Along The Welsh Marches

Along The Welsh Marches - The Peoples Friend - 27th February 2016
Along The Welsh Marches – The People’s Friend – 27th February 2016

“Uncle Simon, why is there a goat on top of that castle wall?” My nephew stares at the white adult goat fifteen feet above us. A series of frantic bleats fill the air and, suddenly, three sure-footed kids join their parent on the narrow, stony ridge. “And how did they get up there?”

We’re in Richard’s Castle, on the Herefordshire – Shropshire border. Although just a collection of isolated ruins erupting from the rolling earthworks, these crumbling walls are substantial enough for any seven year old, and their forty-four year old uncle, to imagine attacking forces advancing from the south. We leave the goats bleating incessantly, and clamber up a series of eroded steps to the stone foundations of a tower, perched at the castle’s highest point.

“I can see for miles!” my nephew exclaims.

I point out the Malvern Hills, nearly 25 miles away, whose outline is reminiscent of a sleeping dragon.

My nephew finds an information plaque and practises his reading skills. “The original tower on the motte would have been built of wood,” he reads. “Towards the end of the 12th century it was replaced by a stone, octagonal keep. Octagonal keeps are rare in Britain, but were thought to be a better shape for repelling attackers during skirmishes. What’s a skirmish, Uncle Simon?”

Skirmish rather makes light of what went on here. People died during these historic border conflicts. Securing this remote and low-populated region wasn’t easy, and even today, travel around the Welsh Borders isn’t quick or simple, for there are no motorways or dual carriageways. With so many castles built here for this reason, I knew I could lay down a challenge to my nephew first thing this morning.

“How many castles do you think we can visit in one day?” I’d asked.

“Three!” he confidently declared.

Richard’s Castle was already our third castle, and it was only eleven o’clock!

We’d started at Stokesay Castle, just south of Shropshire’s Craven Arms, which, technically, isn’t a castle but a fortified manor house. Its crenelated South Tower gives it that castle-like appearance though. What did look out of place was the bright yellow-and-black timber-framed 17th century gatehouse. Stokesay is unusual because it was built by a wealthy merchant, Laurence of Ludlow. Continuously inhabited until 1800, it is today one of the finest fortified manor houses in England.

“Oh no!” my nephew cries.

A cold splat of rain runs down my neck. Unlike Stokesay Castle, Richard’s Castle doesn’t have a roof.

“Retreat!” I yell.

We dash down the steps, passing the still-bleating goats, to my car, parked in the tiny lay-by.

Ludlow Castle was our second stop on our castle challenge. Built soon after the Norman conquest, it was continuously expanded and improved over the next 600 years. Perched high above the River Teme, in a horseshoe bend, it has a natural moat, and the castle walls were extended to include most of the grid-like patterned streets of Ludlow’s town. This worked well because over 500 of Ludlow’s medieval listed-buildings survive today.

Ludlow Castle was a royal palace during the 16th and 17th centuries, and Henry VIII’s brother, Prince Arthur, honeymooned here with his new 16-year-old wife, Catherine of Aragon. Sadly, he died here only six months later. However, for most of the 15th and 17th centuries, Ludlow Castle was the administrative capital of Wales and the Welsh Borders, despite it being well within the English border.

“Cor! Look at this canon,’ my nephew called. “I bet it was loud when it was fired.”

A plaque on its vast wooden frame revealed it was actually captured from Sevastapol in 1855, and isn’t a genuine castle canon. Still, it’s a great place for a photo!

We drive through steady rain, from Richard’s Castle, deeper into North Herefordshire and within minutes we stumble across castle number four – Croft Castle, now in the care of the National Trust. It’s crenelated 14th century walls are imposing, but the building itself is more like a stately home, with over forty windows in the front façade and huge double-doors that look like they need several men to open them. Mind you, Croft Castle is reputedly one of the most haunted properties in the West Midlands with, not one, but seven spooky spirits wandering the corridors. That’s enough to deter many from entering!

All this talk of ghosts makes my nephew a little nervous, so it’s back to the car in search of castle number five. It doesn’t take us long to find it. Six miles away, in the village of Wigmore, we spot a sign pointing to a castle.

Wigmore’s castle is not in the centre of the village. It takes a hike through the church yard, onto an uphill track, past a couple of cottages, and then into a field, before we catch a glimpse of our quarry. We have to be careful, because the stinging nettles have grown tall – taller than my nephew, who’s wearing shorts today. We negotiate the painful plants without incident and find ourselves at the bottom of another steep climb. This is the outer bailey, and the grass path is slippery after the rain, which, thankfully, has now stopped.

Wigmore Castle is like Richard’s Castle, but without the goats. There are a few stone wall remains, with some extremely low archways. My nephew laughs at how easy he can pass under, but at over six-feet tall, I have to crouch down low to get through.

Dating back to the 11th century, it was destroyed to prevent it being used during the Civil War. When we reach the highest point we can see why it was built here. The view northwards stretches along the English/Welsh borders towards Ludlow. Castles weren’t built as isolated units in this region, but as a chain of defensive bastions.

Suddenly, we find ourselves under attack again. More rain. Its time to retreat to the car again.

Eight miles north, back in Shropshire, I pull off the main road onto a tiny lane with grass growing down the middle. The hedges caress the side of my car, as we creep up on castle number six.

Hopton Castle was besieged during the English Civil War, leaving it as the ruin we see today. It’s perched on a grassy mound, with a small pond, the only remains of a moat, offering a reflective opportunity. Hopton is a proper castle. Its square keep stands defensively, and as we climb in through the main entrance, we spot the walls are at least two feet thick, if not more. Although a ruin, the alcoves, windows, arrow slits, and even the remains of a chimney, convey a sense of what the building once looked like.

My nephew climbs into one of the smaller alcoves with a stone slab windowsill and peers through the open frame.

“What can you see?” I ask.

“Forty-three sheep,” he replies.

Well, it makes a change from goats!

From Hopton it’s a hop, skip and a jump to castle number seven: Clun. Clun Castle is also a classic square-shaped stone keep, although, unusually, the keep stands at one end of the large earthwork motte, and not it its centre. Its moat is the River Clun, curving around three sides. The fourth side is protected by the village’s bowling green, which probably isn’t an original feature! Although built as a defensive castle, it was converted by the Fitzalan family into a hunting lodge in the 14th century, but was largely destroyed during the English Civil War.

Some scaffolding allows us to reach the keep’s windows and gaze northwards along the border. Like the others, its position is clearly strategic. The River Clun runs west to east, through the Clun Valley, epitomised over a century ago by AE Housman’s poem, A Shropshire Lad, when he wrote:

Clunton and Clunbury, Clungunford and Clun, 

are the quietest places under the sun.

It’s not completely quiet though. High in a brightening sky we hear the tuneful song of a skylark singing its heart out.

“There he is!” cries my nephew, pointing at a pinprick in the sky. It’s amazing such a tiny bird is capable of making such a big noise.

Fifteen miles later, it’s not a skylark we’re watching, but a peregrine falcon. It soars above our heads then swoops downs settling on a rock face somewhere below us. We’ve crossed into Wales, and now find ourselves wandering along a gentle incline to a rocky promontory, sticking out into the Severn Valley. Peering over the hedge on our right, the roofs of the houses of Montgomery sit below us, and the views stretch back into Shropshire.

Two bridges carry us over huge grassy moat-like ditches to the impressive ruins of the main castle gate, towering above us.

“Whoa! Look at that!” My nephew points to the stone groove, where the portcullis once slid.

Just inside the gateway, a plaque tells of a curious death. Not of a soldier from an attacking army, but of a woman mysteriously killed when she came looking for the return of a cooking pot she’d lent to someone in the castle’s kitchen. An accident? Or was it murder?

Passing through the large masonry gate towers, the huge grassy courtyards convey the size of this defensive stronghold, dating back to the 13th century. On our left a wooden platform, padlocked for safety, hides the castle’s well. To secure a safe water supply they had to excavate over 200 feet of rock. No mean feat in those days!

We’re drawn to the furthest end of the castle, where the land drops abruptly into the Severn Valley before us, offering an advanced warning of any attack from North Wales. In the distance, perched on a wooded ridge about fifteen miles away, stands the red-stoned, fortified palace of Powis Castle. Is this castle number nine in our quest?

But my nephew stifles a yawn. I think we’ve found the answer to this morning’s challenge. Eight castles conquered in one day. That’s more than most armies achieved. Time to head back to the car.

Back home, I turn off the engine and look over my shoulder to see my nephew, fast asleep in his car seat. Conquering this many castles is tiring work, which reminds me of the adult goat on top of the ruined wall at Richard’s Castle earlier. Perhaps I wasn’t the only one trying to tire out the kids today!

Further Information

Stokesay Castle:

Ludlow Castle:

Croft Castle:

Wigmore Castle:

Hopton Castle:

Clun Castle:

Montgomery Castle:

© Simon Whaley