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The Present Past: Whittington Castle

This post is full of images. Whittington Castle changed hands through battle many times in the Medieval period; its place near the border being highly sought after by both English and Welsh alike. Perhaps the most notable of keepers, the Fitwaryns, legend has it, kept the Holy Grail hidden there.

There isn’t all that much to say about Whittington Castle in its present state. Whilst the site is full of history, few walls remain; suffice to say a lot of my visit comprised of guesswork and the sorts of dreams history-minded tourists are predisposed to have, fancying ourselves sitting at windows and at table and what have you. Suffice to say it has taken me this long to write about the place because part of me believes an image of arms held out and ‘this is it’ written below it would sum up the situation quite well.

Whittington Castle as it now stands is situated by a main road, the bridge and entrance facing the road almost as though it were just another residence. The gatehouse is actually Victorian, one of those faux-historical Victorian constructions, and the only part that remains intact (even if the very fact of its Victorianhood makes such a fact less awe-inspiring). Other than the gatehouse there is a barn-like building, newer, that houses the shop (here I must thank the assistant who ran after me when I left my camera there), a tearoom, a couple of crumbling towers, and patches of stonework. You get a sense of where rooms were, but by and large you have to use your imagination, especially as what’s left presents a false impression – the castle would have been larger than it appears.

Modernity, presumably the trust that looks after the castle, has placed a bridge across the moat and a small gazebo overlooking a field/garden. Given that it is free to visit and that the walls have crumbled, you can approach the castle from a few places, namely the car park and the bridge. If approaching from the left, you can get a sense of where the left side of the stone buildings would have been. (Somehow viewing the castle from the left makes it seem bigger – I was a little silly and didn’t think to take a photograph from this angle but there are plenty online.)

I believe the room at the top of the gatehouse is used for parties of some sort but the castle as a whole is taken over once a year by a re-enactment society, Historia Normannis, that focuses on the many battles that took place. I wasn’t there at that time but I imagine such an event would make the castle seem greater than it now does. As with many historical sites, ghost stories abound. There are many, it seems, which surely fits the situation.

Where it is hard to assume which rooms were which there is positive side to visiting for visiting’s sake – the landscape. It is by a road and you will never escape that, but the moat is lovely, the field a nice place for a walk, and it is incredibly quiet on account of Whittington being so small.

Can I recommend it? Tough question. Is it worth a trip for the average tourist, especially someone with little time in England? No, it is not; you would likely feel you’d wasted your time. Is it worth a trip if you are really into Medieval history? Yes, though you would want to make it part of a day because it really only takes a few minutes to view everything unless you are intent on walking through every part. It’s difficult – this place is full of history but that history has long gone.

The rest of my photos. I’m aware this is messy!

Where are you planning to visit this year (or, if you live in the southern hemisphere, where did you go this summer)?

The Present Past: A La Ronde

Please note this post is full of images and as such not very ‘neat’. A La Ronde was built in the 18th century by two unmarried female cousins and was to be inherited only by unmarried kinswoman. It was sold at auction and opened for visitors in 1935.

A La Ronde was built by a couple of cousins for a specific purpose. Its name being obvious, there is more than meets the eye to this circular building – it was built such that in the days before artificial light, the sisters could follow the sun round the house, using as much time as possible to work on their embroidery.

A La Ronde is not a big house, at least in the grand scheme of things (it’s certainly bigger than anywhere I have lived!) and whilst it sports an excellent view, the grounds are fairly small and is really just one field – so whilst I’d recommend you visit, I’d also recommend you don’t plan to make a day of it.

Once you’ve passed through the shop you enter the house through the main doors which, if you’ve visited even just a few historical buildings, you’ll realise makes a welcome change. The hallway is fairly grand yet simple – a beautiful mahogany staircase (that you can’t ascend but will later descend) and your first glimpse of the interior design. Given the nature of the house, the semi-linear directions you are supposed to take (as opposed to walking around freely) make a lot of sense.

For lack of any other suitable place to say so, I will say now that you get to see a rather lot of the house. Certainly the fact that it’s not so old and it’s relative lack of importance overall (the sisters are not famous and this is of course no castle) likely help, as there are will be less visitors and fewer items to be damaged, but given your overall welcome, I expect passion and the desire to show others had a role to play, too. I counted four closed doors, there are probably a few more, but not anywhere near the amount that makes tourists grumble. More on the closed sections later.

So, through the entrance and to the left into the drawing room. It’s tiny, as most of the rooms are, but hosts a pretty fireplace and a rather large tapestry woven by the sisters that the enthusiastic room guides will inevitably tell you about supposing the building is not jam packed. I didn’t take a photograph of this room, partly for the size (the furniture makes it awkward) but mostly because the room guide was stood in the centre and whilst I’ve no doubt she would have moved she’d spent a good few minutes telling us about the room and making a request would’ve made me feel rude. However as this is the least interesting room for photographs anyway, in my opinion, I was not too worried.

On into the library, the smallest cubbyhole you’re likely to see in a historical house. The poor composition of my photograph hopefully infers the size.

Into the music room and a sighting of the most gigantic radiator I’d ever seen. It’s a wonderful contraption that I’ve no doubt would’ve been appreciated in the larger houses I’ve been to. So large is it, in fact, that I didn’t realise it was a heating system until the guide told us.

The music room is the place you’re introduced to the house hobby – shell collecting. This house is absolutely chock-full of seashells. Whole cabinets of seashells, hallways full of them. It’s a nice collection as it’s the cousins’ own rather than anything imported from elsewhere.

Of course there are the instruments. An antique clavichord (it may have been a harpsichord) stands weakly against a wall and quite rightly you must not touch it. The small Grand, on the other hand, you may play, in fact it’s positively requested that you do. The room guides spoke of the many wonderful afternoons spent listening to expert players and the joy, if not artistic creativity, of children playing chopsticks.

From here you go up the stairs, carefully, as they are small and spiral. With your eye for all things literary you’re going to spot the old Dickens collection. Don’t listen to your partner when they tell you to hurry up – it’s worth a few moments.

A bedroom. A gorgeous, very Victorian, sunny room. The views are fantastic, the windows created so that you can appreciate them to the full (both the view and the windows themselves). The room guide had us smell an old-fashioned soap that made me feel strange when I noted it’s one I’ve used myself. It’s not a nice smell but I didn’t realise it was so old! A dumb waiter stands in the corner; you can see the bottom of it downstairs.

The next room hasn’t been furnished as it’s been set aside for children to play dress up and pose for photos. I declined the dress shown to me but did take a photograph. There is one more room to see on this floor, it’s used as a sort of second-hand book shop, and the rest are private. Here is the note I spoke of discussing earlier – at the end of the hall, beside the stairs (next to which is a well-reasoned caution as the landing is tiny) is a private office with a photograph of the interior on the door. It’s an excellent idea that I can’t but hope the staff will extend to the rest of the private rooms. You may not be able to go into those rooms and they might be furnished as 21st century offices, but a photograph goes a long way to making it less of a pity.

Just before you head down the stairs you can look up the closed-off second flight to see the grotto on the second floor. Whilst you can’t enter it, you can see enough to realise what it is and it might just take your breath away. Obviously a small attic/sun room space, the walls have been decorated with shells, no gap left unfilled. When you return downstairs you can view the room from another angle due to a double-floor hallway, and there are also objects and photographs to give you a better look. The grotto is undergoing restoration but whether or not it’ll be opened to the public is another question. I would hazard to guess it won’t happen simply because the room is so small. Yes they could put some protective layer over the walls but that would make an already small floor pretty impossible to walk on, and it’s likely the constant flow of visitors would cause the room to deteriorate. A La Ronde is thus a place I would loved to see covered on a television documentary.

As said before, you get to descend the stairs. This is when you enter the second hallway, as it were – a round room from which other rooms lead into. In the living room, which is actually too rooms opened into one, the frieze (along the top of the wall and along the mantelpiece of the fireplace in the photograph to the left) is made entirely of feathers. As far as I remember I believe these feathers were collected from the ground rather than from any hunted bird, though I could be wrong. Artistic, too, are the works in the frames, too small to capture here – pictures made of tiny shells. It is a beautiful room, full of light when I was there. You’ll find photographs of the hallway and frieze below.

The dining room is small and pretty and then there are a few basic rooms with more shells and examples of the uniquely shaped windows. You end your visit via the basement/lower floor (given the hill) wherein you can eat in the tea room or simply pass through and see the last cabinet of shells.

There are few flowers to see in the grounds and, as previously stated, no garden of the sort you might expect to see elsewhere. The view is worth a good several minutes, and there is a small obelisk to see and a short walk around the grounds to be had if you so wish.

You’ll find more photographs of the view in the collection below, but for now here is one in which you can just make out the Exe Estuary in the background.

Nice building? Check. Beautiful surroundings? Check. And as the members of staff at any one historical place can make the difference between your wanting to return and wanting to never come back I will say that they’re passionate and will talk to you for a good while. They definitely add to the experience.

Visit A La Ronde in the round before you circle back along the road to somewhere else.

The rest of my photos (and afterwards a question for you). I’m aware this is messy!

Setting aside for a moment the fact we have artificial light now, what do you think of the idea of following the sun round the house?

The Present Past: Ludgershall Castle

Ludgershall Castle

Ludgershall Castle is thought to have been built in the 1100s. It was both a residence (royal as well as civilian) and a hunting lodge. It stands today on land surrounded by dwellings and the earthworks of an Iron Age fort.

I agree, the name is a mouthful. We pronounced it ‘luggershawl’ and hoped for the best. Ludgershall Castle is one of those buildings where little remains but there was little to begin with so you can visit it without much sadness at what has been lost – what you see isn’t far off from what you’d have got in the past. As a small residence and later hunting lodge, there was no need for fortification, and even though the mote (quite likely as dry then as it is now) and bridge suggests grandeur, it was likely more for effect.

Ludgershall Castle

What stands today are the remains of the almost miniature keep and the first few layers of the walls of the rest of the castle. The bridge is obvious and intact enough to see where the joists would have been, but really the attraction is the location – due to the mote and the landscape in general it’s hard to believe there wasn’t a photographer involved in the construction as the hill makes for the perfect view. But then the view was likely the point and a possible reason there wasn’t substantial fortification.

You can walk amongst the walls and admission is free. The earthworks appear to be on private land but they are so hilly you get a good view from the outside, and they’re overgrown enough that you’d likely gain little but insect bites anyway.

Ludgershall Castle

The Great Hall is the first room from the (modern) entrance gate – the castle is on public land, basically in a field – and then there is the chapel and various bedrooms and kitchens. One assumes there were a few floors to the buildings.

Indeed it is so small a castle that when my boyfriend said “this is Prince Edward’s chamber”, I didn’t believe him. Edward’s chamber is barely the size of half a tennis court, and even if he was a baby at the time, it is a very small room for a royal. The drawings by English Heritage suggest that there were indeed a couple of floors. Either that or the builder had a longing for rural life a la Marie Antoinette and her shepherdess roles.

Ludgershall Castle

The keep looks bigger than it is. The remains are enough to show that it was barely big enough for a staircase, and it’s more likely it was used for storage or just as a vantage point. It’s infinitely preferable to walk through it and admire it from the outside.

There isn’t much to see at Ludgershall but that makes it a relaxing option for a day out, full of picnic possibility. It was the perfect choice for this castle lover and her tired-of-castles-now boyfriend. And the views were amazing.

Ludgershall Castle

Just be careful of the insects flying about and hiding in the grass. Maybe that’s why there was little fortification and a dry mote. Water’s got nothing on a swarm of insects.

The rest of my photos. If you want to see them full size, right click and open them in a new window/tab.

The Present Past: Rochester Castle

Rochester castle was the home of archbishops. Built in the 1000s, the keep in the 1100s, it stands today in rather good condition.

Rochester Castle is a keep surrounded by the standard fort walls. The grounds are open to the public and the location, on a hill, provides a fair view of the city. Situated at the end of the present-day High Street it is in the perfect position for anyone wanting to continue their day with shopping or further sight-seeing, and it commands pride of place along with the cathedral.

Describing a tour of the castle is rather easy because the path takes you round and round the same area. Or at least it’s the same area now that the dividing walls are gone. You don’t always go quite the way round, as some hallways are blocked off (unlike other castles, this doesn’t feel a loss), and a great deal of your time is spent on the stairs. These stairs deserve a special mention as they are rather wide for a medieval building. It doesn’t seem so crazy to think that some forward-thinker designed them. In addition it’s worth pointing out that English Heritage have added handrails to both sides of the wall – anyone who usually has trouble with old steps may find this visit particularly worthwhile.

To get to the keep you use the outer stairs built by modernity. You enter into the ticket office/shop, which is one of the two surviving complete rooms. It’s a good room for showing you what the castle might have looked like.

You go through the glass doors (modern again, strangely enough) and walk onto a platform that is representative of where the ground floor would have been. This moment might just prove to be in the realms of epic – you can see almost the entirety of the room-space in the castle from here. The food store below you, the Great Hall above you, the roof.

You walk around and then up the first section of one of the sets of stairs (the management have designated a single tower for the climbing). Into the chapel, a sectioned room that has a canvas covering at the top. There are the usual information boards as well as a mini reconstruction of the castle.

Across the hallway landing, up the stairs to the next level. You can walk along the hallway at the level of the Great Hall and a parallel mural gallery. You walk all the way round and up the stairs again where you get a view of the same rooms from higher up. There is a wonderful view of the cathedral on one side. Again you ascend the stairs to get a slightly different perspective. When you reach the top you are able to walk the battlements and view a couple of the towers. The view of the landscape is exquisite.

All the way back down. Be careful of the other visitors, for all the space on the stairs spirals aren’t brilliant for our 21st century bodies.

Down the stairs to the bottom you can view the food store from another platform. If you want you can walk down into the cesspit, too. I didn’t take a photograph of it. You’re welcome.

It may just have been my imagination but the cesspit smelt interesting – then again it’s basically a cave with a small entrance. My mum, who accompanied me, wondered why we had to use a platform instead of being able to walk on the ground. I’m more than happy not to have the opportunity to walk where people’s waste was, a gap of several centuries or not.

And that is the castle. There is another, ruined, tower and a sort of gatehouse that appears in private use, but that is it. Rochester Castle is incredibly impressive, but if looked at on a room-by-room basis, there isn’t much there.

Rochester makes for an awesome experience, and if you’re on a history high, Upnor Castle is just 10 minutes up the road. You can also visit the afore-mentioned cathedral which has an amazing crypt.

I loved Rochester, it is one of the most well-preserved castles I’ve visited thus far, despite the lack of the old dividing walls, and it is a lot easier to walk around than others.

As for the town itself it bares mentioning, given the literary focus of this site. Rochester was a favoured place of Charles Dickens. I didn’t actually know this at first, it was only upon realising there was a theme to the shop names that I pulled out my phone to research. Dickens loved Rochester so much that there’s a memorial plaque for him in the cathedral.

Rochester is the place to go if you’ve seen medieval castles and felt underwhelmed by what’s left. Whether I just happened to go on the ‘wrong’ day or whether it’s the norm, the only people around were Brits. So I’ll say this: international tourists, it would be a mistake not to factor this one into your plans.

The rest of my photos. If you want to see them full size, right click and open them in a new window/tab.

The Present Past: Upnor Castle

Upnor Castle was an Elizabethan military fort. It was used as a castle until 1667.

Upnor Castle is somewhat hidden away just beyond the boundaries of possibly the loviest village I’ve ever come across. Truly visible only from the river, the castle’s placement is intriguing yet understandable – the river is small but it leads into the North Sea.

This castle is unlike, in nature, any I’ve previously documented here – created as a military fort only, the rooms lack any sort of homely feel, and there are none of the rooms you generally expect to find in a castle. Instead there is a lot of brick work and storage space.

The side of Upnor that looks most castle-like is the one that faces the river. Aptly it looks a little foreboding, and alludes to a larger size than the castle actually is. The side you enter is little more than a gatehouse and courtyard. In all there are four buildings – the gatehouse, the main block, and two towers. And everything is small to boot.

The entrance to the gatehouse sports a large fireplace, and it’s easy to assume that this place was the destination of many a solider on a cold winter’s night. You’re able to walk up the stairs, a few flights, to various rooms. The rooms at Upnor are mainly bare, with simple (and sometimes non-existent) descriptions of what they housed. You can see the workings of the clock in one of them, and the dressing room. You can walk up to the roof.

In the main building, across the tiny courtyard, is the storage room, aptly furnished with barrels and hosting artefacts. Up the rickety stairs is a room of ghostly models and advertisements to say that this, the room, can be used for weddings. If I were to be married in a castle I’d personally opt for something more stereotypical, Hever for example, especially as the smell here is awful. I don’t know what it is but it’s definitely something gone off or something historical (maybe both) and any Chanel no.5 would be quickly replaced by Chanel no. 1600s.

From the first, ground floor, room in this building there are steps down which lead to the river front. The view is pretty enough and you can spend some time in vain, as I did, trying to a get a photograph of the entirely of this most castle-like side.

You can go back up the stairs or you can take the eerie tunnel. We take the tunnel. It’s long, and if Upnor is haunted then this seems the place (ironically I’m writing this in a place that is most certainly haunted). You then come outside the castle and enter the left tower (left to the gatehouse). There are more empty rooms and you have to be careful on the stairs because there is the potential to fall through the gaps. At the time I visited the roof wasn’t open to visitors.

Across the way and there is the right tower. A door level with the courtyard or a flight of steps takes you to the same place. In the tower are the historical toilets and another fireplace. Back in the courtyard there is a door that appears to go to a cellar but only takes you outside the walls. The shop and ticket office were barracks, but you can’t look around them.

And that’s Upnor. Small, unassuming, but likely a nasty surprise for the Dutch it was built to fight against.

The rest of my photos. If you want to see them full size, right click and open them in a new window/tab.


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