“You can’t go in there,” a man said, as I struggled to heft a week’s food for two onto one arm, so I’d have a free hand to get the key out. He was lurking in the shadows, dressed in a meh-coloured jacket that made him blend into the green-grey stone walls. Usually I’d have ignored him, but the way he said it, “You can’t go in there,” made me spike in rage. “And why not?” I asked, in my most piercingly over-polite voice.
“Well…it’s locked,” he quailed. Oh, my front door’s locked? So you’ve already tried to get in, having walked past multiple PRIVATE signs?
“Funny, that,” I replied, removing a key the size of my forearm from a deceptively large trouser pocket, and pushing it into the great iron lock. The key turned with an extremely satisfying clunk, and the door groaned as it rolled open, vintage sound effect-style.
The look on the man’s face was complete incomprehension. Was it the fact that I had pink hair? That I was wearing a scruffy, too-small Metallica T-shirt and battered combat trousers? No, I decided, as I, having left him, gawping outside, firmly locked the door behind me and continued through the courtyard to the kitchen, it was probably the fact that I was 21, and had a key to a castle.
This sort of thing happened every day. When my girlfriend and I moved into the castle the first thing we learnt was that no-one believes people actually live in a castle, least of all two twenty-something girls on their own.
I never expected to live in a castle. I’d visited plenty, but also had the idea no-one actually lived in them. I definitely didn’t believe people like me did. In a fortnight, I went from your regular just-about-to-graduate, impoverished, world-fearing philosophy student to caretaker of a castle. It was ridiculous.
By this point you may have many of the questions I’ve come to know well. But how did this happen? Is it a real castle? Does it have battlements? Why you? Let’s start with these.
The Normans built the main bit in the 11th century. Yes, it’s real, yes, it has battlements, and yes, whilst we’re at it, it’s got a fully-functioning moat. A few hundred years later, someone built a manor house on the back of that bit. Later still, the Victorians came and put in electricity, for which we were ever-grateful, and flushing toilets, for which we were more grateful still.
The castle ended up in the hands of an artist-type, who, when they ran out of money and the desire to remain in England, wanted a quick sale but to know that the castle they loved would be safe. They turned to my girlfriend’s parents, whom they’d known for decades.
At this point, it’s important to understand the state of the place. The roof needed replacing. Walls and windows leaked. Everything was covered in an infinity of dust. Sometimes there were mice. Sometimes shrews. Always woodlice.
But there was neither time nor money for everything that needed doing to be done. Further, the girl’s parents were committed to their jobs on the other side of the country. That’s where we came in.
Then, I was living in a student house with two friends who were going through a messy, drawn-out breakup with each other. My girlfriend had just given up a fine art degree, because she wanted to learn more about drawing and painting (what she thought the course would involve), rather than teach the rest of her class how to use Photoshop (what it actually involved). We were living entirely off her entrepreneurial My Little Pony-selling business (which is a whole other IHTM!). Given this flexible and temporary state of affairs, we were perfectly positioned to volunteer to clean it up as best we could, to learn about the building and what it needed.
You haven’t done cleaning until you sugar soap your way through four centuries of cooking splashes. You don’t know walls until you’ve stripped the 1970s method of insulation (polystyrene sheeting) from stone, revealing the full rainbow of mould. I learnt how to patch holes in walls that revealed the Georgian method of insulation (clumps of horsehair). I painted rooms in historically-accurate colours. We got through a library of audiobooks, just the two of us, with bucket and sponge, or cloth and beeswax, or paint and brush. We’d never been happier.
‘Weren’t you scared?’ people usually ask about now.
I thought I would be. I’ve always been scared of everything. Spooky little castle all alone in the middle of nowhere? People thought I’d go out of my mind. But neither the girl nor I were ever, ever scared there. Not for a moment.
This is also the answer to the much-loved question, “Is it haunted?”
‘Haunted’ suggests wafty, translucent glimpses in the night, poltergeists and Yvette Fielding imploring the dead to play twenty questions. We didn’t have any of that. But we did have a constant feeling of warmth and security. As if people who’d lived and loved in that building were still there, looking out for us. This is an extremely helpful feeling to have when your Victorian pipes perfectly imitate the sound of rugby players running up and down the stairs all night. I was aware, all the time, of History. It’s surprisingly tangible.
The only really tough thing was the constant stream of tourists. The castle hadn’t been open to the public for years, owing to its dangerously dilapidated condition and the cost of both insuring and ensuring public safety, yet still they came in droves, regularly claiming it had been open “just last week!” Often we’d come back from Tesco to find two or three families having a picnic in the garden, said families having also decided that PRIVATE didn’t mean them.
At least we could lock them out of the building, if not the grounds. We spent a year there in ludicrous, playful solitude. We’d dress up in cheap historical costume dresses bought from eBay, then dance around the battlements to amuse ourselves and surprise/terrify errant tourists. We had regular log fires in the Great Hall, eating an infinity of Marmite on toast. We drank Martinis at dawn in the parlour, and read Game of Thrones out loud for the ghosts’ enjoyment.
Eventually, it was time to return to the ‘real’ world so that restoration could begin in earnest. Now, we live in a soulless new-build flat where, when I start to explain football to ghosts, I stop and feel stupid. Everything around me feels flimsy and transitory. Worst of all, we don’t wake up in a castle.
But at least we know what that feels like. Every day we spent in the castle, even without grandeur or knights or hog roasts or a real bed, even when tourists were everywhere and the boiler wouldn’t work and the woodlice had made the bathroom their own, it still felt like we were the luckiest people of a generation. In our own little way, we were part of history.