“ Whittington Castle is very impressive and picturesque, situated in the heart of Whittington village. Although little remains today of Whittington Castle to suggest the glory of its magnificent hay-day, the gatehouse towers are still standing, reflected in the clear water of the moat, home to a small community of swans and ducks. „
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It always amazes me that some of the most fervent nationalists live on the borders of countries. This is particularly true about the area I live in. I was born near Oswestry just over the border from Wales and yet a very Welsh town and now live close to Wrexham in Wales which is very anglicised. My birthplace and current home are both within spitting distance of the border and yet loyalties can be very polarized, particularly where football and rugby are concerned. I choose to sit on the fence so to speak, this way I have two bites of the cherry where most things are concerned and find no difficulty in supporting England or Wales or singing the praises of both countries. Perhaps people’s attitudes are ingrained in them, passed down through generations who had to put up with frequent cross border raids and all the raping, pillaging and sheep stealing that went with them. There’s certainly plenty of evidence to support this where I live, with castles ‘ten a penny’ to steal a phrase. There are some fine examples on both sides of the border - Chirk, Chester, Shrewsbury and Powis are all prominent fortresses within half an hour’s drive, and deeper into North Wales there are some truly massive castles. And yet some of the most interesting are the smaller ruins which a bit of investigation can reveal fascinating histories. My own personal favourite is Whittington Castle in Shropshire. Twenty minutes walk from where I grew up, I was always told it was the home of Mad Jack Mytton the scourge of naughty kids and frequently threatened with the dungeon – the ultimate penalty for ‘scrumping’ apples. Remember, this was the late fifties when such activities were treated nearly as seriously as stealing mobile phones is now! Whittington itself is a lovely little place, a small rural community just off the A5 to the north of Oswestry with pleasant buildings, pretty cottages with English g
ardens and some more than decent pubs, but the village’s centrepiece is the picturesque and romantic ruins of Whittington Castle, a castle steeped in much history, tales of bitter border warfare, romance and legend. The Castle is the strikingly beautiful remains of a 12th century fortress and presently the subject of a unique project by the local community who, concerned about the future of the castle, set up a Charitable Trust in 1998 to purchase the site. The only arrangement of its type in the UK. It’s a great castle for children, relatively small and homely for what was at one time a building of great significance, with a structure and façade which demands to be climbed and explored – a sort of international stadium for ‘hide and seek’. Not only that, it has a fascinating history and a wealth of legends. The original castle dates back to 845 and was built by the Welsh Prince Ynyr ap Cadfarch. It was, subsequently seized by Roger de Montgomery, who gave it to Sir William Peveril of Peak. When his young daughter Mellet wanted to marry, the challenge was put out to the bravest Knights in the land with Whittington castle as dowry. Guarine de Metz, Sheriff of Shropshire won the contest, wife and castle. Their descendants held the castle for over four hundred years. Looking at the castle, it is so easy to imagine the Knights arriving with their entourages to take part in such a tournament all those years ago. When you look at the remains of this once extensive castle you wonder why this particular site was chosen. In most cases castles had natural defensive features to prevent easy access for attacking forces, such as a river or deep moat. Yet this castle is not even built on the village’s highest land, which would have given excellent views towards Offa's Dyke, over which the Welsh raiders frequently invaded English territory. It was protection provided by the treach
erous marshlands surrounding the site, which was the decisive factor in its choice for the first earthworks and wooden Castle. The present castle is set in about 12 acres of ground and is the remains of a Norman home dating from 1221 when the fitz Warren family applied to King Henry III for permission to build a stone fortress. Originally, the castle had 7 towers, each about 18 metres high, with walls 3.7 metres thick and a drawbridge over 12 metres long. The fitz Warrens had a remarkable love/hate relationship with the English monarchy. Fulk fitz Warren is reputed to have quarrelled with Prince John, the future ill-fated king. The feud eventually caused fitz Warren to flee to France to avoid certain death. After years of exile, Fulk was granted a pardon and was able to return and repossess Whittington Castle. It is believed that Fulk fitz Warren was the historical character that Robin Hood was based on and there is a wealth of evidence to support this, though having said that just about every area in the UK had a resident who robbed from the rich and gave to the poor. Perhaps that’s why wealth in this country is now so evenly distributed! The castle of course has its resident ghosts, the most famous of which are two children who can often be seen peering out of the small windows of the twin towers. These are ‘apparently’ heirs to the family estate and are linked to Whittington castle’s Elizabethan chest. Legend says that if the chest is opened the heir to the Whittington estate will perish in great pain. So much fear surrounded this chest that it was hidden away for many years until it was taken to a secret location for restoration to be returned to the castle, locked shut! These locked and cursed Elizabethan chests seem to be fairly common in British castles, I get the impression there was a character around in the 16th century, a cross between Blackadder and Arthur Daley doing a nice line in them from
some lock-up in York or the like. I suppose the curse will now pass to the trustees - not a smart move to be on that particular committee. The castle is also believed to have at one time been the unlikely resting place of the Holy Grail. In his book ‘The Theory’ Graham Phillips believes that the Holy Grail was housed in the chapel at Whittington castle in the 14th century. Of course, it was this Whittington rather than the other 30 odd Whittington's in England that Dick Whittington lived in before he made his journey along Watlin street (the old Roman road which metamorphasised into the A5), in 1368 to London to become the Lord Mayor. The proof is that there are strong similarities between his coat of arms and that of the fitz Warrens. The castle fell into decay after the Civil War and it is recorded that one of the towers collapsed into the moat after a severe frost in 1760. The ruins were subsequently plundered for stone to surface roads and build some of Whittington's houses. The present condition of the castle is a result of restoration and clearance work dating from 1967. One of the most interesting facets of the castle was recently the subject of a fascinating article in the gardening supplement of the Daily Telegraph. Hardly any British gardens created before 1500 have survived, but work at the castle has recently uncovered the remains of a mediaeval garden and a reconstruction of what it would have looked like has been displayed showing the Chaomile lawn, the archery ground, ornamental orchards, water features, raised gardens, turf seats and a splendid viewing mount with a Gloriette or pavilion. It really does look impressive and put the whole castle into perspective. So much history for such a small castle. Well worth a visit, beautiful surrounding countryside, free entry, a nice day out and a fine atmospheric pub called the Boot Inn right opposite the castle. Incidentally, my re
search into Whittington Castle has put my mind at rest and killed a lot of demons left over from my childhood. Mad Jack lived close to but not actually in the castle. He was Squire Mad Jack Mytton -Shropshire's best-remembered sportsman and drunkard who died at the age of 38, having packed into his short life more escapades, adventures and exploits than a dozen men would in a full lifespan. Sounds like a role model rather than a monster.