Monday, 9 July 2012

Chirk Castle

My friend Louise turned 23 today, and in celebration we decided to take one of our famed "day-cations" and go to visit a National Trust house. We had two options: Regency or Medieval. Considering we spend rather a lot of time at Regency houses anyway, plus a mutual love for HBO's Game of Thrones, we settled on a trip to Chirk Castle in an attempt to recapture some of glory of the Seven Kingdoms.

The long and winding path up to the fortress just allowed me the time to get incredibly excited and repeatedly say things like "oh my gosh this is sooo cooooool". From the outside, Chirk is squat but steady; impressive in a sort of bare medieval manner. Upon seeing it for the first time, I was overcome with the urge to go back to my high school history books and re-learn all of the castle terminology that I have long since forgotten or pushed out with other nuggets of information. Its setting was nothing short of picturesque, and of course, strategically located atop a hill.

Through the entrance, we found ourselves in a dark, wainscotted room with heraldry and blazonry embellishing the walls and windows. It would not have been out of place in Winterfell. We were asked to wait to gather a group of people before we were allowed through the doors into the rest of the house. That was the point of no return. I was intrigued to see how the Myddelton family had managed to turn this 13th century strong hold into a functional family home, assuming that they would be privvy to the tastes and styles of 18th century gentry. I was painfully disappointed. Having studied the Grand Tour in my third year at university, I had become familiar with the trends in home decoration which resulted from the cosmopolitanism of their inhabitants. Dunham Massey, which I saw last year, bore the hallmarks of an 18th century Grand Tour house in an elegant and coherent manner. Chirk Castle, I'm afraid, did not meet Dunham Massey's high standards.

Though some individual pieces of furniture were themselves lovely, overall I found the house to be infuriatingly lacking in cohesion. Surprisingly, however, it did not feel as though it was the task of merging two very different time periods into one home, rather the complete ignorance of it. Once passed the entrance hall, the rest of the building attempts to forget exactly what its purpose was, instead masking its original features. The only tell tale signs are the rooms with circular walls. There appeared to be very little exercise in taste whatsoever, which is illustrated by the hideous ceilings pictured above. The inclusion of the roundals of Greek dieties seemed to be a desperate and cloying attempt to appear relevant to the concerns of their contemporaries. Though the 18th century elements of the house felt unsatisfactory to me, I was more bemused by the Romanesque/Early Gothic elements within the house. Admittedly, I do not know a lot about the history of Chirk, so I cannot claim to know when these elements were built, but I can only assume that they were not medieval as the indoor segregation of the house would not have had the same ground plan due to its varying functions.

Occasionally, these quadripartite vaults would appear in hallways or rooms seemingly with little or no purpose. Sometimes also they would be accompanied by a slightly pointed door archway, but never by any form of column or pier. Perhaps they were an attempt by the 18th century owners to pay homage to the history of their home, but in reality they are mis-matched and alien. I would suggest that if this was the case, it would have been a concern throughout each room, rather than assigning a handful of spaces this objective.

Overall, I was disappointed by Chirk Castle. The National Trust are doing an excellent job in its conservation and maintenance, and there were a few dozen school children in period costume who seemed to be having a wail of a time learning about castles, dungeons and stocks. The dissatisfaction that came with Chirk, I feel, was the responsibility of the Myddelton family's architects and designers. I just hope that those children will not come away with the impression that this is what a medieval castle, or an 18th century home, looked like.

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