Recently I visited Whittington Castle in Shropshire on two occasions: with heritage students as part of a field trip for their first-year course looking at the range of ways in which castles as heritage monuments are managed and conserved, and once with my kids.
Whittington Castle is in a low-lying situation within a series of far-earlier prehistoric earthworks. This seemingly accessible location to the modern visitor is actually heavily defensible. This is because it is situated to utilise natural springs and bogs, augmented by earthworks to create moats, rendering it a striking residence and fortification. In later life, this watery environment created key dimensions of the medieval gardens that populated the outer ward.
Unlike Cadw and English Heritage sites, this is a site run by an independent charitable trust: the Whittington Castle Preservation Trust. As their website proudly states, they are the only castle in England run by their own community. Visiting the site is a very different experience to an English Heritage castle like Beeston. It is only £1 to park and then free to enter. There is a nice cafe and bookshop (mentioned above) and lots of friendly doves, ducks and even swans.
Learning all about Whittington Castle is easy. The castle’s website might not be fully up-to-date and slick in its presentation, but it more than makes up for it with regard to detail. Indeed, it is also far more detailed than any nearby English Heritage and Cadw castle’s website. With the support of English Heritage, the Trust has produced a very useful guidebook by Pete Brown, available from the cafe and bookshop beside the gatehouse. The website and guidebook combine to provide full interpretations of the buildings and earthworks.
Details of the dating of the prehistoric ditches are obscure in the guidebook, and a possible Iron Age date seems reasonably but still conjectural. Still, the motte-and-bailey castle dates to the 12th century and is attributed to William Peverel. The site remained in the hands of Roger de Powis before being taken over by Fulk Fitz Warin III. This castle was destroyed in 1223 by a Welsh attack but rebuilt in stone and occupied and adapted by generations of Fulks down to the Glyndwr rebellion and the subsequent lordship of Fulk XI. The castle remained an elite residence through the later 15th and 16th centuries. Its long decline is charted through the 17th century to recent times with not even the drama of the English Civil War intervening.
The features of greatest interest for the visitor are the gatehouse, the ‘mount’ which might be a 14th-century feature which together with a fishpond and platforms indicate the transformation of the outer bailey from a fortified residence to a lordly designed garden. The inner bailey is regarded as a monument of four principal stages beginning life as a motte and subsequently evolving through timber and then stone keep and curtain walls and towers.
My students enjoyed putting their heads in the stocks (something I would like to do to all of them who didn’t turn up for their formative assessment presentations) and wandered about the ruins. We discussed the contrast between the way the site is maintained and English Heritage and Cadw sites. We also debated different options for how to manage, conserve and present the remains. The students and I also bought cake in large quantities from the aforementioned cafe.
On the visit with my kids, we spent less time on cake and the stocks. Instead, my kids enjoyed themselves outside chasing pigeons and ducks and picking daisies. On the castle’s interior, they had far more fun scaling the ruins of the inner ward.
Perhaps most frustrating, as alluded to above, is the appraisal of the prehistoric remains where the disconnection from, and contrast with, other Iron Age fortified sites in the region, including Old Oswestry hillfort, could have been raised and explained. This is a truly distinctive and rare low-lying survival of a prehistoric fortified site and, even as someone like me who has little knowledge or expertise in later prehistoric settlements, I found it disappointing how little is known and discussed about these earthworks compared to the later medieval castle remains.
Finally, some points about the display of the site. The heritage boards are distinctive and visual, if a little more dated than your standard EH versions. Targeted by local vandals who seem to have enjoyed impaling every human figure upon them with darts or some similar projectile, they are still readily comprehensible.
I would fully recommend Whittington to any visitor. Still, I was disappointed at the lack of archaeodeath dimensions, although I guess I could have gone off to lurk around nearby graveyards… Surprisingly, I didn’t spot any memorials or ash-scatterings; something that as previous blog entries show, are surprisingly common at heritage sites.