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. 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.

An Appreciation of Aylesbury

At first drive-through, this busy Buckinghamshire town is not a pretty sight. Aylesbury is town that has kept it’s historic heart well and truly hidden, marooned on a little island cut off by busy roads full of traffic rushing through on their way elsewhere.

Perhaps you are familiar with Aylesbury because of its association with ducks? Not as obvious is its historic association with the nearby Chilterns as this town played an important role  in the English Civil War, very much in support of the Parliamentarians against Charles I and presents one of the most visible links with the Chilterns due to its proximity to Great Hampden, home of John Hampden: his silhouette on the emblem used by the district council and his statue prominent in the market square. 

A town that has grown too quickly, concrete, traffic and ugly shopping centres are the hazards to be navigated before finding the charming Georgian old town.

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The Kings Head Farmers Bar

A way in, is through an easy-to-miss arch that leads from Market Street into the restored 15th medieval coach inn yard of the Kings Head inn, busy serving food and beverages since around 1455 no less. Now owned by the National Trust, the popular Farmers’ Bar within the King’s Head site has been run by the Chiltern Brewery since 2005. Follow the cobbled passageway into the courtyard that dates back to the early 14th century when it was the original busy market square.

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The enclosure of the quiet courtyard with additional stables to the one at the rear once provided stabling for nearly thirty horses, hard to imagine now.

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St Mary the Virgin

The old town centre is a crowded cluster of cottages in just a few narrow, largely car-free streets that surround the churchyard of St Mary the Virgin whose ornate clock tower dominates this skyline.

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Many of these dwellings are in fact almshouses, administered by the Thomas Hickman Charity. Founded in 1698, the charity works to support the people of Aylesbury and aims to benefit those in a similar state of need.

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St Mary’s Square

To say these lanes are a delightful surprise is an understatement! A pretty church square with beautiful trees and lopsided headstones are from another age. These multiple small terraced houses or apartments providing accommodation for small numbers of residents can be found all over England, the Netherlands and Norway. Established from the 10th century, the first recorded almshouse in England was founded in York by King Athelstan with many of the medieval almshouses established with the aim of benefiting the soul of the founder or their family. As a result, most were regarded as chantries (saying prayers for the soul of the benefactor to speed their way to heaven), and were dissolved during the Reformation, under an act of 1547.

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The rebuilt 1871 almshouses on Church Street with distinctive Neo-Tudor chimneys

There have been almshouses in Aylesbury since before the 12th century and the provision for assisting the poor typically came from the church, local hospitals and various private benefactors. By the late 17th century, demand grew, due to increased migration from the countryside that continued to put pressure on the Aylesbury parish. It was during this time, that the Thomas Hickman charity was founded, along with other new almshouses including; the Weeden almshouse in Chesham, the Drake almshouses in Amersham and Lady Dodds cottages in Ellesborough and the even older Ewelme Almshouse Charity in Ewelme amongst others (blog post follows).

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A variety of styles along Church Street

These simple dwellings provided space for one person to live in a single room – normally as part of group that stipulated how many where intended for men and how many for women, all of whom received an allowance, or pension that could be money and goods, such as kindling. The Thomas Hickman houses did not follow this pattern and you can enjoy the many sizes and styles alongside one another, that reflect that there is unusually no prescribed limit on the number of occupants, normally one per dwelling.

It is remarkable that such an old welfare system still survives today, is testament to it’s valued place in building communities and giving recipients independence and dignity with a stimulating and beautiful environment that hasn’t suffered the same fate as the rest of the town.

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No8. Church Street ‘the Chantry’.

Further Information:

Various information signs indicate a trail, but I didn’t follow it. Worth the effort I’d say, once past all the concrete to explore this oasis and I will be popping back to wander these calm streets and visit the Bucks County museum.

“The white Aylesbury duck is a universal favourite. Its snowy plumage and comfortable comportment make it a credit to the poultry-yard, while its broad, deep breast and ample back, convey the assurance that your satisfaction will not cease at its death. ”—Isabella Beeton, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, 1861

You can still buy Aylesbury ducks from the last breeder, Richard Waller, whose family has been breeding them since 1745.

The Thomas Hickman Charity, A Tercentenary History (author Hugh Hanley) is an interesting accompaniment to this feature.

Bucks County Museum is worth a visit and is open throughout the year.

To enjoy Chiltern Brewery finest beer and ale, visit the Kings Head pub.

For more Chilterns ideas and inspiration VisitChilterns.co.uk