Category Archives: Walks

A short walk along the Dee at Holt, taking in Holt Castle

Holt Castle

After a morning of shifting logs, the sad remnants of an enormous fallen tree, from one end of the garden to the other and stacking them in the shed, I was fairly stiff and very bored.  It was a lovely day, so even though there is an immense pile still sitting there, I put the wheelbarrow back in the garage and decided to go and walk along the river, taking in Holt Castle.

A number of people have asked me if I’ve visited the castle yet, and my answer that the last time I saw it was probably 30 years ago always seems a tad lame, given how close it is.  I will talk about the castle on another post, but it was interesting today to see how much it has changed.  When I was last there, it was inaccessible and covered in ivy.  I remember the doorway hanging in the side of the wall, and remembered that it was built on a sandstone base, and that local sandstone was quarried from around the castle to provide building material and form a moat, but I had forgotten anything else that I knew about it.  Today, I was so pleased to see how well it has been served since I last saw it.  There is now a staircase leading to the top of the castle, from which the views of the Dee and the fields beyond are excellent, and there is plenty of signage to explain all the features remaining, and to show what existed in the Middle Ages.  I must try to find the photographs I took 30 years ago for comparison.

I was walking straight into the sun, which was beautiful but blinding, so after visiting the castle I retraced my steps and headed instead towards the bridge, crossed the road just before it, and went through the gate into the grass field that flanks the Dee to its west, heading north in the direction of Chester.  It was only a short walk.  I did not pass out of the field onto the track, which was covered with deep pools of muddy water, but the sun on the grass made it glow, the reflections in the river were lovely, and the cobwebs forming silver nets on the ground were glorious, and all in all it was a really rewarding stroll.

 

 

 

 

Visiting and accessibility notes

There is no carpark for the castle, but during the week there is plenty of on-road parking.  The footpath leading down to the Dee is well maintained, but as it opens into the open grass it is muddy and a little slippery after rainfall.  That is true for the worn footpaths around the castle too, so suitable footwear is required.  The path leading up to the top of the castle is gravel set into a plastic matrix, and felt very safe underfoot.  The metal staircase up tot he top of the castle is also well-textured underfoot, with a good handrail.  It’s only a short flight.  Do note that the noise from the bypass is considerable, so if you were thinking of carrying on along the Dee to the south after seeing the castle, do bear that in mind.

The walk along the Dee has no car park on the Holt side, but cross the bridge and there is a small car park on the Farndon side, to the south of the river (to the right as you cross from Holt into Farndon).  You can then return across the bridge on the narrow footpath to do the walk on the west of the river heading north.  As you open the gate, you may again find that the converging feet and paws have muddied the approach from the field, making it slippery.  The rest of the walk through the field is slip-free, and on the flat.

A Chester Local List Workshop – what is local listing all about?

A few weeks ago, Chester Archaeological Society forwarded a request from Cheshire West and Chester (CWAC) for participants to attend a Local List Workshop.  I volunteered, but at that time I had only the fuzziest idea of what a local list actually is.  This post is about local lists and what happened on the workshop.

A lot of county and city councils have programmes dedicated to local listing, and are running their own workshops and other forms of interaction with the public in order to launch their own local lists.  So what is a local list when it emerges from its burrow?

What Local Listing is not

The Grade 1 nationally-listed Chester Cathedral. Shame about the big purple sign, which completely destroys the first impression.  One of the lessons of Chester is that inappropriate signage and shop frontages can intrude very negatively on an otherwise beautiful city.

First, it’s useful to understand what local listing is not.  Local listing is not the same as the more familiar sense of the term listing, which is where a building or monument is “graded.”  Most of us are aware that when a building is officially listed and allocated a grade (Grade 1, grade 2 etc), it is given a special status and there are limits on what can be done to it and how it can be used.  Here’s part of the English Heritage explanation:  “Listing marks and celebrates a building’s special architectural and historic interest, and also brings it under the consideration of the planning system, so that it can be protected for future generations.  The older a building is, and the fewer the surviving examples of its kind, the more likely it is to be listed.”  There are currently 511 listed buildings (Grade 1, Grade 2* and Grade 2) in Chester City Ward alone.  Chester Cathedral, for example, is Grade 1 listed.  This is a national designation, and usually referred to as National Listing.

Local Listing

Local listing is different.  For a start, it is not a national designation and is not determined by a centralized national unit.  It is organized on a local basis by the council.  Here are some of the details on the Cheshire Local List Project website:

“In addition to the National designations, (including Listed Buildings, Scheduled Monuments, Registered Parks and Gardens and Registered Battlefields) local heritage can also be identified through the production of Local Heritage Lists of non-designated heritage assets. These enable the significance of any building or site on the list to be better taken into account in planning applications affecting the building or site or its setting.”

As I discovered recently when contesting a planning application, one of the sticking points in objecting to any planning application is the concept of a “material consideration.”  A material consideration is something that a planning department takes into consideration when accepting or rejecting a planning application.  More to the point, anything that is not a material consideration is ignored when objections are made.  Local listing ensures that even those aspects of the built environment that are not nationally listed and have no grading are included as a matter of material consideration, which may make all the difference to communities attempting to care for their assets.

National, graded listing is designed to protect buildings and other sites, and ensures that when changes are proposed, a process of consultation takes place, but there are many other buildings, sites and objects that are not nationally listed, but nevertheless have an important role in communities, either because they contribute to community identity, or represent significant markers of local history.   As locally listed entities, these become subject to material consideration in the planning process.

The Cheshire Local List Project (CLLP) website goes on:

The Cheshire Local List gives importance to local heritage within the planning system, but also allows the expression of community identity, both through the list itself and through engagement in the research and designation process. It is a key component of conservation area management and Neighbourhood Plan development, and allows numerous stakeholders to better understand and appreciate the heritage of the county and its communities.

It would have been helpful if the word “listing” had been confined to national graded listing to avoid any confusion, but hey-ho, we’re stuck with it, and whatever it is called it is a really good idea, assuming that it is well implemented and becomes an integrated part of local planning procedures.  Local listing is a government initiative that sits at a level beneath graded listing, and is a much less formal designation, but could be just as important for communities if they work with councils to identify important local sites that cannot be nationally listed.  It puts the onus on councils to engage with the idea, but my hour on Google suggests that many have taken up the gauntlet.

The idea of the workshop

One of the Project’s aims is to be community-lead.  Here’s the official wording:  “We see the Cheshire Local List as a community-driven dataset. Rather than impose detailed criteria, which may be restrictive and exclusive, we have developed non-asset-specific criteria which we hope will enable local communities to define local heritage significance on their own terms.”

The term “community-driven” is often an indication that an organization intends to do nothing at all unless poked firmly in the ribs by some community-based pressure group, but here we had excellent James Dixon, Built Environment Officer (Conservation and Design) at CWAC, reaching out to Chester Archaeology Society, amongst other groups, for people to come and participate in a series of workshops.  The objective, ongoing, is to understand sensory experiences of small groups of people walking the same route through Chester to see how this might help to build an idea of what the concept of local listing might contribute to a city that already has 511 nationally designated listed buildings.   Rather than looking at the merit of individual buildings, this approach sought to develop an idea of how people respond to and interact with the city as a whole.

The approach is evidence-based.  Evidence-based approaches have become popular in all sorts of research that involves human interaction, including archaeology, social science and economic development as well as urban planning.  They have largely emerged from the basic idea of phenomenology – the way in which different living spaces are experienced and interpreted by individuals and communities – but are now a tool for developing  strategies or policies.  It takes the idea that how people live their lives and how they perceive their built, natural and cultural environment should influence what decisions should be made about those environments.  First, of course, is the requirement to understand people’s responses, both conscious and subconscious to the context under discussion, in this case the city of Chester.  In our workshop group at least, it produced some interesting results.

Another concept that has been incorporated into the Cheshire approach is “group value.”  This divorces heritage in its own right from other things we appreciate, such as assets, objects and spaces and how we experience all of these in a sensory way.  Valuable buildings are easy to put a finger on, describe and evaluate, but the open spaces in front of them, the odds and ends of  modern sculpture, ancient architectural lumps and bumps, and the occasional well-positioned tree or cobbled footpath are more difficult to evaluate.  And yet, they too are part of the heritage landscape, the built environment, the cultural context or whatever else we are calling it this year.  My above whinge about the purple sign in front of Chester Cathedral is just as important to people’s perception of how we move through our cultural space as the building we want to engage with, because signage is an attention grabber, and it manages expectations.

Archaeologists and historians are always flipping between what a site, building or object might have meant in the past and what it means in the present and how that distinction influences how we interpret the past.  That’s the archaeologist in me talking, but it works for any entity that we look back on from the perspective of time.  Cities and towns are accumulations, so we are reacting not to a single slice of time, but to an amalgamation that spans the oldest to the newest building and and is generally  experienced by the user (shopper, visitor, worker) as something that instead of having many multi-layered and multi-temporal identities, has one single identity in their own minds, in this case the identity of being Chester.

Because we humans are all so different from one another, a Chester identity is no single thing, because different people will respond to it in different ways depending on, for example, nationality, familiarity, personal interests, and the way in which they are intending to interact with it.  So Chester actually has multiple identities, each person perceiving the city as single cohesive entity but each doing so from a different perspective,  meaning that there are multiple identities of Chester, all of them compressing the complexities built up by time into a hurried present-day reality through which we pass, often in a tearing hurry.

In order to move beyond this sense of Chester being any single thing, James has come up with a method of directing participants in the workshop to look at Chester in an alternative way, something that had nothing to do with arranging its buildings chronologically or by function, but by asking us to think about how we reacted to different sensory aspects of it.

Participating in the workshop

Post-Covid there are a lot of empty shops, looking abandoned and derelict, dragging down the image of their neighbouring shops. The entire of the St Werburgh Row is devoid of life, and tragic. This initiative, however, where empty shop windows are provided with imaginative Chester-themed boards is excellent, raising a smile. The one here is the former Patisserie Valerie on Bridge Street.

On the 18th of November, the 90 minute workshop started at the bottom of Bridge Street, where we received our instructions from James, an excellent, reassuring communicator who turns out to have a natural gift for herding cats.  From the bottom of Bridge Street to The Cross, and then from The Cross to the top of Northgate Street, the workshop set out to build an evidence base of sensory experiences including, for example, colour, sound, smell and texture, and more elusive concepts like fun and solitude.

James handed each of us a 6x4inch card, at the top of which was written a single word.  There were eight of us in the group, which was a good number for exploring some of the concepts, and enabled us to exchange notes on three occasions, once after we had walked Bridge Street, once after Northgate Street, and once in the town square, outside the town hall.  The topics were, in no order, were texture, colours, sound, stillness, views, words, and mine was fun.

There were Covid-aware latex gloves for those of us who wanted to explore texture by touch.  We could partner up with someone else, we could proceed en masse, or we could go off individually.  Apart from that we were given no direction so that the thoughts that came to us were not influenced in any way by James, or by the council’s objectives.

The idea was to write down words that occurred to us in relation to the given topic on the card.  I have to say my heart sank because I had no idea how I was supposed to interpret “fun,” but it was hugely enjoyable once I got into the swing of it.  The photos on this post are snaps that I took as I was walking around and thinking about my target word.  It came in very handy for consolidating my thinking as I went along.  If I had had a different word on my card, the photos would have been entirely different, which is an interesting thought in its own right.  For example, if I had had “stillness” or “texture,” both my words and photos would of course have been quite different.

The record cards

The keywords are clever, because they avoid simple reductionist descriptions based on liking or disliking, positives and negatives and instead focus on more nuanced responses and descriptions.

When he set us off on our own, James said that there was no right or wrong thing to write down, that the whole point was to let us react and write accordingly.  We had a card for Bridge Street and either the reverse side or a new card for Northgate Street.  One of mine is shown here, annotated to make it legible.  As well as capturing our thoughts so that we didn’t have to remember them, they helped us to marshal our thoughts when we gathered to discuss our findings.  We handed the record cards in at the end, so that James could collate them with those of other workshops.  The cards were an important part of the workshop.  Several of us had to apologize for our handwriting 🙂

Discussing the keywords

James was great at getting us together, on four separate occasions.  Two of the discussions were about what we had written on our record cards.  Here’s just a bit of  that, but I am sure that James received radically different comments when running different workshop groups, so this is just a sample of a sample.

In all the discussions it was clear is that we were all looking in different directions, and that’s partly because of the keywords, which directed attention to different parts of the built environment, and partly because of how we interpreted those keywords and what took our interest.

The Cross

Our first stop to exchange notes was at The Cross, where Bridge Street meets with the other three primary roads preserved from the legionary fortress, Eastgate Street, Watergate Street and Northgate Street.  We had at that stage walked only up Bridge Street.  James asked us what struck as what we found surprising about Bridge Street, within the parameters of the keywords on our cards.   I didn’t know anyone’s names, so these comments are all anonymous, and are shorter, simplified versions of what was discussed:

The Rows. There is a lot more stillness here than down on the streets, at least at the moment.  It makes for a nicer experience, but I am sure that the shops would prefer greater footfall.

Views:  As one looks up towards the Cross, the impression is of a great complexity pattern of walls and facades of buildings that forms an incredibly intricate pattern that frames the view from the floor up.  Some bits stick out, some don’t, and all the buildings have their own character, but they lead unambiguously to The Cross, along a road that is surprisingly wide given its Medieval past.  The rows give the whole thing a very distinctive feel, and means that the shops on those level are set back from the road. Everything converges on St Peter’s church, which is a big red sandstone building that draws the eye.  The path from one end to the other, seen as a view, is almost too much for the eye to make sense of.

Touches of colour in the old buildings above shop level stand out and are welcome.

Colours:  The biggest surprise was the contrast between the more or less uniform character of the builds above the shop frontages versus the brightly multi-coloured shop frontages themselves.  There were only a few details in colour on the older half-timbered buildings, which made the colour stand out.  Chester at street level is a torrent of colour, but when one captures a little of it in the buildings that soar above the shops, it is a lovely piece of deliciousness.

Sound:  In this area, the biggest surprise was what could not be heard.  There was such a cacophony of clinks, roadworks and street music, that the things that one could see going on around one, were lost in the other noise.  A pair of hard heels could be heard, but trainers and other soft-soled shoes were lost in the overall sound.  Even individual voices were difficult to make out.

Words:  At shop level the impact of words, in the form of text, was impossible to avoid, and overwhelming.  Branding and signage dominate, in a variety of lights and colours, and it is difficult to differentiate one from another.  Silent, in terms of audibility, they still manage to form a cacophony.

Different ideologies expressed in different building materials, different approaches, different design ideas,  different colours and textures.

Texture:  Texture occurs at every level.  It changes underfoot, but is most obvious in the walls, which are red sandstone, yellow sandstone, brick, wood, concrete and many other materials, which each has its own personality.  Decorative plasterwork is very distinctive and very fine, but not always noticed.  Each texture has its own character – granular, soft, smooth, slippery etc.  Each adds to the diversity of the buildings.

Stillness:  This one was rather sad in many ways at this point.  The main stillness was embedded in failed, closed-down shops.  There had been several before Covid, but there have been some tragic losses since.  These were all devoid of movement and interaction, dead areas that people walked past without looking.  More amusingly, anywhere not selling coffee had a certain stillness, by contrast to those places that were, which were busy, noisy and drew attention to themselves.

Fun:  There is not a lot of fun at foot level because it is all shops with unlovely frontages, but look up and there is a lot to make one smile in the decorative architectural elements that embellish the buildings, particularly the 19th century facades, a bit like excessively ornate wedding cake decoration, and improbable towers and incredibly ornate ironwork.  Often OTT, and very confident, these flourishes  are always very finely crafted.  They are both fine and truly great fun.

The Story House

The Story House is a thing of real ugliness, but even so I would defend it energetically if anyone were to threaten it because it is a monument to its era.  Not all heritage is pretty.  The same could be said for the telephone box in the foreground.  The bollards, however, at the edge of the road, were agreed by all to be cultural as well as physical barriers.

Our next stop was at the Story House.  Northgate Street had started out very like Bridge Street, with lots of engaging architecture similar to Bridge Street, again sitting on top of ordinary shop frontages, but as one proceeds, it opens out and there’s a lot of more architecture to see, some from more recent times, not all terribly positive.  The four most dominant buildings as one filters through the narrow entry to the market square are Chester Cathedral, the Town Hall, the Motor Works, and the Story House.  There is also a very conspicuous frontage to The Forum Shopping Centre, which incorporates the market.  At the moment, the Christmas market dominates the public space, closely clustered and overwhelmingly full of cooking smells.  We walked past the market and gathered in front of the Story House to discuss the walk up Northgate Street.

Inevitably and fascinatingly, we all talked about how interesting it was to compare the walk from the bottom of Bridge Street to The Cross with the walk from The Cross to the Story House.

Views:  This was a story of constriction within fairly narrow confines to a sense of release in the big space in front of the Market Square and the Town Hall, but it was also a story of disappointment.  The sense of being lead somewhere by views of trees beyond the narrow start of Northgate Street lead to nothing more than an untidy space that was undefined and offered nothing like the oasis that was suggested by the trees.  At this time of year, particularly, the trees lend very little because they are deciduous and have dropped all of their leaves untidily onto the ground.  The Christmas market did not improve matters.  The cathedral, to one side, was a pleasant presence but did not dominate.  The main dominating factor, in terms of being lead forward, was actually the Story House, not Chester’s most aesthetically pleasing building.  Beyond the Story House, the symmetry collapses and there is nothing to tempt one forward.

Colours:  This is so dependent, just as it was on Bridge Street, on where you happen to look.  Ground level is bright and full of aggressive colours, but although on Bridge Street these were very jarring, they are more restrained on Northgate Street.  Looking up things are far simpler with black and white facades, and reddish-brown brickwork that provide a warmer feel.  The Christmas decorations were felt, by everyone who expressed an opinion, to be just right, not overstated or understated, but entirely suitable for the job in hand.

Sound:  In contrast with Bridge Street, Northgate Street was a far richer audio experience.  There was tapping, humming, rattling, the sound of wheeled suitcases on cobbles, a bicycle, and more human traffic, as well as the inevitable street music.  The sound of heeled shoes versus trainers was again particularly noticeable.  Reaching the marketplace, the noise of people talking increased enormously, and there was more traffic.

Words:  The plethora of promotional messages at street level was again dominant.  It was all very urban and vibrant, but there was also text in the historic buildings above the shops, where there were other messages to be seen that were resonant of the past.

Textures:  There were so many textures to be seen including the old versus the new, tiles versus glass, wood versus brickwork and the incorporation of carvings and sculptures into building facades.  As well as buildings, there were plants and trees to take into account, including moss on cobbles next to the cathedral.

Stillness:  The cathedral, a former abbey, is an oasis of stillness in the city, and offers a gateway into an inner peace, including its gardens.  The interface between the city and the peace beyond is provided by the Abbey Gate, and was probably the only entirely still place in the part of Chester that we walked on that day.

Fun:  Again there were a lot of excellent architectural details that were functionally unnecessary but expressed real exuberance.  Examples are the little sculptures in niches above the row of shops that includes Lakeland and Zara, little towers at the top of buildings and ornamental plasterwork on all sorts of buildings.  The overall impression of certain attention-grabbing buildings, like the town hall and the motor works lift the spirits, and both these draw attention to the positive impact of colour in building materials.

We did not, of course, explore internal spaces, but the idea of exploring interfaces between external spaces and internal spaces is an interesting one.  Little corridors leading from one space to another gave an almost secret feel to some of the city.

The good, the bad, and the highly nuanced

The other two discussions took place first in the public space in front of the Town Hall and the entrance to the market (The Forum Shopping Centre) and then at the point of Bridge Street where it becomes traffic-free and were less on what was on our cards than on our overall impressions.

Market / Town Hall Square

When we paused in front of the Town Hall, in what is usually an open area, we were asked what our impressions were of that public space.  The Christmas market was setting up, obscuring a sense of what it is like of most days of the week, but some interesting comments emerged.

Two of the dominant buildings, the Town Hall and the old Motor Works were exuberant, and were terrific examples of how whole buildings can express the enthusiasm and enjoyment (as well as ambition and pride) of those who created them.  They, together with the Story House and the Cathedral, surround the public open space.  The chap who was looking at “views” drew attention to how we had been funnelled from the lower end of Northgate Street, between buildings similar to those in Bridge Street into a space that, from a distance, with trees visible, had led to a sense of anticipation, but had very little to offer.  There were random odds and ends dotted around, leading to the sense that there was no cohesion in the space.  A very grubby Roman column here, a modern sculpture there, and an anti-terrorism barrier across the road.  I think that we all had the sense that nothing seemed properly integrated, and that a public space that might have had real potential was actually very drab, in spite of being surrounded by some great buildings, each of a very different but superb character.  We also looked at a bike rack that was very intrusive but could be placed somewhere less conspicuous and still be useful.  This was no piazza or plaza, and there was really nothing to celebrate.

The entrance to the indoor market.  A reminder of Chester’s Roman heritage, or just ugly?

I found myself almost back to back with a Roman soldier who was explaining something to a small group of visitors. I love the soldiers, who certainly come under the heading of “fun,” because wherever they go they raise a smile, but these soldiers, whether giving guided tours to adults or leading long strings of children wearing cardboard armour and carrying cardboard Legio XX shields, are a terrific innovation.  Some of us were also facing a Roman column that usually looks a little forlorn and isolated, and for which I have affection, but on that day looked more than a little farcical hemmed in on all sides by the Christmas market.   In Chester, a great effort has been made to incorporate the city’s Roman past, and there are constant, excellent reminders that help to reinforce the fact that as well as the built environment, the buried environment also plays an important role.  But that column could do with a rethink and a clean.

Little flourishes are worth looking out for.

Although the keywords on the record cards avoid simplistic likes and dislikes, positives and negatives, we found that in discussions value judgements were inevitable, because for every example of “fun” there is probably a “dull” in the next street, and for every ten tactile and aesthetically enjoyable examples of “texture” there is probably an edifice of brutal concrete nearby (the Pepper Street multi-storey car park springs to mind for both examples).  One of the interesting things from the discussions was that there are so many positives that the negatives stand out as noticeable intrusions on the positives.  One of the workshop members pointed out that anti-terrorist bollards, for example, are not only very ugly with their modern appearance and big lights, but give a misleading sense that there are better bits and less desirable bits of the city, separating  areas in which one is safe and where there are good thing to visit from those which may be not quite as safe, and not quite as worth visiting.  Once this was pointed out, everyone agreed, and we all understood that the city should not be seen in terms of what lies within and  what lies beyond those bollards, but that the perception is difficult to avoid.

Upstairs or downstairs – where does the fun lie?

Response to the keywords is a hugely personal thing.  I am guessing that many workshops would be required to capture even a small sample of what an entire community might think and feel about their living environment.  I interpreted “fun” as anything that would make me smile spontaneously.  I automatically looked away from the street level shopfronts to the upper levels where time, imagination and skill have wrought wonders. Some shop road level frontages are better than others, but for me all are brash, most of them frightfully ugly, and I hate shopping anyway, so nothing fun is to be found there.  But I have friends for whom shopping is hugely enjoyable, and the bright lights and colourful window dressings are all part of the enjoyment, and some of them would be puzzled by me describing architectural exuberance and decorative flourishes as “fun.”  So my interpretation of fun, confined to the upper levels where history looks down at me and I look back at it, would not be someone else’s.

Pausing again on Bridge Street

We paused again on Bridge Street, just on the uphill side of the anti-terrorist bollards, to discuss our views.  We were on borrowed time, as we had eaten up most of our 90 minutes, but we were all eager to point out the negatives of our immediate environment, because we all wanted to see improvement to encourage businesses to invest in that part of town.  Everyone agreed that the anti-terrorist bollards seemed, again, to cut one part of the street from another, and that the area north of Bridge Street was rather more prestigious than that to the south of them.  We also looked at some truly awful shop frontages, text-heavy, with lurid colours, tacky.  We asked about planning permission for frontages, as we were standing in front of a particular shocker at the time, and it turns out that they are indeed subject to planning permission, but that some retail outlets do not follow the procedures.  There is a lot of work to check up on those who ignore the rules, and it takes even longer to enforce the violated regulations.

The future

James said that he will feed back to Chester Archaeological Society about the results of the workshops once they have all been completed, and I really look forward to that.  Particularly, it will be interesting to know the answer to James’s own question – what can the local list do that designated graded listing does not already do in somewhere like Chester, which has listed buildings everywhere you turn?

The good news, even before the workshops have been completed and their findings collated, is that the Local List facility is already up and running and you can nominate an “asset” for local listing if you feel that it has particular community value and should be taken into account when planning and other issues are raised that might place it under threat.  You can find out full details on the Chester Local List Project website at the following address:
https://local-heritage-list.org.uk/cheshire/guidance:

The Proposal Process

When you make a proposal or proposals for the Cheshire Local List, you will first have the option of creating and revising a draft that will not be reviewed until you submit it. When you submit your proposal, a Conservation Officer will check it to see if more information is needed. If so, it will come back to you for revision, and if not it will be moved forward for approval.

Make a proposal for the Cheshire Local List here

Approvals for nominations to the Cheshire Local List will be done by a panel of Conservation, Planning and Built Environment officers from Halton, Cheshire West and Chester and Cheshire East.

The final list will be put forward for formal adoption by each of the three boroughs in due course as part of the development of new Supplementary Planning Documents for local heritage.

The Assessment Criteria are here:
https://local-heritage-list.org.uk/cheshire/assessment-criteria

The top-level asset categories are Buildings; Parks & Gardens; Landmarks, Art Works and Way Finders; Other Sites, Structures & Landscapes, but see the following page for more information on each category:
https://local-heritage-list.org.uk/cheshire/assessment-criteria-asset-type

If or when I hear more about the project, I’ll post about it on the blog.

Valle Crucis Abbey #1 – An introduction to the Cistercians and Valle Crucis

Valle Crucis is a superb example of a ruined Cistercian abbey, located less than an hour’s drive from the Chester-Wrexham area, in a lovely valley on the edge of a quiet stream that flows into the Dee.  It has been extensively surveyed, the few documents relating to the site and its antecedents have been studied and the site has been excavated both in the 19th Century and in the 1970s.  Importantly, most of the main features of the core buildings are identifiable, and can be discussed in terms of how the monastery was planned and used.  All of  these resources form a good basis for understanding how Valle Crucis was established and used, and what happened to it after it was “suppressed” or decommissioned following Henry VIII’s dissolution of most of Britain’s monasteries.

This is the first of a series of posts looking at monasticism in this part of the northwest, on both sides of the Welsh border, and heading some way down the Marches as far south as Shrewsbury on the English side, and Strata Marcella near Welshpool on the Welsh side.  These posts are quite long, and each can be downloaded and saved as a PDF if preferred.  The PDF of this post, Valle Crucis #1, can be downloaded by clicking here.  Valle Crucis, is used in these first four posts to introduce not only this particular abbey, but also the ideas that lead to monasticism, different monastic orders and the  distinctive architecture that defines most of the monastic orders in Britain.

An “order” is a shared monastic tradition, a set of spiritual ideals often spelled out in considerable detail in rules that covered everything from how many times a day a monk should pray, communally or individually, to where and when they could speak, eat and sleep, and what work they should engage in.  All orders involve a degree of renunciation and isolation by communities of monks.  Monastic architecture reflects both the need to gather a community in one establishment, adhering to a single set of rules, and the need to divorce that establishment from the rest of the world.  Unlike monks, friars could leave the monastic community (friary) to preach and tend to the poor, and were often located in urban contexts, but other orders chose to confine themselves to an abbey to focus their attentions on worship and scholarly activities that celebrated God.  Some chose to locate themselves far from other human habitation.  All were what is now termed Catholic, and all owed allegiance to the Pope, as well as to the heads of their own order, and to the founders who endowed their properties with land and resources.  The religious orders of the 12th and 13th Centuries in Britain were differentiated from one another based not on their religious beliefs, but on their ideas about how best to worship and celebrate God.  They dedicated themselves to spirituality and worship in different ways, based on traditions established in the history of monasticism.

St Pachomius in St Shenouda Monastery, Egypt. Source: St Shenouda Monastery website

Monasticism grew out of an early tradition in 3rd-4th Century A.D. Egypt where the devout might abandon their communities to live as hermits in the desert hills and mountains, divorced from anyone else.  They had as their models St John the Baptist and Jesus, both of whom had engaged in devout isolation in the desert.  Hermits began to organize themselves into communities that focused on offering guidance and communal prayer whilst still offering isolation from the distractions of secular life.   In the 4th Century, former soldier Pachomius, having followed the eremitic path in the Egyptian desert to live the life of a hermit, heard a voice telling him to establish a community for hermits like himself, a coenobitic (“common living”) way of combining isolation from the outside world with communal support and guidance.  This acknowledged that whilst individuals might seek out a life divorced from the material, they could well need help to achieve the sort of enlightenment that they were seeking.  These communities were therefore sources of knowledge, wisdom and education as well as worship.   He established his monastery in Tabennisi in Egypt, and simultaneously began to develop the first set of formal rules for guiding life in a monastery, which grew over time.  The rules combined prayer, solitude and work in a communal and very isolated environment, a difficult balance to strike.  This  was successful and soon spread.  Monasteries began to appear throughout the Mediterranean from where they spread into Europe.

A 12th Century interpretation of St Benedict delivering his monastic rule in the 6th Century AD. Source: Wikipedia, via Monastery of St. Gilles, Nimes France (1129)

In 6th Century Italy, St Benedict developed another set of rules for monastic living that required not only individual prayer and communal worship, but outlined a strict regime of living that included eating merely for fuel rather than enjoyment, a largely vegetarian and very narrow diet, and the requirement for manual work, including contributing to building projects and labouring in the fields.  The concept of an abbey emerged, a religious establishment consisting of both a monastery and a church in a single complex, housing a community of monks who do not leave the premises.  St Benedict’s form of monasticism was popular and spread throughout Europe.

As Benedictine monasticism spread and developed its own personality over the centuries, the strictness of St Benedict’s rules was often abandoned to enable a much more comfortable lifestyle, with an emphasis on liturgy rather than work, a varied and rich diet that included meat, and an emphasis on glorifying God through rich works of art and generous patronage.  Some abbots became involved in religious and state politics beyond the abbey walls, and became influential in their own right, far from the unworldly vision of  monks that St Benedict had promoted.  In the 12th Century this more opulent version of Benedictine monasticism was epitomized by the Cluniac order of monks (named after their abbey at Cluny in France).  The Cluniac order was the apogee of this desire to express devotion through liturgy and art, the elaborate and rich monasteries home to opulent treasures, art works, tapestries and fabulous stained glass that were intended to both reflect and celebrate the glory of God, and the monks entertained lavishly, rubbing shoulders with the rich and powerful.  This trend sat ill with those who sought a simpler, modest, withdrawn and hard-working way of serving God, true to St Benedict.

Johann Petr Molitor, Cistercian monks, murals in the Capitular Hall, Cistercian Abbey Osek, North Bohemia, before 1756. Source: Wikipedia, from the Cistercian Abbey of Osek, North Bohemia

During the early Middle Ages, the Cistercians, named after their first abbey at Citeaux in France (Cistercium in Latin), set about returning to the values of St Benedict, which led to the reformation of some branches of Benedictine-based monasticism.  They combined worship with hard work in remote places that encouraged contemplation, eliminated distractions and enabled focus on a communal but pared down livelihood that was far more in keeping with St Benedict’s more spartan ideals.  Starting at Citeaux in 1098, new Cistercian abbeys were established as a network of child abbeys, each secondary to its own mother, and all owing allegiance to the founding house at its core.  Each new abbey could spawn one or more other abbeys.  The monks wore undyed habits, unlike the other Benedictine orders whose habits were dark brown or black.  Accordingly, they became commonly known as the White Monks.  

Citeaux Abbey. Source: Wikipedia

Perhaps the most important Cistercian monastery other than Citeaux, in terms of evangelizing on behalf of the Cistercians, was Clairvaux (founded 1115), which was the home base of abbot St Bernard.  St Bernard was a restless and vocal monastic propogandist of the 12th Century who, in contradiction to the rules of the order, travelled far and wide to bring the Cistercian message to the western world, and whose sayings are still widely quoted: “Arouse yourself, gird your loins, put aside idleness, grasp the nettle and do some hard work.”  He was an advocate of crusades, connected with monarchs, politicians and other religious hierarchy, promoted the cult of the Virgin Mary, and became an unexpected and influential celebrity and icon, the poster-child of the Cistercian message.  Gascoigne calls him “the most influential monk of the Middle Ages.”

St Bernard in his white robes holding a delightfully improbable demon at his feet.  Marcello Baschenis, c.1885. Source: Wikipedia

Very quickly, new Cistercian abbeys proliferated in Europe and across Britain, always in isolated locations, each connected as a daughter to its mother abbey, to which it owed homage and loyalty.  Clairvaux was the mother abbey for Whitland in south Wales, which was established by monks from Clairvaux itself.  Whitland in turn established other abbeys including Strata Marcella near Welshpool, and this abbey in turn established Valle Crucis.  It took 86 years from the foundation of Clairvaux until the foundation of Valle Crucis, but it was only four monastic steps from St Bernard, and that sense of proximity must have resonated at Valle Crucis, as with all the abbeys in Wales.

Every Cistercian abbot had to return from his abbey to Citeaux every year for what was known as the General Chapter, a great conference of abbots.  This was the case even for abbeys that were located overseas, and the British abbeys were subject to this costly and time-consuming annual trek.  Also on an annual basis, the abbot or his prior if he had one (the abbot’s second in command) would visit a given abbey’s daughter abbeys to ensure that everything was running according to the original Benedictine plan.  This led to a degree of standardization and adherence to the order’s rules that was not necessarily seen in the other orders.

The remains at Valle Crucis offer a great opportunity for discussing the main points of Cistercian architecture, life and economic strategy.  It is a site that reinforces many of the observations that have been made about Cistercian monastic traditions throughout Britain, but which is also interesting in its own right.  The Welsh abbeys provide a particular opportunity for considering how their circumstances may have differed from their English counterparts, due to a series of factors including the patronage of Welsh abbeys by the Welsh princes, the wars fought on monastic land by Edward I and Owain Glyndŵr, and the character of the landscape in which the abbeys were built.  Other orders will be discussed in the future.

Introducing Valle Crucis

The East Range

Valle Crucis was built in a scenic valley beneath the Horseshoe Pass near Llangollen, on the banks of Nant Eglwyseg, a fast-moving stream that ran into the Dee and now feeds the Llangollen canal. 

Both choir (or quire) monks and lay brothers were housed at Valle Crucis.  The choir monks and lay brothers lived different lives.  Their refectories, dormitories and latrines were all quite separate, and their roles within the abbey were clearly delineated.  Although the lay brothers would worship in the church, they were confined to the nave and a screen separated them from the choir brothers.  The lay brothers ate more advantageously, as they needed a better diet to support them in their daily work.  Cistercian orders worshiped seven times a day and once at night, and engaged in scholarly pursuits, but were also expected to engage in manual labour, contributing to the work carried out by lay monks.  Lay monks (conversi) were illiterate and worked the land, but were resident at the monastery.  They had their own separate quarters for sleeping and eating, and were confined to a section of the church that was divided from the parts of the church used by the quire monks.  Their church worship was much less frequent than that undertaken by quire monks, as most of their day was taken up by agriculture, crafts and building works.

The name of Valle Crucis is Latin, meaning Valley of the Cross, a reference to the 9th Century inscribed Pillar of Eliseg that was erected to commemorate the ancestors of Concenn of Powys, a  Welsh chieftain who died on pilgrimage to Rome in 858.  Eliseg was Concenn’s great-grandfather.  The inscription is now illegible but was recorded in 1696 and lists great deeds of ancestors, presumably with a view to establishing an incontrovertible connection to the lands on which the cross was constructed.

Survey, excavation, restoration and modern research

Carved head found in the refectory during excavations, and now rather a long way from home in the National Museum in Cardiff.  Source: Evans 2008, p.47

Documentary resources are few and far between for Valle Crucis, so other ways of exploring the history of the site have been employed.  The documentary archives of other monasteries and of related properties have helped to provide some additional information, but the documentary picture remains very threadbare.

Because of the architectural and functional standardization of monastic establishments, it has been possible to extrapolate the roles of much of the site’s key buildings by comparison to other Cistercian abbeys, but this only takes one so far.

Observing the above-ground architecture has taken matters a lot further, telling a story of a major fire forty years after the foundation of the abbey, and the changes in architectural direction that had to be taken as a result.  As the decades and centuries passed, changes in Cistercian values and ideas are captured in the architectural features and new decorative motifs.  This rich source of information has been supplemented by data that has come from the ground.

One of the illustrations from Butler’s 1970 excavations, published in 1976

One of the fads of the 19th Century was antiquarianism, the investigation of ancient sites of all ages.  Excavations became popular activities, although often hair-raising in the level of destruction achieved in the process of the pursuit of dazzling objects.  Valle Crucis did not escape this attention, and a series of archaeological excavations were carried out in both the middle of the 19th century, and in its latter half.   An anonymous letter to Archaeologia Cambrensis dating to 1863 by a visitor to Valle Crucis condemned the mid 19th Century excavations by W.W.E. Wynne, but the subsequent excavations by Harold Hughes appear to have been carried out with rather more integrity.

In 1970 the site was excavated by Lawrence Butler.  He reported on the findings, including the chronological sequences from the site, and full details of the pottery in 1976.  The pottery was limited in type and form but covered the full range of the site from construction to dissolution.  The faunal remains were analyzed by the ever excellent Graeme Barker as part of that project’s post-excavation work, to provide information about diet and economic activities, and his report was published in the same year.  The results of this particular project are of great interest as Butler found evidence of the earliest clearance of the site and was able to clarify details of fire, flood and alterations to the architecture in line both with these events and in response to the relaxation of Cistercian rules.

Because work has been concentrated on the core abbey buildings, it is less clear how the larger monastic precinct was organized.  This is the area surrounding and beyond the abbey’s heart, that were essential to the abbey’s economic survival, in which agricultural and activities took place, and in which vital supplies were stored for consumption or trade.  

Illustration from the 1895 excavation report by Harold Hughes.

Restoration work began with clearance of the site for excavation, but more ambitious work followed.  Sir Gilbert Scott, the renowned Victorian architect, was employed to repair the west front of the church in 1872, and Sir Theodore Martin restored part of the east end in 1896.  The difference in the stonework at the  and the site has been made safe for visitors.

After passing into the hands of the Ministry of Works in 1950, Valle Crucis was eventually transferred into the care of Cadw in 2008, which retains responsibility for the site.  Between them the site was made safe for visitors and Cadw has expended some effort on information signage to help visitors understand some of the site’s history.


How Valle Crucis and other Welsh abbeys were founded

12th Century links between Cistercian monasteries. Source: Evans, D.H. Valle Crucis Abbey (Cadw). Although Citeaux, the node for all Cistercian abbeys, established early new bases in France, it was Clairvaux under the lead of St Bernard that was responsible for the earliest new abbeys in Wales. Of these Whitland was the most important for the northward spread of monasticism. The green lines emanating from Savigny reflect the Savignac order, which merged with the Cistercians after only 20 years, in 1147. So although Basingwerk in the north and Neath in the south were founded as Savignac orders, after 1147 they were brought under the rule of the Cistercians at Citeaux.

Valley Crucis was at the northeastern end of a branch of a monastic chain that spread from south Wales to the north over a period of some 60 years during the 12th Century, building on a much older European monastic tradition.  The Cistercian order of monks spread through Wales during the 12th Century AD from the of Wales where it was established by monks from the French monastery Clairvaux, forming an eastern and a western chain of monasteries.

The first new Cistercian abbeys were established in Wales in the wake of the Norman conquest, the earliest at Tintern in 1131, and had a distinctly Anglo-Norman flavour.  However, a second strand of Cistercian monasticism spread in Wales.  It began at Whitland (Abaty Hendy-gwyn ar Daf), founded in 1140 by monks from St Bernard’s abbey at Clairvaux, second only to the Cistercians’ founding abbey at Citeaux.  Whitland spawned a series of abbeys that were funded by the native Welsh princes and were populated mainly by Welsh monks, a pura Wallia (Welsh Wales) version of Cistercian monasticism that nurtured Welsh literature and learning.  This spread into the poorer and more remote areas of Wales.

Valle Crucis was founded in 1201, the daughter house of Strata Marcella Abbey (Abaty Ystrad Marchell) near Welshpool, founded by Owain Cyfeiliog, prince of southern Powys, itself a daughter house of Whitland.   Establishing an abbey was an expensive undertaking, both in terms of its construction and providing it with the resources to ensure ongoing economic security. Accordingly, every new abbey required an endowment by a donor, someone with enough land and wealth to give some of it away in return for divine good will and the prayers offered by the monks for the souls of the donor and his family.  The donor usually required a guarantee that they would be buried within the abbey church, and that their family would be buried either within the church itself or within the monastery precinct.  Monks were considered to have a hotline to God.  Having dedicated their lives to Him, and living sin-free lives, they built up a surplus of virtue and influence that could be employed on behalf of the living in order to provide for them in the afterlife, an intercession to minimize the impact of sins committed in life.  Valle Crucis Abbey was founded by Prince Madog ap Gruffydd. 

Original sacristy entrance, 13th Century.

Prince Madog ap Gruffydd controlled the territory of Powys Fadog from the Tanat valley in the south to the edge of Chester from 1191 until his death in 1236, and was an ally of his cousin Llywelyn ap Iorwerth (Llywelyn the Great), prince of Gwynedd, d.1240.  In accordance both with tradition, and to fulfil the terms of his original financing and support of the abbey, he was buried in the abbey church at Valle Crucis, although the exact site of the grave has been lost.  The map above left shows the territorial divisions in Wales in 1267, with Powys Fadog bordering Chester, Gwynedd, southern Powys (Powys Wenwynwyn) and England. 

Valle Crucis was supplied with at least twelve monks (considered by St Benedict to be the minimum number for founding a monastery, following the twelve apostles), possibly thirteen, who were installed in temporary accommodation with a wooden church.  Work would have begun immediately on the stone church, the sacristy and the accommodation, and the 1970 excavation found unmistakeable signs of this work.

Choice of location

The map to the left (Ordnance Survey SJ24/34) shows the relative locations of Valle Crucis Abbey, the Pillar of Eliseg and Castell Dinas Brân, all a short drive from Llangollen, which was probably a large village that would have benefitted from the proximity of the monastery and its associated farms (known as granges).

Ordnance Survey map SJ24/34, showing the relative locations of Valle Crucis Abbey, the Pillar of Eliseg and Castell Dinas Brân (the latter not built until 1270, 69 years after the foundation of Valle Crucis)

The Cistercian ideal of a contemplative existence away from distractions meant that new abbeys were sited where monks could practise their devotions in relative seclusion, although not in complete isolation.  They were often near to well-established routes, and they always located themselves near to water that would be used for drinking, cooking, cleaning, ritual purification, as well as fishing and sometimes for powering water mills.  Abbeys were supposed to be economically self-sufficient, so abbeys still needed to be near enough to manors and villages to enable them to trade their produce, mainly agricultural, in exchange for the basics required for sustaining the abbey, both the choir monks (the dedicated monks within the monastery) and the conversi or lay brotherhood.

Although little is known about Llangollen in the late 12th Century, there was some type of settlement recorded there based around a church, and in 1284, Edward I granted the manor of Llangollen to Roger Mortimer, together with the rights for a weekly market and two annual fairs.  Llangollen was far enough away for monks to feel that they were isolated from civilization, but near enough to a village to enable contacts to be established if required for sourcing produce, raw materials and other goods.  The site of the abbey was clearly idyllic.  The following is an evocative excerpt from a paper by John Williams, who reported on the abbey in 1846 in the journal Archaeologia Cambrensis:  

Luxuriantly watered by a clear stream and sheltered by high hills, the sides of which are gracefully ornamented by trees, the place altogether appears as if especially intended to be the home of peace and happiness – a paradise for restored man, where he might securely worship his Creator and cultivate the graces of heaven implanted in his soul.

The sad remains of Strata Marcella Abbey, which supplied the founding monks of Valle Crucis.  Source: Coflein website – RCAHMW, taken by C.R. Musson, 2/1/1995.

The founding monks of Valle Crucis from Strata Marcella near Welshpool certainly thought so.  They moved the residents of the existing hamlet of Llanegwest to a new location in order to establish themselves in this particular paradise in the form of a fine abbey.  Llanegwest was probably a fairly tiny settlement, and it was relocated to Maelor Gymraeg (on the far northeastern border).  This was by no means unusual, and there are enough records of hamlets and villages being moved to make way for a monastic establishment for this to be seen as a fairly standard (if somewhat ruthless) act in the establishment of a new Cistercian abbey.

The fish pond at Valle Crucis

The Cistercians were renowned for their use of water, which in some abbeys included sophisticated networks of sunken drains that fed into and out of monastic buildings.  The siting of Valle Crucis next to the Eglwyseg was essential for sourcing water that was used for cooking, cleaning, washing, for use in rituals and for creating a fish pond and a drainage system to flush both the choir monks’ and lay brothers’ latrines.

The pond is an expanded version of the original one, and is the only one surviving in Wales.  As early Cistercians could not eat meat under St Benedict’s rules, except on certain nominated days, fish was often an important component of the diet.  As the rules relaxed, meat found its way into the diet on more than just special days, but in the early abbeys fish was often responsible for providing much-needed protein.

The latrines, located on the first floor at the end of the dormitories, were flushed by drains below, which diverted fast-moving stream water to clear waste back into the stream,  presumably downriver of the monastery.  Cleanliness was an important component of monastic life, with monks washing their hands before each meal, and latrines associated with the devil.

Pillar of Eliseg by David Parkes 1809. Source: National Library of Wales

Finally, the Pillar of Eliseg may or may not have influenced the location of the abbey, even though it provided the abbey with its name.  It is, however, entirely possible that the presence of the ancient cross as a clear and ancient statement of Christian affiliation would have been particularly attractive to the new abbot and his monks.  Perhaps more significantly, it was probably particularly resonant for the founder-patron of the abbey, Prince Madog ap Gruffydd, embedded as the monument was with memories of the past inhabitants of the region who sought to defend it against all-comers.  With the Marcher Lords at the borders and the English beyond, Madog probably felt a close affinity with Concenn and his predecessors.   The cross still stands to the north of the abbey, but is considerably shorter, with bits missing, including the top, base and arms of the cross.  In the view to the right by David Parkes, dated 1809, the remains of Valle Crucis are visible at the lower left of the image.

I had initially assumed that the siting of Valle Crucis took into account the proximity of Dinas Brân, a Medieval castle that was also located in the Vale of Llangollen and can be seen from the abbey.  The castle was not, however, built until 1270.

View from the interior of Valle Crucis. I find it hard to get my head around the idea that this and other very narrow views were all that the monks would have seen. They could not explore the environment in which their abbey was located, because they were confined to the monastic precinct.  They could merely see it, never truly experience it.


The remains of Valle Crucis

Valley Crucis provides a very useful template for understanding other monasteries in the Benedictine tradition, all incorporating a church and the main monastic buildings arranged around a square cloister, consisting of a walkway connecting the buildings around a garden or “garth.”

Cadw site plan, with photographs of mine added to show the relative location of some of the key features (click to expand).

Above is a site plan of Valle Crucis, which adopted the typical layout of a Benedictine abbey that the Cistercians had adopted, basing themselves on the Benedictine rule.  The earliest known abbey in Britain that adopted this basic layout was Glastonbury Abbey.  Part 2 will show this image again, and look at these and other features in detail, discussing how they reflect historical developments from the foundation of the abbey at the beginning of the 13th Century, via fire, flood, fluctuating fortunes and changing ideas to its dissolution in the mid 16th century.

As I mentioned at the start of this post, Valle Crucis is not merely of interest as a component of the Vale of Llangollen landscape, but is a useful representative of both Welsh and English Cistercian traditions.  It both exemplifies many of the historical details that have been assembled about Cistercian monasticism in Britain, and provides an impressive volume of data that both reinforces existing knowledge and adds to it.  Some of this will be explored further in the next three posts.

This post, Part 1, has introduced the Cistercian order and explained why Valle Crucis was located where it is.  The next post, part 2 looks at the organization of the abbey in terms of its purpose and how it was built to meet the needs of the monastic community, looking at each room in turn.   Part 3 will look at history of the abbey, and then take key features one by one, looking at how these features can be seen in terms of historical developments between the foundation of the abbey at the beginning of the 13th Century to its dissolution in the mid 16th century.  Part 4 will review how life was lived in the monastery in terms of everyday activities, the roles allocated to monks, the subsistence strategies employed,  and how illness and death were handled.  Part 5 will go on to look at the dissolution of the monasteries and what happened to Valle Crucis after it ceased to be a religious establishment.

Sources for parts 1-5:

Resources that were of particular use are picked out in bold.

Books and papers

Anonymous (A. Traveller) 1863.  Valle Crucis Abbey – Correspondence To the Editor of Archaeologia Cambrensis.  Archaeologia Cambrensis, 3rd series, No.33, January 1863, p.68-72
https://journals.library.wales/view/2919943/2995788/67#?xywh=-1466%2C103%2C5111%2C3522

Aston, M. 2000. Monasteries in the Landscape.  Tempus

Barker, G. 1976.  Diet and Economy at Valle Crucis:  The Report on the Animal Bones.  Archaeologia Cambrensis 125 (1976), p.117-126

Butler, L.A.S. 1976.  Valle Crucis Abbey:  An Excavation in 1970.  Archaeologia Cambrensis 125 (1976), p.80-116
https://journals.library.wales/view/4718179/4747123/95#?xywh=-1521%2C-15%2C5975%2C3940

Burton, J. and Kerr, J. 2011.  The Cistercians in the Middle Ages.  Boydell Press

Clwyd and Powys Archaeological Trust.  Historic Settlement Survey – Denbighshire – 2014.  Llangollen SJ 2150 4190, 105978.
https://cpat.org.uk/ycom/denbigh/llangollen.pdf

Coppack, G. 1990.  Abbeys and Priories. Batsford.

Davies, J. 2007 (3rd edition).  A History of Wales.  Penguin

Evans D.H. 2008, Valle Crucis Abbey, Cadw

Edwards, N. 2008.  The Pillar of Eliseg.  In: Evans D.H., Valle Crucis Abbey, Cadw

Gascoigne, B. 2004 (revised edition).  A Brief History of Christianity. Constable and Robinson

Greene, J.P. 1992.  Medieval Monasteries.  Leicester University Press

Hughes, H. 1894, Valle Crucis Abbey. Archaeologia Cambrensis, 5th series, 11:43 (1894), p.69-85, 257-75
https://journals.library.wales/view/2919943/3009987/#?xywh=-853%2C-196%2C3885%2C3913

Hughes, H. 1895. Valle Crucis Abbey. Archaeologia Cambrensis, 5th series, 12:45 (1895), pp. 5-17
https://journals.library.wales/view/2919943/3010260/#?xywh=-853%2C-196%2C3885%2C3913

Jenkins, G.H. 2007.  A Concise History of Wales.  Cambridge University Press

Jones, O.W. 2013. Historical writing in Medieval Wales.  PhD thesis, Bangor University
https://research.bangor.ac.uk/portal/files/20577287/null

Platt, C. 1984.  The Abbeys and Priories of Medieval England. Chancellor Press

Pratt, D. 2011.  Valle Crucis abbey:  lands and charters.  Denbighshire Historical Society Transactions

Robinson, D. 2006.  The Cistercians in Wales. Architecture and Archaeology 1130-1540.  Society of Antiquaries London

Silvester, R.J., and Hankinson, R., 2015. The Monastic Granges of East Wales. The Scheduling Enhancement Programme: Welshpool. Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust (CPAT)

Williams, D. 1984.  The Welsh Cistercians.  Cyhoeddiadau Sistersiaidd

Williams, J.  1846.  Valle Crucis Abbey.  Archaeologia Cambrensis, 1 , 1846 p.17-32, 151-153, 279-280
https://journals.library.wales/view/2919943/2989093/17#?xywh=-893%2C45%2C3900%2C3929

Wynne, W. W. E. 1848. Valle Crucis Abbey.  Archaeologia Cambrensis, 3:11 (1848), p.228-229
https://journals.library.wales/view/2919943/2991333/41#?xywh=-913%2C-241%2C3920%2C3949

Wynne, W. W. E. 1849. Excavations at Valle Crucis Abbey.  Archaeologia Cambrensis, 4:13 (1849), p.22-27
https://journals.library.wales/view/2919943/2991554/21#?xywh=-849%2C-1035%2C3920%2C3949

Wynne, W. W. E.  1851. Excavations at Valle Crucis Abbey.  Archaeologia Cambrensis, new series, 8 (1851), p.282-284
https://journals.library.wales/view/2919943/2990655/21#?xywh=-893%2C-221%2C3920%2C3949

Wynne, W. W. E. 1852. Excavations at Valle Crucis Abbey.  Archaeologia Cambrensis, new series, 10 (1852), pp. 93-96
https://journals.library.wales/view/2919943/2990849/12#?xywh=-893%2C-199%2C3900%2C3929

Yorke, T. 2004.  The English Abbey Explained.  Monasteries – Priories.  Countryside Books

Websites

Ancient and Medieval Architecture
Llantysilio – Valle Crucis Abbey
https://tinyurl.com/8fuybma9

Coflein
Valle Crucis
https://coflein.gov.uk/en/site/95205/

English Heritage
Valle Crucis Abbey
https://cadw.gov.wales/visit/places-to-visit/valle-crucis-abbey

Monastic Wales
Valle Crucis (Abbey)
https://www.monasticwales.org/browsedb.php?func=showsite&siteID=35

The Cistercians in Yorkshire
https://www.dhi.ac.uk/cistercians/

 

 

A visit to the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct near Llangollen – Thomas Telford’s iron trough 126ft over the Dee

It is without question a marvel of modern engineering and a remarkable sight, but what strikes most people when they first see the 1000ft (c.305m) Pontcysyllte  canal aqueduct is that the handrail along the pedestrian walkway 127ft (38.5m) over the river Dee is only a few steps away from the other side of the narrow canal trough, which has no handrail at all to separate a boat user from a straight drop into the valley bottom.  Until you lean over the towpath’s handrail and look straight down, 127ft is a rather abstract number.  The photograph on the right shows me crossing it on a 40ft narrowboat in the 1990s on a two week canal holiday.  What you cannot see are the white knuckles with which I am gripping the tiller for dear life, in spite of having absolutely no fear of heights, because there was absolutely nothing between me and that drop.  The aqueduct, Grade I listed, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2009, is the longest and highest in Britain.  It’s a long way down.

The Pontcysyllte Aqueduct passing over the Dee valley at Trevor. Source: Dronepics Wales

Seen from below or from a distance, the Pontcysyllte aqueduct is a fabulous sight, not pretty but truly awe-inspiring, and it shows exactly what Pontcysyllte is:  an iron trough built on 18 vast tapering brick piers, with 19 arches.  It was all about function, nothing to do with aesthetics, and has no ornamentation to soften it, but the sheer ambition of it grips the imagination and makes one look beyond the factual details of the thing.  It really is superb.  There is a path leading down along the side of the approach to the aqueduct into the valley below, a long but well maintained track to the valley bottom, where you can walk along the Dee and get a long at the aqueduct from a distance.  That’s one for another day.

It was a beautiful day, absolutely flawless, with cerulean blue skies, a golden sun warming one’s face, and a brightness of autumnal colours that takes some beating.  After attending the Remembrance Day commemoration at the Churton war memorial, with a memorable and moving address, and a two-minute silence filled with birdsong, I collected the car first, the parent next, and we proceeded towards Trevor, on the A539 to Llangollen.  There’s a brown signpost pointing to the aqueduct’s pay-and-display car park at the Trevor Basin, which is the home of a number of canal boat companies today, but when it was built was used for the transhipment of coal, building stone, iron products, timber and bricks, much of which was brought to the canal wharf by horse-drawn waggons.

Map of the key canal features in the Vale of Llangollen. I have added a red arrow to show the best car park for Pontcysyllte. Click to enlarge. Source: Pontcysyllte Aqueduct & Canal World Heritage Site

Thomas Telford and his chosen team

Portrait of Thomas Telford, who chose to be painted with the Pontcysyllte aqueduct in the background. Engraved by W. Raddon from a painting by S. Lane.

The aqueduct (built (1794-1805) was part of the Ellesmere Canal project.  It is one of the many British civil engineering projects that has the names of Thomas Telford (1757-1834), ironmaster William “Merlin” Hazeldine (1763-1840) and master stonemason John Simpson (1755-1815) attached to it, three men who had brought their particular skills to many different joint projects and in doing so had developed an invaluable relationship of trust and mutual respect.

Thomas Telford started his career as a stone mason, working in London on buildings such as Somerset House, and had ambitions to develop his career as an architect.  When he became the County Surveyor for Shropshire, he worked on a great variety of building projects including, by his own estimation, 40 road bridges between 1790 and 1796, two of which employed iron in their construction.   Hazledine had initially trained as a millwright, but  his family owned a small foundry  and Hazeldine went on to grow his iron casting business with the large Coleham Foundry at Shrewsbury.  Hazledine and Telford, both Freemasons, had met at Salopian Lodge  in Shrewsbury in 1789 and become friends and professional collaborators.  On one of his earliest projects in Shrewsbury Telford hired a childhood friend Matthew Davidson to oversee works, and Davidson employed master stonemason John Simpson who worked on many of Telford’s projects. Telford described Simpson as “a treasure of talents and integrity.”

Although Telford is by far the best known of the three, he, Hazledine and Simpson worked together frequently on many different projects to produce some of the great civil engineering constructions of their era, mainly bridges.  All three were involved with the Pontcysyllte aqueduct, where  Matthew Davidson also joined them, but the story of the canal starts before any of them were recruited to work for the Ellesmere Canal project.

Background to the aqueduct

The Trevor Basin today.

The big name in canal construction was James Brindley (1716-1772), who was responsible for building over 365 miles of canals by the time he died.  Brindely realized that any inland waterway network would need to connect to all the great navigable rivers that connected to the sea, including the Thames, the Mersey, the Severn and the Trent, incorporating other important navigable rivers like the the Avon and the Dee.  Most of his canals were contour canals, wherever possible built on the level and avoiding slopes so that locks and lifts could be avoided.  The network was therefore a sprawling affair, but it revolutionized transport, avoiding roads that would become mired and impassable in winter, as well as unnavigable sections of rivers, and the riverine problems of drought and flood.  Water into and out of the canal system was regulated and therefore predictable, and allowed year-round transport.  The advantages became very clear very quickly, and manufacturing and trading businesses began to locate themselves at critical points on the canal network.  Eagerness to invest in infrastructure resulted in a canal boom in the late 1780s and 1790s.  Each new section of canal required an Act of Parliament, subject to Royal Assent, and Act after Act was passed as the network expanded.

The complex arrangement of the Ellesmere Canal and its branches is shown as a think blue winding line. The thick blue line is the Dee. The yellow lines are roads. Click to see a bigger version. Source: Wikipedia

In 1791 a proposal for a canal to link the Mersey at Netherpool (later renamed Ellesmere Canal) to the river Dee at Chester and the Severn at Shrewsbury was discussed by three Shropshire entrepreneurs, carrying mainly coal, iron and lime, supported by other goods as well.  It was decided that a branch would be needed to Wrexham and Ruabon and onwards, via Chirk, bypassing Oswestry at its west, to Shrewsbury in the south with a branch to Whitchurch in the east and another to Llanymynech.  Originally it was planned to run a branch from Ruabon to reach the Irenant slate quarries near Llantysilio, via Llangollen, but this was at first dropped and later revived for different reasons (discussed below).  That branch would in turn connect to the Montgomery Canal from Frankton Junction via Welshpool to Newtown in mid Wales (for carrying limestone, coal, timber, stone and slates).

This seriously ambitious plan found sufficient support for a surveyor to be hired and possible routes to be explored.   William Jessop, an experienced canal engineer, was hired to head up the project and oversee all of its different components.  After disagreements over the final route were resolved (albeit not to everyone’s satisfaction), the Ellesmere Canal proposal went through parliament and received its Royal Assent in April 1793.  There were still a lot of technical and logistical details to resolve, including how the canal was to cross the Dee and Ceiriog valleys.

It was clear that Jessop needed help, and although the internal promotion of William Turner was Jessop’s first choice, Telford was brought in without his input. It is not certain how Telford, increasingly bored with life as a county surveyor, managed to insert himself into this ambitious engineering project, but the canal was already generating considerable excitement in the area and it looks as though he heard of the position and sought the support of one of Britain’s most prominent industrialists, John Wilkinson, to help him secure it.  Jessop made it clear in his letters what he thought of having Telford, who he had never met, brought in against his wishes as his right hand man, and refused to attend the meeting that appointed Telford to the Ellesmere Canal Company.  In spite of this rocky start, Jessop and Telford seem to have hammered out a decent working relationship, with Jessop teaching Telford what he needed to know about canal construction, and Telford injecting some ideas into the project.  Like Jessop, Telford managed to broker a deal to enable him to carry out other projects when his personal presence was not necessary, and this enabled him to work on other civil engineering works whilst the Ellesmere Canal was being built.

Building the aqueduct

Work began at Netherpool on the Mersey, renamed Ellesmere Port, in 1793.  The 9-mile canal ran down the Wirral to meet the Dee at Chester, and went so well that it opened for traffic in 1795 and was an immediate success.  While this section was underway, discussions were underway about how the canal might cross the Dee.  The original idea presented to the directors by Jessop and Turner, and apparently not opposed by Telford, was a relatively low level stone channel crossing three stone arches, with step locks either side to manage the ascent to and descent from the level of the canal to the aqueduct.   This would have been an expensive option, requiring not only the locks but the management of the water that would feed the locks.  Even after this had been agreed in principle, concerns resulted in a new plan for an iron channel on stone columns.  It is likely that it was proposed by Telford and supported by Jessop partly because it would have reduced the cost as iron was lighter, easier to work and move, and cost less.  A sketch by Telford from March 1794 survives showing an early version of this aqueduct design.

Telford’s Grade 1 listed Longdon-on-Tern aqueduct in Shropshire, 1796. Source: Chris Allen, Wikimedia

In early 1795 Telford had the opportunity to try out a smaller, less ambitious version of the design at Longdon-on-Tern on the new Shrewsbury Canal, on which Telford was also working, as replacement for the incumbent engineer who had died mid-project.  Later in the same year he had built a fully navigable iron aqueduct on a canal that had none of the problems of leakage or shattering that had worried other engineers.  Whether or not this was taken into account by the directors of the Ellesmere Canal Company, they decided in the same year to go for the iron trough on immense stone piers that was eventually built.

Telford’s friend and frequent collaborator, master mason John Simpson soon joined him on the project.  Telford also brought in Matthew Davidson, his childhood friend of Telford, a stone mason, civil engineer and excellent organizer, to oversee the bridge works.  Telford and Davidson had worked successfully together on Telford’s Montford Bridge project of 1790 – 1792.  Shortly afterwards, William Hazledine arrived to establish an ironworks and take charge of the construction work for the iron ribs and the trough.  By assembling three men that he had worked with before and trusted absolutely, Telford was not only ensuring that the project was in good hands, but that he had a team who could operate in his absence. The foundation stone for the aqueduct was laid on 25th July 1795.

Jessop and Telford made wooden models to test the design for the trough, finding that 1000s of iron parts would be needed.  The cast iron for the aqueduct was made of cast iron that was produced in William Hazledine’s new iron foundry nearby at Plas Kynaston, Cefn Mawr.  Hazledine established the Plas Kynaston foundry to service the construction of the Pontcysyllte aqueduct, thereafter taking advantage of the canal network to carry his cast iron in segments to be transhipped by river or sea to where it was needed.  When he built the Eaton Hall Iron Bridge at Aldford on the river Dee (described on an earlier post) it was from Plas Kynaston that the iron was shipped by canal.

After 1801 Jessop was much less involved and Telford also had interests elsewhere, and Telford was also involved in other projects, leaving Davidson, Hazledine and Simpson to run with the project.  The piers rose steadily, each built in turn from south to north by, at the peak of the project, over 500 men.  Jessop had been desperately worried from the beginning by the dangers to workmen’s lives of such tall piers, and safety precautions were taken very seriously, with the loss of only one life.  The iron parts were manufactured as needed at Plas Kynaston, and were numbered according to the order in which they would be needed so that only pieces needed at any one time would be delivered to the site.  First, ribs of iron were fitted to the piers, and then the trough was bolted on top, after which a wooden towpath was fitted to the side.  The entire project was finished in 1805, and opened on a sunny afternoon on November 26th 1805 at a grandiose ceremony followed by a lavish feast.  The entire cost for the aqueduct project was £47,018, which in today’s money translates as around £617,855 (National Archives Currency Convertor).

Metalwork over and under the arch at the left-hand Rhos y Coed bridge.

Although not as visible in the finished design, iron was also used in the Chirk aqueduct on the Llangollen canal where ten semi-circular masonry arches were crossed by a water channel with an iron bed plate and brick sides sealed using hydraulic mortar.  As well as in the aqueducts, iron was used in various ancillary structures too.  for example, Bridge 29, Rhos y Coed, at the Trevor Basin has visible iron metalwork supplementing the stone arch, and iron was used to cap the weir at the Horseshoe Falls.

The role of the aqueduct

Map from Nicholson’s Guide to the Central canal system, showing the stump end (framed in orange) of the planned Ruabon to Chester section of the canal, which was never built and now houses the attractive Trevor boatyard where the visitor centre is located. Source: Nicholson 1989

The Pontcysyllte aqueduct was almost immediately  in danger of becoming something of a white elephant, because its original role as a direct route to Wrexham and Chester was never fulfilled.  The section that led past Trevor Basin over the aqueduct was supposed to run straight on to the west of Ruabon, via Wrexham and on to Chester where it would link with the Wirral stretch leading to the Mersey and to the  Dee and the Shropshire Union Canal.  All that is left of the Trevor-Ruabon-Wrexham-Chester branch is a stump end occupied by the Trevor Basin, where the car park is located.  This is clearly visible on Nicholson’s map left, where the main line of the canal comes to a sudden, abrupt end.

The abandonment of this important part of the original plan was due to both engineering problems and financial issues.  There were only  two obvious engineering options – an enormous tunnel or a series of locks climbing towards Wrexham and another descending into the Cheshire plain where the canal could run along the flat plain to Chester.  The tunnel would have been appallingly costly, and it was difficult to know how the locks, by no means a low-cost option themselves, could have been supplied with the sufficient water.  Although other technologies were considered, they were rejected for reasons of practicality and cost.  This left the problem of where the water was to come from to feed the rest of the Ellesmere Canal and its branches.

Horseshoe Falls

At the far end of the Llangollen canal is Telford’s great arc of a weir, today known as the “Horseshoe Falls,” marking the point at which the Dee begins to feed the Llangollen canal.  An original survey had considered using the water of the Dee as it fell from Snowndonia via Lake  Tegid at Bala and through the Vale of Llangollen as a water source for the canal.  The idea had been to link the canal to a slate works, feeding the canal at the same time.  This proposal was now revisited.  The owner of Lake Tegid gave his permission and the plan was actioned.  At the Horseshoe Falls the canal is fed with water from the Dee via a sluice and meter, and today carries over 11 million gallons of Dee water a day, emptying it into Hurleston reservoir, just north of Nantwich, where the Llangollen Canal meets the Shropshire Union Canal.  I will be posting more about the Horseshoe Falls weir on another day.  There is no turning point for vessels over 10ft long beyond Llangollen, so the final stretch is only used by minimal traffic today.

This means that the vast aqueduct, such a remarkable feat of civil engineering, would only ever lead to the relatively unimportant narrow section of canal and feeder to a complete dead end at Llantisilio after passing high through Llangollen.  This navigable channel is approached from the aqueduct by negotiating a sharp left-hand corner just beyond the exit of the trough.  Although this seems like a sad role for an aqueduct that should have carried many times the traffic that it eventually did, without the aqueduct there would have been no water to feed the rest of the system.

Even without the Ruabon – Chester link, those wishing to carry all their goods by canal were still able to connect to the main canal system, although to reach Chester they had to take a very long way round, and Wrexham was excluded completely.  The Llangollen canal still linked to the Shrophsire Union at its eastern end, from which the rest of the vast canal network could be reached.

  • Chester could still be reached by travelling the full length of the Llangollen canal to Hurleston Junction, just north of Nantwich, on the Shropshire Union Canal.  From here Chester was nearly 16 miles away.
  • Just to the north of Hurleston Junction was the Middlewich Branch, which headed east and linked to the Trent and Mersey Canal, from where Manchester, Stoke on Trent, the eastern Midlands and Yorkshire could all be reached.
  • In the opposite direction, from Hurleston Junction the Shropshire Union ran directly to Birmingham, which was a vast junction for canals in all directions, including London on the Thames and Gloucester on the Severn.

The Cefn Mawr railway viaduct, which opened in 1848.

Along the line that the original canal would have taken, a cast iron tramway was built to connect local collieries and ironworks with the canal, the iron supplied by Hazledine.  This made the Trevor Basin a particularly important hub of activity, taken delivery of bricks, tiles, coal, iron limestone, slate and sandstone for transhipping along the canal.  It was also a boatyard, with  working narrowboats being built and repaired by Hills Boatyard in the dry dock next to the Visitor Centre (now occupied by a floating take-away café).  Later, there was an interchange with the steam railway.

Visiting Pontcysyllte

A small pay-and-display car park is available for visitors at the Trevor Basin, now the home of some canal trip and holiday companies.  There is also a pub with outdoor seating, and a take-away small café on a little boat next to the visitor centre.  There is a lot of disabled parking provided for in the small car park, which is reached from the A539 in Trevor, clearly signposted with brown heritage signposting.   The aqueduct is a very short walk from the car park, and the towpath heads for miles in both directions.

If, before or after crossing the aqueduct, you are interested in finding out more about the general context of the aqueduct and its location in relation to other parts of the canal, at the Trevor Basin there is a visitor centre, a small but nicely put together display space.  As well as a map of the area that takes up a wall and shows all the main features of the landscape and the canal system itself, there is a display of some of the tools that were used in the construction of the aqueduct, which are startlingly basic, and photographs and artists’ impressions of some of the supporting works, including the foundry at Plas Kynaston.  There are ring folders full of additional information, including facts and figures, that you can look through.

Walking the aqueduct itself is not for everyone.  The towpath is rock solid, with a tall handrail on the valley side, but only wide enough for two people, so there is a lot of stopping still to allow others to pass and there is nothing to stop you falling into the canal.  The canal is only just over 6ft (1.8m) wide, and beyond that is an unrestricted (no handrail, no nothing) drop 127ft to the valley floor.  A couple who I passed told me that they were determined to walk the full length and back, but were conquering their fears to do so, and they were gripping firmly to the handrail.

An alternative to walking is to cross by boat.  There are a number of short cruises that leave the Trevor Basin and run for about 20 minutes before turning and coming back (depending on which one you take and the time of year).

For those with uncooperative legs, everything is on the flat, so it is a very good walk for those who find uphill sections of walks difficult.  After rainfall, towpaths always become a bit muddy, and can be slippery, but even though we’ve had some rainfall recently, it was fine.  The towpath between Trevor and Llangollen is beautiful, and a good choice if you can face the aqueduct.

I noticed that one of the passenger boats said that it was suitable for disabled passengers, but I would recommend getting in touch with them first to find out about timings, prices and suitability for different types of disability.

Sources

Books and papers

Glover, J.  2017.  Man Of Iron.  Thomas Telford and the Building of Britain. Bloomsbury

Lynn, P. A. 2019.  World Heritage Canal.  Thomas Telford and the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct.  Whittles Publishing.

Nicholson, R. 1989 (4th edition). Nicholson/Ordnance Survey Guide to the Waterways 2: Central. Robert Nicholson Publications and Ordnance Survey

Rolt, L.T.C. 1958, 2007.  Thomas Telford. The History Press.

Pattison, A.  n.d. William Hazledine (1763-1840): A Pioneering Shropshire Ironmaster.  West Midlands History https://historywm.com/articles/william-hazeldine-1763-1840  (Pattison’s full 278-page M.Phil, on which the article is based, is available here: https://etheses.bham.ac.uk/id/eprint/3358/1/Pattison12MPhil.pdf )

Websites

Canal and River Trust
Montgomery Canal
https://canalrivertrust.org.uk/enjoy-the-waterways/canal-and-river-network/montgomery-canal?gclid=CjwKCAiAp8iMBhAqEiwAJb94z7aIVzLoaYuqtwbDdRQsaUL73ssnmF_u1LpoURZmI9YxVUlrKi15whoCtxoQAvD_BwE

DronePics Wales
Pontcysyllte
https://dronepics.wales/pontcysyllte/

Engineering Timelines
Longdon-on-Tern aqueduct
http://www.engineering-timelines.com/scripts/engineeringItem.asp?id=308

Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History
James Brindley
https://www.gracesguide.co.uk/James_Brindley
William Hazledine
https://www.gracesguide.co.uk/William_Crosley_(1802-1838)
William Jessop
https://www.gracesguide.co.uk/William_Jessop

Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and Canal World Heritage Site
https://www.pontcysyllte-aqueduct.co.uk/

 

 

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