The Civic Society column with David Winpenny

Camelot, as shown in a 14th Century manuscript.

For many people, one of the pleasures of travel is to visit some of the castles that open their doors to visitors.

Since the Middle Ages, castle-visiting has been done, first by the upper classes and then, since at least the 18th century, by the middle classes. From the latter part of the 19th century, after paid holidays started to come in, there were also special excursions by train, charabanc a or coach to see castles like Belvoir, Arundel or Skipton.

Wemmicks castle from Charles Dickens Great Expectations.

It’s no surprise, too, that castles have woven themselves into stories, and there are many fictional castles to be found in the pages of English literature.

One of the most resonant castle names is that of Camelot, the home of King Arthur and his Round Table knights – we may think of it as a shining place, full of chivalry, with colourful banners fluttering from its many towers and turrets.

If we do, we’re probably influenced more by artists or by film and television-makers – and possibly even by thoughts of Disney’s Cinderella Castle – than by evidence in the Arthurian texts.

The most famous of those, Thomas Malory’s ‘Le Morte D’Arthur’ (first printed by Caxton in 1485), offers us no description of Camelot; it is a place where the King has his court (sometimes it’s described as a city rather than as castle).

Alnwick Castle  the real stand-in for the fictional Hogwarts Castle. (Copyright  David Winpenny)

We hear of courtyards and gates, and the church of St Stephen within it, but nowhere is there a full tour of its walls and battlements.

This lack of detail, of course, opens up endless possibilities to anyone wanting to recreate Camelot in paint or on film.

Less famous, perhaps, but equally nebulous, is Doubting Castle in Bunyan’s ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’, published in 1678. It’s the home of Giant Despair; Christian and his fellow-pilgrim Hopeful sleep overnight in the grounds, are discovered by the giant and thrown into his dungeon.

They are brought into the castle yard, beaten and returned to the dungeon.

It is only when Christian remembers the Key of Promise he carries with him that they escape by unlocking three doors, the last of which ‘made such a creaking, that it waked Giant Despair’; still, they managed to evade him. And that, despite its grim name, is all we learn of Doubting Castle’s architecture.

Horace Walpole’s Gothick novel ‘The Castle of Otranto’ (1765) might be thought to have better architectural descriptions – but here again we are disappointed.

Other than knowing that there are cloisters beneath the castle, that there is a chapel and a postern gate, as well as the staircase on which the ghostly, giant helmet appears at the start of the tale, we know little.

We do know, though, that Walpole was inspired by the etchings of imaginary prisons by the Italian artist Piranesi.

The idea of castle architecture carried itself into the minds of men like Mr Wemmick, a humble bill-collector in Mr Jaggers’ office in Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations’ of 1861. But, unlike Giant Despair’s castle, Mr Wemmick’s was ‘a little wooden cottage in the midst of plots of garden, and the top of it was cut out and painted like battery mounted with guns’ with ‘the queerest Gothic windows (by far the greater part of them sham), and a Gothic door, almost too small to get in at.

“That’s a real flagstaff, you see,” said Wemmick, “and on Sundays I run up a real flag. Then look here. After I have crossed this bridge, I hoist it up – so – and cut off the communication. The bridge was a plank, and it crossed a chasm about four feet wide and two deep. Inside his modest, draw-bridged moat, Wemmick had a tiny cannon he called ‘Stinger’.

“Wemmick’s miniature castle is charming, if comical; the same cannot be said for two more fictional castles. When hero Jonathan Harker arrives late at night at Castle Dracula in Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, he finds ‘a vast ruined castle, from whose tall black windows came no ray of light, and whose broken battlements showed a jagged line against the moonlit sky.”

In the morning he stands outside ‘a great door, old and studded with large iron nails, and set in a projecting doorway of massive stone . . . there was the sound of rattling chains and the clanking of massive bolts drawn back, a key was turned with the grating noise of long disuse, and the great door swung back’ to reveal the vampiric Count himself.

In Mervyn Peake’s ‘Gormenghast’, published in 1950, the kitchen-boy Steerpike, who causes such mayhem throughout the novel, climbs up the walls of Castle Gormenghast; ‘High, sinister walls, like the walls of wharves, or dungeons for the damned, lifted into the watery air or swept in prodigious arcs of ruthless stone . . . buttresses and outcrops of unrecognisable masonry loomed over Steerpike’s head like the hunks of mouldering ships.’

This is evocative writing and it provides the correctly sinister atmosphere for a dark and curious tale.

Two other castles to finish; PG Wodehouse’s ‘Blandings Castle’ (1935), home to the pig-breeding Earl of Emsworth, is yet another vaguely outlined edifice.

We know it for ‘its ivied walls, its rolling parks, its gardens, outbuildings and messuages’ for its ‘grand library’ and for the ‘pleasant and cheerful apartment’ that is the housekeeper’s room.

But there is little else; we should be hard put to draw a plan of the castle from the author’s description.

Hogwarts Castle is the other; we know that it has seven storeys (apparently kept up by magic rather than by anything as prosaic as foundations) and an extravagant 142 staircases serving its turrets, towers and dungeons.

We may think we know what it looks like from the ‘Harry Potter’ films.

But the exteriors were shot at the real Alnwick Castle, which bears only a passing resemblance to the books’ descriptions.

So the outcome of this survey of fictional castles seems to be that Author’s strive to be as vague as possible about the structures they people with their characters.

It’s up to us as readers to build their castles in our imaginations.

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