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.

A Runway Runs Through It

This place is a time capsule, overlapping function and forms across seven or more centuries – from the 14th century to the present day. Sir John could never have imaged 600 years ago what would be at the bottom of his formal garden, no more than we can imagine what will be at the end of Luton Airport runway in another 600 years.

Sir John Wenlock could never have imagined 600 years ago what would be at the bottom of his formal garden, no more than we can imagine what will be at the end of Luton Airport runway in another 600 years.

An EasyJet view
An EasyJet View

The lanes in Bedfordshire are terrible; even the potholes have potholes, fly-tipping and dangerous driving made for a slow journey down ever smaller lanes. Carefully following dusty brown signs to the scheduled ancient monument, my lunch flew across the front seat and splattered on the floor as I braked to avoid a collision with a speeding white van, summer hedgerow too high to see more than 10 yards ahead. Why am I here, at the end of dusty lane on the edge of a runway? To look at a mystery wrapped up within an enigma: the scheduled ancient monument Someries Castle, which is not in fact a castle, but a fortified Manor House. But I’m not fussy!

I had no idea where I was until a control tower came into view amongst a row of oak trees quickly followed by the whine of an aircraft engine and an orange tail fin moving rapidly across the edge of a wheat field.

Luton runway at the end of the field
Luton Airport control tower

Luton Airport

Luton airport occupies an enviable hill-top location, with roughly a 130 ft drop at the western end of the runway. Following the end of WW2, when it was used as a base for the RAF fighters the land was returned to the local council, which continued activity at the airport as a commercial operation. Now a busy international airport, it is hard to imagine the impact this had when it opened in 1938. Mind you, there was no EasyJet or Whizz Air flights taking off and landing every few minutes.

Fancy brick work
Striking brick work

Someries Castle was built in the 15th century by Sir John Wenlock, soldier, local MP, diplomat, statesman and one time High Sheriff of Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire, this unremarkable structure’s claim to fame is as one of the first brick buildings in England. The house was never completed by Wenlock, and was partly demolished in the 18th century leaving the remains of the gatehouse that incorporates the lodge and a chapel too. The original manor house and/or the earlier Norman Castle are now visible only as earthworks that outline the plot where the house originally stood, but not accessible as the site is tightly enclosed by 6 foot railings that are either designed to keep the locals out or visitors in. The palace was never completed, although an inventory of 1606 lists 20 rooms in use. Much of the building was pulled down in 1742 and subsequent 18th-century prints show the ruins largely in their present condition.

Historic England refers to this structure as a palace, that would have functioned as luxury residences for the elite and their large retinues, and provided an opportunity to display wealth in the form of elaborate architecture and lavish decoration. These palaces formed an impressive setting for audiences with royalty, foreign ambassadors and other lords and bishops and it’s not unusual to find them in remote rural settings.

Sir John Wenlock – did he or didn’t he?

The site and builder are a mystery. There are survival theories aplenty; that he did not die in the field at Tewkesbury, but faked his own death (and with the help of his wife, buried another corpse in his place), that his ghost still lurks around the gatehouse, that he was a consummate fence-sitter and switched allegiance many times during the War of the Roses, that he built a system of tunnels beneath this structure, that he left a cup of gold and a chest stuffed with jewels under the care of the abbot of Glastonbury, and so it goes on.

Delightful details

Much of the brickwork is damaged, and there is extensive graffiti on the interior walls, but the poppies and dog roses growing wild are lovely. Someone had been in to cut the grass, and the longer I looked, and looked past the obvious damage, there are many delightful details, not least of all the remains of a splendid 15th brick-built newel staircase leading your eyes up the ruined steps that once supported a spiralling barrel-vault.

Ruined stairwell
Stairway to the stars

This is no castle set in aspic

I don’t like aspic. It impairs flavours, encases and suspends the contents so it’s difficult to get a good look at what’s inside. So it can be with the English countryside: often described as ‘chocolate box’ which to me says ‘sentimental and twee’, and doesn’t represent anything that resembles reality after the 1930’s.

This place is a time capsule, overlapping function and forms across seven or more centuries, from the 14th century to the present day shows the many uses of the land. Past, present and future. Sir John could never have imaged 600 years ago what would be at the bottom of his formal garden, no more than we can imagine what will be at the end of Luton Airport runway in another 600 years.

A working landscape

This working landscape doesn’t appear to have the time nor space for leisure visitors, surrounding fields and farmhouses, airport, railway and motorways all pressed in. I’m surprised Someries Castle has survived as long as it has. This pressure between agriculture, an expanding aviation industry and Chilterns heritage is quite stark. It is not conventionally pretty, unlike the space surrounding the market town of Marlow where I was the day before, yet to have such a cross section within our region is refreshing.

I am no plane-spotter, but stood awhile watching the aircraft taking off from Luton Airport, oblivious I expect to their immediate surroundings and Chilterns heritage and wider story, focused instead on their destination.

A deceptively serene scene

I like a busy landscape, with butterflies and bugs, locals and visitors, and agriculture and hard-edges of industry. It means the landscape is alive and the story of the Chilterns is still unfolding.

Wildflowers alongside the runway

Further Information

Joseph Conrad lived from 1907 – 09 in the neighbouring farmhouse whilst writing his bestselling novel Under Western Eyes.

Someries Castle is located at the end of a potholed lane in the parish of Hyde, Bedfordshire LU2 9PL

Another neglected scheduled ancient Chilterns monument is Berkhamsted Castle.

My exploration of the northern Chilterns have thrown up some lovely surprises including; beautiful Barton Hills National Nature Reserve, adjacent to Sharpenhoe Clappers anonymous initials and ghost of a Celtic tribal chief, the peaceful Amaravati Buddhist monastery and now, a NNR with some of the best views in the Chilterns – and the cheekiest ponies!

For further Chilterns inspiration and ideas VisitChilterns.co.uk

Scenic view
Beautiful views from Barton Hills