Category Archives: Walks

Shocklach motte and bailey castle(s) at Castletown

Two sites with one name

Shocklach East is on private land, but its north side can be viewed from the north over a short fence. The image has been stitched together from three photographs, hence the slightly odd appearance.

The name Castletown seems rather glamourous for what today is a wholly rural, agricultural landscape.  Castletown is located south of Crewe-by-Farndon and north of the village of Shocklach and west of the Castletown Farm on a peaceful country road.  On the Ordnance Survey map, which I was studying when working on the post about the 1854 Chester to Worthenbury toll road, there are some interesting details that merited further investigation.  Where the small Castletown bridge crosses a small stream, that eventually flows into the Dee, there are two fairly large sites shown flanking the road.  Collectively, even though they are near to Castletown, they are known as Shocklach Castle, although they actually make up two separate castle sites.

Map showing the sites at Shocklach either side of the Crewe-by-Farndon road as it crosses Castletown Bridge. Source: Public Map Viewer

A visit to the two-part site marked on the map means looking from the side of the road.  The site is not on a public footpath but is very close to the road, and some of the earthworks are clearly visible. As you can see on the above map, the site to the west can be seen from the Crewe to Shocklach road, whereas the one on the other side of the road is best seen from the lane that heads west to Castletown Farm.  For the purposes of this post, I have referred to these sites as Shocklach East and Shocklach West.

Click to see a bigger image.  The location of the Castletown / Shocklach mottes, south of Crewe by Farndon and to the north of Shocklach. Source: Public Map Viewer

The Shocklach site is a scheduled monument, which means that it is protected by the state.  It is recorded as Shocklach Motte and Bailey Castle by the government quango responsible for scheduled archaeological and historic monuments, Historic England.  Its listing code is 1012620, and it was first scheduled in November 1926.  The listing covers both Shocklach East and West.  It is well worth repeating Historic England‘s “Reasons for Designation:”

Shocklach Castle is of particular importance as one of a group of early post-Conquest (c.1100) mottes forming a defensive system aimed at curbing constant Welsh raids on the rich farming areas of south Cheshire. Additionally the site lies within an area containing the most important concentration of medieval monuments in Cheshire. These monuments include two shrunken medieval hamlets, a defended green lane, a Norman chapel, well preserved ridge and furrow, a ford across the River Dee, and a complex of communally owned watermeadows.  The monument is situated in a dingle thought to have been one of the ancient trackways utilised by the Welsh in their frequent raids into southern Cheshire.

It is difficult to imagine this sleepy road and its flanking fields having a strong military presence.  From the early 12th century onwards, however, the motte and bailey site sat on the edge of a settlement whose people were centred on successful economic activities including cultivation and probably livestock management, albeit fearful of attack from Wales.

Archaeological investigation at Shocklach West during the 1980s by the University of Chester (in those days called University College Chester) revealed a lot more than can be seen today.  As above, the site consists of two sets of earthworks, one to the west of the road, covered in trees, and one to the east, which is free of vegetation.  The two sites are scheduled together under one registration number, but it should not be forgotten that they are two separate entities, each of which needs to be understood in its own right.  Rachel Swallow, who excavated the site, talks about the confusion caused by the presence of two separate entities, one each side of the road:

There is a general, and historic, confusion about the function and purpose of the two monuments at Castletown.  The Ordnance Survey (OS) 25 inch maps of 1879 and 1911 clearly mark the monument to the east as a ‘castle’ and ‘moat’, with that to the west of Castletown Bridge as a ‘moat’. The survey of 1964 reinterprets the mound to the west as a ‘motte’, with the earthworks 30 metres to the east marked as a ‘moat’, but not as the site of a castle. In the early nineteenth century, Ormerod stated that the earthworks to the east appear unconnected with those he seemed to believe were of the Norman fortress to the west.

In the discussion below, the two will be dealt with separately first, before looking at how they might related to one another, but first a little look at what motte and bailey castles actually are.

Background – what is a motte and bailey castle?

Miniature from illuminated Chronicle of Matthew Paris (1236-1259), from BL MS Cotton Claudius D. vi, f.9, showing Henry I of England enthroned. Held and digitised by the British Library. Source: Wikipedia

Motte castles are medieval fortifications introduced into Britain by the Normans, made up of a defensive structure built on an artificial mound.  The bailey was a small group of buildings fenced and sometimes moated, attached to and protected by the motte castle. By the time that the Shocklach motte and bailey castle was built, either towards the end of the reign of William the Conqueror or at the beginning of the reign of Henry I, there were political and territorial disputes, particularly within Wales and along the Welsh-English borders.  One of the manifestations of this ongoing disruption was frequent cross-border raids to secure territories and resources.  

Armed dispute over territory and resources has a long heritage in Britain.  From the mid 4thmillennium BC there are the first signs of violence related to competition for resources, and it is likely that livestock raiding was an ongoing problem from that point forward.  It has been suggested, for example, that protection of livestock and  of grain, as well as of people, could have been a primary role of fortified Iron Age hillforts.  

When William the Conqueror arrived in 1066, he began to replace the existing aristocracy with those that he had brought with him, men that he could trust to support him to take control and enforce peace.  English names were quickly replaced by Norman ones in records and by Domesday, merely 20 years after the conquest, only 8 percent of landholdings were held in English names.  The Normans built castles to help them to govern and to demonstrate their power.  Castles, initially turf and timber, sprang up everywhere, later replaced by bigger stone structures.   As Crane observes:  “early Norman castles had more in common with Roman marching forts than with tribal hillforts.  They could be built with astonishing speed, they were virtually impregnable and their construction had more to di with military expediency than with cultural bonding.”

Dorling Kindersley reconstruction of a small motte and bailey castle showing the main features. Fortifications could be very small. Source: Dorling Kindersley Find Out website.

In a motte and bailey arrangement a fortification sits on a natural or artificial mound with an accompanying settlement in a walled/fenced area at its foot, sometimes surrounded by a moat or ditch.  Where the mound was specially built, it could be made of earth, rubble, or both.  A palisade, or fortified fence, surrounded the apex of the mound, on which some sort of tall fortified structure was built, providing views over the surrounding countryside to watch for any oncoming attack.  Most are now covered in grass and sometimes trees.   Where a bailey is also present a palisaded enclosure at the base of the motte, and connected to it, often contained buildings for people, livestock, and grain and water storage, and may surrounded by a bank as well.  These have often vanished from sight today.  Where water was locally available, these defences could also include moats (which in the soggy Cheshire area, might have doubled up as useful drainage ditches).  

Cardiff Castle’s shell keep. Source: Wikipedia

Motte and bailey castles are found in all areas where human population is found, including towns, villages and rural areas.  Although they are generally characterized as being located on high ground, in good strategic positions that are highly visible from the surrounding area, this is more difficult to arrange on the flat expanses and floodplains of Cheshire.  Historic England says that there are over 600 motte castles and motte-and-bailey castles are recorded in England, of which around 100-150 are motte castles without accompany baileys.

Although the best known examples were multi-purpose bases combining the functions of elite residences, administrative centres, strongholds for the protection of economic resources and the material objects that made up personal wealth, and, when needed, a garrison for military activity, there are many much smaller versions, particularly in rural areas, that worked as secondary support to bigger castles and served mainly as watch-posts with small garrisons attached.  Ruined sites and modern artistic reconstructions based on excavations indicate that these might be very modest affairs, with a motte might support a fortification that was little more than an elaborate, defendable shed overlooking a small enclosed gathering of buildings into which people and livestock could retreat, as the excellent reconstruction above from the Dorling Kindersley Find Out website suggests.  They became more elaborate as time went on, evolving into the shell keep, the successor to the the motte and bailey castle.  An example is the shell keep on a motte at Cardiff Castle, shown above the left, which shows how truly impressive they could become.

 

The Castle Sites

Aerial view of Shocklach East in the early 1980s the shadows highlighting some of the earthworks. Source: Morris 1983, plate 2, page 60

The earliest motte and bailey site at Castletown, known as the Shocklach castle, is thought to have been originally built by the Barons of Malpas sometime around 1100, the year in which Henry I acceded to the English throne, in a co-ordinated effort initiated by William the Conqueror and built on by William Rufus to demonstrate English power and to protect the region from frequent Welsh raids.  In the early Medieval period, Malpas, Shocklach and Castletown lay in Anglo-Saxon Mercia, but after the Conquest they quickly came under the control of Norman Chester.

The names and lives of the individual barons at this time are by no means clear, and the line of succession is particularly confusing.  Cotgreave’s 2008 research has ruled out a number of earlier proposals, but in spite of his efforts he has been unable to provide a definitive story of the 12th-13th Century Barons of Malpas.  The barony of Malpas had covered a huge chunk of southern Cheshire at Domesday in 1086, when it was under the lordship of Robert fitzHugh, and consisted of some 43 townships, but it was divided into two halves (moieties) at some point after Domesday, possibly due to the lack of descendent in the direct line.  Part of the barony was apparently granted to Gruffydd ab Owain at around the time that Shocklach was built, potentially “one of the Welshmen on whom Henry I lavished grants in 1102 as bribes for support against the early of Shrewsbury.”  Redistribution of baronial lands was common when kings rewarded loyalty with property.  However, the land seems to have then passed into the hands of two other families, the Patrics and the Belwards.  For anyone wanting to follow the story further, see Cotgreave’s paper (in Sources, below). 

Distribution of castle sites under the control of Chester. Source: Swallow 2013-14.

Although Shocklach was held by the Malpas manor, it was occupied by families, who owed service to Malpas.  Rachel Swallow, who excavated Shocklach West, describes how between 1208 and 1229,  it was granted to David de Malpas (1185-1252) whose daughter was married to Rhodri ap Gruffudd of Gwynedd (c.1230-1315), probably a diplomatic alliance to reduce hostilities between Cheshire and Gwynedd.  He apparently had no right to his wife’s lands and Shocklach passed to new families (Sutton and St Pierre) as moieties (i.e. the land was halved for sharing).

Whichever family built the first Shocklach motte-and-bailey castle, it was one of a number built along either side of the river Dee to protect English farms and resources against the Welsh.   Shocklach was only one location in a string of defensive sites.  Looking at the local Ordnance Survey maps, there are motte and bailey castles and, often separately, moats all around this area.   The map above, from Rachel Swallow’s excavation report, shows the distribution of all the local ones, forming, depending on how you look at it, either two very rough lines north to south (running either side of the River Dee) or one zig-zagging line that spans and incorporates the Dee.

Whatever else we take away from the artists’ motte-and-bailey reconstructions, like the Dorling Kindersley one above, when we consider the sheer volume of these structures on OS maps of the area, the overall impression is that defence of even small settlements was an everyday component of life, made particularly important by proximity to the Anglo-Welsh border.

Shocklach East

Shocklach East. Source: Swallow 2013-14

Shocklach East is most clearly visible from the lane that leads to Castletown Farm.  It consists of a D-shaped moat or ditch (which is now filled with trees and shrubs) that protected a motte, which remains free of tree cover.  The motte-and-bailey earthworks to the east at Shocklach are heavily eroded but are nontheless better preserved than those to the west, on the other hand, are larger and lower than those to the west,

The motte is in the southeast ern section of the site and is today c.4-5m high (measured from the base of the ditch).  This is not visible from the road. It is oval-shaped, and surrounded by a low bank.

The ditch is on three sides, occasionally referred to as a moat, with a causeway that gives access to the main enclosure on the northeastern side.

Swallow says that the D-shaped bailey to the south is typical of the area, with kidney-shaped bailey and similar to that of Pulford castle. It measures c. 70 x 78m internally, and it too is surrounded partially by a ditch to the north a by a stream valley to the south.  Suring the survey, it was recorded that the ditch was up to 2.7m deep.  Although now dry, the ditch would have been joined to the stream to form a small moat.  

This motte and bailey castle was not physically attached to the Shocklach West site, which is a full 30m away.

Shocklach West

Behind this dense hedge is Shocklach West. I did my best to lean through the mass, but absolutely nothing was visible through the wilderness of vegetation.

The Shocklach West motte has not been excavated and, indeed, it would be difficult to see how it could be done efficiently.  It is completely hidden from view by trees that have been established over large section of the land, and the roots will be playing havoc with the underlying contexts, rearranging any structural remains and moving around objects.  I did my absolute best to get some sort of view through the shrubs, but there is nothing at all visible at the time of writing (mid-September) due to the dense tangle of shrubs and weeds around the trees.  A return visit in winter after the leaves have fallen and the weeds have died down may reveal more of the outline of the motte.

This view, taken from near to Shocklach West, shows the sort of view that the structure on the top of the motte would have had.

Like most rural motte and bailey castles, only the most labour-intensive features have survived.  The motte is around 5-6m high, which is quite sizeable after centuries of erosive forces, and there are remains of a silted ditch on south, southwest and eastern sides, beyond which there is an outer bank.  On the north and west sides, the bend in the stream forms another line of defence.  The size is consistent with other motte and bailey sites in the Welsh Marshes dating from the 11th and 12th centuries, spanning both Saxon and Norman periods.

The site is located on a hill with superb views over the Dee valley to the west with the Welsh foothills in the distance, and across fields to the east.

Another view taken from near to Shocklach West, showing the sort of view that the structure on the top of the motte would have had, across the surrounding woodland towards the Welsh foothills.

Two Castles, two stories? 

Both castles benefitted from a potable water source provided by the stream, and may have been positioned partly in relation to the road that passed between them.  Both were located on good agricultural land, indicating that they had something to protect, and were fairly evenly spaced from other castles that dotted the Dee valley.  Medieval hamlets in the Castletown area may have been served by one or both of the castles.

View from Castletown to the east

Swallow offers a number of suggestions for why two castles were required so close together, which take into account that no excavations have taken place at one site, and little dating material was found at the other, making it uncertain if the two sites were precisely contemporaneous or if one preceded the other.  Here are some of the options that she discusses:

  1. The castles could have been used together to protect the road that passed between them, a major route between north and south along the border.
  2. After the paired mottes were built contemporaneously, a bailey might have been added to the east later, in a lower position that was strategically less valuable than the motte to the west.  Some objects found at the site lend support to this interpretation, as does the fact that the eastern bailey seems to post-date some medieval ridge and furrow fields. 
  3. The pair has similarities to another pair of mottes in East Chelborough, Dorset, where a second motte replaces the first.
  4. Documentary sources refer to dual lordship and moieties, and it is possible that the monuments were held by different interests, perhaps representing Caldecott and Shocklach.  Swallow suggests, for example, that the motte to the west could like within Church Shocklach township, rather than Caldecott or Castletown. 
  5. A toll gate recorded in the route between the two sites suggests that this was a popular route for travellers and traders.  Twin castles, or an earlier and later castle may have been established to ensure that territories on either side of the road both benefited from toll income.  Although the site may have been established initially for military purposes, commercial interests may have become important too.  

See Swallow’s paper, which is available online, for more details.

Contemporary sites at Castletown

There are other sites in the Castletown area near Shocklach East and West, which are also scheduled.

The first consists of the remains of a village or large hamlet, some farm buildings and a ridge and furrow field system. Like the two castles, these have been included under one listing by Historic England, with the identification number 1016588.  These include at least six tofts (house platforms) and crofts (small farming enclosures) that make up the remains of hamlets to the north and south of Castletown Farm.  As well as the surviving components of buildings there are visible remains of ridge and furrow cultivation that lie to the east of the hamlets.  Although these remains are divided, this is only because the later Castletown Farm was built over other parts of the former settlement.  

The nearby church of St Edith (Historic England 1228322) is not currently open to the general-interest public, but makes for a nice stroll if you are in the area, because it is lovely with its mellow red sandstone walls and its bellcote, even when only viewed from the outside, and still has weekly services.  Parts of the church, including the south wall of the nave and the south doorway date to the mid 12th Century while the north wall of nave  is probably 13th Century.  Later modifications in the 15th and 17th Centuries were very sympathetic to the original design.


Later history of Castletown

Swallow mentions that Castletown Bridge, which carries the road across the stream between the two castles, “was probably the site of the medieval toll gate, catching people and animals entering Cheshire from Wales to the south and west, as Shocklach castle guarded the only road into Cheshire at this point.”  Documentation suggests that a toll gate was present there
from at least 1290.  Swallow suggests that Shocklach castle had a defensive function until at least the latter part of the fourteenth century and probably became the site of a fortified manor house, mentioned in 1499, when the notorious judge Lord Dudley claimed rights to Shocklach, “and to have a toll for himself and William Brereton.”   Passing into the hands of the the Breretons, it then passed to the Hills and the Drakes.


Conclusion

Although today Shocklach sits in a peaceful area that consists mainly of farms and large fields divided by hedgerows, it is clear that from the early 12th Century, the twin mottes at Shocklach were important components in a wide line motte-and-bailey castles that made up much of the defence of the border between England and Wales.  Then too there were small hamlets and farms.  Although these lay on territory that was under dispute and where livestock and stored cereals may have been seen as easy pickings, they were supported by the presence of the castles.  Other nearby sites that are relevant are a Medieval field system at Castletown Farm and the local Shocklach Church, which retains a Norman arch.  The latter will be discussed on another post when I can gain access to the interior.  Between them these and other Medieval sites along the Dee valley the Castletown sites preserve part of the story of life along the Welsh-Cheshire border at this time.

Visiting: 
You can pull over on the edge of the relatively quiet road (pull well over in case of agricultural vehicles), but the site, on both sides of the road, is on private property so you cannot actually walk on or around the site.  You can only view it from the roads.  Before leaf-fall, Shocklach West is completely hidden by vegetation, but the north side of Shocklach East can be seen over a short fence.  I wouldn’t recommend it for a walk, because it is not on a public footpath, there is no pavement, the verges, where available, are narrow and uneven and the road is very bendy and rather narrow, not ideal for avoiding any traffic, most of which travels at some speed.


Sources:

Books and papers:

Cotgreave, P. 2008.  The Barony of Malpas in the twelfth century.  Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire (2008), 157, (1), 1–32.
www.hslc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/157-2-Cotgreave.pdf 

Reynolds, S. and White, G. 1997-98.  A Survey of Pulford Castle.  Chester History XXXVII, p.23-25

Pryor, F. 2010.  The Making of the British Landscape.   How We Have Transformed the Land, from Prehistory to Today.  Allen Lane

Swallow, R. 2013-14. Two For One:  the Archaeological Survey of Shocklach, Castle, Cheshire. Cheshire History Journal, No.53, 2013-4
https://www.academia.edu/4577267/Two_for_One_The_Archaeological_Survey_of_Shocklach_Castle_Cheshire_in_Cheshire_History_Journal_No_53_2013_4_Cheshire_Local_History_Association_2013_

Williams, R. 1983. Church Shocklach, Castletown:  the “moated” site. Cheshire Archaeological Bulletin 9, p.59–60
http://www.cheshirearchaeology.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/CAB-Vol-9.pdf 

Williams, R. 1983. Castletown.  A Deserted Hamlet? Cheshire Archaeological Bulletin 9, p.61
http://www.cheshirearchaeology.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/CAB-Vol-9.pdf


Websites:

Ancient and Scheduled Monuments

https://ancientmonuments.uk/114798-medieval-settlement-and-part-of-field-system-at-castletown-farm-shocklach-oviatt-and-district

Historic England
Shocklach motte and bailey castle, list entry 1012620
https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1012620
Medieval settlement and part of field system at Castletown Farm
https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1016588
Church of St Edith
https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1228322

Archaeology and Metal Detecting Magazine
Shocklach: Its History and Archaeology. By Dave Sadler 5th September 2021
https://archmdmag.com/shocklach-its-history-and-archaeology-by-dave-sadler/

 

Ranulf III’s Beeston Castle #2 – The castle, the walk, the visit

The gateway to the inner ward seen from the outer ward

In Part 1, I introduced Ranulf III, the powerful descendant of King Henry I, who started building Beeston Castle in 1220, and during his lifetime was close to four kings of the Middle Ages:  Henry II, Richard I (“the Lionheart”), John (“lackland”) and Henry III.

Here, part 2 looks at the castle itself, the walk up to the castle, 18th and 19th Century artistic interpretations of the castle, and practical visit details, including notes on accessibility for those with less than cooperative legs. The two parts are designed to be read together, as many of the photographs of the castle are in Part 1.

Topographical plan showing the site elevation and key features, colour-coded to show different construction phases. Source: English Heritage. https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/siteassets/home/visit/places-to-visit/beeston-castle/history/serpentine/beeston-castle-phased-plan-1.pdf

With so much of its stonework intact, Beeston is entirely comprehensible as a functioning castle and, together with the stunning views, is worth a visit in its own right, but arming oneself with knowledge about the its builder makes for an even more rewarding experience.

Twelve years before he died after a rich and varied life, the magnate, military leader and crusader Ranulf, Earl of Chester, set about building three new castles to add to his existing tally, of which Beeston was the most impressive.

Beeston has been the subject of investigations since the 19th Century, encompassing both documentary research and fieldwork, and is one of the most comprehensively studied sites in the mid-Cheshire area.  This  research encompasses the impressive prehistoric remains at the site, the castle’s 13th Century origins, repairs in the 14th Century and, after a period of partial abandonment, a major renovation during the Civil War (17th Century).   After the final military abandonment of the castle in the 17th Century, it entered a new phase in the 18th Century as a growing tourist attraction, which expanded during the 19th Century when rail arrived.

These are all aspects of its past that are well worth exploring, and all are handled by Beeston’s small but informative visitor centre and the really excellent illustrated guidebook.  Supplementing these resources with other material, I have written up more details about the castle’s builder, Ranulf III, and described a few of the highlights of the castle’s history below.  I am saving an account of the multi-period record of prehistory for another post.  If you have even a little curiosity about prehistory, I hope that it will be worth waiting for 🙂

Today’s approach to the monumental gateway into the outer ward. The tall tower was a later addition to Ranulf’s original gatehouse

Before launching into the history of the castle, you might want to have a look at the castle’s site plan shown above left, which can be downloaded from the English Heritage website, showing the site’s elevations and colour-coded chronological phases.  It is also reproduced in the Beeston Castle guide book.

This page is divided up as follows:

  • Beeston Castle in the 13th Century
  • Beeston after Ranulf III
  • Beeston during the Civil War in the 17th Century
  • Beeston in the 18th and 19th Centuries
  • Visiting Beeston (with accessibility notes for those with unwilling legs)

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

Ranulf’s 13th Century Castle

Probably springing from multiple motivations whirling around Ranulf’s busy head, the resulting castle at Beeston is awe-inspiring.  Strategically, Beeston is in an exceptional position, with views that would have provided sight of an approaching army miles (and hours) away, control of the valley below.  These views make for an excellent visit.

A reconstruction of the early 14th Century castle, showing both inner and outer wards. Source: English Heritage’s excellent Beeston Castle guidebook.  Click to see a bigger picture.

The English Heritage guidebook has an invaluable blow-by-blow description of all the features of the castle, which should not be missed by anyone who really wants to understand it.  Soden adds additional details about what features Beeston shared with the two other castles that he was building at the same time. Here, I’ve picked out the bits that I found most interesting.

The immediate impression one has of the castle on approach is that it consists of two main colours:  white-grey and red.  The red sandstone seems to have been used in the original construction but also seems to have been the main building material used during subsequent restoration works.  The original works were dominated by the grey-white stone.  I haven’t yet pinned down exactly what sort of sandstone this is, but unlike the usual local red sandstone it is very hard and dense, and very difficult to damage.

There are two main elements of the castle, the big outer ward (or bailey) and the smaller inner ward, each defined by a stone wall interrupted with D-shaped defensive towers (known as mural towers) arranged at intervals along tall curtain walls.  Each of these defensive curtain walls was provided with a single access point, almost identical heavily defended double-towered gateways.  To ensure that no-one unwanted gained access, every tower along the walls was furnished on the ground floor with arrow-slits, tall thin “windows” in the walls and the topmost level would have been manned by archers.  The outer ward followed the line of the defences of the Iron Age hillfort incorporating its accompanying defensive ditch.

Although archaeologists were let loose in the outer ward, they found no evidence of buildings contemporary with the castle, and there is little indication in the documentary sources either.   It is possible that work was clearly concentrating on the inner ward, with just the defensive elements of the outer ward being completed, but it is also a possibility that the area of archaeological investigation did not coincide with any buildings that had been erected.

The inner ward’s gatehouse from the inside

The inner ward, the heart of the castle complex, was separated from the outer ward by a deep ditch cut into the rock.  The ditch had a double function, being both the quarry for stone for the castle, and a line of defence in its own right.  This ditch was crossed by a wooden bridge, probably with a drawbridge and portcullis, the mechanisms for which would have been housed in one of the gatehouses as suggested in the above reconstruction.  There was no keep (a big central tower, a third level of defence that usually contained accommodation and prison cells) and it appears that a keep had never been part of Ranulf’s plan.

One of the gatehouse towers in the inner ward

The ground floor of the inner ward’s gatehouse was provided with chambers, each of which had a slit through which arrows could be fire.  The first floor of the inner ward’s gatehouse would have housed the guardian of the castle, known as the constable, and the top floor would have housed the gate and bridge mechanisms, the former lowered and the latter raised at times of threat, as well as archers who would have protected access through the gate.  Even though the main accommodation for the constable was probably in the main gatehouse, the only fireplace found was in the southwest tower, perhaps a daytime office for the constable.  Other rooms could have been heated by braziers when needed.

As with the gatehouses, the D-shaped towers of were provided with slits through which arrows could be fired, and also had upper floors that acted as platforms from which other soldiers could defend the castle.  Any stairways between these floors must have been made of wood because no staircases survive.  It is thought that the upper floor of the towers, including the gatehouses, were surrounded by wooden rather than stone defences in Ranulf’s day, because a much later record talks about the replacement of wood with the crenellated stone wall that is shown in the above reconstruction.

Well within the inner ward

Both upper and lower wards were provided with water wells, which would have helped the castle to hold out during a siege.  The well in the inner ward has a circular wall and has been provided with a lid to prevent children falling into it.  A legend that King Richard II left his treasure at the castle lead to several investigations of the well.  The investigations in the 1930s found that it went down to 110yds / 100m with the medieval masonry down to 61m.  The well in the outer ward, under a big tree, looks a bit like a quarry and it is suggested that this bizarre appearance was the result of attempts during the Civil War to enlarge it.  It has now been filled in, but its depth was recorded in 1623 as 240ft / 73m.

Remains of the well in the outer ward

Views from the inner ward across the Cheshire plain showing its strategic position

Detail of the inner ward at the southeastern end

Beeston Castle was unfinished at the time of Ranulf’s death.  The north curtain wall of the inner ward was not completed until the 1280s, by which time it was in the Crown’s ownership.  The centre of the upper ward feature big outcrops of bedrock, suggesting that it had never been levelled for the construction of an imposing entrance or the addition of inner buildings. Additionally, some key castle features were missing, like a kitchen and a great hall.  This was confirmed by archaeological work that found no sign of inner structures.

Ranulf employed many of the same features at his other new castles.  Although the plans were all distinct, they shared twin-towered gates, deep ditches, D-shaped towers, individual chambers within the towers (mural rooms) and “fish tailed” arrow loops.  Ranulf had a model of the perfect castle and he was working towards achieving three different versions using the same toolkit of modern defensive options.

After Ranulf

The top courses of stonework is clearly different from the lower, showing the 15th Century rennovation of the towers.

When Ranulf died in 1232, 12 years after he began the castle, his estates were inherited by his nephew John le Scot.  However, le Scot died five years later in 1237 and Henry III confiscated all of his land, redistributing some of it and retaining the better part for his son Edward, perhaps justifying Ranulf’s belief that the Crown was a greater threat to his territories than the Welsh.  The Chester estates, together with Beeston and Chester castles, were initially put into the custodianship of John de Lacy, earl of Lincoln (c.1192-1240).

Under the Crown, Beeston languished in second position to Chester Castle, but in the 1240s hostilities against the Welsh led to it being repaired, building on Ranulf’s work, presumably to prevent the Welsh attempting to take it and reinforce it themselves.  In c.1253 Henry III granted the earldom of Chester, together with Beeston, to his son Edward I and Edward’s subsequent heirs as Princes of Wales.

Early 14th Century records of investment in the castle indicate that crenellations were added to the towers, which were themselves raised to a higher level and were roofed with lead, and the gateway of the inner ward required repair.  The gateway was provided with a new wooden bridge, anchored on a massive stone plinth that is still visible between the 1970s bridge today.  The timber was carried 8 miles from Delamere forest on ox cart to Beeston.

The southwest end of the inner ward

The castle appears to have been allowed to fall into ruin during the 15th Century.  It was sold in 1602 to Sir Hugh Beeston, a local landowner, although his reasons for his wanting a ruined castle are unknown.

The Civil War 

Silver bowl and spoon dating the the Civil War period found at Beeston and now on display in the Beeston Visitor Centre

Forty years later the Civil War broke out.  Those Royalist forces took up position at Chester in 1642,  using as a base to provision themselves from the Dee, which was still a working port with river access via the Dee to the Irish Sea and Liverpool Bay.  Shortly afterwards, parliamentarians established themselves at Nantwich.  Beeston sat bang-splat in the middle, and the parliamentarians under Puritan Sir William Brereton installed a garrison there in February 1643 under Captain Thomas Steele.  Essential repair work took place to secure the ruined castle.  Brereton’s efforts were in vain.  Royalist men entered the castle in mid December and Steele surrendered.  He was later shot for his failure to defend the castle.  John Byron, leading the Royalist forces, installed his own garrison at Beeston and went on to defeat the parliamentarians at Middlewich.  Brereton, however, was not finished and in November 1644 besieged Chester and set about cutting off the royalists entrenched in Beeston with a blockade to prevent them re-provisioning.  The Royalists managed to breach the blockade twice, but the blockade was reinforced.

The king was defeated at Rowton Heath, south of Chester, on September 24th 1645 and Beeston Castle was given up to the parliamentarians on 15th November.  Royalist soldiers, half-starved, were allowed to depart.  Beeston was now systematically dismantled (an action known as “slighting”) so that defending it would be impossible without major rebuilding.   For the next two centuries it attracted only local attention.

Beeston in the 18th and 19th Centuries

Beeston Castle’s inner ward gatehouse, a romanticized view painted by George Barret in the mid 1770s.  Source:  Wikipedia

Now a ruin, in the 18th Century the castle, visible for miles around acquired a romantic air and become something of a visitor attraction, and a number of artists represented it, three of which are shown here, offering very contrasting views of the castle.

To the right is a highly romanticized version by relatively minor painter George Barret in the mid 1770s, highly coloured and dramatic.

The  famous J.M.W Turner (1775-1851) painted a scene in 1809, based on sketches he made in 1801, showing a woodland scene with Beeston as a faint silhouette in the distance.  Turner had initially wanted to train as an architect rather than a painter, but was pushed in the direction of painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds when Turner joined the Royal Academy at the age of 14.  His love of buildings remained with him throughout his life, and painted a great many architectural themes.  He particularly liked English castles.  Typical of his work, Beeston is a mere suggestion, a ghost of a place on the edge of the real world.  By employing the traditional narrative approach of painting that he would have learned at the Royal Academy, which draws the eye from left to right, the castle’s apparently subordinate position still results in its domination of the rural woodland scene.  Past and present are juxtaposed, but while the present takes up most of the canvas, it is the past that dominates the landscape.

Joseph Mallory William Turner’s view of Beeston Castle (far right) in 1809, based on sketches he made in 1801. Source: Sandstone Ridge Trust

Another painting worth seeing is by David Cox (1783-1859) a leader of the Birmingham School and renowned watercolour and landscape painter, showing yet another view, this time in 1849.  As with Turner’s painting the castle is shown against the sky with no discernible details, apart from the towers, but unlike Turner, it is placed centre stage, surrounded by Cox’s typical use of bright, vibrant colours with extremes of light and dark.

David Cox’s view of Beeston in 1849. Source: WikiArt

 

The Beeston Festival of 1851, from the Illustrated London News, showing tents and stalls in the inner ward, and people queuing at the 1846 entrance built in the style of the castle. Source: English Heritage guidebook, p.35

In 1840 the castle was sold to landowner John Tollemache as part of the Peckforton Estate, purchased with wealth derived from sugar plantations in Antigua, first purchased by his father.  It was Tollemache who built Peckforton Castle on the neighbouring hill and carried out restoration work on Beeston Castle, re-using original stonework.  When we were at Beeston I was puzzled by the fir trees in the outer word, and it turns out that these were exotic imports designed to reflect the new gardens and grounds at Peckforton Castle.  Deer were imported and contained within the outer ward, along with goats.  Somewhat more bizarrely, so were kangaroos.  What the three species made of each other is not recorded.  The railway between Chester and Crewe opened in 1846 and a station at Beeston greatly facilitated tourism and in 1844 a two-day annual festival was held in the outer ward.  In 1846 the current entrance to the ticket office, an imitation Medieval gateway, was built to handle the thousands of visitors and provide limited accommodation.

The castle passed into the hands of the Ministry of Works in 1959 and then, in 1984, was taken over by English Heritage, who have done a really splendid job of maintaining the site and introducing visitors to all aspects of its past.

Visiting Beeston Castle

Pieces of decorated ceramic on display in the Visitor Centre

There is a car park at the foot of the castle, opposite the entrance (pay-and-display or free for members), a café and a really nice picnic area.

English Heritage has done an excellent job of ensuring that the castle is as accessible and enjoyable as possible.  The site is beautifully maintained and feels cared for.  The staff are friendly and helpful, and the Visitor Centre, on the other side of the nice little shop, is excellent.  It mixes a few cabinets of objects with big information boards with lots of helpful illustrations, and feels modern, spacious and welcoming.   If you don’t anticipate wanting to buy the guide book (which I bought, thoroughly enjoyed and have used as the basis of this post together with Iain Soden’s biography of Ranulf) I do recommend reading up on the castle on the English Heritage website, and printing off the site plan PDF shown at the top of the post (links below).

In case the opening times and entry fees change, here is the link to the Beeston Castle page on the English Heritage website that should help you find all you need to know.
https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/beeston-castle-and-woodland-park/prices-and-opening-times/

View from the inner gateway across the modern bridge across the plain

Accessibility for those with mobility challenges
This is an uphill walk, entirely suitable for anyone only averagely fit, taking perhaps 15-30 minutes depending on level of fitness, but you will anyway want to make many pauses to take in the views.  Although the walk consists of fairly easy slopes, this is not suitable for anyone who really can’t walk uphill, and there is understandably no access for wheelchair users.  Having said that, a lot of older people were doing the walk with the aid of walking sticks, pausing at benches along the way, and were doing it slowly but with enthusiasm.  Don’t forget that at the time of writing, English Heritage allows registered disabled people to bring a helper along free of charge, an “essential companion” in English Heritage terms.

There are a number of benches along the route, but all were well-used, so bringing along some form of portable stool might be an option for those with leg issues.  My Dad has a brilliant rucksack-cum-coldbag that has a hinged metal frame and folds out into a stool.  Suffering rucksack-stool envy, I’ve just ordered one for myself.

The walk up to the top of the castle can be described as a two-part enterprise.  There’s a slope up to the outer ramparts that can either be approached via a path with steps or a path without steps.   Once the outer ramparts are reached, there’s a short flight of stairs and then the approach to the upper ramparts that define the main castle are quite level for a while, followed by a fairly gentle slope up to the bridge across the ditch (what on a lowland site would be a moat).  The bridge itself is arched and quite steep for about 5-6 ft, but some good, solid railings were helpful for those with walking sticks.

For more about accessibility at Beeston, see the Beeston Castle Access page.

There’s a café at the site, but we chose to finish our visit with a very happy beer at the nearby Pheasant, a famous pub  with more great views.  The menu looks excellent.

The Pheasant, from the garden

Beeston Castle viewed from Churton, seen over the top of a field of corn.

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

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

Lovely footpaths through the fields between Churton and Farndon – Part 2

The return leg of the walk from Churton to Farndon, starting at Brewery Lane. Source of map: Public Map Viewer

The return leg of the walk from Churton to Farndon described in Part 1, heading back from Farndon to Churton, was just as lovely in the mid-July heatwave, but was not the same, and had some added extras.   It all looked very different from today’s endless drizzle, but at least the garden is deliriously happy.

On the return leg of my walk, instead of retracing my steps along Townfield Lane, I turned into Brewery Lane, just a little further to the north, which turned out to be a short stretch of road behind Brewery Motors with some nice views.  It segues into a the public footpath that is narrow but very safe underfoot before it joins up with the track along which I had originally walked into Farndon.  The footpath offers  a novel view over a gate of the wildflower field at the Barnston Monument to its east.  I have marked the route on the map on the left (from the Public Map Viewer website), a shorter route than on the first leg.  The red dots are explained in Part 1, marking the approximate positions of possible prehistoric sites.

At Knowl Plantation, a track is marked on the Public Map Viewer that skirts it to the west instead of heading back up the footpath to the east.  It links up with the Knowl Lane footpath that leads to the Dee.  After I returned home I realized that on the Public Map Viewer although marked as a track it is not shown as a public footpath, so I am not sure if it is actually a right of way, but I was careful to stick to the edges and do no damage.

Dove’s foot’s crane’s-bill, its leaves declaring it to be a form of geranium.  Like the speedwell below, all along the edge of the corn, it spreads in huge swathes.

Common field speedwell, which grows everywhere in great, low carpets.

Thistledown, spreading itself in carpets along the path and hanging in the nearby trees

Redshank

When I was a child, anything that looked like a flower, with lots of petals arranged around a clearly defined core, was accordingly categorized in my head as a flower, but anything that failed to look sufficiently floral was always a weed.  Redshank came firmly into my childhood  weed category.

Elder (Sambucus)

Reaching the main footpath back to Churton, that leads from the Dee to Knowl Lane. I was enchanted to be surrounded by butterflies.  They stubbornly refused to settle, and the few that did settle sat with their wings firmly closed, so there were very few photographs, but it was a lovely experience.

Small heath butterfly

Gatekeeper

Common red soldier beetle  (Rhagonycha fulva) on hogweed flowers

Comma

Speckled wood

It was on the return leg of the walk that that I noticed three lovely flowers on this walk that I had never seen before.  The tiny, tiny violas shown below, the flower just a few millimeter high (just a little bigger than speedwell flowers) is the field pansy (Viola arvensis).  They behave much like speedwells, spreading on straggling stems, but there were much fewer flowers per plant, and I only saw a small number of them.

Field pansy in company with common field speedwell

The Hedge Woundwort below, Stachys sylvatica, is a member of the Lamiaceae (mint) family.  It looks very like the common spotted orchid, but the leaves are wrong.  With the orchid, the leaves are smooth-sided and long and sprout from the base, but the woundwort has jagged- or serrated-edged leaves that are much shorter and sprout from all along the stem.  With the Hedge woundwort, the colour leans more towards purple or red than towards the common spotted orchid’s pink, and the woundwort lacks the “wings” that top the orchid flowers.  The distinctive white markings are thought to attract bees to help with pollination.

Hedge Woundwort

This creeping and climbing perennial, here wrapping itself around a blackberry bramble with a lovely pink flower, is White Bryony (Bryonia dioica).  It is not uncommon as a garden weed, and is beast to eliminate as it has long, deep tubers that have to be pulled out in their entirety to kill the plant.  In the wild, however, they are lovely, colonizing hedgerows and scrubland, spreading by coiled stem-tendrils that latch on to the stems of other plants to enable it to travel in all directions.  When it has finished flowering, the white/yellowish-green flower is replaced by a small red berry.

White Bryony

At no point on either walk can one actually see the river from the footpaths, so this is a matter of enjoying the fields in their own right.

 

Lovely footpaths through the fields between Churton and Farndon – Part 1

I have been meaning to do this walk every since I moved here in February, but there is so much to do in the garden that I feel guilty abandoning it on nice days when I really should be working at it.  The stickiness of the otherwise delectable heat-wave meant that digging holes for plants and weeding on an industrial scale was becoming seriously unpleasant, so today I abandoned ship and walked the footpaths to the west of Churton, through the fields to Farndon. It was idyllic.

The route taken from Churton to Farndon. The red blobs are the approximate locations of (top) the proposed prehistoric barrow cemetery and (below) the proposed Neolithic long barrow.  Source of map:  The Public Map Viewer, rather untidily stitched together by me.

This is part one of the walk (Churton to Farndon).   The slightly different return leg of the walk (Farndon to Churton) is described in Part 2.

In both directions, this is going to be an incredibly useful way of avoiding Chester Road to walk into Farndon.  I did once walk in to Farndon along Chester Road and it felt incredibly unsafe as the pavement is so narrow, it was very overgrown and the traffic moves so fast.  On that occasion I cut my losses and took the bus back.

This route through the fields is a perfectly viable alternative with lots to see and some lovely views, although it will be interesting to see how soggy it becomes underfoot in autumn and winter.  A track called Knowl Lane extends from Hob Lane and eventually turns into a footpath that heads through a plantation and reaches the Dee.  There are two footpaths off it to the left (south towards Farndon).

I went into Farndon via one and came back on the other.  The route is shown on the map above, thanks to the Public Map Viewer.  A Barnston Estate signboard next to the first turn shows the route of the footpath and has some of the details about the wildlife to be seen.  This footpath is shown on the Public Map Viewer as a track, and it is indeed used by tractors to move from field to field, which means you may find yourself flattening yourself into a hedge to let one or more pass.  Other than a tractor on the way out, and two on the way back, I saw no-one.  Perfect peace.  I took far too many photographs.

 

 

Once out in the fields, there were lots of wild flowers, three of which I had never encountered before, all described in Part 2, and there were butterflies and bees were everywhere, as well as great carpets of wind-transported furry seed fluff that was new to me.  The views towards the Welsh foothills were gorgeous.  The fields were full of young sweetcorn, displaying every shade of green that one could possibly imagine, wonderful in the sun, occasionally swaying in the slightest of breezes.

 

One field was planted with wheat, a great sweep of palest gold, each ear so beautifully and precisely structured that it looked almost artificial, the whole field organizing itself like a military review.  It was a superb contrast to the floppy sweetcorn plants that, no matter how regularly spaced, still managed to look rakish, jaunty and determinedly laid back.

Proposed barrow cemetery at Knowl Plantation. Source: Google Maps (location marked by the Megalithic Portal)

In theory, this route passes two prehistoric sites, which I was keen to track down.  Both sites are known only from aerial photographs, having been completely ploughed out, but sites are not just about physical presence but context within the landscape, and that’s something one can only get a real feel for by going to the location.  The Knowl Plantation site is described on the Megalithic Portal as a “nucleated Bronze Age barrow cemetery consisting of four ring ditches.”   I’ve had a look at various aerial photographs (see above, for example), but it’s not terribly promising so far.  If it is indeed a site, it is on a fertile slope that runs down to the Dee with views over the Welsh foothills.

A proposed Neolithic long barrow next to the radio mast at Bowling Alley Plantation is rather more convincing, with a lot of other interesting pits and ditches visible from the air in the surrounding field.  It too was always going to be invisible from the footpath.  Still, when I rounded the corner to the field in which it is supposed to be located I laughed out loud: the corn was growing so tall that I couldn’t actually see anything of either the field or the view, in spite of climbing a gate.  It must overlook a very similar view to the Knowl Plantation site.  Winter will be more informative.  The Google Maps aerial view of the site is to the left, and today’s view of the field in which it is located is below.  I really need a drone to be my eyes with some of these sites!  I will be writing soon about the area’s prehistory, some of it verified (by survey and excavation) and some speculative (like the aerial photograph shown here), and will talk about what one might make of it all.

Field in which the possible remains of a Neolithic barrow are located

Happy, but a bit heat-weary, I stopped for a fizzy water and a divine flat white in Lewis’s, sitting outside on the terrace and watching the world go by.  I was updating some notes as my coffee cooled down, but I am like a truffle hound where clotted cream is concerned and looked up to see that the chap at the next table was being served a scone with strawberry jam and, of course, clotted cream.  It looked utterly irresistible.  I am so relieved that I didn’t see it on the blackboard when I went it, or I would have been there for a lot longer, and progress back to Churton would have been a great deal slower.  Next time.  Nice to see the progress being made opposite at The Raven. 

Suitably revived following my coffee, I secured some of the Farndon butcher’s (Griffiths) truly excellent pork and apple sausages (second only in my estimation to his pork and leek sausages) before wandering down to look at the Dee and then returning back up the hill to head back through the fields.  My return course followed a slightly different route, using some other footpaths, which I will post about soon.  Just as super.  In all, it is a superb walk that will be an excellent route into Farndon, at least in drier phases, and will provide a very nice insight into the changing seasons.

 

Himalayan balsam ((Impatiens glandulifera), a relative of the busy Lizzie but over head height, and a pernicious weed in the wrong place.

Sources:

Megalithic Portal

Churton Long Barrow
https://www.megalithic.co.uk/article.php/mapserve/mapserve/asbmap.php?sid=5584&desktop=true

Knowl Plantation
https://www.megalithic.co.uk/article.php?sid=40380

 

 

 

Who was Bishop Bennet and why do we travel his Way?

The official 10-page Bishop Bennet Way leaflet can be downloaded at the end of this post

Threading its way all around the immediate area is the Bishop Bennet Way.  It is completely unavoidable on maps of the area, picked out in the lines of green horizontal triangles that mark a “Recreational Route” on the OS map, or the pink diamonds on the Public Map Viewer.

The Bishop Bennet Way follows a most circuitous route incorporating both roads and footpaths, and has been established mainly for the benefit of horse riders and mountain bike riders, but is very also popular with walkers.

Section of the Bishop Bennet Way near Churton. Cheshire West and Chester Public Map Viewer.

I first noticed it when walking down Pump Lane in Churton.  Where the road takes an abrupt turn to the north, there are small brown signposts pointing north, along Edgerley Lane and east along Marsh Lane to something called the Bishop Bennet Way.  Whichever of the two options it takes, it loops and switches in all sorts of crazy directions, a diabolically inefficient way of getting from A to B, and eventually it falls off the edges of my OS map, still going.  Once you’ve noticed the little brown Bishop Bennet Way signposts, they seem to pop up all over the area.  So who was Bishop Bennet, where does the Bishop Bennet Way go and why, for that matter, has that route been so carefully preserved in maps and on signposts?

A signed letter from Bishop Bennet to his friend the Reverend Maurice

The first thing to establish was whether Bishop Bennet was a real person rather than a fictional character, and indeed he was.  William Bennet was a “prelate of high character and estimation.”  He was born, according to the Dictionary of National Biography, in the Tower of London on 4th March 1745. Clergymen were usually very well educated with a good academic knowledge of both Classical and British history, and many doubled up as antiquarians, explorers of all things ancient.  Although some of their excavations were distressingly destructive, their surveys often provided invaluable foundations for future work.  Bishop Bennet conformed to this model.  He was educated at Harrow School and then went on to study at Emanuel College, Cambridge, where he later became a fellow and tutor and “distinguished himself by his compositions in Latin, as well as in English, in which he discovered not only great fluency , but a lofty taste, both in prose and verse.”

Episcopal Palace, Cloyne in Cork, Ireland. Photograph by colin.boyle4.
Source: Flickr Photos.

One of his students, in whom he took a particular interest, was John Fane, the 10th Earl of Westmoreland.  The Earl went on to become Viceroy of Ireland and remembered his former mentor by appointing him first as chaplain, then promoted him to Bishop of Cork and Ross from 1790–1794 and finally Bishop of Cloyne from 1794–1820, resident in the Episcopal Palace of Cloyne.  The episcopal see (jurisdiction) of Cloyne eventually became united with that of Cork and Ross in 1835, after which the Palace was leased to a private tenant.

Bishop Bennet was a member of the House of Lords, was elected Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1790 and married the daughter of a  fellow clergyman in 1791.  He died in London in 1820.  In his lovely, deeply affectionate and appreciative eulogy, his friend Dr Parr commented on this career path:  “From the retirement of a college he stepped at once in the circle of a court;  but has not been dazzled by its glory nor tainted by its corruptions.”

One of Bishop Bennet’s contributions to Magna Britannia, volume 2, part 2.

None of this, of course, explains what the Bishop Bennet Way was all about.  After some hunting around, I found that Bishop Bennet was a very early driving force behind the investigation and publication of some of England’s Roman roads, something that became his own personal mission, all carried out in his summer vacations.  He contributed valuable work on the subject to published histories, of various areas including those of Lincolnshire and Cornwall.  He also contributed to the multi-volume work produced by the Lysons brothers, Magna Britannia, in which they set out to explore most of England’s counties in a series of dedicated volumes.  In West Cheshire, one of the roads that he had surveyed was the path now taken by the A41, from Chester (Roman Deva) to Whitchurch (Roman Mediolanum), and his investigations were incorporated into the Roman section of the history of the Palatine City of Chester published in Magna Britannia volume 2, part 2, 1810.

Map from the official 10-page Bishop Bennet Way leaflet that can be downloaded at the end of this post

The Bishop Bennet Way was officially opened in May 1998 incorporating restored byways and bridleways, and includes sections of country roads.  It is  of course very popular with walkers too.  Cheshire Live says that it was the inspiration of Bernadette Harden who was working on a temporary basis at Beeston Castle and began to take an interest in Bishop Bennet and his exploration of the area. It took her the best part of twenty years to campaign for the restoration of bridle paths and byways, but the Bishop Bennet Way is a very suitable reward for all her hard work.

The Way starts near Beeston Castle and finishes near Wirswall on the Cheshire–Shropshire border, just to the north of Whitchurch, although it might be extended in the future.  The route covers 55km/34 miles, and 27km of that route are on minor roads, only some of which have pavements and verges.  If you are a walker trying to avoid traffic, it is worth checking the Ordnance Survey map for public footpaths along the route that bypass road.  There is often another route possible for those of us on two legs rather than four, albeit rather more circuitous.  The official route crosses some seriously busy roads, like the A41 at Milton Green, and anyone planning to do the whole route is advised to plot their track on OS Map Explorer 257.  In 2006 Bishop Bennet Way was linked to Jack Mytton Way in Shropshire, between them creating a 125km/78 mile route.

The official 10-page Bishop Bennet Way leaflet can be downloaded by clicking here (but do check for updates on the Visit Cheshire website if you are reading this after summer 2021, in case a new edition is issued). 

Section of the Bishop Bennet Way as it heads north along the edge of Middle Beachin Farm, part way between Churton and Coddington.

Sources:

Books and Papers:

The Annual Biography and Obituary for the Year 1821
No.XVI. The Right Reverend Father in God, William Bennett, D.D. MRIA. Lord Bishop of Cloyne. , Volume V, p.263-266.  Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme and Brown
tinyurl.com/3vr2y4fh

Codrington, C. 1919.  Roman Roads in Britain. Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

Lysons, D., and Lysons, S. (eds.) 1810.  Cambridgeshire and the County Palatine of Chester.
Magna Britannia, being a concise topographical account of several counties of Britain, Vol 2, Part 2.
https://archive.org/details/magnabrittanicab02lyso/page/n3/mode/2up?view=theater
https://ia802608.us.archive.org/27/items/magnabrittanicab02lyso/magnabrittanicab02lyso.pdf

Websites:

Cheshire Live
Walker turns trail-blazer in route revamp
https://www.cheshire-live.co.uk/news/chester-cheshire-news/walker-turns-trail-blazer-route-revamp-5246941

Dictionary of National Biography
William Bennet
https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Dictionary_of_National_Biography,_1885-1900/Bennet,_William_(1746-1820)

Fastest Known Time
Bishop Bennet Way
https://fastestknowntime.com/route/bishop-bennet-way-united-kingdom

Historical Autographs
William Bennet, Bishop of Cloyne
https://www.historicalautographs.co.uk/autographs/bennet-william-bishop-of-cloyne-17093/

North Wales Live
Campaign uncovers long lost bridleway
https://www.dailypost.co.uk/news/local-news/campaign-uncovers-long-lost-bridleway-2898100

Visit Cheshire
Bishop Bennet Way
https://www.visitcheshire.com/things-to-do/bishop-bennet-way-p176521

 

Wildflowers at the Barnston Monument

Today we dropped in at the Barnston Monument (about which I wrote a couple of weeks ago), because every time I drove past it I saw a blast of bright colour – yellows blues, reds and bright whites on a deep green backdrop.  Phenomenal.  It is on one of the Barnston Estate fields, part of the new Monument Meadow Natural Burial Ground, which will replace the churchyard cemetery at St Chad’s in Farndon. The burial ground will have no markers, and caskets will be made of natural materials.  The car park, surrounded by small saplings, and the wooden pavilion are already in place.   We bumped into a lady having her lunch there.  I cannot think of a better place for it.

The photos are a bit fuzzy, because I only had the little camera that I keep in my handbag with me, but they are enough to give an idea of the beauty of the wild flower meadow at the moment.  The cornflowers are particularly superb, a dazzling, intense blue.

 

Sources:

Chester Standard
Barnston Estate near Farndon to build burial ground
https://www.chesterstandard.co.uk/news/18611529.barnston-estate-near-farndon-build-burial-ground/

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.

 

A touch of Rome just east of Churton #2 – The Walk

Yesterday I went to find the section of the Roman road that runs from Chester, through Aldford, and down to the east of Churton.   The Roman road that starts in Chester and passes to the east of Churton is Margary’s road number 6a, also known as Watling Street West. On the Cheshire West and Chester’s Public Map Viewer, the section of it that passes through Aldford and passes Churton is public footpath “Aldford FP8.”  I described the background to Roman Chester and the British road system yesterday, in part 1.  The walk I took to find the traces of the road on the ground is the subject of this post, part 2.

The Roman road that starts in Chester and passes to the east of Churton is Margary’s road number 6a, also known as Watling Street West. On the Cheshire West and Chester’s Public Map Viewer, the section of it that passes through Aldford and passes Churton is public footpath “Aldford FP8.”

Plan from David Mason’s comprehensive book “Roman Chester. City of the Eagles,” 2007, p.50. My annotations in colour, picking out structures mentioned in the text that flank Watling Street West on the start of its route to Aldford, Churton, Whitchurch and beyond. Click image to enlarge.

By AD 200, after repairs and reconstruction, with new buildings added, Deva had fulfilled all of its architect’s original hopes, and plans of the fortress at this time allow reconstruction of the first part of the original route from fortress. On today’s city plan the route of Watling Street West begins at the Chester Cross, at the head of Bridge Street. The Bridge Street stretch of the road within the fortress walls was called the Via Praetoria. The fortress headquarters (principia) and neighbouring legionary commander’s residence (praetorium) would have been located here, behind the Chester Cross, facing down Bridge Street. The building housing the Victoria pub (with a toast to our friend Jack), and the neighbouring St Peter’s Church both sit over parts of the the principia and praetorium.

Proceeding down the Via Praetoria, flanked first by the scamun tribunorum (senior officer’s quarters) on each side and then by the thermae (bath-house) on one side, and what may have been the valetudinarium (hospital) on the other side, a traveller would have crossed the Via Sagularis that ran along the inner edge of the rampart. At that point he or she would have been stopped at a large stone gateway mid-way along the southern wall of the fort, the Porta Praetoria, which would have been one of four substantial defensive checkpoints for those going in and out. Sadly, the gateway was destroyed when the Medieval defences were extended. From here, the route passed down the path of Lower Bridge Street, crossing a bridge over the Dee into what is now Handbridge and was then a canabae legionis (civilian suburb) that sprawled beyond the fortress walls.

A section of the route of 6a from Aldford to Churton – LiDAR and Ordnance Survey. Click to see the bigger image. Source:
Roads of Roman Britain online gazetteer.

Once the bridge was crossed and the canabae legionis traversed, a left-hand turn down Eaton Road follows the path of 6a/Watling Street West to Eccleston. Much of the line of the road from here is shown both on the LiDAR (remote sensing) image and the corresponding Ordnance Survey map (from the Roads of Roman Britain website). Some 2km (1.2 miles) to the south of Chester, the road passed through Heronbridge (once a large Roman civil settlement on the west bank of the Dee), before crossing the Dee again, at Aldford. A Roman presence at such crossings, such as a fortlet, roadside inn (mansio) or way-station (mutatio) was not unusual, but to date there is no evidence for any such installation at Aldford.

From Aldford the road passed to the east of Churton and the Roman works at Holt, which were on the west side of the Dee. There was no bridge but the river could be forded at low tide. There is currently no evidence that a Roman site was established at or near Farndon on the eastern bank of the river. The road continued on its way from east of Churton through Tilston and Malpas before reaching Whitchurch (Mediolanum). From Whitchurch, another stretch of Roman road ran to Wroxeter (Virconium Cornoviorum) and from there travellers could proceed either southeast to London (Londinium) or Colchester (Camulodunum), and from these bases to the rest of Europe, or south to Caerwent (Venta Siluris).

A second and short stretch of road into this long section to the north of Churton at Aldford, and is also shown on the above map. In Ivan Margary’s scheme, this stretch of is 6aa. The route had been proposed during the 19th Century, but was not confirmed until recently. Although much of the route is under modern development, sections of the proposed section of road were identified by LiDAR, confirming that the road headed south through Huntington to Alford. LiDAR also revealed what is thought to be a previously unknown Roman camp fort along the path of that road. LiDAR, a remote sensing method, has become invaluable for revealing sub-surface features without excavation.

The map on the right is from the online  Map from the online Cheshire West and Chester Public Map Viewer

The red arrow shows the line of FP8, the footpath that runs along a stretch of the original Roman road, Watling Street West (also Margary’s 6a). Although I did a circular walk, along the footpaths marked by the arrows, the photographs below show only the Roman section of my walk, between Aldford and the section of the roadway that runs east of Churton. I will post photographs of the full circular walk that incorporated the Roman section in the next couple of days. There is nothing particularly Roman about it, apart from the broad width of the track and the fairly straight route that it takes, but it makes a very fine walk in its own right, with plenty of scenery and some wide, colourful vistas. I was intending to follow FP8 as far as FP10 (the diagonal path that runs back to where three paths meet on the yellow B-road, Edgerely Road). In fact, just past the dauntingly named but aromatically inoffensive slurry bed (marked on the map above as a blue rectangle) and on the other side of a metalled lane, the grassy path was flooded with very gungy, muddy ankle-deep water and I really didn’t fancy getting a boot fool of distinctly fetid sludge. Instead, I retraced my steps and turned west to cut along the metalled track that leads from FP8 to Grange Farm (of which it is a part) and retraced my original path along FP6 to Edgerley Road (along the route that I took a couple of days ago). So there remains a small run of the Churton section of Watling Street West accessible on public footpaths that I have yet to complete.

Roman Road Watling Street West (Margary 6a) where it crosses Edgerley Road.  The section south of the road is not a public footpath.  Source: Roman Roads in Britain Gazeteer

As the above maps show, Watling Street West bypassed Farndon completely, running to its east.  There is speculation, currently unsupported by archaeological evidence, that there may have been some sort of Roman installation at the present crossing between Farndon and Holt, because this may have been the best place to ford the river.  The tile and pottery works to the north of Holt on the east bank of the Dee made use of the river for most of their transportation needs, but a connection to Watling Street West would have been desirable, via a small branch road.  Even if there was a small Roman presence at Farndon, like a fortlet, it did not attract a large community and there was no reason to divert the main line of Watling Street West.  It is only when Farndon became an expanding community, some time after the construction of a permanent bridge, that a route from Aldford to Farndon was established.  Today, the B5130 passes along the 6aa (Huntington to Aldford) route rather than the 6a (Bridge Street to Aldford) route and then heads through the middle of Churton before arriving at Farndon.  Churton grew up as a small ribbon development along this new route, its earliest buildings apparently dating to the 17th century.  This route eventually replaced the section of Watling Street West that ran from Aldford to the east of Churton.  We are lucky that Watling Street West still survives as a farm track and public footpath.

Aldford viewed from Lower Lane

Footpath FP7 across a field from Lower Lane, just short of the B5130 road that runs through Churton and  Aldford.  A short flight of wooden steps leads to a stile.

Footpath across the field from Lower Lane  The footpath goes through the hedge and heads south, to the right

There are good views over the fields as you head to the south.

Follow the footpath to the east end of the restricted byway (RB16 on the map above), turn left and proceed along footpath FP8 along the Roman road

After crossing a small metalled lane leading to Grange Farm, the track runs out and a grassy and soggy section of the footpath leads further south.

The sogginess became very wet indeed and I turned back at this point, and will resume on another day.

Looking back the way I had come, the Roman road heads back towards Aldford and I turned left towards Grange Farm and a dry route back to Churton.

A note on walking conditions. Some of the walk follows a small lane but the rest runs through fields and young woodland or coppices. It is all very easy underfoot. However, at this time of year, and following any recent rainfall, sturdy damp-proof hiking footwear is strongly recommended as there is a bit of slightly uneven ground and some very muddy sections. Hereabouts, the land is not always well drained, and standing water tends to gather and linger soggily on the surface.

Sources:

Books and journals:

Davies, H. 2008. Roman Roads of Britain. Shire Archaeology

Frere, S.S., Hassall, M.W.C. and Tomlin, R.S.O. 1988. Roman Britain in 1987. Britannia, Vol. 19 (1988), p.415-508

Jones, G.D.B. and Webster P.V. 1968. Mediolanum: Excavations at Whitchurch 1965–6. Archaeological Journal, 125:1, p.193-254

Lathan, F.A. 1981.  Farndon. The History of a Cheshire Village.  Local History Group

Margary, I. 1973 3rd edition). Roman Roads in Britain.  John Baker 1973.

Mason, D.J.P. 2001, 2007. Roman Chester. City of the Eagles. Tempus

Mason, D.J.P. 2007. Chester AD 400-1066. From Roman Fortress to English Town. Tempus.

Peel, J.H.B. 1976. Along the Roman Roads of Britain. Macmillan

Shaw, M. and Clark, J. 2003a. Cheshire Historic Towns Survey. Aldford Archaeological Assessment. Environmental Planning, Cheshire County Council

Shaw, M. and Clark, J. 2003b. Cheshire Historic Towns Survey. Farndon Archaeological Assessment. Environmental Planning, Cheshire County Council

Ward, S. 2013. Chester. A History. The History Press

Website resources:

Cheshire West and Chester – Public Map Viewer
https://maps.cheshirewestandchester.gov.uk/cwac/webmapping

Roman Roads Research Association http://www.romanroads.org/

The Roads of Roman Britain
http://roadsofromanbritain.org/index.html
http://www.romanroads.org/gazetteer/cheshire/cheshire.html

A Web-enhanced version of Roman Roads in Britain by Thomas Codrington,
published by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, London, 1903
https://tinyurl.com/75ujdd43