A Visit to Conisbrough Castle

As with many of my recent posts about interesting places we’ve visited, our trip to Conisbrough was last year. It was my second visit to the site, the previous one being in 1969, when the castle wasn’t managed the way it is today. Being a local-born lad, my husband had been many times as a child and teen in the 50s and early 60s, but was happy to go and see what changes had been made now that it was managed by English Heritage.

English Heritage flag atop the keep 3

Conisbrough Castle is located on the north-eastern edge of the town of Conisbrough in South Yorkshire, UK. It is  approximately 6 miles south-west of Doncaster and 7 miles north-east of Rotherham:

Location of Conisbrough Castle in South Yorkshire
Base map of South Yorkshire, UK from Wikipedia. Source: Ordnance Survey OpenData. Author: Nilfanion. Creative Commons

The name Conisbrough comes from the Anglo-Saxon word Cyningesburh, which means ‘the king’s borough’. Although Conisbrough was already an important town before 1066, little is known about the actual site of the castle before that time. In 1066 the ‘Honour’ (or Lordship) of Conisbrough was given to William Warenne, a trusted supporter of William 1 – also known as William the Conqueror.  Warenne acquired land over thirteen counties  and became known as the Earl of Surrey.

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Coat of arms of the Warenne Earls of Surrey. Author: Madboy 74  Creative Commons

It was probably Warenne who built the first fortress at Conisbrough, which is thought to have comprised an earthwork enclosure with a wooden palisade along the top, with timber buildings inside. There could also have been an outer bailey. It occupied a strategic position on a large knoll (hill) along a ridge of magnesian limestone.

On the death of the third earl in 1147, having no sons as heirs, the castle passed to his daughter, Isabel de Warenne, William Warenne’s great granddaughter. The stone castle, the ruins of which we see today, was built by her husband, Hamelin Plantagenet, the legitimate half-brother of Henry II.

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Aerial view of Conisbrough Castle in 2007 geograh.org.uk  Author :Richard Bird Creative Commons

The stone castle consisted of an outer and inner bailey.

The outer bailey would have protected the inner bailey and contained structures needed for the management of the castle and the supply of those living there. Domestic buildings included quarters for servants, maids and farmworkers, workshops, stables and and other livestock stalls, and storage areas like barns and sheds. The barbican shown on the diagram below (which is from an information board at the site) wasn’t added until the middle of the 13th century:

Bird's eye view of the 15th century castle+

The inner bailey would have contained a number of domestic buildings behind a stone curtain wall. At Conisbrough these included:  A: solar block B: great hall C: kitchens and pantry D: keep and stairs  E: barbican and gatehouse F: chapel – as shown on the diagram below:

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The inner bailey at Conisbrough Castle, early 13th century.  Author:User.Hchsc2009. Creative Commons

Today, only the foundations of these buildings can be seen.

The inner bailey with its magnificent great tower/keep is reached by crossing the outer bailey from the visitor centre to what remains of the barbican (a fortified entrance) and gatehouse through the inner curtain wall.

Approaching the barbican through the outer bailey

Built around 1210, the inner curtain wall would have provided effective defence against attackers, especially once the barbican was constructed. The wall would originally have been topped with battlements, from which lookouts and archers ensured that no attackers sneaked up unseen. Five small, solid towers were positioned on the wall’s exterior on the east, south and western sides. To the north the steep drop provided ample defence. The wall itself was not as well built as the keep, consisting of roughly dressed coarse stone with a rubble core.

The outside of the inner bailey wall

These are a few photos of the inner bailey, showing more of the crumbling curtain wall and the remnants of some of the buildings listed above:

The great tower was  built of high-quality, local magnesian limestone and is one of the best examples of an ashar-faced structure in the UK. (Ashar facing means sawed or dressed square stone used in facing masonry walls.) The tower is over 78 feet high with a circular core and flanked by six wedge-shaped buttresses of 90 feet in height that extend beyond the rooftop.

Conisbrough Keep 1
Inside the tower are five levels (the rooftop being the fifth). This rather unclear photo of a diagram at the castle may give some idea of that:

Plan of keep +

The lowest level is the ground floor or basement, with a well used to bring water into the rest of the building. The basement has no windows or doors and is accessed only via a ladder through the hole in its vaulted ceiling. It was probably used for storage.

The entrance to the tower is on the first floor, twenty feet above the court, and was originally reached by an exposed external timber staircase with a timber drawbridge leading into the tower that could be dismantled for defence. Nowadays a concrete staircase has been erected.

Stone steps up th keep entrance
This first floor had no natural light and, like the basement, was probably used for storage. These photos show the well cover and modern safety grid and railing:

A wide, well-lit stone staircase takes us up to the great chamber on the second floor:

Steep stone steps in the keep

The room would have been used by the de Warenne lords when they were staying in Conisbrough. It looks cold and bare today, but it would once have contained a number of fine objects and silverware, painted furniture, beds with feather mattresses with colourful rugs on the floor and tapestries on the walls to keep out the cold. A long trestle would have been used for meals, feasts and banquets and so on.  A wide fireplace, with a joggled lintel and possibly a colourful hood, would have thrown heat into the room. A door leads into a latrine and there is an alcove with a window overlooking the entrance to the tower:

The stairs leading to the third floor are narrower than the lower ones. This floor consists of the bedchamber, where the lord and his family could rest and sleep. It would have been beautifully decorated and have a comfortable bed, cushions, a large basin for washing and a latrine. A window alcove faced towards the town, with stone benches that would have been cushioned so people cut sit and rest or chat. A fireplace provided heat. It was the Lady de Warenne who told us all about this room:


A chapel within one of the buttresses on the east of the tower opened from the bedchamber. The de Warenne family would have attended Mass here in private, and the priest, who would have lived at the castle, would pray for their souls. The chapel’s most noticeable feature was the beautiful vaulted ceiling. The two wash basins (piscinas) are on opposite walls – which is unusual, as in most chapels from the 12th century onward the two were side-by-side.

The rooftop forms the fifth floor. Originally it looked quite different to how it looks today. It is thought that at some time there was a room surrounded by an enclosed wall passage, as part of the wall and a door jamb survive. Of the six buttresses that extended above the battlements as turrets, two of them were solid. The other four seem to have functioned as two water tanks, a bread oven and a dovecote.

Rooftop buttresse 1
Views of the surrounding countryside are excellent from the rooftop, especially as the castle is on hill on an already raised ridge. These are a few of the photos we took:

Conisbrough Castle has had an interesting history over the centuries and had a variety of owners. I won’t go into detail here, but a short word will be useful to bring the castle up to the 21st century.

After the death of the last Earl Warenne in 1347, the castle reverted to the Crown.  Edward III settled the Warenne northern estates on his fourth son, Edmund Langley, who later became the Duke of York. The castle became embroiled in the Wars of the Roses (1455-85) after which it was abandoned and fell into ruin. By 1538 the keep had lost its floors and the gatehouse and part of the curtain wall had collapsed. At the end of the Civil War (1642-51) there was no need for it to be further slighted (cannoned down) by Cromwell – as so many other Royalist-held castles were – since it was already in a ruined and unusable condition.

The castle remained a popular tourist attraction until the early 20th century and in the 1950s its management was taken over by the Ministry of Works, who made a number of major repairs. But by the 1980s visitor facilities were declared unsuitable and in 1984 the castle passed into the care of English Heritage.

Together with Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council and a local charitable trust, the great tower was re-roofed and floored to protect it from the weather and improve public access. A new exhibition centre was built. In 2007, Conisbrough Castle became totally under the management of English Heritage, which does an excellent job in the castle’s upkeep and makes it a wonderful place to visit. Some visitors come with the sole intent of seeing for themselves the place that, in 1819, Sir Walter Scott chose to set parts of his famous novel, ‘Ivanhoe’.

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Refs:

Conisbrough Castle Guide Book (from English Heritage)

Information boards around the site

Various online sites including:

English Heritage

Conibisbrough Castle:A Comprehensive Guide of the Castle

Wikipedia

Visit Doncaster

Welcome to Yorkshire Yorkshire.com

Wikipedia

Chatsworth House

Chatsworth House is probably the best known of the stately homes in Derbyshire and has been voted Britain’s favourite country house several times. It is situated nine miles west of Chesterfield and three and a half miles north-east of Bakewell.

Location of Chatsworth House in Derbyshire

The house stands on the east bank of the River Derwent, looking across to the hills between the Derwent and the Wye valleys.

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The river bridge and the house at Chatsworth,  Author: Rob Bendall

The magnificent yellow-stoned house, set in expansive parkland and backed by wooded, rocky hills rising to heather moorland, is the seat of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire and has been passed down through sixteen generations of the Cavendish family.

The original Tudor House was built in 1552 after the estate was acquired in 1549 by Sir William Cavendish. Sir William died in 1557 with the house partly constructed and it was left to his formidable wife, Bess, also known as Bess of Hardwick, to complete it. Little of that original house remains today.

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17th century painting of the west front of the Elizabethan Chatsworth. 1680s or earlier. Artist unknown. Pubic Domain

Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned here at various times between 1569 and 1584, and although the rooms of her apartment have since been rebuilt, two rooms are still called the Scots Apartment.

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Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-87) painted by François Clouet (1510-72) Public Domain

After Bess’ death in 1608, Chatsworth passed to her second son, also named William. In 1618 he was created the first Earl of Devonshire and in 1694 the fourth Earl was created the first Duke of Devonshire. (For anyone who doesn’t know, a duke/duchess is higher in the ranks of nobility than an earl/countess. A duke/duchess comes after prince/princess who is second to king/queen).

Between 1686 and 1707 the first Duke rebuilt Chatsworth in Classical style and between 1720-64, the park was landscaped by the fourth Duke. The famous ‘Capability’ Brown was hired to reshape the then formal gardens to how we still see them today. The stables and the bridges over the Derwent were also added in the 18th century.

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A late 18th century oil painting by William Marlow. It emphasises the romantic aspects of Chatsworth’s setting on the edge of the Peak District. Public Domain

The library and north wing were added to the house by the sixth Duke between 1790 and 1858.

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A view of Chatsworth from the south-west circa 1880. The stables can be seen behind the house and the Hunting Tower is visible in Stand Wood. Public Domain

On entering the house through the North Entrance, we made our way to the Painted Hall and Great Staircase. There were a lot of people in the room, but we managed a few photos during a relatively ‘quiet’ time. This is a magnificent hall, the artwork on the walls and ceiling being particularly stunning. Our photos don’t do it justice due to the glare from the many lights.

We continued along the Chapel Corridor, with lots of sculptures, paintings and other items of interest to  look at…

Chapel corridor with various sculptures and ornaments (2)

…which, unsurprisingly, took us to the Chapel. This is another fabulous room, richly ornamented with a colourful ceiling.

Next to the Chapel is the Oak Room. No prizes for guessing why it is called that:

Though it lacks the colour of many of the rooms, the Sculpture Gallery contains some really beautiful pieces.

Other rooms in which we managed to take photos include the Great Dining Room, the State Music Room,  the Library, the State Bedchamber and one of the Guest Bedroom. I’ve added a mix of these rooms to the gallery below, including a few of the many paintings on display. The images showing wallpaper are included because, as in a few other stately homes we’ve visited, many wallpapers were of a Chinese design and hand painted. I believe the imitation European versions were called Chinoiserie, and although the first were seen in Europe in the 16th century, they were particularly popular in stately homes in the 18th – 19th centuries. A dictionary definition of Chinoiserie is: a decorative style in Western art, furniture, and architecture, especially in the 18th century, characterized by the use of Chinese motifs and techniques.

Last year (2019) Chatsworth was celebrating all things ‘dog’. It was officially titled, The Dog: A celebration at Chatsworth. It explored the Cavendish family’s enduring love of dogs. Around the site are a variety of dog sculptures, paintings, drawings and photos, some from the Devonshire collection and others on loan from public and private collections. These are just a few of them:

Surrounding the house, the extensive parkland, farmyard and playground would take more that a day to fully explore and we had little time to see much of it during our visit. What we did see was impressive, but we would have loved to have got down to the Arboretum and Trout Stream. In the afternoon, we spent some time wandering around the immediate lawns and kitchen gardens. We had planned another visit this year – but I think that will now have to wait until next year.

These are some of the many photos we took around the immediate grounds and gardens:

There are plenty of places to eat at Chatsworth, and a number of talks and activities are available. Chatsworth is a place for family days out as well as for couples, singles, and anyone who loves a good dose of history or lovely scenery. Chatsworth is not a National Trust property and entry prices for both house and grounds are not cheap and can be as much as £17.50 per adult for last minute bookings – as was ours. However, many local families come to just enjoy and picnic in the grounds, which is considerably cheaper. All I can say is that Chatsworth is a truly fabulous place and, at very least, well worth a visit. This amazing fountain has a history all of its own. But I’ll leave that for another post.

Canal Pond and Great Fountain 2

A Visit to Creswell Crags

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From spring to autumn of most years we have a day out on a Sunday, visiting scenic or historical sites which are close enough to drive to and enjoy in a single day.  We’ve been to Creswell Crags many times and at various times of year, and it’s always worth a visit. So, because we haven’t been able to go anywhere at all this year, I thought I’d show some photos of Creswell from our day out in May 2019 and add a little bit of information about the attractions and importance of the site.

Creswell Crags is a beautiful magnesian limestone gorge situated on the border between Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire in England.

Location of Creswell Crags

It is popular with families, walkers and horse-riders as well as academics interested in the appearance and use of the gorge and its caves in the distant past. The route down to the lake (i.e. the widened stream) from the Reception is a pretty area with delightful trackways with picnic areas, open meadows and children’s play areas.

The ‘YOU ARE HERE’ in the plan below is to the side of the Reception / Visitor Centre.

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The gorge itself is known throughout the world as an outstanding Ice Age archaeological site. It was designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in 1981 and as a Scheduled Ancient Monument in 1985. The caves were seasonably occupied during the Upper Paleolithic and Mesolithic periods (from around 11,500 – 6,000 BP) and there is evidences of Neanderthal, Bronze Age and post-medieval activity.  The caves  contain the northernmost cave art in Europe as well and a series of 17th and 18th century witches marks.

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The gorge provided a valuable summer camp for our Ice Age ancestors. It was a place where people could meet, there was food to hunt nearby and caves in which to shelter and prepare for their return to their winter territories across Doggerland to mainland Europe.

Doggerland connected Brtian to Continental Europe at the time when waters of the sea were frozen during the Ice Age
A hypothetical map showing Doggerland connecting Britain to Continental Europe at the time when waters of the sea were frozen during the Ice Age. Author Max Naylor, February 2008 Creative Commons

There are six main caves along the gorge at Creswell Crags in addition to many smaller fissures and solution hollows. Excavations in the larger caves have provided a rich fossil record, “a time capsule spanning thousands of years”. Neanderthals visited 55,000 years ago, as did the earliest, modern humans 29,000 years ago. Remains of various animals have been found. Before the Ice Age, exotic animals like hippopotamus and rhinoceros wallowed in the warm waters of the river that flows through the gorge. As the climate cooled to Ice Age conditions, lions and hyenas used the caves as dens, and were joined by woolly mammoth, woolly rhinoceros and reindeer. Skulls and other bones of various species can be seen in the small museum at the Reception – including lions, hyenas, bears, woolly rhinoceros and mammoth, plus several smaller mammals.

Here are a few photos taken of the caves and general views during our walk around the lake:

Hunter gatherers continued to use the caves long after the end of the Ice Age. Burnt hazel nut shells, cattle bones and small flints have been found. 6,000 years ago the caves were used for burials. Urns have been found as have bronze pins,which were used to hold the burial shroud. A human collarbone was found in Church Hole Cave.

Hundreds of protective marks, known as witches’ marks, have been discovered in caves at Creswell. They date from medieval to modern and are scratched into walls and ceilings over dark holes and large crevices. Originally thought to be graffiti, they are now believed to be the the largest collection in the UK.  Prior to their discovery, the largest collection was held to be in Somerset, with 57 marks. The number at Creswell far exceeds that number – there are hundreds in one cave alone.

Ritualistic protection marks were most commonly found in historic churches and houses, usually near to entrances such as doorways, windows and fireplaces, to protect the people living there from evil spirits. The most common sign is VV, believed to refer to Mary, Virgin of Virgins. The one shown below is not from Creswell. We didn’t go inside the caves last year when the Witch Marks tour was opened for the first time.

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Another common symbol is PM, referring to Pace Maria. Other signs, include diagonal lines, boxes and mazes. Many appear to have been added over time, possibly indicating a need to strengthen protection in periods of unexpected sickness, death or crop failure.

Although closed at present due to Covid-19 restrictions, Creswell Crags is usually open all year. There is no cost to walk round or visit the shop or cafe. Entrance to the exhibition/museum is £3 and cave tours start at £9 for adults and £7 for children. for a single cave.