Nunney Castle: A Somerset Fortress

On my recent journey through Devon and Somerset, I had the chance to revisit two of my favourite places – the Iron Age hill fort of South Cadbury Castle, and Tiverton Castle which we looked at last week.

This week I want to introduce you to a castle that is new to me – Nunney Castle in Somerset.

Unlike South Cadbury and Tiverton Castle, I had never been to Nunney Castle before. In fact, I had never heard of it until I was doing a bit of research for the trip and stumbled across a short listing in an old book of castles I have.

Somerset is not really known for its castles. Manor homes, Iron Age hill forts, and monasteries, yes, but not Medieval castles as most people imagine them to be.

That’s why I was so happy to find out about Nunney, and subsequently insert it on the itinerary after a visit to the small (smallest in England!) city of Wells where I used to work.

However, before I get into the specifics of my visit to Nunney Castle, we should, as is our habit here, look at a bit of the history of the site.

Artist reconstruction of Nunney Castle (English Heritage)

Nunney Castle was first built by the knight Sir John de la Mare (1320-1383) under a royal licence granted to him in 1373 by King Edward III.

You see, Sir John, like other knights of the time, was a veteran of the English forces fighting in France during the 100 Years War, and it was with the small fortune he had amassed there that he was able to pay for the building of Nunney Castle.

The Battle of Crecy – The Hundred Years War

He did rather well for himself, and after his service in the war, he became High Sheriff of Wiltshire in 1374, High Sheriff of Somerset and Dorset in 1377, and also attained the title ‘Knight of the Shire’ in both Wiltshire and Somerset. The latter was the formal title for members of parliament representing a county in the medieval Parliament of England.

The castle that Sir John built was an ideal stronghold for serious defence, in addition to being a symbol of his power in the area.

It was built on what is called a ‘four-lobed plan’ and encircled by a moat, with machicolations and battlements running around the top. On each of the four towers, there were conical rooftops. Some believe that the design of Nunney Castle was heavily influenced by French castles which Sir John would have encountered while fighting across the Channel.

It has been pointed out that the design of Nunney is similar to that of the Bastille in Paris, particularly the machicolations.

1790 drawing of the Bastille in Paris – you can certainly spot the similarities with Nunney Castle…

After 1560, Nunney Castle passed into the hands of another family when it was bought by Richard Prater, a rich Londoner and Catholic who allowed Nunney to be used as a refuge for fellow Catholics during the Civil War.

However, as with Tiverton Castle, it was besieged and ruined by the Parliamentarians during the war.

It wasn’t until about 1926 that Nunney Castle came under state guardianship and cleared of plants and rubble.

Gazing up into one of the four massive towers of Nunney Castle

I have to admit I was extremely curious about Nunney when we set out from Wells on a sunny, windswept day in Somerset.

Nunney is about fifteen miles south of Bath, and from Wells it was a fourteen mile drive, by way of Shepton Mallet.

This was a small corner of Somerset that was unfamiliar to me. The drive was lovely, the road weaving over hills, through farm and pasture land, and around clumps of forest. With puffs of white cloud racing across the blue, sunlit sky, there was a kind of odd light as we went. It was almost too bright and colourful!

When the sat nav voice told me to take a hard left and then a hard right, we found ourselves on a narrow country road. As ever, I hoped I wouldn’t meet a tractor head-on!

We continued on through the forest-flanked lane for a mile or two until we came to a tiny village. This was Nunney.

I expected to see the castle looming over the rooftops, but I saw no such thing. I drove farther into the village until we came to Castle Street and parked. Still no sign of the castle until I got out of the car, and took a few steps to the end of the short lane.

There it was, moat and all, jutting out of the village like a stone swamp monster.

The moat at the front of the castle where the drawbridge was located, now a permanent bridge for access to the ruins

Nunney Castle really is a beautiful piece of architecture, said to be ‘the most aesthetically pleasing castle in Somerset’.

And it’s true, though there aren’t that many medieval castles in Somerset. Still, I was impressed with the apparent strength of its walls and the sheer, squat size of it. It’s also quaint, though that may be due to the fact that it’s closely bordered by private homes that come almost to the edge of the moat.

Some villages have small parks or gardens in their midst, but Nunney has a castle! What a view out of your window as you have morning coffee!

Nunney Castle’s massive towers with machicolations

My eyes were drawn immediately to the moat, the black and green water a bit of a warning to those who might get too close. You certainly wouldn’t want to fall in there!

Once you cross the bridge, on the spot where the drawbridge would have been, you are even more struck by the high walls, the curve of the four large towers, and the remains of the castle’s various levels.

Ignoring the detritus of chips and candy no doubt left by bored local teens who hang out in there, I stepped into the middle of the ruins and looked up.

Remains of the large kitchen fireplace in Nunney Castle

It was as if the castle came alive then.

The fireplaces on the side walls began to crackle, and the voices of sentries upon the battlements snaked their way down the curving stairs of the towers. Somewhere above, the residents dined where pigeons now flutter back and forth from one tower to the other.

I was glad we had the place to ourselves, and I suspect that if any of you do visit Nunney Castle (did I mentioned there is no charge for entry?), you will find the same.

It’s quite special when you have an historic site to yourself.

I enjoyed exploring it slowly, taking photos and trying to imagine what it was like in its full vigour. This was a little difficult, surrounded as it was by the sleepy village homes, structures that were not there in the castle’s heyday when Sir John was bound to protect the villagers about his keep.

Now it’s as if the villagers’ homes protect the castle, huddled close about it, keeping it secret and safe.

After exploring the interior from the ground level, I went back outside and walked around the perimeter of the walls.

It was hard to imagine the Parliamentarians bombarding the castle in such a sleepy place; it’s easy to breathe calmly at Nunney Castle now.

I suspect it was not the same for Richard Prater, his family, or the Catholics who had taken refuge within when the cannon had been turned on these pale stone walls.

In all, the short visit to Nunney Castle was a real treat and I would recommend it if you are in Somerset and looking for a quiet break away from the busier tourist destinations.

It’s worth the drive to explore this little-known site in the heart of this beautiful county.

Thank you for reading.

Plan of Nunney Castle grounds (English Heritage)

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The Ancient Theatre of Argos

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As I write this, a lot of my North American readers are getting buried in snow. It’s definitely winter!

So, I thought that this week it might be nice to counter the cold with a post about a site visit on one of the hottest days I experienced last summer in Greece.

I’m talking about my visit to the ancient theatre of Argos.

Until my first visit to the Peloponnese years ago, my only knowledge of Argos came from the movie, Clash of the Titans.

I can hear Harry Hamlin saying it now – “I am Perseus, heir to the kingdom of Argos.”

Harry Hamlin as Perseus, in Clash of the Titans

Harry Hamlin as Perseus, in Clash of the Titans

I loved that movie, so whenever I heard of Argos I pictured a city punished by Zeus for Acrisius’ blasphemy, turned to ruin by an earthquake and tidal wave caused by the Kraken.

Clash of the Titans had a huge impact on my imagination. Great storytelling!

Despite that, for years I had driven past Argos (an easy place to get lost in!), and seen the signs to the ancient theatre, but never stopped to explore.

It took some research for Heart of Fire to make me plan a trip to the archaeological site, and I’m so glad that I did!

On a day when the temperature soared slightly over 40 degrees Celsius, we set out from where we were staying in the southern Argolid peninsula, over the mountain switchbacks, and along the road from ancient Epidaurus to Nauplio. From Nauplio and the shadow of the Palamidi castle, our car whined along, past the ancient citadel of Tiryns, and then on to the city of Argos at the top of the Argolic Gulf.

The East Galaria of Tiryns

The East Galaria of Tiryns

Once in the city, we promptly got lost.

No matter how many signs we saw for the ancient theatre, it seemed that we kept missing one important turn, and so we found ourselves in the farmers’ fields to the south of the city, among irrigation canals and orange groves.

A friendly Russian mechanic finally gave us some convoluted instructions, in Greek, with a lot of pointing, and eventually we found our way there.

We parked our car in the shade of a side street, alongside the ancient agora, crossed the road, and checked in at the entrance.

Due to funding restrictions, there were no site plans available at the time, but that was all right as the person working there said there were placards around the site.

The best part was that we had the entire archaeological site to ourselves!

Street leading to the ancient theatre

Street leading to the ancient theatre

Before I get into the site visit itself, I would be remiss if I did not touch on the history of Argos.

Argos is believed to be the first town of any sort in Greece, or the surrounding geographical regions. It has been inhabited since the prehistoric age. It was a great centre during the Mycenaean age, along with Mycenae itself, and Tiryns nearby.

It its rise to power, Argos assimilated some of its smaller neighbours such as Tiryns, Mycenae, and Nemea, site of the Nemean Games. Argos was one of the foremost cities of Greece during the Classical period, as well as during the Hellenistic and Roman eras, until about A.D. 395 when it went into decline.

It was nearer to the Argonic gulf in ancient times, just as Tiryns was, but due to the silting up of the land, it now lies a short distance to the north of the seashore.

The peak of Argos’ power was said to have been in the 7th century B.C. during the reign of King Pheidon, the latter credited by some with the development of hoplite battle tactics in the Peloponnese.

Ancient Greek Hoplites in Battle

Ancient Greek Hoplites in Battle

From the 7th to 5th centuries B.C., Argos came into conflict with that mighty martial power to the south, Sparta. During that time, the two city states fought for domination of the Argolid peninsula.

During the Persian wars, Argos decided not to fight the Persians alongside their fellow Greeks, and so became a bit of an outcast. Then, during the Peloponnesian War, it was a somewhat ineffective ally of Athens against their old rival, Sparta.

But Argos thrived during the Roman period too. In addition to being a centre for pottery production and the tanning of leather, Argos was a leader in bronze work. It was here that a noted school of bronze sculpting was established.

The Antikythera Youth - Possibly from an Argive School

The Antikythera Youth – Possibly from an Argive School

When that famous philhellene emperor, Hadrian, came into power, he showed this ancient Greek city much favour, and, among several building projects in Argos, he gave the city an aqueduct and baths, or thermae.

I didn’t actually know what to expect from the site of the theatre in Argos when we parked our car. After all, I’d already been to Epidaurus, and that is pretty tough to match.

However, when we passed through the pine-shaded gates into the blinding light of the site itself, I knew it was going to be fantastic.

As you step down the stairs into the archaeological site, you are staring directly down an ancient street with walls rising up on either side in the faded white, grey and red of antiquity.

Aerial view of theatre (Wikimedia Commons)

Aerial view of theatre (Wikimedia Commons)

The sun beat down on us with an intensity I’ve seldom experienced. The cicadas even sounded tired, their little hearts (if they have one?) probably near to bursting for all their song. We stopped here and there to look at some chipped and worn ornamentation, the gravel of the path crunching beneath our feet, sending lizards scampering into the ancient cracks and crevices.

I tried to imagine what the place would have looked like in its golden age, the walls and buildings of the neighbouring baths and other buildings rising high above the street level, perhaps some torches jutting out from the walls to light the way as the crowds were funneled into the theatre itself.

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Site placard showing an artistic representation of ancient Argos with the theatre in the foreground

The theatre of Argos is a beautiful monster.

It was the largest theatre in ancient Greece, with a seating capacity of 20,000 spectators!

From a distance, it looks like any other theatre, but when you are up close and personal with it, you feel like a fly on the back of the Cretan Bull.

It has 81 rows of seats that rise up steeply from the round orchestra, one of only two such orchestras in ancient Greece, the other being at Epidaurus. The amazing thing about the theatre of Argos is that it’s carved directly into the rock of the Larisa which overlooks the city of Argos.

View from the orchestra

View from the orchestra

Behind the orchestra are the proscenion and scene, buildings that served as the stage and backdrop. I stood on the stage overlooking the orchestra and just took it all in.

What a sight!

The present theatre was built in the 3rd century B.C. and was used to host the musical and dramatic contests of the Nemean Games in honour of Hera, the patron goddess of this ancient city.

Once I had taken in the view from below, I began to walk up to the top of the seats.

I really started to cook here, the sun beating down on the stone increasing in intensity. But I couldn’t resist going to the top. It is actually quite steep, and the seating is nowhere near in as good a condition as Epidaurus.

However, it is well worth the trek, for when you reach the top, the view is amazing.

View of Argos from top row of the theatre

View of Argos from top row of the theatre. See the ancient Agora across the street where there is a clump of cypress trees to the right.

From the top of the theatre, with pine and towering cypress trees flanking me, I stared down the rows of seats to the stage, beyond to the ancient agora of Argos, just across the street, and the into the distance over the modern town to see the brilliant blue of the Argolic Gulf, and the mound of ancient Tiryns, just visible through the heat haze, like a thing out of legend.

I don’t remember how long I stood there, but it wasn’t until my arms started to sizzle that I thought perhaps I should head back to my party waiting in the shade of a pine tree at the bottom.

The site, apparently, was closing, and so I had a quick look at the remains of the sanctuary of Aphrodite to the right of the theatre, where a smaller Odeon was located, and then the Roman baths opposite.

The Roman baths next to the theatre

The Roman baths next to the theatre

The ruins of the latter are worth a look too, and you can see marble floor and wall panels, the remains of columns, and some of the rooms of the Roman thermae. You can imagine the water dripping as you walk through there, the sound of conversation, the slap of masseurs’ hands on the backs of their clients. Just be careful where you walk, for snakes hide the shady corners, and there are some big drops if you spend more time looking through your camera lens than you should.

Column remains inside the ruins of the bath complex

Column remains inside the ruins of the bath complex

Before leaving the site behind, I had to do one last thing: test the acoustics of the theatre.

Since we had the place to ourselves, I didn’t quite mind doing so. It’s a little difficult to hear the echo of my voice in this video, but, even though the theatre is ruined, and the lines broken in many spots, you can just hear how my voice travels up to the top when I turn to face the theatre. The acoustics of this place blew me away.

When I started talking in the direction of the seats, it was like I was holding a megaphone. I could hear my voice travelling up the rows of seats all the way to the top to disappear into the wild growth beyond.

If my untrained voice projected so well in that place, I can imagine what a trained actor’s would do.

With the site manager waving to us that it was time to go, I reluctantly turned my back on this ancient marvel, and walked back up the street.

Before exiting, I turned for one last glimpse of the theatre, grateful that we had taken the time to stop.

The ancient agora of Argos

The ancient agora of Argos – across the street from the theatre

As we were leaving, we asked the site manager if we could visit the agora across the street, but he shook his head and told us that, due to budget cuts, all the sites were closing for the day. It was only 2:00 pm. He also told us that he had just heard Greece was going to have to sell some of its archaeological sites due to pressure from creditors.

I certainly hoped that was not true, for it would be a tragedy if the country lost control and care of such magnificent sites at the ancient theatre of Argos.

We thanked him, wished him well, and told him we would definitely be back to see the agora on another trip.

I was happy we visited, not only for the chance to see the site, but also to fuel the story for Heart of Fire, one of the protagonists of the story being an Argive mercenary. I needed to get a sense of the place where he grew up, the place he had left behind.

And I did.

Back in the car, we found the road to Nauplio once more and headed there for a stop at one of the seaside cafes and gelato at our favourite gelateria, Antica Gelateria di Roma.

Antica Gelateria di Roma

Antica Gelateria di Roma

After all, it’s isn’t only archaeological sites that warrant a return visit. Especially when it’s over 40 degrees!

Thank you for reading.

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