Growing up, whenever my friends, family and I spotted people excitedly pointing and nattering over cows along the highways we’d break into giggles.
There’d be a car parked on the edge of the road and a group or pair of folks gawking at the livestock over the fence. Eyes would be wide, lips tapping out a frenzied speech and heads whipping side to side as the people glanced from their friends to the exotic beasts before them. Cameras were brought to bear to capture this explicit experience of authentic Canadian prairie wilderness.
Now I suppose I should retire passing judgment on cattle sightseers, since I collect stone churches myself.
I pointed out every single church I could see as my friend and I cruised through our 142 km bicycle trip.
I’m sure to the residents we must have been amusingly dramatic. I’d periodically shout, CHURCH! over my shoulder and my friend would fire back VILLAGE! as we pedaled through the peaceful countryside.
Without fail every single cluster of residencies had one and without missing a beat we’d inform those in the vicinity that we—evidently two vivacious I-Spy participants—had indeed taken note of their humble church.
For us each of them was a brazen testament to a time frame we weren’t familiar with as citizens of a relatively “young country”.
In Canada the oldest signs of inhabitation are subtle and organic.
Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is one example in Alberta that comes to mind. It’s a UNESCO site that features over 5,000 years of prairie aboriginal history. What you see at the site is only a cliff—but it tells a tale of hunting technique, product creation and lifestyle.
Even the remnants of more recent history are modest on the prairies. The few skeletons of wooden homes left over from the settler era lean from the wind until they crash to dust.
In the wild, west of Alberta most things weren’t constructed out of lasting material. Brick houses are extremely rare.
So to lay eyes on a big chunk of I’m-going-to-be-here-till-the-end-of-time history is a treat for us prairie-dwellers.
That’s why my visiting friend and I were so delighted to stumble upon Castle Rising.
Situated just outside of Kings Lynn on Route 1 of the National Cycle Network, the site was the perfect end to our trip.
At first it looked like there was nothing left of the stone keep but a low wall as we approached the hill it was resting on.
Where the heck is the rest of it? I wondered as I stared across a deep ditch encircling the steep 120 feet high incline. It seemed ludicrous to advertise a full castle when all that remained was an outline.
Still puzzled we pedaled up to the little shop at the entrance.
Then, in a wash of green fleeing the view everything was revealed.
Nestled in an artificial volcano-shaped mound was a towering 12th century castle that snatched at our interest the second we caught a glimpse of its entire bulking mass.
The building was constructed around 1140 AD by William d’Aubigny II who had just become the Earl of Arundel.
As characterized by most people who obtain new wealth and status he decided to show off. He built Castle Rising, New Buckenham Castle and expanded Arundel Castle.
Despite the presence of defensive earthworks historians have argued over the military significance of this keep. Many say the site was basically just a hunting lodge.
Built from pride and carried by family Castle Rising was passed down through the generations until 1243 when the male line of the D’Albini family died out. It passed over to the Montalt family, through marriage—but in 1329 it changed hands again when their male line also died out…
This feels like an omen.
Maybe the castle prefers females, because Queen Isabella of France, the widow—and it’s said murderer—of King Edward II moved into the castle next. Well, technically she moved into a smaller residence built beside the stone keep and hosted parties in it when her son King Edward III or other royals came to visit.
All that’s left of her late-life residence is a low stone outline of the private chapel. It seems the stones were recycled into other later projects.
When she died the keep was passed to Edward the Black Prince who began to restore it during the 1360s.
The castle was kept in good condition until the 15th century.
However, by around 1503 a survey of the building labeled it ill fit for residency. Some work was done to counter the decay, but by 1542 age was destroying the keep faster than it could be renovated. The costs were rising too.
The roof has collapsed, as had the floor of the main hall and chamber. With the heart of the castle destroyed a passage was dug along the edge to link the kitchen with a ring of smaller chambers circling the former main hall.
As my friend and I wandered through what could still be navigated on the second floor it was pretty difficult to picture the splendors that once—we assume anyway—decorated the keep.
“What could have been in here do you think?”
“The sign says it was a kitchen.”
“Ah ok I see the fireplace and I think this hole was for getting rid of waste.”
“Hey, what’s a garderobe?”
“I have no idea. Maybe a room for storing and changing into religious clothes? A giant closet?”
“… Aren’t the rooms on the other side of the keep?”
“Well I don’t know!”
Turns out we were semi-right with the garderobe. It’s a medieval toilet and/or apparently a place to store clothes and other items.
I suppose originally the room would have been accessed through the main hall, but with the later adaptations it could only be entered through the kitchen.
1st floor (top), ground floor (bottom)
A – kitchen; B – Great hall; C – waiting room; D – throne niche; E – great chambers; F – chapel; G – entrance to forebuilding
Who knows, maybe there was a royal who loved food enough to want to right off the kitchen?
Now gutted the castle continued to decline. It came to the point where it was almost dismantled to recycle its material, but even that wasn’t worth the cost.
So while the newer surrounding buildings were torn down, the keep remained standing.
Restoration again began in 1900 until it resulted in what can be found there today.
For £4 it really is a neat place to visit and there are few restrictions for exploring the inside (I guess since you can’t accidentally walk in on a royal having some downtime).
You can buy an audio tour if you are interested in learning more, plus the residents from the surrounding village are very passionate about their local history so check out their history group too!
As for me? I’m heading out for another stone church spotting spree.