A visit to my local castle

By the time this post goes up, my officially-ordained break from work will be over and there will be, already is, really quite a lot to try to catch up on before teaching restarts and we resume the will-we-won’t-we dance over teaching face-to-face in the plague year. Happily, my backlog now reaches a series of photo posts recounting medievalist travel, which are at least simpler for me to write and hopefully at least a similar level of entertainment for you. And we begin with probably the most significant medieval remain within an hour’s journey of my home other than Kirkstall Abbey, already covered some time ago, and that remain is Skipton Castle.

Street entrance to Skipton Castle through its barbican

Street entrance to the castle through its barbican, very much giving the correct impression I think

Inner wall, towers and private buildings at Skipton Castle, seen from the bailey

Inner wall, towers and private buildings, seen from the bailey, again accurately performing ‘formidable’ I’d say

The roots of this edifice go back to the twelfth century, when a Norman baron set up here as did so many in their places, but the current version is substantially fourteenth-century, part of a rebuild carried out by Robert Clifford, who himself perished at the Battle of Bannockburn but whose family would still be holding it, via a slightly complex inheritance in the female line, come the English Civil War (you know, the one we actually call that as opposed to any of the others).

Slighted and rebuilt wall inside one of the towers of Skipton Castle

Slighted and rebuilt wall inside one of the towers

Lady Anne Clifford held for the Crown, but given that that was the losing side, had to negotiate terms once the end had come. Despite that, she somehow managed to bargain the Lord Protector into letting her maintain the castle roughly as was, as long as she thinned the walls so that they couldn’t support artillery. This makes the fabric inside the upper levels look oddly as if it has all-round window seating, as seen above, but what’s left still seems pretty gosh-darn defensible to me.

Walls of Skipton Castle seen from the canal below

The walls seen from the canal below. Go on, get into that…

On the inside, if they let you be there, Skipton Castle has a lot of the features you’d really want your idealised castle to have: there’s a banqueting hall…

Banqueting hall of Skipton Castle

… served by an almost equally huge kitchen…

North-west end of the medieval kitchen in Skipton Castle

North-west end, showing only the largest of the fireplaces

and a dungeon, complete with marks carved into the walls, perhaps by its unlucky occupants!

The dungeon of Skipton Castle

Dungeon dank and dark!

Prisoners' marks in the dungeon wall at Skipton Castle

Prisoners’ marks in the dungeon wall

And there’s also a central courtyard in which grows a yew tree that is now getting on for being taller than the castle, was planted by none other than Lady Anne in 1659, and is clearly thus the oldest inhabitant, which appeals to my ill-buried hippy sentiments rather.

Conduit Court, with yew tree, at Skipton Castle

Conduit Court, with yew tree in residence

It also has, outside the inner circuit of walls, which as that courtyard may suggest crowd in quite close, a thirteenth-century chapel that was when operational dedicated to Saint John the Evangelist. It looks all right from some aspects…

East end of the erstwhile chapel of St John at Skipton Castle

East end of the erstwhile chapel of St John: ‘the damage doesn’t seem so bad from out here’

… but from the long sides it becomes clear that this building has suffered what can only be called A Series of Unfortunate Events.

South side of the erstwhile chapel of Saint John the Evangelist, Skipton Castle

South side, showing really more windows and doors than any chapel really needs, I feel

The inside only confirms the impression.

Inside view of the south wall of the erstwhile chapel of ST John the Evangelist at Skipton Castle

Yes; bad things happened to this building

It turns out that the chapel spent quite a lot of its life as a stable and some as a tithe barn, and in general its owners have found many reasons why its apertures were in the wrong place and needed replacing or closing. It’s a mess to try and figure out, though the tiny-print interior signage does just about make it possible. With the castle, however, one could get quite familiar quite quickly; it’s of a scale that one can more or less hold its layout in one’s head after only an hour or two but you can still see how an aristocrat’s household could fit in it and not crowd each other. It seems that either there are rooms they don’t want you to photograph or that I was having to husband a dying camera battery as is all too usual, because I don’t have photos of a lot of the actual living spaces, but I did have enough charge for two shots of the castle as seen from the canal spur that was built to serve it when canals were built, and they make it very clear why the Normans chose the spot. Happily it’s a lot easier to visit than this makes it appear…

The south-west corner of Skipton Castle and the end of the ridge on which it sits, viewed from the canal below

The south-west corner of the castle and the end of the ridge on which it sits, viewed from the canal below

… and although it’s not possible to do so right now in our current unpleasant circumstances, it has been recently and hopefully will be again soon. So if you haven’t, and you’re nearby, I strongly recommend it. Some reviews I’ve seen suggest that more reenactors or waxworks or action would help some visitors, but the relatively bare kitting-out of the spaces makes it seem to me like a home someone’s moved out of, and one gets to feel as if one is viewing it as a potential buyer. I’m pretty sure the owners aren’t selling, but they at least make the pretence possible and I think it’s well worthwhile.

9 responses to “A visit to my local castle

  1. I don’t watch the TV news but this evening my wife insisted I join her. ITN said that universities (in England) will remain closed except for certain subjects. I have no idea what that means; perhaps you can explain once it’s clear to you?

    • In the case of Leeds, we’re open for Clinical and Social Work programmes only, and everyone else barring necessary support staff is to stay home; we’re still teaching online, however. Both the BBC and (apparently) ITN seem a little confused by the actual government regs, which are on for all to see, but they don’t preclude online instruction. Universities are able to make their own calls about how long that will last, and I know of two already (not yet Leeds) that have decided to run the whole rest of the year online rather than change again halfway through a term. So, everything changes and nothing does!

  2. The pictures of your visit look exactly like mine. We apparently have the same eye. I was there about 8 years ago while in the UK and forced my wife to inspect every room and crevice with me. I wish I knew the background on the yew tree then. I was wondering why they let the scraggly old thing still stand. My visit to the castle was followed by a nice visit to the Holy Trinity church near by.

    • Oddly, I’ve not yet made it to the church. Now would not be the time to try, alas, but I shall remember. I also inspected most rooms I could, and nearly some I couldn’t, but for some reason don’t have the photos. But the post would be longer if I had…

  3. (i) Thanks for the explanation, JJ.

    (ii) “I was wondering why they let the scraggly old thing still stand.”

    There are people who hold that it’s bad luck to destroy a yew. Yews are often associated with old religious sites – graveyards, churches, and even sites alleged to predate Christianity in Britain.

    Of course rationalists like me scoff at such rubbish. And then a neighbour decided to hire tree surgeons to tame his burgeoning yew. They did a bloody awful job: it looks dreadful. Spooky!

    • There are a lot of yews in churchyards in England, and one or two of them have been cored and found to be genuinely really old, as in, a couple of thousand years plus. The obvious one for me, which I’m proud to have ‘met’, is the Fortingall Yew, which very much looks the part. St Giles’s Coldwaltham, in Sussex, shows that it’s not just a Scottish phenomenon. In cases like that, it’s reasonable to suppose, I think, that the church is where it is (because the first church there was put there) because the site was already a ritual focus of some kind, which was therefore co-opted as per the recommendations of Pope Gregory I. Whether that then means that other people establishing other church sites felt as if they needed a yew tree of their own, I wouldn’t like to guess. If they got their yew by taking a cutting from one of the old ones—in the way that the Guernica oak has been planted all round the world—it might still be pre-Christian in significance even so! It’s the age of them, rather than the religious significance, that I find powerful myself; it makes me glad to think anything can be living from so long ago.

  4. As an atheist I worry about the old churches in England. On historical and aesthetic grounds I’d like to see many of them survive. But the CoE is in such decline that presumably it soon won’t be able to keep them weather-tight, even if it were to sack its great superfluity of Bishops, Deans, and general administrative hangers-on.

    I don’t think inviting non-conformists to share them can save the day because their numbers are tumbling too.

    I imagine the general taxpayer will have to stump up, if enough of them agree with me. There will be arguments about which are worth ‘saving’.
    So be it. (Or “awomen” as the US Congress now apparently says.)

    • I feel something like the same way here. While not being in any way likely to be part of maintaining their primary purpose, I don’t want them to just fall down and I also feel it’s kind of sad that we as a people don’t apparently believe in anything that much any more. Although I suppose a future archaeologist might construct a reasonable picture of a UK high street as an arcade of minor competing temples. The cults of Next and H&M had a particularly fine line in plastic idols, which it was the ritual to attire in new clothes every month. Whole industries were kept alive attiring the idols and the people who dressed like the idols to indicate their allegiance to the cult. The debate on whether a Next devotee was also allowed to worship at Costa, whose ritual seems to have involved libations rather than dress, is still ongoing…

      • Addendum: I think this place was the first one to get me thinking about what could be done with old churches, and it may be familiar to you. An old colleague was later buried in All Saints—which is gorgeous inside, by the way—and that was the first time I’d heard of it being used in my time in the city. That also made me happy. But keeping them all roofed and upright to be used so occasionally does seem quite a challenge…

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