Castles ain’t what they used to be!

When I was a kid I thought I knew all there was to know about castles. In my mind these ancient, grim monstrosities were built for heroic defence in times of war. Their imposing ramparts were, I believed, always surrounded by an unfathomably deep moat and punctuated with soaring towers in which the lord could lock up captured enemy warriors, as well as random passing princesses. A single, rickety drawbridge crossed the moat and led to a sturdy gate, above which was one of those ominous holes through which the defenders could pour hot oil and other nasties onto the heads of their adversaries. This romantic image of castles inevitably beguiled and seduced my younger self.

Arundel Castle in West Sussex.

Arundel Castle

In my innocence it never occurred to me that castles were also homes, that people lived out their daily lives in them. And of course, as the centuries passed and a fragile peace took hold across the land, castles outgrew their original purpose. No longer needed for defence, they were redesigned to become places where the wealthy and powerful could show off to their neighbours. Castles morphed into mansions meant for boasting rather than battles.

Arundel Castle in West Sussex is a case in point. Work began on the construction of the castle in 1067, just a year after the Norman conquest of England, and the towering walls and sturdy gates leave the visitor in no doubt that defence was once the main purpose of this place. But even the most well made of castles are not impregnable, as Arundel’s 800 Royalist defenders learned to their cost when besieged by Parliamentarian forces during the English Civil War in 1643. They surrendered after just 18 days, and in due course Parliament ordered the destruction of the fortifications to ensure that the castle could play no role in any future conflict.

Gatehouse at Arundel Castle, West Sussex.

Gatehouse, Arundel Castle

The castle’s fighting days were over, and it languished in ruins for many decades, its owners – successive Dukes of Norfolk – having other priorities at the time. The 8th Duke eventually carried out a few repairs around 1718, and about 70 years later the 11th Duke (aka “the Drunken Duke!”) undertook some further restoration. And in the early 1840s the 13th Duke internally remodelled the castle in preparation for a visit in 1846 by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

Wealthy Victorians were never happier than when “improving” their homes, so it’s no surprise that between 1875 and 1905 the 15th Duke embarked upon yet another grand project to modernise Arundel Castle in line with upper-class fashions of the time. It is the 15th Duke’s legacy that is most visible to visitors today, and it’s thanks to him that Arundel Castle became one of the first English country houses to be fitted with electric lights, integral fire fighting equipment, service lifts and central heating. Although the walls and gates make the castle’s defensive origins abundantly clear, many of the internal fittings are grand – opulent, even – and obviously belong to a totally different, post-medieval world.

The Duke of Norfolk is still king of his own private castle, but a charitable trust maintains the buildings, grounds and contents, guaranteeing public access for at least 100 days per annum. The Trust seeks to

“maximise the public enjoyment and education by refurbishing and improving displays and the condition of artefacts, supported by hosting special events such as jousting, civil war re-enactments and other events in keeping with its history.”

Source: Giving is Great retrieved 12 April 2023.

Arundel Castle is an interesting place to visit, but vastly at odds with the image of castles that so captivated my imagination as a child. On the one hand I guess we should be grateful that successive Dukes chose to preserve it, rather than simply bulldoze it to the ground and replace it with something extravagantly tasteless. But on the other hand no amount of jousting events or civil war re-enactments can mask the fact that – aside from the walls and gatehouses – the medieval world that gave birth to it is difficult for casual visitors to identify. I don’t think a trip here would have helped me much with that school history project on castles I wrote nearly 60 years ago!

Warwick Castle is perhaps an even more extreme example of a medieval masterpiece that has been ruthlessly repackaged for a 21st century audience. In many ways it feels more like a theme park than a historical site, a fact brought home to us when we encountered Zog the accident-prone dragon shortly after arriving for our visit last month. Zog is the creation of the wonderful children’s author Julia Donaldson, brought to life by illustrator Axel Scheffler. I have a lot of time for Julia and greatly admire her work – who doesn’t love the Gruffalo? – but I can’t feeling that Zog has his place, and Warwick Castle isn’t it.

Warwick Castle, with Julia Donaldson's Zog the Dragon in the foreground.

Zog at Warwick Castle

Like Arundel, Warwick Castle’s origins lie in the 11th century, in the immediate aftermath of the Norman Conquest. And just like Arundel, it served as a fortification for several hundred years before being re-born as a lavish country house. In 1978 it was purchased by the Tussauds Group, which at one point managed a portfolio of over 50 tourist attractions including Madam Tussauds waxworks, Legoland theme parks, the London Eye, Alton Towers, Thorpe Park and Chessington World of Adventures. In 2007 the Tussauds Group was itself acquired by Merlin Entertainments, which in so doing, became the world’s second largest leisure group after Disney. And that, I suppose, tells us all we need to know about Warwick Castle’s 21st century offer!

Warwick Castle. Left: The Gatehouse. Top Right: Inside the walls. Bottom Right: Reconstruction of a trebuchet on land just outside the castle walls

As we learned when we were there, Warwick Castle today is all about “visitor experiences” – the Zog Playland, the Horrible Histories┬« Maze, falconry and archery displays, the Castle Dungeon immersive experience, live action performances, and over 200 “special event days”.

There are glimpses of history too – the walk around the castle walls, for example, is worth the considerable effort, unless, I suppose, you suffer with vertigo. The state rooms, many of them dressed as they would have looked at a “Royal Weekend Party” in 1898, are grand but not at all medieval. And the reconstruction of a full-scale working trebuchet (to the uninitiated, that’s a monstrous catapult for hurling missiles at besieged castles) is instructive, if perhaps overly theatrical. But you have to work hard to find serious history, and to avoid being distracted by the shallow 21st century frenzy that pervades Warwick Castle.

Don’t get me wrong, I know that places like this are a welcome attraction for many families, a fun, safe destination to take the kids for a day out. But how many of those young people return home with any real appreciation of what life was like in the medieval period? How many take an interest in understanding and learning more about history as a result of their visit? A few maybe, but not nearly enough, I suspect. To traditionally-minded history lovers like me Warwick Castle seems like a a bit of a lost opportunity, though I guess that most visitors – and shareholders of Merlin Entertainments too! – would strongly disagree.

Warwick Castle. Top Left: Medieval armour displayed in the Great Hall. Middle Left: Diorama depicting life “below stairs” in medieval times. Bottom Left: Part of a diorama depicting the Royal Weekend Party in 1898. Top Right: Part of a diorama depicting the Royal Weekend Party in 1898. Bottom Right: Part of a diorama depicting the Royal Weekend Party in 1898.

Warwick Castle may well be fun for all the family, but it’s not necessarily the place where aging, stuffy, academically-minded history graduates like me are likely to find much comfort. I won’t be going back there any time soon.

Castles ain’t what they used to be!

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Note for regular readers of this blog: Summer is fast approaching, and we already have exciting trips planned to Scotland, Norfolk, Surrey and Rutland. No doubt we’ll think of a few other places to visit too. All this will provide me with lots more material to write about, while at the same time eating into the time I set aside for writing! So, for the next few months, my schedule will be to blog once every two weeks, on alternate Wednesdays. Weekly posts should resume in November.

Horse power!

Although its primary focus is on the preservation and display of historic buildings from South-East England, the Weald and Downland Living Museum offers other fascinating insights into the lives of ordinary people in times past. A notable highlight of our visit last October was to be able to watch a team of horses ploughing a field that forms part of the Museum’s land. Only a few decades ago such a sight would have been totally unremarkable anywhere in rural England, but these days draught horses have little if any role in country life beyond their participation in ploughing competitions that hark back nostalgically to the pre-industrial world.

The term “draught” horse is derived from the Old English word dragan, meaning “to haul” or “to draw”. They are also referred to as carthorses, work horses or heavy horses. And these terms, I guess, tells us all we need to know. Back in the day, when heavy loads needed to moved or agricultural land had to be worked, the horse was England’s go-to beast of burden. Even as the Industrial Revolution started to kick in, horses toiled along towpaths hauling canal barges laden with raw materials and manufactured goods.

In these modern times, when internal combustion and diesel engines rule the roost, it’s difficult to imagine a moment when we depended not on them but instead on the humble horse. The Weald and Downland Living Museum’s mission is to celebrate and remind us of the world we have lost, and watching three magnificent horses going about their business did just that.

The Museum’s horses are Percherons, a breed of draught horse that originated in western France. Usually grey or black in colour, Percherons are sturdy animals known for their intelligence and willingness to work. They were originally bred as war horses, but later became sought-after animals for agricultural work and hauling heavy goods. As well as ploughing, the horses we encountered also help out with a number of other seasonal farming tasks. These include sowing, haymaking and harvesting, as well as timber-extraction from the Museum’s woodland.

The Museum’s Percherons seemed content in their work, and the guy leading them clearly cared deeply for their welfare. He was practising for a ploughing competition the next day, and although I’m no expert it seemed from what I saw that he and his horsey team were in with a good shout!

In addition to its draught horses, the Museum has several fine examples of historic horse-drawn vehicles. These include a spectacularly colourful gypsy caravan dating from the late 19th century, and a far more humble “living caravan” which would have been home to labourers who travelled the countryside in search of opportunities for paid work.

Like the rest of the exhibits on display at the Weald and Downland Living Museum, the Percherons and horse-drawn vehicles we saw there offered fascinating insights into a world that is almost beyond comprehension from our comfortable, 21st century perspective. I strongly recommend a visit!

Glimpses of a lost world

When we spent a few days down south last October, one of the places we were determined to visit was the Weald and Downland Living Museum in the county of Sussex. Readers living in the UK may be familiar with the Museum as the place where the BBC’s Repair Shop series is filmed, but there are plenty more good reasons to call in besides the chance of spotting the odd TV celebrity (although, just for the record, I should point out that we were pleased to see two of the programme’s regularly featured craftspeople strolling around the site at lunchtime!)

The Weald and Downland Living Museum preserves and exhibits over 50 fine examples of historic architecture originating in the Weald area of South-East England, which covers parts of the counties of Kent, Surrey, Sussex and Hampshire between the North and South Downs.

The buildings on display date from around 950AD to the early 20th century, and are spread across a site covering some 40 acres (16 hectares). The Museum lies within the scenic landscape of the South Downs National Park, which provides the perfect backdrop for the presentation of buildings that were dismantled, moved and then re-assembled on site in order to protect them from demolition.

Bayleaf farmstead, from Chiddingstone in Kent

Bayleaf farmstead, for example, is a medieval timber-framed hall-house dating mainly from the early 15th century. It was moved to the Museum between 1968 and 1972. The central hall, heated by an open fire, is flanked at one end by service rooms, and at the other by rooms for the owner and his family.

It’s interesting to note that there was no chimney, and smoke from the fire would have exited the building by seeping through the roof. It sounds eye-wateringly uncomfortable from our 21st century perspective, but at least they had a roaring fire and a solid roof to help keep them warm and dry. For the poorest people living in England, when Bayleaf farmstead was built, this would have been an unattainable luxury.

Medieval farmhouse, from Sole Street in Kent

A second farmhouse on display at the Museum is the medieval structure from the Kent village of Sole Street. Also dating from the 15th century, it was finally condemned as being unfit for habitation in 1960, but continued to be lived in until 1967. When efforts to preserve it in situ failed, it was acquired for the Museum and dismantled in 1970. It was not re-assembled until 1991.

Pendean Farmhouse, from Midhurst in Kent

Pendean farmhouse, originally from the Kent village of Midhurst was built in 1609. Times changed and building styles evolved, so this building contrasts with those mentioned earlier by having separate downstairs rooms, rather than an open hall. It also has a chimney! However it retains some medieval features, including unglazed – and therefore very draughty! – windows.

Poplar Cottage, from Washington in West Sussex

Poplar cottage dates from the mid-17th century, and has two rooms on the ground floor with two more on the floor above. It is believed to have belonged to someone too poor to own land, a labourer partially or wholly dependent upon wages.

Although clearly much smaller than the farmhouses, Poplar cottage still seems quite substantial given that it is approaching 400 years old. However, the almost total absence of windows – although understandable given the price of glass and the need to minimise unwelcome draughts – is a reflection of novelist L. P. Hartley’s famous observation that “the past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.

A lost world, but not one I’d like to inhabit!

There are many other residential dwellings scattered throughout the Museum’s grounds, as well as some historic farm and working buildings. Photographs of a few of these are included below. Taken as a whole, the buildings on display at the Museum offer us a fascinating glimpse of a lost world, but are also a potent reminder of how far we’ve come.

It’s easy to get seduced by the romantic appeal of ancient, traditional, “authentic” structures, but would I – living in my light, spacious, cosy, centrally-heated, draught-free home with water on tap and sewage disposal only one flush away – wish to live or work in one of them? I don’t think so!

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Some of the other residential dwellings in the Museum. Left: mid-17th century house from Walderton in Sussex; Middle: Boarhunt medieval hall house (late 14th century) from Boarhunt in Hampshire; Right: c15th century house from North Cray in Kent

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A small selection of the farm / working buildings preserved at the Museum – Top left: Aisled Barn, built c 1771, from Hambrook in Sussex; Middle left: barn built about 1536, from Cowfold in Sussex; Bottom Left: Granary built in 1731, from Littlehampton in Sussex; Right: 17th century watermill from Lurgashall in Sussex



WATCH OUT NEXT WEEK for “All the Pretty Horses at the Weald and Downland Living Museum”

The ambiguity of autumn (All Things Must Pass)

Here in the UK autumn ends today, 30th November. Unless, that is, you subscribe to the notion that the seasons are astronomically determined, in which case you’ll need to wait until around 22nd December for the official start of winter. But as a cold wind whistles around the house and I look out at naked trees, a garden littered with fallen leaves and sullen skies devoid of swooping swallows, I know that autumn’s over. Sigh!

Release“, cast in bronze by sculptor Leonie Gibbs, is flanked here by glorious autumnal foliage. We saw it at The Sculpture Park in Surrey.

After a difficult few months in which we found ourselves mostly confined to the house by wardrobe woes, the horrible heatwave and the Covid blues, autumn’s been a welcome opportunity to spread our wings a bit. When we visited Surrey and Sussex in October, a few trees were just beginning to turn. They made a perfect backdrop for the artworks at two sculpture parks we visited, and also for Arundel Castle and the Polesden Lacey Garden Cottage.

Left: “Release” and reflection in the lake. Top right: Arundel Castle in Sussex, viewed from its grounds. Middle right: Autumn foliage at the Hannah Peschar Sculpture Garden in Surrey. Bottom right: The gardens at Polesden Lacey Garden Cottage in Surrey.

Fungi were also much in evidence, a sure sign of the changing seasons.

In terms of its symbolism, autumn is ambiguous, a season of immense joy and unbearable sadness. On the one hand it is a time of plenty, ripening, harvest, and abundance. And yet, on the other hand, it represents decline, decay, old age, and the imminence of death. The colours of autumn are glorious, a celebration of life, but we know it won’t last. The golden leaves will inevitably fall and perish, and greyness will prevail. Autumn is the ultimate proof that All Things Must Pass.

Hidden amongst the autumn trees is “Inca” a one-off sculpture, hand forged from iron by sculptor Nimrod Messeg. We saw it at the Hannah Peschar Sculpture Garden.

But even though All Things Must Pass may sound depressing, it is, for me, a message of hope. Although hard times will soon be upon us, they too shall pass. Nothing is forever, and, in the fulness of time, spring’s awakening will be with us once more.

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Musical postscript

Forever Autumn, written by Jeff Wayne, Gary Osborne and Paul Vigrass, and sung here by Justin Hayward, is a plaintively beautiful love song in which autumn serves as a metaphor for despair and loss. The song features in Jeff Wayne’s musical adaptation of H G Wells’ War of the Worlds. Here’s a selection from the lyrics:

The summer sun is fading as the year grows old
And darker days are drawing near
The winter winds will be much colder
Now you're not here
Through autumn's gown we used to kick our way
You always loved his time of year
Those fallen leaves lie undisturbed now
'Cos you're not here
'Cos you're not here
'Cos you're not here
A gentle rain falls softly on my weary eye
As if to hide a lonely tear
My life will be forever autumn
'Cos you're not here
'Cos you're not here
'Cos you're not here

Listen here, and gently weep for the loves you have lost…