As a ‘North Cumbrian’, I rarely make it out to the west coast, but I’m very glad that on this occasion I made the trip over to Muncaster Castle. The castle and grounds fell into the hands of the Pennington family in 1208, or maybe even earlier according to some records. Over 800 years later, they’re still there!
When I visited on a cold autumn morning last year, I imagined that I would only be there a few hours due to it being close to the end of the season, assuming it would be ‘winding down’. How wrong I was! My short visit swiftly turned into a day-long excursion and I think I was one of the very last to actually leave. There is so much to see!
As the title of this post suggests, the castle is the main attraction. It supposedly sits on the site of Roman remains and, as is the case with many old properties, there are a couple of ghosts that are occasionally felt and heard by guests and visitors. They even go as far to say that it is one of the most haunted castles in Britain! On my visit, I didn’t feel any sudden drops in temperature or a disembodied whisper in my ear, but there are stories a-plenty from others who have. One of the spookiest parts of the castle is the Tapestry Room. According to some accounts, guests who have stayed in this room have heard the crying of a small child and a woman singing, possibly to calm the former, along with the ‘classics’: door handles rattling, footsteps, and the bone-chilling feeling of being watched by a stranger in the darkness. If you want to experience the ghouls for yourself, Muncaster actually offers overnight vigils and ghost sits in the Tapestry Room for those who want something a bit more spooky!
I’ll come right out and say it now, I am not a believer in ghosts, but I am a lover of stories (can you tell?) and none is more well-known in the area than that of Tom Skelton, the last ‘fool’ at Muncaster. Many think of jesters to be dimwitted and generally incapable but in reality, many had to be fairly astute and relatively educated to be able to keep their employers ‘on-side’. Of course, there were others, known as ‘innocent fools’, who were mentally handicapped making them the unfortunate butt of jokes in Medieval court life, but Tom Skelton did not fall into this category. Known primarily for playing tricks on unsuspecting visitors, Skelton seemingly had a darker side as well. As the stories go, he would sometimes sit beneath a chestnut tree (which still stands today) whiling away his day. When travellers would stop and ask Tom for directions, he would point them one of two ways. If he liked the look of you, safe passage across the ford was given. If not, however, he would direct you to the hidden quicksand which would swiftly swallow you up. Does this make him the first jester/serial killer? Who knows?
Another murder attributed to Tom is that of a local carpenter’s apprentice who had the misfortune of falling in love with Helwise, daughter of Sir Alan Pennington of Muncaster. A local knight, who had wanted to marry Helwise, heard of the affair between Pennington’s daughter and the apprentice and proceeded to engage the services of Tom Skelton. He was sent on a literal fool’s errand which resulted in Skelton beheading the apprentice with his own axe whilst he slept. It didn’t even pay off for this knight. Helwise, in her grief, retired to a nunnery and the knight died in battle soon after. At least that’s the story.
The fact that a quite large portrait of Skelton was produced lends credence to the fact that, despite this, he was a respected member of staff at Muncaster at the time, and he still has an impact today. Each year, Tom Fool’s Day brings a number of wannabe jesters to the castle, each vying for the title of ‘Fool’… and the prize of beer.
When I sat down to talk with the current owner of Muncaster Castle, Peter Frost-Pennington, he quoted his wife, Iona, and this has stuck with me since: “We don’t own Muncaster, Muncaster owns us.” Conservation and the concept of stewardship is everywhere you look here, most obviously at the on-site Hawk and Owl Centre. If I’m honest, I came away from my visit with more photos of the birds than anything else.
I’d highly recommend attending one of the flying shows that are usually arranged twice daily, but check the website just to make sure. I was there for the ‘Sky Hunters’ show and it was absolutely fantastic. The highlight was having Mighty Mite, one of their two hooded vultures fly so close over me that I could feel the very tips of his wing feathers graze my head. To be able to see such an endangered species at such close quarters was a lot of fun, and hearing stories from the presenting falconer about how much harm is being done to the wild populations was genuinely quite emotional. I had never realised how important they are in maintaining a healthy ecosystem before now.
The Hawk and Owl Centre is run in association with the Hawk Conservancy Trust in Hampshire which work in both the UK and internationally to help not only hooded vultures but an array of other birds of prey, including owls. There were a couple of owls at Muncaster who I think have learnt to look to the cameras, and then there’s this sleepy fellow:
There’s more to their conservation efforts than the birds. Mixed in with the ‘planned’ gardens, there are many more semi-wild areas which give space for native and some more exotic species to grow. See if you can spot the bug hotel on the way in as well!
If you’ve got time, maybe pair your visit with one to the Ravenglass & Eskdale Railway; it’s just down the road!