My son is what you might call enrolled at the Indiana Jones School of Adventuring.
He loves new; he loves pushing the boundaries.He’s not averse to a bit of treasure.
And today, amid cantankerous grumbles and shameless task avoidance by his mother, he adventured his way to a hidden gem. A jewel. A revelation.
We sat in front of the laptop at lunchtime, Maddie, Felix and I, gazing at the possibilities. Then Felix spotted a picture and his eyes lit up. “Farnham Castle! Mum, let’s go there!”
It was free. It was 30 minutes away. But it seemed a huge amount of effort for what might just be a few old walls in a grassy spot. I sighed. I acquiesced.
We set off about 3pm, and the castle grounds were due to close at 5pm.
Farnham is a town which has been important for a very long time. The street where we parked was wide and gracious, with little Georgian and Jacobean dwellings lining it like a film set.
Hearts leapt: this was the architecture and visual language of a really signficant place.
We climbed wide brick steps and reached gateposts of florid red brick designs. Every wall was a patchwork of the labour of different builders from sundry eras stretching back to mediaeval.
When we got to the top all three of us gasped. The trees of Farnham hid the most extraordinary sight.
Because Farnham Castle is no ordinary castle.
It is a bishop’s castle.
The year was 1138: and the annals of Winchester recorded five castles built for the Bishop of Winchester. Downton was one, coincidentally: Merdon, Waltham, Farnham and Taunton were the others. Bishop Henri De Blois, grandson of William The Conqueror, Bishop of Winchester, was their creator.
The country was headed for the turmoil of The Anarchy, with Stephen and Mathilda warring remorselessly. Henri was Stephen’s right hand man: and so once victorious, Mathilda’s son Henry II headed straight for Farnham and knocked it down.
It was rebuilt: and the Bishops of Winchester have resided there until the 20th century, receiving kings and queens, foreign dignitaries and hosting operations vital to the success of the second word war: all in the most arresting and beautiful of buildings.
It is a strange old structure: where most castles are built on a hill with a wall around them, this encases the mound itself in impregnable stone. Its battlements and defences would have been daunting to the fiercest warrior and strategist.
A wealthy line of Bishops is not a powerful line of kings: could it be that the bishopric did not pose a threat to the monarchy, and so endured?
Whatever the reason, the uninterrupted use of this place by one continouous line for the past eight centuries is startling.
In 1283 Master Wilfrid, the castle gardener and six helpers laboured to create a stunning herborium for Queen Eleanor of Castile under the watchful eye of Bishop John De Pontoise. King John popped down twice a year for the hunting; Henry VIII and Mary I were regular visitors.
Elizabeth I would keep calling in on her progresses; and a queen’s visit can be pricey. Locals speculate whether Bishop Horne was not a little too eager to inform the queen that there had been an outbreak of plague in the area: the queen smelled a rat and came down anyway.
James I actually went to the lengths of leasing the castle, and called in on progresses.
The royals just kept on coming: the Georges, Victoria. All loved it. And when you step within its walls the reason becomes instantly obvious .
The castle has It. It is artfully artless, red brick arranged next to plaster wall and ancient mediaeval block-stone with such masterful English taste it fair takes one’s breath away.
We gasped our way round the castle: the place where the drawbridge once chose to repel or welcome; the great thick walls, the deep wells, the Tudor fireplaces suspended up there on ancient walls above long-crumbled floors.
The hint of an old arch in a golden plastered wall, line after line of geometric brick patterns; every wall a chronicle of countless builders and building techniques.
Even the twentieth century reveals flamboyant moments in the castle’s occupation.In World War II it became the Camouflage Development and Training Centre, where artists and magicians- among them Jasper Maskelyne and Roland Penrose- laboured to perfect the art of Not Being Seen.
South African politician Thabo Mbeki married his wife there in 1974.
I long and yearn to take you all there, and show you around in person. It has been a tremendous raid on history, this afternoon. But I shall have to be content with leaving you with stills of a place which should be seen in the gentle stirrings of an English afternoon.