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!).

 

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.

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.

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.