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Get to know A Bit About Britain - an idiosyncratic view of places to visit in Britain, British history - and stuff. Warts and all. Where shall we go today?

Monday, 16 June 2014

Bodiam Castle


Bodiam Castle, moated, medieval, romantic, Sussex

It was built to help defend England from the French.  Now it sits there, almost fooling you into thinking that it’s going to come alive, that a verray parfit gentil knyght is going to come galloping across the drawbridge to see his fair damsel.  “Gadzooks, Delia, I hope thou hast ye kettle on; yonder M25 were a rare skirmish, my throat’s as dry as a saint’s relic and, forsooth, a cuppa would ease my soul like a kiss from your heavenly lips.  Failing that, a pint of Speckled Hen would do very nicely.”

Bodiam, drawbridge, portcullis, barbican

Bodiam (say "BO-DEE-AM"), in Sussex, is like something from a fairy-tale book and one of the most photogenic and romantic looking castles in Britain.  It reminds me a little of Caerlaverock, in Dumfries.  But, in contrast to Caerlaverock, Bodiam actually appears more ornamental than defensive – couldn’t you just drain that water and walk across? - not that I know much about medieval fortifications.  As you get closer, you’ll see that its completeness is an illusion; it is a ruin and the knight who loved chivalry, truth, honour, freedom, courtesy and Speckled Hen is, regrettably, just a figment of your over-active imagination.

Bodiam, castle walls, flowers, photogenic

You approach from the south and see a square, more or less symmetrical, fortification surrounded by its moat.  Bodiam was constructed in the late 14th century and, unlike earlier Norman castles, has no keep or central tower.  The apartments and function rooms were built around a central courtyard.  Its builder, Sir Edward Dalyngrigge, fought with Edward III in France, probably making his fortune as a freebooting plunderer.  Back home, he was granted a licence from King Richard II to crenelate and fortify the old manor of Bodiam ‘for the defence of the adjacent country and the resistance to our enemies’.  

Battlements, spiral staircases, medieval fortifications, castles, Sussex

It may puzzle you that Bodiam is several miles from the coast, but the fear of French invasion was real and the River Rother, which now oozes a slightly muddy car width of brown water a short distance away to the south, was once much more navigable with sea-going ships bringing supplies to the castle.  If English ships could get in, so could the French.  In fact, it was still considered a vulnerable route 600 years later; just between the castle and the river is a pill box, relic of Britain’s impregnable defences during the 2nd World War.

Fish, Bodiam Castle moat, wildlife, carp, mallards, ducks

Actually, I do not believe Bodiam Castle ever saw any serious military action – certainly not from across the Channel.  The Lancastrian garrison during the Wars of the Roses apparently surrendered to the Yorkists without much of a struggle.  And during the English Civil War of the 17th century, the Royalist owner sold the castle to a parliamentarian, who ‘slighted’ (dismantled) it.  By the 18th century, Bodiam Castle, its crumbling towers and battlements festooned with ivy, had become something of a tourist attraction.  Sometime around 1917, it was acquired by Lord Curzon, who initially had the idea of living in it, but who in any event carried out extensive restoration work, including dredging the moat and clearing vegetation.  In 1926, he died and left the whole thing to the National Trust.

Bodiam Castle, interior, battlemented, ruins, East Sussex

So now you can explore it, and let your imagination run riot.  You enter the castle from the north across a wooden bridge.  About two-thirds of the way over is a small island, where a barbican gate once stood.  Originally, there would have been a drawbridge from this point.  Through the main gate with, apparently, its original portcullis (very rare), and you’re in.  There are enough battlements to keep most fans of fortresses, and small children, quite happy - though if you’re at all acrophobic I do warn you that the spiral staircases can be a challenge, let alone the height of those ancient towers.  Personally, I found it was a good excuse to hold someone's hand - though she did give me a rather odd look.  The views are tremendous, though – to the north, a vineyard rolls uphill to some oast houses; to the south, you’ll see the river and, beyond that, the Kent & East Sussex Railway – a heritage line than runs between Bodiam and Tenterden, a fine Kentish town just 11 miles away.  Indeed, there’s an alternative means of arrival for you; otherwise, I suggest you drive there.

While you're there maybe - just maybe - you'll spot a fair damsel or comely wench.  If you polish your armour first, perhaps she'll blow you a kiss.

Medieval re-enactments, Bodiam

Incidentally, the outside of Bodiam Castle has featured in various TV programmes and films, including Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

9 comments:

  1. Ah, so the Pythons used that place!

    At first glance, it reminds one of Camelot.

    And those are big fish!

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  2. All that was needed to defeat most castles was an effective siege and plenty of patience. If you were playing for time - while waiting for re-enforcements to arrive then they were ideal. As usual Hollywood disagrees.

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    1. Yes - actually, I wasn't taking it that seriously!

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  3. Castles are so romantic (in the broad sense). I might have liked to live in that era if it weren't for no hot running water :)

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    1. Hmm. Very smelly, no electricity, short life expectancy, pretty awful quality of life anyway...

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  4. Great castle! What does it mean that 'he was granted a licence...by Richard II.' Does that mean that the king gave him permission, or that the king funded it by extortionist means. I love it that so many places over there (albeit for financial reasons) were left to the National Trust. I think all of us want to see historical places preserved, but want the money to come from someone else's pockets.

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    1. I think that in medieval England, technically, the King had to authorise the building of a fortress that could be defended with battlements etc, as it could be used against the Crown. There may have also been an element of one-upmanship about it - castles like Bodiam are statements of power and wealth. I don't know whether ALL castles were granted licences - I doubt it. I do know that after the civil wars of 12th century, Henry II set about getting rid of what he called 'adulterine castles' - ie those that had not been approved by the king. Re funding - under feudalism the king was entitled to ask for service from his feudal vassals, and may have granted them estates, but the vassals would fund and run the estates themselves. Everyone owed someone.

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  5. That is a wonderful castle ruin and I thank you for the informative tour.

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  6. Just couldn't resist reading your 'old' post about Bodiam Castle ... a great place to visit. I did many years ago now, and I really enjoyed my visit again ... reading this post.

    Thank you.

    All the best Jan

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