WORK EXPERIENCE: Reporter John Phillips joins custodians preserving Chepstow Castle

South Wales Argus: John Phillips with the oridinal catle door at Chepstow Castle. (2863240) John Phillips with the oridinal catle door at Chepstow Castle. (2863240)

AS I PASSED the heavy wooden doors of Chepstow Castle, I was transported back to a time of chivalry and gallantry when men wore suits of armour, crossed swords and slung arrows behind fortifications repelling enemies from foreign lands.

Walking among the ruins of the medieval stronghold, I travelled back in time to the Norman Conquest, as King William ordered his subjects to build a series of castles along the English border to keep an eye on possible incursions from the Welsh kingdoms.

Builders claimed the land for the castle just a year after the Battle of Hastings, in 1067, as the Norman king moved to stamp out rebellions throughout England.

For just a few hours, I became the custodian of the Grade I listed building, said to be the oldest surviving post-Roman stone fortification in Britain.

Custodians take me on a tour of the castle built along precipitous cliffs by the River Wye, a major artery of communications inland to Monmouth and Hereford affording an excellent defensive location. One of the guardians, Lucy Bazzard, 29, tells me: “To keep an eye on the Welsh, William built a series of castles on the Welsh border. The Welsh were very tribal at the time. William was the King of England. He was not the King of Wales. It was built for fortification and designed as a defence castle.”

Today, of course, the custodians’ main responsibilities lie in welcoming crowds of visitors who flock to the castle for summer re-enactments, open air theatre and school visits.

The shop is the main focus of attraction where custodians not only sell books and souvenirs but also answer the questions of inquisitive visitors who can wander freely among the ruins.

Knowing the history of the castle and its main features is paramount, but the guardians are keen to stress they are also able to refer to the resources kept in the souvenir centre.

Head custodian Ryan Evans, 31, has worked for the Welsh heritage body Cadw for five years and has a background in media, drama and teaching, while his colleague Ms Bazzard studied history.

Mr Evans said: “We are one of the biggest Cadw sites for school visits.

“An interest or background in history or retail helps, generally a mix of the two.”

Cadw organises educational workshops helping to shed light on the lifestyle of people who lived at the castle in medieval times.

Hence, the custodians give me the chance to handle some of the implements doctors used to treat the sick at the time the castle was built, like dental extraction forceps.

I am surprised to discover that most of the visit is outdoors, among the ruins, though the castle also has two decorated rooms, a 13th century bed chamber and a room adjacent to a former banqueting hall, which was used to store alcohol.

Among the most arresting features of the castle are its wooden doors. which are thought to be the oldest in Europe.

A scientific study of the wood, known as dendrochronology, has revealed they date back to between 1159 and 1189.

Until the 1960s these doors hung in the main gateway, but are now in safe keeping in the on-site exhibition.

Cadw says the whole site is a lesson in longevity. From around 1067 through to 1690, the castle, almost chameleon-like, changed its appearance as fashions changed in military architecture.

Century after century, the castle grew and grew along its narrow cliff.

The oldest building is the Norman great tower but building work continued well into the 17th century as medieval battlements were replaced by stronger musket-friendly parapets.

Ms Bazzard tells me the only time the castle was ever breached was during the Civil War when the English government rebelled against the Crown that owned the fortification.

The castle fell to the Parliamentarian forces in 1648. A memorial to Sir Nicholas Kemey, who led the Royalist defence and was killed in combat after refusing to surrender after the castle’s fall, lies within the keep.

Every morning, the custodians open the doors to the castle with huge keys then tour the grounds for signs of damage to the fortification.

Mr Evans tells me contractors spent around two years restoring one of the outer defensive walls visitors now walk along.

According to historical records, the castle began to decay in the latter part of the 17th century when its garrison was disbanded and the buildings were partly dismantled.

Factbox:

Chepstow Castle in Bridge Street is open from 10am to 4pm Monday to Saturday and 11am to 4pm on Sundays in the winter. The last admission is 30 minutes before closing time.

Entry costs £4.50 for adults, £13.50 for families including two adults and two children under 16.

Senior Citizens, students and children under 16 pay £3.40 and free admission is given to people with disabilities.

For more information log on to www.cadw.wales.gov.uk.

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