The Democracy of Ruins

The ruinous keep at Bridgenorth with Telford’s 18th century church visible over its righthand shoulder

A holiday with the family can be very revealing, not just for family relationships (it’s always interesting watching the children squabbling over whose turn on the trampelene it is or whose fizzy drink that really was) but also being reminded of the child’s viewpoint of heritage. We recently visited three historic sites that demonstrated this quite neatly; Ludlow, Powis Castle and Bridgenorth. Each has substantial castle remains and each produced quite different reactions in both my youngest children. Powis Castle, probably founded in the 13th century, has wonderfully manicured 19th century terraced gardens that use the rocky outcrop on which the castle sits to great effect. The castle with its great medieval keep was extensively refurbished in the late 19th century early 20th century and is now displayed as a country house (complete with stuffed deer heads in the café) – not a real castle said my children, because it feels like a big house. And the most popular bit of the castle? The kitchen (and why did we have to use just servants stairs said a scandalised youngest daughter – political antennae well attuned at all of eight years).

At Bridgenorth the castle remains sit on another exposed ridge with the River Severn flowing below to the east and the town straddling both banks. Only the castle keep can be seen, set in a fine park that was rich with blousy summer flowers (including fat fuschia flowers and asters). The ruinous stone keep sits at a crazy angle, incongruously overlooked by the 18th century classical parish church1 – the result of demolition in 1646 by Parliamentarian forces after the town was captured. According to my children it’s so bashed about that it’s not a proper ruin. They couldn’t even go in the structure (thankgoodness, bearing in the mind the 15 degree lean at which the 20m high structure still stands).

Finally there is a Ludlow Castle, it too sitting on a hill overlooking the River Teme with a medieval town to the east. This is a ruinous and rambling castle with surviving outer bailey walls and gatehouse (including shop). There is a warren of an inner bailey with a tall medieval gatehouse keep, 15th century hall range, and a 12th century round apse that is all that is left of the castle’s chapel. This was the castle favoured by both my children.

A slight caveat here – these are two children used to visiting three heritage sites a day on holiday in Britain, and whose parents are an archaeologist and a historian so perhaps not your everyday young tourists. Nevertheless, why would this random sample of children chose this site? Apart from the winding staircases and turrets, there was just enough of the remains to show it was a castle and not too much to demonstrate it was home, and plenty of opportunity to explore. In other words it allowed the imagination to recreate the site and the experience, peopling a space with the children’s own ideas. Perhaps we should all be bringing the openness, the democratic fairness, of the child’s view to our exploration of the past?

1) Designed by Thomas Telford of road fame no less.

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