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

Through Doors and Windows

Anyone who has read the Written into Lichfield History and Making your Mark posts, will know that Gareth Thomas has been exploring the Lichfield District Council Offices, and very kindly sharing the photos here on the blog.  Gareth’s doing this because the buildings were once the Lichfield Grammar School, and generations of pupils, dating back to the 17th century have left their mark on the building.

I like the idea that even those who didn’t go as far as leaving their name still left a trace on the worn bannisters and floorboards

Last time, we got as far as the attic doors, where someone called ‘Watkins’, carved his name in February 1714/5. Amongst the other graffiti is the name WHoll, and Roger Jones (Ziksby) put forward the idea that this could be William Holl the engraver, which certainly warrants further investigation.  Back then the doors would have lead to the dormitories for the boarders at the school. Now thanks to Gareth, we get to have a look at what lies behind those potentially three hundred year old doors……

Who was WL Holden? Does C1 refer to his form or something else?

To us these are old timber beams, yet once they were brand new, and according to the Lichfield Conduit Lands archives, mostly donated in the form of individual trees!

 

Gareth has taken some photographs from the windows. Not only does this give an interesting perspective of the city, it also invites you to imagine what the boys would have seen looking out of this window, what’s changed and what’s the same.

In around 1813, Cowperthwaite Smith was appointed headmaster of the school with a salary of £170 per annum, plus rent free accomodation. At the time, board, lodging & tuition was being charged at between 40 and 50 guineas a year for each scholar. In 1828, according to the ‘Account of Public Charities in England and Wales’, there were 18 boarders, and around 30-40 students in total. It goes on to say that the only scholars receiving their education free at the school were the ‘six children of poor men born within the City’ (who were also given money for books, and slightly more curiously brooms, when the school was first endowed).  The people of Lichfield were apparently not happy that their grammar school was no longer a free school.

By then end of Cowperthwaite Smith’s time as headmaster in the 1840s, no boys at all were coming to the school. Allegations were made in the Wolverhampton Chronicle that Lichfield Grammar School had been closed for six years due to the the misconduct of the master. It claimed he was violent towards the children in his care, and that ‘his treatment of two boys on two separate subjected his modes of punishment to investigation before the magistrates one boy having subsequently confined to his bed under surgical advice for a fortnight’.

The newpaper was sued for its attempt to injure Cowperthwaite’s ‘good name fame and credit’ as a schoolmaster and clergyman, and ‘to bring him into public scandal infamy and disgrace’ and ‘to hold him up to public contumely scorn and ridicule and to vex harass oppress impoverish and wholly ruin (him)’. I’m trying to piece together exactly what happened as best I can from the court cases that followed these allegations and I’m hoping that the original newspaper reports might be available. There’s also a vast amount of information at Lichfield Record Office that I’d like to look through, and I think it’s best not to speculate or comment further until I have read more on this.

I am also working on another post as Gareth’s investigations took him to another part of the building, where he made another fantastic discovery, including our oldest dated graffiti yet.  In the meantime, Gareth, do you fancy going up that ladder in the attic?

(1) A Concise Description of the Endowed Grammar Schools of England and Wales, Nicholas Carlise 1818

http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1846/apr/01/the-lichfield-grammar-school

http://www.lichfielddc.gov.uk/info/100004/council_and_democracy/588/history_of_district_council_house/2

http://eagle.cch.kcl.ac.uk:8080/cce/persons/DisplayPerson.jsp?PersonID=19831