“How did they keep warm in the olden days?” or, Why I Love Sticks Part II

Junior PLL the Younger is studying castles this half term and there is plenty of building and exploring action going on in and out of the Reception year classroom at his school. Getting into the spirit, we took a trip to a local castle with friends A and P and their parents. Two years ago we all made a similar trip to Portchester Castle, when Junior PLL the Senior and his class ‘did castles’. Portchester has a huge enclosure, with a pretty well preserved square keep in one corner, a deep and excitingly dangerous moat (dry!), ramparts to climb and amazing views south over the English Channel and north up towards the South Downs.

This time, we chose Odiham Castle, a dramatically ruined mediaeval keep set in woodland and with a canal now adjacent. Luck provided us with a spectacularly beautiful frosty day, and with clear blue sky above it wasn’t hard to imagine how atmospheric and yet how bleak castle life must have been.

The Junior PLLs are having a Star Wars moment (week /month / year) so sturdy sticks from a collapsed chestnut paling fence were soon put into service as lightsabers. It wasn’t long before they became swords and jousting poles as the children began to visualise themselves as knights and peasants living in and around the castle rather than space cowboys. Odiham has a broadly circular footprint , and the ground around the base undulates, encouraging they boys (sorry, knights) to gallop everywhere which inevitably resulted in muddy trousers. Our boys know they won’t get much ‘I fell over’ sympathy unless there’s actual bones on display or significant blood loss, so we were able to continue admiring the delicate patterns made by frost on the castle’s etched glass signage.

We’ve learned from sore throat inducing experience that when our four boys get together, it’s a good idea to let them get a good chunk of energetic and noisy catching up over with before attempting any kind of questioning or task setting with them. After they’d tripped over in the moat, kicked gravel over each other and poked their own eyes out with chestnut palings to their satisfaction, we began to explore in a bit more detail. The older PLLs were less interested in stopping their important and playful games, so we let them be… P and Junior PLL the Younger were keen to discuss what they could see.

“What’s that huge hole in the wall up there for? What could it be?”

  • It’s a fireplace. You can see the chimney going up. There was a floor there once.

The inglenook fireplace must have been 10m above the ground – we could see the gaps in the stonework showing where oak joists would once have supported the floor. A noted that there was no soot left in the chimney because it was “hundreds of years” since a fire had last been lit there.

“Why are these bars here – who put them there?”

  • This is the kitchen. [Me : Are you sure it’s not the dungeons?] No, kitchens are at the bottom of castles. The dungeons are underground. Where are the stairs to them….? [Pauses to look about] There aren’t any. They’ve gone, we can’t get down there.
  • I think the man put the bars here. The castle man. [I think he meant the council – both boys knew the iron bars weren’t original]

Junior PLL the Younger loves cooking, so he and P played kitchens for a while. P brought me half a dozen pine cones, cupped carefully in his hands “for breakfast” and the lightsabers / swords / jousters were put to good use stirring an imaginary cauldron of something that probably contained the pheasants we could hear coming to a sticky end nearby.

I was impressed by how much the younger PLLs had remembered from their expedition to Portchester castle two years ago – they were only 2 and 3 at the time. A’s mum and I had quite a detailed conversation with the boys about the shape and size of the windows, and they both recalled that windows were small and narrow to keep precious heat in and keep enemy arrows out. They also knew that glass was at a premium so couldn’t be wasted. Some of the holes in the wall were actually quite big so we thought they may once have been doors – or perhaps a cannonball destroyed the wall! I think we were all picturing the latter… until we saw on the interpretation boards that there were in fact very large windows at one time – presumably in times of relative peace.

Meanwhile, the older boys had found two chestnut palings with a delightfully rusty nail joining them through the centre, and were wielding their giant ‘tweezers’ with abandon, attempting to cut the grass, other chestnut palings and bits of historic masonry.

My husband is a historic buildings architect and (rightly) quite protective of ancient monuments like this, so the game of ‘poke our swords into this very inviting, just at the right height, hole in the wall’ didn’t last long.

By now, we’d been at the castle for about 45 minutes (it’s actually rather small, if undoubtedly imposing) and the grown-ups were getting a bit chilly, so we headed off down the canal, with the Junior PLLs and their pals carrying the most ridiculously enormous ‘stick’ they could manage between them…

We had more adventures later that day with a drawbridge – over the canal, not the castle. But I’ll save that for another post, as the quality of the thinking, language, experimentation and collaboration from our four hardy under 8s deserves it

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