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

Midnight on the Hill

borrowcop

Borrowcop Hill is a place that doesn’t want to give up its secrets easily. What interests me about places like this is how gaps in our knowledge create a space where legends and folklore can grow unchecked. It’s not just a hill with a nice view. It’s the burial place of kings and martyrs, the site of Lichfield Castle.

to borrowcop gazebo

Stand at the summit and you’re standing at the highest point in Lichfield. Beacons have been lit here certainly for celebrations, possibly as warnings. The grammar school moved here from St John Street in 1903 and in 1971, merged with the adjacent Kings Hill secondary modern school to form the current King Edward VI School.  Interesting how the folklore was even referenced in the school name here. Another school on the site, the just as evocatively named Saxon Hill, was opened in 1979.

borrowcop sign

Christmas 1940

At last year’s Lichfield Discovered talk by Peter Young on Philip Larkin’s connections to the city, he told us that that whilst staying with relatives at Cherry Orchard in 1940, Larkin had written three poems. Only one, ‘Out in the Lane’, was published but all three were inspired by his temporary surroundings. Peter believes the arched field of ‘Christmas 1940’ refers to Borrowcop Hill. I’ve reproduced it here from a folio collated by The Philip Larkin Society for their celebration of his birthday in August 2001. I hope they don’t mind, but I can’t find it anywhere else!

The name ‘Borrowcop’ does hint that there was once something here. Its earliest written forms, Burwey or Burwhay, feature the Old English element ‘burh’,  suggesting a fortified place (1).  Whilst there are vague reports of Erasmus Darwin recovering bits of burnt bone from somewhere up here, according to the Heritage Environment Report, ‘more recent excavations have so far failed to recover any evidence for human activity’. Well, I went up there on Sunday and I found this:

borrowcop chair

And this:

"The bubbles up your nose, spill on your summer clothes"

“The bubbles up your nose, spill on your summer clothes”

And this:

borrowcop graffiti

Plenty of human activity in what Five Spires Live , the Lichfield satirist who also doesn’t give up his secrets easily, yesterday described as  “… the perfect setting for bit of Larkin”. See, as much as I like legends, I also like the real.  I like layers of history that celebrate everything a place is and not just what we want it to be. The way our own memories of a place form our own folklores. The title for this post is one I’ve appropriated from one of my favourite songs by one of my favourite bands. It’s summer nights, it’s cheap cider (or ‘energy and guava’, if you’d rather), it’s messing about with your mates in a space maintained by the council because you’ve nowhere else to go. It’s perfect. Borrowcop or not, we’ve all been there. And like it or not, that’s as much a part of history as those kings and castles are.

1) A Survey and Analysis of the Place-Names of Staffordshire’ by David Horovitz, https://lichfieldlore.files.wordpress.com/2015/06/397633_vol1.pdf

In defence of Lichfield

As I mentioned in the last post about the West Gate, some other remnants of the Close’s medieval defences are visible.  I’ve marked the ones I know about, on the map below, with a bit of information on each. I’m sure there’s probably more, and we could probably work out where the other defences were, but it’s a start!

1. Site of the West Gate – see previous post here

2. Remains of North East Tower & ditch. A scheduled monument, sometimes known as the Bishop’s Tower, this was part of the original, medieval bishop’s palace. The pastscape record can be seen here. A description of the tower and how it fitted into the rest of the palace can be found in several books on the Cathedral & Close (1) and is based on a plan that was held in the Bodleian Library (is it still there?). A plan drawn from this can also be found here.

At the north east corner was a tower fifty two feet high and each of its ten sides thirteen feet on the outside. It was called the bishop’s tower and the ruins yet remain. Adjoining this tower was a square room with stone stairs leading to the top on the north west of which was an apartment with a cellar underneath twenty two feet in breadth and sixty three feet in length. The bishop’s lodging room was forty feet by thirty two with a leaden roof and cellar underneath. On the north side of this room was a large chimney piece opposite to which a door led to the dining room sixty feet long and thirty broad. At the east end was a door opening into the second tower which consisted of five squares eleven feet in width and thirty two in height. There were two apartments each twenty feet by seven separated from each other by the large hall chimney, , the lady’s chamber…the brewhouse…and the kitchen.

 

 3. St Mary’s House. Incorporates a turret and part of the Close wall on the east and south side. Not only are there are arrow slits, but there are also rumours of a secret tunnel down below….Actually, it’s not that secret as loads of people seem to have heard about it.

 4. Remains of Eastern Tower of South East Gate. This description comes from the ‘Lichfield: The cathedral close’, A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 14: Lichfield

The gate built by Langton at the south-east corner of the Close had two towers. The eastern one, whose base was excavated in the late 1980s, was a half-octagon with 12-ft. sides. The western tower was presumably of similar dimension. The gate had a portcullis in 1376.  There was a drawbridge, still in existence in the earlier 18th century, which crossed the outflow of water from Minster Pool, and also a wicket for pedestrians. The gate was removed in the mid 18th century in order to improve access for coaches into the Close.

 

There’s also this bit of wall behind the Chapters coffee shop, which provoked a bit of discussion on Brownhills Bob’s Brownhills Blog, and with Annette Rubery. Especially about what that recess is!

While I was having a flick through googlebooks trying to find information on the subject, I came across an interesting snippet. Adrian Pettifer, in ‘English Castles: A County Guide’ makes the point that that unlike the majority of cathedral cities, there was no wall around the city of Lichfield as a whole.

So whilst the Close was protected by a strong wall, a ditch, 50ft towers, drawbridges and portcullises (when you put it like that it really does sound like a castle!), what did the rest of the city have? Well, there was a ditch. It’s thought even this was used more for controlling traders coming in and out of the city, than for defences. An archaeological dig carried out on the Lichfield District Council carpark in Frog Lane, also confirmed that the ditch was used as the city dump and found a variety of material, including it appears, the dog from Funnybones. There were gates too, the positions of which are still marked by plaques. Again, though it’s thought these might not have been defensive. I think the ditch and the gates deserve a post of their own, so I’ll come back to them another time.

Credit: Ell Brown (taken from flickr photostream)

This will also give me time to think about my latest question (one I’m sure has been thought about and answered by clever people already!). Was the city of Lichfield defended, along with the Close? And if not, then why not? Of course, if anyone has any ideas about this in the meantime, please let me know!

Footnootes:

(1) This particular description is taken from ‘A short account of the city and close of Lichfield by Thomas George Lomax, John Chappel Woodhouse, William Newling

(2) Thanks to this website http://gatehouse-gazetteer.info/English%20sites/3329.html for pointing me in the direction of some great links.

(3) I’ve also used this book From: ‘Lichfield: The cathedral close’, A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 14: Lichfield (1990)