Tuesday, 18 August 2009

A Brief Guide to the Outside of Raglan Castle

It's midday on Friday and I'm outside Raglan Castle, in Monmouthshire.

I often drive past here on my way back from south Wales and have stopped several times before with the intention of looking around the place. The first time I came the castle was besieged by workmen who had so covered it in scaffolding that it didn't seem worth hanging around. The second time it had just closed for the day. The third time I finally realised that you have to pay to get in, and was once again deterred.

Today I'm still in two minds about what to do, having forgotten how much the admission fee was. It turns out to be £3, which seems reasonable enough. But, this being the school holidays, the place is particularly busy. In front of me a couple of young boys are play-fighting boisterously with wooden swords which is, of course, exactly the kind of thing that boys that age ought to be doing on a trip to a castle. But I seem to have gotten into a mindset now where only the perfect opportunity to look around the place undisturbed will do for me.

The car park consists of a large area of short grass in front of the castle entrance, and while I'm hanging around hesitating I notice that there are one or two things to be seen here, for free.

On a small section of old grey stonework, presumably the remnant of something bigger, there is a plaque explaining the role of the castle in the English Civil Wars. At the time Raglan was owned by Henry Somerset, the first Marquess of Worcester, who was a staunch Royalist and reputedly the richest man in the country. In 1646 Cromwell's Parliamentarians laid siege to the place and subjected it to daily bombardments for several months before Somerset eventually conceded. It was the last of the great aristocratic homes to fall, and the new occupiers immediately set about trying to demolish the main tower, although this proved harder work than they had anticipated and so a large section of it still remains.

raglan castle

Behind the wall with the plaque on it, in the very back of the parking area, stands a venerable old oak tree which still seems very much alive despite having lost a long vertical strip of bark and being so hollow at the base that it looks almost as if it has decided to stand up out of the ground, perhaps  in preparation for walking Ent-like away over the fields.

raglan castle (2)

Oak trees can live for over five hundred years, so it's possible that this old specimen was already here when Cromwell's men arrived armed to the teeth and grimly determined to gain entry to the castle. I wonder what they would have thought of a man who was put off by a small admission fee and a couple of kids with wooden swords?

Monday, 10 August 2009

Give Us a Clue

It's about half past nine on Friday morning and I'm walking through the centre of Lincoln on my way to a dealership on the edge of the town.

The cathedral dominates the skyline here, not just through its size, but through the size of the hill it sits on as well.

On the grassy slopes at the bottom of this hill I can see a statue, which from a distance looks like a knight in armour swinging some kind of large, unwieldy implement, which presumably has some religious significance. But when I get closer I can see that it is neither within the cathedral grounds nor (probably) a knight. More than anything it now seems to resemble a man attacking a speed camera.

lincoln statue

It stands outside the Usher Art Gallery, which does not open until ten o'clock, although the gates leading from the road up to the main building are open.  There seems to be a small plaque at the statue's base and so I walk over to see if my guess is anywhere close. But it is just a blank metal surface. Maybe I'm being encouraged to think for myself, which seems rather annoying at this time in the morning.

The statue is clearly making some point about something, but if visitors are expected to not only work out if they agree with it, but also what it might be in the first place then there ought to at least be a coffee machine next to it.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Secret Places

It's Monday morning and I'm on my way to Whitchurch (the one in Shropshire) to collect a vehicle from an auction. I'm currently at Crewe station, nearing the end of an hour long wait for the Shrewsbury train, which stops at Whitchurch. The platform only has one bench, which already has a person sat on each end of it, and so I'm crouched down on my heels nearby, looking idly around.

The platform opposite is about four feet above the level of the tracks, with the vertical side of it being made up of old brickwork, mostly black with dirt, but crumbling away in places to reveal unblemished red beneath. Exactly opposite me there is a gap in this brickwork, filled by a couple of lengths of timber, about six feet across. But between these lengths is another small gap through which can be glimpsed a lit subway running beneath the platforms. Nothing too unusual about this except that pedestrian access to all the platforms here is via footbridges. Presumably there is still some routine explanation - maybe the elevators go down while the stairs go up, or maybe it is some kind of service access for the staff. But I find myself wanting to think that there is some other more secretive, maybe even magical explanation for it.

I spent the last week on holiday near Chichester, during which time we took the kids to see the new Harry Potter film. I'd never seen any of the films before, or read any of the books, and I think maybe this first exposure has left an impression on me.

I catch the train to Whitchurch and then have a couple of miles to walk out to the auction, on the A41 south of the town. I'm only about half a mile away when it begins to rain so hard that I have to take shelter under a tree. In front of me the traffic on the dual carriageway ploughs through the surface water in a perpetual cloud of spray. Behind me is a tangled hedge and a dense patch of old trees, and behind that only fields. But peering through the trees I can see below me, at the bottom of a steep cutting, a dirt track which disappears into a tunnel under the main road. Undoubtedly this is just an access road and the only thing I'm likely to see on it is a tractor containing a ruddy-faced farmer with a flat cap on his head. But again there is the desire to believe that if I keep watching for long enough then something stranger than that will come along, out of sight of the drivers in the vehicles roaring past, and not expecting to be seen by anyone at all. I blame J K Rowling.