At Corfe on Thursday we were just walking down from the top of the Castle. We’d been looking at the erosion and wall repairs that were needed this year. Phil the Area Ranger said “this always amazes me” and I knew what he meant. We shouldn’t be standing there at all and 20 years ago it would have been impossible. Some clever engineering opened the Inner Ward Gate for us.
Corfe is a great craggy romantic ruin. An irate visitor once said to me “how can the National Trust have let it get in this state?!. It’s not our fault. It’s been this way for over 350 years. The owners, the Bankes family, supported King Charles in the Civil War which made the Parliamentarians want to make it useless as a fortress… after they eventually got hold of it (2 sieges later).
The NT were given the castle by the Bankes family in 1982. The plan was to make the place more accessible and enjoyable for the visitor. The route to the top was OK until the Inner Ward Gate was reached. Here, we were confronted with a jumble of massive chunks of masonry and the only option was to weave a narrow path between great chunks of demolished castle. The Parliamentarian Captain Hughes, had ordered his men to undermine the west wall of the Keep and place gunpowder charges there (quite a lot). This had brought the whole thing down successfully burying the gateway.
In 1991, we dug between the blocks and found the gateway. It had a 80 ton block on one side of it, a 50 ton block on the other and an 8 ton block in the middle.
The NT working group thought up various solutions to this 350 year old access problem, involving large amounts of scaffolding in unseemly unaesthetic places. Then a wild idea. Could the blocks be moved. Unlikely. Worth asking the question of the engineers though. The answer was …. of course. A bold and exciting scheme was devised.
50 ton was undermined and tilted to the north. 8 tone was lifted on a gantry and 80 ton was surrounded with a cradle of steel girders, and, after excavation, rails set in concrete were built beneath it. Then it was pushed to one side using a particularly powerful machine.
We excavated the gateway floor after the move and found it to be full of good quality robbed castle stone. Perhaps it was left there by mistake and could not be retrieved once the Keep was blown up.
After the archaeology, the 1996 masons pinned the blocks in their new positions, made a new flight of steps that took visitors through the gate at 1646 level up and then up above the unexcavated demolition accumulated within the Inner Ward. There is rubble several metres deep in places, particularly within the Keep.
I know what Phil means though. It always gives me goose bumps when I look up to see the shifted blocks of Keep and stand at the Inner Ward Gate.