Tag Archives: Castle

Castle Rising – my favourite keep in Olde England


Caslte Rising Norfolk

Castle Rising in the County of Norfolk - surely the finest keep in all the land? (Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)

In the many years I have spent traversing this kingdom of Logres, from Camelot in the west to the depths of Staffordshire, I have always been impressed by accommodation offered to me. Whether hall house or manor, whether some lowly stable or some vast tower, I have seen them all. Yet few places stand out so much as the keeps and donjons in which it has been my pleasure to lie.

Now, of course, you will know well of my stays with lord and lady Bertilak and my meeting with the Green Knight up near the Staffordshire Roaches. And, of course, for reasons of my shame, I cannot say that my stay in their castle brings me great joy – save to say that it challenged my purity and my arrogance and is therefore worthy of remark. The best place for that castle is in my memory, befogged and dim of view – but there are others, dear reader and here I share my favourite with you, Castle Rising near King’s Lynn in the County of Norfolk, England.

To my mind, there are several great houses and all of them worthy of note: The Tower of London or Windsor, both great Royal keeps; Conisborough, surely the greatest circular keep in the land; Rochester, one of the tallest; Warkworth, one of the most striking; Peveril, one of the most dramatic; Orford, one of the most ingenious; Dover, one of the most impregnable; and Middleham, one of the most solid. Yet, for me, Rising outshines them all.

Rising is a veritable palace, a fine Norman keep of c.1140 set among rolling sandlings and built within great earthworks and – indeed – dwarfed by them. From the outside, it is difficult to gauge the sheer scale of the place; from the village, the tower is scarcely visible. But press on into the bailey and thence to the inner bailey and surely one of the finest keeps in all Albion awaits.

The keep at Rising is a statement of grandeur: a home above all others and the home in my day to William of Albini, the second of his line. The keep is approached up a flight of stairs all within a forebuilding which I would describe as probably the most magnificent in all the land: exquisite arcading, ornate craftsmanship and execution of the highest quality. To enter this building is to be impressed from the moment you walk through the door.

And now, once atop the stairs within a vaulted vestibule, turn left and enter the main building itself – sadly now without its floors but in my mind I recall well the feasts of pork, ox, venison and mutton we ate there with great joy. Oh what majesty! A lofty hall, well equipped with its own private kitchen and – unique possibly – garderobes split between lords and ladies. William respected the privacy of all his guests and built for that accordingly.

But there is more. In my day, few could enter the lord’s private rooms but today you can see within theme clearly. The private garderobe, an ante-chamber, a private staircase and also the keep’s own exquisite chapel. This is a building which clutches you and warms your spirit. It was – and is – a statement of power in the landscape, and quite rightly so.

Lord William was a powerful man, with other possessions (now sadly much depleted) at New and Old Buckenham – including, at the former, a most unusual planned town with a vast motte at one end surmounted by the stump of a round donjon in the continental style. When he built his castles he built them within earthworks so vast – especially in the huge flatness of East Anglia – that they brooded on the land, surveying his territories and visible for miles.

He was nothing if not adventurous in his experimentation in building but he was also a fine huntsman and sportsman which is why, for me, Rising is so special. What is not clear to today’s visitor but which for me kindles the magic of the place, is the great Chase, or park all around it, encompassed by banks some 15 miles long. Rising was a statement within a planned landscape of feudal lordship: proud from without, proud from within.

Oh what pleasant days I had there riding with Sir William, talking about the joys of the hunt, of chivalry and of his beloved Norfolk lands! And so it is, dear reader, that I recommend this place to you if, on your travels, you venture east into Norfolk.

Little wonder that the duke of Norfolk himself in later years, writing a letter to the duke of Suffolk in 1538 took time to say that it was “written on a molehill in Rysyng Chase, 8 August, 11 o’clock”. It’s that sort of place – you’ll like it so much that you’ll want to tell your friends.

Note: until recently, Castle Rising was in the care of the State under the auspices of English Heritage. It is now managed by Lord Howard of Rising although I shall say that I have not been hunting with this gentleman. For information, visiting times and entry charges (not levied in my day but, then again, you had to know the owner personally), click this link to Castle Rising.

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Filed under British Landscape, Castle Rising, Castles, Castles of England, English Counties, English History, English Landscape, Historic places to visit in Britain, King Arthur, Knights of the Round Table, Norfolk, Sir Gawain and Le Gringalet, Touring Britain, Touring England

Where the Welsh princes still live on – a ride to Dolbadarn in the Llanberis Pass


Dolbadarn Caslte, Gwynedd

Dolbadarn Caslte, Gwynedd - a statement in the Welsh mountains

What is it about Wales, dear reader, that conjures in the mind the mysteries of medieaval Britain? Is it the fact that it is bound from Prestatyn to Chepstow by that great dyke of King Offa of the Saxons – sealing it off from England like a great curtain of earth across the marches? Is it the looming mountains shrowded in mists and rain which evoke a land almost beyond the land – a  true Valhalla for the scented isle of Albion? Or is it the dark secrets and stories which my old friend Geraldus Cambrensis liked to tell over the fires at night time?

Whatever the reason, Wales was – and is – a land of magical beauty, and a land where my blood still runs and where my head turns in search of the true Britain which I seek and pray for in my travels. Here, on le Gringalet, I chose to visit again the very land which perhaps defines what scholars have called the Matter of Britain and, perhaps, the ultimate legendary home of my true king, Arthur – King of the Britons.

And so it was, after much travelling, that I arrived at the halls of Dolbadarn once again. Here is a favourite place of mine – its tower standing proudly and yet minutely against the backdrop of its cold black, old black slate and grey mountains. Here the harp plays in the secret fastness of the hills. And there, a raven-headed girl flashes blue eyes at me over the fire side as she sings the stories of the Mabinogion…

The last time I was down this way, the only view of Dolbadarn I saw was through the slit of my visor. These were troubled lands in troubled times: Edward Longshanks had builded such a wall around the north of Wales that few could prize themselves from its iron grip. To the west, Caernarfon, Beaumaris, Harlech and even Cricieth. To the north, Conwy, Rhuddlan and Fflint. To the east, Chirk and Builth. To the south, Aberystwyth.

The fingers of that great lord tightened stone by stone and the long days of Llewelyn ap Gruffydd – seen by many as the last true Prince of Wales – were coming to an end. At Orewen Bridge, alas, he died a lonely and somewhat ignominious death at the hands of Stephen of Frankton, a low-ranking knight (and not of my acquaintance).

But let us not dwell too harshly on those days – it repays us not to boil resentment in a cauldron long since cooked dry. Instead, let us see what still remains in majesty to look down upon the great pass of Llanberis: the great tower of Dolbadarn, built by Llewelyn Fawr, Llewelyn the Great.

In true form, of course, Dolbadarn is a classic castle of the Welsh. It is not sophisticated, indeed it is somewhat crude and yet, like many of the great English castles set within their landscape, this is a castle of statement. Unlike Ewloe, strangely hidden in the woods near Chester, Dolbadarn is unafraid.

It is a proud place and, no doubt, was built so to be. It is not built to high up the Pass, for in winter it would be inaccessible. It is not built too low, for it would be too exposed. No, it stands proudly in the centre of the Pass, visible from both ends and from the glistening Llyn Padarn below – a statement of ownership of this damp, wet and looming landscape.

In my time, I remember well this compact castle and the cluster of huts and houses around its base. Alas, like the captains and the kings, the princes and their lovers, they have long gone but the tower still remains – enough so in my mind to see it as once it was. The steps leading up to its entrance have changed but once at the entrance it still makes me smile to see provision for a portcullis. Clearly, what the Welsh may have lacked in money they made up for in craft and were still capable – as at Dinas Bran – of adding complex features to even the simplest of buildings.

I scale the steps which once led to a most exquiste bedroom but alas now only birds and insects flit around where once we sat and exchanged stories in the quietness. There is no roof now, no floors, no drapery, no plaster. Dolbadarn is but a shell and yet, and yet. Visit this place on a quiet day, ascend the steps of the tower and listen…

Listen to poetry sung in ancient Welsh. Listen to the poets’ voices as they whisper adventure, love and many things. Think now of the words of Iolo Goch as he described the castle of Sycharth, home of Owain Glyn Dwr, seen by some as the very last prince of Wales:

There are joists upon the hillside

As in a vault, side by side,

And each one, in a tight-knit

Pattern, to the next is knit

Twice nine dwellings to look up

To a wood fort on a hill top.

Next to heaven his court towers

On four marvellous pillars,

A loft tops all, built carefully,

With all four rooms for friendship

Joined as one, where minstrels sleep…

Dolbadarn, a ruin now, still sings its song to all who care to listen when they venture up the Llanberis Pass in search of beauty now instead of war. While its outer walls are but mere foundations, its tower is like a siren song for all in search of simple, yet profound, majesty.

Note: For modern travellers, the remains of Dolbadarn are now managed by Cadw. Be prepared for some steep car-parking charges (fees charged by the day to cater for hill walkers) at a large car park just below the castle. I believe the original castle car park is still open where you can park just to visit the castle itself.

SEE INSIDE DOLBADARN: Follow this link from author Owen Law who is writing his first novel: follow his links to his You Tube video of the keep’s stark interior!

 

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Filed under British History, British Landscape, Castles, Castles of Wales, Dolbadarn, Gawain and the Green Knight, Historic places to visit in Britain, King Arthur, Knights of the Round Table, Sir Gawain and Le Gringalet, Touring Britain, Welsh History