What about Cheshire?

In June a rare kind of article appeared in The Archaeological Journal. Dr Rachel Swallow wrote “Cheshire Castles of the Irish Sea Cultural Zone”.

The article opens  with a quote from Norman Pounds some 26 years ago. 1990 was a very different place. Graham Gooch captained the England Test team, Star Trek was still on BBC 2, and some guy called Dave Grohl had just joined Nirvana as a drummer. For castle studies in Cheshire not that much has changed, at least not until the 2010s.

There were excavations at Beeston, the most famous and impressive castle in Cheshire, which finished in 1985.  Halton Castle was excavated between 1986 and 1987, and Watch Hill 1985. The results were variously published. Between 2007 and 2010 the University of Manchester Archaeological Unit and later the University of Salford’s Centre for Applied Archaeology carried out excavations at Buckton Castle, and in 2015 the CfAA excavated at Halton. As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, the results of the excavations at Buckton were developed into a monograph. As for Halton, hopefully the future holds more excavation.

The view from Beeston Castle

The view from Beeston Castle

Of course excavation is not the only means to understanding a castle, and the development of LIDAR has made it possible to accurately map the landscape of a large number of sites. Measured surveys are still important, but LIDAR allows us to look at larger areas. Swallow uses some of this data in her paper, using it to demonstrate how some of the castles discussed used naturally elevated positions. A multi-disciplinary approach allows for the use of place name evidence as historical sources to cast light onto the early history of the castles under consideration.

The scope of Swallow’s article is more than Cheshire, looking instead at the west of the county and north-east Wales. It is often easier to look at castles on a county-by-county basis, partly because the shire system dates back to the medieval period so it is not completely abstracted from history. But what it does mean is that sometimes castles with a linked history can be overlooked. When preparing the monograph on Buckton Castle it was important to include an overview castles in North West England. This brought together a large body of evidence, but during this process it felt like there were missing pieces around the edges: especially the Welsh and Scottish borders, and to a lesser extent the eastern border with Yorkshire and Northumberland.

An important theme is that of “the importance of place” illustrate by the prolonged use and reuse of sites often dating back to the Iron Age. Cheshire has some particularly good examples, including the impressive Beeston Castle: a 13th-century enclosure castle occupying the site of a hillfort in a gap in the Mid Cheshire Ridge.

This re-examination of information shows that Cheshire is a rich area which needs further research. A number of peculiarities were demonstrated to be restricted to this area which further builds the case for more fieldwork. Importantly by looking at a large number of castles it has enabled Swallow to make deductions about other sites such as Watch Hill. Based on the morphology of the site she has suggested that Watch Hill originated as a prehistoric fort and was adapted into a castle in the medieval period. This had not occurred to the authors of the excavation report in the 1980s because they did not have other sites to compare it to. There is the distinct possibility that the site may have a longer history than previously appreciated.

The overgrown site of Watch Hill Castle

The overgrown site of Watch Hill Castle

Bringing together large amounts of evidence allows for patterns to be identified when on a small-scale we are left to supposition and one-on-one comparisons. That is one of the main things I am attempting to do with my thesis: collating a huge amount of information (published and unpublished) and using it to reach a nuanced understanding of castle slighting.

The approach Swallow used has pushed forward our understanding of castles in Cheshire and perhaps established a template for others to use elsewhere. There is no reason to restrict it to the North West, but it is an area which could most benefit from itu

Transactions of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society

It’s always a delight to see society’s make their publications open access, and hopefully it paves the way for other groups. The decision to upload volumes after ten years strikes me as a sensible approach.

CBA North

Transactions of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society

The Archaeology Data Service and the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society have announced the release of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society Transactions archive.

For further details of this are on the ADS website, see http://dx.doi.org/10.5284/1032950  Here you will find all of the Transactions volumes published from 1874 up to 2006, with the years 2007-2014 articles available in abstract form.

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Digging Halton Castle Part 1

I had really hoped to be able to take some time off work to volunteer at this dig. Sadly it wasn’t to be. It’s strange to think that the last major excavation of a castle in the North West was five years ago. As if that didn’t make this excavation important enough, Halton is a stone castle which first belonged to the Earls of Chester and then the crown. A 17th-century engraving gives a tantalising idea of how Halton Castle once looked. I’ll be keeping a close eye on the updates to see what the archaeologists turn up!

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The ruins of Halton Castle with the 1738 courthouse on the right. The ruins of Halton Castle with the 1738 courthouse on the right.

The ruins of Halton Castle in Cheshire (SJ 537 820) stand on a prominent hill of red sandstone overlooking the estuary of the River Mersey to the north and west. July 2015 sees the first excavations at this medieval site since 1987. During the 1980s my old colleague and friend Robina McNeil led small-scale excavations in the inner bailey as part of a wider conservation programme across the castle ruins.(1) This work stabilised the castle fabric and highlighted the role of the site as a baronial castle linked with the nearby Norton Priory.

The 1399 gatehouse at Lancaster castle is similar in style to the lost 15th century gatehouse at Halton Castle, Cheshire. The 1399 gatehouse at Lancaster castle is similar in style to the lost 15th century gatehouse at Halton Castle, Cheshire.

The opportunity to excavate castles in North West England is rare, as was noted in 2007 by the authors of the North West Archaeological Regional…

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Every castle should have a laser (so you can create a 3D model)

Greater Manchester is not exactly famed for its castles, but of the handful distributed about the county Buckton is by far the most interesting. At the far east of the county, this 12th-century outpost was probably built by the Earl of Chester, an influential and powerful magnate.

Buckton Castle sits on top of a steep hill from which on a clear day you can see all the way to Beeston Castle in Cheshire. This is likely to be just a quirk of the landscape as the archaeological evidence indicates Buckton Castle was never finished, and was in fact pulled down. Whereas Beeston was built in the 1220s, the little available dating evidence for Buckton suggests it was built several decades before then.

All this is covered in more detail in the monograph of the excavations published by the University of Salford’s Centre for Applied Archaeology. The remains of the thick stone walls are buried, so that only lumps and bumps covered in grass remain. Recreation drawings help with that conceptual leap between what you see on the ground and understanding how it would have worked.

The next best thing would be a 3D model showing the remains of the castle in their current form. For me at least, more than a plan or photograph the model helps you appreciate the variations of the ground. Making a video of that model makes it easier for people to engage with, and lets the video maker be the guide. So until someone works out how to embed videos into printed books, the video at the start of this post will have to exist solely online.

I particularly like that video because the ditches and the height of the ramparts really stands out, but this video mapping a photograph of the site onto the model may be more to other people’s tastes.

View from the battlements: Pennington Castle, Cumbria

In early February I stumbled across news that Google Earth was going to be made freely available, waiving the $400 it had previously cost to subscribe. Before then I had never really paid it much attention, so read up a bit on what you can do with Google Earth. The thing which stuck out was that you can use it to examine the viewshed of a particular point.

When reading about a castle, you typically find that it view is described as ‘impressive’ or words to that effect. Software such as GIS allows you to quantify that statement. GIS software often comes with a hefty licence fee, and while there are free alternatives Google Earth was incredibly simple to use.

The method for creating a viewshed in Google Earth is explained here. As soon as I tracked down this information, I started using it to look at castle sites. The first place I turned to was Pennington on the Furness Peninsula. As I worked at Buckton Castle I become more interested in the ringwork castles of the North West. Pennington struck me as the most interesting, particularly because its history is opaque, it hasn’t been excavated, and the site is has regularly been included on English Heritage’s annual ‘At Risk’ registers.

I have tried to get in touch with the owners of the property with little success, so the viewshed tool offered a small way to learn a bit more about the castle. The area is based on land visible from a point 10m above ground level, assuming there was a tower of some sort. As can be seen below, areas north and west of the castle were hardly visible, while there was a much clearer view to the south and east. This helps understand why the entrance is on the south side of the ringwork, aside from the route of Pennington Beck, a small stream which flows through the area. The south and east is evidently where most of the traffic would have been coming from.

This is a simplistic approach, but complimented by manorial records to and local history could lead to a more in-depth understanding of the area and why the castle was built.

Pennington viewhed

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.

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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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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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