Saturday, June 18, 2011
Craven Arms, Shropshire
Stokesay Castle (1): A Gothic room
Stokesay Castle is one of my favourite buildings, and has been since when I first visited it, long ago when I was a teenager, in the pouring rain. I’m pleased to say the weather was much better for my most recent visit, and the bright light inspired me to take some photographs not just of the exterior of the building but also of a couple of the interiors.
As many of you will know, Stokesay Castle is not a castle at all, but a fortified manor house. Although has a crenellated tower and a defensive moat, it lacks the strong fortifications and tiny windows of a true castle and would not have withstood a full-blown siege. Stokesay was built in the 1280s and 1290s by Laurence of Ludlow, a wool merchant who had done so well that he had become one of the richest men in England. He built this house to give him a degree of security and to act as a status symbol. Slightly showy, but not vast enough to make the aristocracy jealous, this house was built to show that the Ludlow family had arrived.
Remarkably, much of Laurence’s house of the 13th century, including the chunky polygonal south tower, the solar block, and the hall with its linked north tower, survives. In the picture above of the south tower and hall, only the big buttresses and the outer stairway up to the solar are later additions. The big Gothic windows light the most important medieval room: the hall.
Here, beneath this glorious roof – many of its original timbers are still in place – Laurence and his family would have gathered for meals with their household of maybe 25 people. Laurence and his family and their guests would have sat at the high table at the far end of the room; the rest of the household would have used two long tables placed at right-angles to it, running along the length of the hall. Their food was prepared in a kitchen nearby (no longer standing) and wine and beer came up from a buttery on a lower floor, just off the hall.
This room would have been the social centre of the house, heated by a hearth in the middle of the floor that was the symbol of commensality and hospitality as well as the literal source of heat and light. For several centuries the hall was loud with conversation and, probably, music, and alive with the comings and goings of servants. But the bustle is long gone. The house has not been lived in for some 200 years, although it was kept in good repair by benevolent Victorian owners who lived in a more modern house not far away. They ensured the survival of this spacious hall, lit by its two rows of tall Gothic windows, its roof is supported by great cruck timbers tied together by pairs of horizontal collars and curving braces. This structure creates a beautiful space and even in its emptiness, the hall at Stokesay is one of the most evocative rooms in England.
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Having been cared for by the Allcroft family from 1869 to 1986, Stokesay has since been under the guardianship of English Heritage.