Capturing The Castle

This year’s Heritage Open Days are now in full swing and yesterday a friend of mine took me on a grand day out to Astley Castle in Warwickshire. I’m sure I could find a tenuous link to Lichfield if I looked hard enough, but why be parochial when there’s an opportunity to share a stunning example of how even our most neglected historic buildings can be given a sustainable future? Even if it is in Warwickshire. Anyway, I really like castles.

Astley Castle exterior - new bricks built into ancient stones

Astley Castle exterior – new bricks built into ancient stones

I’ve never seen one quite like this though. Actuallly, it’s more fortified manor house than castle, but it has crenellations and a moat and has been associated with three English queens so let’s not quibble too much over nomenclature. The fortified manor house castle has fallen into varying states of disrepair at various points throughout its seven hundred year history but it was a fire in 1978, and the subsequent vandalism, theft and collapse, that rendered Astley a complete ruin. In the late 1990s, the Landmark Trust (1) attempted to rescue the property using conventional restoration and conversion methods but it was financially and technically impossible. However, the Trust refused to give up on Astley and returned to the property in 2005. Accepting that parts of the building were now beyond repair, they held an architectural competition with a brief to create a four bedroomed house to sleep eight people at the castle. Ideas ranged from building an new house in the grounds, which would have made the castle itself the world’s grandest garden shed (“Have you seen the tool box, love? Think it’s in the Jacobean wing, next to the hosepipe”.) to building a new house behind the retained facade (2). The design that won the competition, and went on to win the 2013 RIBA Stirling Prize was created by Witherford Watson and Mann architects. In my very humble opinion, it blends and bonds the ancient and modern together magnificently. I’ve seen it described as a reinvention rather than a restoration and perhaps that is the way forward. After all, as one of the project architects said, when you have a building that has been continually altered to meet the needs of its inhabitants over a span of seven hundred years, which point in time do you choose to restore it to?

A room with a view

A room with a view

astley castle ruins from windown

Another one

Of course, following our visit I now really want to stay there (I don’t have a bucket list but I am going to start one so I can put ‘have a bath at Astley Castle on it’). I’d say that about anywhere with a bed and a bit of history though. What’s different about Astley is it’s possibly the first historic building I’ve visited where ideas about the present and the future have captured my imagination more than stories about the past. At a place where those stories include that of the fugitive Henry ‘father of Lady Jane’ Grey hiding in a nearby hollow oak, being betrayed by a servant and executed at the Tower of London, and returning afterwards to haunt his former home minus his head, that’s quite an achievement.

Immerse yourself in history

Immerse yourself in history

(1) The Landmark Trust is a conservation charity which rescues at risk historic buildings by restores them using traditional techniques and makes them available for holiday lettings.

(2) Bingo! There’s our tenuous Lichfield link. I’m sure I remember this being proposed (and subsequently rejected) as an idea for the Victoria Hospital.

astley castle exterior

Kindred Spirit

I’ve referenced J(ohn) W(alters) Jackson several times in this blog and really wanted to find out a bit more about him. So here we go….

Mr Jackson was 2 years old when he came to Lichfield in 1864. He was a music teacher and the organist at Christ Church. He lived at 81, Walsall Rd until he left the city to live with his son in Newport,  Shropshire in October 1940 at the age of 78. During his time in Lichfield he was ‘City Librarian’. The Lichfield Mercury reported that after his appointment the number of readers increased from 70 a week to 500.

In the 1930s and 40s, Mr Jackson had a local history column in the Lichfield Mercury in  which he answered readers’ queries and shared an assortment of historical facts, folklore and transciptions from old documents. Each ‘subject’ is given a paragraph at most, so if one snippet didn’t interest, the next one wasn’t far behind!

I thought I’d share one of my favorites with you, to give you a flavour of Mr Jackson’s work. I like this one especially because the ancient manor of Abnalls is one of my favourite places in Lichfield and I love a good ghost story (this one has the added bonus of an intrepid one-man paranormal investigation as well). So I’ll hand you over to Mr Jackson…..

“The Abnalls dates back to the time of Edward I. The present hall has taken the place of the ancient manor. Many years ago it was said to be haunted. Half a century ago considerable alarm was caused by reports of a spectre being seen by various passers-by at belated hours. The writer personally visited (at midnight when ghosts are said to appear) on several occasions but after patiently waiting saw nothing of a spectral character further than weird forms in the trees and bushes in the dim light, and on one occasion the gentle waving of a white nightgown pegged on a clothes line.”

The site of the old manor off Abnalls Lane. I know it doesn't look it from the photo but it is very intriguing place and a scheduled ancient monument.The aerial view from googlemaps reveals a lot more but I'm having trouble adding it to the post at the minute, so in the meantime, maybe do your own investigation & see if you can find it!

 This kind of history might not be to everyone’s taste (but then what is?) but it sure is to mine –  I think it’s entertaining, accessible and a great source of information. If you get the chance I highly recommend that you have a look at the Lichfield Mercury archives (warning – give yourself plenty of time as you’ll be engrossed).  

I love the way that us humans,  no matter what age we belong to, are curious about the stories of the places that surround us and the people that came before us (well, most of us are anyway). Investigate the blog list to the right of this post and you’ll find a lot of curious* & entertaining souls. I like to think that if Mr Jackson was around today, he’d be doing a blog. I hope he doesn’t mind being included on this one!

 *curious in the inquisitive sense, not in the strange sense. I think 😉

The Grave of Poor Bessy Banks

I spotted a place labelled Bessy Banks’ Grave on the 1815 Ordnance Survey drawing of Lichfield by Robert Dawson 1815.

Immediately, I thought of the story of Kitty Jay on Dartmoor. A little investigation has revealed a few details. In ‘History of the City and Cathedral of Lichfield’ by John Jackson (1805), I found the following;

“…of Betsy Banks grave* once the famous rendezvous of lovers….now no more is remembered than that poor Betsy is said to have fallen victim to hapless love.

*there is a spot in a field in Lichfield still distinguished by that name”

Anna Seward wrote to her friend Honora Sneyd about the place in a letter dated May 1772, that she described as ‘Written in a summer evening from the grave of a suicide’. I’ve only included the first part as its quite long.

“It suits the temper of my soul to pour
Fond, fruitless plaints beneath the lonely bower,
Here, in this silent glade, that childhood fears,
Where the love-desperate maid, of vanish’d years,
Slung her dire cord between the sister trees,
That slowly bend their branches to the breeze,
And shade the bank that screens her mouldering form,
From the swart Dog-Star, and the wintry storm….”

Another reference can be found in one of David Garrick’s letters.  He wrote that “the name Dimble is given to a sunken road leading north from Lichfield past a spot, supposedly haunted called Betty Honks Grave. Two sister trees form an elegant arch over a stream”.

By 1791, it was found that the sister trees had been recently cut down.

So who was Bessy Banks, did she really exist? If so, is her grave still there, now unmarked and unremembered?

Edit 5/9/2011

I recently had the St Chad’s tithe map (1849) out in Lichfield Record Office, looking for something else. A whole plot of land is listed as ‘Bessy Banks’. Born a Lichfeldian has kindly worked out where the stream in this area would have been. Taking into account this and the tithe map it seems that ‘Bessy Banks’ was somewhere in the region between Dimbles Lane and Greencroft.
John Jackson’s description suggects that in 1805 the story is already an old one. It does seem a fairly well-known tale, to have actual places on maps marked after it, as well as being mentioned by Garrick (albeit with the name Betty Honks!) & Seward.  Was it just a made-up story, or did it arise from actual events? I wonder when (and why?) the people of Lichfield stopped telling the story? Or could there even still be people who could tell us the tragedy of Lichfield’s ‘love-desperate maid?’

Edit: 15/4/2012

A notice in the Lichfield Mercury 20th February 1914 lists a lot for sale as garden land, known as Bessy Banks, adjoining a plot of arable land let by T Chapman and located next to Gaiafields House and Gaia Fields Cottage.