Croft Castle – a love letter.

You know how it is when you fall in love with someone, they might be odd or quirky or ugly or strange, but for some reason you can’t explain, you find them intoxicating, your spine starts to tingle and you feel all excited. Other people may well be immune to their charms, but you’re not, you’re enchanted.

Well, I have to tell you, hand on heart, I love Croft Castle. And I just wanted to tell you that first, because I’m not sure you’ll feel the same way. You may look at these photos or visit yourself (or may have visited) and think to yourself what on earth is she going on about. After all, Croft Castle isn’t particularly grand, it’s not full of priceless treasures it isn’t really A-list heritage, (it isn’t really even a proper castle), but for some reason I fell under its spell way back in the 1970s when I first visited, and I still feel the same to this day.

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So accepting that I’m a pitiful fan-girl for this house, why would anyone not fixated by it want to visit? Well here are my highlights…

Inside the house

The interior decor is largely early Gothic revival (by T. F. Pritchard) so lots of pointy arches, elegant plaster work, exquisite mirrors, long corridors and tasteful decoration. It’s not what you expect from the outside.

The Library is a pale ochre-orange, with white bookcases. I should tell you that I’ve often fantasized about moving my own books in there – oh yes, (although to be entirely honest it might need an extra couple of IKEA Billy’s to fit them all in).

Sit in the gloriously panelled Oak Room and look out across to the Brecon Beacons. The view through the window is as marvellous as any painting in the house.

Croft Castle is full of faces. Portraits hang in most rooms, some good, others a frankly a bit iffy, but my favourite is of Nancy Borwick, wife of Sir Henry Page Croft. Her eyes follow you around the Dining Room, and it’s not scary because she looks so lovely.

However, you might be scared if you met the ghost of Owain Glyndwr who is reported to walk the house (one of his daughters was married to a Croft at the time of his death and in the absence of any proof of his burial, legends abound – some people think he’s buried at Croft).

Outside

Definitely buried at Croft in the tiny and truly fabulous St Michael’s church – right next to the house – are Sir Richard Croft and his wife Eleanor. Their tomb is original gothic and of a very high standard. What’s amazing for me is knowing that this couple were right at the heart of key historical events during the Wars of the Roses. Sir Richard fought at the key battles in the period, including Mortimer’s Cross in 1461, fought on Croft land nearby, which led to Edward IV becoming king. He survived through the reigns of Edward IV, Richard III and Henry VII, and Eleanor was governess to the sons of Edward IV known to history as the Princes in the Tower.

The walled garden contains a vineyard… (and lots of deck-chairs so you can soak up the atmosphere).

There are figs swelling in corners of the garden, fruit trees humming with the sound of busy bees and butterflies flitting daintily about – it’s as close to a garden idyll as I can imagine. You could reasonably take a book or your stitching and spend a perfectly relaxed afternoon in the garden. (When we finally move out west I fully intend to become a garden feature there).

Out in the parkland are huge gnarled Spanish Chestnut trees, beeches and oaks, many over 300 years old. They’re breath-taking in their own right.

Walk through history and reach Croft Ambrey, a superb Iron-Age hill fort, evidence that people have lived in this area since at least 500 BC. (Who wouldn’t want the remains of a Celtic settlement on their estate).

So there you have it, just a few things I love about Croft Castle. But none of these really explain why I love it. All I know is that it exudes an atmosphere of serenity and welcome and I’m happy to accept that why remains a bit of a mystery.

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Sir Richard and Eleanor Croft tomb

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Do you have a special place you love to visit? Please tell us where it is and can you say what makes it special? I’d be absolutely fascinated to know.


Visiting Croft Castle

The Croft family still live in the house, but it is now managed by the National Trust. Click here for their website to check opening times and prices.

This is a little video about Croft which is rather charming and shows you a little more of the interior.

And here’s a little video about the ghost at Croft Castle (it’s ok, not scary!).

 

Flaming June…

Well then, another eventful week, we’re certainly living in interesting times…

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Anyway, I’m all behind again and this time it’s entirely my own fault. I’ve been having a look at a different website platform, and naturally the only way to decide if it does what I want is to try to use it. And there you have it, a learning curve that’s more like a vertical cliff.

So I’ve spent an entire day attached to my computer with practically nothing to show for it (no, actually with nothing at all to show for it) and now I’m not convinced if it’s really for me, my head aches and I can’t decide if I should go back to it again tomorrow or give up now.

And Theresa May thought she was having a bad day…

But on a brighter note, it’s been a lovely week in the lane despite some really torrential rain. The poor dog roses have suffered badly, but for some reason the elderflowers appear to have thrived on the rain, I’m sure they’re looking better now than they did before. The sloes are beginning to form their tart little fruits – there will be sloe gin this year. And the bees have been my companions every day this week, I can’t help thinking they’ve been out on a bit of a binge.

I’m off to visit one of those historic houses I’d most love to move in to on Monday – so forgive the lack of history today, I’ll make up for it next week, promise.

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Thank you so much to everyone who contacted me after receiving the last edition of ‘Loose Threads’ – I very much appreciate it and I hope you’ll keep giving me your feedback. If you’d like to receive a copy of the next issue just fill in the annoying little pop-up next time you’re here (you’ll only need to do that once).

Happy stitching…

 

 

 

 

Dyrham Park – lost in the mists of time…

Now, here’s the thing. Remember how I said that when I visited Berkeley Castle recently after having last been there on a school trip in the 1970s it was incredibly familiar and I could recall so much about it. Well, just a few weeks earlier I paid a visit to Dyrham Park, near Bath. This is another historic house I had last visited on a school trip way back in the 70s. And guess what – I could hardly remember a thing about it!

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Which makes me wonder why, because it’s definitely somewhere I’m surprised hadn’t made a bigger impression on me. Perhaps not having a murdered king connection weighed against it.

Anyway, if you should find yourself trundling down (or up) the M4 near junction 18 and you fancy a dollop of National Trust style culture, pull off at Dyrham Park and have a look around.

You should know that it’s a bit of a walk down to the house from the car park but you can hitch a ride on the buggy if you need to. (It’s downhill to the house, so you might prefer to save the buggy ride for the return journey). As you make your way there, look out for the deer which roam around the park (indeed the name Dyrham comes from the Anglo-Saxon name for a deer park so we can assume they’ve been here some time).

The house itself appears to be trapped in the bottom of a little valley. It has an odd arrangement, but that’s because like many other English country houses, it grew and was adapted and updated over several generations. If you remember that there was once an Elizabethan manor house on the site which was subsequently hacked about, the slightly strange positioning makes a bit more sense (although perhaps not).

Inside, you once again find yourself exploring a fascinating but for me at least incoherent arrangement of rooms. I couldn’t help feeling that the family who lived there in the eighteenth century would have been better off just scrapping the old place and starting from scratch, but instead they made a valiant attempt to reuse what they already had. You visit some of these old stately homes and immediately feel as if you’d be able to live in them, but others and for me Dyrham fits this category, are just awkward.

But don’t get me wrong, for all its quirks, I still thoroughly enjoyed looking around. It has some really beautiful architectural features. (One of the facades was designed by the same architect who designed Chatsworth).

If you visit, once you’ve walked around the main house, make sure you don’t miss the servants quarters. I’m going to admit to liking this area better than the main house. There’s also a second-hand bookshop in the old kitchen, which you should certainly see books or no books.

And then visit the church which butts up against the house to one side. This is much older than the current house and includes some impressive tombs and memorials.

Oh and the gardens are indeed absolutely lovely both in their own right and as a frame for the house. We were there before the spring had really kicked in but you could already tell that the gardens were going to be fabulous over the coming months.

So why did none of it come back to mind? You know I just can’t put my finger on it. Still I”m pretty sure I won’t forget it again and I’d certainly pop back for another visit if I was going to be in the area for a while.

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Planning a visit?

Here’s the link to the National Trust website. Check for opening times.

The Power of Love…

Well, it’s certainly been a difficult week and I hope you’ll forgive the lack of an offering for the history-junkie today. Everyone has their own ways of dealing with the stuff that happens and mine are simply to walk in the countryside and to stitch and that’s what I’ve been doing.

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Quite often when I stand to look at the oak tree each morning or when I lean on the Thinking Gate and survey the field, watching the crows and kites, I whisper a little prayer. When I have absolutely no idea what would help and am powerless to do anything else, all I can think of is to ask for love to spread to the people who need it and to enfold them.

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It’s all I can offer, but I do believe in the power of love (even if I can’t hear those words without singing along with Huey Lewis and the News)…

 


Keeping in touch…

Are you using Instagram or Twitter? If so do say hello there. I’m @dreaminginstitches on Instagram and @AnnPawley on Twitter.

I apologise for being the world’s worst blog reader in recent months, and massive thanks for sticking with me here. I’ve set up Feedly and am determined to do better. I’m still having problems with leaving comments on Blogger blog posts, so if you’re not hearing from me, I’d be very pleased to have an alternative email address or Twitter or Instagram contact details – (I’m afraid I’m not currently using Facebook).

Grateful for your patience.


 

Wishing everyone a happy and peaceful weekend.

 

What’s so special about Berkeley Castle?

A bit late this week with a dollop of heritage-hunting. Our little car (the one the OH and the girls use, came to a sudden halt on Monday and we’ve spent the rest of the week juggling everyone’s transport needs and trying to buy another car – it’s thrown me right off plan. Anyway, hopefully we’re getting sorted out now, so here’s my take on a remarkable castle I went to see on Monday, (which feels like a month ago now!)…

On Monday I drove west over the Cotswolds to meet up with my brother and visit Berkeley Castle, Gloucestershire – somewhere I last went to on a school trip in the early 1970s. As I was driving I wondered if it would be as lovely as I remembered and would it still be as fascinating all these years later for a confirmed history-junkie?

And the answer I’m delighted to say was an emphatic ‘YES’

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Considering how long it had been since the last visit, I was astonished at how much I remembered. I genuinely lost count of the times I turned a corner and gasped ‘I remember this!’ It was a strange feeling, to walk around a building I’d only once visited previously, but to still know it so well. I do remember that when I went on the school trip we had a guide to talk to us as we went around, and all I can say is, he must have done an exceedingly good job on that day.

So what made and continues to make Berkeley Castle such a great place to visit?

Well for me there are at least five reasons you should divert off the M5 for a visit if you’re passing.

1. Simply because no history-junkie could possibly resist a visit to a proper intact medieval castle.

Berkeley is one of those rare survivors, an inhabited medieval castle which has never been ruined (although a chunk of the keep was demolished after the Civil War).

A visit to Berkeley, (as with Powis and a handful of other castles which avoided a crumbling decline) gives us history-junkies a remarkable glimpse into the castle as it was originally intended to be – colourful, grand, strong, powerful, impressive. It’s all very well looking at ruins and using your imagination, but when you can see the real thing, it’s thrilling.

I’ve often thought that ruined castles, roofless and with crumbling walls fail to give you the feeling of enclosure which they must surely have had when complete. At Berkeley you get to feel the proper effect of being closed in all around. It also makes for a fascinating mix of architectural styles as you see the changes made to the fabric over the centuries.

Over the years, the Berkeley family who have owned the castle since its earliest days in the eleventh century, have done what all home-owners do, they’ve added bits on, moved bits around and redecorated from time to time. So walking around the castle today you’re never quite sure what you’ll see next. I suppose you could walk around quite quickly, but we found ourselves stopping to look at so many quirky details and I’m sure we missed loads – but we’re determined to go back soon and see what we missed.

Oh, by the way, if symmetry is your thing, you’ll hate it…

2. Because it was probably the scene of a gruesome royal murder

Then of course there’s Edward II. If you read my post about Gloucester Cathedral you’ll know that this unfortunate king met his end at Berkeley Castle in September 1327. Who arranged his murder, who did the deed and how the deed was done all remain open to conjecture. The official story is that Roger Mortimer ordered the murder,  and that Sir Thomas Gurney, John Maltravers and William Ockley carried out the order (possibly by the application of a red-hot poker to the poor man’s nether regions – more probably simply by smothering).

There is however now a theory that Edward escaped and fled abroad to live as a hermit in the Holy Roman Empire, eventually meeting his son Edward III in Antwerp in 1338. It’s good to have a historical mystery and this is certain to keep fuelling controversy for the foreseeable future.

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The doorway to Edward II’s cell.

The room where the murder is alleged to have happened is at the top of a flight of stone steps – a small door leads to the chamber in the wall of the keep. Visitors can’t enter the room itself, but there’s a window to peep through and whether or not it is the location of a murder, it certainly makes you stop to think. I doubt if anyone looks into that room without pondering what happened in there.

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The room in which Edward II was murdered.

Edward’s ghost is said to haunt the castle and to be heard in a death-cry on the 21st September each year!

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The Keep – and the stairs to Edward II’s cell.

3. To embrace your inner nosey-parker tendencies…

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Berkeley is full of treasures, some grand and priceless, others entirely domestic. I just love being led along from one treasure to another. Every room (and you see many) is full of delights and although there’s plenty of information, you can have great fun searching out all the amazing details. The dining room for instance has a stunning array of silverware, looked down upon by family portraits with people wearing the distinctive yellow hunting colours of the Berkeley hunt. The medieval kitchens which were still being used until the 1940s are worthy of a visit alone. You must see the spider’s web ceiling, it’s absolutely wonderful. (There was a large model dragon in the kitchen when we visited this week, made by local school children we were told. He was superb!)

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Something about this corner epitomised Berkeley Castle for me.

4. To be able to say you’ve sat in the same window as Mark Rylance…

About half way around, you come to the Great Hall (which is indeed great!) And whilst taking photos of some stone carving, my brother noticed a leaflet in a window about Wolf Hall (the brilliant TV series based on the books about Thomas Cromwell by Hilary Mantel) and then we realised that in fact Berkeley Castle was one of the locations where the series was filmed. (You have to hand it to the producers of Wolf Hall – I’ve been to most of the places where it was filmed, but you’d hardly know it from watching, they did a magnificent job of recreating a very convincing Tudor world. If you really want to get into the Wolf Hall flow, they’ve even provided you with a costume to put on (yes adult size) – now that’s what I call visitor satisfaction.

5. To suss out a possible wedding venue

One thing you need to be wary of is that the castle isn’t open to visitors on Thursdays, Fridays or Saturdays – which I assume is because these are the days when they hold weddings and private events. I had a little scroll through their Instagram account and it looks as if they do a fantastic job with weddings.

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The Great Hall – a gorgeous setting for a wedding and a Wolf Hall location…

I must admit, it has the right atmosphere, which isn’t true for all potential wedding venues (in my opinion). I may be wrong but I got the distinct feeling that you’d have a very good time indeed if you got married at Berkeley, so if you’re on the look out for somewhere very special, put it on your list.

Anything else?

Well I think you can tell we loved our day at the castle. We’ve already decided to go back again soon. Oh and we had very acceptable tea and cake in the castle’s yurt now that’s not something you hear every day…

 

For more information…

Here’s the link to the official Berkeley Castle website. Remember to check here before you visit because you don’t want to go on a day when it isn’t open. It also has wonderful photography of the castle – have a look anyway.

Here’s the Wiki page for Berkeley Castle – lots of lovely history facts and dates.

Goodrich – A Proper Castle…

Have you ever wondered why castles were built exactly where they are?

I don’t mean why they were built at all, just how and who decided where the first spade went in. I wonder about the pre-Conquest landscape – largely without castles as we know them – and the nature of the Norman invaders, riding about the countryside (presumably often hostile countryside), determining the precise spot on which these alien buildings would be erected.

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In the absence of a helpful set of Ordinance Survey maps, how did they make those decisions? Did they have a hoard of surveyors, architects and castle-designers offering their services to the victors of Hastings? Was there a handbook on castle building they could refer to, how did the man on the horse know what he wanted his castle to look like?

(You can tell I haven’t been sleeping well can’t you…)

I just have this image in my mind of all these Norman knights riding around, pointing at hills and saying ‘Alors! Contruisez-moi un chateau la-bas! Vite! And a retinue of workmen with clipboards and abacuses (what is the plural for abacus?) following them around, tugging their forelocks.

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Goodrich in Herefordshire, between Monmouth and Ross-on-Wye, is one of those truly defensive castles which appears to have grown organically out of the rock it sits on, and even today I think you’d nominate any architect who could come up with it’s design for an award. When you walk around it’s difficult to decide in some places where the building actually begins. How did they do that in the days before computers and 3D modelling?

In fact very little is known about the origins of the first castle at Goodrich.

It was probably first a wooden affair, rebuilt in stone about 1120. At the beginning of the thirteenth century it was given by King John to one of my historic heroes William Marshal (he of Pembroke Castle fame), and he had further work carried out, which in turn was rebuilt around 1280 as relations with the Welsh made the area increasingly dangerous and required stronger defences to be added.

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Much of what you see now dates from that time and you can see similarities with the castles Edward I was having built in Wales around then.

Over time Goodrich was altered to make it a more comfortable residence, without compromising its defensive capabilities and if you were a high status visitor in the fourteenth century, you’d probably have been very comfortable staying there.

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But as with so many other castles, it was besieged during the English Civil War and was heavily bombarded – you can still see the mortar ‘Roaring Meg’ which did so much of the damage. Later the castle was slighted to prevent it being used again.

After that, it was only a matter of time before it crumbled into ruins.  Although in the eighteenth century it became popular with the romantic poets and painters who fell for its decaying charms.

If you haven’t been to Goodrich, don’t miss an opportunity to go. It’s got everything a textbook castle should have and is an ideal place to explain castle basics. It’s definitely what I call ‘a proper castle’.

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More Information

If you want to know more about the building and history of Goodrich, this is the link to the Wiki page.

If you’re visiting check here at the English Heritage website for opening times and prices. By the way, the cafe at Goodrich is particularly good and the last time we were there they served the best cheese scones I’ve ever tasted.

Oh and if you were a fan of the TV series a few years ago ‘Merlin’ – you might recognise parts of the castle, an episode was filmed there back in 2009.

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Exhibition Blues…

This coming weekend I’m taking part in an exhibition of artists’ work in Bedford. It will be the first exhibition I’ve done for over a year and part of me is quite excited.

But I’m going to be totally honest and tell you that part of me is also wishing I wasn’t doing it. The problem isn’t the exhibition itself, I love meeting people and talking art, but I just hate the whole process of getting the artwork ready to show –  mounting, framing, labelling, wrapping… arrrgh!

Stained glass detail from the windows in the Design Museum, London.

My difficulty is that I’ve always loved the process of making the artwork, but once the final stitch goes in, my mind is off to something else. Framing? It can wait for another day…

But there you go, it has to be done and I’m well on the way with it now. Everything is pretty much under control. The exhibition is open on Friday evening May 12th from 7.30pm to 10pm and on Saturday May 13th from 10.30am to 5pm, at the Harpur Suite in the Harpur Centre, Bedford.

There will be about 50 artists taking part so If you’re in the area and fancy seeing some original art, I hope you’ll pop in and say hello, it would be wonderful to see you there and put some faces to names.

Of course I know that most of you reading this aren’t anywhere nearby at all, (not even on the same continent!), so if you can’t make it, here’s a sneak preview (shhhh, don’t tell)…

Dream Mapping

Inspired by the layers of history, patterns and textures in the English landscape. Sometimes when I’m dreaming I soar above the fields and woodlands and look down on my imaginary landscape.

a bird’s-eye view…

A Celtic Mystery

If you come here regularly you’re probably sick of this one, but just in case, here’s the link to the post I wrote about it a little while ago. (It’s inspired by the Celtic Bann Disc).

As Above, So Below…

This is the piece I made over the winter of 2015/2016, you can read the story of its creation here. My very dearest friend died in the autumn of 2015 and I found myself deriving enormous consolation from the meditative process of making this textile. It will always feel special.

Nature is a constant inspiration – colour, texture, pattern, form… (‘my oak’)

Rose Window

Where does the fascination, even enchantment with stained glass originate? I have no idea, but I am that woman standing in front of the stained glass, transported through the colours, the play of light, being led into a dream world. I try to bring some of that transience into the stitch work I make. Silks and metallics lend their mercurial nature, but they are tricky characters, sometimes they cooperate, but it’s always a game and I’m never sure who’s going to win.

So, there you have it, these are the four pieces I’ll be showing ‘in the flesh’ at the weekend. I wonder if anyone visiting will feel a connection with them. I wonder if there’s someone out there who’s just waiting to discover them, or who knows, who might just want to take one home. Oh well, we’ll see.

Happy Stitching…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Funny old week…

So, how is May shaping up for you so far?

Everything seemed to start off quite well for me, I even managed earlier in the week to get a few textile pieces mounted up ready for framing (I hate doing that, so it was some achievement), then having had a great couple of days things began to unravel – I suddenly realised that the event I was preparing for is a whole week closer than I’d thought – well that certainly concentrates the mind! So then of course to top it all the Delinquent Dog has had another bout of pancreatitis.

And now here I am on Friday evening all behind yet again…

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Anyway, as I’m currently madly doing the old ‘spinning the plates on sticks‘ routine, I thought instead of rushing a new post I’d give you the link to an old one of a place that I think is rather special. It first appeared on my old blog The Mists of Time, so apologies if you read it back then, but if not, I hope you enjoy a little trip into the Oxfordshire countryside to visit the ancient and enigmatic Rollright Stones…

Wishing you a lovely week.

 

 

 

May Day in Stitches.

Happy May Day to you.

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Do you celebrate? A quick browse on the interweb would have you believe everyone in England was currently out taking part in some ancient ritual, Morris dancing, cutting boughs of hawthorn blossom, lighting bonfires, singing madrigals from Magdalen Tower, dressing wells, eating cake and dancing round a Maypole…

Nothing quite so energetic happening here today (that was yesterday, when for some reason I decided it was just the right time for a big clear out and change round in the hidey-hole (aka studio/workroom/glorified cupboard). Surprising just how long that sort of thing can take, it’s the domino effect isn’t it – you decide to move one thing and that means having to move something else which means moving something else – ad infinitum…

But I must admit, I do like to have a walk along the lane on May Day making a mental note of what’s flowering in the hedgerow. It does feel like a special day. I’m one of those awkward people who tends to think of it as the start of summer – somehow for me the months of May, June and July feel more summery, whereas I’m never sure about August – sometimes it’s so hot, but often it feels to me like the month when the energy stops, and sometimes well before September you can sense a change in the air.

Everything seems a little late here this year. The cow parsley is nowhere near its frothy best yet and even the may is late blossoming, only the sunniest sections of the hedgerow are in full blossom, still lots more to come.

But mainly today I plan to get down to some stitching. I’m currently working two companion pieces based on a golden-reddy-orange palette. They’re quite vibrant, something of a change from the very blue pieces I’ve been making recently. I’m using more of the recycled sari silk ribbon which I just love. It has the most gorgeous texture, is really easy to stitch and best of all, it looks different from every angle – even more so once I stitch into it.

It’s at an early stage here, but you get some idea of the colours…

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Any special traditions for May Day that you keep, I’d love to know?

If you signed up for ‘Loose Threads’ I hope it reached your inbox ok on Friday. I’ll distribute the next edition in a few weeks, so if you haven’t yet and want to join in, just fill in your email details next time you visit Dreaming In Stitches (I’m afraid I don’t think WordPress will let me put a box in the sidebar – or if it will, my techno-abilities aren’t up to it!). Thank you so much x

An Englishman’s house…

Do you ever watch the TV show Grand Designs? (I’m sure similar programmes exist across the world, where you follow people through the process of building their own houses) – I ask because for some reason, whenever I visit Stokesay Castle I can’t help thinking that if it had existed in the 1290s, Stokesay Castle would definitely have been featured.

The castle was built for Laurence of Ludlow, one of England’s richest wool merchants of his age and I can just see Kevin McCloud (the presenter of Grand Designs) following Laurence about on the scaffolding, talking about all the mod cons being built in, the problems sourcing the right timber, the difficulties with the labourers, how expensive it all was, how they’d hoped to be in by Christmas…

It’s fantasy of course, but you can’t help thinking that Stokesay was always meant to be someones vanity project, a way of announcing to the world that you’d arrived. Although it does have some castle-like features, it was never really intended to be a stronghold, this was first and foremost a rich man’s comfortable home in the country, a statement about wealth, not a fortress, despite being set in an area where true castles abound. The writer Norman Pound described it as ‘pretentious and comfortable’ – difficult to argue with that. Although I do wonder what Laurence’s noble neighbours made of him.

And for the thirteenth century it was pretty well-appointed. A huge hall with tall windows in the main public space, a solar suite for him and his family and a series of guest rooms. There are toilets and fireplaces built-in which was no doubt pretty avant guard for homes back then.

Going to Stokesay today it’s easy to let your mind slip you back into the thirteenth century because there’s so little change from the shell of the building that was first built for Laurence.

And it is undoubtedly a very lucky building indeed – to have sat right in the middle of some of the most heavily fought over land in the English / Welsh borders for 700 years and to remain very largely intact is nothing short of miraculous.

Its only real encounter with destiny was towards the end of the English Civil War when it was besieged in 1645. It surrendered to the Parliamentarians (quickly demonstrating it’s lack of proper defences). Unlike so many castles subsequently ordered to be slighted, Stokesay got off very lightly – where some castles were to all intents and purposes demolished, Stokesay doesn’t appear to have suffered more than the loss of a few feet off the height of its curtain wall.

The solar is the one room in the castle to have been significantly updated in the seventeenth century. The carving in the wooden mantelpiece is a tour de force.

After that fling with fate, Stokesay was gradually left to slide into decline and could easily have literally crumbled away, but it was lucky once again to have found a series of restorers in the nineteenth century who all decided to conserve rather than change the building, keeping intervention to a minimum, and as a result we now have this almost unique example of a fortified manor house to wander around and enjoy.

You know me well enough to realise that I love it particularly for the window seats. (They’re everywhere at Stokesay) – I always imagine myself sitting in one with my stitching, listening to some troubadour singing or playing a harp, gazing wistfully out across the Shropshire landscape – oh you get the picture…

The windows are what really make it for me at Stokesay, but then windows are always magical frames of liminal space. Looking out or looking in, there’s always a story.

Although Grand Designs is supposed to be about the buildings, there’s no doubt that it often also charts the impact of the stress of building on the people involved – marital strains are not uncommon. What Laurence and his family experienced we’ll never really know, but sadly he was to drown at sea in 1294, so it’s unlikely he enjoyed much time in his own grand design.

Still, over 700 years later, I’d like to thank him. He built his castle, and he left us with a remarkable window into the thirteenth century.

 

Visiting Stokesay?

This is the link to visitor information at English Heritage.

 

 

 

Coming over all arty at Buildwas Abbey

The last place we visited during our Easter break was the small-but-perfectly-formed Buildwas Abbey near Telford, Shropshire. It’s definitely in the ‘hidden gem’ category, in fact anyone visiting needs to keep a good look out for the signs or you’ll still miss it, nestled away as it is in a curve of the River Severn, at the bottom of a long hill.

 

But assuming you make it, Buildwas will definitely repay your endeavour. It’s an absolutely charming example of an early Cistercian abbey, now ruined of course but with some of the chunkiest round pillars the Normans built still standing and a Chapter House that will have you eagerly snapping away with your camera.

Chapter House Buildwas Abbey

The story of Buildwas isn’t about any particular person, rather it’s a demonstration in the landscape of a slice of English/Welsh history.

It’s location is in the long disputed and frequently fought over borderlands between England and Wales. It was originally founded by a conquering Norman bishop (Roger de Clinton) bringing a group of Norman monks from Savigny to England in 1135, it soon after became a Cistercian monastery in 1147 and the remains of the building we can still see date from the 1150s through to the 1330s.

One of the things I love about Buildwas is that enough of its history if known to give you the bones of a story, but there are sufficient grey areas where your own imagination can take over and fill in the gaps. So for instance, in 1340 an unnamed abbot of Buildwas was murdered – but the man arrested staged an escape. In 1350 the abbey was raided by the Welsh who took the abbot and monks prisoner. We don’t know what impact the Black Death had precisely, but in 1377 there were only 6 monks there, and in 1381 only 4 – why?

Then again the abbey’s estates were ravaged during the Glyndwr Rebellion of 1406. By the time Thomas Cromwell’s commissioners visited Buildwas in 1535, there were 12 monks there, 4 of whom were accused of grave moral faults

Now if that isn’t enough to get the historic mystery writers juices flowing, I don’t know what is. (By the way, I heard this sort of writing referred to as mystoric fiction – I hadn’t heard that before, but I thought it was brilliant).

I must admit, even while I was walking around I was thinking about the wonderful Ellis Peters Cadfael novels, you could just see Cadfael in his herb garden there. But the mystery and murder also made me think of the C J Sansom Shardlake novels. Have you read these? They seem perfect companions for Buildwas.

Way back during the early part of Buildwas’s history, the abbey owned a large number of books (by the standards of those days) – estimated at over 100 religious texts – reading being one of the important elements of the Rule of St Benedict and a daily requirement. Apparently over 40 of those books still survive and it’s believed that 15 of those were actually written at Buildwas Abbey. Not a bad legacy for a small foundation in the borders.

As was often the case, once the abbey was dissolved, it quickly declined, having been plundered for building stone and materials. Even the grand Tudor house that replaced part of it has subsequently been lost. Which means that today you see a truly romantic ruin set in the loveliest rural setting, with lots of lumpy earthworks all around certain to make your inner archaeologist desperate to wield a trowel.

I don’t think English Heritage would be too impressed if you actually tried, so instead it’s probably best to let the abbey inspire your artistic streak. Don’t go without your camera or you’ll regret it. And if it’s a nice day and you’re happy working en plein air, you’ll be painting in the footsteps of John Sell Cotman and JMW Turner who amongst many others have all been inspired to paint the ruins at Buildwas.

Finally I should say that I felt an especially lovely atmosphere there, it’s the sort of place I really do think you could sit and meditate quietly. Monastic or otherwise, it has a certain serenity and I adore it. I hope if you visit you do too.

If you’re visiting…

Buildwas isn’t open every day. Check here at the official English Heritage website before you go.

There are portaloos in the car park, no permanent facilities.

The lady at the ticket office made us the very best coffee we’d had for the whole week of our holiday – just saying.

Now, if you want VERY detailed history about Buildwas – and I admit to being fascinated – go to this website – but be prepared.

And last question…

Cadfael – Derek Jacobi or Philip Madoc?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hidden away…

Sorry to disappear last week – it’s what happens when your youngest comes in and drops the comment that she’s got her holiday dates wrong and instead of going away this week after the Easter break, we had to rush off immediately for a few days squeezed between commitments.

But luckily for us the weather was good and so we took the tents over to Shropshire, for what turned out to be a really lovely few days, with bucket loads of heritage-hunting!

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I’ll sit down and share the stories of some of the places we visited soon, including the fabulous medieval Stokesay Castle (above), but if you’re looking for an area to visit that takes you away from the hoards and shows you history throughout the ages, there are few better counties than Shropshire and the Welsh Marches.

We were there for five days and in that time toured six castles (Stokesay, Powis, Ludlow, Hopton, Montgomery and Clun), two abbeys (Much Wenlock Priory and Buildwas Abbey), two hill-forts (on the hillside above the campsite) and a bronze age stone circle (Mitchell’s Fold) and for much of the time we were the only people at the sites, so much lovelier I think than having to push through crowds. I’m a massive fan of these hidden gems.

And besides the abundant heritage, there’s the simply wonderful scenery to enjoy too. I’ve always loved walking up hills and as we don’t have that many in Bedfordshire I was very happy to trot up as many as we could manage (alright, maybe not exactly trot, but I make it up with a liberal smattering of ‘awe and wonder’ stops). We made it up the Long Mynd, the Stiperstones, Corndon Hill, and along a section of Offa’s Dyke from Knighton. My leg muscles are definitely feeling it now.

We camped on the edge of the Long Mynd (it was extreme camping but in a wonderful location – if you’re slightly mad and want the details, leave me a comment or send me a tweet).

After all that sight-seeing and exercise, I was very glad to roll into a pub each evening for a pint of Three Tuns beer. I think a visit to the Three Tuns in Bishop’s Castle might be a legal requirement of visiting Shropshire – we certainly always pay homage there, but in fact it turned out that the pub closest to our campsite (The Bridges Pub, Ratlinghope) was also owned by the brewery and I have to say kept their beer extremely well. The food was fabulous there too, so I’d be more than happy to go again. (I’ve put a link to their website here in case anyone is interested, because they offer a variety of accommodation too, which seems like an ideal arrangement should camping without any mod cons not be to your liking – ahem).

The other great find of the holiday was a new-to-us bookshop at historic Brampton Bryan – Aardvark Books. It’s the sort of place where you could happily spend hours and hours browsing through the books (new and second-hand), drinking tea from proper china cups and wandering around their art exhibition. We’ll go back I’m sure, but in the meantime you can follow Ethel Aardvark on Twitter – and why wouldn’t you…

So, it’s back into the swing of things again now just as soon as I get through the mountain of post-holiday laundry. Just before we set off for our break I started two new stitchy pieces which are calling to me now to get on with, but that will have to wait for a day or two – I’ll show you them soon.

Have a lovely week.

Ax