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.