Secret Toilet Discovered In Scottish Castle

Archaeologists working on a conservation project at Drum Castle near Aberdeen, Scotland, have discovered two secret chambers, one of which includes a medieval toilet complete with its wooden seat.

Drum Castle features a 13th-century castle keep that’s the oldest intact example in Scotland. Besides the hidden toilet, the team found a second secret chamber that’s reputed to have been where one of the men of the clan hid out for three years after the defeat at the Battle of Culloden. The chamber with the toilet was hidden by bookshelves installed in the 19th century, while the second chamber was a real-life safe room for rebellious Scots. Both were found in the medieval keep.

From 1323-1975, Drum Castle was the seat of the Chief of Clan Irvine. In addition to the keep, the property features Jacobean and Victorian additions. It is now open to visitors and is only 10 miles outside Aberdeen. Visitors can see the historic interior and stroll through the surrounding ancient oak woodland, a rare survival of primeval forest that’s been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest.

Castle Drogo, England, Opens To Public

The last castle to be built in England is opening to the pubic, BBC reports.

Castle Drogo is more of a stately home than a castle, since it was built long after artillery made castles obsolete. It was started in 1910 by Julius Drewe, founder of the Home and Colonial Stores, near Exeter in Devon. World War I and the Depression slowed down construction and it wasn’t completed until 1930. The architecture shows a variety of styles, with a faux medieval granite facade on the exterior. Inside there’s a library in the Norman style, a drawing room in the Georgian style, and many Victorian touches.

Now owned by the National Trust, the castle is undergoing an £11 million ($16.4 million) refurbishment to repair structural faults. The original design was flawed and allowed water to seep in, a problem that started even before the castle was finished. Now the building is seriously threatened by leakage and specialists are busy preserving the castle for future generations.

Visitors will be able to see the work in progress and also visit many of the historic rooms still in their original condition to get an insight into life in an English stately home. Tour guides point out odd little details such as marks on the floor that showed the butlers where to stand while waiting table in the dining room.

On the grounds there’s a formal garden and a path leading down to the still-wild Teign Valley, a good place for birdwatching. Several other trails in the area offer hikes through Dartmoor, a large area of protected moorland.

There’s also a cafe where you can get tea and scones. How very English!

The castle is open every day until November 3.

[Photo courtesy Philip Halling]


Creationist Audio Tour Removed From Giant’s Causeway

The National Trust has removed a controversial creationist segment in their audio presentation from the visitor center at Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, the BBC reports.

The National Trust, which manages the geological marvel and UNESCO World Heritage Site, opened a new visitors center there in July. Soon there were numerous complaints about one segment of the audio tour that stated the dating of the rocks was controversial: “Young Earth Creationists believe that the Earth was created some 6000 years ago. This is based on a specific interpretation of the Bible and, in particular, the account of creation in the book of Genesis. Some people around the world, and specifically here in Northern Ireland, share this perspective.”

This segment was replaced with the statement that there was a, “clear understanding among scientists that the heat of the earth was the driving force behind the formation of the Giant’s Causeway … All the scientific evidence points to a volcanic origin for the columns of the Giant’s Causeway, around 60 million years ago. However, not everyone agrees with the scientific view. There are some people who believe – often for religious reasons – that the earth was formed more recently, thousands of years ago rather than billions. The National Trust supports the scientific view of the formation of the Giant’s Causeway.”

The exhibit is an interactive audio display. You can see the full revised transcript here, and the original transcript here.

[Photo courtesy Nuno Curado]

London day trip: Anglesey Abbey

London is one of the great cities of the world and you can spend weeks, even years, exploring it. Sometimes, though, it’s good to get out. The towns and countryside near London make for fun day trips and one especially pleasant destination is Anglesey Abbey, six miles northeast of Cambridge.

The Abbey got its start in 1236 when Master Lawrence of St Nicholas sold 600 sheep to pay for the construction of an Augustinian priory. It survived until its 400th birthday, when Henry VIII shut it down as part of his dissolution of the monasteries following his break with Rome and setting up of an independent church.

It then became a stately home and changed hands several times. It was spruced up in the twentieth century by Lord Fairhaven, who installed his large collection of art, remodeled much of the interior while leaving many medieval elements intact, and added a sumptuous garden. He left it to the National Trust when he died in 1966.

The 114 acres of gardens, lawns, wildflower meadows, and wildlife habitats make for a relaxing stroll. In winter months there’s still some color thanks to a special winter garden with 150 perennial plant species. There’s even a working watermill. The interior is preserved from another age, when lordly manors were still common. There’s the drawing room, the banquet room, even his Lordship’s wardrobe. The whole thing looks like something out of Brideshead Revisited.

This week archaeologists announced they had discovered artifacts possibly dating to the Bronze and Iron Ages (1000-100 BC) while excavating at the site of a future parking lot at the Abbey. This pushes the history of the site back many centuries. Once researchers study the artifacts, they hope to set up a display at the Abbey.

The best way to get to Anglesey Abbey, assuming you don’t have a car, is to take a train from London to Cambridge and then the number 10 bus from the station to the Abbey. Click here for more London day trip ideas.

Photo courtesy Martin Pettitt.


Blickling Hall: a living British comedy

There are two ways to experience Blickling Hall in Norfolk, England: straightforward or quirky. The former is intended, with a veritable army of committed volunteers on hand to explain every detail of the Jacobean house. Soak in the tapestry, portraits and antique furniture. Learn the history associated with each of the many rooms in the major … or, look just below the surface to see how crazy this place can be (unintentionally, of course). As you move from room to room, you can see the oddity that has crept into this National Trust property.

In nearly every room, you’ll be introduced to the ceiling. Except in a few cases, what covers your head dates back 400 years. You’ll hear this a lot. The expression “17th century ceiling” is spoken in nearly every room in Blickling Hall by the cadre of zealous volunteers who are quite proud of their overhead cover. It looks about the same in every room – except at the entry, where one of my fellow journos explained a tad condescendingly that the ceiling dates back only to the 18th century (silly me for not catching it). Once you get passed the obviously impressive stuff above, most rooms are packed with furniture and paintings that reach back centuries – they are certainly worth a close look.

None of this matters, however, when you get to the mysterious “17th century cabinet.” On its own, this classic piece is rather plain. Sure, it’s an antique – just like everything else in Blickling Hall. The volunteer staffing the room was great about talking up the cabinet, revealing that the inner artwork was a sight to behold. So, I asked that he throw open the doors for all to enjoy. Instead, he showed me photos of the inside, because the doors are only once a year. “I’m told the pictures don’t do it justice,” the volunteer said.

I’m told?


Alas, he has not been in the house the past several years the cabinet was opened and has not been able to enjoy the experience. But, he’s hopeful for 2009. The doors will be opened sometime in September or October. There is no pomp. There is no ceremony. Hell, there’s no warning! Apparently, the much discussed cabinet is opened sans publicity and sans any sort of planning. So, if you want to peer into the hidden treat at Blickling Hall, it would be smart to call ahead (though you may not get much in reply). Lean on the dedicated volunteers of Blickling Hall, and you may even be able to influence the schedule.

Lobby the volunteers for answers.

If you think a closed cabinet is fun, you’ll be blown away by the rooms downstairs. Before descending to the kitchen where the staff works, take a look at the staff organization chart provided by Blickling Hall. The two positions that stand out are the “footman” and the “odd man.” The former tended to be selected for his “physical attributes,” as the footman traditionally ran behind the carriage to make sure journeys proceeded smoothly. In the modern era, the footman’s duties included schlepping dishes up and down several flights of stairs.

Up until World War II, that was good for a mere £1 a week, though occasional generosity in the form of tips could bump a week’s take to £5. It’s hardly surprising that the last man to have the job didn’t return after serving a hitch in the war.

The odd man’s role at Blickling Hall remains a mystery, as the footman appears to steal the spotlight. I assume he did odd jobs – as the title implies – around the manor, but it’s unclear. Odd man out, perhaps?

When the footman took off for the war, did the odd man get promoted? Or, did he become the mildly strange man? One can only speculate.

Among the last rooms you’ll see is a stunning library containing 10,000 volumes, which Blickling Hall received in the middle of the 18th century. Before that, it was the exercise room. On many days, the children were set loose in the oversized chamber. But, what about the adults? When asked how adults exercised in 1745, the room’s volunteer offered a perplexed look before offering, “I guess they walked … and gossiped.” Dishing burns calories!

One can only assume that the footman and the odd man didn’t use the exercise room much, as they were kept busy enough.

A walk through Blickling Hall is a step back in time, and you can explore the world through lenses that are four centuries old. At the same time, it’s a contemporary comedy, in which volunteer retirees wax in serious tones that can’t help but make you chuckle. It almost seems like a British comedy written by an American.

Either before or after you tour the house, do check out the adjacent gardens. There’s no hint of quirk in this carefully manicured landscape. Wander the trails and hedges … and take a minute to chill (unlike the odd man, who I doubt ever had that luxury).

Whether you see Blickling Hall as a taste of classic England or a bunch of crazy Brits obsessed with ceilings and odd men, the experience is well worth the trek out to Norfolk. Time your stay to correspond to the grand cabinet unveiling – whenever hit may be – and you’ll pick up the rare experience that some on the staff have yet to enjoy!

Disclosure: Visit Britain shelled out some cash for this experience, and British Airways supplied the flights. Any questions about my objectivity? Read the article again. This is far from what they wanted from me.