Under the First Tower Corfe Castle

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Sometimes, at a distance, when the sunlight hits Corfe Castle… it seems whole again..

Just an illusion..it has been a battered shell since 1646, when, after a long siege, it was captured and blown apart by the Parliamentarians.

They made sure that the supporters of King Charles could not use it again..unpicking the defenses, trenching under the walls, packing with gunpowder and throwing the turrets and walls in all directions.

But this blog is also about something that happened 300 years earlier ..when Corfe Castle was one of the brightest and best within the league table of medieval fortresses.

About 1250, the 1st Tower was created for King Henry III.

When first added to the defensive circuit, this structure was a cutting edge design, built to protect the southern and western approaches. The barons were often restless.

A wonderful thing, with its rounded tower and its 3 arrow loop embrasures.. from these, bowmen or more probably cross bowmen could take aim and fell an attacker up to 300m away. A crossbow bolt could penetrate a knight’s armour.

We only know of one illustration and then only in plan.. drawn for the new owner Sir Christoper Hatton..14 years after it was sold to him by Elizabeth I. Such castles were old fashioned by then.

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Ralph Treswell’s 1586 survey of Corfe Castle shows the 1st Tower between the steps up to the Outer Gatehouse (right) and the Outer Bailey latrines (left). 60 years later it was blown in two.

The Parliamentary demolition team searched for weak spots and made them weaker. They set their charges and the explosion fractured the 1st tower.. right down its central arrowloop. It must have sounded like an earthquake in the town.. and when the dust settled, the east half leaned drunkenly outward and the west half  had been flipped 180 degrees coming to a rest half way down the hill slope.. This is where it has remained gathering soil, vegetation and scrub for another 371 years.

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Looking along the west wall of the Outer Bailey from the SW Gatehouse towards Corfe Village. The scrub covered fallen 1st Tower lies below the castle wall hidden by vegetation directly below the position of the church tower.

Other parts of the Castle have been cleaned and consolidated over the years but the chunks that lie tumbled across the slopes, or down by the river, have not. The largest of these pieces is the First Tower, and now …the scaffolding is upon it.

So last week I headed south through a cold winter morning of dramatic contrasts: on the high chalk downs, bright melting sunlight above vales of mist.. but down on the heath, thick freezing fog and brittle white frosted trees.

The caged Tower loomed but nobody was on it. I found them in the tea rooms beside the Outer Bridge. Architects, builders and property staff… after warm drinks we headed for the vertical ladder up from the ditch.

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The route up to the First Tower from the Castle Ditch. The standing half of the tower is on the right with part of the 13th century cross-loop visible, the other half is part buried beneath the lowest scaffolding.

A good time to visit. Most of the centuries of roots and soil had been removed. We climbed over the scaffolding and saw, up close, the medieval construction, types of mortar, the galleting of the joints and the different beds of Purbeck stone, the arrangement of rubble and fine ashlar.

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But everything in reverse. When we got to the top, we saw the great slabs of Purbeck Marble laid down as foundation layers before the tower proper was built above. Someone saw tool marks around their edges and suggested they may have been recycled coffin cover rough-outs.

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The foundation of the Tower made of large long slabs of stone, then rough block work, not meant to be seen, followed by the finely worked ashlar burr stone forming the battered plinth (three course vertical, three at 60 degrees and then vertical again rising to the top of the rounded tower).

A stranded whale of a thing, its construction now more visible than at any time since it was built.

Could we laser scan it and capture this revelation in time?

Yes it can be done.

It will be partly obscured soon, new mortar and capping needs to be placed over the Tower to protect the newly exposed structure from weathering.

Both halves will be digitised.

The scaffolding will be edited out, and then, by the touch of a button… the First Tower will be reunited again.

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