Thursday, 1 July 2021

North Wales & Border 2021 - Telford's Pontcysyllte Aqueduct & Stokesay Castle

In this, the last of a series of posts covering Carolyn's and my trip to North Wales and the border in early May, our last two days were spent exploring two historic sites that are linked through the contribution both represent to the economic and social history of the UK, but from very different periods in that long history.

If you missed them and are interested then the other posts can be followed in the links below:

With the return of wall to wall sunshine, we headed off towards Wrexham and a reacquaintance with the River Dee, last encountered on our trip to Chester back in 2018.

The river is an important highway in its own right in this locality and as apposed to when we spent time taking a leisurely boat ride along it viewing the city of Chester, this time we were further up river where the water is fast flowing and turbulent, and much less amenable to pleasure boat rides.

Here on the Dee, the valley is straddled by two modes of transport that shaped Britain's Industrial Revolution in the early and mid nineteenth century, the Cefn Viaduct carrying the railway line from Shrewsbury to Chester, built by the Scottish engineer, Henry Robertson, first erected between 1846-8 and later reconstructed in 1858-9 to replace wooden spans completing its thirteen arches in stone up to one-hundred feet high.

The stunning piece of engineering that is the Cefn Viaduct, completed in 1859, spans the River Dee

However we were also intent on seeing a much older construction from this period as well as including a very pleasant four mile walk along the river, with an ice-cream stop along the way.

The next industrial and rather unique landmark soon hove into sight, namely the Pontcysyllte aqueduct, built by another Scotsman, the great engineer Thomas Telford between 1795 to 1805, as part of the Ellesmere Canal linking the ironworks and collieries of Wrexham to Chester and on to Liverpool and now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Pontcysyllte aqueduct, completed in 1805 with 18 piers of local stone, 126 feet high over the River Dee, 1007 feet long, 11 feet, 10 inches wide and 5 feet 3 inches deep, and costing £47,000 when built, and the longest aqueduct in Britain.

Climbing the steep steps from the river up to the canal path extending from the aqueduct we were greeted with a site that transports the visitor back two hundred years to the early industrial revolution with this, a key junction on the transport arteries of the time, Britain's canal system linking the key cities, industrial centres and ports.

Today however, the boats move more leisurely, with the coal boats long gone and a welcome ice-cream next to an even more welcoming pub.

The iron canal channel across the Dee is fed by water from the river and the narrow path that runs alongside it offers spectacular views out over the valley but is definitely not for the feint-hearted.

It's remarkable to think that engineering structures like this were being built at the time of the French Revolution, with Britain going through its own revolution that would change the world, perhaps in more ways than did victory at Waterloo in 1815.

We were so lucky with the weather on this particular day and the walk between the two bridges was a perfect way to enjoy these remarkable feats of engineering history.

The next day was a bit up in the air to begin with, with our plan to head home, hoping to miss the early bank holiday traffic heading into the south-west, but discovering that the original venue we wanted to visit on that day but thought would be closed was going to be open to the public after all, following it being closed due to filming for an upcoming 'Period TV show' next year.

That venue being Stokesay Castle, which we booked for an early morning visit to to include on our journey south along the Wye Valley, home bound.

Lord Craven's gatehouse at Stokesay Castle

This is not the first time that Stokesay has been covered here on JJ's as Mr Steve posted a report about his visit back in 2018 in which he covered the interesting history Stokesay has in the English Civil War amongst other things, and is well worth a read in the link below if you didn't see it the first time.

Following that post it has been on Carolyn's and my list of places to visit if we were in the area and so we were very happy to get an early start to our day to include it in the itinerary.

To quote English Heritage, who administer Stokesay;

'Stokesay Castle is one of the finest fortified manor houses in England. Built in the 1280's by the fabulously rich wool merchant, Lawrence of Ludlow, it stands in a peaceful Shropshire valley, an exceptionally picturesque ensemble of 13th century towers, magnificent great hall and a delightful gatehouse built in 1640. Among its many treasures are its medieval staircase and tiled floor and its richly carved 17th-century chamber.'

Having parked the car the visitor follows a short path between the moat on the northern wall and the graveyard of the Church of St John the Baptist, with parts of the building that survived the ravages of the Civil War, predating Stokesay back to the Normans.

The rather magnificent and imposing war memorial in the churchyard caught my eye

Although called a castle, Stokesay was not intended or designed to withstand a serious siege, but more to act as an imposing house for its wealthy owner from which he could administer the returns from the lucrative business of wool that was the economic wealth generator of medieval England.

In that guise Stokesay with its original crenelated curtain wall, taken down after the Civil War, its moat and its secure bastion in the form of the south tower provided more than adequate security against vagabonds and robbers on a very turbulent and uncertain part of the Welsh border whilst also emphasising the owners status with an air of restraint and modesty.

Our first view of the 17th century apartment that sits atop the north tower of Stokesay

The first good view of the site is of the glorious gatehouse built by William 1st Earl of Craven in 1640 who used his fortune to support the Royalist cause in the Civil War, which saw his estates confiscated to be returned later with the Restoration of Charles II.

There is a suggestion that the moat that encircles the enclosure may have had water as depicted by Samuel and Nathaniel Buck in their engraving from 1731 below, but examination has failed to find the necessary water retaining clay lining but even so still presents a formidable barrier as illustrated in the pictures.

William, First Earl of Craven, 1608-1697
Described rather unaffectionately by Samuel Peyps as
'that Coxcombe my lord Craven'

Lord Craven's gatehouse was lucky to survive the Civil War, still standing despite the curtain wall that adjoined it having been demolished.

The site plan below gives an easy to follow route plan of our visit on entering via the gatehouse (H) we headed off to the North Tower (D) via the Great Hall (C), then along the building range via the Solar (B) to the South Tower (A).

Stokesay Castle Plan
A = South Tower, B = Solar Block, C = Great Hall, D = North Tower, E = Well, F = Courtyard, G = Moat, and H = Gatehouse

Carpenters marks used to identify joints in the timbers of the gatehouse.

A view of the courtyard as seen from the arched entrance of the gatehouse, with the two towers, great hall and solar beyond.

The Church of St John the Baptist seen from the wall that replaced the former crenelated curtain wall

The entrance into one of the oldest parts of Stokesay, the Great Hall built in the 13th century 

A reconstruction of the household of Stokesay dining in the Great Hall circa 1290 with minstrels playing in the gallery.

Surviving fourteenth and sixteenth century financial accounts for the Manor of Stokesay show both a Lord's residence, castle, and a working farm, supporting both crops and livestock across its demesnes or lands.

William Ludlow fought for the king in France and his return in 1422 or 23 seems to have been unexpected at Stokesay as the only food that could be brought to him was cheese and eggs, cheese omelette my Lord?.

The same William Ludlow paid three shillings and fourpence to three minstrels to help celebrate the birth of a baby to him and his wife Isabel in 1424 and no doubt the hall below echoed to the music and merriment that followed.

The rafters in the Great Hall at Stokesay are magnificent and the timbers have been dated to the late 1280's.

The brackets seen supporting the upper landing and gallery have been there since the 1290's and the steps on the staircase are cut from whole tree trunks.

Steps at the back of the hall leading down into the buttery, with storage for wine and beer

Traces of floral decoration on the plaster walls of the buttery date back to about 1300

The view of the great hall from the minstrels gallery leading to the first and second floor rooms of the north tower.

A reconstruction of the second floor apartment room in the north tower as it might have looked in 1640

A corner section of the remains of the 17th century plaster ceiling can be seen in the window bay.

Classic 17th century lead lined lozenge windows.

Making our way back through the great hall we next entered the principal living quarters for the Ludlow's , the two storey solar, an original medieval construction but extensively refashioned in the 17th century, perhaps when the gatehouse was built, with wall panelling, framed ceiling and fireplace overmantel.

The original southern complex of buildings ended with the solar in the 1280's but, it is thought, that as Lawrence became richer and more important, an advisor and moneylender to the king and the Lords of the Welsh marches, the south tower was built as a later addition, demonstrating his new found status and providing extra security to him and his family.

Permission to Crenellate, by Royal Appointment, illustrating Laurence's standing with King Edward I

During his lifetime Laurence was the most important wool merchant in England, lending King Edward I more than £600 to fund his war with France in 1294 and advising the king on commercial policy.

King Edward I 1239 - 1307
'aka' Edward Longshanks and
Hammer of the Scots, England's archetypal warrior king

His advice saw the king, on his recommendation, triple the customs rate on wool exports from 13 shillings and fourpence to £2 per sack; not making him the most popular of men among other wool producers and giving them much pleasure when Lawrence along with the fleet carrying him, the money and the wool ran into a storm that year that saw the money and the wool saved but Lawrence drowned, off the Suffolk coast.

The South Tower, with the entrance from the solar seen on the landing to the right.

The tower today has two floors below the roof, given over to swallows and bats and the basement room that was converted into a smithy as the castle gradually fell into disuse as an aristocratic home and became an agricultural store and workshop.

Entrance to the south tower from the solar

View from the south tower battlements to the courtyard below and the top of the well bottom right

The south tower basement that was converted into a smithy around 1830, that later caused a fire that nearly destroyed the tower.

With our tour around Stokesay concluded we headed back to the carpark teahouse and a well earned cuppa before our drive home.

That concludes this series of posts. Next up, I'm all at sea with Dutch frigates and John Company Indiamen whilst I prepare to run my first game at the DWG next month, following the club's fourteen month layoff, as I warm up for our Clotted Lard show in September.


  1. Thanks for sharing your adventure, I very much enjoyed this post, brightening an otherwise dreary rain filled morning on my end.

    1. Hi and thank you for your comment, I’m glad you enjoyed the read and it improved the day.

      All the best

  2. Beautifully put together and thoroughly enjoyable to read. I have been to Stokesay and Ludlow a few times, but not for at least 20 years so these posts bring back great memories.

    1. Hi Lawrence.
      Thank you. There is lots more I could write about these places so I try to capture key points of interest to allow the pictures to do most of the talking, so to speak, and its great to hear when others find these little missives fun to read.


  3. great photos JJ, the castle on my list to visit next time we can get back to the UK for holidays


    1. Hi Matt,
      Thank you, and I can highly recommend Stokesay and this part of the world as a really interesting and great place to visit.


  4. Hi read this report and wife and I are going to do it later this year when restrictions are lifted. Stocksy looks wonderful and atmospheric.

    1. Hi Sean,
      Great, I’m sure you will both enjoy wondering around this beautiful and historic part of the country.

      All the best