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Don't Forget to Remember: A History of Corfe Castle

This week, guest author, Megan Dancer - a Masters student at the University of York - writes about the historic National Trust site of Corfe Castle. Megan is currently undertaking a 12-week work placement with Blue Willow Heritage as part of her studies. Such placements are absolutely vital in providing young archaeologists with the chance to gain work experience in the commercial sector - opportunities for which are often extremely limited in the field of Heritage Consultancy! The Cultural Heritage Management programme teaches students how to thoroughly understand the significance of historic buildings, their conservation issues and solutions, alongside how to produce optimal engagement strategies. Two members of the Blue Willow team have also graduated from a Masters of Arts programme at the University of York!


Corfe Castle


Corfe Castle Ruins
Corfe Castle

Do you have a place that is special to you? It might be a place that you haven’t been to for a while, or somewhere you visit every day. For me, it’s Corfe Castle in Dorset, or as I fondly have renamed it Coffee Castle. I visited multiple times throughout my childhood but rarely as an adult; simply due to the lack of time available to do so. Eight-year-old me tended to get frustrated and confused to why we were visiting an unfinished and crumbling castle. As I got older, I began to understand that the castle was a ruin and became more intrigued with the history and how it became almost frozen in time. The presence of castle ruins, like Corfe Castle, has inspired artists such as J.M.W Turner and John Richards to create romanticised depictions of the structures. 


A Brief History 



Corfe Castle is an early 12th-century structure that can be found proudly standing on a mound in Swanage. Within their most recent guidebook which discusses some of the castle’s history, the National Trust describe it as a “Mighty Fortress” - a description that can easily be supported by simply visiting the site. Whilst walking around the remains of the castle, you are able to enjoy both the beauty of the fortress itself as well as the amazing, clear views of the surrounding landscape; a defensive feature that may have been beneficial for such a prominent fortress. The Purbeck quarry helped to supply the materials required for the construction of Corfe Castle; including Purbeck Stone Ashlar and mostly flint core rubble (RCHME 1970). 


Conservation Methods 


I last visited Corfe Castle in the summer of last year, 2023. It was a beautifully warm and clear day which made those landscape views amazing. Whilst I was there, I noticed there were volunteers repeatedly going up and down the mound to a specific area of the castle with buckets of what looked like rubble. Regrettably, I did not see what they were doing, but I knew it must have been to do with the conservation of the castle. 


Throughout my studies, the importance of ensuring that like-for-like replicas are used for any conservation work carried out - specifically the replacing of materials or improving the accessibility of a historic site - has been highlighted (Historic England 2008, 115). Alternatively, if these are unobtainable, then any modern additions should be identifiable as such (Historic England 2008, 120); for example, the refurbishment works carried out in Clifford’s Tower. This is to ensure that the site’s present state does not create an inaccurate image of the historic structure, further supporting the vital need to effectively record any conservation work completed. 


Landscape and Ecology 


stonehenge
Great Bustard 'Gertie' at Stonehenge

It is important to note that the conservation field does not only consider the physical structure but its landscape and the wildlife that comes with it. Natural England’s guidance allows a Historic Buildings Conservation Officer to focus on the surrounding landscape and views connected to the site. In comparison, following the same guidance, the ecology sector considers the conservation of wildlife. This includes the reintroduction and protection of animal species such as the Great Bustard at Stonehenge and the Peregrine Falcon at Corfe Castle (National Trust 2023) - as well as the endangered Lichen species that can also be found at these two sites. 


Conservation vs Intervention 


Within their book on Curated Decay, Caitlin DeSilvey (2017) highlights some key points involved with the debate on natural decay versus conservation intervention. DeSilvey quotes Balshaw and Harrison who express beliefs that the heritage sector cannot preserve all historical sites and must consider “letting some things go”. Mark Auge further argues within DeSilvey’s book that forgetting will allow us to “remain present”. In contrast, also within DeSilvey’s work, Cornelius Holtorf discusses how conservation and preservation of the past can help us to remain connected with our history. 


Engagement Strategies 


sculpture at corfe castle
Sculpture in the grounds of Corfe Castle

I have always had a love for history and learning the stories of the past, whether they were historically accurate or myths and legends, like those of Merlin and the Knights of Camelot; an admiration that was admittedly encouraged by the 2008 BBC show. Whilst it may be debated which stories should be told and the methods used to do so, working at sites of historical significance, and studying heritage has allowed me to develop the personal belief that factual accuracy and myths are equally important. This is partially due to the belief that magic can inspire the imagination. However, I feel it is also essential to tailor an experience, at a historic site, to the individual. By this I do not mean twisting tales that are not already associated with the site; but to acknowledge the audience. To elaborate, history, much like the modern day, is full of stories of war and bloodshed. These are facts that when told should be aware of the receiver - especially younger children who may not fully understand the reason behind such events and could be negatively affected by retellings. This does not mean that history should be rewritten but instead told following, for example, the lines of a U or PG rated film when needed. 


It is crucial that the significance of these historical sites, like Corfe Castle, are passed down to ensure that future generations understand the site’s history, the stories of the people connected with the site, and why they should be preserved. It is also important when discussing history to consider how much we have learnt from the glorification or exaggeration of historic events from sources that may not be fully reliable, such as historic dramas and video games. It is because of this that I feel it is important to encourage having days out and to recommend that everyone put away their devices for a little while (except for the odd photo of course); and ultimately allow their imagination to be inspired by history. 


Acknowledgements

I would like to thank the Blue Willow Heritage team for giving me the opportunity to learn from their expertise and to write this post about an area I am passionate about. 


 

At Blue Willow Heritage, we aim to find workable solutions that coincide with our clients’ aims and the conservation of a structure’s heritage. This includes carrying out desk-based research, site visits and written reports that can highlight the rich history of a particular site. Feel free to get in touch if you would like our help! 



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1 Comment


A very interesting piece of work megan Dancer

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