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Chirk is a striking place, a wonderfully preserved late 13th century fortress on the Welsh/English border and home to the Myddelton family since 1595. Kids from 8 to 80 will enjoy the armoury displays and hands-on stuff in the dungeons, with the atmosphere being enhanced by a couple of time-travellers from the middle ages on hand. We overheard a gentleman in armour explaining that the enemy, the English, were just across the valley on the next hillside. Great stuff! Little did he know that one of them was sneaking past him through the gatehouse at that very moment, bless his little chain-mail socks. There are possibly more exciting and extensive castles to explore in Britain, but Chirk is a real gem, with fascinating living quarters and stunning gardens.
Chirk Castle was built (probably) from 1295 and completed in 1310 by Roger Mortimer de Chirk (1256-1326). It was an English fortress, one of a chain constructed after Edward I defeated Llywelyn ap Gruffydd (‘Llywelyn the Last’ – the last native Prince of Wales) and designed to help keep the Welsh subjugated. Originally, it would have had an outer curtain wall; these days, Chirk is more of a stately home. Roger was a warrior, who served Edward at the Battle of Falkirk in 1298, when William Wallace was finally defeated, as well as being at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 when the Scots under Bruce were victorious. But Roger fell out with Edward II and died, possibly of ill-health, whilst a prisoner in the Tower of London. His nephew, Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March, similarly objected to Edward II’s policies and favourites, and went on to become the lover of Edward II’s Queen, Isabella, allegedly murdering the king at Berkeley Castle and effectively ruling England before being removed by Edward III and hanged at Tyburn in 1330.
After a bit of a chequered history, including a spell when it was owned by the powerful Stanley family, Chirk was sold for £5,000 to Sir Thomas Myddelton in 1595. Tom was a wealthy merchant, founder of the East India Company and supporter of New World explorers (or pirates if you were Spanish) such as Hawkins, Drake and Raleigh. His son (also a Thomas) supported Parliament in the Civil War and Chirk was occupied by Royalists for 3 years. Did Charles I stay there? – he may have done; there is certainly a room dedicated to him, with his portrait in it, which was slightly creepy. Anyway, subsequently, Thomas junior changed sides and Parliamentary forces besieged the castle in 1659.
I believe the Myddeltons still live in part of Chirk Castle, though the property has been in the care of the National Trust since 1981. The first thing you will see is the amazing wrought-iron entrance gates, which were made in 1719. They are crowned by the Myddelton coat of arms, featuring the Myddelton red hand – or ‘the Red Hand of Chirk’. There are several legends which attempt to explain how the Myddeltons acquired this device, the most common being that two younger members of the family were in dispute over who should inherit the castle. A race was held, the front-runner stretched out his hand to touch the winning post – and his rival, drawing his sword, hacked the hand off. Another story is that the Myddelton family would fall if a prisoner was able to survive longer than 10 years in the dungeons, but no one ever has; not yet, anyway.
As well as the gardens, which are exceptionally lovely, the highlights for me were the late Tudor long gallery, the 18th century state apartments and the very homely servants’ hall (where, quite frankly, I felt like putting my feet up and having a few beers).
One criticism – the great unwashed British public was demonstrating its uncanny ability to leave litter scattered about if left unsupervised; waste bins were overflowing. When I helpfully suggested to a National Trust staff member that there was either too much rubbish or not enough bins, she looked at me as though I had just arrived from Mars; perhaps I had. So I obligingly left a bag of wrappers etc with her to look after, and set off for the next attraction.