Situated just south of Craven Arms, Shropshire, Stokesay Castle is an English Heritage classic with grandiose flag to prove it! A rare survival of a medieval fortified manor, I have seen it many times from the train but never had an opportunity before this week to visit it.
Despite a closed A49 involving a short but slow Church Stretton bypass en route south and a far longer detour heading back north, I went with three of the kids on a Saturday morning and had a wholly positive visitor experience.
We were exploring what is ostensibly a simple two-phase construction: a late 13th-century fortified manor house of a wealthy wool merchant – Laurence of Ludlow – with surviving early 17th-century gatehouse with carvings from Genesis and wooden fittings within the solar including a remarkable fireplace.
There is little point in replicating the guidebook but some key features cannot be ignored. The 13th-century hall with its cruck-built roof and amazing wooden staircase on its northern side is unbelievable.
The north tower has surviving tiled floors and wall paintings. The solar was converted into a private chamber with panelled walls and ceiling in the mid-17th century.
The south tower is the defensive and symbolic core of the castle, if the hall had been the residence’s social locus. It is a weird oblong shape designed to make it appear like a fortified gatehouse akin to those built by Edward I encircling North Wales. It is accessed via a stone stair at first-floor level, making it a defensible stronghold in its own right.
The original residence had a curtain wall, now largely lost. The moat, now dry (and perhaps always so?) ran around it and enhanced the defence and display of the architecture. Now, one can walk around it.
The residence was situated as part of a designed landscape which can be partly made out in the form of ponds and water courses; I presume the post-medieval farm overlies ancillary buildings of earlier date. The castle’s barns and stables had been all pulled down during the English Civil War to provide a field of fire if required from the inner defences.
A further important dimension to the castle is the adjacent church, the subject of another blog.
The Heritage Experience
With £1 for the day car park with attendants, toilets, EH shop and tea shop, this site has all the facilities. There was also a special stall for kids and entertainers in medieval garb. The structure is small and modest compared with the grandiose scale of Edwardian castles, and the staircases are easy to navigate. Hence, it is a perfect site to visit on a family day out. With visiting bats at night and nesting swallows, it is not simply a tranquil heritage location but a site of great beauty and biodiversity.
Limitations to this experience are the insistence on audio-wands, which I despise and won’t use (and no-one can who is simultaneously trying to move at the pace of, and communicate with, small children whilst navigating the rooms and up and down tight spiral staircases). For me, fixed heritage boards should still have a place in the visitor experience.
Another limitation is the inability to fully appreciate the castle’s wider landscape; neither the guidebook nor the signs (I don’t know about the audio-wands), give a sense of how the residence related to the church and immediate environs, let alone the wider landscape. I will next time acquire an OS map and explore the local footpaths to better gain a sense of the castle from nearby Stoke Wood and other surroundings. I will also check out the prehistoric earthworks known as Norton Camp to the east.
I was fascinated to find a single memorial bench within the grounds, replicating patterns I’ve found elsewhere at Cadw and English Heritage sites regarding the careful management of present-day commemoration and the focus upon memorial benches as an acceptable, functional media for exhibiting memories, as discussed here for Criccieth Castle.
There is a wider archaeodeath point about Stokesay: the site is almost a curse because it is such a blessing. Examples of well-preserved, almost miraculously so, buildings seduce the visitor into imagining that the past is locatable in discrete, guarded and conserved patches. You go to Stokesay to experience the 13th and 17th centuries without the passage of time and the touch of death. This might create the sense that these centuries are not present in the landscape elsewhere and eternal in this locale. The timelessness, the deathlessness, and the beauty are all, of course, allusions, and to my mind they are insidious. This is particularly dangerous at a time of loosening planning restrictions and reducing funding for heritage including museums; let’s not pretend that just because Stokesay is so eerily well-preserved, that we can ‘afford’ to lose sites and buildings deemed of lesser quality.
The final and key archaeodeath dimension is the medieval church and its post-medieval memorials both within and in the churchyard. I will discuss these next.