If it’s August, then it’s Essex. Yes, we’re on our summer holidays back in England. Very specifically the definition of English summer – in other words, mostly warm and cloudy, but not sunny.
My wedding took place here in Essex ten years ago, at the end of July, and we had a day of clouds and rain. No sun – and when your wheels are open-top and your aperitif is being taken on a lawn, you’re keeping an anxious eye on the heavens. For us Spain-dwellers, though, the mild weather in England this summer has been a welcome relief from the suffocating heat of Seville in summer (40+ degrees).
As my children are half-Spanish and half-English, I try to introduce them to the history of both countries. This year was the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta (Great Charter), the document which limited the King’s power, especially his ability to impose taxes, which King John had been forcefully collecting to wage foreign wars.
One of the charter’s most famous sections, still part of the law today, is that all “free men” have the right to justice and a fair trial. “No man shall be arrested or imprisoned except by the judgment of their equals and by the law of the land.” This is a good explanation of the charter, which was drawn up in 1215 by the Archbishop of Canterbury together with a group of nobles, including Robert de Vere, 3rd Earl of Oxford, who lived at Hedingham Castle in my home village. Oxford was one of the disaffected barons who met at Stamford and forced King John to seal the document, and was elected one of the 25 nobles who guaranteed the King’s adherence to its terms.
We went to see the little exhibition there on the topic, up on the dormitory floor, which didn’t grab the children’s attention, although I was interested. Permanent displays show the food eaten by the castle’s medieval inhabitants, and what life was like then, including a model of the castle and surrounding enclosure, which went down better with my children, especially the garderobe (loo) – a seat with a hole, located in a nook built into the exterior wall, with some dried herbs to scent the air.
The square castle – or, more correctly, keep – has four floors: the feed store at ground level (used as a location for Lovejoy; Vanity Fair also used the castle for an Alexander McQueen shoot, with flames coming out of the windows); shop and cafe at the first-floor entrance; banqueting hall with gallery, venue for my wedding; and dormitory, where the exhibition was held. The castle was built by Robert’s antecedent, Aubrey de Vere, on land granted to him by William the Conqueror, in the 11th century.
This was the first of three Norman castles we’ve seen this “summer” – not through any design on our part, just coincidence, but a happy one.
The next was Colchester Castle, also in Essex – this is considerably larger, the biggest Norman keep in Europe, in fact. Built on the site of a Roman temple in 1086, 20 years after William won the Battle of Hastings – he had ordered a stone castle on the strategic route between East Anglia and London – the Norman castle has been recently renovated. Now it offers a more cutting-edge experience exhibition traces the town’s development from the Iron Age, Roman to Saxon, Viking and Norman times, then the building of the castle by the Normans using stones from the temple.
An excellent audio-visual presentation, projected onto the castle wall so you can see it from both floors, traces from the Iron Age to Romans to Normans. Using the original, exposed brick castle wall as a screen is atmospheric, but the effect is slightly compromised as it makes the images tricky to see.
The Roman section, upstairs, is divided into Invasion, Heyday and Decline. For me, this put a whole new slant on Roman Britain – the Italian colonists and oppressed Britons – most famously Boudica, queen of the Iceni, who burned the city to the ground and is a modern role model for powerful women who stand up to male-dominated forces. You can see helmets damaged in the conflagration, which also destroyed the temple. You can “meet” a Roman expat family who lived in Colchester, first Roman capital of Britain, including their British slave, and find out what life was like for them.
Our favourite parts: the interactive chariot-driving game – video screen+reins+child; dressing up as Iron Age Essex dwellers (goat and sheep skins), Roman and Anglo-Saxon soldiers, with appropriate helmets and shields; the tablet activities (you rent one for 1), such as getting another angle on a skull on display (as a decapitated head), and seeing a 360-degree view of inside an Iron Age, Roman and Saxon dwelling – look down and see your period footwear!
The last Norman castle we visited was by far the busiest, largest and most famous: the White Tower, in the Tower of London. It was my first visit, having passed it countless times, and I had no idea there’s a small self-contained community inside the walls, with many residential buildings, streets, ancient walls, ramparts, and of course towers.
The Norman castle here by the Thames is the White Tower, built in the 1070s under William the Conqueror’s command, the oldest medieval building at the Tower. It has been used as occasional accommodation for the king, a prison and a military storehouse. Today it houses the Royal Armoury – thousands of suits of armour and weapons, from tiny child’s size body armour and helmet, to protection for horses, Japanese weapons and a jewel-encrusted handgun from Tiffany. As it was covered in supremely unphotogenic scaffolding, compounded by plastic sheeting to protect visitors from the rain as the queued, I didn’t get any photos.
The tower is one of nine inside the Tower of London. On the day we visited it poured with rain constantly, so we didn’t stay as long as if it had been better weather. But we did (of course) also see the Crown Jewels (no photos allowed), which were fascinating, and the Bloody Tower where the Princes in the Tower were imprisoned. The animated film telling their story, shown inside the room where they were held, was a big hit.
You can see and do loads more than we did at the Tower, as the prospect of getting drenched sent us packing. So that means a return visit will be in order.
One of the most fascinating aspects about this era of British history for me, is that at the same time, in the 11th and 12th centuries, the Moors were building castles all over Spain, especially Andalucia, where I live. Two invading forces, settlers who became part of the fabric of society, constructing solid yet beautiful defensive structures, which still remain ten centuries later.