From the time I was a teen, I've had this nagging sense that I belonged, or at least started out, somewhere in the Middle Ages. The 80's weren't really my thing, a time of feathered bangs and wide-legged Sticky Finger jeans, better suited to girls with cooperative hair and long inseams. I just had this notion that I was meant to wear scratchy linen dresses and sport chapped red hands and bulging forearm muscles made sinewy by cow milking and floor scrubbing at the local castle. I think these fantasies started shortly after reading The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. I was trying hard at the time to disassociate myself from my biological family and going back 500 years seemed a reasonable distance to put between us. Then, after seeing the movie adaptation in 1986, I was hooked. Remember that scene where the rat-haired, unwashed beauty seduces Christian Slater under the table? That was me. I was never the princess, certainly never the queen, although the nickname Queen of the World was uttered occasionally by my family during my teen years. I was the girl behind the scenes, observing the ones in the spotlight, scampering up and down circular stone staircases, reading books and writing in my diary by candlelight under a filthy blanket. Now that I have castles all around me, my past life seems to be calling again. I'm starting to believe my love of stone walls and earthen-colored floors doesn't mean I'm ahead of the craze for rustic and distressed home interiors. It means the Middle Ages are speaking to me, or at any rate I'm hearing my fantasies all over again.
Castles came to England with the Normans (see The Day the Normans Came to Town) who had learned in France that large fortresses which could house small armies were effective at securing control of a feudal society. Recently we visited Rochester Castle, over 800 years old and the oldest surviving Norman castle in England. It's sited on a hill above the River Medway, which flows from the heart of SE England to the sea. The castle has seen many skirmishes but perhaps the most humorous was when it was seized by several disgruntled barons in 1215. They had initially promised to turn over the fortress to King John as part of the Magna Carta negotiations. After weeks of unsuccessful assault by boulder-flinging trebuchets, King John fetched 40 fat pigs and used their blubber to set off an explosion underneath the Keep (the living quarters). It wasn't immediately successful at driving out the barons but while John and his troops were feasting on the meat of those pigs, the rebel barons eventually surrendered due to near starvation.
Rochester Castle's roof and floors have rotted away but its majesty is almost more impressive by looking up through four levels of beautifully laid stone punctuated by pillars and arches. As I felt my insides swell with awe a little nasal voice beside me whined, "I hate castles!" Yep, Mr Z is not a fan. This is the point when C and I look at each other and reluctantly launch into Rock, Paper, Scissors to see which one of us has to spend the next hour with The Grumpy 5 Year Old while the other is allowed to wander unencumbered. I lost. Fortunately Z discovered a "dinosaur fossil" embedded within the steps of the stone stairs and I was saved. "Oh my goodness, yes! Look! I think I see another up there. How many fossils do you suppose we can find by the time we get to the top?!"
I was able to really indulge my fantasy of 14th Century life at Dover Castle. Upon approach from the road it sits higher than anything around, steep green hillsides giving way to precipitous drops outside its gates and the blue sea glittering in the background. The Keep has been so extensively restored and decorated with period pieces that you almost feel as though you're walking into someone's house on the weekend when all the staff are away. The grounds are also home to a Roman lighthouse, an Anglo- Saxon church, and Victorian-era officer's quarters that weren't vacated until 1958. This makes Dover Castle the longest continually garrisoned military compound in England, equal only to The Tower of London and Windsor Castle. Because my mother-in-law was with us, I was free of The Grumpy 5 Year Old and I wandered. Soon I was blissfully alone, sitting in a small stone room flooded with rainbow colored light splashed across the wall through the stained glass, wondering where I had misplaced my embroidery.
Happily, Dover Castle does have something for a kid who thinks castles are in the top 3 most boring things to look at. There is a network of tunnels and rooms built beneath the castle grounds where in 1803 the British were able to hide over 2000 troops when it looked as though Napoleon was going throw his diminutive weight across the channel. After that crisis was averted, the tunnels lay dormant for over a century. They were given a massive renovation upon the outbreak of WWII. Initially used as an air raid shelter, they were gradually transformed into a military command center and underground hospital. The audio-visual tour of the tunnels was riveting, projected in bold, war-era imagry on the floors and walls of the rooms. We watched the simulated movement of the German army as they fought their way across western Europe until the Belgians, French and their British allies were backed into the French seaside town of Dunkirk. Operation Dynamo was hatched below the ground at Dover Castle and is one of the more amazing feats of wartime rescue ever seen. Over 300,000 allied troops were evacuated from France to England by a hodgepodge fleet of 800 military and civilian boats made up of battle ships to car ferries to small pleasure-craft.
After resurfacing from underground, the sun's rays were nearing the horizon. I re-entered the Keep through the kitchen galley where an actor in a tunic walked by carrying a platter topped with the head of a giant tusked boar. Shellacked mounds of dough and freshly baked plaster-of-Paris bread were resting outside the wood burning stove. I started taking photos at odd angles of crude cleavers and pokers and other implements designed to de-joint a large animal. I experimented with close ups and wide angles with my new iPhone lens. Back on the roof I pulled on my synthetic fuzzy gloves and zipped up my high tech, wind stopping jacket. I texted C to check on The Grumpy 5 Year Old and included an emoji heart heart heart. I considered all the conveniences of my life and how it is so much easier to stay in touch with my far flung tribe: The internet, Skype, Facetime, Flickr, Instagram and, alright, Facebook. On top of that I've got central heating, recorded music, photo apps, fast trains, flush toilets and Mad Men. Maybe, just maybe, I'm living in the best century ever.