"I know of a place where we can go where we please; and live like gypsies."
This quote was taken from the mini-series "The Buccaneers". It's only partially remembered and possibly entirely made up, like the novel this series was based on (Edith Wharton died before the novel was even half completed).
However. These words were uttered in a placating whisper by the governess Miss Testvalley to her impatient and impetuous charge, Nan St. George.
And where did they go? To a castle.
I remember the following scene: Nan running across bridges – her white skirts escaping behind her – dashing up towers, gasping over turrets, loving every brick of every shattered wall, every savaged battlement, every crumbling crenellation. Her arms were outstretched, as if she wanted to embrace every inch of architecture, every ghost of every past inhabitant.
But you can't. Atlas can straddle worlds, but can you envelop lives…history?
I know the way Nan felt. I've known those emotions – dazed by the sheer beauty of ravaged walls, of dark and still silhouettes. I love castles. I study them. I learn them. I climb them. I know them. I feel for them – during the 'slighting' of all defensive fortresses after the English civil war, when Cromwell ordered that they be shot and dented and made useless for any escaped Royalist…their solid and statuesque beauty was pocked with cannot shot.
But I love their ruins too – they aren't ugly; nor are they eyesores. I find their shattered outlines fascinating and graceful. I've seen their stray turrets, their isolated, incomplete walls set in the green hillsides like jewels. I can draw them by heart. Because they're already there.
Now, it's Aubrey's rule that she must walk to the very top of every castle she visits. I've nearly slipped and broke my neck on the rounded stairs of Caernarfon Castle, trying to execute this edict. I've got lost in Dover Castle (such sublime confusion!). I climbed the 180 steps to Tintagel Castle, wheezing in the sea air and Arthurian legend.
I've gazed through arrow slits, imagining my aim. I've peeked through acres of battlements, nearly swept over them by the winds crouching and waiting at the tower's very tops.
I've visited Beaumaris Castle, one of Edward I's handful of perfect fortresses (Caerphilly, Harlech, Conwy, Caernarfon) built on the English border to keep a stony eye on a temperamental Welsh population.
I've climbed the stairs of the keep of Rochester Castle – the tallest in Britain (125 feet). I've always enjoyed its baleful 'windows', which stare at me like massive blinded eyes.
I've come close to history: I roamed the inner courtyard of Framlingham Castle. In 1553 Mary Tudor gathered her loyal troops there – Edward VI had just died, and she needed to escape London, which had been taken over by the traitors who had forced the Lady Jane Grey to marry Guildford Dudley. Pathethic Jane had been proclaimed Queen, against her will, against statute and every law of royal inheritance. I was walking where the future Bloody Mary had paced: deep-voiced, determined, bitter, equally pathetic.
I've been overwhelmed by the past, by former lives pressing close as I walked through centuries-old hallways. How can the vanished become so real? I've been moved by cold walls and crumbling brick. How can a deserted pile of stone inspire a heart?