Castles of the UK: Abergavenny Castle

img_2313After our fun-filled week in Cardiff, we were nearing the end of our trip, and planned to spend the last few nights winding down at our friend’s house as we prepared for the big trek back to Australia. Unfortunately, this meant leaving not only Cardiff, but Wales as well. However, the direction we were heading meant we could make one last top in Wales, and gave us the opportunity to visit one more castle… Abergavenny. And yes, my Dad insisted on singing the song the whole way up.

For those of you who don’t know, Abergavenny is a small(ish) market town in the bottom half of Wales, close to the border. It takes about an hour to drive to get there  from Cardiff, and due to my mum’s particular need to get up at the crack of dawn, we got there pretty early in the day. The castle has a museum on site, but we were gone before it was open as we didn’t have time to stay. But that’s okay, because there were large information boards around the ruins that gave us enough information to help us along.

As with almost every castle in the UK, we can thank the Normans for Abergavenny’s. The castle was initially established in about 1087, and was the scene for a bloody series of events. In the 1160s, the son of the Lord of Abergavenny, Henry Fitzmiles, was killed supposedly by the Welsh Lord of Gwent, Seisyll ap Dyfnwal. Without an heir, the castle and the lands passed to nephew, William de Braose. De Braose rebuilt parts of the castle and over Christmas in 1175, invited Seisyll and his son to the castle, together with other leaders from Gwent. The men were expecting reconciliation but instead met death, as De Braose had the men killed in the Great Hall in an unexpected act of revenge. In 1182, Seisyll’s family attacked and burnt the (then-wooden) castle down, although De Braose wasn’t there at the time. Violent!

The castle was later rebuilt in stone, and the ruins you see today belong partly to this version of the castle, and partly to later additions. Although there isn’t too much remaining today, I found Abergavenny Castle to be impressive and interesting never-the-less. The ruins are quite dramatic themselves, but against the pretty backdrop they really pop. With a couple of illustrations on the information boards and a wild imagination, I could picture just how magnificent the castle must have looked in its hey day.

How then, did Abergavenny Castle wind up in its sorry state today? Rather than negligence like we’ve seen with other castles, the damage on this site was deliberate. During the English Civil War, parliamentary forces were nearing the castle when King Charles I ordered its slighting to prevent it falling to their forces. Most of the buildings, including its stone keep, were destroyed, and some of the stone was later used for other buildings.

The only alteration to the site after its destruction was in 1819 when Henry Nevill, the Earl of Abergavenny, had a hunting lodge built atop the motte. This building today houses the museum, which focuses largely on local history. Amongst other things in its collection, including history relating to the castle, the museum house three rather interesting displays; a saddlers’ shop, a 1960s “Welsh Kitchen”, and a local grocery shop.

Although it initially does not look like much, Abergavenny Castle proves to be an interesting little stop. The grounds are very pretty and it would be nice for a picnic on a sunny day, the ruins are dramatic, and the castle’s history is interesting. The town of Abergavenny itself is sweet, so if you’re in the area, be sure to pop over and check out both the town and the castle!

-S

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Castles of the UK: Cardiff Castle

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After leaving London and its (in)famous Tower, we actually didn’t visit a castle for an entire week! This is because we were too busy basing ourselves in Bristol and visiting Lacock Abbey, Bath (so pretty!), Stonehenge (very dramatic!), and Salisbury Cathedral (awe-inspiring!). We then drove over the River Severn and into the ancestral home of my Dad’s side of the family- Wales! We arrived the day before the opening of the 2016 Golden Oldies World Rugby Festival in Cardiff, our actual reason for the holiday in the first place, since my Dad was playing. I could go on about the festival itself, but that’s not what this post is about! On our first non-game day of the week, we made my way to Cardiff Castle, walking distance from our hotel in the centre of the city. I had technically been there already, since our opening march started at the castle, but hadn’t had the chance to explore.

The first thing I did in the castle was pay the extra £3 on top of the entrance fee to join the next available house tour. Considering the tour is 50 minutes long with an experienced guide, and you get to see parts of the house you can’t see by just exploring yourself, it’s well worth the money. And you simply can’t go to Cardiff Castle without going into the house, because it is absolutely magnificent inside, with every room richly decorated with gilding, carvings, and paintings. These are not original, but there is a very interesting story behind them.

When the castle came into the hands of John Crichton-Stuart, the Third Marquess of Bute, in the 1800s, he decided he wanted to completely renovate the interior of the house. Fascinated with medieval decor, the Marquess employed William Burges, and the two together formulated and created what is seen today; rooms that are amongst the most magnificent of the Gothic Revival style. Our tour started in the Clock Tower, an 1868 addition to the castle that houses bachelor rooms, including a bedroom, servant’s room, and the summer and winter smoking rooms. The summer smoking room is only accessible on a separate tour, but the winter smoking room was the first we entered. This room completely blew me away, and I could have stared at the painted ceiling for hours. Everything was incredibly detailed, from the depiction of a hunt across the fireplace, the representations of Morning, Afternoon, Evening, and Night in the corners and the weekdays on the windows, and even the monster painted above the entrance, designed to scare off women so they don’t enter the men’s realm. I’m happy to report it didn’t work for me, and so I was able to enjoy the splendour within!

Our next stop was the nursery designed for the Marquess’s four children. Here the theme is myths, fables, and nursery rhymes, and this was amongst my favourite rooms in the house. See if you can recognise some of the tales in the pictures below, they’re certainly still well-known today! I also loved the depiction of three of the great sources of children’s stories on the fireplace; Aesop, Scheherazade, and Geoffrey Chaucer. It also shows just how well-learned both the Marquess and Burges were, drawing on a range of different cultural sources.

It became pretty obvious as we continued the tour that each room had a central theme, and the lengths taken to achieve those themes was just amazing. Everything, and I mean everything, was carefully planned and crafted to bring the places to life. Some of my favourite rooms included the Grand Banqueting Hall, depicting the castle itself in earlier times; the Marquess’s bedroom, containing extensive religious iconography; the library, with its focus on worldly knowledge; and the Arab Room. Unfortunately, access into the Arab Room is limited to protect its interior, but you can get the full experience yourself by clicking here. Don’t forget to look up, and prepare to be amazed!

The end of the tour finds you in a small room just behind the library. Here you learn that, sadly, Burges died before the interior of the castle could be completed. As charming as this room is, it clashes horribly with the rest of the house, and you are left wondering just exactly what it could have been. In fact, there are monkeys carved into the doorway that leads from the room into the library, the beginning of work that was never finished. With the end of the tour, I took a moment to back-track for another look at the Arab Room, and a more intensive inspection of the library, before meeting my parents back outside on the castle grounds.

Like most of the castles we’ve met before, it’s not surprisingly to learn that Cardiff Castle was built in the late 11th century, and commissioned by either our good friend William the Conqueror or one of his barons, Robert Fitzhamon. The wooden structure was rebuilt in stone in the 12th century, and it’s the shell of that building that we see today. The castle has enjoyed a fairly colourful history, repeatedly involved in the conflicts between the Anglo-Normans and the Welsh throughout the 12th century, notably stormed in 1404 during the revolt of Owain Glyndwr, and changing hands multiple times during the English Civil War.

Today, you can climb the keep, and that’s what I did next. It’s not incredibly tall, but it does give you pretty cool views over the city. I’m glad it was such a lovely day in Cardiff- I could see really, really far! After a little hiccough on the way back down- I’m very scared of heights and got a little frightened!- I made it back to the rest of the team and decided to check out the features of the castle’s more modern history.

During World War Two, air raid shelters were built into the castle walls. Entrances were modified to allow a large number of people to get in quickly, and could provide protection for up to 1,800 people! Unsurprisingly, the shelters quickly became more than just a place to wait for the bombing to stop; dormitories with bunks, toilets, first aid posts, and even kitchens were built within the walls. Today, parts of the wall’s interior are set up to represent this time period… minus several hundred other people crowding inside. When you walk through there are the sounds of planes and bombs playing through the speakers. It’s not hard to imagine how terrifying it must have been waiting in the walls during war time! Given that the time in the shelter of the walls would have been such a meaningful collective memory for the people of Cardiff, I think that it’s really nice that the Fourth Marquess bequeathed the castle to the people of Cardiff when he died in 1947.

If I was a little bit better organised with my time, I would have spent longer at Cardiff Castle. Next time I think I’ll take a Clock Tower Tour to see the summer smoking room, but there’s actually a whole bunch of other tours offered by the castle. I also skipped out on the joint Regimental Museum of the 1st the Queen’s Dragoon Guards and the Royal Welsh, as well as the specialised Firing Line: Cardiff Castle Museum of the Welsh Soldier. If you want to make a full day of the castle, Bute Park to the north and west of the castle were once castle grounds, but were eventually sold to the city, and are open to visitors today. I managed a little walk through it on a different day, and it’s certainly very pretty!

I enjoyed my beautiful day spent at Cardiff Castle, and I will continue to be amazed at the Gothic Revival interior for years to come! It certainly takes your breath away and transports you to a world of fantasy the moment you step into the doors. This castle should be on your list if you’re heading off to Wales, whether it’s history or architecture that you’re seeking!

-S

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Castles of the UK: Tower of London

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After leaving Warwick Castle behind, we travelled down to London for a couple of days. To be honest, I don’t think we scheduled enough time for this massive city, and so we had to be very picky with what we went to see… and the Tower of London was always going to make the list! However, we had tickets to see The Lion King that night, and when we arrived at the castle later in the day than initially planned, we knew that our time there would be short. We decided to make the most of it by following a Yeoman Warder (aka Beefeater) on one of the free tours.

The Yeoman Warders have actually been at the Tower of London since the 14th century, and since then, have lived with their families inside the walls of the castle. In fact, Mint Street, to your left when you first enter the castle, is the main residential area today. Each Yeoman Warder does their own research and develops their own personal style before taking tours. Our particular Beefeater, I’m sorry to say I can’t remember his name, had a very dry, sarcastic style, and after getting a general feel for the crowd, focused on the bloody stories of imprisonment and execution… which was perfectly fine by me!

After meeting just inside the main entrance in the outer bailey of the castle, our guide led us through the Byward Tower and onto the section known as Water Lane. To our right was the River Thames and the notorious Traitor’s Gate, and to our left were two infamous towers; the Bloody Tower and the Wakefield Tower. Here, our guide told us how prisoners condemned to death would enter the castle through the gate before being held inside the castle. When their final day came, they would be taken to Tower Hill and beheaded in front of a crowd of people. Their bodies would then be paraded through the city on an open cart as a warning to others, and their heads impaled on a pike onto London Bridge… very gruesome, and, thankfully, a practice from long, long ago. Both Anne of Boleyn and Thomas Moore entered the castle through Traitor’s Gate before their executions.

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However, the Bloody Tower and the Wakefield Tower is not without its own horrid history. The Bloody Tower is linked to the Princes in the Tower; the two young sons of King Edward IV who were supposedly imprisoned, and later murdered in the tower. Supposedly, the boys’ uncle committed this crime, which allowed him to take the throne. Today we remember him as King Richard III. Meanwhile, the Wakefield Tower was where King Henry IV was murdered during the War of the Roses. He was attacked in the chapel, supposedly in the midst of prayer!

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After hearing these awful, but fascinating stories, our guide led us through a gate under the Bloody Tower- I believed he said it was the original portcullis- and into the inner bailey of the castle. Here we finally saw the White Tower; the original fortification on the site, and one of the famous symbols of London city. However, it was to the Tower Green where our guide led us. He first labelled the buildings around us, before talking about the very spot we were next to; the place of private execution for ten people. No doubt you’ll recognise some of the famous names; Queen Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry VIII; Queen Catherine Howard, the fifth wife of the same man; Lady Jane Grey, the ‘Nine-Day Queen’ who was nominated to the throne by Henry’s son, King Edward VI, but later overthrown by Queen Mary I. Others who shared the green as a place of execution include Jane Boleyn, sister-in-law to Anne Boleyn but actually executed along side Catherine as her lady-in-waiting; Margaret Pole, the Countess of Salisbury supposedly involved in a Catholic invasion; Robert Devereux, convicted of treason following a failed coup de’tat attempt; William, Lord of Hastings, a contender for the throne in the eyes of the same Richard who supposedly murdered his nephews; and Farquhar Shaw, Samual Macpherson and Malcolm Macpherson for their role in the Black Watch‘s mutiny. Whilst we stood at the Green, our guide finished the tour with the tragic story of Lady Grey, who was only sixteen years old at her time of execution. Despite her young age, she showed a great amount of courage on her day of execution, and it was clear that the Yeoman Warder telling her story saw it as the most regrettable act to ever happen on the Castle grounds.

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With the end of the tour, we asked for advice on what to do in the castle with our limited time left. We were recommended a quick tour through the White Tower, before going to see the Crown Jewels, if the line had died down. We agreed and made our way across to this famous landmark. Here I’d like to pause a minute to admire the history of this 900 year old keep, which has always played a bigger role in history than that of a prison and execution ground.

Of course, as with many other castles we visited in the UK, the history of the White Tower starts with William the Conqueror. Starting in the 1070s, and completed in 1100, the fortress was originally built to intimidate the unruly London mob, and to proclaim the power of the new King. At this time, this would have been the first building of its kind in London, and would have dominated the skyline for miles, something, I think, that can be still appreciated today by staring up at the building. The castle, however, was never a favourite royal residence, but rather a stronghold and fortress.

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The castle was first significantly expanded in the reign of King Henry III (1216-1272) with the Wakefield and Lanthorn Tower built. Their original purpose was as the royal apartments when the young boy stayed there in times of civil unrest. Henry also ordered a massive curtain wall on three sides, which was reinforced by nine new towers and a moat. This wall today encircles the inner-bailey, as King Edward I, his son, built a second wall around the first. By this time, the Tower of London was already in regular use as a prison for political prisoners, and its secure nature made it the perfect place for storing official papers and valuables, and for a major branch of the Royal Mint to be established. During the War of the Roses, the Tower probably enjoyed its closest ties to royalties; King Henry VI held tournaments within its walls, and the Tower saw coronation celebrations for King Edward IV and victory parties for King Henry VII.

King Henry VII also added royal residential buildings, while King Henry VIII erected a large range of timer-framed lodgings for the comfort and enjoyment for Queen Anne Boleyn in the 1530s (ironically, she stayed in these lodgings whilst waiting for her execution). From this point on, however, the castle both ceased to be an established royal residence and remained relatively unchanged. The number of political and religious prisoners increased with Henry’s break from Rome until the time of King Charles II.

From the mid-1600s onward, the castle featured a permanent garrison, installed by Oliver Cromwell, and was also the headquarters for the Office of Ordnance. The castle continued to function like this, relatively unchanged, until the 1800s, when the Royal Mint left in 1810, the Menagerie in the 1830s (which formed the nucleus of what later became the London Zoo), the Office of Ordnance in 1841, and the Record Office in 1858. During the two World Wars, the Tower was again used for a prison and execution ground, particularly for foreign spies, and was also damaged considerably during the Blitz.

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Today, however, the White Tower houses the Royal Armouries, a nod to its long history as a military storehouse. I loved the ‘Line of Kings’ armour display, show casing some of the finest armour ever made for English Kings. This is a display that was put together during the 1800s, and, something I found rather hilarious, actually originally contained many historical inaccuracies to present the most interesting display. Luckily, the line as been reformatted today, so it’s both impressive and accurate! There are also displays about the institutions that were housed in the castle over the years, the treasures of the Royal Armouries in the former Great Hall, and a large collection of guns, mortars, trophies, pikes, swords, and muskets. Separate to the armoury, but also in the White Tower, is St. John’s Chapel, which has survived complete from the Norman times it was originally built in!

With such a collection, it’s really no surprise that by the time we life the White Tower, we had to get a move on to the beautiful Lyceum Theatre. This meant no Crown Jewels and Coronation Regalia (although I did get to see the Crown Jewels of Scotland in Edinburgh Castle). This was, regrettably, just one item in a longer list of things we didn’t get to see… the ‘Medieval Palace’ (interiors of St. Thomas’ Tower, the Wakefield Tower, and the Lanthorn Tower), the Chapel Royal of St. Peter and Vincula in the inner bailey, the Beauchamp Tower containing prisoner’s graffiti (and named after a famous family we’ve already met), the lower section of the Wakefield Tower detailing the history of torture in the castle, the story of the Princes in the Bloody Tower, the wall walks, or even meeting the famous ravens of the castle!

To be honest, I am disappointed in our limited time spent at the Tower of London. If I had the option to go back to the entirety of the UK and see only one site again, this castle would be my first choice. So much more than a prison, I was completely blown away by the years of history. To think I stood in the same place where the wives of King Henry VIII stood all those years ago! Of all the castles, this is the one that left the biggest impression on me, and I can’t wait to get back and spend a full day there!

-S

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Castles of the UK: Warwick Castle

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Sorry for the silence over the past couple of days… it’s that time of year when you still want to relax, but also need to gear up for the new year!

The day after visiting Nottingham Castle, we travelled further south for the famous Warwick Castle. We had to squeeze this castle into an afternoon because we also visited the nearby Cadbury World in the morning, because chocolate. In the long run I’m glad we put these two together, because we certainly needed to do a lot of walking for all the chocolate we sampled!

Upon fist arriving at Warwick Castle it was very clear that this castle was going to be much different to the others we had visited (except perhaps Alnwick Castle), as it is very, very commercialised. This isn’t much of a surprise as the castle was sold to The Tussauds Groups in 1978, and later incorporated into Merlin Entertainments in 2007. However, the commercialisation isn’t necessary a bad thing, as the companies have been directly responsible for the painstaking restoration of the castle to its current glory.

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However, don’t think for even a second that Warwick Castle was never a “real” castle. It has a long and very impressive history. Ethelfleda, the daughter of Alfred the Great, was amongst the first to recognise the geographical importance of the site, ordering a fortification to be built in 914. William the Conqueror also recognised the point, ordering a motte and bailey castle to be built in 1068. Incredibly, two features of the landscape are the remains of this castle; the mound on which the keep would have been built, and a sunken ditch outside of the castle. Warwick Castle enjoyed the height of its fortunes under the de Beauchamp family, who owned it for 181 years. Since then, the castle has fluctuated between ruins, stately homes, and even the base for party weekends! Today the state rooms are staged to show off different time periods, and the scene is set well with the addition of life-like mannequins. I also was very impressed by the collection of weapons in the Great Hall!

What I discovered in my visit to Warwick Castle is that when you are talking about the castle, you are talking about a building that has played host to some of the most influential men in history. The two that stuck out in my mind were Richard de Beauchamp,  who oversaw the trial of Joan of Arc; and Richard Neville, also known as “Warwick the Kingmaker”, who deposed two kings; King Henry VI and King Edward IV. Scary, important people!

Impressive history aside, there are plenty of other things to do and see at Warwick Castle, and there were two that struck me in particular. The first was the jousting demonstration. The castle was actually granted a jousting licence in 1194, and it’s the same licence that allows them to joust today! To get to the display, we exited the Central Court, walked behind The Mound and down to the Avon River. There we crossed the bridge to get to the River Island. The island actually has a long history as the spot for entertainment; in the 1890s it housed a menagerie inhabited by Japanese deer, Chinese geese, an emu (Australia represent!), raccoons, ant bears, and even a baby elephant! However, on this day in August, it was a crowd of people and a few horses that used the space. The jousting display had a plot line, but to be honest, I was there for the precise horsemanship and showy sword fighting… which is exactly what I got! The knights were very impressive both on and off the horses (and easy on the eyes, which always helps!), and the squires were fantastic at keeping the crowd entertained. Definitely worth the visit if you’re at the castle, although I recommend getting down there early as they block the bridge when the island is full!

After the jousting, my Dad and I decided to take on the wall work. Don’t let the 500+ steps put you off… it really isn’t as hard as you’d think! We first climbed Guy’s Tower, 39 m (128 ft) tall, and completed in 1395. From there, it’s across the wall, through the Gate House, and up Caesar’s Tower, 44 m (144 ft) tall and completed in 1350. Both towers offer their own unique historical events and beautiful views of the castle buildings and surrounding town. Both towers are also unusually shaped for English towers; Guy’s Tower is polygonal whilst Caesar’s Tower is quatrefoil.

Unfortunately, after completing the wall walk, it was near closing time and we had to make our way out. I’m both happy and unhappy about only giving Warwick Castle a half-day. Whilst I didn’t get to see everything, I did prioritise the things I wanted most. I don’t think it would have been easy to tear myself away from the birds of prey display, grounds exploration, gardens, archery, trebuchet display, castle dungeons, and fighting demonstrations if I had the whole day there! But luckily the castle caters to people like me… with some fancy looking accommodation, so you can spend as long as you want there!

To me, Warwick Castle seems like the place that would have something for everyone; important history, fun activities, and wonderful demonstrations. Be sure to put it on your attraction list if you’re heading off to the UK for a holiday! But if crowds aren’t your thing, get there as early as you can, because there will be crowds and lines everywhere!

-S

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Castles of the UK: Nottingham Castle

img_5158We left Yorkshire far behind, travelling down south and stopping at Sherwood Forest before eventually arriving at Nottingham. We certainly felt in the thick of the Robin Hood legends! Our plan for the next day was to explore its very own Nottingham Castle.

Just like Clifford’s Tower previously, William the Conqueror seems to have been the first ruler responsible for placing a castle atop Castle Rock in Nottingham, building a wooden structure in 1067. In 1170 King Henry II replaced the structure with stone. Not long after, the castle became the famed residence of the notorious Sheriff of Nottingham, from the legends of Robin Hood. In 1330, perhaps the most controversial event took place at Nottingham Castle; supporters of King Edward III used the tunnels in the rock bed to sneak into the castle and kidnap his mother Queen Isabella and her lover Roger Mortimer. In fact, part of of the tunnels is still referred to as “Mortimer’s Hole”! Another significant event occurred in the castle in 1642, when Charles I used it as a rallying point, raising his standard at the beginning of the English Civil War. The castle ceased its use as a royal palace in 1600.

Today, little of the medieval castle remains, although you can still find runes on site. The surviving building is the palace built in 1679 by William Cavendish, the first Duke of Newcastle. The palace was actually converted to a municipal museum and art gallery in 1878, the first of its kind outside of London. The palace still functions as this today, and boasts rather a large collection. I could have spent hours exploring the building, you could really dedicate a whole day to it!

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Perhaps my favourite part of the art gallery and museum was the special exhibition on Leonardo Da Vinci’s drawings. I was lucky enough to visit at the same time that the castle displayed ten drawings by Da Vinci, many of them seem to be sketches in which he was practising perspective, developing technique, or other aspects of art, such as motion. Now I’m not much of an art person myself, by it was incredible to see the actual, everyday work of one of the world’s greatest minds!

After our exploration of the art gallery and museum, we decided to sign up for a cave tour. Beneath the castle is a labyrinth of man-made sandstone caves and tunnels that have been used since medieval times. Their functions have been ever-changing; wine cellars, secret passages, tanneries, residences, and even air-raid shelters! For our tour we were met by a very chirpy, eccentric character, seemingly boiling in his full 19th century outfit, who gave us a brief history of the palace before taking us down into the cool air. It was a lot of fun, and since the tunnels have played such a central role in the city, we learnt about Nottingham’s history as well.

The tour finished outside of the castle grounds, at the base of Castle Rock. From here you can choose to return to the castle through the tunnels with the guide, make your own way back to the front gates, or continue on in Nottingham. We went with the last option, as there was much more we wanted to explore. We were luckily right next to a pub, and we decided to stop there for lunch. However, this pub is not like any other.

Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem was establish in 1189 and is in contention for being the United Kingdom’s oldest pub. It has a modest front, but is actually built into sandstone caves. We elected to sit inside, the cool rock backing our table. Not just historically and architecturally impressive, the pub also serves out tasty meals and pints, all at an affordable price. Definitely worth the stop if you’re taking the time to visit Nottingham!

Despite not having the time to take a leisurely stroll through the beautiful grounds, my trip to Nottingham Castle was never-the-less memorable. If you’re a lover for art and artefacts, I certainly recommend a stop here!

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Special Post: Finding HP in the UK (Part 2/2)

Part 1 was posted last week, so here’s Part 2 🙂

Although my first post was about a couple of places I visited in the UK with links to the filming of HP, this post is only about one place. But boy, is it the place that you need to visit if you’re a HP fan; Warner Bros. Studio Tour: The Making of Harry Potter in London.img_6565

This attraction is not like the Wizarding World of Harry Potter attractions you can find at Universal Studios in Orlando, Osaka, or Hollywood; there are no rides. Instead, you get a intimate behind-the-scenes look at how the films were created. From props to set design, costume choices, special effects, visual effects, and the antics of the cast while filming, everything is available to discover.

Now I could easily spoil all of the cool information that you can discover and bombard you with photos. I err… took over 600 in the 6 hours I spent there. But I will not, because if you’re a HP fan, you really should be getting to the studio, learning your own facts and taking your own photos! (I can’t guarantee that I won’t bombard you with photos, but I’ll try not to go too crazy!). To start with, how does one get there? The studio is located in Watford, on the outskirts of London and easily accessible via train. There’s a shuttle-bus to get you from the station to the studio, which is very convenient. As soon as you know around what dates you’ll be able to take the tour, I’d recommend buying the tickets straight away (from the website), because they certainly sell out fast. When booking your tickets, you have the option to add on an audio guide, souvenir book, and so on. Not wanting to miss out on anything, I also got the audio guide, and it was money well spent, as you get access to extra videos, pictures, and information. We booked in for a 9.30 am start, and I’m glad we went with the earlier time slot; by the time we left the studio was super full. This is because once you’ve entered at your time and finished the initial guided part (literally the Great Hall set), you’re free to explore as you want. Hence, you’ll get people in the same spot from several different start times. So; buy early for an early time spot, and if you’re a major HP fan, don’t schedule anything else in the same day. You’ll want all the time you can get there.

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The giant chess pieces outside the studio is your first glimpse at what’s inside, and entering into the lobby begins your wide-eyed journey. The Golden Keys of the first movie, giant posters, a flying car, and the smallest set (the cupboard under the stairs) is what greets you. Standing in line and waiting for our turn to go in, I found my head whipping in every direction! Upon entering the guided section, you’re treated to two short videos; one explaining how the HP films went from book to movie series, and one from the films’ main stars talking about their experiences as one of the most famous trios in history. The second video finishes with a projection of the entrance to the Great Hall. The screen lifts, and suddenly you’re standing right there, the massive doors shut and ready to welcome you into the world of Hogwarts. The guide opens the doors and you enter…

Throughout the tour, the sets are dressed up as they were scene in the movies, usually presenting a key scene. To help the sets come alive, there are mannequins in costumes to really create the right feeling. The Great Hall, with its line of Professors down one end, and clusters of students in house robes, certainly gives you shivers. Unfortunately, you only have a limited amount of time of the largest HP set, as the next time slot will be just as excited as you are to get in. But there’s definitely enough time to have a good look at everything!

Upon leaving the Great Hall, you get right into the thick of the action, full of sets, props, costumes, information on special and visual effects, information about animal training, and so much more! Each section has large videos explaining key things about creating the movies, and there are also large information boards (all of this is also available on your audio guide). You will spend a great bulk of your time in this area, so be prepared! I got shivers standing in front of my favourite sets, which include Dumbledore’s Office, the Potions Lab, the Burrow, and of course, Hogwarts Station (as well as filming on location in Goathland, a set was built), complete with Hogwarts Express! I was also blown away by the impressive 9 m (30 ft) high Ministry of Magic set. The one thing that really strikes you when looking at the sets is just how much detail went into their creation. Things that I never noticed in the movies suddenly stand out loud and proud. For example, in the Gryffindor common room there is a portrait of a young Professor McGonagall, while Dumbledore’s office contains is a large telescope. It was very expensive to create for the filming, but you only ever see it in the backgrounds of the movies. That’s a lot of dedication!

Did you know that approximately 5 000 pieces of furniture, 12 000 books, 40 000 Weasleys’ Wizards Wheezes products and packages, and 3 000 wands were made for the filming of the HP movies?! That’s a lot of contribution from a lot of different people! As I’ve already mentioned, a lot of the props are set up on the sets to help bring them to life, but you can find many, many more scattered around the tour, or else stacked up in a Room of Requirement-y way. You could spend forever looking through this piles, trying to place every object. The wands, of course, are a major feature, and it’s really fun to get a good look at the different characteristics of each one, and see how they match their user.

The tour boasts a couple of places where you can have photo opportunities with props or sets, for an additional charge. The first one you come across is the green screen area for flying on a broomstick. You actually get to have a go at trying it yourself. Unfortunately, I didn’t join this one because the queue was very large, but I do regret it a little bit now. The other chance is on the Hogwarts Express Station, where you can have a go sitting on the interior filming sets of the carriages, and trying to act with a green screen. Of course, you are free to take photos everywhere else, so grab the opportunity!

At around about the half-way point on the tour, you arrive at the Backlot, where the exterior sets and vehicles are kept. There’s also a cafe here that you must stop at, because it grants you the opportunity to try butterbeer! You can purchase it in both ice-cream and drink form. I tried both, but I have to admit- I preferred the ice-cream form. Either way it’s pretty tasty!img_6346

The most impressive thing in the Backlot for me was the Knight Bus. Unfortunately, and understandably, you couldn’t actually go inside it, but it was pretty intense towering over you anyway. Other sets in the Backlot include Privet Drive, Potter’s Cottage, and other vehicles such as another Ford Anglia and Hagrid’s motorcycle.

The next section was, rather surprisingly for me, one of my favourite parts of the whole tour! Dedicated to creature effects, make up effects, and animatronics, the next few rooms were full of things equal parts terrifying and fascinating. Thankfully Aragog is hoisted up high above everyone’s heads; if he was writhing and moving on the floor, I’m not sure I’d be able to continue the tour! One of the big highlights for me was the seated, but moving, life-sized Buckbeak. I would have bowed and patted him if there weren’t other people around!

Just like the Great Hall, one other large, significant set is separate to everything else; Diagon Alley. Having it separate to the rest of the sets really impacts you when you visit it. As the set has obviously been added to over the years, you’ve got the Weasley twins’ joke shop as well. I really wanted to enter into all of the shops; get my school books from Flourish and Blotts, potion ingredients from Apothecary, and finally a wand from Ollivanders. If only!

The final two stops on the tour had me almost overcome with emotions. The first was the famous Hogwarts model, that was actually used for exterior shots. The entire thing was hand crafted to scale, and real gravel and plants were used to make it as realistic as possible. Fibre optic lights are wired throughout the model to simulate lanterns and torches, and while you walk around the entire model, the whole lighting changes between night and day. Just being so close to the castle is such a special, overwhelming experience. You fans out there will know what I mean! The final stop is a small, dark, unassuming room, full to the brim with wand boxes. Over 4 000, to be exact, bearing the names of the individuals who helped create the world in the movies. Absolutely extraordinary.

Once exiting the tour, you’re free to explore the studio shop, which you can also explore before the tour. In here you’ll find a range of merchandise; wands, robes, books, sweets from Honeydukes, products from Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes, and more! The only (expected) downside is that it’s very pricey. You can only visit the shop if you have a valid ticket for the day, but there is a smaller selection available in the online store, but I would only allow myself to spend that much when on the tour.

My day at the Warner Bros. Studio Tour is certainly one I’ll remember for a very long time! Seeing just how much went into the creation of the world of HP made me appreciate just how much everyone involved took the extra step to really bring it all alive. It was definitely a magical day 😉

-S

Castles of the UK: Clifford’s Tower

 

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After leaving Alnwick and Northumberland behind, we made our base in Thirsk, North Yorkshire, which allowed us to explore the surrounding area over the next few days. We spent a day exploring Goathland and Whitby, but also had an entire day set aside for the beautiful city of York. Within the city, we were lucky to stop at Clifford’s Tower, the most recognisable remains of York Castle.

The first thing you notice about Clifford’s Tower is that it is built up on a mound, technically called a motte. The motte is actually the oldest feature of the site, dating to the 1068 when William the Conqueror built a series of defences in response to the North’s rebellion against him. He actually built two mottes in York, the second was built slightly later and is known today as Baile Hill. Both sites would have originally housed castles, with keeps built upon the actual mottes. The original castles would have been made of wood, however, during the reign of King Henry III (1216-1272), a stone castle was built, including Clifford’s Tower we see today. It seems that the inner motte was the preferred choice, as Baile Hill fell into disuse after the completion of York Castle.

As part of York Castle, the wooden keep upon the motte was replaced with the distinctive four-lobed tower that remains today. The tower once had a central square tower that rose taller than the standing walls, but was cleared away in the early 18th century. The design of the tower is actually very unusual, and perhaps originated in France. However, the internal organisation of the keep would have been pretty standard; a ground floor containing service rooms, the first floor containing private rooms, and the second floor and roof for defence weapons. The first floors were actually fitted out for the King and Queen, and included what would have been a richly decorated chapel; you can still see the arched decorations of the chapel today. However, the tower was never used for royal occupation. The whole motte would have been surrounded by a moat, and connected to the rest of the castle by a stone bridge, occupying the grounds immediately by the tower.

The remainder of York Castle’s history reflects one of growth and stagnation. It seems that the castle fell often into neglect, but occasions of repair and renovation suggests that it wasn’t to be completely forgotten by the royal families on the throne. Perhaps the castle’s finest moments was between the 14th and 15th centuries, in which Clifford’s Tower was used as a treasury, exchequer, mint, goal, and seat of royal power. It was also during this period that the tower received its name after the Clifford family (previously it had been referred to as the Great Tower). However it’s not too clear just who the tower is named after; either Roger de Clifford, who was executed and hung from the tower in 1322, or his later descendants who actually acted as castle constables!

Clifford’s Tower was besieged during the English Civil War (1642-1651), but had evidently served its purpose as a garrison by 1684, when an “accidental” explosion destroyed the interior, leaving the empty shell we see today. Even after this point, the shell was used as a dovecote and even as part of a prison. In fact, Clifford’s Tower continued to be used as  a prison until 1929. The remainder of the castle buildings were lost in the 18th and 19th centuries with the building of new prisons and courts, which remain today as museums. However, you can still find little indicators of the once-great castle in York, such as York’s Great Gate to the east of the tower, and towers behind the castle museum.

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Despite the relatively minor importance of the castle, there is one very black page in the history of Clifford Tower itself. In 1190 anti-Semitism flared up in York, with the homes of prominent Jews destroyed and families killed. The Jews of York fled to Clifford’s Tower to take refuge, aided by the castle’s constable. They remained in the tower for several days. The danger to them was very real; Jews found outside of the castle walls during those few days were either forcibly baptised or killed. The constable had to leave the castle for a few days on business, but when he returned, the Jews feared that he had betrayed him, and wouldn’t allow him into the Tower. The constable went to see the town sheriff, who summoned troops to the castle. Unfortunately, a large, angry mob joined the group, probably reassuring the Jews stuck inside of their suspicions of the constable. After a long siege, a number of individuals inside the tower realised that there was no possible way to make it out alive, and agreed that suicide would be a better option. The head of families killed their wives and children, and the tower was set alight internally. The few who didn’t take part in the suicide and survived the fire were killed by the mob the next day.  It is supposed that between 20-40 families, at least 150 people, lost their lives. The tower was later repaired in 1244, and the families slaughtered are remembered with a plaque outside the tower’s walls. img_4814-copy

Tragic and regrettable history aside, it seems that 1244 wasn’t the only point in the Tower’s history in which it had to be seriously repaired. As York Castle would have once been surrounded by the rivers Ouse and Foss, forming natural barriers, flooding has been a persistent problem. In 1315, flooding caused the collapse of a large section of wall and softened the motte. More repairs were undertaken in the 1323 and 1325. The Tower experienced major subsidence between 1358-136, cracking from top to bottom in two places and the near-collapse of the east lobe. This required more renovations between 1360-1365. Major repairs were undertaken in the 18th and 19th century to prevent any further damage to the castle. Today, although structurally sound, the effects of the damage is obvious; a nasty scar down the east lobe where the major crack was repaired; the internal wall work is 60 cm (2 ft) lower than its original height; the outside wall is at least 1 m (3 ft) lower than the original; and the east lobe of the castle is noticeably sloped. In fact, the spiral staircase in the eastern lobe slopes to the side, making it a scary walk down!

Although still an empty shell today, I think Clifford’s Tower is well worth the visit if you happen to be in York. The Tower’s unique design is very striking, and its dramatic setting atop the motte instantly draws your attention to it. The top of the Tower is still accessible and offers breathtaking panorama views of the city. Admittedly, these are not as fantastic as those from the central tower at York Minster (highly recommended!), but the stairs here are much more easily managed (and not as scary!). Furthermore, you know you’re standing in a place deemed worthy by William the Conqueror himself, over nine hundred years before your time. That’s not something you experience everyday!

-S