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?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Medieval faces…

I’ve been having a few churchy days lately, courtesy of the bell-ringers in the family.

On Monday, I spent an hour at our local church, All Saints, Soulbury. I’ve been there so many times, but I still love to wander around, it’s a fascinating place. But in all the hours I’ve spent in that church, I’d never previously realised there was a little medieval treasure waiting to be found…

Have a good look at this chancel window…

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Now, the chancel windows, on either side, each has that colourful glass border. I’d never paid it any attention on other visits. But while I was there on Monday, I took a closer look.

And it appears that each of those coloured sections is a fragment of medieval stained glass – presumably from the pre-Reformation days. Most of the fragments are difficult to identify, although I spotted a few architectural features, and some fabric drapes, but suddenly, I noticed a face…

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and then another…

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And then more…

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Each one is really tiny, but has incredible, fine detail. It never fails to take my breath away when we get these little connections to people from the past. I would so love to know who painted those faces.