“Don’t go any further.” The guide at Warwick Castle put a cautionary hand on my arm. The room at the top of the ancient gatehouse had once been the quarters of the military governor during the English Civil War – but the floorboards were rotten. I had written scenes set in the governor’s quarters for my (then half written) first book, The Welsh Linnet.
I found myself in a warm and spacious room, clearly the Governor’s living quarters. The roof was lofty and the room well lit by large, curtained windows at either end. The stone walls were whitewashed, unadorned other than by two racks for clothing. On the one nearer the door dangled a sword in an ornate scabbard, a lobster pot helmet and buff coat hanging next to it. The further rack held a cloak or two.
The wooden rack just inside the door was what really excited me, for I had already written:
Will shoved him aside and erupted into the room. He snatched Major Chatterton’s sword from its hook and drew it from its scabbard in one fluid motion.
Setting a series of novels in the past is all about recreating the time and the place. Writing convincingly about the place is easiest when I have visited, got the feel for it and ideally talked to someone- the owner, a guide or a “local”, who knows it well. After that, I can decide whether to present it as accurately as possible, as I did with Warwick castle, or I can play with it a little. This is generally when I have used a real place as a fictitious one. Tretower Court and castle in south Wales appears as The Allt. I have used many features of the real house but shifted it nearer to the town of Crickhowell, added a room or two and did not worry too much about the details of the local topography.
Warwick Castle was very easy – everything was there but the furniture. At the other extreme was Banbury Castle, of which not a trace exists today, having been destroyed by Parliament in 1648 for its loyalty to King Charles I. Chester Castle was nearly as bad. I walked the city walls with a knowledgeable guide, but my schedule did not allow me to go inside the surviving Agricola Tower. Rolling up my sleeves, back in Melbourne, I dug into the internet, which helpfully produced plans of the layout of the castle as it had once been.
John, Lord Byron, Field Marshal General of North Wales, … resumed his former posture, leaning on the windowsill. The spartan quarters at the top of the gatehouse, known as Agricola’s Tower, commanded an excellent view of the ancient castle’s outer and inner bailey; and Byron appeared wholly engrossed in watching the comings and goings below him.
At first, I felt aggrieved at the winners of the war who had ordered the demolition of a number of castles which had been garrisoned for the king. But in fairness the draughty and uncomfortable medieval buildings were already falling out of use. The Vaughans of Tretower had used some of the stone from their own castle when they decided it was time to build a modern gentleman’s house 200 years earlier. Much hasty patching up of such abandoned castles ensued when war came to Britain once more in 1642.
“The old castle is the only defensible part of The Allt. I believed you were to make a few repairs. A little work will render it capable of withstanding attack. The ramparts on the house may enhance its majesty and impress visitors, but, alas, they will not withstand ordnance for a single day.” Gabriel Vaughan reproaches his father in The Tawny Sash.
Thanks to the staff of Loseley Park in Surrey, I discovered that the house, which appears as Chadshunt Hall in my novels, once had a west wing incorporating a long gallery, the coach house and a chapel.
Boconnoc House in Cornwall was a bit of a challenge. Beautifully restored in recent years, it retains few of the medieval features of the original house. The owner kindly allowed me to look around house and grounds and I bought a copy of the fine book about Boconnoc and its history. From visit and book, I discovered that the original house was an S shape, with towers and that it originally faced west.
The mass of the house, a tower at each end, loomed as a dark and silent presence in the night. The thick walls shut out any sound of those within, and no candles could be seen. It could have been deserted, but the family were held prisoners.
And what would a wander around Britain’s historic places be without a visit to a pub at the end? In this case it was the 16th century Globe Inn in Lostwithiel at which I stayed, gleefully inserting it into Tawny Sash. Sadly, the owner, although telling me something of its history, could not tell me what its name was in the 1640s when the roundhead army occupied the town. A dramatic moment ensued there.
Emerging from the inn was a tall officer. Walking briskly, he grabbed the drunkard by the arm and thrust him out of the way. He wore a tawny sash knotted across his shoulder which marked him as one of Essex’s officers. …
“Wait!” The anguished cry went unheard in the hubbub of the crowded street.
I had intended a further visit to such places in 2020, for the War without an enemy of 1640s Britain is not yet at an end. Sadly, there is another war we are all fighting in 2020 and so, for the moment, I can only visit these places through books, the miracles of technology and in my imagination.
And the fog rising from the Loddon? That must wait for a separate blog about Basing House.
Oh how tantalising. I know Basing House quite well. Can’t wait for the next blog.
But very interesting. Looking forward to the next installment.