Just twenty miles or so as the crow flies, maybe less, but separated by more than a thousand years. That pretty sums up two English Heritage properties that we visited yesterday.
Nestling under the Shropshire Hills, Stokesay Castle is a fortified medieval manor house, a few miles north of Ludlow, built in the late 13th century, and added to over the centuries.
On the other hand, Wroxeter Roman city, a few miles southeast of Shrewsbury was established as a fortified outpost not long after the successful Claudian invasion of Britain by the Romans in AD40.
As in all my blog posts, the links I included above will take you to web sites with a lot more information than I have space for here.
With the weather set fair – just as the forecasters had predicted – Steph and I set off just after 09:30 to our first stop, Stokesay Castle, arriving there just before 11:00.
Unlike many if not most of the properties owned by the National Trust, which are furnished, English Heritage manages many castles and other ruined buildings. However, Stokesay castle is remarkably intact. Once a moated property, the courtyard is entered through a 16th century half-timbered gatehouse, that has the most beautiful carvings on the wood surrounds. And, unlike many other Tudor buildings of this style, such as Little Moreton Hall in Cheshire, the Stokesay gatehouse has a yellowish daub instead of the ‘typical’ white.
Stokesay Castle comprises a large vaulted hall, with a number of lower and upper rooms at each end, and an adjoining three storey round tower. At the north end of the hall on the upper floor are half-timbered bay windows overlooking the parish church of St John the Baptist. This is as old as the manor, but was also rebuilt during the Civil Wars in the 17th century. Sadly, the main part of the church roof is covered in ‘modern’ tiles, rather than what were probably once stone tiles, just like the main hall of the castle.
No doubt if walls could talk, those at Stokesay would have a lot to relate. Located as it is on the English-Welsh border – the Marches – the castle no doubt saw its fair share of turmoil and violence. Some of the key conflicts of the Wars of the Roses occurred in this general area, and it’s unlikely that Stokesay would have been spared.
A number of features are worth describing, besides the gatehouse.
The roof of the hall is a wonderful timber construction, and the underside of the tiles is still exposed; you can still see how they were fastened to the eaves.
To the south of the hall, and one floor up, is the solar, a room with 17th century wood paneling. It has two small windows from which to monitor goings-on in the hall below.
Then there is the tower. Initially we couldn’t find any way to climb to the roof. And although we had reached the second floor, we didn’t notice a small doorway, in the wall to the side of a window, leading to another stone stairway.
The rooms in the tower are inhabited by several species of bat, some rare, and infected apparently with bat rabies. Caution!
The moat is now a walk right round the castle, and on the east side planted with flower beds, as are parts of the courtyard.
After almost two hours, and a visit to the church as well, we’d seen everything there was to see, and headed northeast, and two millennia back in time, to Roman Britain.
Now I have been to Rome many, many times, a city almost littered with ruins. In the Baths of Caracalla, for example (close the headquarters of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization where I attended many meetings), all the beauty of Roman brickwork is exposed for all to see. At Wroxeter Roman city – or, more correctly, Viroconium Cornoviorum – there are the remains of typical Roman buildings, displaying the same construction techniques as in the Baths of Caracalla, with alternate layers of red tiles and brickwork, hard as concrete. Click on the artist’s interpretation below for a large image of the city in its heyday.
Viroconium was reportedly the fourth largest settlement in Roman Britain, and as large as Pompeii. Established as a Roman garrison in about AD55, the soldiers had moved on within a few decades, but the city continued to grow. It remained an important town until the Romans left Britain in the fifth century, and went into slow decline for another couple of centuries until sacked by the Anglo-Saxons.
Not much remains today, just a site about 150m square or so. Over the centuries stone was taken from the site and used for building materials in the local village of Wroxeter, and farms in the surrounding district. Located as it was close to the River Severn, and commanding a site on the border with Wales, Viroconium was an important base for the Roman campaign against the Welsh tribes.
Close to Wroxeter lies Coalbrookdale – site of the birth of the Industrial Revolution and iron smelting. This part of Shropshire is rich in coal and iron ore.
The exposed ruins today cover the central city block or insula near the forum, markets and bath house.
If what remains exposed today is just one city block, then the city itself would have been an impressive piece of Rome in its distant province of Britannia – the very edge of the empire.