Last Saturday I spent at Chirk Castle, a fourteenth-century Marcher castle and subsequently country home set in a designed landscape of gardens and park. Today, there is plenty to do here and the site is run by the National Trust. As well as visiting the castle itself, there are woodland and garden walks and adventure play areas and den-building for children. Incidentally Chirk is one of the better National Trusts properties for opening times, with the estate open from 7am and the gardens open from 10am.
Clearly I turn all family days into feasts of funerary facts and archaeological investigations. In this regard, Chirk Castle is fit for many musings. In this post, I want to focus on canine commemoration.
Now we all know about our inheritance of the aristocratic eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century use of animals as symbols of status and class identity and the emotional and near-familial affinity for particular beasts. This romantic attachment to select non-humans was enhanced and transformed during the Victorian era into a middle-class obsession with dogs as integral to ideals of the home and family. Chirk Castle shows that our nostalgia for posh pets is alive and well. Indeed, the ‘taste’ for mourning mutts transcends even the seemingly strict ‘denial of death’ that takes place within many British public spaces.
This is because the trees, rose-bushes, benches and buildings of Chirk are largely bereft of memorial plaques. The National Trust are perhaps just too posh to turn their stately homes and gardens into grander versions of many municipal parks and gardens in which today in Britain are replete in commemorative inscriptions and memorials. Chirk Castle is in many ways a commemorative void.
Yet animals are above the human dead. They are even raised higher than living animals, since the National Trust has very strict policies about how their grounds can be used by dog-walkers (and quite right too says I). If the human dead are absent and living pets are rare, two beastly memorials take centre-stage in the visitor experience of Chirk.
First are memorials to dead beasts. There is a classic Victorian family pet cemetery with memorials commemorating Victorian hounds (but perhaps also other species, only the first names are mentioned). The memorials are low and modest and remind me of the close link between the treatment of dead animals and the more austere memorials over eighteenth- and nineteenth-century non-conformists graves. This cemetery is in a classic pet memorial location – adjacent to a main path and yet within a secluded spot with views over woodland and with a thick boundary of carefully shaped yew.
Second, there are the iron gates made at Bersham in 1719 that bear the Myddleton family crest flanked by hounds. The dogs proffer paws in honour to the aristocratic family and serve as permanent guardians for all those visiting.
With people omitted from the memorial landscape, Chirk Castle, like many stately homes, really has gone to the dogs.