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Visit to Astley Castle

When Celia and I visited Astley Castle several days before the group trip, the castle was closed to the public, but we took the opportunity to explore the circular walk on public footpaths around the site. We saw the coach house first, renovated to give parking for residents, but presenting a rather blank face to passers-by.
We then got our first view of the castle. We didn't realise at the time that this is the one façade where the combination of old and new is most visible on the outside. We admired the bold statement of new build combined with the old ruin, particularly enjoying the subtle choice of brick blending with the remains of the ruin.
We followed the way-markings which took us through the churchyard and were intrigued by the mixture of elements. The church was closed at that time. We continued on to a narrow lane that skirted the property, seeing the castle framed by fence and trees. From this side, and the remaining two, the new elements of the house are not as apparent. We thought that the castle maintained its presence as a romantic ruin, decaying, or so it seemed, into the landscape.
As we continued round we realised that the moat is a mixture of wet and dry areas, a beautiful swathe of wild plants, excellent for wildlife and in keeping with the notion of the romantic ruin it surrounds.
Passing by the lake, built as a fish pond in the 16th century, we then returned to our starting point via an ancient sunken road.                                                                                                                                                Rob



A church existed here in 1285.  In 1343 Sir Thomas Astley built Astley Church dedicated to St. Mary the Virgin. 
It was a collegiate church built in the form of a cross with a 90 foot nave and a central tower with a spire from which a light was shone to guide travellers at night.  For various reasons, including the lead being stripped from its roof and spire, the building deteriorated and in 1600 the spire fell causing irreparable damage.
In 1608 Sir Richard Chamberlayne gained possession of Astley Castle and estates and built the church as seen to-day.  The present nave was the previous chancel.  The east window contains some beautiful stained glass probably from the original window which can be seen above the 17th century chancel arch.
It was at this time that the painted texts on the walls were done.  Behind the 14-15th century choir stalls are painted panels depicting apostles and prophets. 
The rose window which was above the original east window can now be seen only from the outside as it is above the oak ceiling.                                                                                                                                             Elisabeth


“Examining the winners of the Stirling Prize over the last seventeen years in the Architects Journal, all large scale High Tech steel and glass buildings, it was difficult for me to comprehend the radical change in the 2013 judges’ choice. However, Witherford Watson Mann’s design approach ‘sets an important precedent for historic architecture – how existing buildings can be reinvented and reinvigorated”                                                                         Alison Brooks.

We visited the listed fortified manor, leased by Landmark Trust to provide self-catering holidays, on a perfect early September day of scudding clouds, and periods of intense sunlight.
The architects’ design concept was to locate the new house in the oldest 12th Century core.  The living space to be on the first floor to enjoy the views of the surrounding landscape, the bedrooms on the ground floor.
“The idea was for an upside-down, inside-out house .... the new house would hold the ruin together”.
“We carefully distorted the new architecture to fit the ruin finding irregular but precise meetings of spaces and materials”.
Initially walking round the castle I was surprised how well the new house was subsumed into the ruins. 



Approaching the building we were aware of the open spaces within the gaps of the ruins, which were partly glazed or roofed to provide a series of ‘open rooms’. 
Entering the large hallway, the heart of the old castle, we faced an oak staircase rising to the first floor room.  To the left, a series of glazed screens with views of the outside courtyards, open to the sky.  To the right, a courtyard used as a generous-scaled dining room.
As a result of a mistake by the LT liaison person, it transpired that our visit was one day ahead of the public open day.  This was in fact a bonus, and enabled the group to examine and discuss reactions to the interiors.
Moving round the interlinked rooms, we generally agreed that the relationship and function of the main spaces reflected a detailed original architectural approach. It was also uniformly agreed that the detailing of the staircase was superb, and complex juxtapositions of the existing stone walls and the new Tudor brickwork were handled with imagination and skill. One guest commentated however, that of six bedrooms, only one was en-suite which raises problems for groups of eight.  There was also a discussion on whether the strip flooring would withstand the heavy use and potential staining of frequent visitors – durability being a key issue.
A further issue was also raised.  Given the cost of £1.3 million for the project, it seemed to a number in the group that the vastly overgrown area of the moat should have been included in an integrated landscape programme to significantly upgrade the setting of the Castle.
Finally, John Dean made an interesting comment to me – there must be dozens of castles in ruinous conditions which given the new robust approach to combining contemporary architecture with historic, could be revitalised.                                                                                                                              

Pictures by: Audrey, Elisabeth, David & Rob


Another View Astley Castle

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