Sunday 23 June 2013

The Queen of the Castle, by Leslie Wilson

When I was a kid, we used to play out; we were free to roam the way the children are in the Nesbit stories, or in Swallows and Amazons, or - diving down the social scale - like the Family from One End Street. Our main hang-outs were the Back Lane or Queen Catherine Street and the dry bed of the canal that ran parallel to Aynam Road, where we lived; and sometimes the builder's yard where we trespassed till chased out and I fraternised with the huge bloodhound bitch (I think she was called Lena) who was possibly meant as a guard dog, but was delighted to see us.
Queen Catherine Street today, Castle Hill in background

I learned to ride my bike on Queen Catherine Street, where my father garaged his car; fell over and scraped my knees on the ridges of stone that lay under the gravel of the Back Lane; sniffed the curious smell of damp limewash and stone that came from the walls abutting the lane - they still smell just the same, and ivy-leafed toadflax still grows on them. My big brother and I yelled, giggled at rude words and chants, ran around, played Cowboys and Indians with our friends (I was a bit of a tomboy), and behaved like unleashed kids anywhere. 

Us on hillside beside Troutbeck,

I think free-playing kids are a bit like pigeons, who suddenly fly up and wheel around the sky, or maybe like roving flocks of starlings. Suddenly someone will yell: 'Come On!' and they'll take off and go somewhere. One of the places we headed off to was The Castle.
The Back Lane

You ran up the Back Lane and into genteel, dull Parr Street; across the bridge that crossed the Canal, up the hill and through the metal gate that let you onto the steep of The Castle's mound, where sheep often grazed and left their currants behind. You crossed the moat, where there were now only nettles, and got into the inner space. There was The Dungeon, where there were often cows, or cow-pats among the long grass, and where we pretended to lock each other in. At first I didn't dare climb along the ruinous wall that led to Queen Catherine's Tower, where was Queen Catherine's Toilet (giggles, we didn't quite believe that people had once gone to the toilet like that,  down into the moat) - my brother used to go straight there, though. When I was older I did climb up there, but it was still scary. 

I used to like to go to the ruins above The Dungeon, where I would perch in a window embrasure and look out to see the invading enemy coming up from Yorkshire. Sometimes this was part of a bigger game, and I had to alert the others; sometimes I would just go and sit there on my own, mentally block out the council houses, and imagine myself back into the past. I stared at the arrow-slots, imagining what it might be like to be besieged there, and pour boiling oil out onto the invaders - a thing we sometimes played at. 

Sometimes I did just shout: 'I'm the Queen of the Castle!'

Queen Catherine Parr was supposed to have been born there, though now David Starkey - who was at school with my brother, incidentally - says she wasn't, and that the Parrs lived in London at that time. Spoilsport. We felt it made our town, and our part of it important - and of course the streets were named after her. My parents had told us that she was the last wife of Henry the Eighth, the only one to survive him, which meant she was The Winner. And she belonged to us. 

Queen Catherine's Tower

Now, of course, there are metal bars across the bits where we once played, and notices warning us not to climb the walls, which are fragile, and doubtless we did our bit in helping them become so. There are information panels, so you can find out that The Dungeon was actually a storage cellar above the main hall - how disappointing! We knew, of course, about the toilet in the tower, and also had seen the fireplace there (Queen Catherine's Cooker, we called it.)

For information junkies, the castle was built in the late twelfth century by an early Baron of Kendal. It overlooked and defended the river Kent (which ran in front of our house, and twice came into our cellars). It began to fall down in the late fifteenth century, and was bought by the Council in 1896 (Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee) as an amenity for the people of the town.

Having a real castle for an adventure playground was a wonderful privilege - my brother and I took it for granted, as we did the wonderful fells and dales, the places that we could go out to at weekends, and the lovely silvery town of Kendal, - but we did appreciate it. We loved it, and still do. I'm sure that The Castle is part of the reason why I became a historical novelist, and am blogging on this site today. 

Colour photos by David Wilson: black and white by Frank Baker.


Penny Dolan said...

You've created a vivid picture of childhood and the way that the history - true or not - of a place works its way into your imagination. Its a time when there can be the wonderful mix of romantic idealism and delight in the rudes. (How annoying that your brother could and you couldn't!) Lovely post to read on a damp Sunday, Leslie!

Leslie Wilson said...

My brother was three and a half years older - but he was pretty daring, and sometimes too much so, like the time he climbed out onto the roof from his bedroom dormer window, on the 3rd floor. Luckily, he didn't fall, but my mother almost had heart failure when someone rang the doorbell and told her that her children!!! were climbing about on the roof. I was actually leaning out of the window, begging him to come back. Our windows were both subsequently fixed so they only opened about six inches...