NOTE: What follows are my imaginings upon first seeing the ruins at Longtown. They are not the known facts.
As I walked toward this once-buzzing hub of a castle, I thought about those who had trod this same path over the last nine-hundred years. Reaching across the centuries, I imagined the early days: English men and women pushing handcarts, carrying heavy baskets or sacks, feeling the sting of a metal-tipped whip across their backs for their slow gaits. I envisioned the winters, snow dirtied by the castle’s servants running to and fro to serve their Norman masters.
Horses, pigs, chickens, dogs, and cats would have inhabited this place, along with rats, disease, and always the cold, gripping fear. In my mind, I heard a phlegmy cough and saw yellow spittle on the ground before my boots. I felt the vibrations of horses riding hard and fast into the bailey and cringed in instant panic as I huddled against the stone wall as if to shrink from wielded swords and from the men who slaked their post-skirmish blood lust on any woman they encountered.
But today, I walked alone through the outer bailey. The deep grass covered any trace of the armory that should have been here, the kitchens there, the stables against the wall. And as I neared the arched entrance to the inner bailey, I saw how the earth had risen over the centuries. The archway was too short now for a rider on horseback to access the inner courtyard, yet that is how I imagined the people who lived in this castle would have entered: on horseback. It was too short for wagons but tall enough for me to pass through without difficulty. And so, like Alice, I crossed the threshold into another world.
The first thing I noticed was the feel of the air. It had been a cool morning, but now I felt an almost warm tropical breeze. Impossible in England in March, with snow still on the ground, yet . . .. The warmth was unmistakable, like a soft feather against my cheek. I stopped and surveyed the land inside the stone wall, trying to judge the elements of a microclimate. The trees raised budding, twisted branches as if cringing from the cold. Peering over the courtyard’s edge, I saw a green valley, orderly plowed fields, a meandering river.
I listened for voices, sure I would hear them: the ancient bustling of carts, shouts and hammering, goats and children, clanking metal, the blacksmith’s ping—then, an actual sound penetrated my imaginings. Wolves howled in the valley below, one after another. Call and response. Where are you? I am here. See me? Yes. I’m alone. But wolves were extinct in England, I thought. Perhaps I heard dogs. No, the distinctive timbre, those deep long, undulating howls, spoke to me of wolves I’d heard in my country. Had I stepped into a time-warp, where I heard the past?.
Walking around the base of the tower, I touched the cold stone. A group of men nearly a thousand years ago had hoisted this rock up, nudged it into place with levers and ropes, pushed their shoulders against it, perhaps their backs or knees, or, using timbers, rammed it in to lock the blocks that became this castle keep. Finally, someone leaned against it as I did now, watching the birds flit in the sky, listening to the wolves. Maybe a knight, deep in his cups, pissed on this very wall one night, leaning a hand on the thick wall to balance himself, splattering his DNA into the soil at the base of his lord’s home.
Strolling around the site, through the fields, I gazed at the valley. Who had occupied this land before the Vikings became Normans? This place could have hosted an Iron-Age fortress some 3000 years before the Normans came to England. The Romans might have marched through this area built roads and forts, possibly here, 2000 years ago.
Inside the castle grounds, I wondered how it had been born. It might have begun with a timbered stockade and watchtowers. In 1175, a hundred and nine years after the Norman Invasion, the stone tower was completed.
How long had this Norman edifice lasted? How did the castle fall? To whom? The raiding Welsh? No, it was too strong. I imagined a siege engine staggering along the road and heard the heavy creaking of the wooden attack tower and its groaning wheels as it neared. Perhaps a catapult hurled heavy stones to crush the roof. A good hit would have knocked down the stones rim of the battlements where the narrow slits would have protected the archers. Lightning might have struck the castle tower perched high above the valley.
Still, the tower could have died when the wood interior caught fire. Unlike those built earlier, this castle is one of the first to have an actual chimney. It was a large chimney, big enough for me to stand in. It would have been a luxury for the inhabitants and far better than the old smoke hole set into a slate or wooden roof or woven into thatching.
I imagined the tower ablaze, the flames licking along the thick dry beams, envisioned the glowing orange against black smoke. Perhaps it happened at night, and the Norman lord and lady fled with their jewels while the subjugated English watched from the bailey, seduced by the vision of hell, smirking in the dark that God has struck down their oppressors. It would have been a grand sight, visible from the entire valley below for miles around, a torch marking the end of something harsh and brutal, now hidden behind the veil of a thousand years, easily romanticized in my time.
At any rate, the roof collapsed or was destroyed, and the castle died. But the place did not end immediately. It could not. The stores of food, the armory, and such remained. And people lived on, building huts within the walled courtyard. And I supposed that once they cleared some of the charred beams or fallen stones, they would have gathered occasionally around the stone fireplace and enjoyed the chimney.
The end of this place came slowly. The wealthy lord would have gone to another castle, leaving a small garrison to hold the valley and keep invaders away. Over time, brigands raided, the stores were sacked, people were slain or fled. Outlaws might have used the place a hundred years after the last inhabitants left, or the village priest might have burned witches or heretics here.
Two hundred years later, people abandoned the grounds when the plague came, brought by pilgrims seeking shelter in the nearby monastery. After a decade or so, the villagers might have used the curtain walls for a pasture. Three hundred years later, while Leonardo [1452-1519] and Michelangelo [1475-1564] were carving men and horses from marble, the people of Longtown might have begun recycling the castle’s stones for the village church.
By 1550, four hundred years later, longer than my own country has been a nation, villagers would have heard of the Americas, that land across the sea said to be filled with gold and strange peoples. Decades later, while Spanish Conquistadors destroyed once-great ancient cities and enslaved everyone in their path, a traveling band of minstrels might have sought shelter in the tower from a storm. Perhaps one hot midsummer eve they acted out a story likened to one that fellow Shakespeare [1564-1616] had told.
Five hundred years after the death of this castle, in this small place, a couple might have met one night and shared a secret embrace. While Mozart [1756-91] played in Vienna or Austria, at this little castle, a man whistled a tune while resetting stones on the wall to fence in his sheep, and his young sons threw rocks at the keep trying to launch their missiles up and through the arched, gaping window.
As the American and French revolutions raged, in this place, the wind blew, and snow buried the village. When word came that Napoleon lost at Waterloo [June 18, 1815], all England celebrated with dancing and singing, drinking and laughter all night. But here, a stifling heat settled over the fields, and the crumbling tower stood: a lone, dark sentry over the sweltering valley. In 1940, perhaps a garrison was once again stationed here to watch for invaders—those coming with bombers.
Walking to my car, I thought that in 2075, the castle would be 1000 years old and would remain above the rising seas for several hundred years more. Gazing again at the tower before leaving, I wondered: How long will you last, a testament of human habitation. I supposed that in 200 million years, as far in the future as I am now from the dinosaurs, this castle will have disintegrated entirely, and nothing of human existence will remain.
I scanned the plateau and the valley below, and hoped that the sky would still be blue, and that the creatures living then would be able to see the stars.