Ironbridge Gorge Bridge
One of the most curiously interesting medieval structures in Shropshire, south of Shrewsbury, is the red sandstone Acton Burnell Castle. Located in a rather clandestine area just outside the actual village, it appears to be built more for privacy and comfort than battle. The architecture, altered by the Smythe family in the late 17th century, does not fit the idea of a bonified medieval castle whatsoever and certainly not by the standards of current trends of thought. The Smythe family are largely responsible for its current appearance. Its ecclesiastical appearance adds to its charm and historically, it is very important.
Its position is very close to an old Roman road which linked to Viroconium (which is today’s Wroxeter) and the original barn at the site held the first meeting of parliament, circa 1282-1283, in which the commons were formally represented and the Statutum de Mercatoribus was passed. This statute, which is referred to as the Statute of Acton Burnell, was a law passed to facilitate the recovery of debts by merchants. A second meeting was held there again in 1285. Built as a replacement for the original home of the Burnell family by Robert Burnell- Chancellor of England- who became a close personal friend of King Edward I, he was given license to crenellate the manor home. Even so, it doesn’t appear to have ever been fortified during the medieval period on the existing structure. This area was of keen interest to Edward because of his ambitions to subdue the Welsh and get control of their land. Because of his relationship with Edward I, Robert acquired quite a large amount of land becoming the Bishop of Bath and Wells.
When you look through the Shropshire photo album for Acton Burnell, you will see a large rectangular central building which at one time housed two stories. The central structure contained the family dwelling. Visitors can still view two large towers on the corners which have stairwells set into the castle walls. There is also a chapel along with service rooms. Many of the walls have unusual arched openings which may be the result of an attempt by the Smythe family at folly building. Their strongest roles as preservationists was in the reversal of the decay which had occurred to the structure after its abandonment in 1420. At that time the male line of succession in the Burnell family died out. The Church of St. Mary which stands alone on the property was also built by Burnells and is in current use making it the most intact 13th century village church in Britain !
Church of St. Mary
Acton Burnell is a little tricky to find. From the connection of the A5/A49 out of Shrewsbury you’d follow the A49 south toward Leominster continuing on through Dorrington until you reach a turning for Acton Burnell on the right hand side. You will see a non-descript brown sign on the approach to the castle. Need help ? Call 0870 3331181 Owned by English Heritage, you may visit this site free of charge and can receive help finding it at any reasonable hour.
A short distance west, the A488 runs through Pontesbury village which lays claim to an iron age hillfort on nearby Earls Hill. This is only one of twenty-five in Shropshire alone ! There is evidence that a British encampment was once in existence and a Roman well along with Roman tiles and various antiquities. Studies have been conducted throughout this scheduled ancient monument suggesting that the hill has Precambrian origins which would make it a natural site rather than a man-made phenomenon and the result of volcanic activity. This is the largest village in Shropshire and is a vibrant community well worth a visit. There are various other points of interest including that of the presence, at one time, of author Mary Webb as well as D.H. Lawrence who wrote about the village in his novel St Mawr.
Fifteen miles south of Shrewsbury in the Church Stretton area a rather non-existent motte and bailey, Rushbury Castle, sits close to Holdgate and Middlehope Castles. Rushbury was built by a Norman Lord, Odo. Much of the dry moat has been filled in and it has no stone remains at all if it ever had any. (You will read more about Holdgate Castle in the next entry on Shropshire.)
During Tudor times.
The A488 is a high road and extends from Pontesbury to Bishop’s Castle and Bishop’s Moat. This once huge royal castle is now a remnant and sits right in the middle of the town of Bishops Castle. A quick look at my photo album will show you its former glory and the color aerial of the present day next to it will show you what can happen to a romantic medieval castle. Visitors to the remains of the surrounding curtain wall will find low but substantial ruins and the original motte with many trees instead of the turreted keep which it once supported. Stonework on the slope shows supporting evidence that a wall connected the shell keep to the curtain wall which surrounds the bailey. Additional remains exist around the castle hotel on the premises. (More of that in an upcoming entry !)
For a visitors packet and more information about this incredible site go to 29 High Street when in town or telephone at 01588 638467. You may e-mail the Visitors Center firstname.lastname@example.org as well. There is great accommodation here as well as two museums and lovely shops and galleries to visit.
Right next to the border between Wales across from Montgomery due southeast, Brompton Castle at Chirbury (south of Pontesbury) is an impressive sized motte if nothing else. This 12th century castle’s motte is twenty-five feet high and very much intact. The bailey and ditch have been damaged and a hedge put up in its place. It’s considered private property but can be easily looked at from the road.
East of Brompton, if you are the daring and adventurous type, two very curious stone circle sites which are less than a mile apart just northwest of Shelve (and is designated on one of the maps in the photo album) will give you an interesting look into the ancient past of Shropshire. Listed in Aubrey Burl’s Guide to Stone Circles at #s 71 and 72, respectively, the Hoarstones near Shelve, seven miles north of Bishop’s Castle and Mitchell’s Fold, one mile further north, have some interesting bedfellows with the long quartzite ridge called the Stiperstones. This should not be navigated without a guide. You’ve been warned! The highest crag of this rocky outcrop phenomenon is known as The Devil’s Chair which was purported to be his shelter during storms and blizzards. The entire area is quite wet and if you visit you are sure to elicit a rainstorm as it isn’t exactly human visitor friendly. The elliptical Hoarstones, which you will reach first, of which the tallest stone is only 1 meter high, is a relatively large circle. The large stone appears to be the center but its prehistoric origin has been questioned. All the stones are very small which is highly unusual for most stone circles. The gap on the east was most likely the original entrance. The thin tubular holes in some of the stones were the result of drilling in which, during celebrations such as weddings, these holes were filled with gunpowder and lit for small explosions ! This area floods so you may have to view it from a distance. If not, feel quite privileged to be able to see it up close !
A little more than a mile away is Mitchell’s Fold, north of Corndon Hill and fixed high in dry heathland southwest of Stapeley Hill. It is thought that its origins are connected with the late Neolithic-Early Bronze Age picrite stone axe factory of Cwm-Mawr across the border in Wales. With thirty pillar stones counted some time ago many are missing, leaving 14 remaining stones most of which have been vandalized by toppling. One that still stands is over six feet tall and the ellipse of the circle is 89 feet NW-SE 82 feet! A cairn ( stone tomb) stands about 70 meters away southeast and another circle existed once, called the Whetstones, about 5 blocks east but was blown up and is now rubble. The destruction of it is explained in a silly fable which has been immortalized in a 19th century Chirbury church west of this property. It features carvings on the capital of a column in the nave and more carvings on the font, benches and choir stalls featuring the Dun Cow, flowers, dragons, animals and people in medieval dress. This was the work of a former parson, Waldegrave Brewster.
At the border, eight miles northwest of Bishops Castle is Wilmington Castle of which there are few stone remains along with quite a few others of this kind such as Lower Down Castle near Lydbury, a 12th century castle which once had a polygonal shell and mere fragments remain. Colebatch Castle, Lydham Castle and More Castle are all mere earthwork remains within a few miles of Bishops Castle but substantial enough earthworks to interest the most ardent castle enthusiasts.
Church Stretton Village
Brockhurst Castle which is also known as Church Stretton Castle according to CastleWales.com preceded the Norman conquest when it was held by the Earls of Mercia. As a Saxon settlement it is rather obscure considering their penchant for using Roman fort remains but the earthworks are substantial enough to leave no doubt that by the Norman invasion an impressive castle once stood where these earthworks could have supported a stone curtain wall along with inner stone structures as well. Strangely enough it has been concluded that the outer bailey had only timber defenses but that could have been from an earlier Saxon structure.
This castle appears in the Domesday book during the reign of Henry II, so it is assumed that he was the builder circa 1156, giving it the distinction of being a royal castle. Hugh Neville had possession of the castle by the year 1215 when John F. Alan was ordered to relinquish possession to him. Neville had possession until 1229 when the castle was granted to Hubert Burgh. Henry Hastings also had possession from 1238 until it’s apparent felling.
Unfortunately, the stone defenses vanished by 1255 and what you will see today is only the earthworks and many trees. Excavations done on the site have revealed the stone curtain wall foundations. For a visitor the discovery of this motte remainder and a plethora of trees await but also substantial earthworks to marvel over !
Only two and a half miles south,Minton Castle is situated on the foothills of Long Mynd of the A49. This was a royal stronghold which existed before the Norman conquest. It is also listed in the Domesday book but not much information seems to be available. This medieval farming community is still referred to as a hamlet!
Corfham Castle was a 13th century castle which is situated ten miles north of Ludlow, off the B4365. It is primarily a large rectangular ringwork with other earthworks. At one time four circular corner towers existed on this stonework castle. It was in ruins by the 16th century.
T- 01743 718249
A quadrangular fortified manor house near Stokesay just north of Craven Arms was originally built in 1087 under the ownership of Shrewsbury Abbey and was later exchanged for another building. Roger de Cheney was given license to crenellate in 1394. The origins of Cheney Longville Castle are definitely medieval and much of those parts are exhibited in the surrounding farm houses which dot the estate. Part of the name came from Hugh Cheney and the estate name was Longefeld or Langfeld. This home he built had residential apartments on the north, east and west sides originally, separated by a wall from the stable court on the south. It was attacked and captured during the Civil War and suffered extensive damage from cannon fire. It was subsequently rebuilt in 1682 by John Talbot and later also by William Beddoes in 1745 of whose progeny still inhabit the home privately.
Castell Bryn Amlwg reads and sounds like a Welsh castle and there was an additional struggle of the Welsh Marches for land and castles in Shropshire. That is almost common and not just in English history. Everywhere in the world where countries share borders these type of struggles are legendary. That’s also true in this case except for the fact that this particular struggle was so vehement and no where is it more evident than on the Shropshire/Wales border. Even today the Welsh struggle to keep their culture alive and it is a rich one indeed.
At the southwest corner along this stretch of the border, Bryn Amlwg is situated between Newtown and Clun Castle near the old village of Anchor two kilometers south of the Kerry Ridgeway. This concentric castle which survived the 12th and 13th centuries had towers and a gatehouse. All evidence of it has disappeared except for the earthworks which are extensive to the trained eye and excavations of the existing 13th century gatehouse have revealed two separate phases of construction. It appears that originally it consisted of two flanking semi-circular towers built along with the curtain wall. Chambers built behind the towers extend the passage and appear to have been built at a later date. The beginning construction date is uncertain and can be attributed to either Llewelyn ap Gruffudd in 1267 after the treaty of Montgomery or Roger Mortimer may be responsible after he seized the castle in 1276 which would coincide with overthrowing Llewelyn in the Welsh War of 1282-83.
Golden leaves, golden dreams and golden kisses from
The Castle Lady
Stay tuned. There is more Shropshire to come ! Go see the photos for these castles in the Shropshire photo album !!