When I first saw Stokesay Castle I thought that a house had been built on to an older stone castle, but in fact it is an exceptional example of a crenelated manor house from the late 13th century. This is how the better-off lived in the later Middle Ages.
Stokesay was constructed between 1280 and 1291 by a wool merchant, Laurence of Ludlow, who was at that time one of the richest men in England. His fortified manor house was a comfortable family home, but at the same time a statement of his wealth and power.
Today it stands much as it would have in his day; the only significant change is the addition of a gatehouse in the 17th century. We can still appreciate the fine workmanship in the Solar, especially the imposing fireplace (another 17th century addition), and the grandeur of Laurence’s Great Hall.
Laurence didn’t get to enjoy his new home for very long. He drowned in 1294, only a few years after its completion, while shipping wool to the Low Countries. The castle passed to his heirs and eventually was sold to another family, the Cravens. It was William, later to become the first Earl of Craven, who added the gatehouse in 1640-41.
Unlike many castles and great houses, Stokesay survived the Civil War almost intact; although its curtain walls were pulled down by Parliamentarian forces after the Royalist soldiers garrisoned there by the Cravens surrendered without firing a shot.
During the 18th century the castle was let to a succession of tenant farmers. Some buildings were used as stores and workshops; the hall became a granary, while the basement of the south tower was converted into a smithy. Stokesay was at risk of falling into irreversible decay. But fortunately it attracted the attention of many who appreciated its historic and aesthetic value. Also fortunately, in the late 19th century it was acquired by someone who undertook an incredibly sympathetic restoration for those times, John Derby Allcroft, a London glove manufacturer. Allcroft decided that the Castle should be left empty but kept safe and sound as an historic monument. He commissioned substantial repairs that left little trace of work that restored the castle to its late 17th century appearance.
Visiting Stokesay Castle
Stokesay remained in the Allcroft family until 1992, when it was passed to English Heritage who are responsible for preserving it and for opening it to the public. In these Covid times visitor numbers are controlled but it’s possible to visit all parts of the building. Photography is allowed throughout but I didn’t like to use flash in the main rooms; a decision I later regretted as many of my photos were disappointing! Still, I have enough of the exterior and a few from inside to give you, I hope, a good idea of this stunning historical building. So come with me on a visit to Stokesay …
We approach the castle from the car park through the churchyard of St John the Baptist, the next-door church. The weather is damp, the surrounding hills veiled with mist.
After showing our pre-booked tickets we pass through the stunning gatehouse.
The carvings on the gatehouse repay closer inspection. The lintels and brackets supporting the upper floors are finely carved as contemporary men and women, angels, dragons, and Adam and Eve.
The Great Hall
We enter the main building, into the Great Hall.
My own photos here didn’t come out very well so this one is from Wikicommons.
The Great Hall still has its original staircase, treads cut from whole tree-trunks. We climb this to access the North Tower.
The North Tower
Here we are charmed to find a swallow’s nest, with babies being fed on regular visits by both mum and dad. Neither parents nor offspring seem to mind the flash on my camera.
The basement of the North Tower is reached from a door in the Great Hall. It was probably originally used to prepare food.
Later when a (now demolished) kitchen block was added this probably served as a dining area. The intricate red floral mural would have been added at this time.
The Solar Block
At the opposite end of the Great Hall we enter the Solar Block, the family’s private quarters. This is one of the few parts of the castle to have seen significant alterations over the years. The panelling of the room beneath the solar has been dated to the early 1660s, while the solar itself was refashioned probably in 1640–41, to convert it into a fine panelled chamber. The ceiling dates from that time, as do the overmantel, the cornices and the panelling around the walls. The overmantel is ornately carved with fruit, flowers and various figures, and would originally have been brightly painted.
Here again my photos were a little disappointing; I should probably have risked using flash. So here’s one of the overmantel, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, as well as one of my own shots of a detail.
The South Tower
To reach the South Tower we have to go back outside and climb a separate stone staircase. This is the most castle-like part of the house. Again we find swallows’ nests, although no sign of the bats that also nest here.
From here we can climb narrow spiral stairs to the roof, which gives us wonderful views down to the gatehouse and out over the surrounding countryside, even in the misty weather.
One of the most delightful parts of Stokesay on this misty July morning is the small garden planted along the wall next to the gatehouse. The cottage-style planting is based on how the Allcroft family designed it to look it when they set it out over 100 years ago.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this little tour of Stokesay Castle and will be inspired to visit yourself if ever in this area.
I visited Stokesay in July 2021