Podcasts and making information accessible

I usually spend about an hour and a half commuting to and from work. As much as I love reading, crowded trains and a walk either end mean it’s not the easiest way to spend a commute. Audiobooks are good, but there are free podcasts worth checking out. So far I’ve not really dipped my toe into educational podcasts, but I recently stumbled across a podcast series from the Institute of Historical Research which has been running since 2009.

With nearly 600 episodes there’s a lot to choose from, and they make it easy to narrow things down by splitting them into different time periods. Interestingly there’s a definite skew towards the 18th century and onwards. It looks like a good way of exploring new topics. I’ve been meaning to attend some of their seminars but never quite manage to find the time. I’m sure I’m not the only one, so having these recordings available is a good way to make information available in an easily accessible way.

There are 31 episodes on the Middles Ages, so I’ll be kept busy on my commute for a while yet.

Long Live the Monograph – archaeology and e-books

In the closing months of 2012 the Centre for Applied Archaeology at the University of Salford published a monograph on the excavations at Buckton Castle. I had been involved with several seasons of the digging there and was fascinated by the site. I wrote about it in a first-year essay, am still writing about it now in my post-graduate research, and in 2012 I was one of three authors of the final volume of the Archaeology of Tameside series. I was delighted to learn that not only was there an e-book, which is important in making the information accessible to a wide audience, but that the first chapter would be free to access. The post summarises the situation nearly two years ago. Progress is slow, and while English Heritage announced at the end of 2014 that they were making PDFs of 84 of their out-of-print monographs there is still a huge amount of information out there which can be difficult or expensive to access if your local library doesn’t have what you need. Digital copies of monographs and journals are integral to helping the spread of information.

archaeologyuos

From the 1st May 2013 the Centre for Applied Archaeology at the University of Salford will be offering publications such as this, on Buckton Castle, in e-book form. From the 1st May 2013 the Centre for Applied Archaeology at the University of Salford will be offering publications such as this, on Buckton Castle, in e-book form.

The rise of electronic publication is one of the more striking cultural shifts of the last decade. Supported by better quality screens and new personal data-devices such as smart phones, tablets, and e-book readers it is now normal to see commuters on trams, trains, and buses with their noses in the latest fiction e-book. Most universities have electronic data stores of academic research, whilst e-journals pioneered the introduction of this technology within academia.

Archaeology as a discipline has been slow to take up this technology, beyond the e-journal market and the pressures of the publishing houses. Thus, nearly a decade ago one of the period archaeology societies I have been involved with at a committee level for many years was approached by…

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Funding for Newark Castle?

A ruined building

The ruined courtyard of Newark Castle, looking towards the gatehouse.

In July 2013 I was travelling across the country for work. This involved changing at Newark; the name rang a bell but as I hadn’t been there before I didn’t think much of it. I was scheduled to wait at the station for an hour but I had a good book to keep me company so I didn’t mind much.

Walking into the waiting room I suddenly realised why I recognised the name. One wall was entirely taken up by an enormous black and white photo of a castle. Newark is a quiet town, and the castle is a ten to fifteen minute walk from the station. Unsure how much time I would have, I ran all the way there.

In that short visit I felt like I discovered a jewel. Newark is a wonderful ruin. From across the canal it looks splendidly complete, but from the east you appreciate how good a job Parliament did in demolishing the castle in the 17th century. My post-graduate research focusses on slighted castles – the likes of Newark itself, though it falls outside my time period. It has a very impressive gatehouse, which I’m dying to explore, and a fascinating history which includes the death of King John.

Since that summer day on which a train journey was transformed from mundane to fun, I’ve had a soft spot for Newark. So it was with no small amount of pleasure that I read the news of plans to turn the castle into a tourist attraction with a visitor centre. It perhaps isn’t the most famous of castles, which is a shame given its history and surprising given the way the picturesque way it mixes ruin with remains. That said, it manages 150,000 visitors a year which is nothing to complain about. The intention is to spend £800,000 which will cover  turning the gatehouse into a visitor centre and opening the tower next to it to the public. Hopefully there will be something about the excavations carried out by Pamela Marshall.

Something which stuck out is that the exhibits will cover crime and punishment in Norman England. Three of my interests overlap at Newark: slighting, gatehouses, and prisons. Newark has four oubliettes – underground prisons accessed only from the ceiling. Oubliettes are unusual enough in England, but four is downright peculiar. County towns had a special role to play in administration and law enforcement. My hope for Newark is that the displays avoid sensationalising the imprisonment angle as you might find at Warwick.

It is interesting that it currently costs £70,000 to maintain the castle. I don’t have much of a yardstick to give that context, but it would be interesting to know how that’s spent. I sincerely hope they get the full funding, and that more people can enjoy Newark Castle. I’ll be making time to revisit myself.

For some photos from my visit to Newark Castle, click here.

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Castles for everyone – fortifications on the television

In the past couple of years there have been some very good series on castles. Particularly memorable for me was 2012’s Battle Castle presented by Dan Snow which toured six world famous sites, from Dover in England to Krak des Chevaliers in Syria. Late 2014 saw not one but two series about castles on the BBC: Secrets of the Castle with Ruth, Peter and Tom and Castles: Britain’s Fortified History.

A great hall surrounded by an incomplete wall and a dry moat

Château de Guédelon in 2011, with a completed great hall and a round donjon under construction. Photo by Ronny Siegel CC-BY 2.0.

Television on demand is both a blessing and a curse. I downloaded all the episodes to watch at my leisure, but because there’s such a lack of urgency it’s easy to forget about. To cut a long story short, while I watched all of Secrets of the Castle I only managed half an episode of the second series before it expired. Hopefully it will be repeated because from the fragment I did manage to see it looked very good.

The temptation with any series on castles must be to try and cram in as many as possible. There are simply so many photogenic sites, and a cheery jaunt through time gives you a perfect opportunity to indulge. Instead Secrets of the Castle took a different approach and was based at Guédelon in France. For anyone who watched Battle Castle two years previously, Guédelon may have been eerily familiar. This is because it is not a centuries old ruin but an active building site. Since 1997 people from various countries have been using medieval construction methods to recreate a 13th-century château. Whereas Battle Castle adeptly used Guédelon to shed light on the construction methods of castles to put the finished product into perspective in terms of how much time and effort was involved, Secrets of the Castle used it as the setting to understand the community of people who lived in a castle while it was in its early stages.

The obligatory (and fun) scenes with replica siege engines were included, but so too were segments on cooking, clothing, decoration, and crafting. It was a well thought out series offering a side of the castle not usually seen. In England, Dover Castle and the Tower of London have apartments which have been decorated to recreate how they might have appeared when they were used by the king. They are strikingly garish, but the idea of the castle as dark ruinous places is hard to shake. At Guédelon plaster,  limewash, and paint were in evidence, and even kitchens were bright white, maximising the natural light.

An earthen mound with an entrance

The kiln at Château de Guédelon, where the roof tiles for the castle are fired. Photo by Ronny Siegel CC-BY 2.0.

With Time Team retired, series such as Secrets of the Castle have a very important role in helping the public understand this part of their history. It is a fun and exciting series. The only thing missing, as far as I can see, I a book to accompany the series. Battle Castle had a wonderfully illustrated book with contributions from the likes of John Goodall, Jeremy Ashbee, and Anthony Emery. The quality of the television series made a lot of sense when seeing who helped write the book.

Guédelon is an opportunity not just to understand castles better, but to bring experimental archaeology to a wider audience. The spread of camera drones means that viewers were offered many sweeping aerial shots of Guédelon. One thing which stood out was how over the course of a few years, those unfinished areas of the castle have started to grow vegetation. These little things help understand the medieval world. Hopefully a book may not be far behind the series.

Castles to Crenellations

A crowd gathered in front of a reddish tower

During the tour of Chester Castle I hopped onto the battlements to take a few choice photos.

Finding time away from a part-time PhD isn’t easy. But in November I gave a talk at CBA North West annual conference. The topic of the day was castles and it was a chance to revisit some of my previous research. My BA dissertation was on the subject of castle gatehouses and approaches in North West England. I was ecstatic when two and a half years later part of it was published in the Castle Studies Group Journal. It gave me a very nice sense of closure. After all there’s a finite number of castles in the region, and only a fraction have gatehouses surviving to such an extent that they can be reasonably discussed.

November was a hectic month partly because I was finishing a 20,000-word chapter. That took priority, but returning to a familiar subject was almost a break. The paper which got published is available online, so the question became what angle can I take to freshen things up. Of course most people wouldn’t have come across my paper before, but I wanted my talk to complement what I’d already done.

While it was fun to revisit a topic I enjoy but hadn’t thought seriously about for nearly two years, there were two major highlights of the day which made it stand out. The first was shortly before lunch. CBA North West had arranged a tour round Chester Castle. I’ve been to Chester before, but had never actually been inside the castle. It’s not usually open to the public, and in fairness anyone expecting a grand or intimidating medieval fortress would have been disappointed as most of what survives is post medieval. I got lucky though. The Agricola Tower is the main part of the Norman castle which still stands. It was built c1200 by the earl of Chester, and best of all was the main entrance to the castle before it was greatly expanded in the 13th century. Sadly Chester Castle isn’t always open to the public, but we were able to visit the Norman chapel above the gate passage and even look out from the top of the tower.

In the afternoon a pair of talks covered fortifications on the Isle of Mann, including the impressive Castle Rushen which may have been partly demolished by Robert the Bruce. The UK’s islands have their fair share of interesting sites, including Carisbrooke Castle in the Isle of Wight, but Castle Rushen had embarrassingly completely passed me by. In particular my ears pricked when Robert the Bruce was mentioned as he was responsible for slighting a few castles during the Anglo-Scottish wars. Despite this, the North West has surprisingly few cases so it was particularly interesting to hear of this.

To finish on a self-centred note, returning to a subject I had previously considered closed was a good idea. As it happened, it complemented part of my current research on the destruction of castles as well as resulting in some interesting feedback. As well as adding Castle Rushen to my list of sites to visit, I’ll be adding Goodrich Castle on the friendly advice of one of the audience who bored that a plinth in the gate passage could have been used as a bench, suggesting how these structures may functioned as social places.

Where next with gatehouses? For now, there isn’t a ‘next’, just an ongoing interest in a subject which provides a nice diversion from my primary research topic.

For some photos of the day, click here.

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