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 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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