Category Archives: River Dee

Ranulf III’s Beeston Castle #1 – Who was Ranulf?

The approach to the inner ward (or bailey) seen from the bridge, with the vast ditch below, part quarry and part defensive device, and a slice of the superb panoramic view in the background.

The English Heritage Guidebook to Beeston Castle opens with the following statement:  “Standing on a rocky crag high above the Cheshire plain, Beeston is one of the most dramatically sited medieval castles in England.”  Organizations keen to puff off the virtues of their sites are often guilty of hyperbole, but in this case, the guide book speaks nothing but the truth.  On a bright mid-August day, with the sky a silvery pale blue, it was absolutely spectacular, both on the approach to the solidly impressive fortifications from below, and standing in the inner ward above the plain, gazing east to the Welsh foothills and northwest to the Pennines, with the floor of the world reaching out in all directions, lovely and fabulously impressive.  All this and history too.

This post has been split into two parts, with Part 1 looking at Ranulf III himself, and Part II tackling the castle itself, looking at how it was built, used and perceived, covering 600 years from the 13th to 19th Centuries.

If you would prefer to download parts 1 and 2 as single a PDF, please click here.

Ranulf III

Although Beeston Castle was altered several times since its original construction, it was the brainchild of Ranulf III (Ranulf de Blondeville), the 6th Earl of Chester and first Earl of Lincoln (1170-1232).  Ranulf’s castle building phase came fairly late in his very busy and dangerous life as the most powerful magnate in England.   The first work on Beeston Castle took place c.1220, only 12 years before his death, so this needs to be understood in the context of the rest of his life. 

Hugh de Kevelioc’s coat of arms, featuring five wheatsheaves.  Source:  Wikipedia

Ranulf was a descendent of the powerful Norman Marcher Lords installed by William the Conqueror to provide a buffer against the perceived chaos across the border in Wales.  Wales was at that time a set of territories controlled of powerful families headed by chieftains who were often in armed dispute with one another as well as with England  The Marcher lords, acting as guardians of the border, were incentivized with land, title and, perhaps most importantly, a great deal of autonomy.  Originally intending to shift the border further into Wales, the Marcher lords found the mountainous territory of the Welsh chieftains a serious impediment to progress and instead consolidated their positions in the lowlands.  However, the give and take of land and lives continued throughout Ranulf’s life, in spite of both reprisals and peace treaties.  It was not until after his death, during the reign of Edward I, that attacks by the Welsh chieftains were eventually squashed.  The loss of Crown lands in France by previous kings meant that Edward had had plenty of time to devote to the problem.

Ranulf’s official seal, reading “Seal of Ranulf Count of Chester and Lincoln.” The wheatsheaf emblems were later adopted by the Grosvenor family and can be seen on the outside of Churton-by-Aldford’s former school.  Source:  Wikipedia’s Ranulf III page

Ranulf, being of Norman stock, probably thought of himself primarily as Norman rather than English.  His mother was Bertrada de Montford, a cousin of Henry II from Evreux in eastern Normandy.  His father was the 5th Earl of Chester, Hugh de Kevelioc.  Hugh de Kevelioc was born in 1147, the son of Ranulf II, 4th Earl of Chester and Maud, the daughter of Robert the 1st Earl of Gloucester, who was an illegitimate son of King Henry I.  When his father died in 1181, Ranulf became a royal ward of Henry II and was sent to Henry’s court in Normandy, accompanied by his mother and four sisters.  When he came of age, knighted as Earl of Chester, he had inherited Chester Castle and the important trading port of Chester, together with valuable territories in Normandy until these were lost in 1204-5 by King John.  Sadly, there are no images of him.

Chester had been established as a palatine by William the Conqueror, granted special powers, removing it from of the direct control of the Crown, but Ranulf’s other estates could be redistributed at the whim of the king, to reward or punish, or merely reorganize.  Although Ranulf’s holdings expanded and contracted throughout his adult life he remained one of the most powerful men in England.  

Henry II

Henry II and his children.  From left to right – left to right: William, Henry, Richard, Matilda, Geoffrey, Eleanor, Joan and John.  Source:  Wikipedia

Ranulf, brought up in the court of Henry II, was loyal to the kings Henry II, Henry’s sons Richard I and (eventually) John, followed by John’s son Henry III.   These rulers were collectively known as the Angevin kings.  The period leading up to Henry II’s death was one of conflict, with his sons, Richard, Geoffrey and John turning on him due to the uncertainties of succession. 

At Henry II’s request Ranulf  married Constance of Brittany in 1189 at the age of 19, giving him the right to call himself Duke of Brittany.  Constance was widow of Geoffrey of Brittany, and mother of Arthur of Brittany who was next in line to the Duchy of Brittany.  Henry wanted to diffuse a situation in which Brittany was supporting his son Richard against him.  1189 was also the year in which Ranulf was knighted Earl of Chester by Henry.  Ranulf was now in control of his estates in England and Normandy.   Unfortunately, Ranulf and Constance soon developed a mutual loathing that lead to their separation within five years.  1189 was also the year in which Henry died and Richard I “the Lionheart” came to the throne, without further hostilities being required to assure the succession. 

Richard I

Richard I painted c.1250–55 by Matthew Paris in his Historia Anglorum. Source: Dorling Kindersley findout

Under Richard the Lionheart, the newly knighted Ranulf, connected to Richard via their relationship to Henry I, was given a role of key importance role in the coronation procession, carrying the jewel-encrusted crown.  Richard departed on crusade just a year later, having appointed a number of officers to oversee  his interests in England during his absence.   He also named his heir in case he perished during the crusade.  Instead of his younger brother John, he named Ranulf’s stepson, heir to Brittany, Constance’s son Arthur.  Unsurprisingly, Prince John’s nose was now firmly out of joint and he attempted to take the crown, supported by the king of France, Philip Augustus.  He was opposed by a number of powerful barons, including Ranulf.  Learning, weeks after the fact, of trouble at home, Richard decided to return, but he was humiliatingly delayed when he was recognized on the return leg of the journey, captured and held hostage in Germany.  Following an eye-watering payment Richard was freed, and his return settled the matter of John’s ambitions.  Richard underwent a second coronation just to push home the point.  Ranulf remained loyal to the king and followed Richard into war in Normandy and Brittany, where his estranged wife Constance was now stirring up rebellion.  In a rather botched attempt to split Arthur from Ranulf’s estranged wife Constance, both were ambushed in a trap set up by Richard with Ranulf’s help.  Constance was taken prisoner by Ranulf, who was now able to refer to himself one again as Duke of Brittany, but Arthur fled to the comparative safety of the King of France, Philip Augustus.

Whilst Ranulf was fixed in Normandy, Llewelyn the Great attacked and took Mold (then known as Montalt).  Mold was retaken but Ranulf’s trusted supporter, Ralph de Montalt, died in the conflict.  Ranulf was powerless to do anything about this, but it was just one more indication that something needed to be done about Wales.

Richard died in 1199 in a minor dispute (allegedly over rights to a Roman treasure), and with Arthur now allied with France, John succeeded to the throne. 

John

King John painted c.1250–55 by Matthew Paris in his Historia Anglorum. Source: TLS

Ranulf, having opposed John’s attempted coup, needed to prove his loyalty in the face of John’s notorious paranoia.  Ranulf was now about 29 years old.  He spent a lot of time early in the reign shifting between his territories in Normandy and England, while John reconciled himself with Arthur by naming him Duke of Brittany (ending Ranulf’s tenure) and Earl of Richmond.  The reconciliation was short-lived.  Arthur attacked Angers, taking a key Angevin castle, a terrible shock to John, who took instant revenge by taking the castle at neighbouring Le Mans, where Arthur’s mother Constance was staying.  He razed both castle and village to the ground. 

Arthur fled back to Philip Augustus.  Ranulf, joining John, swore loyalty to him at a big gathering in eastern Normandy in 1199, but John remained suspicious of him and it took time to win his trust.  This was not helped when, in 1200, Ranulf married Clemence de Fougeres, whose family had connections to both Brittany (via her father) and Normandy (via her mother).  John had a personal interest in Clemence himself, and was also concerned that Ranulf’s loyalties might be divided.  Ranulf doggedly pursuing his policy of demonstrating loyalty to John, stayed at court and accompanied the king on his travels throughout his territories. 

Arthur paying homage to Philip Augustus of France. Chroniques de St Denis, British Library.  Source:  Wikipedia

Constance, mother of Arthur, died in 1201 from leprosy.  Arthur, attacking another Brittany castle, was captured and imprisoned.  In 1202 he disappeared, probably having been murdered.  In response, Brittany rose up in revolt backed by Philip Augustus, king of France, who began to move against Normandy.  After an initial serious hiccough, when John charged Ranulf with treason, Ranulf was reinstated and his briefly confiscated estates returned to him.  He set about proving his loyalty during the campaigns in Brittany and French-occupied Normandy.

Staggered by the speed at which Philip Augustus was moving, and anticipating defeat, John left for England in December 1203, leaving his followers to defend his territories as best they might.  Ranulf followed shortly afterwards, similarly leaving his castles to defend themselves.   Although the war in France had continued in both John’s and Ranulf’s absences, Normandy was lost by 1205.  Ranulf, at court in England with John since late 2003, managed to weather the storms of John’s suspicions and continued to travel with the court, accompanied John in military expeditions to Poitou and Gascony and supported John in the face of the First Baron’s War.  Ranulf had, however, lost his five great castles in Normandy, together with the small private army that supported them. 

After another hiccough, when Ranulf’s loyalty was once again questioned in early 1205 by John, Ranulf again successfully challenged the accusations levelled at him.  Given John’s suspicions, it seems bizarre that only a year later John was so impressed by Ranulf’s loyalty that he rewarded him with so many titles and “honours” (estates) that he became the most powerful and wealthy man in England.  By 1208 Ranulf was not only Earl of Chester but also Earl of Lincoln, Earl of Richmond and had rights over Lancaster and Leicester.  The land and income associated with these honours were vast. 

Henry III

The coronation of Henry III. Source: Wikipedia

Following John’s death in 1216, the 46 year old Ranulf paid homage to the new king, the 9 year-old Henry III, and went to war in his name against Louis of France.  The king’s first Justiciar (effectively an acting regent) was Earl Marshall, a friend of Ranulf’s, and the transition seemed to go smoothly for Ranulf.  Fulfilling a promise to King John, Ranulf took an important part in the siege of Damietta in Egypt in 1218 during the 5th Crusade, returning after two years of battle.  He left Egypt in July 1220, arriving in England a month later.

Ranulf returned, having lost many friends to the crusade, to find that his friend Earl Marshall had been replaced as Justiciar by Hugh de Burgh, a long-standing enemy.  With two years of accumulated business to take care of, including repairs to some of his properties, he was kept busy with his own estates, but Henry also awarded him with new estates.  Disruptions over the rights to a number of castles involved Ranulf in military activity on behalf of the Crown in Northamptonshire, and then again on both his own and the Crown’s account at the Welsh borders, the latter at least partly resolved in the case of the Chester border with the marriage of Ranulf’s nephew John le Scot to Llewellyn’s daughter Helen in October 1223. 

Section of the outer ward’s curtain wall with remains of one of the D-shaped towers

Ranulf soon embarked on a major programme of castle-building, rebuilding castles at Bolinbroke Castle in Lincoln, Chartley in Staffordshire and  establishing a new castle Beeston in Cheshire.  Of the three, Beeston was by far the largest.  Ranulf’s reasons for wanting these castles, particularly Beeston Castle, which competed in scale and ambition with those of the kings themselves, have been much debated.  It has often been assumed that Beeston Castle, which was started in around 1220, was erected as a deterrent to the Welsh princes, but this was apparently not the case.  Not only is Beeston too far east of the Welsh border for this to be practical, but before building his castle, Ranulf had made his peace with Llewellyn the Great, whose territories met Ranulf’s along the Welsh border.  He felt sufficiently safe after the signing of this treaty to leave on the 5th Crusade in 1218 without any risk to his territory from Wales.  Although there had been a brief disruption after Ranulf’s return, this was at least partially resolved by the marriage of his nephew John le Scot to Llewellyn’s daughter, sealing peace if not actual friendship between Llewellyn and Ranulf.   Nor does Wales explain his other two castle-building enterprises.

The approach to the gateway to the inner ward with remains of the curtain walls and D-shaped towers

Perhaps surprisingly, the English crown represented a far greater risk to Ranulf’s security than Wales.  Henry III did not assume control of his government and territories until 1227, seven years after Ranulf started the building works at Beeston.  During this period control remained with Henry III’s Justiciar, Hubert de Burgh,  Ranulf’s enemy.  Disapproving of the way in which so much Crown territory had been given away as favours under previous reigns, Hubert de Burgh had started to claw back land and assets wherever he saw weakness.  It was now that Ranulf started to make improvements to his existing properties and to build his three new castles: Beeston Castle in Cheshire,  Bolinbroke Castle in Lincoln and Chartley in Staffordshire.  The new castles were probably intended to be Ranulf’s insurance against a royal land-grab happening to him, mainly acting as a statement of political authority and independence.

The great ditch around the inner ward, used for quarrying building fabric for the castle, as well as defence.

By raising taxes, Ranulf could easily afford these great projects.  Iain Soden describes Ranulf’s properties at this time:

Ranulf continued to hold the largest number of lands of any magnate in England; with them came the bulk of the armed forces.  Besides his ancestral earldom of Chester, the Honour of Chester stretched right across the Midlands, out into Gloucestershire and across Staffordshire and Warwickshire into Northamptonshire.  Outlying lands attached to the honour lay as far south as Devon and as far north as Derbyshire.  His earldom of Lincoln was intact, stretching from Yorkshire to Leicestershire, white the honour of Leicester linked his norther n lands with those in Northamptonshire.  To these, of course, could be added the family lands.  His brother-in-law Ferrers held the earldom of Derby and now the honour of Lancaster while his nephew was Earl of Huntingdon.

As his castles were being built, Ranulf continued to be in attendance at court and again returned to battle in France in 1230, this time against Louis IX, remaining until 1231, with a successful outcome.  He returned to England later that year.

Ranulf died on 26th October 1232 at the royal castle in Wallingford, 12 years after he began work on Beeston Castle.  Consistent with the traditions of the time, when he died his body was eviscerated (internal organs removed) so that it could buried in three locations.  His entrails were buried at Holy Trinity Priory at Wallingford.  His heart was buried at Dieulacrès Abbey, the Cisterian monastery that he had relocated, in 1214, from Poulton on northeast Wirral to Leek in the Midlands.  His  embalmed body was then returned to Chester and buried in the chapter house of the Benedictine Abbey, St Werburgh’s, next to his father and grandfather. He had no children.

Ranulf was a really fascinating historical figure, a powerful magnate, and a key figure in the lives of the Angevine kings.  Although he was swept up in the royal imperative to hang on to existing territories, retrieve lost ones, and acquire new ones, as well as meet the crusading demands of the Pope, he stands out as someone who was immensely powerful in his own right, loyal to the Angevine kings but perfectly confident to engage in strategic planning on his own behalf.  Sadly, in spite of the skilled work of his biographers, who have delved into difficult contemporary documents, Ranulf as a personality remains elusive, lost in the accounts of military and courtly engagements, actions and deeds.  He respected, cared for and supported his friends, detested his first wife, apparently rubbed along well with his second one, and engaged in bitter conflict with one of Henry III’s key advisors.  He had a passion for hunting.  He had a quick temper, was an excellent project manager, a compelling leader of men and was unafraid of exposing himself to the genuine horrors of war, often engaging in fearsome hand-to-hand combat.  There is the suspicion that his final phase of castle building had as much to do with vanity as a fear of having his estates confiscated, but that remains pure speculation. There is not even a surviving image of him to give one an impression of what he looked like.  What Ranulf was is fairly clear.  Who he was remains veiled.

For anyone wanting to read more about Ranulf III, whose extraordinary and complicated life cannot be more than touched upon in a post of this length, I recommend Iain Soden’s “The First English Hero,” details of which are in Sources, at the end of this post.

Part 2 looks at the castle itself, both how it was used and how it was perceived, from the 13th to 19th Centuries.

Sources

Books and papers

Alexander, J. 1982. RANULF III OF CHESTER: An Outlaw of Legend?  Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, 83(2), p.152-157.
http://www.jstor.org/stable/43343443 (available free with registration)

Gillingham, J. and Griffiths, R.A. 1984. Medieval Britain.  A Very short Introduction.  Oxford University Press

Liddiard, R. and Swallow, R.E. 2007. Beeston Castle. English Heritage Guidebooks

Rubin, M. 2014.  The Middle Ages.  A Very Short Introduction.  Oxford University Press

Soden, I. 2021 (second edition). The First English Hero: The Life of Ranulf de Blondeville. Amberley

Ward, S. 2013 (second edition). Chester. A History.  The History Press

Websites

English Heritage
Description of Beeston Castle
https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/beeston-castle-and-woodland-park/history/description/
Research
https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/beeston-castle-and-woodland-park/history/research/
History
https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/beeston-castle-and-woodland-park/history/
Sources for Beeston Castle
https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/beeston-castle-and-woodland-park/history/sources/

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (locked)
Ranulf (III) [Ranulf de Blundeville], sixth earl of Chester and first earl of Lincoln (1170–1232) by Richard Eales
https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-2716;jsessionid=A550860211C96B6006DE6E8E327F88A1

Hidden Holt: An illuminating must-visit exhibition currently at Wrexham Museum

Cover of the free English/Welsh booklet accompanying the exhibition published by Wrexham Heritage Service, 2021.

My thanks to Brian Payne of the Holt Local History Society for alerting me to the fact that the Hidden Holt exhibition has been launched at the Wrexham County Borough Museum, running until 29th January 2022.  I went last week my father, and we were both bowled over by how good it was.

The exhibition introduces the Roman tile, brick and pottery works that were spread across a number of fields to the northwest of Holt, next to the river Dee.  It uses an excellent combination of original artefacts, video,  information boards and both old and new photographs and diagrams to track the twin stories of the site itself and the history of its discovery and excavation.  Holt Local History Society has a long-standing interest in the Roman works, and commissioned the most recent geophysical survey work at the site, so it’s great to see their contribution to the story being celebrated.

The exhibition (free to enter) is in Gallery 3, to the left as you move beyond reception and the café to enter the display areas.  I’ve given an overview below, but I seriously recommend that you just go – it is a tremendous, professionally-produced and beautifully designed little exhibition with some superb objects on display and some excellent information boards that explain what you are looking at.  You won’t regret it.  If you’re in the mood, the café serves a great coffee and what looks like a rather delicious lunch 🙂

Survey and excavation

Arthur Acton –  page 5 of the booklet accompanying the exhibition.  Source: Wrexham Heritage Service, 2021

The story of how the site was recognized and investigated begins in the early 1600s when landowner Thomas Crue of Holt Hill suffered repeated damage to his plough on broken brickwork and eventually discovered a series of fifty 2ft-tall posts and recorded this in a letter now in the British Museum.  The letter was mentioned in the book Roman Cheshire by W. Thompson Watkins (1886).  Retired chemist and keen amateur historian Alfred Neobard Palmer read the book, and in 1905 decided to hunt for the remains that Crue had found.  He tracked down the original letter and accompanied by local vicar Jenkyn Jones, and with the permission of the landowner Mr Beard, he engaged in a series of fieldwalking expeditions that found plenty of fragments of Roman bricks, roof tiles and pottery over an area of some 20 acres.

Fold-out plan of the kilns at Holt, published by Grimes in 1930. (Scanned from my copy of “Holt, Denbighshire”)

Palmer was not an archaeologist, and the task of excavating the site was taken on by Wrexham solicitor and amateur archaeologist Arthur Acton.  Work began in 1907,  in Wall Lock Field, and continued until 1915.  Although he lectured prolifically about the site, Acton never published his work.  Fortunately some of his records survived, and he sold the finds to the National Museum of Wales.  After five years of admirable work, the Assistant Keeper of Archaeology at the National Museum, William F. Grimes who was better known as a prehistorian, published a comprehensive 235-page report on the site, complete with site plans, photographs and object illustrations.

Photograph and logo from the Archaeological Survey West website: http://www.archaeologicalsurveywest.co.uk/

Work did not stop there, and during the 1970s Geoffrey Bevan conducted both field walking activities and an excavation, finding Roman material that filled dozens of boxes, which were donated to the Grosvenor Museum in Chester.  Most recently, Holt Local History Society commissioned Archaeological Survey West to carry out a geophysical survey of the site,  to accurately fix the positions of the known buildings and to identify any unexcavated and previously unknown structures.  This was successfully completed in 2018, and demonstrated that the Holt complex was even bigger and more complex than Grimes, via Acton, had been able to determine.  There is, of course, the potential for future field research.

The exhibition

Piece of a colander manufactured at Holt, on display at the exhibition

The exhibition is based mainly around discoveries made during the Acton excavations, using the Grimes and later reports to explain what was found and what has been discovered since.  Between them, Crue, Palmer, Acton, Grimes, Bevan, Holt Local History Society and Archaeological Survey West have produced a history of what lies beneath those lush green fields, and this is what the exhibition introduces.

As usual usual the exhibition’s narrative is arranged in a clockwise direction, so turn left as you walk in to Gallery 3.  The exhibition begins with a video that explains the history of survey and excavation and then talks about the site itself.  It is well worth taking a seat and watching.  It lasts about 15-20 minutes and is chock-full of information with some terrific photographs, diagrams and artist impressions of what various structures may have looked like.   The technique of superimposing building plans over a modern aerial view of the fields is particularly useful for understanding how the site was composed and what each element consisted of.   From there, the excellently designed displays take the visitor through the site’s history.

Site plan of the Roman tile and pottery work displayed in the exhibition. Also in the excellent booklet accompanying the exhibition, full details in Sources below. Click to see a bigger version with fully legible text.  Source: Wrexham Heritage Service, 2021

The site was more elaborate than I realized, composed of a number of buildings as well as the kilns.  The image on the right is shown at full size in the exhibition, and shows how big a complex the Holt tile, brick and pottery works actually was.  This is a bang-up-to-date site plan, combining the information provided by Grimes in 1930 with the details obtained by Archaeological Survey West in 2018. What this and a lot of Acton’s photographs makes clear, is that the site was a fully integrated operation combining industrial, public and domestic architectural components. A senior manager had his own house, complete with hypocaust (under-floor) central heating, there was a public bath house, presumably for workers, a series of kilns for the manufacture of mainly tiles and pottery, and a barracks that may have housed workers, or alternatively a detachment of the Roman army based at Chester at this time.  The features shown in blue are unrecorded / unexcavated.  Those in dark brown are the building locations fixed in 2018, and those in paler brown those estimated by Grimes based on Acton’s work.

The main kiln plant at Holt, published by William Grimes in 1930. Scanned from my copy.

Although now the archaeological remains are covered with fields, Acton used photography extensively, and his site plans were detailed, many published by Grimes, and used in the exhibition to reveal and explain the different components of the site.  This is very helpful not only for understanding how the site worked as an end to end operation, but is invaluable for putting the objects into context.  Objects on their own tell a limited story, but when contextualized in terms of the buildings in which they were produced and used, come to life.  The exhibition does this brilliantly.

It was a good location for a tileworks.  Building stone was available in the immediate locality thanks to the Bunter sandstone, alluvial clay was available locally, woodlands were present for the provision of fuel to feed the kilns, and the river Dee provided direct access to Chester, 12 miles / 19km away, passing the civic settlement at Heronbridge.  The generally flat environment meant that building of roads was not particularly laborious.

The visitor is taken step-by-step through the production process, explaining how the kilns and drying sheds  were built and how they functioned. The kilns formed two main units, a larger (139ft / 52m long, consisting of a row of six kilns) and smaller twin-kiln built on the natural bed-rock.  Each kiln was rectangular and tile-lined with an arched stoke-hole for access.  A round pottery kiln was also located on the edge of the main kiln complex.  The oven floor was fascinating, consisting of a raised floor of tiles plastered with clay that were pierced with holes that acted as vents.  I was fascinated to see that the drying shed was provided with a hypocaust, better known as the under-floor heating system that was used in villas and bath houses.  These, like the kilns, were stoked and kept hot to ensure that the tiles, pottery and bricks were dried through after firing.

The exhibition displays a number of artefacts, including a roof tile, a brick and a triangular atefix tile marked with the letters LEGXXVV, an abbreviation for the twentieth legion, known as Valeria Victrix (valiant and victorious).  The antefix tile, one of which is shown in the exhibition (photo left and illustration below) also shows Legio XX’s dramatic running boar symbol.   Legio XX was stationed at Chester from AD87, and the Holt works appears to have been established shortly afterwards, reaching its peak output at around AD135, and falling out of use in the mid 3rd Century.

Antefix tiles from Holt. Source: Grimes 1930

A display board shows the vast range of products that were made at the site, including floor and roof tiles, and a variety of different pottery forms.  There is a good explanation of how the roof tiles, called imbrex and tegula (plural imbrices and tegulae), worked.  A good memory for me – I dug up a lot of these tiles at my first ever dig in Silchester.  The arched imbrices, sit snugly over the upright edges of two facing tegula tiles, as shown in the above photograph, and the the triangular antefix tiles were placed to cover the ends of the imbrex.

Green-glazed ware found at Holt. Source: National Museum of Wales

Examples of the pottery found at the site are on display, with some really fine examples, including ollae (jars), urcei (jugs), lagenae (flagons), cattili (plates), calices (drinking bowls), and testa (lids).  I particularly liked a partly preserved ceramic colander and a mortarium (the latter working like a modern mortar, but with bits of stone embedded into the interior base of the pot to create a rough surface for grinding spices and seeds).  Green-glazed pottery, a luxury ware that I had never come across before, was also made at the site.  It is rare in Britain, so it was excellent to see examples of it on show.  A photograph of the green glazed pottery found at Holt (from the National Museum of Wales website) is shown below.

The workers also turned their hands to other types of objects made from clay – one cabinet shows a marvellous piece of shaped water pipe that was manufactured at the site.

Section of water pipe manufactured at Holt

All of the output manufactured at the works was sent by boat downriver to Chester, the exhibition suggests that a short may have been dug out at Holt in order to make loading the ceramics easier, its course marked today by annual floodwaters that, as they recede, leave a line of floodwater in what could well be a Roman channel.

Samian pottery found at Holt. Source: Grimes 1930

Interestingly, the exhibition shows that even though huge amounts of pottery was being made on-site, there were particularly favoured types of ceramic being imported.  Samian (terra sigillata), a truly gorgeous luxury dark red ware that has moulded decoration on its lustrous surfaces, was found in surprising quantities.  This was usually imported from south-eastern Gaul (France); a Roman experiment with samian production in southern England produced inferior pottery and was very short-lived.

Imported black-burnished ware was also found at Holt, which the exhibition explains was made in Dorset.  At sites in southern England it is common (we found bucket-loads of it at Silchester), but when found at northern sites, it was probably imported to fulfil a particular need or desire.  The works manager might have wanted high-status ceramics, and any soldiers at the site may have craved the comforts of home, but another option is that it was being imported for use by a nearby settlement.  One of the findings of the 2018 geophysical survey was the presence of a possible Roman fort or marching camp to the west of the site, suggesting that the site may have been on the edge of an unidentified vicus settlement, or village.

Coins on display in the exhibition.

The coins at the site are invaluable for their contribution to creating a timeline for development of the site, but are works of art in their own right.

The exhibition provides another insight into the inhabitants of the site by displaying some of the other objects they owned, like small pieces of jewellery made of bronze, manicure equipment, a beautifully crafted needle and a delectably delicate silver spoon.  These are objects that people chose and kept on them, intimate reminders that these were real people who lived complicated lives in which personal appearance had an important role.

Silver spoon from Holt on display at the exhibition. Source: Grimes 1930

A map at the end of the exhibition was riveting, showing how widespread Roman presence in northeast Wales actually was, showing everything from single find-sites to industrial sites like that at Holt, the settlements at Heronbridge and Plas Coch, and the villa at Rossett, the latter two sites both recent discoveries.  It looks as though there will be more Roman discoveries in the future, filling out a picture not merely about the activities of Romans in Britain, but on their interactions with local communities, something which remains poorly understood.

Museum details

The museum is an excellent resource, a small but modern with excellent displays and a lot of great information on professionally produced display boards into context. At the time of writing (August 2021) masks must be worn and you need to leave your name and telephone number with reception.  For opening days and times, plus directions, see the Wrexham County Borough website:
http://old.wrexham.gov.uk/english/heritage/wrexham_museum.htm

A booklet accompanying the exhibition is available both in the museum foyer and under the video screen in Gallery 3.  The cover and some of the pages from the booklet are shown at the top of the post, and full details are in Sources, below.   A leaflet, Holt: Legacy of the Legions, is also available from the museum, or can be downloaded.

It is a real shame that the Hidden Holt gallery is only a temporary feature, but Wrexham Museum has a lot more to see, and I will be posting about some its permanent displays in the future.

Sources:

Books and papers

Grimes, W.F. 1930.  Holt, Denbighshire:  Twentieth Legion at Castle Lyons.  Y Cymmrodor.  Society of Cymmrodorion.

Ward, M. 1998. A collection of samian from the legionary works-depot at Holt.  In (ed.) Bird, J. Form and Fabric.  Oxbow Monographs 80.
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/333155555_A_collection_of_samian_from_the_legionary_works-depot_at_Holt

Ward, M. 1998. Some finds from the Roman works-depot at Holt.  Studia Celtica 32:43-65
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/311789557_Some_finds_from_the_Roman_works-depot_at_Holt

Booklets / leaflets

Wrexham Heritage Service 2021.  Hidden Holt.  The Story of a Roman Site.  The Discovery of a Roman Legionary Tile and Pottery Works at Holt, near Wrexham.  (Booklet accompanying the exhibition in both English and Welsh)

Holt Castle Conservation and Interpretation Project.  Holt. Legacy of the Legions.  An introduction to the history of the Legionary Works Depot at Holt. (Leaflet, including site plan, available from the museum)
http://old.wrexham.gov.uk/assets/pdfs/heritage/holt_castle/holt_legacy.pdf

Websites

Hidden Holt
Wrexham Museum
https://www.wrexhamheritage.wales/?exhibition=hidden-holt-the-story-of-a-roman-site

Hidden Holt – Roman history revealed in a new Wrexham Museum exhibition
Wrexham Council News
https://news.wrexham.gov.uk/hidden-holt-roman-history-revealed-in-new-wrexham-museum-exhibition/

Holt Local History Society
https://holtlhs.weebly.com/

National Museum of Wales
https://museum.wales/

Roman Glazed Pottery from North Wales
National Museum of Wales
https://museum.wales/articles/1327/Roman-glazed-pottery-from-North-Wales/

The Pottery Kilns of Roman Britian by Vivien Swan (database)
https://romankilns.net/

Walking from Eaton Hall Bridge north towards Chester

Another walk along the Dee, this time to the north of Aldford, on another glorious sunny spring day.

The walk from Churton heading north along the east bank of the river Dee to the Eaton Hall bridge at Aldford was described here a few weeks ago, and was followed a few days later with a look at the story behind Eaton Hall Bridge itself.  This walk picks up the footpath from Aldford and heads north.  The footpath crosses the bridge from the east to the west bank, and turns right sharply to follow the river to the north.  For those of you following local footpaths on the Cheshire West and Chester Public Map Viewer, see the map below as copied from the site.

Crossing the bridge from Aldford, follow signs right to walk northwards along the Dee along the side of the Eaton Hall estate. I turned back at the sluice, after about half an hour.  Source of map:  Public Map Viewer, with my annotations

If you are driving to Aldford, it seems to be okay to park outside the Aldford church.  There were certainly a number of dog walkers parked there, and there is no signage or road markings to indicate that this would be unwelcome.

It was only a short outing because a serious amount of garden weeding awaited, and when I reached the Eaton Hall sluice gate, which empties a small canal into the river, I turned around and came back (about half an hour each way), but it was enough to establish that this section of the riverbank has a rather different character from the east bank between Churton and Aldford.  Instead of the fields that follow the Churton to Aldford section of the Dee to the east, the presence of Eaton Hall estate, fenced off all along that stretch of the path, creates a more contained and intimate feel to the footpath.

If you are starting from Aldford, go to the church and head through the white gate next to it, along the footpath that dissects the field, and over the bridge.

View from the bridge looking upriver, to the south.

As soon as you cross the bridge, you will see a sign indicating that the roadway ahead is private, and that you need to turn right.  Almost immediately, there is a second sign warning of flooding.  This is clearly no joke.  Even though it was bone try on this occasion, there are long sections that preserve deep sections that were clearly deep mud, endlessly trampled by boots.  As the sign says, there is clearly a risk of being cut off in wet weather, as much of the footpath sits in a narrow section between the river on the one side and a big fence along the Eaton Estate on the other.

Ramsons (wild garlic) just beginning to flower.

 

A walk along the Dee from Churton to the fabulous Eaton Hall Bridge at Aldford

Ordnance Survey Landranger 117, annotated with route details.

On yet another lovely spring day I again neglected the garden in favour of discovering one of the local walks, again from Churton to Aldford, but via a much longer route and this time to the west of the villages.  A couple of weeks ago I described short a walk from Churton towards the Dee, actually my first walk from Churton, but on that occasion I stopped short of actually reaching the river.  On Saturday I walked down the same track to the  Dee and headed north as far as Thomas Telford’s wonderful 1824 iron-built Eaton Hall Bridge at Aldford, before walking back through Aldford, over the B5130 and across the fields to Churton.

I’ll talk about the bridge on a separate post because it deserves some special attention, but here are details of the walk, which took over 3.5 hours at a fairly fast pace, but with stops to take photographs, chat to others and drop in at the Aldford village shop.  Although it is a short 45 minute walk by the shortest route across the fields from Churton to Aldford, the path along the Dee takes over twice as long to walk because it follows all the bends in the river.  The footpath numbers quoted throughout are derived from the Cheshire West and Cheshire Public Map Viewer.

The walk is very straightforward.  The start is reached by walking down the footpath that runs in a straight line from Hob Lane in Churton is “Churton by Aldford FP2.”  The track is wide and inviting, heading downhill as Hob Lane itself vanishes round a corner.  The hedges that flank the track are full of interest, but they form a fairly solid wall, so there’s not much else to see beyond.  The footpath simply follows the course of the river until Aldford comes into view on the right, and shortly afterwards the Eaton Hall Bridge becomes visible through the trees to the left.  The OS map (Landranger 117, the relevant section of which is shown above) indicates a short cut just north of the woodland section, eliminating a somewhat angular bend in the river, but I didn’t follow it.  In the future, given that it would cut out most of the less scenic portion of the river, I would take this short cut.

It is a nice walk from Churton to the Dee and as on my previous walk a couple of weeks ago, the high hedges largely block views of the fields but are very beautiful in their own right, with an increasing number of bluebells and campions at their feet.  By the Dee itself, there are dense zones of wild garlic, which is delicious.

Wild garlic, which will produce lovely star-like white flowers soon.

This less scenic section is immediately visible when you emerge from the track beyond Hobs Lane and turn right along the Dee.  It is really rather dispiriting.  There is a lot of flood damage in the form of fallen trees, branches and washed up debris, but rather more off-putting is on the opposite of the river, a stretch characterized by small chalets, many of them in a poor state of repair or completely derelict, with a series of messy landing stages made of pieces of scaffolding.  Not a promising start, but once that stretch ends, the rest of the walk is thoroughly enjoyable.  As I said above, there is a short cut that eliminates some of this section.

It is not always possible to see the river, because the footpath is set back from the edge and after the recent dry weather, the river is currently sitting rather low in its river bed, a couple of metres below the riverbank.  There are a lot of trees and shrubs growing on the bank, all now coming into leaf, and these hide the river from view along some sections, but where the river is visible it is very fine.  The riverbank trees are lovely in their own right, the spring leaves and catkins picked out in the sunshine.  The views across the well-maintained fields and hedgerows to the east give a sense of openness and order, the dark green crops a contrast to every light spring colour surrounding them.

 

Most of the footpath is very open, and there were a lot of butterflies, mainly red admiral, small tortoiseshell, painted lady and peacocks, although most refused to sit still long enough to be photographed.  There are also some small tracts of attractive woodland clearly marked on the Ordnance Survey map, one of which, just outside Aldford, is absolutely carpeted with more delicious Ramsons (wild garlic) that is just about to come into flower, after which it should be a spectacular sea of white blooms.  

 

 

A 10-year scrub clearance  and tree replacement scheme managed by the Eaton Estate along the banks of the Dee, which is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), has resulted in the planting of very young saplings supported in green tubes flanking the path in single, double or triple rows like a very short guard of honour.   The clearing of scrub, as well as flood damage, should considerably improve the river bank.  It will be interesting to see how it develops in the future. 

 

The Telford bridge just outside Aldford is an absolute treat.  It first emerges as brief glimpses through the trees before its fully glory becomes apparent, a thing of industry and restrained fantasy, solid and intricate, functional and decorative.  Above all, with ironwork picked out in pale blue and white, and with smart, narrow railings along the top of the bridge, it achieves an most refined elegance.  It spans a particularly well-manicured section of the Dee, linking two highly-polished parts of the Eaton Estate, itself part of the Grosvenor Estate.

 

Map and overlays copied from the Cheshire West and Cheshire Public Map Viewer. Poulton FP4 is the Telford bridge and the black dot in Aldford is the church.

Again using the online map viewer, the footpath (Aldford FP13) leaves the bridge road and crosses a field diagonally, heading for the impressive remains of a motte and bailey castle (of which more on a future post) and, just beyond, Aldford’s distinctive St John the Baptist church.  I walked from there along School Lane and turned left into Rushmere Lane, which flows into Green Lake Lane.  There, I paused to buy a few supplies from the well-stocked Aldford village shop before heading over the B5130 and threading my way through the fields, along footpaths Aldford FP6, Aldford FP4 and Churton By Aldford FP7 to Churton, swinging a particularly divine brown cob loaf for which there was no room in my rucksack.

It is an excellent circular walk if you have a few hours to spare.  In total, it will take about 3.5 to 4 hours depending on how fast you walk. It took me about 3.5 hours, but even pausing to photograph and chat, I’m a bit of a route-marcher.  If you prefer to stroll, it will take longer.

After having spent a winter in semi-hibernation (I truly hate the cold), by the time Churton was in sight my poor legs felt like a pair of old dogs that just wanted to curl up and sleep in front of the fire.  On the back of that thought, I remembered that on my way back from the Roman road last week, I was walking along Edgerley Road and ahead of me saw a man and a golden Labrador.  They were standing in the middle of the road engaged in an obviously fraught dialogue.  The dog, not old but clearly miffed about something, was refusing to move.  All four feet were glued firmly to the floor, and he was deaf to argument, persuasion and entreaty alike.  He simply wasn’t moving any further.  I did grin.  After giving the dog the usual ear massage and some general fuss, which was rewarded with soft eyes and a wagging tail, I offered commiserations to his owner and moved on.  My amused sympathies were with the owner at the time, but after today’s walk I have switched allegiances, and my empathy is now firmly the Labrador who didn’t want to move one more step.