Three Castles in a day – oh joy!

A couple of weeks ago, this history junkie had the pleasure of visiting Goodrich, Skenfrith and Grosmont Castles, all in one day – to say that I was in my element would be putting it mildly…

Having grown up in Worcestershire, and with parents willing to drive me all over Herefordshire and the Welsh Marches, my love of ruined castles started at an early age. And the castles of this area are, without doubt, the ones I love most.

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Skenfrith Castle

As long as I can remember, I’ve been entranced by their strong, dominating presence – even those where little now remains, have left an imprint on our imaginations of their once powerful influence.

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Grosmont Castle

The castles of this region were built primarily to dominate – to oppress, to make it clear to the local population, who was now in charge. Some were later adapted for more stately living, but in the main they are business-like buildings, sending out a message that is still obvious today, nearly a thousand years since they were introduced by the Norman invaders of the eleventh century.

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Goodrich Castle

Every time I see one of the castles of the Marches, I debate with myself, why is it that as someone whose natural tendency is to side with the Anglo-Saxons, gets such a thrill from castles, which would surely have been viewed as an unparalleled outrage by the Welsh and Anglo-Saxon population when they were built. I’ve never really found the answer, – perhaps I’m really of Norman descent?  All I can say is, whenever I walk up to one of these brooding beasts, I break out into a massive smile… 

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Windows – interior tower – Grosmont Castle

All three of the castles I visited recently are early examples – castles built to defend and dominate their surrounding area – the Monnow valley – which was an important route between Hereford and Monmouth. Skenfrith and Grosmont, together with White Castle, are known as the Three Castles, and were mainly under the responsibility of the same governor, for most of their active history. But while Skenfrith and Grosmont were largely abandoned and left to ruin by the sixteenth century, Goodrich, which is significantly larger, went on to see action in the Civil War.

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Courtyard interior Goodrich Castle

I’m not going to go into the individual histories of each castle here – there are excellent Wiki pages with links at the bottom of this post if you want to learn more about them.

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Courtyard – Grosmont Castle

The aspect which captivates me, is being able to recreate in my mind the nature of the buildings and to try to put myself in the shoes of the people who actually used them all those centuries ago. I like to look out of the arrow slits or the deep window seats and wonder who else sat there – what were they doing? What were they looking for? Imagine being on watch on the battlements, imagine the sights, sounds and smells of life within those massive stone walls.

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So much stone! – Grosmont Castle

For me, the whole romance of these places is the closeness of the past – I put my hand on the stone as I walk up the spiral staircase, and immediately think about all those other hands that touched exactly that spot…

And I feel transported.

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Skenfrith Castle

Easy isn’t it, to see why they inspire poets, playwrights and painters…

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For more information…

Skenfrith Castle – history

Grosmont Castle – history

Goodrich Castle – history

Skenfrith and Grosmont are free to visit at any reasonable time. There is a charge at Goodrich. The cafe at Goodrich is excellent – try the cheese scones!

 ❤

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Cultural overload at Ely Cathedral…

Here’s a question for you. What happened at Ely Cathedral 693 years ago, on Friday 13th February 1322?

OK history buffs – you’re right, the central tower fell down.

And by pure coincidence, I made my first ever visit to Ely cathedral on the very day of that anniversary – Friday 13th February 2015.

Fortunately for me (and everyone else), there was no repeat of the events of 1322, and instead, I had the most marvellous time, exploring the many attractions of this fantastic cathedral – including a trip up to the famous wooden Octagon tower, which was built after the 1322 disaster, and which is now perhaps the cathedral’s crowning glory.

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The day  was intended to be something of an artists day out, especially a visit to the RSN ecclesiastical embroidery exhibition, but there was much more to set your creative juices flowing. So much so, that by the time I came away, I really felt that I’d been well and truly topped up.

Whenever I visit cathedrals, I like to absorb their atmosphere – they vary so much. Ely I decided, was intent on making me smile. From the very start, entering through a small door, inset inside a larger pair, and finding yourself emerging into a breath-takingingly long nave, and then as you move from the austere Norman architecture, into the octagonal centre, I simply defy you not to be overwhelmed by the sheer beauty and magnificence.

Then there was the exquisite Lady Chapel, the intricate carved niches standing testament to their brutal treatment during the Reformation, the stained glass windows, drenching you in rich jewel colours, (the cathedral is also home to a superb Stained Glass Museum), the confection of the Gilbert Scot organ case – and on it goes. I loved the way a new wonder unveiled itself at every turn.

And of course, the Octagon Tower itself – a medieval wonder in every way.

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If you’d like to see the photos I took and read a little about the history of Ely Cathedral, then follow the link here to my Ely Cathedral page.

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But if you have the opportunity – go and see it yourself. I can’t wait to hurry back!

 

Worcester Cathedral Cloisters.

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We found ourselves back at Worcester Cathedral at the weekend. Last time, I posted the pictures from the top of the tower, but on this visit, I spent more time in the cloisters.

I readily admit to being biased about Worcester, but the cloisters are particularly tranquil – even when there are dozens of bell-ringers around the place.

Does anyone else see the resemblance to Parsley the Lion from The Herbs in this little chap?

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But above all, it’s the windows that have me transfixed…

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If you visit Worcester, the cathedral is free to go in. It has the tomb of King John and Prince Arthur (Henry VIII’s elder brother and first husband of Catherine of Aragon) – plus lots more. But don’t miss the cloisters (and the cafe is in the cloisters too!).

Claydon, Buckinghamshire

In which we visit the West Wing…

I sneaked out earlier this week for an afternoon at Claydon. The sun was shining and I felt like a gentle stroll around and the attraction of the second-hand book shop clinched it for me (I am sooooo happy to find these at more and more National Trust properties).

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the view across Buckinghamshire from the front of Claydon

the view across Buckinghamshire from the front of Claydon

Claydon is one of the closest properties to our house, so I’ve been there a number of times over the years, but I’m sitting here now having trouble deciding how to describe it. The thing about Claydon for me, is that it’s almost more about what you can’t see than what you can.

The obvious thing you can’t see (oh dear, am I sounding a bit Donald Rumsfeld here…), is the rest of the building that once stood with the bit that’s left. The building we see now is only a fragment of the original eighteenth century mansion, the West Wing, built for one of the Sir Ralph Verney’s in the 1750s. Poor Sir Ralph had a dreadful case of the ‘keeping-up-with-the-Joneses’ definitely a problem when your neighbour was the owner of Stowe.

Sadly for Sir Ralph, his finances didn’t keep up with his aspirations and not long after his death, the house was reduced to its current size.

The back of Claydon - the bookshop is hiding behind one of those doors.

The back of Claydon – the bookshop is hiding behind one of those doors.

Not that I think you’d complain if what’s left was your own country pad. Think rococo interiors gone wild and you’ll just about be on the right track – (you’ll have to take my word on this though, or Google Claydon images or look up Claydon on Pinterest, because the National Trust won’t let you take pictures).

You have to see the interior – it’s magnificent. You want to dress up in your posh Georgian gear and swagger about – no really, you do.

But then things start to get, what shall we say… eclectic?

I don’t know, this is where it begins to confuse me. The thing is, once you venture upstairs at Claydon, it’s a bit like entering a historical pic ‘n’ mix.

At the moment you get some lovely memorabilia about weddings, including wonderful seventeenth century letters from the Verney family and the wedding suit from 1662 of Sir Edmund ‘Mun’ Verney. But the next room contains all sorts of ‘stuff’, largely collected by a pirate Verney (oh yes) – you could spend quite some time in that room alone – and then what do you expect? You’ll never guess, no you won’t…

You get Florence Nightingales’s bedroom – there, you didn’t guess did you.

And then, just when you thought things couldn’t get any more odd, you walk through into two simply breathtaking chinoiserie-style rooms, the second of which will have you gasping.

(This would definitely be better with pictures – go away now and Google)…

Anyway, whilst you’re visiting, you’ll probably have taken in – even if on a subconscious level, the faces of quite a lot of Verney’s. This is something I adore, for me, it’s just so much more interesting if I can put a face to a name, and with so much family history on show, that makes a big difference.

The face I most want to be able to go back and talk to is that of Sir Edmund Verney, standard-bearer at the Battle of Edgehill to Charles I.

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This poor chap, who looks such a nice, if rather worried fellow from his portrait, deserved so much better. He was the father of ten surviving children (I’d like to write a whole book about his wife), who worked tirelessly for the king, and then when the Civil War broke out, despite disagreeing with Charles on substantial matters, remained loyal to the king.

He was killed at the battle, still holding the royal standard. His body they say, was never recovered, just the hand that had been severed, so the standard could be taken.

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You’ll see and hear a lot about him in the house, but of course he never knew this house because it wasn’t built until 100 years after his death. He would have known the previous Jacobean building of which we see nothing at all. This worries me, not least because I somehow want to see him in that interior and also because he is said to haunt the current building, which must be extremely confusing for him too.

The best place to see the Verney’s though isn’t the house at all. It’s in the church.

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Here at last you do get a sense of continuity. After all, the house may be eighteenth century, but the Verney’s have lived at Claydon for over 400 years, the church then, is the one connection they all share.

They must have been a close family too, there are some simply amazing memorials. The best of which of course is to brave Sir Edmund.

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While I’ve been writing this, I think I’ve worked out what it is that I like most about Claydon – it’s the people. Some places you visit, you enjoy and then forget about, but at Claydon you leave wanting to know more, and more, and more, and more…

For more information…

This is the link to the National Trust visitor page for Claydon – do make sure to check it out especially if you’re planning a visit. Lots of pictures and loads more history there too.

As I mentioned, there’s a little book shop at the back of the house (actually in the part where the present day Verney’s still live) – don’t miss it.

And out in the courtyard are a variety of shops and places to eat – oh and you can pay extra to visit the garden.