Castles and ruins and interrupted stories

History, archaeology, myth, legend, inspiration and anything else you want them to be. That’s why I love castles. Especially ruined ones. In fact anything ruined. And hillforts or other ancient earthworks. And did I mention standing stones? Or stone circles? Burial sites, graveyards, the remains of abbeys, country houses that date back centuries. Where to stop? (& I won’t even start on the appeal of older men, that’s a whole other ruination…)

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Skenfrith Castle

I think it would be a challenge to find any UK based romantic writer or reader without a picture of a castle, or an ancient monument on their blog or twitter account. They are inspiring, intriguing, mysterious, imposing and unknown  – descriptions that fit many classic heroes. They can be gothic and brooding, or bright and well maintained; small and dangerously crumbly, or massive and easy to get lost in (definitely only talking about castles there.) They are an endless source of inspiration and not just for historical novelists. But my main feeling is always an awareness of a story being unfinished, or interrupted; we can research a castle’s past all we like, but we can’t know a fraction of the lives and stories that have happened within its walls and that thrills and saddens me all at once.

Anyone who tweets a picture of a castle has me at once, (beware of Ailish Sinclair and Louise Marley if you don’t want to lose half a day.) The images and stories capture all of my senses, but it’s much more than my love of the past (which led me to a degree in Ancient and Medieval History,) in fact it’s the opposite of that; the unknown, the things I can never read in a guide book or on a plaque on a crumbling stone wall. It’s the untold story; the tangible awareness of seeing a fragment of a vast story going back in time, and forward as well. How much of these immense edifices will be here long after I’m gone?

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Tintern Abbey

Sure, I love imagining what it must have been like to live there in a castle’s heyday and I’ve stood in roofless banqueting halls or sat in draughty windows and tried to imagine being a lady doing tapestry work by candlelight, or a knight preparing for battle or more likely being a serving wench lugging firewood up three stories of dark uneven stone spiral staircase or mucking out the stables. More than anything, I enjoy finding a quiet corner and just sitting, or standing, and absorbing the place; letting my imagination run riot. Not picturing any particular battle or siege or famous occupant, simply looking at the tiny details as well as the impressive ones. How many thousands of hands have worn that handrail so smooth? Was that hill I can see from this arrow slit wooded centuries ago? Did it always feel this cold? How many generations of swallows have hatched in that nest and where did they roost before this was a ruin?

I would always rather avoid a guided tour in favour of sitting outside with whichever book I am currently reading and letting the noise and presence of the place wash over me. It doesn’t matter what I’m reading, the fiction and the place lull me into a true (for me) appreciation of the past, present and future. People have lived and died – maybe violently – in these paces and somehow by stepping outside of it by reading or just looking and daydreaming it becomes more vivid for me. I suppose I’m trying to capture a fleeting feeling of what it was like to simply live there. Or maybe I’m just enjoying the warmth of sun drenched stones and peace and quiet among other bustling tourists or historians keen to unlock a castle’s secrets. Everyone has different ways to picture or experience the past, I like to sit and remember, both the building’s impermanence, and my own; and to celebrate, just for a moment, being an insignificant part of its ongoing story.

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Castell y Bere with Bird Rock in the distance

The first castles I remember visiting were Caernarfon and Conwy, huge, impressive, easy to get lost in. My main memory is of passageways deep in the walls that were barely wide enough to pass through. Then I visited Chepstow Castle (and Tintern Abbey in the same day) this was all at junior school at must have formed my love of ruins; when I discovered Raglan Castle that was my favourite for years (umm, doesn’t everyone have a favourite castle?) Then there was Castell y Bere; very little of the buildings remain but for location and the immense brooding presence of Bird Rock nearby it can’t be beaten (with the added delight of being where parts of Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising books were set – I’m so glad I didn’t re read the Grey King before I climbed Cadir Idris in a snow storm.)

Maybe part of why I love the more derelict castles is that sometimes it’s nice to step outside the preconceived notions of historians, archaeologists and other experts and allow ourselves to paint whatever we want onto what is left of the canvas before us. Such an attitude also explains my love of hillforts and stone circles and burial mounds. No one can truly say why they were built, although archaeology helps; but almost anyone who has read enough can make their own informed guess and no one can say they are categorically wrong. It was this (perhaps arrogant) view that made me choose the dark ages as one of my main periods to study.

Ruin is of course a loaded word. “Fallen or wrecked or impaired state,” ruination as a verb means to reduce and ruinous is “dilapidated, bringing ruin, disastrous.” It implies the place has been spoiled, or is decaying. To me it’s still growing, evolving; it may yet flourish anew. I’ve visited and been awed by many cathedrals, but none move me in any spiritual way as much as the remains of Tintern Abbey. If a castle hadn’t been abandoned and left to decay, it might still be occupied and modernised and unrecognisable from its original form.  I’m not trying to be critical, I’ve just puzzled a long time as to why the well preserved castles such as Powis and Conwy don’t enthral me the way the gaping keep at Skenfrith does, or that lonely wall still battling the winds at Dolwyddelan Castle.

 

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Dolwyddelan Castle

Do you have a favourite castle, or ancient site? Or do you prefer a well-kept manor house or country park to visit? Have you written about any, real or fictional? The first two books I wrote featured castles – one ruined, one still lived in. And in my current book the name of a castle looms large, even though everyone has forgotten where it is…

 

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Poised on the border between the known and the unknown

This was a (mis)quote about the universe, but is also a perfect description of falling in love; of that pivotal moment where all out previous experiences of love and loss are balanced against the unknown possibilities in this new love before us.

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It could also describe the feeling when we pick up a new romance to read – or start to write one. There is the history of all romances read and written before, if it is a category romance there is a defined word count and a restricted cast of leading characters (depending on whether it’s a Presents or a Western for example.) Readers and writers have a wealth of research and past knowledge and experience to draw upon – but how that story will play out, the twists and turns of plot, the depth of character, the sights, sounds and scents of the location will be something new, and hopefully, something amazing.

I’m sorry if I have managed to repeat myself already in only two months on this blog about the infinite variety and possibility contained in romance novels; it’s the cumulative effect of years on line seeing romances denigrated by non-readers, interviewers, other authors and even those who have ridden the coat tails of romance to financial and popular acclaim and then want to say “oh my books aren’t really romance.” Fine, not everyone has to like or read romance, there are many genres I don’t read, but I see no point in singling them out or putting them down – especially when I have no knowledge of them – and I would never try to sell my books on that genre, nor pour disdain on its readers.

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This photograph was taken on the same day as the other two standing stone pictures and shows how quickly Welsh weather can change

I didn’t plan to write any of that, but it’s some of the thoughts inspired by seeing Professor Brian Cox in the snow talking about the centuries of research, speculation and experimentation that have formed theories about the nature and origins of the universe. (I am paraphrasing, and badly as I wasn’t paying total attention.) Scientists now stand on that knife edge with history behind them and the vast unknowable universe before us waiting to be explored. Just as a reader opens that first page and waits to see what fresh characters and intriguing situation will cast a new light on the tale of falling in love and earning a happy ending against the odds.

It’s why humans keep on trying new romances even after disastrous break ups. I ended up single and celibate for almost five years after too many broken hearts (mine and other people’s), but eventually the pain had faded enough and someone offered a fresh view of the possibilities ahead; I reluctantly took a few hesitant steps and low and behold fell in love all over again, almost against my will (certainly against reason) and am still marvelling at it (and never taking it for granted) today.

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And what has any of this got to do with standing stones? I wrote a blog last week about castles (not posted yet due to the heart breaking stories in the news, I’m hoping I’m not tempting fate posting this one with its title on the day the UK votes whether or not to remain part of the EU.) In that blog I tried to explain how it is the love of the unknown in ruined castles and ancient monuments that inspires me – as a story teller and as a visitor puzzling over clues left by people long gone. I love reading about the history as well, but it is more the untold story that fires my soul and makes me return again and again to some sites.

One such place is Avebury (the solstice this week also made my mind take this particular tangential trip down memory lane, with my by now familiar clumsy attempts to tie it to romance.) I first saw Avebury no older than ten on a frosty morning. I have seen it in rain and sun and have always been awed by the mystery and majesty of the place. And been baffled and amused by the village that was built centuries later slap in the middle of this unique landscape; a very British piece of practical vandalism – why not build houses near a handy pre-quarried source of stone and with nice earthworks to keep animals in? Our attitude of veneration and conservation now shudders at what was done just a few hundred years ago – a fraction of the life span of these ancient sites – but what will future generations think? About the sites, about the recent past, about our twenty-first century views? Which will be laughable, which valued, and which utterly incomprehensible?

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Avebury on a sunny day when it was impossible to take pictures of stones without people in the background – or foreground

So much about these ancient sits will be forever a mystery; we will always be on that knife point of knowledge and the unfathomable. And for me that is the main part of their charm. Maybe that goes for falling in love too; I’m hoping for happy ever after but I know it’s not guaranteed or easy, and it’s never boring. Which applies even more to the books I love to read, and write.