No man grows wise, says a voice from over 1,000 years ago*, without having his share of winters.
I am having my share of Winter. I would argue I am accumulating wisdom: but my husband would not have agreed as I turned off the motorway, seduced by the siren call of a castle in the snow.If you must drive, goes British snow lore, then at least keep to the major routes where grit has had its wicked way. Venturing onto tiny village roads: that’s just asking for trouble.
So I ventured onto a village road. Not very wise.
Not only that, but when it turned into a track I opted not to turn back, such was my obsession with the castle at the end of the track.
My heart sank as I surveyed the English Heritage car park. On a slant, and coated with sheet ice. I could get in all right, and park it: but would I ever get out again?
I pulled up on that white glassy expanse. I held my breath to see if the car would slide in stately fashion to the other side: it stayed put.
I was foolish, foolish, because of what sat watching me from the top of the snowy white hill.
This was Donnington Castle. A ruin: Parliament voted to wantonly destroy this symbol of Royalist sympathy, and vanquished it in 1646. And its ruin has stood there ever since. People have lived there: there was even a ramshackle cottage put up against the walls of the gatehouse,once, but that has long since gone and now, Donnington Castle is run under the watchful eye of English Heritage.
I had not brought the right shoes at all.
Eschewing my wellies, I reasoned I was going primarily to Newbury, a nearby market town, and one cannot possibly wear wellingtons to Newbury in Berkshire. But my silly boots with no grip at all made the climb in the snow to the great and awesome gatehouse a glacial affair.
Yet, because of the fortress on the hill, I picked my way gingerly upwards.
And as I went higher I realised there was a stiff and chilly wind whipping the two towers. And like a mad old bag lady, my teeth chattered as I began to talk to the castle. Oh, you’re beautiful, I said, and my frozen fingers clicked on the camera’s shutter, in some vain attempt to record the wintry isolation of this place, far from the madding crowd. I devoured the two great towers and the windows which had centuries before lost their glass; crooned at the gargoyles, yes, which really were gargoyles, with water chutes as mouths. I trod the bounds and saluted the evidence of three ruined floors: fireplaces in the air, doors to death-defying drops, waste chutes, the vaulted ceiling inside the gate house.
Because I knew what had happened there.
I knew that a warrior who fought alongside the Black Prince was gifted the place in the fourteenth century; that Geoffrey Chaucer’s son in all probability bought it for his daughter; I know that Henry VIII and Elizabeth I were visitors, and Charles I claimed it as one of his strongholds in the civil war. I have seen places like this before: but somehow, here on this bleak white day, frozen white and deserted, the place possessed a silent eloquence.
Staying for long was not an option. I could not feel my fingers.
I slip-slid down the hill, to my waiting steed. And tentatively, and with infinite care, I eased it away from that icy imperious ruined palace, and towards the light and warm hearths of Newbury.
*The voice from 1,000 years ago is the author of the Wanderer, an early English poem thought to have been written between 500AD and 900AD.