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.




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!


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.