Sunday, 20 June 2010
Battle Damage to North Wall
Drawing from 1822 by J. C. Buckler, showing Cromwell's handy work
There have been few places I have visited that I can honestly say were as peaceful and tranquil an experience as Nunney Castle, which came as a surprise when you consider it was a Saturday when my partner and I decided to pay Nunney Castle a visit. I must say, we had expected to have to battle through hordes of tourists suffering from acute “Pentax Eye” accompanied by legions of bored, irritable children wanting ice-creams and other distractions. However, this was not to be the case, as we were pleasantly surprised to find we had the castle entirely to ourselves, bliss.
The castle was built in 1373 by Sir John Delamere after securing a licence from King Edward III to erect a fortification at Nunney. Not the most grandiose or fortified of castles, Sir John instead favouring a French style château, no doubt his choice influenced by his time spent in service during the French wars.
He never intended the castle to be a stronghold, in fact it was built more as residence than a fortification, constructed at a time of relative peace. The walls were fashioned from aslar (dressed stone) not the most resilient of materials against possible attack but certainly beautiful to behold. The castle's only defence were a number of arrow slits or bow loops, even these were few and far between and one can‘t help thinking that Delamere had them installed for show rather than for any strategic advantage. The only entrance had no portcullis to lower in case of assault, just a wooden drawbridge which spanned the moat, one of the deepest in England, at approximately 10ft. Again, it would appear the entrance was constructed more for aesthetics than a deterrent.
The castle's structure was to be tested, when in 1645 Oliver Cromwell's army commanded by Thomas "Black Tom" Fairfax despatched two regiments to lay siege to Nunney Castle under the misapprehension that it contained a sizable stash of ammunition and arms - it didn‘t. Taking position on high ground, Fairfax let rip with a single cannon shot (the cannonball can be seen in All Saints Church opposite) which successfully demolished the north wall which in turn forced a rather hasty surrender by Colonel Prater who was ‘holder’ of the castle for the King at the time. The north wall eventually crumbled and fell into the moat where it stayed until the early 1900’s when it was cleared of rubble and partially restored.
A.W. Coysh’s book “The Mendips”, tells of the eventual auction of Nunney castle in 1950. Described as “a valuable relic of domestic architecture of the 14th century”. The castle, its lawns, brook and moat went under the hammer and were purchased for the princely sum of just £600 by Mr. Rob Walker of the Johnny Walker Whiskey dynasty. In fact it is a Walker, Mr. R.R.C. Walker to be precise, who is the current owner and who still resides in the village.
The quite unassuming Gibbet Hill lane between the village of Nunney and Frome, is said to be haunted by a phantom hitchhiker. Described as male, in his mid thirties and wearing a check sports jacket and casual trousers. This chap seems to take great delight in thumbing lifts from unwary motorists, only to vanish in front of their eyes should they be gracious enough to stop and offer him a lift. There is one story which appeared in the national press (in fact many stories of this ghost appeared in the national press) describing an encounter with the “phantom hitcher." A motorist driving along Gibbet Hill lane stopped to pick up a gentleman thumbing a lift beside the road. As he got into the car, the driver asked him where he would like to be dropped off, at that moment his would-be passenger abruptly vanished. The same ghostly hitcher has also been seen many times in the lane leading up to the castle. Some motorists have been so shaken by their encounters that they have filed reports with the local police.
One other ghostly tale is that of a 'cloaked woman,' who is said to walk beside the moat at dawn. Her history is a little sketchy but it is thought she was accused of witchcraft and put to death outside the castle walls.
The locals still talk of rumours surrounding buried treasure somewhere beneath the castle ruins and there being a secret tunnel running from the castle to the church of ‘All Saints’ opposite. There is a stark warning near the gate leading up to the castle prohibiting the use of metal detectors. Is this a cautionary warning to dissuade the treasure seeking opportunist I wonder.
As I walk through these castle ruins an unmistakable chill asserts me, yet a warm summers day awaits me without. As I gaze upon its once elegant halls now crumbling. As I look skyward at its splendid towers now home to a thousand birds. As I run my fingers along its weathered walls and imagined who might have walked these same steps and touched these same walls and who might walk them still.
To close: Nunney castle stands as a hauntingly romantic visage of a time long since past. Its charm enhanced by the most elegant of moats, neatly manicured lawns, babbling brook and the quaint peaceful village of Nunney