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

How to create a landscape tour

Recently I produced a video putting Wressle Castle in its landscape context. The idea is to briefly illustrate the results of a landscape survey. I’ve put this post together to explain how I created the video with free software.

To start with, here’s the video itself:

It was inspired by a paper in Internet Archaeology “Google Under-the-Earth: Seeing Beneath Stonehenge using Google Earth – a Tool for Public Engagement and the Dissemination of Archaeological Data”. If you don’t want to click that link, it discusses how Google Earth can be used to create a landscape tour, showing features, locations of trench, and including a voice-over.  The purpose is to use Google Earth as an outreach tool.

I started out by establishing what it was I wanted the video to show and to write a script for the voice-over. The video starts out by putting Wressle into the context of northern England, highlighting some notable properties owned by the family who built the castle. It then zooms in to the parish of Wressle, showing key features such as the nearby river and the village. Finally it zooms in again to focus on the area immediately surrounding the castle.

Once I worked out what I wanted to show, the next step was marking it out on Google Earth.  It’s now free to use, and you can plot points and areas, labelling key features or showing the outlines of certain features as you choose. I then recorded the audio track, first on my phone and later using a USB microphone hooked up to my computer with Audacity for better audio quality. Audacity also allows you to edit the sound file. The audio track gave me a framework for the video around which I could base the timings for moving the camera. What I did notice was that as soon as I sat in front of a microphone and tried to read from a piece of paper it was very easy to trip over what I was saying. Rather than trying to do it all in one take, I recorded one or two sentences at a time. It was a bit painstaking, but worked in the end.

Google Earth has a tour function which will move the camera round in a manner you decide. However, as I wanted to sync the video to the audio, I felt I could do it by hand. I created pins on the map for key landmarks mentioned in the audio, and they appeared in the menu on the left. By double clicking on them in the menu, the camera smoothly zoomed in towards them. Check boxes allow you to toggle what appears, so if you want an invisible point which you can zoom to, you can still use the pins. I used the polygon option to create outlines of features such as ponds or gardens. By right clicking and choosing options you could alter the colour or fill of the shape.

To record what I had on my screen I installed Microsoft Expression, a free piece of software which allows you to capture all or part of what you see on your screen as a video. Google Earth has a toolbar on the left-hand side which lists the points you’ve marked. If you double click on one of those, the camera zooms to that point. You can also use the mouse to pan around. With the audio track playing so I got the timings right, I double clicked on the points I wanted the viewer to see and recorded the video.

Microsoft Movie Maker is another piece of free software, but is often installed on Windows computers by default unlike Expression. It allows you to shuffle video and audio about, trim it if you want, make sure they’re synced up, and add in still images in this case to complement the audio.

Altogether, a three-minute video probably took about 10 hours with drafting, re-drafting, recording audio, syncing it to the visuals, getting feedback and adjusting accordingly.

If by this point you’re still reading, I’d love to hear your feedback on the video so feel free to leave a comment below.

3D models

Recently the charity I’m a trustee of has been publicising one of its projects to produce a 3D model of Holt Castle in the county of Wrexham (or Denbighshire if you go by historic counties). I first visited Holt in 2010 with my dad when I was researching my BA dissertation. It didn’t feature in what I was doing, but we were tracking along Cheshire’s border with Wales and it would have been a wasted opportunity not to visit.

Not much remains today thanks to the work of Parliament in the 17th century. Slighting, but not the right time period for my PhD. That’s why this reconstruction – based on a range of sources including historic plans and inventories – is so important in understanding the site. It really does transform it.

This got me thinking. What other 3D models are available online? A quick search of YouTube produced a few results, but it’s not necessarily easy to tell what lies behind the reconstruction. With recreations there is always a degree of educated guesswork, but the key for the video supported by the Castle Studies Trust was minimising that through exhaustive research.

A few really stood out. The first is of Corfe Castle in Dorset. It’s high on my list of sites to visit for obvious reasons when you watch the video. I really like the way it’s done, contrasting the reconstruction with the present state of the castle and using actual camera footage to create a unique feel. It’s simple and looks plausible. It’s not clear what it’s based on, but the fact that the people behind the video are from the University of Portsmouth bodes well.

Next we have Weoley Castle in the West Midlands. It’s a longer video, and takes you on more of a tour of the castle, closer in style to the Holt video than the Corfe example, but unlike Holt sticks strictly to the exterior. Sadly I don’t know what the creator based the reconstruction on, but it does look good.

Finally, there is Wartenburg in what I assume is Germany. Magelan skupina who produced the reconstruction are a commercial archaeological company and the six-minute video shows how much information goes into the reconstruction and goes inside the building as well. Enjoy!

Ex Historia 7

The latest volume of Ex Historia was published today, and is available for free through the University of Exeter’s website. First published in 2009, it is run by post-graduate students at Exeter, and accepts submissions from around the country. The journal is entirely online, which cuts down on costs, but laid out like a print journal like the Scottish Archaeological Internet Reports.

For the last two volumes I have helped out as a subject editor, and it’s been a rewarding process to see the finished work. From my point of view it’s good to read about something other than castles and practice feedback skills. Compared to the amount of time I spend on other work, it doesn’t take very long.

Once the subject editors have given the articles a once over they’re sent of to experts for thorough review. So if you have a research paper you’d like feedback on, or have a book review in mind, I strongly recommend getting in touch with the Ex Historia team when they put out a call for papers latter in the year.

Now go ahead and check the journal out.

A bank holiday in Eynsford

Bright sunshine, the first Test cricket of the English summer, and a tense finish as England and New Zealand tussled for the honours. What better way to spend a bank holiday Monday.

I chose to go to Eynsford Castle, a 40-minute train journey from London Victoria. It’s one of English Heritage’s free sites and I figured it wouldn’t be too busy. Best of all in 1312 the owner, William Inge, filed an official complaint that people with a claim to his land had attacked Eynsford Castle and left it damaged. The forecast for Lords cricket ground was overcast so I assumed I’d be able to take some nice photos in Kent.

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Walking from the station to the castle I wondered if I was going in the right direction. The signs for Lullingstone Roman fort were clear enough, but the ones pointing to Eynsford Castle were almost hidden. Once I got to the right place I had to double check I wasn’t trespassing on private land.

It wasn’t downhill all the way, but it did strike me that the castle was quite low in the landscape. This is especially clear when looking from the 12th century kitchens, where the curtain wall has collapsed. The river running through Eynsford is shallow enough that I spotted a few people paddling in what turned out to be glorious weather. Back at the castle, the earthworks of a moat are still visible and a sign beside the bridge to the entrance warns visitors of deep water. The castle is close to the river, and a raised bank  prevents it from flooding. I’ve not yet checked if anyone has come to a verdict on whether the moat was originally wet. It’s so close to the river it seems a waste not to use it, but on a warm fay in late May it is hard to see the amount of water in the river adequately filling the moat. Perhaps it was only meant to be shallow, more of a reflecting pool than an insurmountable barrier.

Inside the impressive flint curtain wall are the remains of the hall, reusing Roman tiles in the fireplace. As you turn left from the entrance there are three openings which the information boards tell you are garderobes. Certainly the one of the far right is a toilet as it has a chute down to the moat, though it does seem a bit odd to have three so close together.

While grey skies helped England at Lord’s I was expecting the same to provide a moody backdrop. As it was the sun burst through and while the sky was a brilliant blue in photos it made it tricky to avoid the buildings appear very dark.

I got to walk round the outside, seeing where part of the wall had collapsed in the 19th century. In the time I was there a few people showed up to wander round the ruins. One group brought a picnic which reminded me of the fatal flaw of my plan. With enough pictures under my belt I decided to call it quits.

Eynsford is a lovely quiet castle, with enough still standing to remind you of its medieval history.

 

Norwich and the art of the recreation

The throne room at Dover Castle. Photo by Richard White, CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0.

The throne room at Dover Castle. Photo by Richard White, CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0.

It’s easy to forget that the buildings we take for granted as part of our historic environment would have looked completely different when they were in use. Ancient Athens and Rome were gleaming cities of pristine marble, and castles were austere military structures. But centuries upon centuries of weathering and wear and tear have changed them beyond recognition.

Castles were often whitewashed inside and out, and high status area could be richly equipped with tapestries and decorated furniture. To see how a reconstruction can utterly transform a space, you don’t have to look further than Dover Castle. As English Heritage’s flagship medieval property, they seem keen to keep it fresh and interesting for the 350,000 visitors who pass through its gates every year. The work at Dover cost £2.45 million and took two years to complete (a Time Team special offered insight into the work done there).

So it’s no small feat to recreate the medieval world in glorious technicolour, but that is precisely what Norfolk Museums Service hopes to do at Norwich Castle. In February it was announced that £1 million was coming from central government. The fundraising isn’t over, but that is a sizable step which will allow for a digital reconstruction of the great tower. The intention is to carry out “major restoration work of the 900-year-old castle, including architectural, archaeological, structural and environmental surveys”. It is also hoped that visitor numbers will increase by 100,000 every year, though it isn’t clear what the baseline figure is.

The restored King's Chamber at Dover Castle. Photo by Mark Abel, CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0.

The restored King’s Chamber at Dover Castle. Photo by Mark Abel, CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0.

So what might a restored Norwich Castle look like? A lot of research was done by the English Heritage team behind the Dover Castle project, and might offer a guideline, especially as the emphasis at Norwich will be on the 12th century which is around the time Dover Castle’s great tower was built. Norwich’s keep was built between 1095 and 1100, while Dover’s was built during the reign of Henry II. Like its later counterpart, Norwich’s keep was built by the king of England and both are similarly proportioned: Norwich is 21m tall and measures 29m by 27 at the base, while Dover’s great tower is 25.3m high and about 30m by 30m. So straightaway it looks like some of the research underpinning the Dover project eight years ago will be appropriate at Norwich.

What was striking about Dover is the way the vibrant primary colours of the furniture and tapestries were transformed by the lighting. Under broad daylight, they looked gaudy but in the darker setting of the king’s apartments they suddenly looked much more stately.

It doesn’t matter how many times you are told that these places would have been lived in by the richest of society: it takes a formidable imagination to look at bare walls and try to picture these buildings as they appeared in their heyday. Maybe most of the money set aside for Norwich will go towards repairs and more muted restoration work, but I hope to see something similar to the work at Dover Castle.

An anniversary 800 years in the making

1024px-Lincoln_Castle_heritage_skills_centre,_2013_(1)

The heritage skills centre was added as part of the castle’s refurbishment. Photo by Richard Nevell, CC-BY-SA 3.0.

When you have an 800-year anniversary coming up, you can’t claim to be short of time to prepare. That’s why Lincolnshire County Council have spent years planning and implementing the refurbishment of Lincoln Castle. The castle houses one of just four surviving originals of the first time Magna Carta was issued. As such, it can expect a lot of attention in 2015, especially round the anniversary of the charter.

Preparations were announced about this time three years ago. The aims were to repair the curtain walls, create a new display room for Magna Carta and restore the post-medieval prisons. This was all done with an eye towards driving up visitor numbers (it would be interesting to see the starting figure but I can’t find that information).

As it happens, the renovation and building work meant archaeologists were asked to investigate the area and check what the potential impact would be on archaeological deposits. This led to the discovery of a Saxon church, complete with a sarcophagus burial. Even this couldn’t delay the project, which it seems will finish on time.

1024px-Lincoln_Castle,_Observatory_Tower_2013

The Observatory Tower being renovated in 2013. Photo by Richard Nevell, CC-BY-SA 3.0.

The final stage of the work has seen the castle closed for three-months and it re-opens to the public on Wednesday 1 April.

What I have found most impressive is the planning that has gone into it. From the start, the public has been kept in the loop and artists impressions have helped people understand how the castle will look, especially important when an otherwise impressive site is shrouded in scaffolding and green netting. It was made early on that the castle would be closed for a set period, but that it would be better once reopened. Even while the work was going on, visitors were still allowed in and the usual events took place such the Lincoln Christmas Market and classic car shows. Almost business as usual.

The total cost for this project? £22 million.

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

A new future for Leicester Castle

A brick building

The great hall at Leicester was once part of the castle. Photo by Helen Wells, CC-BY 2.0.

On the quiet, Leicestershire has quite a good line in castles. There’s Kirby Muxloe, Ashby-de-la-Zouche, and if you don’t mind 19th-century architecture masquerading as something else Belvoir Castle stands on the site of a Norman fortification. Despite this, not many people know that the city of Leicester has its own castle.

Nestled in the corner of the Roman city near the River Soar, the castle was built in the 11th century. It was held by the Earls of Leicester until 1265 when Simon de Montfort was defeated at the battle of Evesham, and the castle came under royal control. As tends to happen, later urban development has disguised the castle. You wouldn’t know it to look at its reworked exterior, but the great hall dates from the 12th century. In fact when Leicester Castle was slighted in the 1170s after the Earl of Leicester rebelled against Henry II, the hall was left untouched. That’s where my particular interest lies.

It is the great hall, where the Parliament of Bats was held in 1426, that is the subject of some recent news. In a nice piece of historical symmetry, a recent development has the effect of bringing De Montfort back to the castle.

Rather than this being another internment along the lines of Richard III (who will be buried in Leicester in late March), the university bearing the earl’s name has leased the great hall from the city council and will be turning it into a business school.

As recently as 1992 the building was used as a courthouse, but since then it’s struggled to find a use. While I was a first year undergraduate student (back in 2007) at the University of Leicester as part of one of our modules we were split into groups and asked to come up with proposals for ways of using and maintaining Leicester’s historic buildings. My group was given the great hall; I don’t entirely recall what we suggested (probably a museum of some sort) though I do recall that one of our early ideas was to turn it into a venue along the lines of Laser Quest!

There are two highly encouraging aspects of the news. First of all is that the hall will be open to the public. This has been a rarity in the recent past. Secondly, De Montfort University will restore the building, helping to preserve a structure while regularly appears on English Heritage’s At Risk register.

Good news all round.

For more on Leicester Castle Levi Fox’s history of the site, written in the 1940s, is a good place to start.

Dates for the diary

On Tuesday I missed a talk by Professor Patricia Skinner on the topic of medieval disfigurement. Sadly, I lost track of time and work got in the way. It is part of a project called Losing Face? Living with Disfigurement in the Early Middle Ages, and in 2013 I saw Professor Skinner give a talk at the European Perspective on Cultures of Violence conference. That resonated with my own research into castles and how they were treated when their owners rebelled against royal authority, so I was looking forwarded to refreshing my memory.

Another event I would like to attend but almost certainly won’t be able to is Contest and Collaboration: Chester Conference on the March of Wales. With Chester so close to the Welsh border, there is going to be plenty to discuss on the day. Best of luck to the organisers, and who knows: if I’m lucky I may even be able to find time to go.