few hectic hours at Blenheim Palace, birthplace of Winston Churchill. We visited on 6th June, joining lengthy queues to enter the grounds after paying a steep entrance fee. We were quite unaware that it was the anniversary of the Normandy landings. Consequently the palace, huge and vast though it is, was packed with goggle-eyed visitors. We joined a one-way crowded circuit through some of the rooms but the crush of people made for a less than enjoyable tour. Still Sir Winston with an entourage of service personnel was present to greet guests, and an 80% scale model of a Spitfire, built in Brisbane, was on display in the huge front courtyard.

On the west coast of Scotland north of Oban we enjoyed evocative views of Castle Stalker perched on its little island where the tide rises and falls around it. The name "Stalker" comes from the Gaelic Stalcaire, meaning "hunter" or "falconer". We did not visit, as it is now fully restored and a private residence. Stalker will be familiar to Monty Python fans, although its real history over several hundred years is even more colourful.

Just north of Oban we walked around Dunstaffnage Castle where the outer walls are perched on a big rocky base surrounded on three sides by water. Only the outer walls appeared to remain, with a Georgian style house peeping incongruously over the top of the ancient walls which, like most of the castles in this area, have witnessed many turbulent times.

While visiting aptly named Loch Awe we braved a brisk wind and misty drizzle to walk along a rather muddy track to Kilchurn Castle which is perched dramatically on a rocky peninsula near the head of the loch. It was built in about 1450 by Sir Colin Campbell, initially as a residence, before being later converted into a barracks. The functional life of the castle came to a sudden halt when the top of a tower was struck by lightning in 1760. Despite the cold wind and steep winding stairs there were wonderful views to be had from the upper floors, with patches of sun as it broke through the clouds lighting up the loch stretching away to the south.

Blair Castle is near the village of Blair Atholl in central Scotland. Dating from the 13th century it presents a fairy-tale picture of towering white walls and towers capped with steep conical roofs. It was not open when we visited but we were able to admire the building as we strolled around the extensive gardens. Its inevitable history of war and rebellion is hinted at in the series of guns arrayed along the front of the castle.

Although we did not actually enter Edinburgh Castle during our few short hours in the city, we did walk up the steep hill that is topped by the historic fortress that dominates the skyline from its position on Castle Rock. Tattoo time was approaching and huge banks of seating were being erected along either side of the famous sloping and surprisingly small parade ground. Having watched the tattoo many times on TV it was quite a thrill to be on that parade ground, along with hundreds of other tourists.

A train ride south from Edinburgh took us to historic York for a few final days of exploration. Our top floor apartment was near the river and close to the heart of the city, in easy walking distance of the old city walls and Cliffords Tower. This dramatic landmark sits atop a high motte and access is via steep stone steps. It is the largest remaining part of York Castle, a motte and bailey castle, once the centre of government for the north of England. The 11th-century timber tower on top of the earth mound was burned down in 1190, after York’s Jewish community, some 150 strong, was besieged here by a mob and committed mass suicide. The present 13th-century stone tower was probably used as a treasury and later as a prison. There are sweeping views over the city from the top of the tower.

Right next to York Minster is the Treasurer’s House, initially the home of the Treasurer of the Minster before becoming the residence of the Archbishop of York. The house was restored to its present state by Frank Green, a wealthy local industrialist, between 1897 and 1930. The house and its contents were given to the National Trust in 1930, when its owner retired. The house was built directly over one of the main Roman roads leading out of Roman York to the North. Four Roman column bases have been uncovered, one of which remains in-situ in the cellar and one of which was used as a base for a modern set of columns in the main hall.
There is also a well-documented story of the ghost of Roman centurion who appeared to a young apprentice plumber in 1953. We went on the Ghost tour, donning hard hats and following our guide through low tunnels into the part of the basement where the ghostly centurions appeared. If you never believed in ghosts before, the story of Harry Martindale would make you have serious second thoughts.

It is hard to sum up what these visits to random houses and castles have meant. Suffice to say that they bring history to life in a way that history lessons never did. They have shown us how our ancestors lived or may have aspired to live, often in damp and uncomfortable conditions when compared to our modern conveniences. They tell a story of conflict and bloodshed that also reminds us of how hard fought our gains in government and democracy have been. They tell of wealth and poverty, of exploitation and adventure. I doubt that in these quick sketches I have done justice to these places, but if your curiosity and imagination is piqued Mr Google has lots more facts that will intrigue you.
J and V
"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."
- Albert Einstein
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