The other day I turned the page of the calendar, as one does with a new month, and got a pleasant surprise. The pictures above my desk come from one of those ‘gzillion places to see’ publications. So each month I get to dream of travels I will never make, ancient ruins now firmly on the tourist trail, or whatever; occasionally there may be something I have seen before. Places are usually far flung, unobtainable, but I can dream.
This month I get to look at….. Castles of Wales, and I can do more than dream; I can remember, and I can plan.
Aberystwyth is in there, bits of wall here, a chamber there, and loads of grassy mounds for Urchins to disappear behind. There are little spots to shelter from the breeze coming off the water, and views of the town below; the ratchet railway at the far end of the bay, and little steam trains heading up the valley. Caernarvon is there too, looking majestic, one for the future. But not Abergele, where I remember the clash of lance on shield as the lists ring to the sounds of the joust as an unruly mob of brigade boys escape camp for the day in decades past.
We are rich in history and there are castles all around. They come in a rich variety and sundry stages of disrepair. We tend to dismiss those on our doorsteps, but perhaps it is time to introduce The Urchins to the delights of Craignethan and Cadzow, Bothwell even. They like their castles; their knights and princesses; nothing better than ones where there is the opportunity to do it all in costume. Castle Menzies comes to mind, flowing wimples and tabards.
There are the ‘Big Beasts’ of the castle world too; the garrison forts of Stirling, Warwick and Edinburgh for instance, with their Great Halls and portcullis, banks of cannon and rock-top views. These are great for school trips and Big Days Out, but others are better for just dropping in.
Many are better described as Country Piles, ancestral seats of families with Big Names and Titles. These usually come with walled gardens and apple trees stretching out on the walls; little celtic knots of herbs, perhaps even a maze. I am thinking here of castles such as Culzean, or Brodick, Brodie even. These come with tour guides and hand held notes, perhaps an audio trail. These are the sort where the boredom threshold is set at the wrong level; the one where paintings of the 4th Earl and the 9th’s hunting pack, meld into tables laden with the family silver. ‘When do we get to the shop’, may often be heard.
And there are others, perhaps best identified as Hill Towns. I am thinking here of Tuscan delights and Istria, with Motovun; of Carcassone and that Cite. Typically these castles have ramparts and walls to walk round, with turrets, and all of life going on within. Hill towns as I say, but still within the realm of knights of old and rich in entertainment. Merlin might even be hiding.
Some of our castles are still homes, but allow us all to wander round and glimpse the past, often in exchange for forgiveness on tax dues. In this category we may have Castle Campbell, a marvellous walk up those burns in Dollar Glen; Duart on Mull, the Macleans and Fitzroy of that ilk; and Cawdor, home to thanes and witches and tales of the Scottish play that cannot be mentioned.
But the best of them all are the ruins, and it’s high time we visited more of them. There are island ruins, like Lochranza and Kisimul; and lochside ones; Sween comes to mind. In some you can still hear the sounds of the feasting as wenches brings jugs of ale and bones are cast over shoulders for urchins and dogs to squabble over. Minstrels play in the gallery and even dad’s can get away with the dancing; demure and delicate.
On the continent are others, and I remember wandering round the big halls and the walls of Krakow and Prague; or the ones they call chateaux, in Luxembourg. And there’s Bran, with Vlad and blood; and one I haven’t seen yet at Colditz with a different sort of a past.
Castles, don’t you just love all that sword-play and ladies’ favours tied to arms and lances; the saracens and the infidels; the dreams of siege towers and boiling oil and shouts of warning as the piss-pot is emptied from the upper chamber. I remember dry old history teachers talking of mottes and baileys, but they didn’t talk of arrow slits and moats, and ruined stairs spiralling into the darkness; and the howling of the wolf across the misted moor. Northumbria is a rich hunting ground, and one to return to again and again.
Time I think to plan some little excursions, short ones, out of the tourist season when the busloads head for Eilan Donan, or Urquhart with their arched bridges over the water and views down the glens. Doune I remember from a school trip, and there’s red kites there too now.
And in the ruins you can run around and not break anything, you can touch and you can hide. And there still might be a shop with swords and things. And on that calendar page too is a puffin, beak filled with fish. You might not find that in September, but calendars are for dreams and plans. Castles, and islands and boat trips. Let’s go.