Seen mostly from commuter trains, I expect this castle is one of those landmarks that is just no longer noticed. A scheduled ancient monument, the castle had a lucky escape – not from French siege engines, but from those bringing a new prosperity to the Chilterns countryside.
My straw pole revealed a distant lack of awareness too, when asked when was the last time they had visited Berkhamsted castle?
“Not for ages”
“Where is it?”
Situated alongside the canal and railway in the busy market town of Berkhamsted in the northern Chilterns, the castle and it’s features seem only to emerge from the surrounding landscape if you look long and hard. The mound is covered in pretty spring flowers, the scene so benign. 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, or bailey, offering protection to the occupants.
Nooks, brick tiles and fireplace survive, their purpose clear, but place in amongst the lumps of stone unclear. Earthworks and a moat surround the site including an extensive embankment upon which the West Midlands railway service thunders, this place a microcosm of English history;
Norman Invasion & Oppression
Royal entitlement & civil war
Invasion & royal prison
Decline & Vandalism
Near destruction and declaration as ancient monument
William the Conqueror
This is where William the Conqueror received the submission of the English after the Battle of Hastings and it was his half-brother, Robert of Mortain, who built a timber castle 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 trade routes and ensuring successful subjugation of the locals.
The castle saw action in the Middle Ages; invasion by the French, civil war and in more settled times as royal residence, but slid into a slow decline of unsuitability and by default became unfashionable. The fortunes of Berkhamsted are closely linked to its castle which, when it waned and fell into disuse in the 15th century, stone was taken and reused to build houses and buildings in the town, greatly affected by this change in its status and prosperity. It was a long wait until the arrival of the inland waterways and railway in the 19th century before the locals enjoyed a revival.
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 strong 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 so proactive in protecting our heritage however, as landowners once 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 so much mindless destruction, MP’s and heritage pioneers became determined to act.
Incredible to even consider now the destruction of our heritage in the name of progress. Or in the case of spite, as was the story of the infamous Reverend Francis Gastrell, one-time 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, then in an extraordinary fit of spite, demolished the house in 1759. It was never rebuilt and only the foundations remain. Suffice to say he was kicked out of town!
I think we need to reclaim and treasure our Chilterns’s castles; visit them, explore them, take a picnic, take your family to play dungeons and dragons, take your dog. Watch as they reflect the changing seasons through the windows of your train, and celebrate the spaces and possibilities those heritage weirdos have left for us.
A local pharmaceutical firm has donated three acres (1.2 hectares) to the new Berkhamsted Castle Trust, plus £25,000 to maintain this “national asset”, with work to “make it a coherent site again” underway. Read more here
Admission is free to the site that is now managed by English Heritage.
For further Chilterns inspiration visit https://www.visitchilterns.co.uk
Read the astonishing story of a wild boy without a birth name, who was found in a German forest and adopted by a English king and came to live in nearby Northchurch.