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  • Writer's pictureHeather Moll

Longtown Castle

I love putting real places in fictional worlds. Most of my books are set in London, Hertfordshire, or Derbyshire, so it was a treat in Loving Miss Tilney to have the chance to visit Gloucestershire and Herefordshire.

The Tilneys visit their friends in Herefordshire, and the young people decide to take a trip to the remains of Longtown Castle. This won’t be like the failed trip to Blaise Castle in Northanger Abbey. Blaise Castle was just a summer house built to look like a castle and it was only 30 years old at the time the book is set. There has been a structure where Longtown Castle is since Roman times, and the stone castle was probably built in the 1150s.

In Loving Miss Tilney, Eleanor, her forbidden love Philip Brampton, Sir Charles Sudbury—the rich man she’s considering marrying to escape her father—and her friends Lady Alice and Lord Dryden make the trip to the Welsh border to see the remains of Longtown Castle.

Longtown Castle is a ruined Norman motte-and-bailey fortification in Longtown, Herefordshire. Before that, it was a first-century Roman fort. It was on the front line of battles between British tribes and the Romans. At that time, it was essentially a square fort on an embanked hill with a ditch and wooden stockade.

A thousand years later, after the Norman invasion, William the Conqueror sent Walter de Lacy to Herefordshire to defend the border with Wales, and Walter took over the remains of the Roman fort to build his castle. An earth mound, called a motte, was raised over the north-west corner of the rampart and topped with a timber tower.

Around 1148, Walter de Lacy’s grandson replaced the old wooden castle at Longtown with the stone castle seen today. It has one of the earliest round keeps in Britain, but over the next centuries it declined in importance and was garrisoned for the last time in 1403. It's unclear if the castle played any part in the English Civil War, but cannonballs from the period have been discovered within the castle, and part of the keep could have been deliberately destroyed during the war.

It's a lovely setting, in a valley and with the Black Mountains in the distance, but the castle itself had been in ruins for centuries before Eleanor Tilney and her friends go to see it in April 1798.

What does motte-and-bailey mean?

The motte is a raised area of ground and it’s accompanied by a walled courtyard or bailey, and surrounded by a ditch or stockade. A keep and a protective wall would usually be built on top of the motte. Longtown's keep held personal apartments and was capped by a wall-walk with battlements and three turrets where lookouts could keep watch. The keep was also a last refuge for the garrison if the outer defenses were breached.

The open gash in the side of the keep contains the remains of a spiral staircase (originally in one of the keep’s three projecting turrets) connecting the rooms on each of three floors. One of the two surviving turrets contained a chimney and the other a garderobe.

The bailey would have contained a number of buildings, including a hall, kitchens, a barracks, stores, stables, and workshops. Longtown had two bailies, and an inner and outer one.

The small gatehouse that protects the entrance to the inner bailey still has the slot for a portcullis. The entrance is just large enough for a mounted man, which suggests that the inner bailey was reserved for important people like the knights and their families.

In the scene below from Loving Miss Tilney, the group has just arrived at the castle. Eleanor is a lover of history and has done some research, but only Philip seems interested in what she's learned.

Longtown Castle. Drawn by S. Prout; Greig (engraver) for the Antiquarian & Topographical Cabinet, 1809

Longtown Castle stood in a secluded spot, near the banks of a river, in a village that probably had seven hundred people. They were on the southwest edge of Herefordshire near the Black Mountains, and to Philip’s eye it seemed an area little noticed by travellers, despite the remains of magnificence on the small hill before them. They were on the frontier with Wales, and in fact were so near to Wales Philip wondered if the remains of the castle were reckoned to be part of it.

“What think you?” called Dryden as the ladies descended the carriage and he gestured to the stonework remains. “Its situation is commanding over the adjoining country, is it not?”

“It might have once been,” said Sir Charles, frowning, “if it were whole.”

Eleanor smiled, looking up at it. “The prospect is delightful.”

Philip turned to look at her. Eleanor had a love of history; she was always reading the footnotes and admiring old speeches. Unable to help himself, he gave her a fond smile and said, “Tell us what you have learnt of it.”

She gave him a teasing smile. “What makes you believe I know any more of the castle than Lord Dryden or Lady Alice?”

“Because I know you, my dear Miss Tilney, and I am sure you have knowledge of what happened here.”

He pointed to the castle; truly the keep was all that remained, standing on rising ground surrounded by a ditch, which was encompassed by a low stone rampart with an arched entrance to the inner bailey.

Eleanor looked at Dryden, to ask for permission, Philip presumed. Dryden shrugged and said, “Go on, Miss Tilney, if you know anything of note.”

Philip grinned, knowing Eleanor’s habits of inquiry very well. She gave him another knowing look and said in a low voice, “You cannot complain, because you asked for this.”

“I would never complain about what knowledge falls from your lips.”

She turned to the others and said, “Well, if you must know, I did find a book in Lord Longtown’s library that was interesting to me. In Taylor’s Map of Herefordshire, Longtown is marked as the Roman station Blestium, most probably from mistaking the place meant by Camden, who fixes that station erroneously at Old Castle, an eminence two miles to the south that is actually in Monmouthshire.”

None of the others had anything to add other than polite bows, but Philip asked, “So history is silent on the founder of the castle, as well as the date it was erected?”

Eleanor nodded. “Sadly, there is not much known from the Domesday book other than who then owned the land.”

Philip considered what she had said and asked, “But it is possible there was a Roman settlement here as well, before this Norman structure was erected?”

Her eyes lit up with interest. “It is possible; do you not think so? What might be discovered if it were possible to excavate twenty feet down?”

“Dirt,” Sir Charles said, coming near and holding out his arm for Eleanor to take. “We shall find dirt and more dirt. Come, Miss Tilney, let us walk it rather than stand about looking at it.”

Sir Charles led away Eleanor to walk around the ramparts, and Lady Alice and Dryden fell in behind them. Philip looked at the keep first and avoided the others. He would have liked to have walked the ruins with Eleanor, to hear her conjectures as to what might have happened here, who would have lived here, and what had led to its destruction.

I would have liked to find hidden corners to move Eleanor out of sight and kiss her senseless.

He had to stop thinking of what places would be good for that sort of activity. Philip wondered if Eleanor ever thought the same thing whenever she saw a secluded grove, a darkened alcove, or the lobby above an empty staircase. It did him no good, he knew, to imagine all manner of places that would give them an opportunity to be alone. If she thought of such possibilities, it would now be with Sir Charles in mind, not him.

Things turn around for Eleanor and Philip, but it's a long time coming. During the trip to Longtown Castle, poor Eleanor thinks she still has to forsake Philip to marry the wealthy but unlikable Sir Charles to get away from her cruel father.

Do you like it when real places are used in fiction? Are there any places you'd love to see used in a book?

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