Some ruins are remarkable as they stand, a testament to the stonemasons who built them, displaying magnificent or poignant fragments of architectural history. Appreciating them is easy, you just have to look.
But some ruins give little away, indeed some sites have so little remaining of their former structure, there is little to look at.
These latter places are the ones where you have to look with your imagination rather than your eyes alone, and for me, Scarborough Castle is just such an example.
Now I apologise in advance for the photographs – the really dramatic quality of Scarborough Castle comes from its position, it sits on top of a promontory that splits Scarborough, north from south, with an impressive curtain wall stretching out along the hillside. But unless you are in an aeroplane or have some seriously professional photographic equipment, it’s extremely difficult to take pictures that do justice to the size and position the castle occupies.
I admitted defeat – and went to look around inside instead.
The truth about Scarborough Castle, is that little of its stone building survives today. The keep is the most substantial part to survive and even that is sliced open.
In its day, it must have been a typically formidable Norman keep – the type you learn about in middle school (or did in my day). Enough remains to give a good idea of its shape and size, but you really have to employ your mind’s eye to ‘see’ it in all its original glory.
After that, apart from the later Master Gunner’s House, scarcely more than the outline of chambers built against the curtain wall remain.
But if you were able to rise above the ground, the immense size of the defensive ditches – such a feature in the castles of this area – would still give you pause for thought. Although much is now lost, the scale of these fortifications imply the importance this castle once held.
But if you let your imagination do the looking, if you walk around the vast outer bailey, gaze out to sea and along the coast and remember some of the people and events that took place here, and it isn’t long before Scarborough Castle sparks back to life.
I’m currently re-reading a book about Isabella, the She-Wolf of France. Her arch-rival Piers Gaveston, finally lost his grip on power after having to flee to Scarborough in 1312. He was besieged here by a collection of the nobility determined to get rid of him and his exploitation of the King, Edward II. It wasn’t the stones that let him down, it was the lack of food. He was forced to surrender and leave the castle. (And was then subsequently dealt with in summarily brusque medieval fashion by the Earl of Warwick (he really didn’t know how to make friends with the king did he…).
For me, this is the exciting thing about places like Scarborough. There may not be much still standing, but that doesn’t stop me being able to imagine those days inside the keep in 1312, as the food ran low and Piers realised the desperate nature of his predicament. I wonder about whether he thought he really could trust the safe-conduct he’d been offered, or did he know that his time was up. And I wonder why he didn’t try to escape to sea.
Of course you could ponder these things anywhere, but doing it in the exact spot where it actually happened makes something inside me tingle.
For more information…
Pick a nice day, with good visibility to visit Scarborough Castle. Even if medieval history isn’t your biggest thing, the views from the headland here are incredible – really worth seeing.
This is English Heritage’s site for Scarborough Castle. Like Dover, if it’s windy, they might close the castle to visitors – check it out if you plan to visit.
A literary and a practical note: There is no car parking at Scarborough Castle – we found out the hard way – but if you are lucky, the car park for St Mary’s church, right at the barbican entrance, will be open. If you go there, you have the opportunity to pay your respects to Anne Bronte, who was buried there in 1849. Her grave has a history of its own – see here.
Here is the Wiki page for Scarborough Castle, so you can brush up on all those juicy facts and figures.
Now, I’m not sure if I should tell you this, but there is an incredibly friendly (even dog-friendly) guest house, just down the hill from the castle – it’s called The Castle by the Sea – and is fabulously quirky. Should you need to spend a night in Scarborough and not want to stay in a plastic hotel chain – give it a go – (we only had tea there, which was lovely – but it would be my choice if we ever go back).