Nunney Castle partially collapsed a century ago. It was touch and go whether it would be lost forever.
The decline of Nunney Castle started with a bang. On 8 September 1645 Parliamentarian troops fired a cannon through the northwest wall of the castle after a three-day siege.
Not only was it an easy point to target, being at the foot of a hill, but the walls here were thinner because they had a staircase in them. The northwest wall did not collapse but remained as it was – with a large round hole in it – for centuries after that.
Since the building had been used militarily, Cromwell’s orders were followed and its roof was stripped and the internal floors chopped out to prevent its future use but it was not torched as some think.
Nonetheless, owner Richard Prater was forbidden to return to the castle, despite his promises to support Parliament, and his son, George Prater, only recovered Nunney from its interim owners after Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660.
Much of the damage to Nunney Castle has nothing to do with the Civil War, but is from systematic demolition designed to remove the valuable large structural floor and roof timbers by Nunney residents.
This can be seen in the removal of window of mullions on lower floors so that timbers can be passed out through the window. Mullions survive on the upper floor, since roof timbers can more readily be removed over the wall top and there is no need to use the windows.
Timbers and entire fireplaces from the castle can still be found in cottages around the village, with both stones and mullion windows in plain view on Church Street cottages. The strong 12-foot outer wall that once surrounded the entire area around the castle disappeared almost entirely.
The impact of this damage and neglect seems to have been immediate, for the eccentric religious writer Robert Maton wrote, “The shrubs, the festoons of ivy and the large fragments of stone hanging from the shattered battlements impart it to the most picturesque effect.”
Maton died in or around 1646 (according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography), so odd as it seems the castle must have already been overgrown by ivy within months.
The castle declined and was sold by the Praters to William Whitchurch around 1700. During the 18th century the building was still in a reasonable condition and in 1789 an order was received make it ready to receive French prisoners, although it is unlikely they ever arrived.
What remained was left to decay in wind and weather. Soon the entire castle was covered in ivy, with trees growing out of the top of the towers.
Nathaniel Spencer wrote in 1772 in The Complete English Traveller: “At Nunney was formerly a castle the residence of the ancient family of Delamare, part of which is still remaining and appears to have been a very handsome structure but the walls are mostly covered with ivy and the floors all fallen in.”
When the Reverend John Collinson described Nunney in 1791 as “a dry and healthy spot, part hilly and part plain”, he must have had the dampness and unhealthiness of much of the rest of Somerset in mind. Collinson tells us that Nunney Castle had been dismantled and by his day was “fast going to decay”. He also reported that the moat was choked with weeds and rubbish.
The authors of Ancient reliques, Volume II, published in London in 1813, described it in much the same words: “Its form is a double square, with a round tower at each corner: upon these towers are four turrets, mostly covered with ivy, as also are the upper parts of some of the towers, on the tops of which are several ash trees and shrubs rising above the broken walls, and giving a picturesque effect to the desolated grandeur of the edifice. An elliptical moat, twenty feet wide and ten deep, surrounded the castle, but is now almost filled with weeds and rubbish.”
By 1828 it was used only as a pen for hounds and local villagers had used the stone to build their cottages.
Sword and spurs
In 1861 two men were cleaning out the well inside Nunney Castle, when they came discovered at the bottom a sword and a “very massive” pair of steel spurs. Perhaps they were thrown into the well by a warrior knight to avoid the embarrassment of having his sword and spurs taken away – as was the custom for misconduct in the 16th century.
The items were bought by a Mr Bush, publican of the Devonshire Arms on Wellsway in Bath. Their current whereabouts are unknown.
The first known case of visitors being charged to visit the castle was in the early 1890s. Hotels in Frome actively advertised Nunney Castle as a local tourist attraction, but no effort was made to preserve the structure.
The castle was included in an auction of Manor Farm House in 1896, when it was sold for £585 to Robert Bailey-Neale of Springfield House in Nunney.
For visitors it seems nothing much changed when the castle changed hands, for according to a 1906 guidebook: “An inspection of the castle is obtainable on payment of a small fee.”
Nunney Castle collapses
When the Bath Primrose League visited Nunney Castle in July 1910 they found it “an object of much interest”. Little did they know that a large part of the castle was about to collapse.
On Christmas Day 1910 practically the whole of the northwest side of the castle fell in after very heavy rains soaked through the ruined walls, leaving a huge gap.
The fine carving in the main doorway was destroyed and buried under a mass of large stones.
The collapse did not come as a complete surprise, however, for concerns had been raised about the weakness of this part of the castle three years earlier.
This was the wall that was damaged by cannon fire at the hands of Cromwell’s troops.
Following the collapse, visitors were no longer able to wander around the interior of the castle without climbing over the rubble. A viewing platform was installed so that they could catch a glimpse of the ruined castle’s former glory without discomfort.
Lord Hylton, President of the Somerset Archaeological Society, put the blame for the collapse of the wall firmly down to shocking neglect in his AGM speech of 1911.
Nevertheless, it took until 1914 before the Ancient Monuments Board decided that Nunney Castle was worthy of preservation and made it a scheduled Ancient Monument under the new Ancient Monuments Consolidation and Amendment Act of 1913.
The Ancient Monuments Act was championed by Lord Curzon, the former viceroy of India who had started preserving monuments in India, including the Taj Mahal.
The passing of the Act recognised for the first time that there are physical remains of the nation’s history which are so special and so significant that the state has a duty to ensure their continued survival.
The Act did three new things. It introduced a system whereby the Office of Works could issue a compulsory ‘Preservation Order’ when a monument or building of sufficient ‘historic, architectural, traditional, artistic, or archaeological interest’ was at risk of demolition by a private owner.
Each order would need an Act of Parliament to confirm it, making it an unwieldy instrument, but the Act did at least establish the principle that some buildings in private ownership might, if they were important enough, warrant the intervention of the state to save them.
The second major innovation was the ‘scheduling’ of monuments. This involved compiling a list, or schedule, of monuments which were deemed by an expert board to be of ‘national importance’. Once a site was on the list and the owner informed, it became a crime to damage it.
Under the Act, the Office of Works could give free advice to an owner regarding the treatment of an ancient monument on their land and could oversee any works free of charge.
Scheduling considerably widened the scope of protection to the thousands of monuments on private land rather than just those in Government or local authority care.
This pleased members of the Somerset Archaeological Society no end, when they visited the castle in June 1914, for it during a previous visit “it had been in a pitiable state, with the walls falling down”.
Nunney Castle was, of course, very much in private hands. The Ministry of Works formally started work to stabilise the walls and prevent further decay in 1916.
Whatever work was done on paper, the Somerset Archaeological Society raised the alarm at its AGM in 1919 because it said that “nothing had been done” to preserve the castle since the partial collapse. The meeting decided to bring the castle to the attention of the Inspector of National Monuments.
Trees and other vegetation was adding to the rapid further decline of the castle. It was pointed out that “once the castle collapsed, it could not be replaced.”
It appears that a proper restoration wasn’t started until Robert Bailey-Neale, lord of the manor, placed the castle in the guardianship of the Ministry in 1926.
The rescue operation was still going on by 1930. The team of five, including four local workmen, removed the trees and ivy growing on the castle walls and consolidated the walls so expertly that the repairs were said to have been almost invisible.
Voids in the castle’s thick walls were filled with tons of liquid cement, and loose stones were secured with non-corrosive steel pins, fish-tailed and grouted invisibly into the walls. The corbels on the towers, weighing a ton each, were made secure.
A huge amount of debris was removed. Clearing and re-establishing the north door, which had been obscured by rubble after the wall collapsed, was a major achievement.
When excavating the moat to its original depth was three-quarters finished in May 1930, an estimated 900 tons of silt had been removed.
On the south east corner of the castle the original outlet to the fish pond, from where spring water was originally obtained for filling the moat, had been discovered.
The moat was originally fed by the fish pond, not from the Nunney Brook. The fish pond is still visible today on the corner closest to the duck flats.
On the north side the team discovered the original pier on which the drawbridge rested. For many years at the start of the 20th century access to the castle was via a footbridge on the south side of the castle. This was changed in 1934, after the repairs to the castle were completed.
Among the things found in the course of excavation were an old bayonet of the Crimean period and several round smooth-edged stones, about the size of cricket balls, which were believed to have been used as catapult ammunition.
According to the Bath Chronicle of Saturday 14 September 1935: “Those who knew Nunney Castle a few years ago seeing it now would hardly recognise it as the same old crumbling pile that was almost hidden by masses of ivy, other plants, and even trees with roots deep in the old masonry.”
“The 22ft wide moat, which had for long been a refuse dump, has had over a thousand tons of rubbish taken from it, and there is now 10ft of clean water instead of a trench of mire and corruption.”
“The whole of the enclosure has been tidied, and it is a joy to visit the castle, which now gives a good impression of the fortress – small though it is – as it appeared when complete in the 14th century.”
“This transformation has been brought about by HM Office of Works, who have changed it from an ivy-mantled ruin to the grim edifice it used to be without making it look ‘new’. It has been repaired in the sense that its disintegration over many decades has been checked.”
“From the evil-smelling thick mud in the moat there was brought to light not only modern refuse, but many things that might have had association with the fortress during its occupation.”
Plans to install a staircase to allow visitors to climb one of the castle’s towers evidently never came to fruition.
A huge auction took place in Frome in August 1950, when the 1,400 acre estate of the late Robert Bailey-Neale was sold. It included many properties and monuments in the village, including Nunney Castle.
The castle was bought for £600 by Rob Walker, the Johnny Walker whisky heir and Formula One team owner who lived at Nunney Court. He also obtained the title of Lord of the Manor.
Mr Walker told the Western Daily Press that he had several reasons for buying the scheduled Ancient Monument. “I wanted to improve this property,” he said. “Also I though it should go to someone in the village, and I think the village thought it should be owned by someone who lives round here.”
“The castle and the land – it’s useless marshland – adjoins my own property and I felt I should get it.” Of the title of Lord of the Manor Rob Walker had his doubts. “I think it just makes me an Esquire and I don’t think any title like ‘Lord Nunney’ goes with it.”
Over the centuries, what is now called ‘heritage’ has been the responsibility of a series of State Departments. There was the ‘Kings Works’ after the Norman Conquest; the ‘Office of Works’ (1378–1832); The Office of Woods, Forests, Land Revenues and Works (1832–1851); and the Ministry of Works (1851–1962).
Responsibility subsequently transferred to the Ministry of Public Building and Works (1962–1970) then to the Department of the Environment (UK) (1970–1997) and now the Department for Culture, Media and Sports.
In 1983 Secretary of State for the Environment Michael Hesseltine gave national responsibility for the historic environment to a semi‑autonomous agency (or ‘quango’) to operate under ministerial guidelines and to government policy. The Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission (now known as English Heritage) was formed.
Rob Walker knew Jocelyn Stevens (Chairman of English Heritage 1992-2000, knighted in 1996 and today best known as the grandfather of model Cara Delevigne).
In later years Stevens, like Walker, became a racing enthusiast. On his 21st birthday Jocelyn Stevens came into his inheritance – £750,000 – left him by his mother, whose family had made its fortune in newspapers, owning the Evening Standard in the Twenties and Picture Post in the Fifties. He immediately bought himself an Aston Martin and wrote it off the same day.
So he was a useful contact to have for Rob Walker, owner of a ruined castle. Although the castle was – and still is – privately owned, Rob Walker persuaded English Heritage to take on responsibility for its maintenance.
English Heritage has looked after the castle ever since, but – because it does not generate an income – does comparatively little to promote it to potential visitors. This is one reason, of course, why we set up Visit Nunney – and we are quietly confident that both ‘get up and go’ men would have approved.
In June 2013 the British Government announced plans to provide an £80 million grant to enable English Heritage to become a self-financing charity, roughly following the precedent set by the transformation of the nationally owned British Waterways into the Canal & River Trust.
Under the proposals, English Heritage will be self-financing by 2023, but will receive an initial £80 million grant to address repairs to existing properties.
The national portfolio of 440 historical properties is intended to remain in public ownership, but an independent charitable trust that will keep the name English Heritage will be licensed to manage them. The charitable trust is to manage, rather than own, the cultural sites, and the Government could revoke the licence and bring it back into state care.
The existing English Heritage’s statutory planning and heritage protection functions will be rebranded as a separate body called Historic England, and may be transferred to the Department for Communities and Local Government.
The National Trust has questioned whether the plan “stacks up”, and asked whether the new bodies will still be able to protect at-risk sites, or if their ability to promote heritage will be damaged.
During a Parliamentary debate in April this year John Whittingdale, chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, raised concerns that if properties became unsustainable, the new charity might take money from Historic England’s budget or divest itself of the properties.
Nigel Hewitson, head of planning at Norton Rose Fulbright and former legal director at English Heritage, was quoted in The Independent saying, “The distinction between English Heritage and the National Trust is that the former is the custodian of last resort. That’s why a lot of their properties don’t make money.”
“The National Trust won’t take properties on unless they have a dowry for future maintenance. Once English Heritage adopt that charitable status model they’ll find it difficult to take on properties that are otherwise unviable.”
“Nothing will change under the new model,” said culture minister Edward Vaizey. “English Heritage will still be, potentially, the owner of last resort. A whole range of factors, depending on the particular situation, will influence whether it chooses to step in.”
“When it becomes the owner of last resort, English Heritage tries to move the property on. Sometimes it will stay in the national collection, but often English Heritage will want to put it back with a different owner to continue its future.”
It remains to be seen what that means for the future maintenance of Nunney Castle. For now at least, it is ‘business as usual’ for English Heritage.
More information on Nunney Castle
How Nunney Castle was saved tells the fascinating story of the decline and restoration of Nunney Castle from the siege of 1645 to its rescue in the 1920s.
Information on accessibility at Nunney heritage is available in our article on heritage accessibility.
Nunney Castle opening hours
Open free of charge all hours throughout the year, except during the Nunney Street Market & Fayre on the first Saturday in August.
Nunney Castle walks
Visit Britain’s BRITAIN magazine ranks Nunney Castle in the Top 10 Best British castles.
For short and longer Nunney Castle walks visit our Nunney Castle walks page.