Climb to the top of Stokesay Castle’s south tower and you are rewarded with a 360 degree prospect that could be one of the loveliest in all England, the gently rolling hills of Shropshire, Houseman’s “blue remembered hills” with his spires and farms. From atop that unassuming crow’s nest of a tower, the castle’s neat, grassy courtyard is a ship’s trim deck, its gatehouse a gilded quarterdeck and the rising, green roll of hills the wide ocean on which this daydream sails.
Stokesay Castle just north of Ludlow is promoted by English Heritage as “one of the finest fortified manor houses in England”. Historic England top that with “the finest and best-preserved” of the 13th century. Lawrence de Ludlow, a wool merchant, received a license to crenellate from Edward I in 1291, no doubt as part of the king’s massive castle-building programme to contain and subdue the Welsh at the end of the 13th century. The surviving crenellations make this a castle and the dry moat adds a degree of fortification, but the place was never designed to be truly defendable. It would have resisted robbers but not an organised assault. This helps explain why most of it still stands today — and for that we should give thanks.
The stone parts of the castle date from about 1280-90 and its charming ochre-orange, half-timbered gatehouse was added in the early 1640s. Careful restoration was undertaken to correct centuries of neglect in the 1870s and again at the beginning of the 20th century. English Heritage came to the rescue with a four year restoration project at the end of the 1980s. Otherwise, Stokesay benefits from not having been mucked about with excessively. It is virtually empty of furniture and decoration, allowing your imagination to have free reign. Above all, Stokesay is not hemmed in by anything intrusive nearby, has the lovely post-Reformation Church of St John the Baptist as a well-mannered neighbour and is cradled in the utterly glorious Shropshire Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Even on a grey day, walking around the courtyard or looking down onto it from the south tower can create the impression that you have painted yourself onto a proverbial chocolate box lid. One is also a trespasser into the abode of the house martin who has the castle as its domain. Their flight threads around and into every corner of the place and reminded me of St-Bertrand-de-Comminges (see my post, this website) on the northern flanks of the Pyrénées.
The split-personality of Stokesay — the 13th century stone tower and great hall and the 17th century half-timbered gatehouse — is what makes the place so unusual, yet they rub shoulders with each other without discord. The over-hanging, half-timbered north tower with its white panels jettied out over the moat, is a precursor to the ochrous, half-timbered gatehouse whose first floor is similarly jettied out, though more modestly. Their 340-year age difference is academic. The ornately carved overmantel in the oak-panelled solar was added at about the time that the gatehouse was built and the latter’s delicate carvings reflect this.
The abundance of available timber on the hills around Stokesay, even today, meant that building function was almost bound to be matched by decorative detail in a castle or manor house. The 17th century work on the solar trumpets this with its ornately carved overmantel, the cornices around the stone fire surround and the draft-beating panelling throughout. All is oak and exuberant. Moustachioed men, bare-breasted women and grotesque faces adorn the overmantel. The contemporaneous gatehouse is endowed with its own carving: a biblical frieze of the fall of man along the entrance lintel, with trees of life at each end. Adam, Eve and the serpent bracket the entrance. Acanthus leaves and angels punctuate the carving. Dragons with gaping mouths and beady eyes look on.
The adjacent Church of St John the Baptist has an interesting 17th wall painting of the Ten Commandments. Contrast this with St. Celynin‘s Church at Llangelynnin (this website) where the Welsh commandments are carved in wood.