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Twins enjoying the view from Beeston Castle
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Inner defences of Beeston Castle

Yesterday I visited Beeston Castle for the first time. It is one of my most local castles along with Whittington, Dinas Bran, Erddig, Caergwrle, Holt, Aldford, Ewloe, Flint and Chester. So why has it taken me so long to visit Beeston Castle?

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Outer gatehouse at Beeston Castle

Beeston Castle is certainly a fascinating site and has been subject to extensive archaeological excavations. Beeston Crag is a fabulous landmark and I have long seen it from the train from Chester to Crewe and driving in its environs.

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View over the outer bailey, Beeston Castle

The crag has a long biography of use with evidence of Neolithic occupation, a Bronze Age metalworking site, Iron Age hillfort, 13th- and 14th-century castle, 17th-century English Civil War fortress, and then its ruins inspired the sham 19th-century Peckforton Castle on the adjacent hill. There are caves to see too. So there was every reason for this to be the first castle site for me to visit on moving to the west Cheshire area in 2008.

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The well inside the inner bailey, Beeston Castle

If these weren’t attractions enough, there is a further pressure to visit for me since 2011. I now supervise a superb doctoral student who not only co-wrote the English Heritage guidebook: Rachel Swallow (formerly Rachel McGuicken). She has published two academic journal articles (Journal of the Chester Archaeological Societyon Beeston Castle exploring its interpretation and heritage.

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Twins exploring the inner bailey, Beeston Castle

Moreover, Rachel has a forthcoming paper in the Archaeological Journal volume 171. The judgement to accept it was handled by my Reviews Editor – Dr Kate Waddington – to avoid the obvious conflict of interest with me as Honorary Editor of the Journal. Her article was unanimously lauded by its academic referees in a fashion rarely seen in the tough and critical world of peer-review and it was accepted for publication. In this article, Rachel explores a new interpretation of the significance of Beeston Castle in relation to its Welsh Marcher context. The article will be available in September 2014.

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Twins looking out to the east over the steep precipice of Beeston Crag

So why did I only visit Beeston Castle for the first time yesterday? Unfortunately, it was simply the combination of steepness and expense. All the other castles I mentioned above are FREE to visit. If I had visited any of these other castles and the kids had been sick, had a strop, or the walk proved too difficult for them or a pushchair), there would have been no financial loss in abandoning the visit.

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The model of the medieval castle in the museum

I have visited far steeper free and open-access castles with the kids: like Castell Dinas Bran. With Beeston, I didn’t want to pay and then find I couldn’t get whichever combination of children with me up the hill safely and without stress because of practical or behavioural factors. Moreover, to add insult to injury, even parking at Beeston Castle is £3 before you pay for admission. This is a major off-putting factor. In summary, there are plenty of other free castles in the area, why waste a visit to Beeston?

Still, having said that, I thought that a visit was long overdue. So I finally got around to visit the castle. There is the usual EH gift shop, a small museum with artefacts on display from the excavations from the Stone Age through to the modern era, and also three models of the castle to help communicate the phasing of this extremely three-dimensional site; one for the Bronze Age, one for the Iron Age hillfort, and one for the medieval castle.

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Exploring the inner bailey with the twins

The ruins and the views they afford were spectacular. Striding up the steep and uneven paths with a double pushchair laden with the unyielding weight of my 19-month-old twin girls was a fine and typical experience for me. The main problem wasn’t the steepness or the uneven rocky paths, but the failure of EH to cut back brambles and nettles from the path. Still, I made it, enjoyed the fabulous views and the twins got to explore the rocks and shout at passing trains, peregrine falcons and crows, dig into molehills, as well as trying to steal crisps from other picnicking kids.

Victorian Ticket Office

Like the gatehouse of a large 19th-century estate (which is actually not far from the truth), the Victorian neo-gothic crenellated ticket office is a marvel of medievalism in itself.

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The Victorian gatehouse – a bit of neo-Gothic heritage history in its own right

 

Memorial Benches

Yes, again I’m afraid I have to comment on the memorial benches. This time, nothing special, but it was good to see them, including one commemorating a former custodian of the castle.

A bench halfway up the hill, just outside the gatehouse of the outer bailey, commemorating a local lady from Bunbury
A bench halfway up the hill, just outside the gatehouse of the outer bailey, commemorating a local lady from Bunbury

The Bridge

In addition to the fine ruins, I cannot but congratulate Beeston on one of the finest pieces of concrete footbridge I have seen anywhere. Arcing over the remains of the medieval drawbridge and causeway, the modern structure is ludicrously steep at its beginning, but it does allow step-free access to the inner bailey. I am a fan of this bridge I have decided.

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The modern bridge and early 13th-century gatehouse of the inner bailey, Beeston Castle

Views

Maps don’t convey the true sense of the strategic importance of Beeston Castle: you need to be up there to get a full sense of why this particular crag was so important at different times in prehistory and history. Jutting out from the Mid Cheshire ridge, views are afforded west, north and east over long distances.

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The modern bridge into Beeston Castle

It is not simply the approach to Chester it guards, but anyone wishing to approach the Wirral peninsula. This got me thinking about the potential significance of Beeston in times poorly represented by the archaeological discoveries on the site: namely the Roman and early medieval periods. Was Beeston significant in these periods too?

All together a worthwhile visit; I am glad I got over the pay-to-enter impediment, although I think that the parking charge and entrance fee will always make Beeston are rare site for Williams family days out, especially when there are so many other fabulous castles in the area to choose from.

The Beeston Castle excavation report is now available for FREE from English Heritage and the Archaeology Data Service here.

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