There is something very alluring about the word ‘palace’ isn’t there? Well, there is for me. Castles are all well and good but they’re usually somewhat at the harsh end of existence whereas palaces suggest exotic opulence and grandeur. As such, these luxurious dwellings aren’t really what I associate with this country. Doesn’t a palace need warmth or emperor or Moors?
When Kate Shrewsday mentioned a little-known castle, my ears pricked up. I like castles. Even the slightly disappointing ones that are just hill forts and playgrounds for sheep.
But this wasn’t just a castle, this was a bishop’s castle.
Also known as bishop’s palaces.
Kings and earls and dukes may not have palaces in this country but bishops certainly have. (Make of that what you will).
Kate put me on the trail of one a little closer to home, Taunton. Although without transport, Taunton might as well be the moon. (And it’s probably cheaper to get a bus there too).
But sometimes things just seem to tie together.
We had to go to Taunton.
We were lent a car for the expedition.
And added a wee mystery tour stop to the day.
As I am rather wont to do on occasion.
Do you want to come with me?
It was a cold, bleak day last February because I have been very remiss in not posting my experiences before. (I think illness and birds were appropriately distracting factors).
I’ve never set eyes before on the castle in Taunton, it’s always just beyond another arch, beyond the modern façades and brands of the high street. I wasn’t expecting great things because there is only so much space between the main road and the bus station (plus various car parks) where this other little hidden castle dwells.
And it is unprepossessing, tucked, as it was on that day, behind all sorts of road works and renovations, with a small footpath leading through a not so very high or intimidating wall of soft, local, yellow stone. But here is where the bishop’s castle of Taunton lurks, a little known piece of history, it is tucked away and crowded out by newer (and often, less attractive) development.
It is in the care of the county council who seem to be reluctant to let anyone know about it. They have, however, recently installed a brand spanking new history/archaeology museum, which, as small, regional museums go, is actually rather good. And free.
If you want history then you’ll have to turn to other sources which are a little more forthcoming about the place’s past. I (of the gift of the waffle) will attempt a précis of the castle’s first millennium:
Apparently, Taunton has a long association with bishops and their fancy dwellings, from right back in the days of the Anglo-Saxons when Taunton was in a kingdom called Wessex and not part of some bigger country as it is today. Then the Normans got in on the act (of course, they had something of a thing for castles) and it become the possession of the Bishops of Winchester. Scoot along a few more centuries and by the time of the Civil War, it seems to have fallen out of ecclesiastical hands and into the secular, seized as a lonely Parliamentarian enclave in the West Country by the Earl of Essex (who was clearly lost). The Royalist didn’t appreciate that and laid siege. The Siege of Taunton sounds a rather grand affair, an event worthy of an entire chapter in the history books but alas, names can be deceptive and it is only a footnote in a rather messy war. Taunton didn’t learn its lesson, however, and was not much later embroiled in another conflict, the Monmouth Rebellion, which I have a funny feeling that most schoolchildren outside of the West Country have never heard of. It was not something that ended particularly well for its supporters as many of them were brought up before the infamous Judge Jeffries. They called it the Bloody Assizes for good reason, another mess to be cleared up. After that, Taunton Castle seems to have passed into modern history and the much too settled times that we call our own, slowly falling into disrepair and neglect as lifestyles and tastes changed until people came to their senses and realised that whilst treasures are not always large or golden, they may often be found on your doorstep.
The museum will while away a rainy day but would be best visited with younger children who will find many of the exhibits geared to them. If you’re not quite so young, take a camera and be captivated by the fascinating elliptical windows as I was. I was also impressed that they seem to have melded the old and new very tastefully, much as the French often do in their own historical buildings without the slightest qualm, which adds some intriguing contrasts to explore.
There are also a few technical provisos to add before we start wandering!
As is usual with these places, there aren’t many opportunities for perching and by the end of our visit, I was struggling to carry and work the camera. I’ve tried not to tamper with the white balance, especially in the interior shots, to add something of the actual feel and atmosphere of the place. There is also very little I can do with an English washed out winter (or summer) sky, they are detail-less and much hated by camera sensors, but I’m sure that we could just claim that they add realistic local charm or something. However, if you do see a piece of blue sky, feel free to cheer.
(I did say that I was captivated by the fascinating elliptical windows. Actually, just make that windows generally).
If you like, we can go on another day trip soon.