Farnham Castle

Castles! Castles! Castles! Come on, admit it … you love them too. I don’t know anybody who doesn’t secretly love a castle. Well, I love them quite openly, and I very much enjoyed our visit to Farnham Castle Keep in Surrey this past weekend. I think it’s actually a bit ambitious to call it a castle, since it’s really just the keep, (or the remains of the keep), but I won’t quibble with English Heritage!

The first structure on the site was built by Henry of Blois in 1138. You might know Henry as the grandson of William the Conqueror, and brother to King Stephen (who fought over the crown against Matilda).  Henri de Blois, or Henry of Winchester as he was often called, lived to be 69 years old. His original goal was to become the Archbishop of Canterbury, but apparently he really loved Glastonbury Abbey and refused to give it up. He was given the title of Papal Prelate by his brother (nepotism, anyone?), which meant that he ranked higher than the Archbishop of Canterbury, making him the second most powerful (and richest!) man in England — second only to his brother, the king.

Henry of Blois is quite well-known through the works he had commissioned during his life. Serious work on Glastonbury Abbey, as well as Winchester Cathedral and Winchester Palace, were overseen during his lifetime. He also built many villages, canals, and smaller churches. He built Farnham Castle as a convenient stopping point on the journey between London and Winchester. It was too far to go in a day, and he needed a place to rest and relax. He built the keep as a fortress and position of military defense, and the accompanying Bishop’s Palace as a place to rest.

This picture is looking up at the entrance, or gate, to the keep. The red brick staircase is a modern (well, Tudor) addition, as the original would have been a wooden drawbridge. It’s quite a hike up to the top!

The picture above is taken from the bottom of the steps looking up at the main gate to the keep. This would have been a wooden drawbridge, but was later filled in and bricked up. The main gate had a strong door and portcullis; you can still see the holes where the chains would have rested for the gate to come down. You might notice that above the doorway there is a rectangle set back from the rest of the facing stone. This is where the gatehouse was, anchored against the wall. From up top, guards would have been able to defend the gate against attackers. You can even see the outline of a doorway, which has been filled in, with an arched top where the current window is.

The diagram above shows you how the keep was built. They started at the original ground surfaec, and built the square tower above the well. Then they surrounding the tower with dirt, created a mound. It’s kind of an artificial motte-and-bailey structure. Over time additional walls were added, and then the space between the mound and the walls were filled in, to make the big hill that exists today. I don’t think the keep would have been very comfortable for even a short stay, which is probably why the Bishop’s Palace is nearby. The image below is an artistic impression of what the keep would have looked like.

As I mentioned, Farnham is a little different from most castles, because it wasn’t really a castle. It was just a keep. Stephen of Blois (and subsequent Bishops) tended to rest and relax in the Bishop’s Palace; they kept the keep well-stocked as a place of safety to flee to in case of trouble. For example, during the civil war between Stephen and Matilda, Stephen once had 30 pigs carried up to the keep, just to keep the larder supplied in case the enemy army came calling!

Once you climb the stairs past the entrance gate, you emerge onto the grassy top. This picture is taken looking back at the entrance and the steps up. Up above you can see the remnants of the gatehouse. The original keep was all done in the same light grey stone, but the Tudors added an additional level on the top (that’s in red brick).

Standing atop the keep, the above picture is the view off to the left. You can see the outlines of a room, including the hole of a small well or storage chamber.  The picture below is the view of the central part of the field. The modern looking wood pavilion shelters the drop into the shaft.

There were originally two shafts in the keep: one was a well (which was filled in during sometime during the 17th century, I think), and the second shaft is the original tower. Do you remember how I mentioned that the original square tower was then surrounded by an earthen mound? We are standing on top of that mound, and this is the shaft of the tower.

You can walk down a few steps to stand on the viewing platform looking downward, but it’s pretty scary!  If you’re afraid of heights, or somewhat mistrusting of creaky wooden boards, then this isn’t the place for you. Luckily both Alex and I are terribly brave, and we ventured downwards.

It was really hard to snap a picture that captured the depth of the shaft! We did see several sparkling coins at the bottom, but I was not tempted to climb down and fish them out. I’m sure someone does occasionally, or perhaps they have a secret door at the bottom. I had to be super careful not to drop the camera or my glasses, because I doubt I would ever get them back!

Farnham Castle (the whole complex, including the keep and the palace) has been continuously occupied for more than 900 years. I’m dying to know who exactly lives there now, but it seemed impolite to ask if they had any vacancies! UPDATE: I’ve just been reliably informed that no one actually lives at the castle now, but since it is a conference site, there are always people there.

The Farnham Castle International Briefing and Conference Centre, with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, manages the keep, and has done an excellent job of preserving the remaining walls and leaving it accessible to visitors. They installed some glass fencing along the open areas to prevent accidents, which is a stroke of genius because the glass is really subtle and does not ruin the line of the castle wall, or spoil the lovely view.

This is a medieval drawing of the process of building a castle keep. (I don’t know whether it’s site specific, or just a general concept). The image was on one of the many signs around the site that explain the cultural, historical, and architectural significance of the keep.

As Alex was climbing these few stairs, we realized that it must be the remains of a spiral staircase. I don’t know how many storeys there were on top of the keep — not many, I assume — but we know how they climbed up and down!

Just one last view looking down at the entrance gate. The red brick arches are details added during the Tudor era, and the original stone is in fairly rough shape. There was a sign at the bottom that said watch out for the stairs, as they are crumbly and can be slippery when wet. I bet!

No castle or keep is complete without a tiny little window to shoot arrows down at the attacking force. Of course, no one has attacked this site in ages and ages, but during WWII it was home to the Camouflage Development and Training Centre, where the military practised methods of disguise.

And last, but not least, this is the amazing view out over Farnham Park. We had a fantastic day exploring the Farnham Keep. My only regret is that the Bishop’s Palace, which is really part of the castle complex, is only open for tours on Wednesday afternoons. It is currently used as a conference centre, so I supposed they really have to limit the tourist functions. Nonetheless, it was a grand day out!


Posted on 07/09/2010, in Castles & Cathedrals, Exploring the UK and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Hi there. Glad you enjoyed your visit! Looks like you researched this well (I’ve worked at Farnham Castle for 10 years and learned a lot). Great pictures too!

    To answer one or two of your half-asked questions: inhabited is not “lived in” – no one currently lives permanently at the Castle (or rather in the Palace), but there is always someone there! We provide intercultural training and “regular” conference/event facilities so there is always something happening!

    The restoration work has been recently completed by Farnham Castle International Briefing and Conference Centre courtesy of the Heritage Lottery Fund, with some input from English Heritage. All the signage, and the safety glass etc have been installed under the works we have done since we took over the management of the site from English Heritage this year.

    You can get more info on the history at http://www.farnhamcastle.com/history

    NB answering in personal capacity not as employee…..

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