If an errant Hercules had a contretemps with Salisbury Catheral and partially destroyed it, would we leave it as a ruin? If the next Duke of Marlborough decided that Blenheim was too costly to keep up with a cocaine habit and the roof fell in, would it be allowed to remain that way? I think the answer to both would be a resounding no. So why do we leave castles – like Caerphilly for example - to stay in the state into which it lapsed after its purpose became redundant while others, older even, like Dover and the Tower of London are nursed and maintained as national treasures? This is not, it think, a matter of money. The reason why we don’t do it for the likes of Caerphilly is actually cultural conditioning. We are conditioned to think of ruins as being ‘natural’ and part of the landscape. It doesn’t have to be like this.

Robert Macfarlane is a Cambridge don and a writer about wild places. He wrote a wonderful book called Mountains of the Mind that was partially about his own love of mountains, but also a history of how people in the past saw them. In the seventeenth century, when travelers crossed the Alps, they kept the blinds on the windows of their carriage shut so that they did not have to look at the ‘terrible desolation’ outside. This was the age, remember, of the geometrically designed knot garden where nature was tamed and twisted into order and shape. Wild places were uncivilized and barbaric. Wind forward a hundred years and sensibilities were rather different. Gardens, designed by the likes of Capability Brown went out to mimic a wilderness. Ruins were built to add a romantic touch. People of sensibility sought out wild places and poets waxed lyrical about moor and mountain. Think of the Lake poets and the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich. The culture had changed and ruins, instead of being derelict buildings that no one could be bothered to pull down, became part of idealized and romantic landscape.

If taste can change like this there is no reason why it can't again. Why shouldn't Caerphilly be restored to its former glory with its towers, battlements, flags, working drawbridge and moat? Why can’t the keep and the solar be decorated as they were in their heyday with the fabrics and furniture of the time so that we can see how people in the middle ages lived? Go to Dover Castle to see how great it can look. Why does the Parthenon, one of the great buildings of the world, have to be left derelict just because a Turkish shell blew it up during the War of Independence? We didn’t leave Windsor Castle as a smoke blackened ruin, nor should we leave these other great buildings. It’s only a matter of thinking about them differently.


1 comment

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