Tag Archives: Aydon Castle

10 tips to get the best out of your visit to a medieval site.

Abbey church, Rievaulx Abbey 5

Abbey Church, Rievaulx Abbey

I visit loads of medieval sites. Not only do I find them interesting in themselves, but they can also help me to set the scene when I’m writing my novels. I visited a small manor house in Dorset a couple of months ago and it’s become the house in which the heroine of my current work in progress learned how to manage a household. In another novel, a fortified manor house in the Midlands became the property my hero has to defend against a band of ruthless outlaws.

Over the years I’ve learned a few things about visiting medieval sites and I thought I would share some of them with you.

1. Wear sturdy shoes

Most medieval buildings are ruins and the ground, stones and steps are uneven. Although climbing on walls is forbidden, you will probably have to walk over bits of wall in your tour of the site. You don’t want to turn your ankle in the middle of nowhere while you’re wandering around an abbey alone. Wear something that will provide a bit of support if you can. The paths are usually gravel and you will undoubtedly encounter grass, which might be wet.

2. Wrap up warm – even in summer

Castles tend to be on hills and abbeys are often in valleys. Since the sides of buildings will be missing and rooves are rare, you will be exposed to the elements during your visit. The weather in England can be changeable. It has rained almost every day this June and it’s mostly cold, but it’s very warm when the sun does make an appearance, so you need to have sunglasses and sunblock ready as well. I took the photograph below in mid-April wearing a thick woolly jumper, gloves and coat. If I’d had a hat with me. I’d have worn it as well. Three days earlier I was strolling around in bright sunshine without a coat.

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Barnard Castle

3. Buy the guide book

Guide books are always useful. They usually have a map of the site and this will often use different colours to show when parts of the castle, abbey or house were built.  There is always something you didn’t know or couldn’t work out for yourself in the guide book, including the history of the site. They’re also helpful when it comes to labelling your photographs later.

4. Be prepared to walk and climb

Some medieval sites are quite large and you will walk quite a distance during your tour. If there’s a keep involved, you could be climbing several flights of stairs, some of them very narrow and uneven.  Supplies for Old Sherborne Castle used to be brought up these steps every day from boats, but I found them hard work.

Old Sherborne Castle

The Barbican, Old Sherborne Castle

At many castles you can walk around the outer perimeter and that might be a lengthy walk.

5. Look up.

Those in charge did most things on the first floor, which, in many buildings, hasn’t survived. You will still get some idea of how they lived if you remember to look up occasionally.

This view is labelled the Great Hall at Kenilworth Castle, but you’ll notice that the fireplace and the windows are halfway up the wall. What appear to be arches on the ground, are the remnants of vaults. The great hall was on top of them. Visitors and guests had to go upstairs to visit the largest space in the castle.

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The Great Hall, Kenilworth Castle

Glances upwards will almost always be rewarded. This is the Tudor ceiling at Muchelney Church. It’s from a much later period than I’m usually interested in, but it’s beautiful. Sometimes there’s a clue that you should look up. You might just be able to see the mirror halfway down the church, placed there to enable people to view the ceiling without hurting their necks or risk of falling over.

Muchelney Church

The ceiling, Muchelney Church

6. Label your photographs the day you take them

I’m very bad at this and have too many photographs that make me pause and wonder why I thought their subject was interesting. Having the guidebook to hand when you do this will help. Something else I find useful is photographing the boards that are usually to be found scattered around the site telling you what you’re looking at.

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7. Show the staff you’re interested

Talk to the staff who look after the site. No one knows as much about the site as they do or is as interested in it as they are, unless it’s their first week at the site, in which case they will probably avoid making eye contact. Unless they’re really busy, they’re happy to answer any questions you might have. Because I ask questions, I’ve been shown things of interest I might have missed, or been told stories that aren’t in the guide book. At one castle the site manager told me his theories about how many times a particular fireplace had been moved and at an abbey the manager told me what he knew about the Saxon history of his site.

8. Do your research

Earlier this year, I visited an abbey founded in the twelfth century to discover that most of the pre-fifteenth-century bits had been destroyed. It was interesting, but not as interesting for me as it would have been had there still been earlier remains. If you’re interested in a particular period, make sure that the site concerned has something to offer you. Many will have been ‘improved’ over the centuries. Most places have websites, but you’ll need to read them with care.

9. Look at the outsides of buildings as well as the insides.

I try to walk around as much of the outside of a building as I can. Sometimes this is unsafe, especially where there’s a river or a moat.

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Aydon Castle

There was no hint of this rather wonderful chimney on the inside of the building.

10. Finish the trip with a visit to a good pub

This hardly needs to be said.

I hope these tips are useful and you can find time this summer to visit a medieval site.

 

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

Available now:

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Anatomy of a Castle – Latrines

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Garderobe, Aydon Castle

Since my novels are romances, arrangements for some of the more mundane aspects of life are rarely mentioned, although Tilda, the heroine of my novel The Monk’s Tale, does use a visit to the outhouse at an inn as an excuse to meet Mark, her prospective rescuer.  My recent visits to castles in the North East has provided me with many examples of latrines and garderobes and I thought some of them might be of interest.

Since castles were usually built on top of hills they weren’t always near running water, which could be a problem when it came to disposing of waste. If you were fortunate enough to be by a river or the sea, garderobes could be positioned over the moat, which would take the waste to them. None of the castles I visited this year were that blessed.

In many castles, like Aydon in the picture at the top of the post, the garderobe chutes jutted out a little from the external wall and waste simply fell to the ground. I’m sure one of the lower servants was tasked with clearing it up and taking it away every now and again.

Some people had private garderobes. This wasn’t a matter of privacy, but of status.  Privacy wasn’t something that really concerned people in the Middle Ages. Many latrines were communal, with people sitting next to one another. They weren’t always situated where they were most needed, but the lord could have one where it was most convenient for him.

Strictly speaking, Aydon Castle isn’t a castle, but a fortified manor house. I’ll still use it as an example, though, as its lord had a private garderobe. As you can see in the photograph below, the Garderobe Tower extends beyond the wall of the castle and is on the edge of a ravine. It was just off the solar block where the lord and his family slept and spent most of their time when they were indoors. Only they had access to their garderobe.

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Garderobe Tower, Aydon Castle

Garderobes and latrine blocks today, like other castle buildings, look grim and grey, but that’s not necessarily how they looked in the Middle Ages. Here’s a photograph I took of an English heritage information board at Old Sarum. It’s an artist’s impression of the king’s privy. As you can see, it might have been quite cosy. You’ll notice that the king has a servant with him.

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Old Sarum

The king’s privy was over a deep pit at the bottom of which were straw and bark chippings. Someone had to be lowered on a rope into the pit to dig it out when the king wasn’t in residence. I imagine the smell would have disturbed him too much if it had been done while he was there, since it was close to the royal apartments.

Here’s a latrine pit at Old Sarum.

Latrine pit, Old Sarum

Latrine pit, Old Sarum

There are latrines everywhere at Conisbrough Castle, serving not just the lord’s family, but soldiers and servants as well.

The one in the photograph below was probably for the soldiers guarding the keep. It’s just off the entrance chamber at the bottom of the keep. There would have been some kind of wooden seat on top of the stone, but the hole would have been open to the elements. It would have been unpleasant to use at any time of year, but must have been particularly bad during freezing weather in winter.

Latrine off entrance chamber, the keep, Conisbrough Castle

Latrine, off the keep’s entrance chamber, Conisbrough Castle

This one was the lord’s. It was private, just off his bedchamber. It really doesn’t look any more comfortable than that of the soldiers. It was higher up, though, and further away from any unpleasant smells.

Latrine off the bedchamber, the keep, Conisbrough Castle

Latrine off the bedchamber, Conisbrough Castle

It has a long chute.

Latrine off bedchamber, the keep, Conisbrough Castle

This one might have been for prisoners in their prison cell, but it’s just as likely to have been for soldiers and servants.

Prison with latrine, Conisbrough Castle

Here’s the latrine pit, which, you guessed it, someone had to dig out.

Latrine chute, Conisbrough Castle

Latrine pit, Conisbrough Castle

There were, as you can see, a few ways of dealing with waste. None of them can have been entirely satisfactory, especially if you were the one who had to dig it out and dispose of it.

 

Sources:

Aydon Castle by Henry Summerson

Old Sarum by John McNeill

Conisbrough Castle by Stephen Brindle and Agnieszka Sadraei

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

Available now:

TheHeirsTale-WEB

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Amazon

 

 

31 Comments

Filed under Castle, Manor House, Medieval Buildings