Dynnargh dhe Lanstefan, welcome to Launceston.
Twenty or more years of parking the car in the town and looking across to the castle and I'd like £1 for every time we have said 'Must go up there one day.'...
Three things finally persuaded me to climb to the top, where I then found myself looking across the town from the vantage point of Brian de Bretagne, first Norman Earl of Cornwall, and understanding why this castle was never besieged and never captured.
It might have been Ian Mortimer's reference to the importance of castles in his latest books, Centuries of Change, that had me itching to visit one, plus another visitor (Barbara from Milady's Boudoir) and a local day out, but I had also completely revised my thoughts about Launceston since that talk with Peter Beacham at Port Eliot this summer.
'Travellers crossing into Cornwall from Devon sense they are in a different county when they reach Launceston. High above the little River Kensey, its buildings gathered tightly around the castle whose motte rises improbably steeply ..it retains the air of the ancient border town that guarded the gateway to medieval Cornwall.'
Recorded in Domesday under its old name of Dunheved and now under the aegis of English Heritage, the castle imposes itself on the landscape, 'commanding all the country between Dartmoor and Bodmin Moor'...
I huffed and puffed a little as I walked to the top of this exemplary motte & bailey castle and could only marvel at how they might have lugged the boiling oil up these steps which lead to the battlements...
But there was no need for boiling oil and just standing inside made complete sense of Ian Mortimer's assertion that towns with a castle felt secure and safe. Earliest earthworks date to the eleventh century but with various modifications thereafter, and once the town walls were built in the 14th century, Launceston must have seemed defendable and impregnable to any foe who fancied their chances. Really why would you bother...it is easy to see why castles meant peace in Ian Mortimer's assessment of the eleventh century, a sort of solid stone deterrent...
The view up...
and the view down..
reveal perfect circles, whilst the views across the town are stupendous and offer real clarity (imagine this on a clear day) to that sense of a living, working medieval community clustered around a central point. Though the 1127 Priory has long gone ( but recently partly excavated) it sat comfortably close to the castle and with the market at the base of the walls, it isn't hard to imagine a self-contained world going about its business.
Whilst Peter Beacham describes it as 'the most gracious street in the town' John Betjeman describes Castle Street as 'the most perfect collection of 18th century townhouses in Cornwall'. Whatever it may be this is all absolutely impossible to appreciate whenever we drive past, but as plain as a pikestaff and a complete revelation from the castle battlements...
Poet Charles Causley was born, lived and worked all his life in Launceston, teaching at the primary school within the gaze of the castle and must definitely have been experiencing a similar sort of day to ours...
Winded, on this blue stack
Of downward-drifting stone,
The unwashed sky a low-
Slung blanket-thick with rain,
I searched the cold, unclear
Vernacular of clay,
Water and woods and rock:
The primer of my day.
In the Willow Gardens
Under the castle keep
A hundred town allotments
Stand beside the steep.
They might not be the same allotments, but connections all the same.