Sep 19 2011

Consumerism, castles and a spiral staircase to the sky

I am expecting the undead but only find small shopping units.  As I am standing outside 14th century Brougham Hall reputed to be stuffed full of ghastly entities, it comes as something as a surprise to find shops hollowed out in the fabric of the building selling computer games, Hopi ear candles and wine bottle holders.

Nevermind. Once I step inside the rest of the hall, terrible things will happen and it will be amazing. I spy a door and enter it. There is a man pissing. I did not see the sign that says ‘Mens.’ I run around a corner and hide. I realise I am dressed all in black and have my hood up due to the inclement weather and hope that the toilet confusion is not a source of the ghost stories.

We poke around the outskirts of Brougham Hall. There are horrible modern detached houses, the sort to have quilted toilet paper, snuffling around the meadow where the last battle on English soil was fought and a recumbering Jesus is ensnared in brambles. It is fascinating and strange, neither ancient monument nor retail development-much of it is in ruins but signs tell us they are working on recreating it. I would personally prefer an honest ruin to a newly plastered recreation of the past but its transitionary period where rubber tyres lie in the sunken garden and ancient embossed stone lie in heaps like builders’ rubble is nonetheless compelling. As we walk under the entrance arch, an invisible booing voice redolent of Churchill speaks. And mechanically asks us to donate four pounds a head.

But I find better riches down the road. 13th century Brougham Castle is owned by English Heritage and thus the capitalism is kept at the door along with the reduced flapjacks and illustrated children’s books about the Tudors. It seems a bit too ruiny at first-I want good value for my £3.25, not a sign saying that there used to be cloisters here but now there aren’t.

But I would happily pay double to go back there again. Amongst the ruins lies the reality. We open a clanging wrought iron gate and tumble up a staircase to enter the black. A narrow corridor and the sudden inversion back into the past as we look through the black window slits at the lush countryside outside. The delight in the claustrophobia.

In the main hall is another winding staircase riddled with warnings. It goes up and up and up into the past. I keep thinking it will stop as I climb carefully up the pleasingly dangerous steps, past more window slits, more vanished floors and have that feeling, so little felt in adulthood of genuine excitement and unknowing.

But now I am at the top, the flagpole bangs and I walk through the echoes of rooms used for century upon century where graffiti is calilligraphed and a carved face gazes down upon me from the ceiling. A fireplace is suspended on an invisible floor; a Roman tombstone forms part of a ceiling. I sit at a window seat, worn with the bottoms of centuries, look at England stretched before me and feel so alive but oh so very very mortal.