The castle that time forgot

Seen mostly from Chilterns commuter trains, I expect Berkhamsted castle is one of those landmarks that is no longer noticed. It has disappeared into the landscape.

My straw pole revealed a distant lack of awareness when asked when was the last time they visited Berkhamsted castle?

“Not for ages”
“Is that the one near the station..?”
“I can’t remember”
“Where is it?”

Berkhamsted motte
Winter shadows

Situated alongside the Grand Union Canal and railway in the busy market town of Berkhamsted in the northern Chilterns, the castle and its features seem only to remerge from the surrounding landscape if you look long and hard. The mound is covered in pretty flowers, harmless lumps and landscape bumps, the scene so benign. In spite of much now lost, damaged or repurposed, you can make out the elevated motte and keep, and if the badgers haven’t ripped up the turf looking for juicy earthworms, you could imagine the many wooden buildings inside a protective curtain of outer wall, or bailey, offering protection to the occupants. Earthworks and a moat surround the site including an extensive embankment upon which the West Midlands railway London to Birmingham service thunders, this place a microcosm of English history;

Anglo-Saxon backwater
Norman Invasion
Oppression
Royal entitlement
Civil war
Invasion
Royal prison
Decline
Vandalism
Near destruction
Declared ancient monument
Forlorn visitor attraction

Ring of Steel

William the Conqueror received the submission of the English at Berkhamsted Castle after the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and it was his half-brother, Robert of Mortain, who built a timber castle here around 1070. Built in the classic Norman motte-and-bailey style, with defensive conical mound and oval bailey below, the castle formed part of the Conquerors ‘ring of steel’ around the capital (along with Wallingford and Windsor Castles to the west, and the White Tower to the east), controlling trading routes and successfully subjugating the locals.

Berkhamsted motte and bailey
The Motte and Bailey

The castle saw action in the Middle Ages, invasion by the French, civil war and in more settled times, the site of a royal residence. But the castle slid in a slow decline of unsuitability for royal use, and by default became unfashionable. Stone was taken from the castle and reused to build many houses and buildings in the nearby town.

The fortunes of Berkhamsted are closely linked to its castle; whose fortunes waxed and waned, and when it waned and fell into disuse in the 15th century, the town had to find a new way to survive this change in its fortunes, but they had to bide their time until the arrival of the inland waterways and railway in the 19th century.

Berkhamsted station
The original Berkhampstead (sic) railway station as seen in 1838

Now a scheduled ancient monument, protected by law, the castle had a lucky escape. Victorian railway designers sought to build the London to Birmingham Railway directly through the site but was saved by local opposition. The Act of Parliament that authorised the construction of the railway also protected the castle, making it the first such property to be protected by law.

Protecting our heritage

We have not always been so proactive in protecting our heritage however, as landowners believed they had the absolute right to destroy their properties, and the notion the state could stop someone doing whatever they wanted to their own property was seen as ridiculous at the time. That Britain’s heritage was worth preserving was a belief held by weirdos, but thankfully for us, after witnessing decades of mindless destruction MP’s and heritage pioneers became determined to act.

I can’t help thinking of the new HS2 rail infrastructure project that will tear its way through ancient woodland and Chilterns countryside in the near future.

Irritating Tourists!

Incredible to even consider now the destruction of our heritage in the name of progress, or in the case of spite, from the infamous Reverend Francis Gastrell, owner of New Place, William Shakespeare’s final home in Stratford-upon-Avon. He bought the house in 1753 but “quickly got irritated with tourists wanting to see it”, says architectural historian Gavin Stamp. Gastrell was already in the town’s bad books after chopping down a mulberry tree planted by Shakespeare. But he hadn’t finished there: in an extraordinary fit of spite, he demolished the house in 1759. It was never rebuilt and only the foundations remain. Suffice to say he was kicked out of town!

Ariel view of Berkhamsted castle
Arial view of the site taken in the 1940’s. Image supplied by Britain from Above archive.

Rediscovering our Chilterns castles

Seen mostly from the commuter trains, I expect this castle is one of those landmarks that is no longer noticed. I think we need to rediscover our Chilterns’s castles, visit them, watch as they reflect the changing seasons; through the windows of your train or car. Take a picnic, take your family, take your dog and enjoy the space and possibilities on offer.

Berkhamsted castle reflections
Reflections in the moat

Further information

The site is managed by English Heritage and is free to explore. For further information

To explore other Chilterns castles, including Someries in Luton, take a look at these pages. Suggestions needed for additional material here too.

Why should you visit the quintessential, uncrowded, rolling green English countryside of the Chilterns, with its impressive selection of pubs and restaurants? That question may well have all the answers you need. Find your Chilterns here

How a wild boy without a birth name, who was found in a German forest, was adopted by a English king and came to live in the #Chilterns, is an astonishing story.

The monastery and monks are long gone, buildings destroyed, treasures looted and the monks banished during the 16th century Dissolution of Monasteries on the orders of King Henry Vlll; read about the flourishing trade at nearby Ashridge.

Making Memories

It is thanks to those at the bottom of the pile, who should be given just as much airtime as those at the top, for it is the former upon whom the latter builds power and status, but that doesn’t make their contribution any less.

“Peter, the Wild Man from Hanover. Whoever will bring him to Mr Fenn at Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, shall be paid for their trouble’.

Why are some people remembered whilst countless others never will be? Is it noble birth or notoriety? Or do memories attach themselves along the often invisible threads that bind and weave together the history and stories of the Chilterns, making it the special place it is today? It is after all, the people and places who shape and are shaped by their location that determine its history.

Noble Birth, or Notoriety?

This is the second instalment of the fascinating story of Peter, one time resident of Northchurch who lived until he was around 70 years, but the label ‘Wild Boy’ has stuck. Born c. 1713 and died 22nd February 1785, you can read about his life in this earlier blog post, Following a visit to Berkhamsted School, what I found there, warrants further telling of his fascinating story.

Making Memories with Peter the Wild Boy
Peter’s headstone opposite the main door of St Mary’s Church, Northchurch. Peter
the Wild Boy
1785

Typically, historical events are remembered, celebrated even, by those on the winning side, so why, I wonder is Peter still remembered? His whole life was tenuous, he had no connections, no skills, no way to communicate, no family nor children and he lived by his wits and kindness of strangers. When he was found as a boy, it is said that the only remnants of a ‘civilised’ life where the remains of his shirt collar, which ironically, it is now a collar by which he best remembered: the collar that was crafted for him to wear to ensure that if he wandered off, he would be returned to his home at Fenn Farm.

I was surprised at how small the collar is, and don’t believe it was worn by Peter as an adult. Perhaps as a man, his wondering days were behind him?

Making memories at Berkhamsted School and Peter the Wild Man
The label on the right is roughly the size of a business card, so gives you  idea of the collars size. With permission from Berkhamsted School

“Peter, the Wild Man from Hanover. Whoever will bring him to Mr Fenn at Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, shall be paid for their trouble’...one shilling was the reward.

An Act of Kindness

By our values, this may seem cruel to put a collar on a human, but to me, it must have been an act of kindness and concern for his safekeeping. Needed after his epic 100-mile solo adventure to Norwich, where after being jailed, it took some time to return him home to Northchurch. It was because of his wonderings that the king was petitioned for an increase in the £30 annual pension granted for the maintenance of Peter, in view of the expense of advertising for and organising his return when he wandered far from home. It is not recorded if the petition was successful. The Crown paid Peter’s pension until his death in 1785.

Peter the Wild Man
The Petition by James Fenn c.1752.  With permission from Berkhamsted School

How the collar has even survived 233 years is also a mystery. Hanging for years on the wall of a house in Northchurch, then it was back and forth between the Bridgewater family at Ashridge House, the Northchurch Society and then to Berkhamsted school. There are many letters in the archive to document its transfer, and the cost to insure the collar was a sticking point. Insured for £1,000 by the Northchurch Society in 1981, the annual premium at £15 became too much. “There are so many dates thrown into the mix, I don’t suppose we’ll ever know the reason it left the farm where Peter lived” explained Lesley, “or how long it was kept at Ashridge House and elsewhere. Time travel would be grand in my job!”

Webbing and Wax

Peter was five feet two inches tall and apart from the webbing between two of his fingers, there was nothing to indicate that he suffered from the rare genetic disorder known as Pitt-Hopkins Syndrome. I love that a wax effigy was made of him that would be viewed in a wax museum on the Strand in London – pre Marie Tussaud’s as she only set up her first permanent waxworks in 1835.

Making Memories at Berkhamsted School and Peter the Wild Man
By permission of  Berkhamsted School

It is not clear exactly how the collar ended up in the school archive along with the above mentioned petition and other items, but it could have been as a result of the Brownlow family estate being broken up and the items given to the school for safe custody.

Glorious George

Peter’s collar returned to the Royal court for a year in 2014 when it was loaned to Kensington Palace to be included in their ‘Glorious George’s Exhibition’ and Lucy Worsley, historian, broadcaster and curator took a keen interest in Peter and visited the school and his grave site at St Mary’s church. I expect there was pressure to keep the artefact at the Palace, but am delighted it is back where it belongs, in the Chilterns.

It is thanks to those at the bottom of the pile, who should be given just as much airtime as those at the top, for it is the former upon whom the latter builds power and status, but that doesn’t make their contribution any less.

This is a unique story, of a man who survived against the odds, and it was this notoriety that has ensured his memory is alive and well.  To those who still leave flowers on Peter’s grave, I salute you!

Peter the Wild Man coaster
Keeping the tradition alive! By permission of  Berkhamsted School

I would like to thank Lesley Koulouris, archivist at Berkhamsted School who was very generous with her time and vast knowledge and who gave permission to reproduce these items included above.

Marking Memories at Berkhamsted school with Peter the Wild Man
Berkhamsted school is to the rear of St Peter’s Church, on Castle street, Berkhamsted.

Further Information

This is the second instalment of the fascinating story of Peter, one time resident of Northchurch who lived until he was around 70 years, but the label ‘Wild Boy’ has stuck. You can read about his life in this earlier blog post,

Berkhamsted school participates in the Heritage Open Days festival in September each year, and the school opens the chapel and ‘Old Hall’, both worth exploring.

Find out about some of our other quirky residents, past and present.

For further Chilterns inspiration and ideas.