The Hidden Castle

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.

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50 thoughts on “The Hidden Castle

  1. I remember exploring castles in my childhood…. Ludlow Castle especially. There’s something magical about imagining what might have been there before. I even had my wedding reception in a castle.

  2. In all of my rambling fascination with the Tudors, I’ve encountered Farnham multiple times, but none of the meetings do it justice. The perfect castle. What a glorious hodgepodge. I could roam for days. The blue door shots are really striking, but I cannot decide which one I like best. Thank you for taking me there.

      1. Cool – let me have a butcher’s when you find them – Tintagel is a personal fave too – all Arthurian and mystical like guv.

        Oh and mustn’t forget Cloppa Castle too!

  3. After our visit to the Watts Chapel last Sunday, our lunch date was in Farnham! Imagine we must have been almost touching each other.
    H grew up on a farm near Farnham, and it is where he went to a boys school – Farnham Grammar – his school House was Morley named after George Morley, sometime Bishop of Winchester and founder of the school in 1585.

      1. Amazing the links one finds, isn’t it, Rosemary? Saw Bishop Morely and a fetching ‘gargoyle’ they have made of him. He has an unsettlingly rakish air for a bishop. But good on him for founding the school 🙂

  4. I need to see this. I haven’t been to the UK in more than 10 years, and even then I didn’t get out of London much. Back in 1969, my Dad took us to England and Wales when he was over on business (he is a retired history professor, and he was researching a new book). We saw so many cathedrals (we’re Anglican) that I’ve since lost track of which ones (I do remember Ely, Salisbury, Winchester and Canterbury) and some Abbeys (Westminster and Bath). We saw a couple of castles (Windsor and Carnarvon come immediately to mind) and some ruins (Bury St. Edmunds). Obviously the trip made an impression on me; I inherited my parents’ love of history.

    And, at Winchester, there was a dig going on, and I was fascinated. If my college had offered anything other than Classical and Mideastern Archaeology, I might have been an archaeologist instead of a librarian/paralegal. Also at Winchester, my mother was positively anguished that people were walking across Jane Austen’s grave. When I saw how agitated this made her, I became intrigued about the woman beneath the marker who caused that agitation. When I got home, I immediately picked up our copy of Pride & Prejudice, and the rest is, as they say, history.

    So, if I remember my history correctly, Bishop Henri de Blois was King Stephen’s younger brother?

    1. Right on the money, Julie 🙂 This post had an awful lot of ground to cover and I just couldn’t shoehorn that bit in….it sounds like you must know your cathedrals very well indeed. I have sung evensong at Winchester: they’re still walking over Jane today: the difference is, they charge for it! Her beautiful little house is just across the cathedral close before the water meadows…I wonder if you got a chance to take a look…I am also wondering if your Winchester dig was the one of my student years, when they dug up a huge part of the centre to build a big new shopping mall? One could peer through holes in the boarding for ages to watch the archaeologists work.

      It was always good to take an umbrella though 🙂

      1. I was at Winchester in the summer of 1969. I was not quite 10.

        Some day, when I can save enough pennies, I’m going back. I need to make my pilgrimage to Chawton. I want to see Chatsworth. I want to do so many things. I’d also like to visit Germany and Ireland (home to lots of my ancestors).

        As for evensong, I did attend evensong at Westminster Abbey. It was beautiful. I went to Holy Communion there one Sunday, and was gobsmacked to find out that it was a modern-language service. Modern language in that historic building did not sit very well with me. It was total cognitive dissonance.

  5. Love the history and the pics are wonderful! I have always enjoyed visiting castles on our various trips to the England and Europe. They all have such amazing stories behind them.

    I once broke my hand following an early morning visit to a castle in Koenigstein, it was closed and I walked all around it and then decided to take a short cut down a steep hill to get back to the hotel. Well, it was a bit steeper than I thought and I went tumbling A** over applecarts and would up whamming into a tree.

    Another funny piece of the story is that I was in a suit as I was there for a Trade Show in Frankfurt and had already dressed for the day before deciding to visit the castle. Needless to say, I was a bit of a mess and received a lot of very strange stares as I made my way back to the hotel as the suit and I were muddy and tattered.

    I still love castles, though.

    1. Your muddy suit would be a badge of honour as far as I was concerned, Lou. I’ve never seen the Koenigstein Castle. Must give it a google and put it on my Grand Tour itinerary (for when the kids have gone off to university :-))

    1. Taunton is one of the five too, IE – its closer to you than the rest. And there are nondescript castles, and then there are the proper fairytale kind, which is what we found yesterday 🙂

      1. I always had Taunton down as the one of nondescript, squished as I remember somewhere between a Next and a Dorothy Perkins, just a gateway. Is there more lurking elusively that I should know about?! I’ll have to find out now. 🙂

  6. Three cheers for Felix and his Indiana Jones penchant for adventure – and for his mum who acquiesced! Your photos are wonderful, Kate. I, too, love that blue door. We Americans do drool a bit, I know, for we are really still rather young and don’t have castles to wander that are from the 12th century. Thank you for sharing such a wonderful adventure.

    1. You are welcome, Penny 🙂 The blue door got me too: I have a few more and will pop them on the end of the show if I can.

      Cannot WAIT to get back as Spring comes and the flowers and blossoms begin to make their presence felt. It will be the most beautiful sight!

  7. Ahhh, if only . . . I could happily wander in such a place for hours. Nothing like this in our little corner of the world that I know of (maybe an old barn or two… 🙂 ) Every household should have a tour director such as Felix!

    Before I read the comments of others, I had already borrowed your blue door photo and set it as my “wallpaper” in order to enjoy it for a while longer. This kind of picture always stirs the imagination; where would this lead me? Thanks!

  8. Kate, I haven’t been to this castle yet. Did your post bring back some memories for me of Rochester and Hadliegh Castle! I had to laugh – the ground closing at 5 and just setting off at 3! Been there too many times! Ran into that problem at Leeds and had to picnic outside. Thinking back, that doesn’t sound like suffering does it? lol lovely post!

  9. When i lived in England i was an ardent castle, grand house, ancient garden follower. I would go to this castle with you in a snap.. thank you so much for the tour, that shot of the running children though wins the prize, that bright pink skirt against the endless ancient walls.. c

  10. Great photos and great post, Kate! And another blue door!
    I am sure I have had a dream where I was at a castle very similar to this, it all looks very familiar. I know that I haven’t actually been there, your virtual tour has told me that! Thank you for sharing your day… I love castles! 😀

  11. Dear Kate,
    You left me breathless today. That is, I was holding my breath as I watched the slide show and had to remind myself to breathe. As someone commented, “Quite a hodgepodge.” But oh the history you provided. A march through time all viewed through this one hodgepodged castle.

    I visited England in 1976 and saw several cathedrals–Winchester and Chichester and Salisbury and Canterbury. I also so the castle in York as I was so interested in what Harold had done right before having to ride posthaste to Hastings. I’d just read “The Golden Warrior” by Hope Muntz and fallen in love with Harold.

    Your posting today so makes me want to return. But because of Meniere’s disease I can no longer easily fly. So I must be content with books and with wonderful postings like yours.


  12. Love the blue door! How absolutely fabulous, and you have taken me there as best you could! I posted today, Kate, about some local history…all 300 years or so of it. That’s my “ancient history” for you! LOL! I can’t help but chuckle. I have NO comprehension of how glorious it would be to have castles at my back door and to have history of this magnitude for hands-on learning for my children, but I suspect it is pretty spectacular! I love it when you give me even a peek! I really do! Debra

  13. I don’t know many kids who would chose an outing to a historic castle over video games/malls/the movies. So thank you, Felix. The castle is truly beautiful, and wish I can see it someday on a gorgeous English afternoon.

  14. I would have given anything to have been there with you! It looks fantastic! What were the reasons for abandoning it in the 20th century? Are you allowed to go inside and inspect the interior? Lucky you, and lucky Maddie and Felix! You will have to take Hubs and Macauley next!

    As far as Bishops or high clergy defending themselves, from some of the histories I have read, the church (Catholic and Anglican) gathered around themselves some pretty sturdy defenses – both in manpower, and obviously in their battlements.

    1. It hasn’t been abandoned: it has diversified. It is an intercultural training and conference centre, with the keep run by English Heritage and tours round the house every Wednesday at 2pm 🙂

      And yes: the Church was a wealthy animal…

  15. So good of you to dig out all these bits that add to the castle’s history, Kate. Especially when it’s a castle still in use. As you suggested, a non-threat to those whose eye may be caught. Wonder what possessed anyone to chose such a bright shade of blue for that door. It seems on purpose.

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