Wednesday, 20 June 2012

wandering in the Forest Sauvage



 Sitting on top of the gatehouse tower at White Castle, you look out across rolling woods and fields to the Skirrid and the Brecon Beacons and Black Mountains beyond. And if it's a day like Sunday, you will hear the willow warblers singing drowsily, as the swifts zip by below you and the newly-shorn sheep vociferously admire each others' sharply-tailored, natty white undergarments. And there will be a gloop from the moat below as the pike snaps at a roach.

We ate bacon butties and drew pictures, and drank lemonade. Last time we were here I found an owl pellet and a jay feather, and we took the jay feather home and made a pretend fishing fly from it. This time we found the Chumley Warner Brothers, stopping off on their way home from a festival at Builth, and had a nice chat.

White Castle is a prime candidate for the Castle of the Forest Sauvage. Other contenders are Goodrich, Skenfrith and Llangybi. Mix them all together and you've probably got the place in one. But White Castle is the nicest place to sit on a sunny afternoon. Or possibly Skenfrith. Or...

Skenfrith


Here's TH White's description, from The Sword In The Stone.


The Castle of the Forest Sauvage is still standing, and you can see its lovely ruined walls with ivy on them, standing broached to the sun and wind. Some lizards live there now, and the starving sparrows keep warm on winter nights in the ivy, and a barn owl drives it methodically, hovering outside the frightened congregations and beating the ivy with its wings, to make them fly out. Most of the curtain wall is down, though you can trace the foundations of the twelve round towers which guarded it. They were round, and stuck out from the wall into the moat, so that the archers could shoot in all directions and command every part of the wall. Inside the towers there are circular stairs. These go round and round a central column, and this column is pierced with holes for shooting arrows. Even if the enemy had got inside the curtain wall and fought their way into the bottom of the towers, the defenders could retreat up the bends of the stairs and shoot at those who followed them up, inside, through these slits.

The stone part of the drawbridge with its barbican and the bartizans of the gatehouse are in good repair. These have many ingenious arrangements. Even if enemies got over the wooden bridge, which was pulled up so that they could not, there was a portcullis weighted with an enormous log which would squash them flat and pin them down as well. There was a large hidden trap-door in the floor of the barbican, which would let them into the moat after all. At the other end of the barbican there was another portcullis, so that they could be trapped between the two and annihilated from above, while the bartizans, or hanging turrets, had holes in their floors through which the defenders could drop things on their heads. Finally, inside the gatehouse, there was a neat little hole in the middle of the vaulted ceiling, which had painted tracery and bosses. This hole led to the room above, where there was a big cauldron, for boiling lead or oil.

So much for the outer defences. Once you were inside the curtain wall, you found yourself in a kind of wide alleyway, probably full of frightened sheep, with another complete castle in front of you. This was the inner shell-keep, with its eight enormous round towers which still stand. It is lovely to climb the highest of them and to lie there looking out toward the Marches, from which some of these old dangers came, with nothing but the sun above you and the little tourists trotting about below, quite regardless of arrows and boiling oil. Think for how many centuries that unconquerable tower has withstood. It has changed hands by secession often, by siege once, by treachery twice, but never by assault. On this tower the look-out hoved. From here he kept the guard over the blue woods towards Wales. His clean old bones lie beneath the floor of the chapel now, so you must keep it for him.

If you look down and are not frightened of heights (the Society for the Preservation of This and That have put up some excellent railings to preserve you from tumbling over), you can see the whole anatomy of the inner court laid out beneath you like a map. You can see the chapel, now quite open to its god, and the windows of the great hall with the solar over it. You can see the shafts of the huge chimneys and how cunningly the side flues were contrived to enter them, and the little private closets now public, and the enormous kitchen. If you are a sensible person, you will spend days there, possibly weeks, working out for yourself by detection which were the stables, which the mews, where were the cow byres, the armoury, the lofts, the well, the smithy, the kennel, the soldiers' quarters, the priest's room, and my lord's and lady's chambers. Then it will all grow about you again. The little people—they were smaller than we are, and it would be a job for most of us to get inside the few bits of their armour and old gloves that remain—will hurry about in the sunshine, the sheep will baa as they always did, and perhaps from Wales there will come the ffff-putt of the triple-feathered arrow which looks as if it had never moved.

Llangybi