|Goodrich Castle - knocked about a bit by Cromwell|
I was in the driving seat this time, and we went to Goodrich Castle, near Ross-on-Wye. It's an impressive castle, but smaller than we remembered it.
Its defences are formidable, and yet it only had to be defended against the Welsh once. I imagine the Welsh took a long, thoughtful look at the cunningly arranged towers, the barbican, moat and all, and moved on to somewhere easier.
But it was the keep that made the lasting impression on us, the oldest part of the castle, of grey stone, while the rest is of red sandstone. It was built in the mid to late 12th century, and was done on the cheap. Richard De Clare wasn't a favourite with Henry II, it seems, on account of his having sided with Stephen against Henry's Mum, so he was a bit short on funding.
|The grey keep rising above the red towers|
So then we climbed the keep, as you do. Well, it was there. And, good lord, I realised that when I'd imagined the Sterkarms climbing their tower stairs, I'd been thinking of bigger castles, and had given them far too much elbow room.
But the Sterkarm tower would have been quite small and built on the cheap too, because the Sterkarms are only farmers, who have to scrabble about for enough money to build their towers, for protection.
I've climbed the stairs in plenty of other towers. I knew they were narrow and twisty. I knew that there wouldn't be room to pass another person on the stairs - well, that was partly the point.
But those stairs at Goodrich! Even in daylight, a section was almost completely dark, and the steps were so narrow that they were more like ledges than steps - and worn ledges at that.
They didn't just twist - they corkscrewed in a tight spiral. It was like turning yourself round on the spot, but climbing up at the same time. And you were touching the walls on either side all time.
And steep! It was like climbing a corkscrewing ladder in the dark - but a corkscrewing ladder with a tight box built round it.
Thank goodness for the stout rope, with large knots, that had been fastened to the central pillar for you to hang on to.
We got to the top, and enjoyed the views over the Wye Valley - but hanging over us was the knowledge that we had to go back down those steps sooner or later.
We wondered how people felt about climbing them on some cold winter's night in 11-umpty-plonk, with nobutt a guttering candle. "I bet they had that rope on the stairs then," I said, "to help them get up."
"They'd have done better," said the bro, "hanging the rope out the window and shinning up and down that way. In fact," he said, warming to his theme, "I can see why Rapunzel was such a popular girl. Abseiling up and down her plaits would have been a sight easier than climbing those stairs."
We did get down - you'll be glad to know that I'm not writing this blog from the top of Goodrich keep. First we put all cameras, sunglasses and other hand-occupying things away in pockets and belt-pouches to have both hands free. We clutched that rope and, in the pitch-dark section, groped about with toes to make sure we found those stone ledges.
"How easy it is to imagine..." You're always hearing this in programmes about anything historical, and it always makes me want to throw things. No! It is not easy at all to imagine what life was like in the past, even when you try hard. We were startled by the claustrophobic narrowness, steepness and darkness of the stairs - but would someone in 1148 have been? Or would they have simply been awed that the keep had stairs at all? - And was built of stone and had three storeys? Or is that making them too unsophisticated?
It's the same when looking at the castle from outside. Today, we look at impressive ruins, and they're romantic, picturesque, historic... But even if we could see the castle restored to exactly how it would have looked in, say, 1300, we would still be seeing it through modern eyes, within the framework of a modern, democratic, secular understanding.
It's not easy at all to understand how a fisherman on the Wye, or a farmer in the fields around the castle, would have understood it. Would it have been the stronghold of his oppressors? The home of his employer? The impressive show-home of the local celebrity? The dwelling-place of the God-appointed ruler of that place?
Maybe they saw the castle as a bit of all of the above. Or maybe it was just the everyday and largely ignored background to their lives, as most of the buildings we pass every day are to ours.
But I'm hoping I get a chance to rewrite those Sterkarm staircases.
No Blott this week, I'm afraid. Illness and OU study have combined to keep Blott at home.