A trip to Skenfrith Castle!

Skenfrith Castle

In my last post I talked about how I mix fact and fiction in the Tilly Greenway books and how much I love going to the various “sacred sites” and places of historic interest that pop up in our tale. There’s so much to see and learn in any country, but England, Wales and Ireland certainly have their share of wonderful places to visit.

It’s often easy to overlook what’s right under our noses – to take for granted things that others will travel hundreds or thousands of miles to see. With this in mind, I took the wiggly route on my way back from a recent book-signing at Hereford Waterstones so that I could spend some time in one of the most important places that Tilly and Zack visit during book one: Skenfrith Castle.

The approach to Skenfrith Castle

Sitting on the border between Wales and England, this is one of many castles built by the Normans during the eleventh and twelfth centuries to mark out the territory between what was under easy rule and the dangerous lands where the Celts lived! Take a drive along the border and you’ll see them, one after the other: Chepstow, Monmouth, Gooderich, Skenfrith, Grosmont, White Castle, Raglan etc.

Of all these, Skenfrith is perhaps my favourite. With its huge round tower and crumbling outer walls, it has a brooding, stark quality to it and this, combined with the fact that there are rarely many if any people there, makes it the perfect place for Tilly and Zack to set out from on their quest!

Thanks to Oliver Cromwell’s thugs, many castles (and churches) have been destroyed. Cromwell believed that he would quash the supporters of the Crown by dismantling their strongholds and seizing their land. He was wrong. His Republic lasted only eight years before the rightful Stuart King was back on the throne.

Skenfrith Castle has stood the test of time in pretty good shape. Sitting on a meander of the River Monnow it is no more than a simple outer wall surrounding a round keep tower, although the walls are several feet thick! To give you a sense of perspective, here I am standing in the broken archway.

"I'm the king of the castle!"

In “Watchers” this is where Tilly and Zack meet Ambrose, a mysterious figure who has been alive since the days when Alexandria was a place of great learning. This is another example of mixing fact and fiction. Ambrose is a figment of my imagination, but Alexandria was a real seat of learning for hundreds of years (many famous scholars studied there) until its libraries were razed to the ground in the 5th Century AD.

At that time Alexandria housed the one of greatest libraries in the world, more than half a million scrolls that went up in flames whilst the mob (who had been whipped up into an anti-pagan frenzy by Christian zealots) murdered any teachers they could find. One of those killed was the university’s female librarian, Hypatia. She was also its head-lecturer in both philosophy and astronomy, which goes to show that there was equality between the sexes in the Alexandrine culture. Hoping for mercy, Hypatia sought refuge inside a church, but was shown none.

In real life most of the Alexandrian texts were lost forever, but in the Tilly series they have not all disappeared. A secret society called The Guardians of the Earth has preserved a precious few and are keeping alive some of the knowledge of long ago…

One of only two doorways in the outer wall at Skenfrith Castle, this one used to open onto/into the River Monnow

Ambrose is the most senior member of The Guardians. His name is based on the merging of Amber and Rose (you’ll find out why in the story) and bears echoes of Ambrosius, a historical character said to be alive at the time of King Arthur. The real-life Ambrosius was something of a Merlin-figure and may well have been one of the Romans who became a druid.

My Ambrose has elements of druid about him too, his main aim being to listen to the teachings of nature and pass on his understanding. His connection with the Arthurian Merlin is cemented by the fact that he is accompanied by a falcon called Mirlyn. There is a real bird of prey called a Merlin, but the main reason for Ambrose’s “familiar” or totem being one of these small birds of prey is that hawks and falcons are symbols of guardianship in the Old Lore.

Tilly and Zack have their own totems too, but we don’t come across them until the second book, except for Tilly’s association with the Lark – which we can explore another time.

Skenfrith Castle is one of the Trilateral castles – Grosmont and White Castle are the others – which is another layer of richness for me, because of the 3-fold ray of the druid’s Awen. Here Ambrose has his “dream chamber” where he lies looking up at the stars, dreaming “deep dreams of yesterday, tomorrow and today”. Calling himself “The Bearer of the Blue Light” and “First of the Twelve” he has an important role to play in the story.

Here he is, standing in the archway to the castle in Meraylah Allwood’s wonderful illustration.

Ambrose - Illustration from Watchers

Of course, we’ve embellished details. The archway is much as it might have been, rather than as it is now. That’s the fun of mixing fact and fiction.

As in the story, there is a river that runs right through the village until it passes beneath an old stone bridge at the feet of a pub. It is along this river that Tilly, Zack and Ambrose make their mist-shrouded escape (I won’t tell you from what or whom!) and head up into the Welsh mountains.

The old bridge at Skenfrith

Things change. When I last visited Skenfrith there were six gnarled apple trees growing between the outer wall and the keep, which is why there are six in the story (one of which you can see in Meraylah’s picture). Most of those trees have been felled since then, but one still stands, hidden from view on the far side of the tower.

The last Apple at Skenfrith Castle - still festooned with Mistletoe

As in the story, this Apple tree’s branches are laden with bunches of mistletoe, which is an important aspect of the atmosphere in which we first meet Ambrose, because the colours of mistletoe are Green and Gold and because the plant was highly valued by the wise ones of old and also because one of the old names for mistletoe is “All Heal”…

Ah, but that’s a story for another post!

Mistletoe at Skenfrith

PS – If you enjoyed this post, you might like to find out more about Tilly’s first adventure (including lots of reviews from readers) at any of these links. Thank you!

Paperback amazon.co.uk      Paperback amazon.com

Kindle: amazon.co.uk         Kindle: amazon.com


6 thoughts on “A trip to Skenfrith Castle!

  1. This is so interesting! I love anything to do with castles. I’ve even recorded the History Channel’s series Battle Castles to learn more about them.

    Too bad about the apple trees. Does the mistletoe have anything to do with it – does it choke the life out of other trees?

    We had a pair of Merlins nesting in our poplar trees until a nasty crow chased the female into our window and she broke her neck. It made me so sad to see her lying there on the ground. She was quite beautiful. Her mate never came back, unfortunately. 😦

    I love Meraylah’s illustrations – and her name! It’s so different from any I’ve heard before. 🙂

    • essitolling says:

      I’m glad you like Meraylah’s illustrations. Me too. She has wonderful cards for sale at her website http://www.meraylah.co.uk Her name is just perfect too: Meraylah Allwood and Tilly Greenway seem to match up just right!

      Yes, I can never get enough of castles. You really will HAVE to visit your old Celtic roots sometime…there are castles galore over here!

      I don’t think mistletoe chokes its host-tree, but one interesting piece of info is that the mistletoe-proper originally grew on apple trees rather than oaks, whereas it has to be grafted onto oaks. There’s a variant that grows naturally on oaks, but not in Europe. So, I would guess that the romantic notion of druids with their golden sickles cutting mistletoe in oak-groves must have been either embellishment, or the druids must have decided they wanted mistletoe on their oak trees as well as on their apples, because of the importance of oak as the door to the subconscious…amongst other things.

    • essitolling says:

      Just checked – it was the Loranthus that grew on oaks, the mistletoe preferring apple trees. Thought you’d like to know!

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